Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Black Requiem

Game of Thrones is always the first item on the blog agenda each Monday, but there was another (less widely viewed) entertainment event on TV this past weekend: the series finale of Orphan Black. I believe the only time I've written about the series here was to talk about its soundtrack album. It's something of an oversight on my part, as I've been there from the beginning for every one of Orphan Black's 50 episodes. Yet it's also something of an "editorial decision" on my part, as I felt like the show was never really as good as it was during its amazing first season.

But first, in case you missed the show entirely, the quick summary: Orphan Black is the story of a group of women who discover they're all subjects of a cloning experiment. Though each of them has the same face, their lives are all wildly different. The sisters (or "sestras," as the fans know them) unite in support of each other, and in a long-running effort to bring down the shadowy organization that seeks to control them.

For me, Orphan Black charted a narrative course much like The X-Files. It captured my imagination almost immediately, pulled me in with tantalizing mysteries, then became impenetrable and convoluted as it increasingly appeared that everything was being made up as they went along. Still, even after my interest in (and comprehension of) the ongoing story waned, I kept tuning in with enthusiasm for the characters.

The series' star, Tatiana Maslany, was nothing short of incredible. Even the Emmys, which seem to overlook every genre show that doesn't involve dragons (and took a while to warm even to them), actually saw fit to give her the Outstanding Lead Actress prize for her work on the show. (And they should have given it to her every single year.) Maslany's work on Orphan Black is the pinnacle against which all other "one actor playing multiple characters" stories should be measured. It is for me, at least, and everyone else comes up short. When the clones take part in their different subplots in an episode, you forget that you're seeing the same actress in scene after scene. When they appear on screen together, you'd still forget if the show didn't go so far out of its way to one up itself with seamless visual effects that make you wonder "how the hell they pulled that off."

While Maslany shouldered most of the weight, there were plenty of other great characters on the show too. Jordan Gavaris was wildly entertaining as the brother of "principle" clone Sarah Manning. Maria Doyle Kennedy was a chilly badass as Siobhan, Sarah's adoptive mother. And Kristian Bruun was hilariously immune to shame as Donnie, husband to overbearing clone Alison, serving up nearly all the show's most memorable comedic moments.

Orphan Black wrapped up with what for me felt like a satisfying series finale. As I said, the show's "mythology/conspiracy" had long stopped being a source of interest for me, so it's possible that viewers still on board with all that may not have gotten what they were looking for. But it was an episode determined to give a resolution to the emotional arcs of all the characters. The back half in particular was devoted to important character scenes involving the "sestras." (One last grand "four clones in one shot" scene, more than just being technically difficult, was also the most touching of the hour.)

I really should have been praising the show here, for the performances if nothing else. Now that it's my last chance, I'd best not let it go by. If you want to see the best acting that's been on television this decade, you should go watch Orphan Black. I suppose going out on a truly high note would have been if they'd managed to keep me engaged in the story the whole time. But they kept me caring about the characters even through story twists I didn't care about at all, which might be an even greater trick. It deserves my recommendation.

Monday, August 14, 2017


After watching a new Game of Thrones episode, I don't usually seek out comments from friends or critics before writing up my own thoughts. This time, though, I happened to catch what a few people were saying. It seems that this was the episode that finally just broke everyone with all the "video game fast travel."

While the show (like the books) has always played fast and loose with exact chronology and the passage of time, this was extreme. Just a few weeks ago, we didn't see Arya for an entire episode because she was walking north to Winterfell. This week, Davos went all the way from Dragonstone to King's Landing and back, then headed up to the Wall. (And all that after Daenerys return from the field of battle to Dragonstone... though, admittedly, dragon has got to be the fastest means of travel there is in Westeros.)

Either because of all the whiplashing about, or coinciding with it, the series served up one of its more uneven episodes that somehow simultaneously felt overcrammed with plot and left you feeling that not much happened. I trust that if anything interesting had happened to the Hound on his way to the Wall, or to Jorah on his way to Dragonstone, or to Theon as he wandered the halls of Dragonstone for... what... probably months?... then we would have seen it dramatized on screen. But this sort of missing material is exactly the sort of thing it feels like we would have gotten back in, say, season two. And it's not unfair to ask, "Really? You only had 13 episodes' worth of stuff left to do going into this season? Are you sure?"

Anyway, enough about what wasn't here this week. Let's talk about what was. First, the aftermath of last week's epic battle. Bronn's heroics (and dry humor) continued as he pulled Jaime to safety. Then Daenerys embraced her Targaryen side, specifically the part about burning enemies alive. That's the end of Randall Tarly and his son Dickon. It was an odd character arc for Randall, who through the way he'd raised Sam showed that he lived his entire life a stern and intractable man. He finally bent just once to support Cersei over the Tyrells, and then utterly recoiled from it. Once was enough; never again. I suppose his narrative purpose overall was to show that Cersei has many ways of getting what she wants, of getting people to do things they otherwise would not. (In this case, I believe it was Jaime that did the convincing.)

Jaime returned to King's Landing with news of both the Lannister army's utter defeat and of the true culprit behind the death of Joffrey. As expected, Cersei didn't want to believe Tyrion's innocence in that murder.

At Dragonstone, Jon Snow revealed his inner dragon whisperer, and Daenerys seemed insufficiently thrown by the ability of someone else to tame one of her "children." The "no, seriously, how in the actual hell did you do that?" scene it feels like we should have gotten was instead interrupted by the return of Jorah Mormont.

Bran did some Three-Eyed Raven-style spying beyond the Wall to remind us that yes, the army of the dead is still coming, and are apparently the only beings in Westeros actually constrained by travel time. And though he had fresh warnings sent out by ravens (the two-eyed kind), nobody wanted to hear of it, including the maesters of Oldtown, who slapped down Samwell with a fresh mountain of books to copy as punishment for talking out of turn. Later in the episode, this would lead to a moment of everyone watching the show screaming at their TV's as Sam and Gilly casually stumble upon evidence of Rheagar actually marrying Lyanna Stark, and dismissing it as irrelevant.

Varys and Tyrion had a heart-to-heart about where the line is crossed when serving tyranny and doing nothing to stop it. In a crowded episode, this would be an easy scene to overlook, and yet it feels like the sort of thing that could end up being a major nod to some event yet to come. It's not like we needed any particular reminder of Varys' past at this stage of the story, making one start to wonder if Tyrion is going to have to turn on Daenerys at some point.

Next, the Craziest Plan in Westeros was hatched, to head north of the wall, capture a wight, and bring it back to show off P.T. Barnum-style to Cersei. The sheer craziness of this plan didn't stop there, as its intermediate steps involved sailing to King's Landing in secret and delivering Tyrion to a clandestine meeting with Jaime. It felt like we didn't get to see nearly enough of that reunion, that just when Tyrion really opened the door on what an ass their father Tywin was, we cut away.

Specifically, we cut away to bring another long-missing face back into the story: Gendry. Davos swung by the smith shop to scoop up Robert Baratheon's bastard son for fresh adventure. I do wonder how important it really is in the grand scheme of things to tie up the Gendry plot thread, but hey, why not? He sure can swing a hammer, which ought to come in handy north of the Wall.

Winterfell hosted a round of Spy vs. Spy, in which Littlefinger showed he didn't need the ability to change his face to come out on top. First, we saw fractures between Arya and Sansa of their own making, with Arya seemingly both frustrated that her sister was hungry for power and yet not claiming it strongly enough. This set the stage for Littlefinger, knowing he was being watched, to forge a note from Sansa to be found by the snooping Arya. I'm sure someone out there has freeze-framed that note, that a transcription is waiting on line somewhere. But I don't need to have the specifics to guess the general shape of it: it's tailored to drive a wedge between the Stark sisters.

Next Jaime and Cersei swapped roles a bit, and it was Cersei's turn to be the one with big news to share. First, she knows all about Jaime's secret meeting with Tyrion, and is warning against further "betrayal." But more significantly, she's pregnant with a fourth child of incest. And this time, she doesn't see any reason to hide that information from anyone. How people (or "the people") are going to react to the news might be up for grabs, but I'll lay odds that we're never actually going to see that baby born before this tale is over.

Our final moments of the episode were up at Eastwatch, as a truly eclectic band of men (no tall woman, sorry Tormund) came together to go White Walker hunting. Not everyone is coming back from this quest, I guarantee. Maybe we should start a pool on who lives and who dies.

So yes, plenty happened this week... even though it feels like this was a rather forgettable episode overall between last week's epic installment and what feels like other mammoth developments teed up for the next two. That rocky pacing of the narrative does make me feel like this was the weakest episode of the season. Not too bad, probably about a B in my book, but a bit of a letdown after the standard that's been set recently.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Fall Begins

Like Charlie Brown running at the football, I've found myself once again reading the latest book by Terry Brooks. Despite disappointment in his last several efforts, I just can't give up this author I loved in my (less cultured) youth. And since all my new favorite fantasy authors don't actually seem to be in the business of publishing new books (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch), I'm inevitably drawn back to Brooks, who releases something every single year, like clockwork.

There was extra incentive this time around: this newest book, The Black Elfstone, kicks off a four-book series (The Fall of Shannara) which Terry Brooks has said will conclude his decades-running Shannara series, once and for all. I'm not exactly sure what an end to the series would look like -- it has consisted of multiple self-contained arcs over the years, and has always struck me as open-ended. But finding out what Brooks thinks is meant to cap it off, along with the actually having it capped off, was a tempting lure.

Obviously, no closure was to be had here in this book, what with three more on the way over the next three years. But many of the elements put into play were intriguing enough. This story involves a mysterious force of magical invaders who come storming into Brooks' Four Lands with seemingly unstoppable might and abilities. Awash in political intrigue, the Druid protectors of the land are ill-equipped to stand against them. Meanwhile (because there's always an Ohmsford descendant in these books), young siblings named Tarsha and Tavo are coming to grips with their emerging magical abilities. The older, Tavo, is unable to control his power, and is heading down a dark path of corruption and evil. His sister, Tarsha, is determined to help him, but must first learn about her own power before she can help him tame his.

There have been so many of these Shannara books that it might not be possible for Brooks to write something he hasn't written in some way before. The idea of a corrupt descendant of Shannara was explored with the Ilse Witch books; a massive invading horde and direct threat to the Druids' castle was part of the original volume, The Sword of Shannara, some four decades ago. But there's an urgency, intensity, and scale here that does make these elements feel different. "Sword" in particular dated from back when Brooks was just 95% aping J.R.R. Tolkien, so the invaders here feel different than an army of mindless orcs.

The writing itself is better than Brooks has managed of late. He continues to wedge in a romantic subplot without being able to compellingly craft it, and he has a tendency to repeat information unnecessarily (in identical ways) in consecutive chapters. But he's also willing to risk more here than he usually does, likely because this is his ending. His heroic Druid, Drisker Arc, does some decidedly unheroic things. There are moments of more intense violence and danger than he typically allows. He also invests in secondary characters more deeply than he has of late, giving it more weight when bad things happen to them.

I'd hardly say that Terry Brooks is at the top of the field, nor even at the top of his game. But this book was a step up for him. I was probably a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to read it, but wasn't mad at myself afterward for having done so. I'd grade it a B.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Dun Deal

Dunkirk is the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan. It's a tale from World War II less familiar to self-centric Americans who generally only know about Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and maybe a few other things (if they watched Band of Brothers).

It's also quite a paradox of a film. It's an epic movie of sweeping scope... that's well under two hours. It's in many ways a story of a crushing defeat rather than a grand victory... though it is in many ways uplifting. Its sparse dialogue, and the general way the visuals could have conveyed that story with even less dialogue, makes the whole thing play much like a silent movie... but the way the sound effects scream in your eardrums and rumble your seats make it quite the opposite.

War movies are rarely a solid hit with me, and so by that standard I quite liked the film. But by the standards of Christopher Nolan, who usually amazes me on some level, this movie can't climb to the upper reaches of his filmography. Still, many elements of the movie are quite successful. It follows three distinct plot threads -- land, sea, and air. Each is distinct, adds to the whole, has a different tone, and gets you to invest in different ways.

The land story puts you right on the beach in Dunkirk, right in the thick of being surrounded and bombarded. There are no heroics here; courage manifests in not being paralyzed entirely. This thread is punctuated by some stiff-upper-lip nobility from Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander, but is generally the most conventional aspect of the film.

The air story tells another somewhat typical story of war movies: the carrying-on in the face of impossible odds. A group of pilots are trying to do as much as they can, wherever they can, to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation. This section of the film serves up the most compelling visuals, a reason to see this in the theater if you intend to see it at all, and to consider an IMAX screening if one is convenient for you. (This section also makes the bold choice of again casting Tom Hardy as a character in a mask that muffles his voice. Wicked humor from Christopher Nolan?)

The sea story is to me the most compelling, as it follows a family of civilians who take their own boat out to rescue soldiers. It's a war movie happening to characters who "don't belong" in a war movie. This section also paints a vivid picture of PTSD and how it can utterly unmake a person, in the form of one particular rescued soldier. Stage actor turned film darling Mark Rylance is the star of this narrative, which also features a compelling performance by Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy.

There's one big aspect of the movie I can't decide on: the way its structured. Perhaps this should be considered a minor spoiler, so you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The three different plot threads each take place on their own time scale: the land unfolding over a week, the sea over a day, and the air over an hour. Despite the disparity, each thread is given equal time in the movie, and is shuffled together evenly as though unfolding concurrently. I'm reminded slightly of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), which similarly juxtaposes subplots that aren't actually concurrent just to make for the most dramatic presentation. It's more in your face here, though, as day and night are sometimes interpolated, and as (eventually, in the third act) events you've already seen get repeated from another perspective. It is a novel and clever approach. Yet being such a cerebral component of an otherwise visceral experience, it does make me question whether it was the right choice for the film.

Overall, I'd give Dunkirk a B+. It's operating at a high enough level that I can say Christopher Nolan's track record remains intact -- he still hasn't made a truly bad movie. But at the same time, I feel that if it were to somehow make my Top 10 List of 2017, it would only be because I didn't see enough movies by the end of the year.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Spoils of War

Since the moment a baby dragon first crawled up onto Daenerys' shoulder, this is the scene we've all been waiting for: Dany riding a grown dragon into a full-scale battle and wrecking shop. Having waited for it so long, though, it shouldn't be hard to wait a little longer, to the end of this post (and its proper place in the episode), to get into that.

Things kicked off with the proper return of Bronn, more than his mere wave to the camera last week. He needled Jamie (though he could not have known how extensively, could never have guessed at what Jamie had just learned), reestablishing his mercenary cred just in time for later heroics in the episode.

Cersei made a brief appearance this week, scheming with the very pleased Braavos banker. I'm frankly surprised that they made an explicit point later on of saying that the gold of Highgarden had successfully made it back to King's Landing. So much has been going right for Cersei lately that even the heavy losses her army would take at the end of the episode doesn't necessarily feel like a big enough shoe to drop for her. But it seems whatever troubles lay ahead of her won't center around angry bankers looking to get their money back. (Fair enough. I suppose late interest payments aren't easily the stuff of compelling drama.)

Creepy Bran's gotta do what Creepy Bran's gotta do. After seasons of adventure with Meera Reed (and the death of her brother), she gets nothing from Bran -- not even a proper thanks. Bran may be able to see everything throughout history, but judging by how he "sees" what's right in front of him at the moment, his power to interpret anything he's seeing is virtually nil. Unceremoniously dumping Meera, exposing Arya's kill list unthinkingly... he's got no social game. As Meera pegged it, Bran died in that cave.

Arya surprised me by showing up at Winterfell this week. I'd been certain that her encounter with Nymeria from two weeks back was a scene meant to tell her "there's no home for you anymore." Maybe it was a scene meant to say that, but it's a message she wasn't quite ready to hear. Fun for the audience, though, as Arya's return led to a number of fun scenes of pure fan service. If the reuniting of almost every living Stark didn't get you, how about Arya finally getting hands on some Valyrian steel? How about her effortlessly getting the drop on those two guards at the gate? Or how about the fantastic sword fight with Brienne? (More training, eh? Can a dash of brute force swordsmanship augment Arya's water dancing, assassin-y combat style?)

In the caves beneath Dragonstone, Jon tried another tactic in forging the alliance he wants with Dany. But both characters remained steadfastly true to their natures: Jon's too stubborn to compromise principle to get what he wants; Dany's too set on ruling everything to let the North go. The "help us / bend the knee" dance continued for another verse. Still, the alliance got a little bit of growth in the form of Jon nudging Dany out of her first thought, to fly straight over to the Red Keep and melting it, Harrenhal-style. He talked her into a more conventional military engagement instead. (And would later talk himself out of killing Theon, letting the rescue of Sansa outweigh all the misery Theon visited on Jon's family.)

And then, the moment we were all waiting for. The final, extended battle sequence was immensely satisfying, and superbly realized on just about every level. The breathtaking vistas of the unmarred countryside set up the environment before it was then consumed in flame. We got thousands of charging Dothraki warriors, strafing run after strafing run of dragon fire, and all the graphic violence you could ever want: sprays of blood, bodies turned to ash, humans and horses horribly maimed. It was the same combination of thrill and horror that the very best war movies deliver.

You couldn't help but cheer as Bronn fought his way to the ballista, even though you never wanted him to actually be successful using it against Daenerys and her dragon. He struck a severe but seemingly non-fatal blow, and then it sure seemed as though he'd his last moment on the show. But Bronn rolled out of harm's way just in time to then return for one last bit of heroics. As Jamie made a futile, foolish charge, attempting to kill Dany, Bronn shoved Jamie out of the path of dragon fire and into the water. How Jamie is going to swim to safety, weighed down by plate armor and a golden hand, is hard to imagine. But I'm convinced we haven't seen the last of him all the same.

For giving us a sequence years in the making, and that scene being everything you could have dreamed of, it's hard to think of this episode as anything but an A. It was, by run time, the shortest episode in the entire run of the series. But short was sweet.

Friday, August 04, 2017

It's Norse Than We Thought

Yggdrasil is a cooperative board game in which the players unite as Norse gods to defend against the mythological monsters marching on the titular world tree. You don't win the game so much as survive it; one card from a deck of enemies is revealed at the start of each player's turn, and you must stave off defeat until the deck is exhausted.

In the way of most co-op games, it's fiendishly difficult. (By which I mean it's challenging, not necessarily complex.) The system is stacked against you, and random chance can make any one playthrough particularly tough. This is sort of expected in a co-op game, and not really a mark against it. But the game does have issues that soured my experience.

First, it does not scale well for the number of players. To be fair, the rulebook does warn you that the game will be harder with more players. This is because an enemy card is revealed at the start of every turn. Each player can cultivate a narrow specialty against a particular kind of enemy, but they only get to apply that specialty when their turn comes around. If you're good at a thing that becomes a pressing concern during some other player's turn, the group may have to wait a while until you can "take care of it" -- and that's time you may not have. Yggdrasil claims it can be played with up to 6 players, but it felt to me like any more than 4 wasn't truly practical.

Second, there might be a bit too much randomness in the system; there certainly is for my taste, anyway. There's the shuffled deck of enemy cards that determines where the players must focus at what time. There are bags of chips (containing "hits" and "misses," loosely) from which the players must draw to accumulate strength for attacks. Then there's a die that's rolled both during combat resolution and to apply some of the game's effects. Any one or two of these sources of randomness feels pretty typical of the co-op genre, but all of them together makes for what feels to me like a too wide a variance in difficulty.

Third -- and most discouraging in my experience -- is the design of the characters each player assumes. Everybody takes a particular Norse god -- Thor, Odin, Freyja, and so forth -- each with its own unique ability. This is the backbone of a good co-op game, in my view: give each player their own way to affect the game as no one else can, and everyone is much more likely to feel they're contributing in some way to the group. Some characters in Yggdrasil have powers that can be disproportionately undermined by negative effects during the game. While some character abilities are applied quite generally, others are tied to specific game actions -- actions that can be turned off or rendered useless during play. Put another way, the game gives each player a "role" to play in the group... and then can proceed to make it impossible to pursue that role. That in turn can make a player feel useless to the group effort, or even a detriment.

The game is dripping with Norse flavor, and adorned with vivid art. But it's not a very good team experience; not, at least, with 6 players. I thought Yggdrasil fell far short of other co-op games of similar complexity, like Ghost Stories, or the many variants of Pandemic. I'd grade it a C.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Sideways Glance

"Things we simply don't have the answers to." That's the subject of the podcast Thinking Sideways. It's a sort of In Search Of / Unsolved Mysteries hybrid, albeit from a more skeptical perspective.

In each weekly episode, the three hosts -- Devin, Joe, and Steve -- gather to talk through a mystery. Their topics range widely on a continuum from gritty to outlandish. Sometimes they examine crimes, like that of serial abductor/rapist Mr. Cruel. Sometimes it's "crime with an unexplained twist," like the "Taman Shud" case involving an unidentified victim with an unsolved cipher in his pocket. They'll also get into "crime? maybe?", like the disappearance of the pilots of a Navy blimp in the 1940s. They'll talk about purely unexplained phenomena, like the powerful aquatic noise dubbed "the Bloop," or the "Dog Suicide Bridge" in Overtoun, Scotland. At times, for fun, they even play with whackadoodle conspiracy material, like the Carnac Stones of France.

This wide-ranging interest in topics kept me trying out the podcast for several episodes. What ultimately pulled me in was their approach to telling these tales. Thinking Sideways isn't out to tell you cheesy ghost stories. Its hosts recognize that the simple facts can be spooky enough themselves.

After catching their listeners up in the initial segment, the bulk of each episode is devoted to discussing theories of the case. Here, they'll cover almost every possible angle, treating each with the appropriate level of consideration. They'll talk outlandish ideas, often just for a laugh. They'll pick through more factually supported theories, pointing out the unaddressed holes along the way.

I'm reminded a lot of another podcast I tried out for a time and quickly dropped: Lore. That's another podcast about the spooky and bizarre, but one that's definitely out for the creepy vibes. It's not about to let facts or reason get in the way of a campfire story, and that's one approach. I've found Thinking Sideways to be more compelling.

I will say, though, that the production on Thinking Sideways is basically at the bare minimum. It's three people talking. There's little sign of editing work; there are no sound effects and only music to bookend each episode. The microphone quality is subpar; some episodes sound like they were recorded on a tin can phone coming from a bathroom. (Lore is superior in all these aspects.) Given the distinctly "lo-fi" quality, it's not a podcast I find I can listen to for multiple episodes at a time.

Still, the content itself I enjoy, even if I wish the presentation were better. I'd give Thinking Sideways a B. If you like true crime and the unknown, I think you'll find it worth a try.