Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Deep Brethren

When I recently finished reading The Nine, I decided my itch for Supreme Court non-fiction had not quite been scratched. So I decided to pick up "The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court." This book was published in 1979, covering an entirely different period of the Court's history -- the first several years under Chief Justice Warren Burger.

This book was written by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. The former is the Woodward of the famous Woodward and Bernstein team that were crucial in revealing the Watergate conspiracy (and who chronicled the story in All the President's Men). The Brethren is built in that same investigative journalism tradition. The opening explains that the stories within were revealed to the authors on condition of anonymity, but that they're almost always verified by two or more sources.

In the 35 years since the book was published, the Supreme Court has completely transformed. None of the Justices of the 1969-1975 period the book covers are still serving; all but one is now dead. It's been decades since the revelation that Justice Potter Stewart was the primary source of information for the book. (Though it wouldn't have been that hard to read between the lines on that; among the Justices who were actually there for all six years covered, Stewart certainly comes off looking the best.)

Today, The Brethren is a fascinating study in contrast, punctuated by a few things that haven't changed much. Chief Justice Burger, Richard Nixon's first Supreme Court appointee, takes control as the book begins, following the long and celebrated career of Earl Warren. Burger is determined to be just as revered, and equally determined to steer the court sharply right in a more conservative direction. Nixon would end up placing four men on the Supreme Court before his resignation, more Justices than any president since has appointed, and yet one of the surprising things of this book (and this period of time) is that the Court in fact did not fully lurch as sharply to the right as one would imagine.

This is the period of time in which the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in a 7-2 decision, legalizing abortion nationwide. It was a time in which most laws barring obscenity were struck down as violations of the First Amendment. It was a time in which numerous campaign finance reforms were upheld (many the very laws that in the last few years finally have been overturned by the Roberts Supreme Court, which finally has moved as far to the right as Nixon and Burger might have envisioned).

And yet this is also the period of time in which a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was held in place for many years before giving way to a new precedent allowing executions. It was a time in which Fourth Amendment precedents limiting police actions were eroded. In short, it was a time where the Supreme court appeared to fluctuate between two political poles a great deal more than it does today.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot more give and take in the process back then. I suppose until the day someone publishes a similar expose inside the Roberts Court, we won't really know for sure if all the votes are as rigid as they appear to be in the published opinions. But The Brethren presents a number of cases in which multiple Justices switched their votes upon being persuaded by a convincing argument.

But it was also a more naive time. The book follows a number of recurring legal matters, and the landmark cases in which the Justices apparently thought they'd disposed of the issues once and for all, only to wind up revisiting them a short while later. There's the issue of desegregation in schools, brought about by a policy of extensive busing of children to other districts. There's the issue of the death penalty, which the Justices hilariously-sadly thought would never come up again when they ruled that it was capricious application of the penalty that made it unconstitutional. (Surely no state would respond by making the death penalty mandatory for a crime, they foolishly reasoned.)

The real takeaway from The Brethren is that Chief Justice Burger was an inept buffoon. Every other Justice seems to be critical of him, characterizing him as paper pushing management with little real command of legal principles. Time and again, the book shows him changing his votes not on any merits, but out of a desire to control which Justice would write the majority opinion in a case. (The Nine's brief mention of Burger in the opening pages confirms this assessment.)

Other justices are painted in unflattering terms as well. William O. Douglas, the longest serving Justice in Supreme Court history, was so determined to stay on the Court that he worked a full year after suffering a largely paralyzing stroke -- and then continued to try to work even after retiring from the job. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, is characterized as a follower of other liberal Court members who wasn't even always aware of the arguments his own clerks wrote in his name. Harry Blackmun is portrayed as so paralyzed by his hyper-attention to detail that he couldn't get any work done in a timely manner. William Rehnquist is an affable but calculating hard right-winger who appeared to be slowly achieving the political momentum Burger imagined. (Authors Woodward and Armstrong had no way of knowing that Rehnquist would become Chief Justice himself seven years later.)

Fascinating as the book is, it does have a few flaws. One is that there's very little narrative throughline to it. The authors are simply presenting several years in the life of the Supreme Court. There's no "ending" as such; Warren Burger wasn't even halfway through his time on the job when this was published. Another is that the book devotes almost its entire 1974 chapter to the Watergate case, without really providing enough background to fully comprehend that case. Both these choices are understandable in context. No reader of the time wouldn't have been intimately familiar with the details of the Watergate scandal, and the scope and importance of the case would have well justified so many pages of the book. But to a modern reader, the story needs a bit more exposition.

Overall, it's an excellent book. But it's very much a history book, in contrast to other, more current things you might read about the Supreme Court. If that sounds interesting to you, then I'd certainly recommend picking it up. I give The Brethren an A-.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flight Time

It was Rio 2 that was playing in theaters earlier this year, but I only recently got around to watching the original 2011 animated film. As I imagine many parents out there know, Rio is the story of a citified bird who becomes separated from his owner during a trip to (duh) Rio de Janeiro. He winds up shackled to a free-spirited wild bird yearning to return the jungle, and adventure ensues.

This movie came from Blue Sky Studios, the animation company that hit upon Ice Age and proceeded to churn out sequels ad nauseum. In some ways, Rio shows a similar lack of originality -- it plays very familiar story beats of the well-worn "opposites attract" genre. But while the plot maybe doesn't receive much attention, the characters do, and that helps elevate the film above average.

The voice cast also helps a lot. Jesse Eisenberg's stock in trade is his ability to play an uptight social misfit, and it's put to good use here as Blu, the sheltered bird forced out of his element. Anne Hathaway is strong as Jewel, his more adventurous (forced) companion. Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro voice a pair of humans whose relationship mirrors the birds. And then, rounding out the comedy, is an eclectic list of names including Jemaine Clement, George Lopez,, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Wanda Sykes, and Jane Lynch.

The jokes aren't generally laugh out loud, and the story isn't especially great... yet there is a strong sense of FUN permeating the entire film. The filmmakers seemed to aspire to something that the parents of their target audience wouldn't mind watching, and I do think they mostly got there. I give it a B-. The recent sequel hasn't rocketed to the top of my list after seeing this one, but it has found its way into the queue.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You MUST Have Fun!

Unless you haven't been using the internet in the last week, you're aware that "Weird Al" Yankovic has planted his flag back in the mainstream. (And looking at my Facebook wall, I'm not the only one who has been sharing his new material.) His "eight videos in eight days" push has been to promote his new album, "Mandatory Fun." It's his first album in several years, and the last under his current recording contract. (He's indicated that he may move to independent distribution in the future to allow his parodies to get out there in a more timely manner.)

I've been a huge fan of Weird Al since the 80s, a time when no one would ever have dreamed he would outlive many of the artists he was lampooning. And while I myself have certainly fallen even farther behind the trends (I don't always know the songs he's targeting anymore), he has stayed on the top of his game. Mandatory Fun is a very strong album.

The hallmarks are, as always, his parodies. There are five this time. From most to least clever, in my opinion: "Word Crimes," a grammar lover's take on Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines"; "Tacky," a hilarious adaptation of Pharell Williams' ubiquitous "Happy"; "Foil," a parody of Lorde's "Royals" that includes a funny and sinister twist; "Inactive," a re-imagining of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" (including a much-deserved ribbing of the original's strange sound effects); and "Handy," a take on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" that is the most current of the album's parodies.

And also as always, Weird Al's original material is just as inspired and clever as his direct parodies. These often take on the style of other artists without directly mimicking a specific song, and the lyrical wordplay is just as smart. "Lame Claim to Fame and "First World Problems" are particularly funny among this crop -- though the latter is so perfectly styled after The Pixies, a band I truly cannot stand, that I have a hard time listening to the pastiche. "Sports Song" is a hilariously generic fan anthem that could conceivably show up at future college or high school events. "Mission Statement" is everything I hate about corporate jargon distilled in an uncanny pastiche of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. "My Own Eyes" feels like a song the Foo Fighters might actually have recorded on an odd day and then shoved into the vault. And "Jackson Park Express" is Yankovic's now-expected long song to close the album, a stalkery love song with a Cat Stevens' vibe.

Of course the other now-expected element on a Weird Al album (and perhaps a future casualty if he does abandon the album format in the future) is the polka medley. This album's "NOW That's What I Call Polka!" is a tight collection of every recent song you're probably sick to death of -- a pop music time capsule.

If you missed the videos that went with most of these songs, it would be well worth your while to catch up -- either on Weird Al's web site or elsewhere on the internet. And as for the album? I'd recommend picking that up too. I give it an A-.

Monday, July 21, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Wounded

It's time for me to pick back up with Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray, starting with an episode that marked a number of firsts for the series: "The Wounded."

Another starship captain, Benjamin Maxwell of the Phoenix, has inexplicably attacked an outpost belonging to the Cardassians. The Federation has only recently secured a peace treaty with the alien race, and Captain Picard is tasked by Starfleet to preserve that peace at all costs. Soon the Enterprise is hunting down one of its own, working with the Cardassians themselves, and using insight from one of Maxwell's former crewmembers, Chief O'Brien.

This episode marks the first appearance of the Cardassians in Star Trek. I can't imagine the writers knew at the time that they were creating one of the major villains of their next spinoff series. But they definitely knew they were building a recurring alien race. The makeup and costumes of the Cardassians were far more elaborate and expressive than the many one-off aliens that had appeared over the years. (Even though the goofy helmets they wore here never appeared again, thankfully.)

There was also a good chunk of the budget devoted to new spaceship designs. In addition to the Cardassians' signature ship, the Galor, this episode marked the first appearance of the Nebula-class starship. This finally gave the series another recurring Federation ship besides the Excelsior and the Oberth style ships -- a Next Gen original that wasn't borrowed from one of the Star Trek movies.

The story here is a take on the plot of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, a tale of a decorated military leader going rogue. But moreover, it's a story about bigotry and the emotional costs of war. Maxwell is presented as a character who can't let go of his hatred of an enemy he fought. It's actually a rather immoral situation for a Starfleet character.

The morality of Miles O'Brien is more interesting still. I suppose it's possible the writers had seen something in actor Colm Meaney, and had decided to give him something meaty to play here. But I imagine it's also likely that they were hedging their bets. In this episode, O'Brien comes off as less than squeaky clean. He's basically racist against Cardassians, and initially is blind to his own bigotry. To his credit, he realizes later what he's done, and confronts a Cardassian about his feelings. (In the episode's most powerful scene, in fact.) But there was a real risk of the character at the center of this story coming off a bit ugly, and I wonder if the writers didn't want to chance doing that with one of the major characters. (Although I suppose they had previously allowed Worf to be similarly racist toward a Romulan -- and he didn't even buy that back later with a conversion or apology.)

Where O'Brien may come off briefly as less than noble, Picard stays firmly on the high ground. Patrick Stewart is excellent in the scene where the two captains finally meet face to face. Picard is aghast at Maxwell's feeble justifications for his actions. But then, at the episode's end, he also puts the Cardassian leader, Gul Macet, in his place. Picard actually believes Maxwell's accusations (dispelling any doubt that may have been in the mind of the audience), and tells Macet as much.

This episode benefits from some solid guest stars. First, of course, there's Colm Meaney (O'Brien still only being a recurring character at this time) and Rosalind Chao (already returning as Keiko after just being introduced). Veteran character actor Bob Gunton, perhaps best known for The Shawshank Redemption, is solid in the role of Ben Maxwell. Marco Rodriguez plays one of the secondary Cardassians, racking up his second Star Trek appearance.

And then there's Marc Alaimo. It's fitting that he appears here as Macet, the first Cardassian. (His character's strange facial hair here helps distinguish him from his later, major role on Deep Space Nine as Gul Dukat.) With this appearance, Alaimo tied the then-record held by Mark Lenard for playing the most aliens in Star Trek. (A record Vaughn Armstong would later demolish through future Star Trek spinoffs.)

Other observations:
  • We get a taste of how married life is going for Miles and Keiko, after their wedding in the previous episode.
  • There's some particularly painful technobabble that allows O'Brien to beam aboard the Phoenix while its shields are up, but it's a truly necessary conceit so that the episode's pivotal scene between O'Brien and Maxwell can happen face to face.
  • Several elements of back story introduced here would recur throughout Deep Space Nine. The massacre of Setlik III was one. More significantly was the song "Minstrel Boy." The song even shows up in the Deep Space Nine series finale, during the farewell montage for the major characters.
  • The Blu-ray set for this season includes a number of deleted scenes from this episode, but they mostly amount to simple line deletions to streamline it for running time. Nothing really feels like a major loss.
  • The director of this episode, Chip Chalmers, made an interesting observation about it in a later interview. He noted that this story is about doing anything and everything to avert a war, yet it aired at the beginning of 1991, at a time when (as he put it) "the United States of America was doing everything it could to start a war." (The Gulf War.)
Although the emotional underpinnings of this episode aren't quite as resonant as they maybe could be, the end result is nevertheless fairly strong. I'd give "The Wounded" a strong B. It's perhaps a less-remembered gem of the fourth season.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Game of Stones

Reiner Knizia is in the upper echelons of German board game designers. His games usually have only the thinnest veneer of flavor or story, but typically have clever mechanics to make up for it. In that respect, Indigo is a bit of a misfire for him.

Indigo is a tile-laying, "track building" game -- a crowded genre that includes Metro, Linie 1, Tsuro, and more. Players take turns adding tiles to a board. Those tiles create pathways along which moves a series of "gem stones" of three different values. You're trying to direct the most valuable gem stones into one of your own bases, while keeping them away from your opponents.

Indigo has really only a few wrinkles to differentiate it from those other "track" games I mentioned. Where the others are played on grids of squares, Indigo uses a hex grid. The impact this has on strategy is subtle, but there. More uniquely, the players share each base (on the outer rim of the board) with another player. You can't score in this game without also scoring for one of your opponents; the trick is to try and spread your conquests around so different opponents benefit each time, leaving you to seize the victory alone.

It's a neat idea in theory, but in practice the game did not impress me as much. The board struck me as too crowded with the maximum four players, and it was too unwieldy to literally share every scoring opportunity with a rival. Watching three opponents interfere with your plans before you could make one single attempt to get things back on track seemed to make Indigo less a game of "who will win?" than "who will lose." Because make no mistake, if the other three players decide you're not winning this game, you won't.

However, I would be interested to try the game out with just three players. Not only would that leave you just two foes instead of three to manage, it would seriously change the nature of the six "bases" on the board's outer edge. In that format, you have three bases, sharing one with each opponent... and having one entirely to yourself. To me, that would greatly increase the strategic considerations. Should you even try to claim solo victory points, knowing your opponents will probably ally to stop it? Should you try to sneak low value scoring in there, figuring your opponents might let you have it, so long as you're not going for the high-valued stuff? Since my gaming group invariably provides at least four players, I may never get to find out -- yet I still suspect that it's with three players that Indigo might thrive.

But as a four player game? I wasn't really impressed. In this genre, I prefer Metro -- a game where each player has enough places he can score that getting screwed in one of them isn't fatal. Indigo, putting only 12 chances to score for all players for the entire game, sets the stakes too high. It simply doesn't take much to put you hopelessly out of contention. It's fast and simple enough that I can see my way to giving it a C, but I really wouldn't recommend it.

At least, until the day I get to try it with just three players...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Aping a Good Thing

Years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So the new follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was pretty high on my to-see list. It crept even higher when the critics almost universally declared it better than the first film, lifting it to a 90+% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I should not have let my expectations soar so high.

Picking up a decade after the events of Rise, Dawn follows the society that ape Caesar has formed in the woods near San Francisco. A war-minded rebel named Koba begins to plot against him when Caesar dares to help a group of human plague survivors in their efforts to restore power to the nearby city. Similarly militant people on the human side seem to ensure that a violent clash between the two cultures is inevitable.

Rise is not a bad movie, but it is a movie with a lot of "air" in it. First, there's the editing itself, which is noticeably lax in a number of places, with camera angles or scene endings lingering longer than feels necessary. I imagine that, having spent the money to realize the visual effects, the filmmakers were unwisely (but understandably) loathe to cut them. Second, there's story itself, which unfolds at a rather slow pace. A lot of time is spent setting up the society the apes have built for themselves. And it does make sense that the film does this -- it's trying to portray the apes as fully realized characters, as much as the human characters. But we get the point a lot faster than the film gives us credit for. And it doesn't help that the vast majority of the apes' communication is done by subtitled sign language, resulting in truly long stretches of silence on screen.

Actually, I amend what I said above. The film is probably trying to portray the apes more as characters than the humans. The humans are one-note movie cliches. There's Jason Clarke's hero with a soft side, Keri Russell's "see, we put one smart female character in our movie" doctor, Gary Oldman's irrationally belligerent leader, a young teen with parental issues, and other stock cannon fodder. It probably adds to the slow pace of the movie's first act when half the characters don't speak and the other half speak only in the tropes of movies you've seen before.

But the quality of the ape performances do save the movie from coming apart. Master-of-motion-capture Andy Serkis at last receives top billing in a movie, reprising his role of Caesar. He's joined by a group of actors doing incredibly nuanced work. Toby Kebbell (Koba), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), and Karin Konoval (Maurice) in particular are wonderfully expressive without often having dialogue to lean on. And the "puppets" (of a sort) these actors all inhabit are more convincing a group of CG creations than ever before. Only a very few scenes -- invariably scenes in which the characters interact with physical objects in the environment -- are anything less than totally believable. As a testament to the quality of this union of technology and performance, it's only the scenes in the final act that kick you out of the moment; you see the overimagined green screen sets and think "that doesn't look real," still basically forgetting that none of the characters you're seeing are real either.

For taking another great step forward in performance capture, and delivering a few exciting action scenes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately worth recommending if you liked its predecessor. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend rushing out to the theater for it. I give it a B-.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Lost in the Desert

I'm no particular fan of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune, but even among those who are, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone with much praise for David Lynch's 1984 film adaptation. But that was not the first attempt to bring the story to the big screen. The tale of one previous failure has now become the basis of a documentary film, Jodorowsky's Dune. And that story is far more interesting than the Dune movie we did get.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made a splash as the writer-director of some highly stylized avant-garde films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I'd never heard of him or the films, but from the clips you see in this documentary, they were towering monuments to guerrilla filmmaking, style over substance, and surrealism. They attracted the attention of a French producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who wanted to make something -- anything -- with Jodorowsky. When he approached the director, Jodorowsky declared he wanted to make Dune.

The film's account of what happened next feels like the story of how a cult (almost) forms. With incredible charisma and powers of persuasion, Jodorowsky assembled a multinational pool of talent to bring his highly bizarre vision of Dune to the screen. He tapped Dan O'Bannon for his visual effects. He approached artist H.R. Giger to work in film for the first time, creating the look of the Harkonnen family. He convinced Orson Welles to play the Baron Harkonnen himself. He persuaded Salvador Dali to act as the Emperor... once he agreed to pay Dali more than any actor had ever been paid. (This was accomplished by agreeing to pay Dali $100,000 for every one of the three to five minute of screen time he would have in the finished film.)

Unmindful of what could realistically be achieved by visual effects in the 1970s, Jodorowsky imagined his opening as a long single shot panning over the entire galaxy. Unburdened by considerations of what theaters might be willing to show, he didn't care if the running time of his finished product might be 18 hours or more. Uncaring of how it might warp his own son, he cast the teenager as Paul Atreides and forced him into martial arts training, 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 years.

Finally, armed with a shot for shot storyboard of his entire movie, bound in copies of a massive book, he shopped the project around to every studio in Hollywood. None were able to wrap their heads around this fever dream from a strange surrealist. Despite the exhaustive planning, despite commitments from a number of actors, no one bought the film. And maybe it's just as well. This documentary leaves one with the distinct feeling that the result would have made Un Chien Andalou (the notoriously non-sensical film from Salvador Dali himself) look perfectly sane by comparison.

But the documentary makes the case the even the unmade Dune cast a long shadow over Hollywood. Most of the team Jodorowsky assembled, chiefly O'Bannon and Giger, went on to make the absolute classic Alien. The Dune storyboards, apparently circulated throughout Hollywood, seemed to influence visuals in at least a half dozen films that appeared over the next decade. And even some of the inexplicable choices in David Lynch's Dune gain context when you learn of Jodorowsky's prior plans. Why cast Sting, a rock musician, as Feyd-Rautha? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had secured Mick Jagger's agreement to play that role? Why enlist a rock band like Toto to do the music? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had a commitment from Pink Floyd for his version?

Jodorowsky's Dune tells a tight and engaging story that seems too crazy to be true. And it tells it just before the moment it might be too late to do so; Dan O'Bannon has already passed away, as has H.R. Giger just in the time since he was interviewed for this documentary. The film paints an amazing picture of an alternate universe of cinema where this movie, not Star Wars or Alien or Blade Runner, defined science fiction and blockbusters for the medium. If you're a film enthusiast, you won't want to miss it. I give the documentary an A-.