Friday, October 19, 2018

Trick or Treat?

Of all the classic horror movies I've seen, Halloween is my favorite. It generates legitimate tension without being hokey like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. Not to mention that it came first, with Michael Myers inspiring that entire subgenre of supernatural stalker-killers. I'm not a fan of the franchise as such; I think I've seen maybe half of the 10 Halloween movies released before this year. But that original 1978 film still works for me.

As such, I was keenly interested in this new 2018 incarnation also titled Halloween, for its connection to the original. It brings back Jamie Lee Curtis in the role that made her famous. It also whisks away all the history of every intervening Halloween film (good or bad) to position itself as the one and only sequel in "true continuity" with the original.

The result is something of a mixed bag. For a fan of the original film like me, the 2018 film is a treasure trove of sly references and connections to the first. If you don't know the original very well, you'd be well-rewarded to watch it before seeing this one. It's not that the plot is complicated to follow (ha!), but you'll notice how much of the new film deliberately echoes the first. Camera compositions are routinely built to evoke the 1978 movie. Certain sequences are written in ways that revisit ideas from the first film (while sometimes switching the character types around in their positions). This new movie really comes off as a love letter written by people who really cared for the first Halloween.

There's also some fun updating for 2018. In interviews, Jamie Lee Curtis has said this Halloween is a movie for the #MeToo era, and she's right. You wouldn't need her to tell you that, either. The film's female characters are all drawn more interestingly and sympathetically than the men. They avoid stupid decisions to falsely endanger themselves. They stand up for themselves and get things done. (Well, "mostly," to those last two. Gotta let the killer get his licks in sometimes.)

All that said, I don't want to give the impression that this film is a revelation. Some of the set pieces are quite silly. It's languidly paced for the first half hour -- much like the original, but not in a way that slowly allows the tension to build.

I'm pretty sure, in fact, that some of the Halloween sequels this new movie informally winks out of existence were actually better overall. The original Halloween II cleverly connected boogeyman Michael Myers with Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode, and also had the fun conceit of picking up exactly where the first movie left off. The 20th anniversary sequel, Halloween H20, was more thrilling in how it matched Strode and Myers for the showdown they'd each been waiting for all their lives.

Indeed, it might just be that the parts of this new movie that I liked best were actually, for the most part, just trading currency on things I liked in the original. So, reining the enthusiasm in, I'd have to say that this new Halloween merits about a B-. Fans of scary movies that really need a new one at this time of year will probably want to check it out. If you're not a fan of the franchise (or at least the original Halloween), I can't imagine this movie winning you over.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Keep This in Mind

Rare is the game that's as much fun to watch as it is to play, but one has come along recently in The Mind. The title is bland and forgettable, but that may be one of the only strikes against it. It's easy to explain, quick to play, fun for all, and inexpensive too!

The Mind falls under the Hanabi umbrella of cooperative games that restricts communication between the players. In this case, a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 100 is shuffled for each round. In round 1, every player is dealt a single card. In round 2, you get two cards. So on up to the required number of rounds you must play for your number of players (for example: 8 rounds and eight cards each in a 4-player game).

The goal is simple: whatever cards you've been dealt collectively for that round, you must play in numerical order face up on the table. The restriction: no one is allowed to speak. Players have to take turns adding their own cards to the face up pile when it seems like the time is right. You have only two tools: a certain number of "lives" (times you can mess up), and a certain number of shurikens you can agree as a group to deploy by all raising a hand simultaneously. When you use a shuriken, each player discards the lowest valued card in their hand, potentially getting you out of a sticky situation with many numbers in close proximity. You can gain new lives and shurikens for completing rounds, but you'll still likely be losing resources faster than they replenish.

That's it. The level of communication allowed can be dialed up or down according to the whims of the group. The rules prescribe essentially no communication at all -- no attempting to signal with facial expressions, or with the manner and speed you move to play a card to the stack. In practice, every group I've seen uses these cheats. Not to worry, though, the game is plenty challenging. I've played nearly 20 times now (with four players) and have yet to ever actually complete eight rounds (though I've reached that final round a couple of times).

It's so simple, but that makes the thrills simple and visceral too. Few games I've played in the last year have given me the intense rush this game does -- that moment of successfully playing two consecutive numbers to the pile in the right order without messing up. And, being a cooperative game, every one of your successes is a success shared. It's a feel-good game. (Okay, mess up and you might invite some ribbing from the other players -- but it's easy and fast to turn around and play again.)

The game is meant to take four, but it works great even on a night where you have more players. It takes mere minutes to play, and mere seconds to explain. Players can easily swap in and out between games, or even rounds if you wish. Meanwhile, as I noted, watching it can be nearly as fun as playing, rooting for your friends to succeed (or perhaps mocking them when they don't do as well as you did).

One day, I vow, I will win a game of The Mind. My enthusiasm for playing it hasn't dulled in the least waiting for that day to come. Of course, there are more involved games, games that better engage the tactical brain. But this is like an intensely flavored sauce reduced over low heat -- it packs a big punch for what it is. And for this triumph of simplicity, I have to give The Mind an A. I'd play it anywhere, any time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Falling Down

Last week, in discussing a book I read recently, I mentioned that I've been on the hunt for fiction with a compelling, uncloseted gay protagonist. I got a couple of recommendations I plan on looking into. Meanwhile, though, another promising title had come up in my own searches: London Falling, by Paul Cornell.

I found this book on a list marked "LGBT," but it was the synopsis that drew me in. A team of London detectives is reaching the end of a longtime sting on a drug kingpin when things go horribly wrong. The suspect is apparently murdered in custody, impossibly and spontaneously. And then the small team of four begins to see visions of a supernatural parallel dimension intermingled with the city of London. Spookiness ensues.

It's the month of Halloween, this sounded like a fun romp. Sign me up! And then pull over right now and let me the hell off.

One problem with the book is probably unfair for me to hold against it. It's written by a British writer, set in a British place, and steeped in British terminology. Usually, I have little problem working past this when, say, I'm watching a British detective show or such. Here, the jargon was positively impenetrable. It was work to follow what was going on. But hey, that's probably on me; if I weren't a boorish American, maybe I'd better pick up on what the author was laying down. Maybe. I maintain that if Paul Cornell were a better writer, he'd have surmounted this issue.

But the evidence of him as a bad writer abounded. The pacing of the plot was off. One event at the end of Chapter Three persuaded me to keep going, but it was really the only plot point of note in the first quarter of the book. The story was built around four characters, and often a chapter would consist of the exact same material being rehashed repetitively from multiple perspectives (in tiny Dan Brown-like chunks).

There might have been merit in that approach had the characters felt different enough to have different perspectives. But the four were all virtually indistinguishable, given forgettable names and superficial quirks. The woman in the group finally got one chapter of intriguing back story around a third of the way into the book, but promptly went back to being her boring, cookie-cutter self soon after.

One of the quartet was gay, which is how the book had originally popped onto my radar. And though he was closeted at work, the book was not remotely about him coming out (one of two requirements I'd been trying to fill). But then, he was decidedly not the main character (failing the other requirement). In any event, he had no more personality or character than anyone else in the slog of a book.

I nearly bailed on it once, but found a raft of reviews claiming that the book really got going around the 25% mark. I hung in until about 40%, and then simply could not take another word. "Who is this hack?" I wondered. How did he get a book published? Turns out he's a prolific television writer who has worked on everything from Doctor Who to Coronation Street. Seems to me he needs to stick to that medium. He needs actors to imbue his characters with any sense of realism or dimension. Otherwise, they do whatever the opposite is of leaping off the page.

I suppose you don't get a grade when you drop out, but London Falling deserves an F anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Oh, Man

If you were to imagine a movie in a lab, cooked up to cater specifically to my tastes, that movie would probably end up looking a lot like First Man. It's about the 60's space race. It's from Damien Chazelle, the director of one of my favorite new movies of the past decade, Whiplash. It's not necessarily that First Man was ticking all the boxes, but it quite dramatically ticked those big ones.

I was probably going to like a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong to some extent no matter what. It may be that I was also going to be a bit disappointed in it no matter what. Prophecies fulfilled, and now I'll see if I can explain why.

As for what I liked about the movie, I'm not sure space travel has ever been put on screen in a more thrilling fashion. I'd even include in that my personal favorite Apollo 13, which used the famous "Vomit Comet" aircraft to film scenes of actual weightlessness with no visual effects trickery. First Man is more intense than that. It makes going to space feel risky and dangerous. In particular, there's a lot of critical praise for a harrowing aerial test flight at the beginning of the film. And of course, there's the lunar sequences at the end that are pretty much What We're All Here To See -- and they are breathtaking (if brief).

But it's actually three other sequences in the film that stand out for me. Two relate to Neil Armstrong's first orbital flight, aboard Gemini 8. The launch of the craft is presented without the conventional exterior shots of the rocket climbing to the stars; instead, the entire experience is presented to us from inside the violently rumbling craft itself. Later, a mishap during the flight does an amazing job of conveying life-or-death stakes (even when, of course, we know Armstrong made it out just fine). The third sequence centers around the Apollo 1 fire, which has been dramatized multiple times, but never with quite the visceral horror it receives here. (It's worth noting that all of these moments I mention were depicted in the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. And great as that was, I again maintain that the portrayal here is more amazing still.)

Where the movie falters, though, is in trying to present us a portrait of Neil Armstrong, the man. As a public figure, he was rather famously closed off. Other astronauts said often in interviews that the real Neil they knew really wasn't like that, and it feels like the promise of a movie like this is to show us that, to humanize a near-mythic figure. Instead, First Man doubles down on the myth. The movie's Armstrong shows emotion perhaps three times in the entire two-plus hours, always briefly and compactly. He otherwise seems to remain a cipher to his family, his co-workers, and mostly, the audience. The one Big Moment that counters this is a fabrication departing from actual history. It's a bit of artistic license I'd welcome more if it had been part of a more complete strategy to illuminate Armstrong, rather than a play for resonance at the end.

As good as I've noted the space material is, the Earthbound stuff is often that weak. Damien Chazelle opts for a transparent metaphor here, shooting all the "family drama" with a conspicuously unsteady handheld camera. Armstrong's life lacks solidity, but everything "up there" is stable and assured -- get it, people?! Claire Foy does some powerful acting as Armstrong's wife Janet, but you won't necessarily get to see it -- if you go to this film in IMAX for the moon scenes, you may well get motion sick from the domestic scenes. As for Ryan Gosling? It's getting to be cliche to cast him as one of these emotionally impenetrable stoics. Sometimes less is indeed more. This does not feel like one of those times.

As a side swipe on the way out, I also want to call out the distracting musical score by composer Justin Hurwitz. It's quite repetitive, and features oddly conspicuous instruments that call attention away from the action. Most confoundingly, the score makes judicious use of the Theremin, the instrument that provided the signature whine of many a black-and-white science fiction movie. Is this intentionally trying to make this film seem hokey and outdated? What on Earth (or the moon) for?

Objectively speaking, I should probably be grading this movie a C+. But the fact is, I loved the space travel sequences too much. To me, they were that impactful, that immediate, that tense, enough that the movie lands at a B in my book. But, as I said in the beginning, that's the book of someone who has always been a fan of the early age of space flight. If that's your thing too, you'll probably find enough here to be glad you went. Everyone else might want to proceed with caution.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Summer Lovin'

I've been on a reading hunt recently. Well... more of a side quest, really. I've been trying to find a good book with a gay main character that isn't the story of a closeted man coming out. I've found it a surprisingly difficult pair of boxes to check. As soon as you move a novel's "token gay character" off the periphery and into the spotlight, the plot inevitably seems to be about a slow journey to self acceptance. I want a book in which the protagonist simply is gay as a matter of course, just as every other book doesn't spend pages on having the main character "coming to accept" being straight. I peruse, read synopses, and try to find likely candidates.

Imagine my thrill when I cracked open Something Like Summer, by Jay Bell, and was greeted with this opening sentence to Chapter One: "This is not a coming-out story."

Let me say first that I did enjoy this book overall. But that said, this opening line is not entirely truthful. The story unfolds over a seven year period, following protagonist Ben Bentley from age 17. The novel is strictly limited to his point of view, and he is (as promised in that opening line) already out at the start of the story. (A rather remarkable notion for a teenager in Texas in the year 1996, the time and place the story begins.) So no, this story is not about Ben coming out.

But it is a story about Ben's interactions with two "great loves" of his life, and one of them - the one who appears in more of the book -- is very deeply closeted. As a result, much of the tapestry of this story is woven with the patterns of a coming-out tale. It is, at times, not really what I was looking for.

At other times, though, it's very much what I was looking for. The other man in Ben's life is every bit as self-actualized as he is -- and actually comes across more likeable than Ben himself. This may be because the novel, coming from Ben's point of view, let's us in on every noble and ignoble thought in his head. That leaves his love interest more closed off to the reader, and seen only through Ben's adoring lens. Of course he's going to be likeable.

With the bulk of the story set in Ben's teens, the book does often have a distinct "Young Adult Fiction" vibe. There's nothing wrong with that; I've read plenty from that category before. But it made me aware that maybe what I was originally looking for was part "not a coming-out tale" and part "not about 'kids.'" (This, of course, made me feel old.)

Still, the book was written well enough, and pulled me along at a brisk pace. The author has more in a series of these, and I've made a mental note to circle back around to one (probably after I've found the book I'm really after). I'd give Something Like Summer a B+.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Playing God

Next up on Deep Space Nine, a rather "Next Generation"-style "ship in jeopardy" story, mixed with a mediocre Dax character plot: "Playing God."

Jadzia Dax is evaluating whether a young Trill initiate is fit to be joined with a symbiont, and the process is not going well. Her charge Arjen is somehow rigid and uncertain at the same time, unready for joining in ways that recall Jadzia's own past rejection by Curzon, the previous host of her very symbiont. But Arjen may yet be able to prove himself when a crisis befalls the station: an emerging microuniverse that threatens our own with its growth. Meanwhile, efforts by our heroes to solve the problem are stymied by an infestation of Cardassian voles.

This is a bit of a schizophrenic episode that doesn't quite come together. For the second episode in a row, three different plots are presented (though they're interwoven a bit this time). The problem, apparently, was that there wasn't really agreement on what was the primary story here. Outside writer Jim Trombetta was taken with the "protouniverse" aspect, and the ethical dilemma of whether to destroy it to save our own. Showrunner Michael Piller felt that wasn't where the meat of the story was, and did a last minute rewrite attempting to elevate the Dax plot line.

Piller was at least right in this: there's little tension in the protouniverse story, because every Star Trek viewer is going to know that high-minded Starfleet ideals won't allow our heroes to destroy other life to save their own. Transparent though the conceit is, it does at least provide the opportunity to explore how the non-Starfleet characters feel here. (Ever pragmatic Kira notes that it's "us or them," and not a hard call. Odo speaks from personal experience when he says you can't destroy life just because you don't understand it.)

Still, the episode misses other opportunities that might have been fruitful: having life inside the protouniverse reach out and solve the problem, for instance. And the finale is quite unsatisfying; our heroes unheroically dump the problem on the other side of the wormhole where one can only assume it will one day become someone else's problem.

Piller was also right that, in theory, a deeper dive into one of the main characters is a stronger place to focus an episode. But neither of the two basic conflicts involving Dax are especially compelling. The internal one is an inauthentic arc, as Jadzia has long since joined with Dax and thus should already have reached some kind of acceptance with Curzon's behavior toward her. That, or if Jadzia really has unresolved issues there, show us a story that engages more directly with her past host. (A late season three episode would do exactly that.)

The external conflict is even less satisfying, because it's all about Arjen, who isn't a particularly interesting or consistent character. Or at least, you have to read a lot into him to make him one. Over the course of the episode, we learn that he's only really after joining under pressure from his family. Still, he really wants it, so unless he's self-sabotaging, he should be too smart to fall for any of Jadzia's tricks. Clearly, she comes on extra loose and playful with Arjen to get a rise out of him, to get him to drop his guard and see if he's really mature enough to be a host. You would think after a lifetime of delicately saying whatever his parents want to hear, he'd be able to go a day or two telling his "field docent" Dax whatever she wants to hear. Or at least without blowing his stack on her.

It's a Dax episode overall, but another character it's surprisingly good for is Quark. Armin Shimerman gets great physical comedy both small (giving us that fun Ferengi "pleading gesture") and large (his massive reaction when O'Brien accidentally hits him with the sonic generator). He's also hilarious in the scene where he tries to give bartenderly advice to Arjen, a blunt "sometimes you only get one shot, and you blew yours."

Other observations:
  • I mentioned earlier that the episode has a third subplot. But I'm not so sure the "vole eradication" thread is really a full-fledged storyline or just the Macguffin to facilitate jeopardy from the protouniverse.
  • The operatic owner of the Klingon restaurant makes his final appearance on the series here. The notion that Dax taught him a song was clearly an inspiring tidbit for the writers, who would quickly lean into Dax's connections with Klingons.
  • Less a subplot and more a one-off scene, we learn that Jake is in love with a dabo girl and his dad isn't ready to handle it yet. This too is an idea the writers would explore, early in season three.
  • Actor Richard Poe makes his first Star Trek appearance in this episode. Here, his Cardassian is unnamed, but later he would become Gul Evek, and appear not only in more Deep Space Nine episodes, but on two Next Generations and one Voyager too.
Dax may be an inherently fascinating character, but thus far the episodes about her haven't lived up to that promise. I give "Playing God" a C+.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Bullet Train (of Thought)

Some time ago, I jumped in and read book 7 of an open-ended thriller series because I was intrigued by its "perfect murder in Yellowstone National Park" premise. Now I've gone and read book 8... of a completely different ongoing series, for similar reasons.

A good friend recommended to me The Third Bullet, from the Bob Lee Swagger books by author Stephen Hunter. The recommendation came with the assurance that I wouldn't need to check out any of the preceding seven books, and so I didn't. I didn't even know until I was well into the book that the main character actually could have been knowable to me: Mark Wahlberg played him in the 2007 movie Shooter, while Ryan Phillipe portrayed him in the just-cancelled three-season TV series of the same name. (I haven't seen any of that, but there's a chance I could have.)

Swagger is a retired Marine sniper who gets into adventures that center around guns and marksmanship. But The Third Bullet wasn't recommended to me with the expectation that I'd be drawn to any of that. It was for the intriguing premise of this particular story, built around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This was no mad Grassy Knoll fever dream built around a "magic bullet"; this was a more considered fiction woven by a man steeped in ballistics and marksmanship, who actually ruminated for two decades about having his fictional hero "solve the JFK assassination."

The plotting is actually extremely clever. Hunter isn't really spinning a 100%-new conspiracy; by this point, it would be hard to pitch something credible that countless others hadn't already considered. Still, if you're going to ride for a theory of the case other than the official Warren Commission answer, this is a good one that seems plausible, at least as Hunter writes it. (Without spoiling details, the theory is alluded to in the title -- that the third bullet, the final shot and not the second "magic" bullet, is the most illuminating of the truth.)

I found Hunter's premise considerably better than his writing, however. I found the book to be too drawn out and slow paced, and it isn't until a third of the way in that it becomes really engaging. That's because he changes up his writing technique one-third of the way in. After following Swagger in a conventional third person style for many meandering chapters (including a pointless trip to Russia), out of nowhere comes a chapter written in first person, a memoir from the man who orchestrated JFK's assassination. From there on, the book alternates chapters: third person of Swagger on the hunt with first person memoir excerpts from the "true killer." The Swagger stuff isn't terrible, but it certainly comes off that way alongside the more compelling confession.

I suppose you have to take my opinion with a healthy dose of salt. (A proverbial "grain" probably isn't enough.) I didn't read any of the previous seven Bob Lee Swagger books. I had no investment in that character, and hence that part of the book. Stephen Hunter, rightly perhaps, spends little time "developing" an already amply-developed character. So this may not be a fair criticism: but I'd much rather the book be stand-alone. Indeed, I think you could almost read it that way. I believe if you read only the "memoir" chapters, you'd not only get the best parts of the book, it would hold together quite coherently until it catches up to "present day" near the very end.

Indeed, that's probably what I'd recommend -- because I found The Third Bullet to be an A-grade book shuffled together with a D-grade one. I wouldn't quite average them in the middle, either, given the hefty total page count, and how long it takes before the best part begins. Overall, I'd give The Third Bullet a C+. If you're a fan of JFK conspiracies, you might check it out. (Most of it, anyway.) If you're a fan of Bob Lee Swagger (or Stephen Hunter), I'd be curious to know how it comes off to you. Everyone else, though, should probably steer clear.