Friday, August 31, 2012

Music for the Hunt

A few months back, I wrote about going back to watch the movie Predator again for the first time in a long while. In my review, I wrote that the "real star" of the movie was the musical score, composed by Alan Silvestri. Actually, if the music were a star, it would be a reclusive one that hides alone in its mansion.

At the time Predator was originally released, Alan Silvestri wasn't a big enough name in the composing world to guarantee the release of his score in soundtrack form. Even the album released for his most recognized work, Back to the Future, featured only a brief suite of his score for the film, with the majority of the album devoted to Huey Lewis and the News, 50s standards, and other source music from the film. So despite the quality of Silvestri's work on Predator, there was no soundtrack album.

Years later, after the success of a few other Silvestri soundtrack albums (most notably, The Abyss), a record company took a chance, went back, and did a release of Predator. But as they were uncertain just how many people -- even film fans -- would be interested in music from a then years-old movie, they did a very short print run. And thus, that soundtrack went on to be an e-Bay darling, routinely fetching $100 for anyone lucky enough to have one... and foolish enough to part with it.

But finally -- and fairly recently -- the music has been made available again. Intrada, the same soundtrack company that recognized Silvestri's greatness by finally releasing a complete Back to the Future score, has released a complete Predator soundtrack. It's every piece of music as it appeared in the film, and is a fantastic treat for the ears.

Most movie scores, by design, are crafted to fade at least somewhat into the background. They have their bombastic moments, then recede as dictated by the action. Predator breaks this mold in two regards.

First, there really aren't any "tender moments" in the film. About the closest you get is the weird biceps-flexing handshake/wrestle when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers first meet. And because there's no quiet drama in the film, there's none in the music either. It's an entire album of suspense cues and action cues, the type of music that builds your energy (and makes you drive a little faster when you listen to it in the car).

Second, even in the average action film, music is often crafted to be subservient to dialogue. The orchestra will find a dramatic rhythm... and then fall into it for a few measures. But the entire finale of the movie Predator plays with virtually no dialogue. It's mano-a-creaturo, the two simply trying to kill each other in a 20-minute sequence that has only two spoken lines. (Three if you count Arnold's primal scream.) And so Silvestri's soundtrack concludes with 20 minutes of pulse-pounding action and nerve-rattling suspense, all meant to play front and center and command the listener's full attention.

In short, this soundtrack album is in heavy rotation on my stereo these days, one of my favorites I've acquired this year. Pounding piano in the bass registers, booming percussion laced with oddly tribal overtones, loud brass... this is aggressive, adventurous music. I rate the soundtrack an A-. (And honestly, I may only have thrown the "minus" on there because in my mind, great though it is, it's still not as good as the Back to the Future score.) It's a must have for a soundtrack enthusiast.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gay Rights in the U.S. -- Employment Discrimination

As I recently explained, I'm going to be doing a series of posts detailing the current status of LGBT rights in the United States. First off, I want to focus on the issue of employment discrimination.

Almost everybody is aware that there are laws that prohibit employment discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, age, religion, and more. You can't make a hiring decision or terminate someone's employment solely on any of those criteria. Because these laws are so commonplace and cover such a wide variety of things, I've found that a lot of people assume that similar laws are in place covering sexual orientation. But the truth is, it's roughly a coin flip as to whether that's true, and depends very much upon where you live.

At the federal level, there are only a few protections offered to limited groups of government employees -- and these were established only by executive order. This handful of protections could be hypothetically withdrawn at any time by an unsympathetic president. As for offering national protection against such discrimination, no such law exists.

Some states have implemented laws protecting against employment discrimination on their own, but it's a decidedly mixed bag. Some states have protections on the basis of orientation, but no protections for the transgendered. Some states have protections in public sector jobs, but not for private sector jobs. Only 16 states (and D.C.) offer complete protections. 19 states have no protective laws on their books at all.

The bottom line of all this is that in a large number of states (and in private sector jobs in nearly a dozen more), LGBT individuals who have chosen to be open in their personal lives must still remain closely guarded in their professional lives, or be at risk. If an employee in one of these states is discovered to be gay, he could be fired without further reason and without recourse. He could in fact be told directly that he's being fired because he is gay, and be powerless to stop it.

There is a bill proposed in Congress to address the situation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (or ENDA). This law would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees. But don't hold your breath waiting for it to pass. The original version of ENDA was proposed in 1994, and has been raised in virtually every Congress since then. It has never had anywhere close to the number of "co-sponsors" (lawmakers pledging to vote yes) needed to pass it, and so it has rarely ever even been brought up for a vote.

In the current House, the issue has 165 sponsors. A majority vote of 218 representatives (out of 435) is needed to pass the issue there. In the Senate, there are 42 sponsors. In theory, a majority vote of 51 out of 100 (or 50, plus the vote of the sitting Vice President) is needed to pass a law there. In practice, however, the modern Senate regularly embraces the legislative tactic of the filibuster. Senate policy allows any senator to move to extend debate on a topic indefinitely and deny a vote, and it requires 60 votes -- not 50 -- to invoke "cloture" and force the measure to be voted on. The practical result of this is that to pass a law in today's Senate requires 60 votes out of 100, not 50. In short, ENDA -- the best hope for protection for the gay Americans living in "the wrong half of the country" -- is nowhere close to passage.

An alternative path might rest in a Supreme Court ruling that acknowledged LGBTs as a protected class worthy of heightened scrutiny in lawmaking, but things are murky in the Supreme Court as it stands today (a subject I'll elaborate on more fully in a future post).

The fear of employment discrimination is a particularly insidious form of oppression for many LGBTs. Even in situations where an employer may be sympathetic (despite an absence of a protective law), the uncertainty still remains, forcing many people to choose between living openly or protecting their jobs. For those living completely closeted lives, it can even be additional pressure not to come out to anyone, including friends and family, as it's much easier to live one life (even if it's a lie) than to try to maintain two completely separate ones.

Employment discrimination is a matter easily overlooked next to the more headline catching issue of marriage equality, but is nevertheless a significant issue.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gay Rights in the U.S. -- Introduction

Over the past few months, I've had a few lengthy discussions with different friends on separate occasions, going into great detail about the status of LGBT rights in the United States. In each case, it seemed that my friends, though supportive, weren't necessarily informed; people seemed surprised to learn just what the real situation is. And I for my part was somewhat surprised to find out what my friends didn't know.

But in having the same discussions several times, it made me stop and think. It made me realize that, of course, there's really no reason for a straight friend to be truly aware of gay issues; they aren't things with the potential to affect his or her daily life.

I do understand that equality for the LGBT community isn't a top priority for everyone. But the mathematics of it are stark and simple -- there aren't that many of us. (Most studies estimate that we make up around 3.5% of the population.) If we're the only ones who truly make LGBT rights a priority, the only ones out there taking steps to change things, we'll never be enough to make the difference. To bring about change, we have to encourage as many of our friends and family as possible to at least bump our issues a little higher up on their lists.

So as I said, I've been having conversations with friends, and it has made me realize that the "lower interest" that I might have in some cases mistaken for a lack of caring was really just about a lack of knowledge. And I think that may in part stem from the fact that my accepting friends and family have, in their minds, already moved on. My differences simply are not an issue to them (in the good way), and so it's easy to forget that they are still a very big issue in the world at large (in the bad way).

All this in turn made me think that I really ought to have a similar conversation with everyone I know and let everyone know where things really stand. While I'd be more than happy to do that at length with each and every person I know, one on one, I thought maybe it would be good to devote a few posts here on the blog to the subject as well.

There's a lot to cover, enough that I'm sure no one would read a single massive post that detailed everything. So I'm going to break it up in pieces (and space it out over a few weeks with my normal lightweight content, so as not to get everybody -- myself included -- majorly depressed for days on end).

So look for this series in the days ahead. And thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bourne Again

This past weekend, I caught the new spin-off/sequel in the Jason Bourne franchise, The Bourne Legacy. Continuing in the same universe as the visceral spy-assassin trilogy starring Matt Damon, this movie transfers the narrative to a new enhanced killer played by rising star Jeremy Renner. Government officials have decided to erase the entire program of which Jason Bourne was a part, and now a new operative, Aaron Cross, is running for his life.

The film is not quite as good as the three preceding it, but it's still a fun ride. It's also incredibly consistent with what has come before... perhaps even to a fault, at times. Some of the early sequences in the film exist only to anchor where and when all this new action is happening in relation to events from the second and third films. And the plot itself follows an arc quite similar to that of the first film.

It's tough to say what I really might have asked for from the plot. On the one hand, changing focus to another spy in the program could have been the opportunity to broaden the scope of the storytelling. We could have seen actual missions, events of larger global stakes. But then, this ultimately isn't an American James Bond. The Bourne movies have all been marked by incredibly personal stakes, and have simply been about one man struggling to survive.

And so it is that the new movie puts this new character on the run. The problems of navigating around the world with few resources are familiar. The types of action sequences he gets tangled up in are also familiar. They're certainly well done in this movie; the pulse-pounding motorcycle chase that caps the film, for example, is an extended visceral thrill. But even as it wows, there's a bit of an undercurrent of "seen it before."

But if there are any shortcomings in the film, they lie in the script, not in the cast. Jeremy Renner is a great lead. If you didn't want to see a Hawkeye movie after watching The Avengers, I think this movie might persuade you. Rachel Weisz is a good companion/foil for him, realistically weak, but also realistically strong when the scene calls for it. Edward Norton is also fun; his part may be one of the least nuanced things he's ever done on film, but he clearly has fun playing a no-nuance bad guy.

This may not be one to run out to the theater to see, but it's worth checking out later on video if you like action thrillers. I grade it a B-.

Monday, August 27, 2012

This Book Will Change Your Life

The hottest ticket in Denver right now is The Book of Mormon, the Tony Award winning musical which has opened up its national tour right here. Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park) and Robert Lopez (of Avenue Q), this musical tells the story of two eager young Mormons sent on their mission... to a poor village in Uganda. And of course, because it comes from these three, it's filled to bursting with satire, profanity, and clever social commentary.

I got to go to last Saturday night's performance, and had a wonderful night at the theater. The Book of Mormon is riotously funny, with jokes both crass and clever, smart and swift lyrical wordplay, and loads of outrageous sight gags. Ultimately, I was glad to have heard the soundtrack album before seeing the show, because the laughter from the audience was so loud and constant that I think I would have missed half the jokes otherwise.

That said, knowing the songs in advance did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for the show. There were plenty of great jokes that were all new to me, both in the dialogue and scenes between songs and the hilarious choreography for many of the dance numbers.

There were plenty of show-stoppers in the score. There were things I loved from the album, including the opening "Hello!", the wickedly subversive "Hasa Diga Eebowai", and the high octane first act finale "Man Up". There were songs that became far more on the stage than I'd ever pictured in my head listening to the album, such as "Turn It Off" and the massive stage piece "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream."

The cast was outstanding. One of the leads understudied for his role in the original Broadway production, and has stepped into the spotlight with great skill. The other was has received two Tony nominations on Broadway and has appeared on stage in London.

But there are two reasons I can't quite enthusiastically recommend the production to anyone and everyone. First, it's outrageously profane. Ultimately, I don't think the show is being insulting, but it's sure to offend plenty of people on its way to making its interesting and almost noble point at the end. Know what you're getting into.

Second, the show is nigh-impossible to actually get into right now. This opening of the national tour is only here in Denver for a few weeks before moving on, and it has been completely sold out for months in advance. Your only options to see this tour are to look to the (sky high) scalping market, or take a stab at winning the nightly ticket lottery to buy front row tickets for $25. (I hear the odds of scoring a seat are less than 2%.)

So basically, if you live in a city other than Denver, you should find out if The Book of Mormon is coming to your town, and make your plans as soon as possible. As for my Denver readers, the show is coming back here in late 2013, and the tickets are scheduled to go on sale in the spring. Look into it, and mark your calendars accordingly.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Greater Fool

The Newsroom concluded its first season tonight with a decent episode, but not the pinnacle of its run. There were several smile-on-your-face, stand-up-and-cheer kind of moments, and yet they weren't as smoothly integrated into a narrative as some of the peak episodes a few weeks ago.

There was the triumphant confrontation against Leona, where Will stood up and (apparently once and for all) secured his job. It was a particularly great scene for seeing Charlie go all-in on a complete bluff, and winning the day. But then it seemed like a bridge too far to have Leona turn around and encourage Will to go after his target with full fervor.

Which he certainly did. Will's scathing commentary on the Tea Party made me giddy with excitement, speaking as someone who politically feels that mental patients have hijacked the asylum of the Republican party. And yet, it all felt like Aaron Sorkin's most soapboxy moment yet in a season filled with soapbox moments. It was hard to see exactly how it all fueled the narrative, and barely seemed integrated with the story. I felt the catharsis of seeing someone expressing my viewpoint, but not really the catharsis of a satisfying story resolution.

Office romances ruled the episode. Will and Mackenzie's relationship took a greater role than ever before, but the dance was both satisfying and frustrating. Mackenzie's batty insistence to know "what did the message say?" -- during a live broadcast -- continued the unfortunate trend of sacrificing her character's professionalism for laughs. And yet I did find myself caring for the two to work through their problems, more than ever before.

And then there was, as always, the Don-Maggie-Jim triangle. It served up some truly funny moments, like Maggie getting splashed by the Sex and the City bus and launching into a fiery tirade. It served up some wonderfully tender moments, like Don's cute "but this key's in a box" request to move in together. But it also tangled things up even more by bringing Sloane into the mix. It seems all of this will be drawn out into the second season, so my only hope is that Sorkin continues to find these few scenes like this that are entertaining (in the midst of a subplot that I think isn't).

All of this first season of The Newsroom was written and filmed before any of it aired. My hope for season two is that Sorkin can take a step back and look more objectively at what worked and what didn't about year one. There was plenty in both columns. Hopefully, next summer can bring back a much improved series that focuses more on those good things. There were hints this season of how great the show could be, and that's a show I want to see more of.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 35-31

35. Office Space. A few years ago, when I wrote about Office Space, I gave it an A-. But putting my top 100 list together, I can't imagine what reservation I had about it that kept me from calling it an A. It is riotously funny in many different ways -- raunchy, satirical, outrageous, and familiar. Even at its most ridiculous, there's an element of almost painful truth in it. An all around fantastic comedy.

34. The American President. What a winning assemblage came together for this film. Rob Reiner directed a top notch cast that included Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfuss, and more. The script by Aaron Sorkin not only remains one of his best film efforts to date, but was essentially the inspiration that led directly to his outstanding television series, The West Wing. The film also boosts an amazing musical score by Marc Shaiman. The sweeping anthem of the main title was so inspirational and moving that countless other directors lifted it to use in their trailers for other movies, and countless other composers aped the style in subsequent years.

33. Juno. What snuck into the bottom of my top 100 list when I first saw it has only risen in my esteem since. Juno has just the right amount of realism underpinning it, but then gives in to a fun mix of very clever and very aware characters that "make you laugh and cry" in the truest sense of that old cliché. And it boasts a great cast, including Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons.

32. 12 Monkeys. This is heresy in some circles, but I really don't care for most of the Terry Gilliam films I've watched. I tend to find them weird for the sake of being weird and thoroughly preoccupied with bizarre visuals over coherent story. But the reason I'm willing to keep giving them a chance is because of how much I liked this Terry Gilliam film. 12 Monkeys is a brilliantly labyrinthine and dystopian tale with fantastic performances by Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt. Every piece perfectly fits into the whole, and the result is a wonderfully clever, deliciously dark film.

31. Serenity. Before The Avengers put Joss Whedon deservedly near the top of the heap for all-time box office success, all of us in the know had been adoring him for almost 20 years. I gushed about his ill-fated series Firefly in a full series of episode reviews, but perhaps an even greater achievement was that he convinced Universal Studios to give the show a life after death in the form of a feature film that wrapped up many of the series' dangling plot threads, and let us see all the things that made Firefly wonderful one last time. As the t-shirt says, "Joss is boss."

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Little Knight Music

When I reviewed the film The Dark Knight Rises, I made a brief mention of its musical score, composed by Hans Zimmer. While I criticized one dishonest element of it, I noted that it was a treat overall. I liked it enough, in fact, to add the soundtrack to my collection.

Christopher Nolan's two earlier Batman films were scored by the team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Both are accomplished composers that have done plenty of films separately, and (to my knowledge) have never collaborated outside of these projects. But this time around, Howard himself declined to return, leaving Zimmer to complete the trilogy alone.

Zimmer and Howard both have distinct styles, leaving little question in the mind of a careful listener which parts of the earlier scores were primarily written by which composer. But any doubt you might have about who did what would be erased by listening to The Dark Knight Rises. It's the most aggressive music of the trilogy; there's nothing here like the quieter, contemplative music from the earlier films (things like Harvey Dent's theme, or the music for Bruce and Rachel's relationship).

At the same time, the score doesn't feel wildly different; it's clearly part of the same trilogy of musical storytelling. But the turning of the dial farther in one direction, if you will, does result in a soundtrack more enjoyable to listen to outside of the film. The movie was, by a slight bit, my least favorite of the trilogy, but the music is my favorite of the three overall.

A great example of the shift can be heard in the theme Zimmer composed for Selena Kyle. It's a slinky and slightly mournful piano melody... and yet it's not truly soft like the Howard contributions to the earlier two films, but rather has a hard undertone, evidenced by the cold and insistent bass strings.

Then there's the theme for Bane. It's a savage and chilling composition, marked by a vast choral chant. Zimmer actually created his "choir" by inviting fans to record their own voices saying the words, then assembling them together to play over the recorded orchestra. The result is undeniably the best thing to listen to in the entire soundtrack, cold and harsh.

And also, a lie. I mentioned this in my film review, but chose not to go into detail at the time to avoid spoiling anything for people who hadn't seen it. I will warn anyone who still hasn't to skip the rest of this paragraph, and then spell out exactly what I mean now for the remaining music junkies. The chant used in the music is the chant of the prisoners in the pit where Bruce is trapped for the middle of the film. It's their chant to cheer on someone making an attempt to escape the pit, and we're told in the film that it means "rise." The problem is, this all clearly refers to the child who escaped the pit who, in the film's big "what a twist!" moment, is revealed to be Talia al Ghul, not Bane. So Bane's entire musical representation in the film is based on a lie.

But a lie that led to music thoroughly enjoyable when you're simply listening to the soundtrack on your stereo, separate from the film. I'll dock Zimmer some points for not finding a more clever way to match the plot, and a few more points for a handful of lackluster tracks on the soundtrack album. But overall, it's an album I'm glad to have in my collection, and that has been in heavy rotation since I saw the film. I grade it a B+.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not Praying for Rain

It was just about four years ago that the Democratic National Convention was taking place here in Denver. The bulk of the convention was held at the Pepsi Center, but Barack Obama's speech was going to draw bigger audience, and so that took place at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.

In case you're not from Denver, or in case you haven't been following the Peyton Manning watch speculating how he'll perform after leaving the domed stadium of the Colts, Mile High is an outdoor stadium.

Four years ago, Stuart Shepard, one of the voices of Focus on the Family, hoped to seize on that fact, imploring people to pray for rain that would force Obama's speech to be canceled. But you know, he prayed for God's wrath on his political opponents in a fun way. The original video has since been taken down, but a snarkily editorialized version of it is still available on YouTube:


I wrote about Shepard's first class douchebaggery four years ago, answering his disingenuous question "would it be wrong to pray for rain?" with a resounding "YES."

Well, here we are, four years later. The Republican National Convention is taking place in Florida next week, and Tropical Storm Isaac is gathering force in the Atlantic and may be headed in that very direction.

So I just want to take this opportunity to point out the difference between the kind of "Christians" that support Focus on the Family and people like me who oppose every horrible thing they stand for. I am not praying for rain here. I'm not hoping for a natural disaster to affect a day or two of the RNC (and hey... if a few million dollars in property damage and tragic loss of life happens in the process, thems the breaks).

No, I'm hoping the storm either weakens or changes course to not make landfall. I'm doing this because it's the right thing to hope for, what any decent person would hope for. Even though folks like Stuart Shepard will remain blissfully ignorant of the irony of devoting an entire night of their convention to a "We Built This!" theme, railing against government enterprise from inside a stadium built using $86 million of public funds (see the top of page 10). Even though one of the things they're all gathering to celebrate is their opposition to me having rights equal to theirs. Even though they're going to say that with my "lifestyle," I'm mounting a corrosive assault on the country's principles.

I just wish they didn't make it so damn hard (or should that be "so damn easy"?) to be a better person than they are.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Chrono-cle

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently read a science fiction book called The Chronoliths, written by Robert Charles Wilson. My friend didn't really have to push too hard to persuade me, because the premise of the book sounded quite intriguing.

In the near future, a huge crystalline monument appears in Thailand, its arrival instantly occurring in a massive distortion that causes a wave of destruction nearby. The monument turns out to be a memorial, commemorating the victory of a warlord in a significant battle -- dated 20 years in the future. And as the months roll by, more and more of these "chronoliths" start to appear from the future, spreading out from Thailand in a pattern showing the unstoppable march of this mysterious future dictator all over the world. Can this warlord be stopped before his tyranny begins, or is the appearance of his monuments a self-fulfilling prophecy that proves his inevitability?

I found the premise immensely intriguing, but when I actually read the book, I found that the execution fell a bit short. Setting aside some nitpicks (as overall, the writing was actually very readable), I'd focus on two major flaws with the story's construction.

First, the book actually unfolds over a 20 year period, following a handful of characters as time marches on from the appearance of the first chronolith to the date that monument "foretold." And I have no problem with a story that takes on that breadth and scope. The problem for me is that the book barely breaks a slight 250 pages. Perhaps I've been reading too much epic fantasy, but I associate broad scope with high page count. Instinctively, I feel that an accurate telling of 20 years of history -- even if limited to the point of view of a single primary character -- should take more pages. Essentially, this is a "future history" novel, and when it comes to history... well, look at the door stop Doris Kearns Goodwin needed to cover about that length of time in Abraham Lincoln's life.

The second issue for me is also one of narrative focus, though in a different way. The book is divided into three sections ("acts," really), and the scale of the problems differs between them. The first and third sections are very much concerned with global problems resulting from the appearance of the chonoliths, events which the main character gets swept up in. Certainly, the role of individuals in it all is important, and you are made to feel for the characters, but there seems to be a more overriding concern about life and death on a global scale. By contrast, the second act is intimate and personal. The story does use as a backdrop the appearance of one particular chronolith in this section, but the main narrative concern has to do with something extremely personal to the main character. The rest of the world around can attend to itself.

Now don't get me wrong, I think either one of these approaches is perfectly valid. If a science fiction book wants to take on massive life and death issues in an imagined future scenario, go for it. Or if it wants to imagine a future world simply to use it as an intriguing setting for what is ultimately a personal character story, that's fine too. The annals of science fiction are filled with wonderful examples of both. And even a few examples of truly gifted writers mingling the two. But that's my problem -- there's no mingling here. The book is three liquids of different densities poured into one container and ultimately separating out into Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Each section is pretty good unto itself, but tonally disconnected from the others.

That said, as I pointed out earlier, the page count here is rather small -- exceptionally so for most science fiction. And while that does work to its disadvantage on some levels, it does mean that the book is a very quick read. I basically read it all on the part of my flight back from London that I wasn't trying to nap on the plane. (Maybe four hours?) So if you, like me, find the premise fascinating, you can pick up the book for yourself and easily give it a try.

I'd grade the total package a B-. Not the best I've read, but above average at least.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Home Record

I recently watched a small film festival darling from last year that received some fair buzz: Jeff, Who Lives at Home. It's a comedy (with dramatic elements) starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms as brothers. The former is adrift at age 30, who seeks inspiration in looking for "signs" in the random occurrences around him. The latter is an embittered husband whose marriage (to a character played by Judy Greer) is falling apart. They both get caught up in an adventure together on the same day their mother (Susan Sarandon) has some spice thrown into her dull office job by a secret admirer who instant messages her.

The script, written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, walks an interesting line of being simple without being simplistic. There are some clever ideas interwoven here, but not too tightly. The movie strikes a pleasant tone, dealing with some very strong emotions and subjects without presuming to offer anything truly profound as commentary. Instead, the film just presents some intriguingly realistic characters, and invites us to tag along with them for a particularly momentous day of change in their lives.

The movie probably could have gone either way, but the superb cast is definitely what makes it fall the right way. Anyone who has watched How I Met Your Mother regularly will be aware that while Jason Segel is of course very funny, he also is gifted at more serious, dramatic moments. He gets to show both of those skills in this movie as the sentimental spine of the piece. Ed Helms has made a personal industry of playing an anger-possessed character who is nonetheless sympathetic, and does it well again here.

Susan Sarandon plays the most serious storyline of the film, really making you feel the plight of a woman who has convinced herself she's become too old for love. Judy Greer is phenomenal in several tense scenes with Helms.

I loved the way the movie all tied together, but hung a lantern on the entire concept to deflate the pretentiousness from it. It made it possible for the movie to be funny, first and foremost. And it was that. I was ultimately quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this short and simple little film. I grade it an A-, and give it a strong recommendation.

Monday, August 20, 2012

8 is Great

The fight to achieve marriage equality for gays and lesbians is going on in many different venues. One of the more well known struggles is the legal battle to overturn Proposition 8, the 2008 ban on gay marriage passed in California. Proposition 8 gained notoriety mainly for two reasons: it was passed in the most populated state in the United States; and it's the only time where a state that was already permitting same-sex marriages turned around and banned them.

There are many ways that a person interested in learning more about Proposition 8 can do so. I've mentioned one here on the blog, the documentary film 8: The Mormon Proposition (though I noted in my review that it was less about making the case for justice than it was about exposing the involvement of the Mormon church in passing the ban).

When Proposition 8 was challenged at the lowest level in court, the judge on the case, Vaughn Walker, intended to create another means that people could see all the facts about the law -- he wanted to make all video of the trial available on YouTube. But the defenders of the anti-equality proposition filed an emergency motion with the Supreme Court, who ruled (5 to 4) that footage of the trial would not be made publicly available.

Transcripts of a trial, however, are readily available from any court, to any person who wants to wants to read them. And the group funding the lawsuit against Prop 8, the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), has made those transcripts available on their web site.

Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film Milk, decided to do something with those transcripts to push the case to a wider audience. He wrote a 90-minute play, "8: The Play", which takes the most compelling sections of that testimony and presents them on stage.

One early staged reading of the play, directed by Rob Reiner, was presented in L.A. in March of this year by a star-studded cast. Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, George Clooney, Kevin Bacon, Christine Lahti, Jamie Lee Curtis, Matt Bomer, Matthew Morrison, Yeardley Smith, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Chris Colfer, John C. Reilly, George Takei, Jane Lynch, and more assembled for a single performance of the play. And that performance was made available in the way the trial itself was originally intended: the entire performance can be viewed on YouTube.

The performance is deeply moving and truly powerful. Brad Pitt is wonderfully sharp as Judge Walker. John C. Reilly is brilliantly funny as the chief witness of those defending the law. Christine Lahti and Jamie Lee Curtis are amazing and sympathetic as one of the two couples bringing the lawsuit. Jane Lynch gets the audience in stitches as the president of a major organization opposing marriage equality. Chris Colfer serves up one of the most heart-breaking scenes of the piece as a witness questioned about "reversal therapy."

But Martin Sheen shines above them all. He plays one of the two main lawyers prosecuting the case to strike down the law. The play culminates in a three-minute monologue taken from the closing arguments of the trial, and he delivers it with such passion and compassion, such fire and justice, the audience springs to its feet afterward with a deafening standing ovation that seemingly runs as long as the speech itself.

Not only can you watch the play on YouTube (which I highly recommend), you can also purchase an audio recording, either in CD or MP3 format. And proceeds from the recording fund AFER and its efforts in support of marriage equality.

AFER is also making the play available for limited staged readings all over the country. They offer it free of charge, asking only that a portion of any profits be donated to AFER. And performances are happening all over the country. You can go to the play's official website and search to see if one is happening near you. While you may not get an actor of Martin Sheen's skill at your local production, it's likely that the words themselves will ring true regardless.

I would encourage you all to experience 8: The Play in at least one of these ways.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate

Tonight's episode of The Newsroom wasn't quite the episode I'd been hoping to see after last week's cliffhanger ending. It still had many good moments in it, but it didn't really deliver on the big promises that seemed to be made in the first hour. It didn't conclude the threat to Will's job by Leona (though it did seem to continue that plot line for next week). It didn't even really make good on the title of "The Blackout," which occupied only the last few seconds of the last episode, and barely covered a few minutes at the start of this one.

But the episode did continue the main theme I enjoyed so much from the hour before: the illustration of "Why We Can't Have Nice Things." The mock debate scene that took place at the climax of the episode was a wonderful taste of the sort of moderation that would need to happen for intelligent discourse in political debates. And the contrast with the John King clip at the end was a bucket of water to the face showing what we actually have.

Along the way, we got another excellent scene between Will and his therapist. We got a good continuation of Neal's trolling storyline, which concluded with it intersecting with the storyline of the death threat on Will. I even found myself almost enjoying the Jim/Maggie/Don love triangle story this week; I've never been particularly engaged by this rather soap operatic saga, but it all felt more honest for some reason this week. (Perhaps it was that great moment when Lisa told Jim that she was not someone's second choice either.)

Ordinarily, I would take this moment to again scold Aaron Sorkin for undermining his female characters by making them behave stupidly. He was back to doing it with Mackenzie this week, undercutting her bold speech at the start of the hour with her manic breakdown at the close of the hour. But perhaps Sorkin can be let off the hook this week, because the character he made look the most foolish in the episode -- by far -- was Will, with the ridiculous can't-put-his-own-pants-on beat. If all the characters can be colossally, unrealistically dim at times, then it softens my concern that it thus far seemed to be reserved for Sloane, Mackenzie, and Maggie. Assuming the writing keeps pushing this way next season, anyway.

Next week is the season finale. On tap would seem to be the threats against Will, both the actual death threat, and the one from Leona. We'll see if this season can punch out in style.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Death By Exposure

Maroon 5 has recently released their fourth studio album, cheekily titled "Overexposed." My personal taste in music has only a very narrow space in which pop music finds purchase, but Maroon 5's three previous albums all managed to wedge in there. I figured that I'd give the new album a try.

I don't actually "hate" the new album, but I certainly don't like it as much as any of the previous ones. And I think that what's ultimately to blame is that this is the first album the band has released in the post-"The Voice" world. Lead singer Adam Levine is now, as the album's title acknowledges, overexposed. And I think the fact that he's offering weekly critiques of would-be pop stars puts added pressure on any music he himself releases. It has to be good. Of course, "good" being highly subjective, it must instead be "successful" financially.

And so Maroon 5 now seems to have gone out to try to deliberately craft an entire album in the mold of their big post-Voice radio hit, "Moves Like Jagger." The new album has several tracks that use a similar disco-esque rhythm. "Jagger" was the first time the band worked with an outside songwriter, and was their biggest hit, so this time they brought in all kinds of outside producers and writers. "Jagger" was also a collaboration with another performer (fellow Voice judge Christina Aguilera), so better do that too -- rapper Wiz Khalifa is brought in to take a verse on one track.

The result is an album that only occasionally sounds like Maroon 5. It's a collection of songs that are mostly decent, without a single one that's five-star great. Lead single "Payphone" is fairly catchy... until that God-awful rap verse intrudes. Album opener "One More Night" has a good pop melody... but overly processed vocals. So on for the entire album... no song better than a B-grade effort, a handful of songs truly terrible.

In this iPod age, you can still cherry pick the album for a few of the better tracks. But it's still far and away Maroon 5's weakest effort ever. I'd grade it a B- overall.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Identity Theft?

"A Case of Identity" is certainly an interesting Sherlock Holmes story, but might just be the most implausible of the ones I've read so far. The story revolves around a young woman who has fallen in love with a man that just inexplicably went missing, hinting just before his disappearance that she should wait for him if anything were to ever happen. Infatuated with or without the odd parting words, she enlists Holmes to help track down her missing love.

It's a very personal and believable mystery here, and the woman rather sympathetic. Holmes is perhaps a bit too caring in his dealings with her, but the overall case is a very compelling one that immediately pulled me in.

The flaw is what Holmes discovers to be the truth behind the mystery. To say it without I hope giving the game away completely, I'll say that it's utterly implausible that the woman herself would not recognize the twist that was pulled with regards to her lover. Not only should she never need to go to Holmes to solve her case, it is frankly unbelievable the matter ever got as far as there being a case.

Also a bit troubling in the resolution is that Holmes cracks the case (of course) and then opts not to inform the client of the truth. While I can certainly believe that he would not succumb to any sentiment in the matter, his explanation of why she won't accept his findings in the matter seems flimsy at best.

That said, despite a spotty ending, the bulk of this story struck me as some of Doyle's most intriguing writing thus far in the series. I'd give "A Case of Identity" a B.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Worst of Two Worlds

I liked the idea of last year's summer blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens a great deal -- an alien invasion movie lovingly mashed up with a period western. But the word of mouth was generally unkind, so I banished the film to a sub-basement of my Netflix queue. No decent monster can be kept down, though, and recently these otherworldly ones clawed their way to the top of my queue and into my Blu-ray player.

As the opening credits rolled, I found myself rooting for the movie more and more with each new name. I was aware beforehand of stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, of course. I didn't know that the movie also featured the brilliant and versatile Sam Rockwell, veteran character actor Clancy Brown, the gravitas avatar that is Keith Carradine, the powerful and nuanced Walton Goggins, and the interesting and odd Paul Dano. Oh, please be good, please be good, pleasebegood...

No?

Okay then... don't be bad, don't be bad, dontbebad...

Damn.

Actually, I found Cowboys & Aliens to be flat out boring above all else. A mashup of two film types, the film takes the most belabored and established elements of both. Daniel Craig's character is a "Man With No Name" type, literally with amnesia of his past, but the entire audience knows exactly what that past is way before he learns it. The aliens are of an ultra-conventional "abduct you and experiment on you" variety. The action is all about explosions and never about any of the characters doing anything clever or resourceful. By 45 minutes in, my attention was waning. Another 45 minutes later (and with a half hour still to go), I was actually fighting to stay awake on my couch.

The actors involved do keep the film from being a total loss. There's some novelty in the dialects: Daniel Craig disguising his British accent for once; Harrison Ford going extra gruff and gravelly. Sam Rockwell plays a fun character with a weak spine, but it's territory he played oh-so-much-better in Galaxy Quest. And the other actors I mentioned being interested in? None of them has more than 10 minutes of screen time at the very best.

Things do blow up good, and there is some interesting creature design on the aliens. But by and large, the movie is a very loud waste of time and talent. I grade it a D+.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Game's Second Gambit

Season 2 of HBO's Game of Thrones has concluded, but for those who haven't come to grips with the long wait now in store before it releases on DVD (and Season 3 begins), there's a way to fill the void. A second soundtrack album featuring score selections from season 2 is now available.

Composer Ramin Djawadi has created wonderful music for the series, a vast collection of which his very memorable opening theme is only one highlight. The first season soundtrack included others, but also had a too-heavy dose of soft background music that didn't always make for the most compelling listening experience outside the context of the show. This new album is a much better sample for direct listening.

In the second season of the show, Djawadi relied less on bare string passages, dramatically stepping up the use of percussion in his score. Several of his action cues on this album have an aggressive tribal feel to them, including "The Throne Is Mine," "Valar Morghulis," and "Wildfire." Some tracks also make use of low, full brass in a way (a good way) very evocative of the composer's earlier work on the series Prison Break.

But the real highlights of the album are the tracks where Djawadi takes his main theme and subverts it. The rising, rhythmic string melody of the theme is twisted into several dissonant variants, including the anthemic "Don't Die With a Clean Sword" and my favorite music of the series, from the final scene of the final episode, the profoundly creepy "Three Blasts."

There are still a few skippable tracks on the album -- none "bad," but in the quiet and transparent mold of music deliberately trying not to call attention to itself (as television scores often do). But overall, there's enough great content here that a fan of soundtrack music should check it out, and a fan of the show may want to give it a shot too. I grade the album a B+.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A New Dawn in Skyrim

I "finished" Skyrim early this year -- in that I completed the main storyline and all the guild side quests, unlocking all 50 of the game's achievements in the process. Soon after, I put the game on the shelf for a while. But in the past month, the game's new expansion, Dawnguard, has brought it back off the shelf and into regular rotation.

Dawnguard is sold as DLC, but it would be more accurate to think of it as the kind of RPG expansion that used to be sold at retail in a separate box. (It's priced more like one too, at $19.99.) It adds lots of interesting new frills to the game: you can pay to have an armored troll follow you around; you get a cool new follower that raises the dead, shoots ice bolts, and is storyline-protected (so she can't accidentally be killed by splashy spell damage!); and you get new perk trees built around being a werewolf or a vampire lord. There's also a rather lengthy and interesting side quest that involves locating an ancient and unique dwarven forge, culminating in a chance to craft a rare and powerful artifact.

But the main thrust of Dawnguard is a storyline about a group of vampire hunters trying to prevent a castle of powerful vampire lords from bringing perpetual darkness to the world. This storyline plays out through a quest line of roughly equal length to the "College of Winterhold" sub-quests in the original game -- which is to say it's something in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 hours of new content, depending on how fast you devour it and how thoroughly you explore all its nooks and crannies.

One point of view you could take on this is that you're paying about 1/3 the original purchase price of Skyrim, but not getting nearly 1/3 as much content as the base game offered. Some reviewers have made this analysis, and also complained (foolishly, in my view) that the expansion is not as revolutionary as the base game, and is therefore unworthy at best, a rip-off at worst.

I myself thought the Dawnguard storyline was very entertaining. The character you interact with most in the course of the story is the most fully realized character in all of Skyrim, base game or expansion. You forge a close relationship with her, her conversation is multi-faceted, and she has way more "idle comments" (and better ones) than any of the other followers you get sick of having around. (cough Lydia cough)

More importantly, having this expansion to play with got me back into the game in general. I've been picking up material from the base game that I never chased down and completed before, and I've been enjoying that too. Since starting back up with Skyrim, I've explored the crafting and enchanting systems much more than I did before, and have thoroughly enjoyed the amazing weapons and armor I've been able to make. In short, the expansion has helped me get more out of the original game itself. All very good.

I do have a gripe, though. One of the things the expansion tried to do was add new content specifically targeted at very high level characters, in the form of new "legendary dragons" that you have to be level 78 (out of a maximum possible 81) to encounter. Which would be fine, except that they attached one of the expansion's 10 new achievements to slaying one of these legendary dragons.

Now, I'm not an achievement hound in every game I play. But Skyrim happens to be one of the handful of games I managed to nab all the achievements for, because the designers there did an excellent job of choosing a few oddball achievements that were just far enough off the normal path to make you engage in out-of-the-ordinary, experimental gameplay, but not so far off the path to really start feeling like a grind.

But the problem stems from how your character levels in Skyrim. Basically, "you are what you do." The more you use a skill -- smithing items at a forge, launching destruction magic an enemy, picking pockets in the street -- the more that skill increases, and with it your overall character level. It's actually a very good system until your character's level gets somewhere into the 50s. To reach level 78, however, you basically have to grind nearly all of your skills up to their maximum value. So if you enjoy archery and took a bunch of perks to boost its effectiveness? If you enjoy sneaking up on people and making sneak attacks and took a bunch of perks to do that? Yeah, forget all that. Set it aside and grab a two-handed sword for a while to grind your way up to 78.

Now, to a point, I would have enjoyed the encouragement to try out a few different things and explore other elements the game has to offer. But it takes a long time to work your way from the mid-50s to the upper 70s naturally. Way too long to throw away all the cool investments you've made in a character.

And so, to gain access to these legendary dragons and their attached achievement, I cheated the system. You are what you do, remember, by whatever measure the game accepts as "doing." Since a great many of the skills are based on dealing combat damage, the shortcut to leveling them is to deal battle damage to something that will just take it, regenerate the lost health, and never attack you back. Something like your horse. I have sat there for hours a night, a book in one hand to keep myself entertained and my XBox controller in the other hand, lazily slashing away at poor Shadowmere as a means of reaching this preposterously high level. It's not fun. It's not actually playing the game. It's not an exploit I wanted to use when I started playing Skyrim. But I feel it's what the designers have forced me to do by adding this element to the Dawnguard expansion. And it totally sucks. I can't wait to get to the level 78 I need (almost there!) so I can forget this foolishness and get back to actually enjoying the game.

So call that a black mark on an otherwise solid expansion. Overall, I'd rate Dawnguard a B+. If you enjoyed playing the main game, I can't imagine being unhappy with the expansion. (Unless you're feeling that completist bug like I am.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Granby Night Out

You may have heard through Facebook or other channels that the Perseid meteor shower is going on right now, an annual summer event with a higher than usual number of "shooting stars" visible in the night sky. The increased activity is generally great enough that a determined observer can for many nights straight, even in an area awash with city lights, go outside at night for a few minutes and catch a glimpse.

Of course, you can also do much better than that. This past Saturday night marked the absolute peak of this year's Perseids, and my boyfriend and I spent that evening camping up in the mountains, far from the light pollution of Denver, for optimum viewing.

We went to Lake Granby, about two hours outside of town. When we arrived in the mid-afternoon, things didn't look so great for our cause. Ominous clouds covered almost every inch of the sky, and the tiny break on the western horizon seemed too far away. Shortly after we set up our tent for the night, some significant rain started pouring for around half an hour.

But then the storm ended, and the fast-blowing wind started to take the clouds right on out of the area. By the time sunset was approaching, it looked like this:


By the time the night sky became visible, there wasn't a cloud in sight. Things were a bit on the chilly side, what with us being used to all these unprecedented 90+ degree days this summer, but we got the view we were looking for. Countless more stars than you can see in the city. The faint glow of the Milky Way visible across the sky. Several orbiting satellites visible as they raced overhead. And, of course, plenty of meteors.

It's worth noting that a "meteor shower peak" may not be what you're expecting, if you're not too familiar with astronomy. It's not a steady rain of shooting stars pouring down like water from your shower head. The peak means only about one to three meteors visible per minute, on average. But they're visible in a reliable section of the sky, and when you stack that against the way you just normally have to be randomly looking in just the right spot to see maybe one shooting star every year or so, it's pretty impressive.

What was especially neat about this shower peak was that several of the meteors were unnaturally bright. They flared so brightly with light so thick, you could practically see a halo around the quick streak of light. They were so brilliant, I think if I'd seen them portrayed this way in a movie, I would have thought they looked fake. It all made for a wonderful little evening getaway.

There's still another night or two of decent viewing available before the meteor shower quickly fades away until next summer. So even if you can't get away from the city lights, you might find it worth your while to step outside for 20 to 30 minutes to see what you can see. Assuming you don't know the constellation Perseus to pinpoint your search, plan on looking generally east and about halfway up the sky around 10:30 or 11:00, at your local time.

And good luck, stargazers!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Blackout Part I: Tragedy Porn

Tonight's episode of The Newsroom was my favorite to date. What put this hour over the top for me was that I found the synthesis of reality and fantasy to be the most satisfying of any episode so far.

I wrote of the premiere episode of the show that it seemed Aaron Sorkin was setting out to do for journalism what he did for the White House in The West Wing -- to offer an unreal paradise. Just as we wished a real life president would act with the nobility, wisdom, and courage of Josiah Bartlett, Sorkin was setting out to create a paragon of journalism in Will McAvoy, the anchor we'd all wish actually existed in real life.

What made this episode so compelling for me was that it focused on reality crashing in. It was an examination of why that lofty fantasy can't actually exist in reality. Oh, not the part about a corporate head using her own tabloid organization to put pressure on the news department, but rather the sad and simple reality of the ratings. The scathing examination of not just why the Nancy Graces of the world do what they do, but how they do it so effectively, was a truly intelligent and revealing commentary on Why We Can't Have Nice Things.

At the same time, the fantasy was still very much in play. The hour was seeded with something nefarious, in the wiretapping being performed by the network's tabloid arm. Though ripped from the real world headlines (which were even mentioned within the episode), this element seems to offer the lifeline by which Our Heroes will triumph over the forces trying to control them in the second part of the episode. Assuming it all plays out that way, the fantasy of the Perfect News Show will be restored next week in showy fashion for our viewing enjoyment.

But a continued black mark on the series is Sorkin's treatment of the female characters. Mackenzie was at her strongest ever this week, as she fought most passionately against bowing to ratings considerations -- and she was at her most likeable ever as a character while doing it. But taking up her wishy-washy slack this week was Sloane. One moment, she's articulately and powerfully warning about the crisis of not raising the debt ceiling... but the next moment she's made weak and flighty by her crazed overreaction to Neal. And then there's Maggie, passionately and articulately standing up for her religion against Michelle Bachmann, only to later be used as the butt of a joke when she's shown to be lower even than interns on the totem pole, despite having worked at her job for more than a year. Sure, they were both funny moments, but they seemed to compromise those characters in a way that, by contrast, Charlie's moment of mistaken identity in the library didn't.

Still, the arc of the season has been climbing. Sorkin's writing of the plots has certainly improved. And with a second season already ordered by HBO, perhaps next year we can look forward to the arc of how he writes his female characters to improve too.

In the meantime, I'll hope for a good conclusion next week to this two-part episode.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Half Full of Glee

Regular readers of the blog may recall that I attempt to "amortize" the cost of having HBO for just one or two shows by finding movies to DVR and watch. On a lark, in a recent search for movies, I decided to check out last summer's blatant cross-marketing money grab, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie. What can I say? For all I criticize Glee (often), I still love watching it. Now, the idea of paying to seeing the movie in a theater (with a 3D upcharge, no less) was unthinkable, but for the cost of the already-paid-for HBO? Sure, I'll bite.

The movie was a filmed concert from Glee's national tour last summer. Between every few numbers were intercut segments showing Glee fans, a few with "inspiring tales" of their own about what the show means to them. There was also a sprinkling of "candid" moments with the cast backstage before the performance. And I put "candid" in quotes deliberately, because these moments had all of the kids acting in character rather than appearing as themselves.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting much from this movie. It wasn't realistic to expect much. But I got both less and more than those expectations.

The tone was that of a DVD special featurette. The fan interviews were often awkward, and the production values on them minimal. But there were moments. There were three ongoing stories told in multiple segments, and I have to admit that there were brief sections in all of them that were surprisingly moving.

The concert songs were a mixed bag. Even though the movie was only 90 minutes long, I got a little too antsy at times to actually sit through all of it. I fast forwarded through a few songs I don't like, performers I think are weaker, that sort of thing. But then there were other numbers that looked and sounded pretty phenomenal in the live venue, and made me think that, silly as it may sound, seeing the Glee concert in person might have been pretty entertaining.

So how do I give a grade to all that? Well, I wouldn't watch it again. But the truth is, I've seen far worse movies. But then, this wasn't really a movie, but rather a prolonged commercial. I don't know... C-? C? Some middle of the road rating like that. I suppose in terms of recommendation, if I'm not enough of a Glee fan to watch the entire thing and be enthusiastic about it, I can't imagine you'd want to sit through it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Soule Discovery

A while back, I wrote about the most recent Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, which provided me dozens of hours of enjoyment and took me back to the type of "you're the sole savior of the entire damn world" RPGs that I loved so much growing up. (In the near future, I'll talk about its new expansion, Dawnguard.)

One aspect of the game I neglected to talk last time around was its music. The score to Skyrim was provided by Jeremy Soule, a veteran composer of the medium who has created tons of video game music, including that for Skyrim's predecessor's, Morrowind and Oblivion. Skyrim has over three-and-a-half hours of his music, and while I certainly get to hear it while playing the game itself, it's difficult to give it the attention it deserves while I'm busy slaying dragons. What's more, a great deal of the music is tailored to specific moments in the plot, and are thus played only once as you go through the main quest line.

Fortunately, there is another way. The composer has made available through his own label a 4-CD set of the music from the game. You can purchase your own copy here, if you're a fan. I already have.

The vast majority of the music is intended to fade mentally into the background, providing atmosphere while you play the game while not calling any undue attention to itself. So admittedly, there are large chunks of the music that don't stand up particularly well to listening in an isolated format like this. Still, this music specifically composed for the background can easily become background outside of the game -- something to engage other parts of your mind as you perform some otherwise menial task.

But there are also several tracks in the score that really shine when you listen more closely. The opening theme of the Dragonborn will of course be familiar to anyone who has played the game, and the full 4-minute version here is a feast for the ears that's both exciting and chilling in turns. There are a number of other aggressive battle tracks that are equally fun. Even some of those quieter songs I mentioned stand out from the others with their evocative and haunting melodies. (A pair of pieces named for Tamriel's two moons struck me as especially lovely.)

Forced to give a grade to the entire soundtrack, I think I'd probably only give Skyrim's music a B-. There's simply a lot of music here that doesn't do well outside its intended format. But there are more than enough gems here to compile an hour's worth of truly remarkable music that's just as fun to hear outside the game as in. Depending on how big a fan you are of the game or the music (or both), the purchase price of the 4-disc set may be worth it for those tracks.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

You Go, Girl

I was thumbing through an issue of Entertainment Weekly a few months ago and came upon a positively glowing review of a new novel entitled Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Flynn was a former writer for the magazine herself, so I had the skeptical thought that a former co-worker might just be throwing her a bone. Still, the magazine had given the book its top marks, and the quick summary of the novel sounded interesting. And yet I mostly forgot about it soon after.

Weeks later, Gone Girl had jumped to the top of the bestseller list. Readers were weighing in too, from GoodReads to Amazon to Barnes & Noble, and were giving mostly enthusiastic reviews. Okay, I decided... let's give it a shot.

It's a challenge to provide a synopsis of Gone Girl, because a lot of the fun of it comes from the unusual narrative path it marches. I myself wish I'd known less about it ahead of time. So I'll simply give you the opening premise: a woman vanishes on the fifth anniversary of her marriage to her husband. He comes home from work to find a confused scene of violence in his house, an implication of a possible abduction... and yet not a wholly convincing one. As an investigation and search begins, police and the public begin to suspect the man may have murdered his wife. And though that really only covers the first 20% of the novel, I can really go no further.

Gillian Flynn has a very gifted way with words. Her writing is rich with metaphor, perfect phrases that seem natural on the page, but one can easily imagine resulted only from hours over the keyboard. She uses a compelling structure for this narrative -- each chapter alternates between two different first-person perspectives, one the husband in the aftermath of the disappearance, the other the wife in the form of diary entries chronicling the long arc of the couple's relationship from the day they met. The "he said, she said" approach yields fun contradictory viewpoints for the reader to enjoy, and also builds interest for the point in the book where you know the timelines will finally intersect.

There's a procession of fun plot developments, though I will express a slight reservation about the novel overall -- the ultimate ending of the book feels like it strains credibility a bit. On the one hand, it does feel like the appropriate climax for the characters in tone; on the other hand, it just doesn't seem like the story should really end there, after everything you've read.

But as I said, that's a slight reservation. The journey is certainly worth taking in spite of that. I give Gone Girl an A-. If you like unusual fiction and polished writing, you're sure to love this.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Not Cool, Man

Over the years, I've seen Cool Hand Luke show up on several critics' top movie lists. John Cusack reportedly slipped into one of his own movies a reference to how much he liked it. Over at Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an impossibly high 100% critic rating.

Well, they sure didn't talk to me.

I sat down recently with two friends who I learned had also never seen the film. One had been in a conversation with a co-worker about how much he loved the film. So the three of us decided to sit down together one evening and cross this 1967 classic off the list.

Cool Hand Luke revolves around a war veteran who winds up (after a drunken night destroying public property) serving two years in a Florida prison camp. That's the set-up, established five minutes into the film. And that's basically all the plot there is. Rather than tell any sort of unified, continuing story, the movie is episodic in nature. Like chapters in a book, or short stories serialized in a magazine, every 5-10 minutes of film brings on a new "adventure" in Luke's life at prison. The only real connection between any of them is a consistency of surrounding characters.

Those characters have plenty of interesting actors playing them, but are all flat and boring on the page and lifted up only slightly by the performers. There's star Paul Newman, full of wry smiles and dry line deliveries; he's playing himself more than a character, it seems. The prison captain is played by Strother Martin, whose quirky and high-pitched voice is the only thing going for him. George Kennedy is the de facto lead prisoner, but alternates too much between being a dim-witted fool and a bullying thug to be either sympathetic or menacing. Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton are both here, but this is before either was established, so they're little more than living set decoration here.

On top of the non-existent plot, there's the problem of the film's age. It has the languid pacing typical of movies made before the mid-70s. Even the more action-oriented segments simply aren't exciting. And then there's the radical change in the U.S. prison system over the past four-and-a-half decades. Granted, most modern prison dramas seem to be set in high security facilities, where this film is placed in a rather minimum security setting. Nevertheless, this prison just seems like a fairy tale environment utterly uncoupled from reality. Perhaps in 1967, this film was The Shawshank Redemption for its generation. Today, it just creaks.

Even the movie's one possibly redeeming quality isn't one I can praise with much enthusiasm. Composer Lalo Schifrin (famous for the Mission: Impossible TV series) composed a score with plenty of attention grabbing and unusual music. But too unusual, really, a weirdly dissonant collection of music not very well suited to the film at all.

I can say with certainty that had I been watching the movie alone, I never would have made it all the way through without giving up and turning it off. As it was, my two friends and I all suffered it together. I haven't been so bored by a movie in a long time. I can find no reason not to give it an F. I cannot begin to imagine what so many people see in this film.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Stop In for "Stop Us"

One of my favorite bands, Barenaked Ladies, has recently released a new album. Sort of. Entitled "Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before!", the album is a collection of rarities and unreleased tracks from the band's history. It's probably a must-have if you're a fan of the band, but there's an interesting double-edged sword quality to what's here.

A significant number of the tracks are alternative versions of existing songs. In some cases, this is not a good thing. There's the "Pull's Break Remix" version of the band's biggest commercial hit, "One Week," which is disappointing in being barely different from the original track; a rather light dance beat is really the only difference. An early version of "I Can, I Will, I Do" is so close to the finished version (ultimately released on the album Barenaked Ladies Are Men) that it's really not worth the space on the disc some other rarity might have occupied. ("Roadrunner," for example.)

But on the other hand, a Barenaked Ladies "historian" will enjoy the primordial quality of hearing an early acoustic-guitar-only demo of "The Old Apartment." A first shot at "Second Best" (before its release on the album Everything to Everyone) is probably neither better nor worse, but is interesting in its less rock treatment. And then there are two tracks that were so excellent, I was confused why the band tinkered with these versions before releasing them. "Adrift" (later on Barenaked Ladies Are Me) is presented here in a more atmospheric way -- blessedly without the banjo of the final version -- and is far more effective as a result. And "Half a Heart" (later on Barenaked Ladies Are Men) is presented here without the slow rock backbeat, and with a far better lead vocal from Ed Robertson, in what might be one of the band's most emotional non-Steven Page leads.

Not everything on the album is an alternate take, however. There's "I Don't Get It Anymore," a decade-old song that has only been played at concerts. (It's reminiscent of "Take It Outside," but not bad.) There's "Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!", previously released only as a B-side to a single (and which I'd never heard before) -- a fun, up-tempo track. And there's the clever "Long While," recorded for an earlier album but never released, a jaunty little song contrasted with surprisingly dark lyrics.

The middle of the album contains a number of concert tracks, including a BNL original track called "Teenage Wasteland" that never made it to an album or single before, but is a good show for the band's signature pop culture-laden, rapid-fire lyrics. There's also a cover they performed of the Beastie Boys' Shake Your Rump. (Not really my thing; probably would have been fun to see live, but isn't as exciting on MP3.)

Perhaps the real treat of this album is that it serves as something of a band reunion. All in Good Time, the band's last album, was the first since Steven Page left to go solo. Though it was good overall (and had one or two truly exceptional tracks), it's still nice to have Page back in the mix on these old recordings.

I skip over enough tracks in different spots on this album that I'd rate the whole thing a B. But I feel I more than got my money's worth out of the tracks I do enjoy. (Again, this version of "Half a Heart" is so good, it's probably transformed that song into my favorite off the entire "B.L.A.M." double-album project.) Basically, if you're a fan, this review is a possibly long-winded way of letting you know the album is out there now, and that you should pick it up.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Red Tale

On my continuing journey through the stories of Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League" really traveled a lot of ground in my esteem for such a short story. It's the story of a man who seeks Holmes' help after losing a position in a somewhat secretive society ostensibly for the furthering of red headed people. The position involved him getting paid a tidy sum to simply hand-copy out the dictionary for four hours each day.

I found this to be a deeply intriguing set-up. Obviously, something didn't quite smell right about this menial clerical work, but I was imagining some vast conspiracy for this secret Red-Head society, and wondering what possible motives Holmes would uncover.

Instead -- SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph if you want to read the story for yourself -- the entire thing is simply a smokescreen to occupy one particular man's afternoon away from his house so that criminals can dig a tunnel for a bank heist. And while this is certainly a practical explanation for the weird behavior, I found it ultimately a very disappointing one. I've read or seen many tales of bank heists, even ones that specifically revolve around secretly digging a tunnel. Regardless of whether this one was written by Doyle first (and maybe in part inspired the others I've known), the result was that this story felt so much more run-of-the-mill, even boring, compared to its sensational opening promise.

Holmes gets to the bottom of the mystery quickly, of course, but in this case I found the twist in the plot to be a disappointment, compared to what I might have imagined in my mind. Or maybe I just wanted an adventurous expose on a pro-redhead society just because one particular red-headed man happens to be near and dear to my heart. In any case, I'd grade the story a B-.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

5/1

While I didn't think tonight's new episode of The Newsroom was anywhere near "bad," it did mark the first time since the show debuted that I thought the newest episode wasn't better than the one before it. I think in large part this is due to the big jump in quality last week, that dealt with Will's reluctant introspection over having bullied an interviewee on the air. That was a powerful episode with palpable sadness and regret in the character.

This week's episode dealt with the death of Osama bin Laden. And I think I didn't caught up in this as much because a year ago, for the actual event itself, I didn't get caught up in it that much. I watched the passion of the characters to report on this story that one of them referred to as the most significant story of a generation. But that's not personally how I remember it.

Thinking back on the actual event, I remember some little bit of discussion on Facebook -- with many people trumpeting the terrorist's assassination, and others (a smaller group) arguing that cheering for a death was ghoulish, no matter how big a ghoul the deceased was. And I seem to remember that rather limited and surprisingly tame discussion played itself out in maybe a day or two. Frankly, I think I've seen equally enthusiastic chatter over the landing of the Curiosity probe on Mars -- and for a more extended number of days, too.

Now maybe I'm misremembering. Whether I am or not, I certainly don't mean to belittle the feelings of anyone who did in fact feel particularly moved by the death of Osama bin Laden. All I know is, I watched The Newsroom tonight and felt as though the episode was more forced, more "fictitious" even, than last week's almost wholly invented hour.

Most of the more "prat fall-ish" elements of the hour worked, from the figurative treatment that was stoned Will McAvoy to the more literal version that was airplane-bound Don falling in the aisle. But there weren't too many genuine moments this week. Jim's attempt to "reboot" his relationship with a "real" first date felt sweet, although all of Maggie's silly neurosis over it felt a bit forced. Probably the best moment of the night came from Charlie's impassioned speech about how the need to report first had cost lives in the Gulf War in 1991 -- a speech excellently delivered by Sam Waterston.

Oh well. Even taking a slight dip in quality, The Newsroom was far and away more entertaining than this week's new True Blood. That show has somehow turned into a parody of itself, like 24 in the sixth season. I enjoy the great character moments with Pam, Lafayette, and Andy Bellefleur, and try to stave off boredom at basically everything else. Should have watched Breaking Bad instead tonight.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Shadowy Music

I've decided to save director Tim Burton's newest film, Dark Shadows, for DVD -- if indeed I end up watching it at all. I'm simply torn about whether it looks good to me or not, and have heard similarly mixed feedback from friends who did see it.

But in any case, one thing I did not pass on was the film's musical score by longtime Burton collaborator, composer Danny Elfman. A couple of weeks before the movie released, the entire soundtrack album was streamed online for a short time; this was catnip for a score enthusiast like me, and I rushed to go listen. I liked what I heard enough to actually buy the album for my collection.

While Danny Elfman could never really write a score you wouldn't ultimately recognize as his (think of the playfulness of his work for The Simpsons or Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, or the pounding percussion of his Planet of the Apes score), Elfman's work here does drift to the edges of his usual circle of sound. Long passages of his Dark Shadows score are more ethereal and lyrical than is his custom, a worthy fit for the moody atmosphere of a gothic horror tale.

But the score also incorporates some strange synthesizer passages. There are moments that somehow take noises you'd instinctively associate with cheesy 70s film and television, but render them tense and effective by layering them over pulsing strings that evoke the music from the Dark Knight films. (I'm referring here to the Nolan films scored by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, rather than the actual Batman films Elfman scored himself.)

Overall, it's not a score you can really listen to from beginning to end. Half of the music is appropriate for getting the blood racing -- music to listen to while you drive, or exercise, or try to awaken a tired mind. The other half would serve the exact opposite purpose -- music to calm a loud mind, to relax to. Of course, it's easy enough to build a separate playlist for both mindsets, then enjoy Elfman's entire score here, each part in its own way.

I have no idea what I'll think of the movie itself, but I'd give Danny Elfman's score a B. It's worth considering, if you're into film scores.

Friday, August 03, 2012

You Got Heist in My Comedy!

The buzz about last year's movie Tower Heist was mixed enough that I felt no need to see it while it was originally in theaters. But a friend of mine picked it up on Blu-ray and loaned it to me so I could give it a try.

If you missed it, Tower Heist is an ensemble comedy mashed up with a caper film. Ben Stiller stars as the head of the staff in a residential skyscraper that's home to the ridiculously wealthy -- including the richest of all, played by Alan Alda. When the Alda character is revealed to have been part of a criminal scheme that lost the pensions of the entire tower staff, Stiller leads a group of them in a heist to break into the man's apartment to steal their money back.

There are a lot of good names in the cast, though unfortunately, not many of them are doing exceptional work here. It starts with Stiller; personally, I've always found him to be more entertaining playing outrageous characters (as in Dodgeball or Zoolander) than realistic ones (such as in the Meet the Parents series). There's Something About Mary is one movie that bucked this trend for me, but Tower Heist is not.

Casey Affleck appears as a slightly grown-up version of his character from the Ocean's Eleven trilogy -- a rather stupid screw-up that nevertheless has a role to play in the heist. I think it hurts this film to invite such obvious comparison to another great caper movie.

Matthew Broderick is a lackluster second fiddle, whose presence mainly just serves to make me sad for the days when Broderick used to be the star of any movie he appeared in -- all of which were good. Man, Godzilla just destroyed that guy's career. (Or was it Sarah Jessica Parker? Zing!)

Tea Leoni is a bland FBI agent mechanically set-up to be an opposing force/love interest. Alan Alda's character is too cartoonishly evil (for the purposes of setting up a heavy) to ground the film in any kind of reality. Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe play rather stereotypical characters; the latter is especially funny, though she maybe treads a little too close to the stereotype for comfort.

That leaves Eddie Murphy. I'm surprised to say it, but he's actually the best thing about the movie. I don't think he's been the best thing about a movie since... what, Beverly Hills Cop? He probably hasn't been funnier since then, either. I mean, he's no laugh riot by any stretch, but if you've watched his recent crap like Pluto Nash or Norbit? Well, first, what the hell is wrong with you; and second, you'll appreciate this comedic turn close to the machine-gun wit and acid that made Murphy famous in the 1980s.

The main problem with this hybrid comedy-heist movie is that it doesn't really have much comedy in it. The first half hour is a laugh-free preamble setting up the story and all the many characters to be involved in it. The laughs only come when Eddie Murphy finally takes center stage. (Again, I know that's a surprise to hear.) The heist itself turns out to be somewhat entertaining too, but that also takes a long time to arrive. Ocean's Eleven was already a superlative heist movie with a streak of humor, and so I was expecting this film to be a comedy foremost and a caper second. I guess I should have known better. "Heist" is in the title, "Comedy" is not.

The film isn't terrible, but I wouldn't really recommend it either. I'd grade it a C+. It might be one to watch if you're truly convinced you love one of the actors in it. Or it might be a good "stuck in a hotel room somewhere with nothing better to do" kind of film. I just don't see it as one to seek out.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Scandalous

Having completed the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, I've now reached the point where Arthur Conan Doyle transitioned into a short story format for the adventures of his famous sleuth -- the literal adventures, in fact, as the first several of them are collected in the volume "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

The first of these stories is "A Scandal in Bohemia." It's one of the more well-known tales, even to some degree among people who don't actually know its contents. That's because it's the story in which Doyle created the character of Irene Adler. Adler is much utilized in Holmes adaptations, appearing in the recent films starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law (as played by Rachel McAdams), and also in one of the six episodes thus far of the BBC's Sherlock. She's a cunning woman who manages to get the best of Holmes, and in so doing, secures a reputation in the canon far larger than her single appearance here would otherwise demand.

After the long form novels, transitioning into this short story format definitely requires an adjustment. The tale feels incomplete, concluded practically before it begins -- and that sensation isn't helped by the fact that Holmes doesn't get his man (woman) in this instance. The story feels like another chapter, or perhaps a sequel, should follow to continue the adventure.

What's there is fairly entertaining, though. The particulars of the case, which involve foreign royalty, are overly simple (though it's a welcome departure from the convoluted context of the crimes in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four), but it's all really just a pretext for a two "chapter" confrontation between Holmes and Adler.

In the first round of the match, Holmes concocts a plan to force Adler to reveal where she's hiding sensitive information within her house. He again displays the disguise mastery we learned of in the prior novel. He requires Watson's help in his clever ruse, and it all appears to go off without a hitch. It's a real triumph for Holmes, who is not merely tracking his target, but is actually orchestrating a trap in which to snare them.

But then in the second round -- the third segment of the story, and its final pages -- we learn that Adler realized the ruse after the fact, and cleverly fought back. It's unsatisfying on some level to have Adler just slip away and leave the adventure without any real resolution, and yet it's only by outfoxing Holmes so that she earns her honored spot in the stories as a worthy nemesis of the great consulting detective.

Ultimately, my only real complaint about this story is that it's too short. After two novels based around plots that I felt had insufficient material to sustain them, it's a shame that this tantalizing setup wasn't the basis of one of those novels instead. I'd give A Scandal in Bohemia a B.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Scraps From the Table

In my recent review of Glen More, game #6 in the Alea "medium-box series," I mentioned discovering that the series already had a 7th installment, Artus. This too was added to my collection.

I said of Glen More that it was the most involved game in the series since the first, Louis XIV. If I had to try to compare Artus to one of the earlier games, I'd say it's most like Palazzo. Artus isn't too deeply concerned with storytelling or theme. (It's about knights jockeying for the most politically advantageous spots at King Arthur's round table, but you feel that only because you're told that.) Ultimately, Artus is a fairly abstract game with simple rules -- and deep analysis stemming from those rules.

Longtime design team Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer have created this basic scenario. A large disc with point values (some positive, some negative) rotates in the center of a number of "chairs" arranged in a circle. Players have their pieces distributed in those chairs. On his turn, a player plays a card that moves a knight a number of spaces; it scores points equal to the value of the chair it's leaving, and then displaces the knight from the space it's arriving on (pushing that knight to the first empty seat counterclockwise). Other cards are played to move the royalty pawns at the table (belonging to no one player), or to promote the lesser "princes" into the "king." Whenever the king moves, or a new king is crowned, the entire table rotates according to the king's new position... and the point values of seats rotate with it.

Additional cards players must use during the game require you to score certain configurations of your own pawns. Many of them require you to put pawns in strategically bad positions -- but you must play the card eventually, so the game lies in trying to mitigate the bad effects of scoring. (That is, accept that your knight has to be on a seat worth negative points... just not too many negative points.)

If it sounds at all complicated, it's really not. Within a turn or two of seeing it, every player I've ever played with grasped it quickly. What isn't as clear is how to win, strategically speaking. Part of that comes from a good place, from a simple rules set with several possibilities each time you take a turn. (Which card do you play?) But some of the challenge comes from pure chaos and uncertainty. With each other player's move potentially displacing one of your knights -- or outright rotating the entire table and scoring structure -- it's essentially impossible for you to plan ahead for any move. All you can do is look at the situation you've received at the start of your turn, and then make the most of it right in that moment.

And so I haven't quite made up my mind about the game yet. It's interesting. It's easy to teach. It's actually rather quick to play, too. But I'm not yet convinced that luck doesn't play a rather large role in it. The game may be better off played with only three players (or even two) than the maximum four possible.

If I had to assign a grade right now, off of just a few plays, I'd say the game gets maybe a B-. But I could see revising that up a couple notches to B+, or down as far as a C, depending on how it holds up to multiple plays. It's not a bad game, though, so it's worth keeping my seven-game collection intact.