Monday, July 24, 2017

Stormborn

Last week's episode of Game of Thrones was solid and entertaining, so it's a mischaracterization to say of this week: "that's more like it." Still, this was more like what I was expecting of each episode in this shortened season -- crammed to bursting with Momentous Stuff. When I say that, I'm not just referring to the high octane action at the end of the hour. Even more momentous, for those of us who have been on this ride for years, was seeing characters begin to interact who have been separated for seasons -- or in many cases, who have never met at all.

The scenes at Dragonstone, for instance, were all planning and dialogue, but they contained a number of important meetings. Varys had to use his silver tongue to explain his shifting loyalties to Daenerys, and acquitted himself (literally) in charming fashion. Then Melisandre made her introduction to Dany (and her return to Dragonstone). Next came a big war council that put all her allies together in a room for the first time, and served us another of wonderful confections that is a scene with Lady Olenna.

Jon Snow and Littlefinger also had their first real conversation. I've heard it said that the real "game of thrones" in this story is a big proxy war between Littlefinger and Varys. If so, it certainly seemed after this scene that Littlefinger is going to come out the loser in that war. Not that Jon came out looking great either. He continues to be easily baited, not only in this scene, but in his insistence on traveling to Dragonstone despite all his advisors telling him not to go. We know that Dany likely doesn't mean him harm... but that all depends on how stubborn Jon ends up being. (And we all know how stubborn he usually is.)

I appreciated that time was found in the midst of everything to give us a long scene between Missandei and Grey Worm. As a character, Daenerys casts a long shadow, and those two have always been hidden in it. On some level, this scene really drove home that Missandei and Grey Worm have been freed of slavery and now have agency of their own. They deserve long scene on screen, just the two of them, that has nothing to do with the queen they both serve.

Lest we think that Cersei is surrounded and screwed at this point, we got a dramatic display of potential dragon-killing tech. I still wouldn't bet on her in the long run, but it's nice to see the sides evened up a bit.

Samwell seems to be the vehicle this season for the most unsettling scenes on the show -- and the most disgusting edits. His greyscale "surgery" on Jorah was appropriately squirm-inducing, and capped off with more visceral editing in the style of last week's montage. Jorah still has a role to play in this story, we're being told. (And if George R.R. Martin ever manages to finish the tale his way in his books, it will potentially be a quite different role, as "show Jorah" has by this point become a fusion of two different book characters.)

Speaking of the books, a few long lost threads from those pages were picked up this week. The prophecy of the "Prince Who Was Promised" has been mentioned without much emphasis in the show. Meanwhile, it has come across in the book as very portentous, with a few competing theories bandied about by the fans. The show brought one of those into play this week, by suggesting that poor translation could mean it's Daenerys. The show may not be called "A Song of Ice and Fire" like the books, but it's hard to imagine it could actually conclude the story without getting into that title and what it means; this week seemed to be a first step in that.

The return of Nymeria also felt to me like something more meaningful for readers than viewers. Arya's direwolf hasn't been seen since season one, but mentions of her crop up in every book. George R.R. Martin has been teasing a link between Arya and Nymeria, suggesting a lesser version of what Bran had with Summer. The show has (wisely, I think) lifted that out and made Bran more special and unique in doing so, but the fact remains that Nymeria is still out there running wild and presumably serving some narrative purpose. Here, it was an important reunion with Arya, serving as an omen to steer her onto the right path. (That reunion came, of course, after an earlier and purely fun reunion with Hot Pie).

The episode concluded in a massive action sequence sure to be a highlight of watercooler discussion: Greyjoy vs. Greyjoy. The thinning of the Sand Snakes from the story. The capture of Ellaria (and presumably, Yara). Burning ships lighting up the night. Huge explosions. And PTSD-addled Theon, unable to deal with any of it, abandoning ship and his sister both. I thought it appropriate for his character that the ounce of courage he found in helping Sansa escape Ramsay Bolton was not long-lasting. And yet, one would expect that somewhere down the road, he'll have a chance to find courage again.

Another great episode. I'd mark it an A-.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Sixth Element? Maybe the Third, at Best.

To be fair, I was unreasonably excited to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A new, over-the-top science fiction movie from Luc Besson, the man who gave us The Fifth Element? Sign me up! But unfortunately, Valerian is no Fifth Element.

Based on the French comics Valérian and Laureline, this new movie is set in the 28th century, principally aboard a giant interstellar station that's home to a variety of humans and aliens. It's a setting that lends itself to more of the gonzo visuals that made The Fifth Element so distinct. It's what Luc Besson might have done then if he'd had modern visual effects technology and a $200 million budget. (And, remarkably, Besson raised this money through crowd sourcing and self-financing. Valerian is the most expensive independent film ever made.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that this movie looks amazing. Frame after frame is a work of art unto itself. There's more to take in than you could possibly appreciate in one viewing. It's dense, loud, colorful, and generally awesome. The action sequences are wonderful -- especially an early one that unfolds in two parallel dimensions simultaneously. Even in the moments where you know that not one thing you're seeing on screen actually exists anywhere outside of a computer hard drive, it's a fun and compelling world in which to tell a story.

That story, or at least the way its told, leaves much to be desired.

Unlike The Fifth Element, which trusts the audience to make sense of and accept what its seeing, Valerian feels the need to explain a lot of what's going on. Most of this exposition is quite inelegantly shoehorned into the script, and a fair amount of it isn't necessary. (A sequence in which a computer explains the geopolitical landscape of the space station's inhabitants to two characters who know it already is especially painful.)

Meanwhile, other aspects of the film really could have used more context. It seems the main characters, Valerian and Laureline, are military officers of some kind. But it's a wholly disorganized military where every operation is lone wolf, there's no respect for rank or command structure, independent criminals are hired to help, and there's zero regard for collateral damage and civilian casualties. The heroes are too sloppy to seem good at their job, and the military in general is too haphazard for them to seem roguishly counter to authority.

And yet, I suspect this movie could have been made with exactly this script, incoherence and flaws and all, and still been quite enjoyable had it just been cast better. There are a few gems way down the call sheet. Ethan Hawke hams it up to great effect as a creepy pimp. Rihanna is well-placed as a shapeshifting dancer. There are fun cameos from Rutger Hauer and John Goodman (voicing a CG character).

But the top line cast sucks. As Valerian, Dane DeHaan comes off smarmy and insufferable when he should be irreverent and charming. As Laureline, Cara Delevingne is mostly wooden and occasionally grating when she should be cunning and witty. And their chemistry with each other is somehow worse than the sum of the parts; the two seem made for each other only in that you'd never wish them on anyone else.

It's impossible to watch the movie and not try to imagine Fifth Element-era Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in the roles. (Along with Gary Oldman replacing the one-note Clive Owen as the station's military commander.) Luc Besson was clearly trying to put the same heroic types here, a pair of unflappable badass rogues. DeHaan and Delevingne pretty much sink the movie (and seem far too young for their characters, to boot). Even not wishing you could cast from other decades, you could come up with plenty of actors that would have worked better here: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Lawrence, Keri Russell, just to name ones that immediately come to mind. I guess they went with cheap stars so they could put the money elsewhere. At least you can see the "elsewhere" on screen.

If you're going to see this movie at all, you should do it now. It's the sort of movie that deserves to be seen in a theater, on as big a screen as possible. But if you let that chance slide (and I couldn't blame you), don't bother to catch up with it later at home. It's just not worth it. Watch The Fifth Element one more time instead. I give Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a C-.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Beyond the Rainbow

I'm just a hair too old to have been squarely in the demographic for Reading Rainbow. Still, I'm well aware there are a lot of people out there who know LeVar Burton not as Geordi from Star Trek, but as the host of a beloved childrens' show. Burton gets interviewed about both in perhaps equal measure, and he has said one of the most common questions he gets is: "when are you going to do a Reading Rainbow for adults?"

Now.

LeVar Burton has launched a new podcast, simply and appropriately titled "LeVar Burton Reads." To you. Short stories. Of his choosing. If you're into audiobooks, it's exactly like that, with each episode typically running 30 to 45 minutes. Each episode is also fully produced like many audiobooks are, complete with sound effects and music.

He's only a half dozen episodes in, but he's already established that he means to hop around to different genres -- this is not "LeVar Burton plays exclusively to his science fiction typecasting." That variety seems like a welcome thing to me; you never know quite what you're going to get from the podcast. Well, aside from an entertaining story performed entertainingly.

I don't know much more I can say. Either that's enough for you to be as enthusiastically on board for this, ahem, enterprise as I was, or it's probably not for you. But given the typical reader of my blog, I have to think for most of you, it will be the former. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the show will hold up over the long haul. And I suppose the occasional episode won't quite satisfy just because the story of the week doesn't. But at the moment, it's hard not to place this among my favorite podcasts.

Take a look! Er, listen. It's in a book! Er, podcast.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Robot Roll Call!

The Paramount Theater in Denver is a fiery inferno, a venue that has seemingly never known the touch of an air conditioner. It takes a special event for me to consider going there. Yet that's exactly what I had last night in Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live.

The classic "riffing on bad movies" series returned to Netflix earlier this year (thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign). I'm savoring those new episodes, I suppose, as I've only watched one so far. But it was as hilarious as the show ever was, and when a friend suggested we go see this live tour, I was all in.

The new cast and series creator Joel Hodgson are taking their shtick on the road across the U.S. summer, putting in their cross hairs one of the best (worst) movies ever covered on MST3K: the 1962 horror(?) nonsense that is Eegah. (A giant caveman in discovered in the California mountains, leading to lots of singing, dune buggy driving, and shaving. Seriously.)

I didn't know the tour would be featuring a movie that the show had already mocked... not that it would have kept me from going. Nor should it have, because they've crafted an entirely new show from top to bottom with all new jokes. Eegah is just so bad that you couldn't possibly say everything about it in one sitting.

MST3K is a show that's usually funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times an episode even when I'm just watching alone at home. So the experience is amped that much more to see it with a big audience. The laughs just kept coming, almost non-stop. New pop culture references (that didn't exist with MST3K first covered the movie), lame puns delivered with a Statler and Waldorf guffaw, running gags, razor-sharp zingers... this live show had it all. I've never laughed as much at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I've laughed at it a lot.

I probably won't be able to savor those new Netflix episodes as carefully now after this; I want to start watching them as fast as possible. If the MST3K Live show is coming to your city, do yourself a favor and get tickets!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lucky 13

A big splash was made in geek circles this past weekend, and the ripples are still kicking about -- the 13th Doctor was revealed for the next season of Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker.

The trolls came out from under their bridges to decry the casting of a woman in the role of the Doctor. This criticism was widely and thoroughly mocked: "oh, a shape-changing alien who travels through time in a phone booth that's larger on the inside makes perfect sense, but that one of those shapes would be female is where you draw the line?" The Trekkers rushed to point out that they had a female star of a TV show more than two decades earlier.

I'm all for the progressive selection here, and I recognize the inherent importance of it. I could veer off into an entirely different post about the value of representation and diversity in pop culture, though I expect that's ground my readers understand quite well. As a casual-at-best Doctor Who viewer, I'm excited mainly for other reasons.

First, having quite possibly told every story one could tell in the 50+ year history of the series, why not open up a new avenue of storytelling in putting a female authority figure at the center of it all? I haven't even watched every episode of the reboot, much less made an effort to track down the still-available originals, and it was honestly feeling a bit stagnant to me. (More on that in a moment.) But the potential for a complete overhaul is inherent in the regeneration concept; this new change makes use of that more effectively than any previous re-casting of the Doctor.

Second, I'm actually excited by this particular casting choice. Jodie Whittaker is quite simply phenomenal on the series Broadchurch. If you've never watched that show, it's enough to know that she can break your heart and hollow you out with the depth of feeling she can convey. I'd probably give a chance to any show she was on; the possibility that she might actually pull me more into Doctor Who is a bonus.

Third, the next season of Doctor Who won't just be the first for Whittaker, it will be the first for a new show runner, Chris Chibnall. That name won't mean anything to most people, but he's actually the creator and show runner of the aforementioned Broadchurch. (So in retrospect, it should have been obvious to bet heavily on Whittaker landing the role of the Doctor.)

To be blunt, I find current Doctor Who rather impenetrable. I've watched none of the most recent season yet (partly for lack of enthusiasm), but having jumped on starting with Matt Smith and watching every episode since, I still feel that most episodes feature back story, continuity, and fan service that makes absolutely no sense to me. And it has been made abundantly clear that that's how they want it. So I cheer for the arrival of Chibnall, who in Broadchurch made the most moving detective drama of the past decade. I want to see him apply the emotional centering he found within the "police procedural" format to a science fiction format. And he'll be able to write for a star he's worked with before, to her considerable abilities and strengths, which he already knows well.

In sum, there's practically the potential for an entirely new show here. So much so that I suppose one could charitably forgive a small handful of the trolls as being legitimately concerned that the thing they love might be going away. A small handful of the trolls. Maybe.

I for one can say that I've never felt more interest in Doctor Who -- ever -- than I do right now.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dragonstone

There was a lot of geek news over the weekend, but of course, everyone's tongues will be wagging this morning over the premiere of season seven of Game of Thrones. As usual with the series' season openers, it was a mostly low-key affair, all about setting up the episodes to come. But it was neither boring nor uneventful.

Things started off by putting the "cold" in "cold open," as we saw Arya polish off her business with the Freys from the end of last season. The placement of this scene right at the top served a few purposes, I imagine. First, it was pure fun, fan service to draw the audience in immediately. Second, by positioning it before the credits, they might have briefly deceived a few viewers into thinking it a flashback to times before Walder's death.

I do wonder if the scene serves a larger role in the plot to come. Before now, the idea that Face Changing allows one to become an actual, known person hasn't come up (HBO marketing campaigns not withstanding). We've seen the power used to assume random, unknown identities. This new wrinkle suggests a path by which Arya might actually accomplish the goal she shared with Ed Sheeran's not-so-merry men: to kill Queen Cersei. (That said, the foreshadowing in the books has been pretty clear on how Cersei will meet her end. Though I suppose the notion of "familiar face changing" throws a wrinkle in that too.)

Up at Winterfell, we got a little political friction between Sansa and Jon, though the conflict for the moment has reached an amicable resolution. We also got the most spectacular telling-off of Littlefinger (saving the writers of actually having to think of another clever line for him), and more of many people's favorite new character in the entire show: Lyanna Mormont. (We also got a brief check-in with Bran farther North still, but nothing more than his arrival at Castle Black.)

In King's Landing, scenes pointedly laid out how vulnerable a position Cersei now finds herself in. She's most dangerous when cornered, though, and her tenuous alliance with Euron Greyjoy could prove interesting. Euron will certainly be a force purely as a character this season, as his one scene this week said more about who he is than anything we've seen so far. (Sorry, but murdering family members just isn't enough on its own to establish an identity in this show.)

The Hound had a few heavy scenes in which he was forced to reckon with his own actions from earlier days. He came upon the farmer and daughter he left for dead after taking their silver (back during the Hound/Arya road trip), to find that death had indeed claimed them. With so many larger stakes in the story now, it was nice that the show found a moment to show that even smaller choices have consequences. Of course, there was also the larger revelation that the Hound is able to perceive quite detailed visions in the flames from the Lord of Light.

We got the most ghastly montage in the history of the show, courtesy of the prop department and the editors. The juxtaposition of brimming bedpans and unappetizing stew was enough to send stock in Campbell's diving for weeks. It also demonstrated that Sam's dream of studying in Oldtown was nothing like what he'd hoped for. But through a little disobedience, he did find one bit of valuable information to send back to Jon -- there's glass in them there hills. Dragonglass, under Dragonstone, to be exact.

But for now, that means it'll be in the hands of Daenerys, who at the conclusion of the episode had arrived at her family home for the first time. It was a quiet sequence (with almost no dialogue), but the deliberate pace of it all was appropriate, given how long this moment has been in the making -- seven years on television, more than 20 in the books: Dany's arrival in Westeros.

Game of Thrones may only be back for 7 episodes this time, but we'll all savor every one. I give this first episode an A-.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Networking

I love board games. I love television. How about putting those two things together?

That's the apparent inspiration behind The Networks, a game in which every player controls a TV network trying to program three time slots over the course of five seasons (rounds). You have to acquire the shows you want to schedule, the ads you'll run during their broadcast, and the stars that will appear on them. You have to balance your expenses and your profits, all while trying to maximize the viewership that is your actual score in the game.

Up front (ha! that's TV executive lingo!) I'll say that the idea of this game is better than the game itself. It's a clever concept, and this game has abstracted the details to just the right level to convey that flavor without getting bogged down in uninteresting minutia. The best part of the flavor is the names of all the program cards, parodies of popular TV series (or of the ideas of the garbage that somehow makes it on the air).

As for the gameplay itself? It's hard to imagine it being that enduring. It does incorporate a lot of the Eurogame staples -- picking from available actions before your opponents can take them, resource management, incentives to focus on certain options and exclude others. It's not mindless. But there's also something about it that just doesn't feel that sophisticated. Or rather, it's more that it doesn't feel like it's putting any of its established mechanisms together in a novel way.

Still, I do feel there's a chance my perceptions are off here. I'm just not sure which way it goes. Does the humor element make me perceive less in this game than is actually there -- would I appreciate it more as the laughs wore off over time? Or is the humor so central to the appeal here that I'd lose interest in the game entirely as the jokes became worn and familiar? I suspect the latter, though I can't completely discount the possibility of the former.

I'll probably never find out. My group doesn't get together to game as often as we once did, and only the true favorites get a lot of replays now. Most new games get a couple plays before some new hotness arrives on the scene. The Networks has been fun enough for a few game nights so far, but it doesn't seem like it will be around for the long haul. I think I'd grade it a B-, maybe a B. You could do worse, but you could certainly do better too.