Friday, January 31, 2014

A Safe Place

I recently watched an oddball indie film from 2012, Safety Not Guaranteed. It's a difficult to classify film that has a light touch on several genres: comedy, romance, and... science fiction. A journalist takes his two interns to investigate a crazed personal ad placed in a newspaper: a man is looking for a partner to join him in traveling back in time. One of the interns feels a certain sympatico with the reclusive conspiracy theorist behind the ad, and her early efforts to pump him for information gradually turn into a meaningful relationship. But as the two grow closer, it begins to look as though maybe, just maybe, he's not so crazy after all.

The number of recognizable actors in the movie will depend entirely on what other kinds of TV shows and movies you've watched. The downbeat intern drawn into this weird tale is played by Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation. She does a good job finding humorous moments with her fundamentally depressed character. The journalist who supervises her is Jake Johnson, of New Girl. His character's subplot of reuniting with an old high school flame feels rather extraneous to the story being told, but winds up being a very enjoyable part of the movie itself. The "time traveler" is played by Mark Duplass, one of the stars of the truly terrible Your Sister's Sister, who thankfully has better material to work with here.

This is one of those movies that's much more about the journey than the destination, as it never truly latches on to one major dramatic question for long. What starts as "what kind of crazy person places an ad for a time traveling partner?" quickly gives way to other questions. "Is the intern more broken than her subject?" "Is he maybe not crazy after all?" "Can the womanizing journalist turn over a new leaf?" And though I wouldn't say the film's ending is ambiguous in any way, it still somehow feels rather unresolved. There's more to see that we simply don't get to.

The light touch I mentioned works both for and against the film. It makes everything fun to watch, bringing a few genuine smiles to your face. But then it also leaves you feeling less than fully satisfied when it's all done. It's not bad, but the indie film bar is set pretty high these days. I give Safety Not Guaranteed a C+. If quirky romances are your thing, you would probably like it. Everyone else could probably take it or leave it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

It's All Greek to Me

When I finished reading "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Among the Sherlock Holmes stories I've read so far, it felt particularly marked by high highs and low lows.

This is the story that introduces Sherlock's brother Mycroft for the first time, and it's quite the introduction. Nearly all the Holmes short stories begin with a brief scene unrelated to the mystery itself, often a minor anecdote between Holmes and Watson where the latter is dazzled all over again by the former's deductive prowess. This time, the (mostly) unrelated opening is what brings Mycroft into the fold, and it's a good deal more involved. It runs perhaps a third of the story's entire length, and in ways feels like more.

That said, it's time rather well spent. Mycroft is as interesting character as presented by Arthur Conan Doyle. He's basically Sherlock Holmes, but smarter, fat, lazy, and even more of an unfeeling sociopath. According to Sherlock, Mycroft could be the greatest criminologist in the world, but for the fact that he lacks any real drive or interest to see his usually-correct deductions through to a conclusion. This make Mycroft a markedly different character from the versions of him depicted in the various modern Holmes adaptations. (Which I do find somewhat interesting, although the sibling rivalry seen in both the BBC and CBS takes is a welcome addition not found here.)

The case itself is actually one of Doyle's more thrilling concoctions. A Greek language interpreter is essentially kidnapped by a gang of criminals who force him to translate for a foreigner they're holding hostage. The criminals are trying to coerce this third party into signing something. The interpreter, for his part, manages to learn something of the man's identity under the guise of his translation duty. But by the end of the ordeal, he doesn't know where this foreigner is being held, and so turns to the Holmes brothers for help.

There's tension in this translator's narrative well beyond what Doyle manages to build in most of his stories. But at the same time, it's all built on a flimsy premise with flaws you have to ignore to be drawn in. These thugs happen to have lost the translator they were using at first to interrogate their victim, and then decide to draw an innocent citizen into their plan as a substitute? And they let this substitute go free, alive and well? They seem implausibly less-than-nefarious.

But the biggest flaw here is that neither Sherlock nor the supposedly more brilliant Mycroft actually provides any true help to this poor translator. Mycroft's solution to find out where this foreign victim was being held is to take the details the interpreter was able to glean and publish them in a classified ad in the newspaper, for potential informants to see. While Mycroft's utter lack of concern for reprisal against the interpreter is certainly consistent with the character as Doyle establishes him, the fact remains that ultimately, neither Mycroft nor Sherlock actually deduces anything in all this. They simply take the interpreter's facts and use him as bait. Hardly worthy of the great consulting detective and his smarter brother.

That covers the "plus" and "minus" column. Now for something I don't quite know how to classify: the ending. Once again, this is a case where the guilty parties aren't definitively caught at the conclusion of the tale. I'd call it disappointing, but I find it strangely more intriguing instead. Reading between the lines, I feel as though with this story, Arthur Conan Doyle was publicly announcing his boredom with his own creation.

Consider the evidence. Doyle spends a large amount of this story not on his two established characters of Holmes and Watson, but on creating a brand new character, a brother whom Doyle acknowledges in the text has never been mentioned before. He tells us that Mycroft really can't be bothered to see a mystery through to its resolution, and then he promptly involves Mycroft in a mystery that, surprise, doesn't really have a resolution. The whole thing feels like the literary equivalent of a heavy sigh, boredom with having to write "yet another Sherlock Holmes adventure." And wouldn't you know it, just two stories later, in The Final Problem, Doyle would just go all the way and kill off Sherlock Holmes. I feel this all offers an oddly revealing glimpse at what was going on in the author's mind.

Despite the flaws, this story caught my attention and interest enough to consider it among the better ones. I give "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" a B+.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

TNG Flashback: Final Mission

"Final Mission" marked the departure of the character of Wesley Crusher, the second time a regular cast member of Star Trek: The Next Generation was written off of the show.

Ensign Crusher has been granted a mid-term entrance to Starfleet Academy, and Captain Picard requests his presence on one last mission as a way of saying goodbye. The two are to travel with a shady shuttle captain named Dirgo to arbitrate a mining dispute. But along the way, Dirgo's rundown shuttle crashes on a desert moon. They all find shelter in a cave, where a mysterious energy force protects the only source of water to be found. When Picard is critically injured, Wesley must find a way to get through the sentry to the water that will keep the captain alive until the Enterprise finishes an important mission and can come to the rescue.

It's inevitable to compare this episode to "Skin of Evil," the episode in which Tasha Yar was written off the series. Both Denise Crosby and Wil Wheaton asked to leave for similar reasons -- both felt they weren't getting enough to do from week to week, and Wheaton in particular felt like he was having to turn down movie offers to keep his schedule free for Star Trek. (He has since written quite candidly about his time on Star Trek.) Where the situations differed is in how the production wanted to handle the exit.

With the distance of more than 25 years, I personally have come to regard "Skin of Evil" as a top episode of the first season. Yet I certainly remember hating it at the time. The fans as a whole weren't satisfied, and the people behind the show felt they'd handled it poorly as well. Head writer Michael Piller resolved to do better with Wesley Crusher's exit, and foremost that meant that they would not kill the character off. They wanted to leave the door open for the occasional return (which did happen), and specifically wanted to fulfill the destiny envisioned by Gene Roddenberry himself. It wasn't particularly creative or surprising, but they finally wanted to send Wesley to Starfleet Academy.

Unfortunately, the sentiment itself is really the only way they "do right" by Wesley in this episode. The script itself is loaded with a lot of what made many fans hate the character in the first place. He's unnecessarily dismissive and confrontational with the character of Dirgo. He's put in a position to "save the day" yet again (though at least this time, it's just Picard and not the whole ship). He's also totally unaware, which actually results in Picard's injuries. (A moment which, by the way, is staged rather unconvincingly; Picard stands in place waiting for rocks to fall on him for at least as much time as it took him to shove Wesley out of their way.)

There are a number of little moments that try at sentiment, but most of them somehow fall a bit flat. Troi tries to comfort Beverly about her missing son, but the doctor doesn't really allow time to acknowledge her feelings. Wesley recalls a past encounter with Picard and confesses how he sees the captain as a father figure, but it feels forced. Part of the reason this material doesn't quite work is that it's crowded out of the episode by a lame B-plot in which the Enterprise has to deal with a "radioactive garbage scow" threatening to contaminate an alien planet. It's a silly gimmick that exists only to explain why the Enterprise is unavailable to rescue Picard and Wesley, but it takes up a lot more screen time than a mere gimmick really should.

Leave it to the great Patrick Stewart to pull things back from the brink. He nails the episode's bookend scenes in which Picard gives Wesley a good-natured ribbing. His story of Academy groundskeeper Boothby is so poignant that the writers would later feel compelled to show the character in person. And he absolutely nails the moment when Picard confesses his envy of Wesley; you know that in that moment, Picard truly thinks he is going to die.

Also elevating things in this episode is the music of Ron Jones. He has several great action cues, from the crash sequence to Wesley's final confrontation with the energy sentry. He has noble cues, restrained but emotional, for the scenes between Wesley and Picard. At one point, he even scores a Lawrence of Arabia-like montage (notably filmed in a real outdoor setting, on one of the series' rare location shoots). Still, it's a shame Jones has to work so hard for an episode that didn't turn out very compelling.

Other observations:
  • In the episode's original concept, the shuttle was to have crashed on an ice moon. Doubting their ability to make that look real on set, the producers asked that it be changed it to a desert environment. (Besides which, couldn't you just melt the ice for all the water you'd need to survive?) Actually, the cave set still turned out rather unconvincing, particularly the near perfectly formed stairs at the entrance.
  • Every now and then, we get an alien race with a weird obstruction of their mouths. I get that there are only so many ways you can modify the appearance of a human actor, but seriously, how would aliens like this eat? For them, the invention of the straw would be as momentous as the discovery of fire.
  • Before Picard and Wesley leave the Enterprise, Geordi does an inspection of Dirgo's shuttle and pronounces it safe. Given that it almost immediately malfunctions, what does this say about Geordi?
  • At the end of the episode, Beverly mentions that the Enterprise search party found Wesley and Picard by first finding the makeshift arrow the latter left at the crash site. But since they were the only lifeforms on the entire moon, wouldn't the scanners have done the job much more quickly?
  • In a nice bit of continuity, Picard in his delirium begins to sing the same song he and his brother sang after their fight in the episode "Family."
"Final Mission" may have been a better intentioned way of writing a character off the series than "Skin of Evil," but the execution didn't get there. I'd call the episode a middle of the road C. Fortunately, it would not be the last time we saw Wesley Crusher on the show.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No Homerun

I recently got to watch last year's film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson's historic break into Major League Baseball. Though a decent enough movie, I think it suffered some for being produced by the Hollywood film establishment; I think that perhaps a better version of the story could have been turned out from an independent producer, or perhaps one of the cable networks.

Credit where it's due: the makers of this movie rightly realized that they needed to cast a relatively unknown actor to play Jackie Robinson. It's hard to imagine a familiar face inhabiting the role of the iconic baseball player without that on some level distracting from the story. Chadwick Boseman plays a credible, likable Robinson, and this may well be the start of a good acting career for him.

But a big studio doesn't want to headline a big movie without a big actor's name above the title. So 42 has Harrison Ford playing team executive Branch Rickey... and I think his presence may be detrimental to the movie. This is nothing against Harrison Ford. In fact, I think this is his best performance I've seen since The Fugitive. He convincingly inhabits a worn-out old paper pusher who has decided to upset the status quo, and adopts a rather un-Ford like physicality and vocal style in doing so.

The problem is, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in professional sports is exactly that: Jackie Robinson's story. And though it's certainly true that some forward thinking executive had to give him that chance, it seems to me that even in the most generous characterization of history, Robinson and Rickey ought to share the credit evenly for the milestone. But by casting a big name, a face as recognized the world over as Harrison Ford, the story balance is tipped inexorably to the executive. It feels like the story of Branch Rickey. And even the script is constructed that way; the first scene is about Rickey sharing his "big idea" with his staff, and the last scene is him alone in his ballpark, quietly celebrating his team's successful bid to make the playoffs.

I think a more independent production would have been content to let some of the other strong actors, several recognizable, carry the movie instead by shining in their smaller parts. And they do. Christopher Meloni is good as a Dodgers coach drummed out of his job. Alan Tudyk is shocking as the racist manager of the Phillies. John C. McGinley steals every scene he's in as radio commentator Red Barber. And you may well recognize one of more of the working actors who populate the Dodgers team.

42 is a well-intentioned movie that just doesn't really manage to give its subject the star treatment it deserves. I give it a B-. It may still be worth seeing, particularly if you're a fan of sports movies, but unlike Robinson himself, it will likely be forgotten in a few years.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Sign of Three

The third series of BBC's Sherlock continues with "The Sign of Three," an odd series of vignettes framed by the wedding of John Watson to Mary Morstan. It offered some of the series best character-based material ever, and yet, like "The Empty Hearse," was not entirely satisfying on the mystery front.

It certainly was a showcase for what makes Sherlock so great: the interplay between Holmes and Watson, between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The episode's somewhat meandering structure, contained largely within the narrative device of Holmes' best man speech at Watson's wedding, was a vehicle for serving up one fantastic scene after another. In particular, Holmes and Watson's drunken night out was the gift that just kept on giving, from Sherlock's attempt to carefully plan their intoxication, to the wonderful game of secret identities, to "contaminating" the scene of an investigation, to Lestrade's harsh handling of them the next morning -- it was all just wonderful, perfectly hilarious material.

Also wonderful was the way in which the character of Mary was fitting into the mix. From using Sherlock to suss out her relationships with her friends, to calling him out on his grandiose stories, to quietly manipulating both he and John to go out together on an investigation -- she's a fantastic addition to the mix, not at all a third wheel. And on top of all the good scenes with her, we had fun moments with Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and Molly too. A feast of great character moments.

But then there was the matter of the mystery itself. For nearly two-thirds of the episode's running time, it looked like there wasn't actually going to be a case, just little snippets of past adventures as related by Sherlock. And though I might have been a little disappointed in that at first, I soon reached a point where the vignettes were entertaining me enough that I didn't mind at all. But then it turned out there was a case in the mix, about a murder attempt at the wedding itself. It felt like a bit of an afterthought, coming so late in the episode. It also felt like too great a coincidence that it happened to relate to the very stories Sherlock had chosen to recount in his speech. Basically, it all came together a bit too quickly, a bit too neatly.

Still, this was probably the most pure fun of any Sherlock episode in any series so far. In a way, it was the show's statement that "we can do comedy too." Overall, I enjoyed it a bit more than "The Empty Hearse," but I'd still probably give it about the same grade, a B+.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Losing Battle

A few weeks back, I wrote about my first exposure to Cards Against Humanity, the "adult Apples to Apples" that invites players to think in ways both crass and hilarious. It's really taken root among my friends; I've already played it more times this year than I did any single game in all of 2013. (And we still have 11 months to go, folks.)

From what I hear, Cards Against Humanity has similarly taken over as the go to party game any many gaming groups out there, so it's no surprise that there are other companies trying to get a piece of that pie. One such effort I recently sampled is "SUPERFIGHT!" (which I will refer to without the all-caps for the rest of this post, to save us all some eye strain).

Superfight is a card comparison game built around the premise: "who would beat who in a fight?" A deck of one color represents the potential combatants: Madonna, a sloth, a ninja, etc. A deck of another color represents characteristics: 10 stories tall, can breath fire, telekinesis, etc. When it's a player's turn to judge, he turns over random cards from the deck to construct an opponent; the other players then submit their own combinations of cards, suggesting what would be capable of defeating the opponent.

The premise is certainly fun enough at its core, and will likely find ardent fans among anyone who has ever had a passionate geek debate over "whether the Enterprise could beat a Star Destroyer" or "who would win if the Hulk fought Spider-man?" But as a game, the execution of Superfight is unfortunately flawed in a number of ways.

First, the decks are loaded with redundant cards. Not only are there multiple copies of certain characteristics, but many of the characteristics are too closely related to one another. You'll find cards for things 3, 10, and 100 stories tall, for instance. It feels like a distinct lack of creativity on the part of the designers, not to mention how it could easily imbalance the scales in any given round.

Second, the characteristic decks are loaded not only with beneficial abilities, but detrimental ones as well. There are cards for "can move only when the opponent moves," "is made of paper," and so forth. Certainly, when geeks choose to debate such weighty issues as "could Batman beat Superman," they'll inevitably start throwing such limitations into the equation ("Batman doesn't have access to kryptonite"). But in the context of a game, it just doesn't play well. A player's hand can easily become filled with negative traits that simply aren't fun to play, while the randomly constructed opponent of a given round can easily become a glass-jawed pushover (perhaps literally) that leaves little opportunity for discussion.

Third, the rules of the game itself are woefully incomplete and not fully functional. They call for each character in a fight to be played with two characteristic cards, sometimes resulting in contradictory or irrelevant card plays. They specify that all cards be played openly -- unworkable for a game if any players are the sort who must have objective rules to play fairly. They allow the judge to pick multiple winners in a round, or no winners at all. These are all choices that seem consistent with the simple "let's imagine who would win in a fight" roots of the idea, but all sabotaging the smooth play of an actual game.

So in the end, you have to give up on Superfight as a game, just go with the flow, and try to have fun with it. And if you're dryly thinking "oh no, you mean you have to just have fun playing a game?", you're missing my point. If Superfight doesn't function as a game, then who exactly is it for and what is it supposed to do? Is the target demographic "people who like to debate fights between fictional characters, but who aren't creative enough to imagine the match-ups themselves?" Is it "people who love nitpicking about possible boons and flaws of beloved heroes, but who don't nitpick enough to want actual rules governing how such a discussion might be conducted?" Anyway you slice it, I think this game is made for a rather small slice of people, and then fails to work in any way that those people would actually be satisfied by it.

However long it takes for a deck of Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity to "wear out" and need a refresher of expansion cards, I'd imagine a Superfight deck would expire far more quickly. Ultimately, it's a game that shows that even when making a party game, there is some true game design that needs to happen for a fun and satisfying experience. The fun idea salvages Superfight from being a total bust, but the amount of house rules you'd need to add to make anything out of it makes it a D at best.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Who's Buying?

There are nine films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, though all the popular wisdom seems to be that only three of them have any real chance of winning: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle. (Generally believed to be in that order of likelihood.) Now that I've seen all of those, I can move on to the rest of the field. Last night, I checked out one that I wish was in more serious contention, Dallas Buyers Club.

Set in the mid-1980s, the film is the story of a Texas man who contracts HIV. When the emerging drug AZT not only fails to help him, but actually takes him to the brink of death, he seeks help from other foreign medicines not approved by the FDA. Soon, he has started up a not-quite-legal, not-quite-illegal smuggling operation to sell these drugs to others also dealing with HIV and AIDS.

Ostensibly, the film is about living with disease, with an undercurrent of sticking it to big government. But in practice, the narrative is framed much more around the transformation of a bigot. Main character Ron Woodroof starts off as a deeply homophobic man. Initially, his emotions over being diagnosed with a terminal disease are equaled -- if not outweighed -- by his frustration at being perceived as having a "queer" illness. But his condition naturally brings him into contact with more LGBT individuals, and a transgender woman in particular named Rayon, and the real arc of the movie covers his initially grudging and ultimately accepting feelings.

This is an example of how to write "based on a true story" correctly. The family of the real Bob Woodroof (not represented in the film) acknowledges that he was indeed a homophobe before testing HIV positive, but insists not as staunchly so as depicted early in the film. What's more, the writers admit that the character of Rayon (and of a doctor Ron comes to know, Eve Saks) are not based on actual individuals, but are composites of people, and loaded with artistic license. These changes from what might have been the bald truth make for a stronger narrative with a story arc and character development, something which Oscar frontrunner 12 Years a Slave struggles with in places. In terms of script, this movie only fumbles a bit at the very end, when (having completed its own character journey as laid out for itself) it has to tack on an epilogue of a few scenes to show us what happened in the end to the real life Bob Woodroof.

Just as Dallas Buyers Club handles "based on a true story" a bit better than 12 Years a Slave, it also handles "actors' showcase" better than American Hustle. This movie is really about some powerful performances, and from some people you might never have expected. Matthew McConaughey is exceptional as Woodruff. Beyond the Christian Bale-esque physical transformation (he lost 50 pounds for the role), there's very little of the "good ol' boy" vibe that marks his most famous roles and his real-life personality. He is in terms desperate, scheming, and charming, and all while never letting go of the obstacle of his disease. And it's a performance aided in wonderfully subtle ways by costuming and makeup. Baggy clothes cinched up by a too-long belt dangle beneath a skeletal and gaunt face that feels utterly real.

Equally powerful is Jared Leto as Rayon. I never thought I'd be praising the acting of a punk-influenced rock star like this, but it's deserved. His character is a compelling blend of moments where everything is perfectly "together" and moments where everything is melting in a hot mess. Most effectively, Leto smartly underplays moments that I think most other actors would have done in a more histrionic way. For example, Rayon's drug addiction doesn't dominate more than it should; and in a scene in which she is forced to dress back up in mens' clothing to go beg for help, you feel her desperation and humiliation without any overly showy hand-wringing.

McConaughey and Leto both won Golden Globes for these roles, and are both nominated for Oscars. Both performances would be worthy winners too. But it's also worth noting that co-star Jennifer Garner is also strong as Dr. Saks, a role that really never would have received Oscar recognition amid the more eye-catching parts. There's a particular moments that make you take notice, where her character's feelings break through her emotional dam. Her character has an important role in the story, and Jennifer Garner handles it well.

Perhaps I can most simply say it this way: Dallas Buyers Club does seem like an "Oscar bait" sort of movie, but manages not to feel like it has its expectant hand out as you watch it. I give it an A-, and the #6 slot in my Top 10 for 2013.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bamboo-zled

I love board game designers Stefan Feld and Uwe Rosenberg, and the wonderfully involved games they keep on creating. Nested machinations, tons to do, loads of bits -- great stuff. But as satisfying as those games can be, it's nice to come across a board game that manages to be satisfying while remaining much simpler. Recently, I found such a game in Takenoko.

From designer Antonie Bauza, Takenoko is a hex tile game. Players take turns maneuvering a panda token and gardener token around an ever-expanding forest where the bamboo grows in three different colors. Each player is armed with hidden cards, each card outlining a specific condition for scoring points. Some ask you to use the gardener to grow bamboo to a certain height in a certain place. Others ask you to move the panda to locations where he'll eat certain colors of bamboo. Still others are looking for the land tiles themselves to be placed in particular configurations. Each turn, you get two actions to try to fulfill your scoring conditions, revealing cards as you satisfy them. The game ends when one player has managed to play eight cards.

Mind you, this game is not "bottom rung simple" in its rules set. Some board games in my collection are even more streamlined (and generally, are much more abstract). But Takenoko is considerably less involved than the games I tend to like most. And I was pleased to find that even stripped down, there was plenty of room to strategize. I felt myself challenged to turn my opponents' contrary moves to my advantage, and to find ways I might maneuver them into doing things I wanted. Plus, it all went down in a rather short period of time; for taking easily half as long as most German board games, it didn't sacrifice half the fun.

Over on Board Game Geek, Takenoko is ranked quite highly in the Family Game category. I can believe it -- both the high score and the notion that a family really could play it together. It's not so basic that you could graduate a small child from Candy Land to Takenoko, but I do think that the manufacturer's suggested "8 and up" sounds reasonable. It might also make a great "bridge" game for any of you out there who wish you could make enthusiasts of certain friends who've never seen a board game you can't buy in the toy section at Target.

I'd give Takenoko an A-. It succeeds wonderfully at what it's trying to be, keeping things more manageable without becoming boring for a veteran gamer.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Years in Review

This week, I saw one of the presumed frontrunners in the Oscar race for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. Based on an 1853 memoir, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free man of the north duped into a trip south, where he was captured and sold into slavery. The film has built a reputation for being tough to watch, though ultimately a brilliant, even essential effort. If Oscar voters are willing to actually consider it, the argument goes, the film will likely wind up as the year's Best Picture.

I don't think it fully deserves the honor. I agree with the praise to a point. The story of Solomon Northup does indeed seem to me as one that "deserves to be known." But I think it's that story that's essential; this film's telling of it is flawed in areas, resulting in a film that is very good, though not great.

If an Oscar were awarded for a single scene, then 12 Years a Slave would certainly earn that. There are several powerful scenes throughout the movie, the most affecting and effective a whipping in the final act. It's a bold, single take of several minutes, with a free roaming camera that forces the audience to take in the horrifying event from every conceivable perspective. And as impressive as the choreography of it is, the performances are stronger still.

But as a whole, the film seems a bit unmodulated. Solomon Northup's tale may indeed be one of relentless woe (though I have read some commentary suggesting that at least some of the film's events have no basis in his original book), but a narrative film needs highs as well as lows. I'd offer as contrast a rival Oscar film, Gravity. Much of that movie is high-ratcheted tension, but it does find quiet moments of introspection and even a note or two of humor along the way, all of which makes the tension stronger still when it comes. Of course, it would take a skilled writer indeed to find an authentic place and way of inserting other tones into a story like that of 12 Years a Slave, but I still believe the absence of any other tone almost numbs the audience in places -- something which this story doesn't deserve.

Ultimately, I'd call that a minor quibble. The larger flaw in the film, in my view, is the casting. I say this even though I can't point to a single bad performance in the movie. The problem is the preponderance of recognizable actors. Oscar-nominated lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is largely unknown (except to fans of Serenity), as is supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong'o. But the film also features Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt. Many of them appear for only one scene. With so few lines and so little screen time, and with the story so focused (rightly) on Solomon, there simply isn't room for even these skilled actors to present us much of a character. And so we're simply left looking at "the dad from Raising Hope," thinking about the new season of Sherlock, or realizing  "wow, it really is Brad Pitt."

Some of the supporting actors get enough screen time, are slightly less famous than the A-listers, or both, to get over this problem. Michael Fassbender, for example, is thoroughly deplorable as plantation owner Edwin Epps. Sarah Paulson manages to be even more oily and unlikable as his wife Mary. But I think it's no coincidence that Lupita Nyong'o gives the best performance in the film, the one all the critics are talking about -- she's the one true unknown in the cast, freeing her up to disappear into her character among all the famous faces.

When the movie is at full stride, it is remarkable. I was moved enough to give it the #8 slot on my Top 10 list of 2013, in fact. (At least for now.) But it's not my favorite among the Oscar contenders I've seen. I'd say it merits a B+ overall.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TNG Flashback: Future Imperfect

In my many reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've come upon great episodes that the writers didn't really know were great at the time; in the rushed schedule of production, they simply didn't know exactly what they had. This time out is a case where I think a pretty good episode could have been great if they had known what they had: "Future Imperfect."

After falling unconscious in a gas cloud during an away mission, Commander Riker awakens 16 years in the future. He's the captain of an Enterprise where everything is changed. He's about to negotiate a important new treaty with the Romulans, and he has a young son named Jean-Luc. But telltale flaws in the reality build up to a big reveal: things are not as they seem, and the Romulans may be trying to trick Riker in an effort to gain sensitive information from him.

"Future Imperfect" was a pitch from an outside writing team, J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carren. Their suggestion for this episode was so well liked that the two were hired on as staff writers for the rest of the season. There's obvious creative potential in the idea of the alternate future, and the episode does mine it exceptionally well. There are all sorts of changes to sets, costumes, and lighting. And there are fun visual changes to the main characters, from removing Geordi's VISOR to putting Data in a red uniform to putting Troi in a uniform, period. (There's extra fun in watching the episode now, 23 years later, when we know what the actors all really look like "in the future.")

But as enjoyable as all this is, it's not the dramatic core of the episode. That, unfortunately, gets a rather light touch. First, there's the reality of what it might really mean to have such severe memory loss, taking away 16 years of your life. An entire episode could dwell on this, but instead the focus seems to be on pushing Riker forward into Romulan machinations.

Still more important is the idea of Riker's son. Chris Demetral as "Jean-Luc" is rather good, more natural than most of child guest actors the show used over the seasons. There's a particularly great scene between him and Jonathan Frakes, set in the turbolift, where Riker recalls how his own father wasn't there for him growing up, and how he means to do better with his own son. Not only is this a fine callback to an earlier episode, but it articulates very emotional stakes for Riker in this story. But it's really the only scene between them to get so personal.

There's a reason for that, it turns out. Halfway through the filming of this episode, the scenes shot to that point had run faster than expected, and the episode was going to come up short of its required run time. The writers scrambled and wrote a scene that night to be filmed the next day, and the turbolift scene was the result. It's the scene that most articulates the main character's stake in the story, and yet it was an afterthought that almost didn't exist.

There might have been more time for scenes like that had the episode adhered to its original concept. But as the writers developed the script from its original pitch, they decided it needed a little something more, and decided to introduce the twist of a "fantasy within a fantasy," of making Riker believe he was a prisoner of the Romulans for an act. It doesn't add much to the story, other than to give us a larger than ever taste of the character Tomalak, played by Andreas Katsulas.

Interestingly, Katsulas himself said in subsequent interviews that he preferred to play Tomlak only on the Enterprise viewscreen. Here, he said he felt "unsupported" in the story, which I take to mean that he found Tomalak to be a rather cartoonish character that only worked when he wasn't actually playing a scene directly with other actors. Perhaps he even voiced this concern to the producers, as he would not appear again until the series finale (and then, on the viewscreen only, of course).

Katsulas was not the only notable guest star in the episode. Carolyn McCormick returned to play Minuet, the character she originated in the first season. But it's a truly odd appearance. She's on screen for no more than five seconds, and hasn't got a single line of dialogue. She's there only as a plot device to puncture Riker's illusion. It's a potent 5-second appearance, story-wise, but certainly an interesting job for an actor to be offered.

Other observations:
  • In another callback to the first season episode in which Minuet first appeared, Riker's trombone playing returns here. And, from the same episode, the game Parrises Squares is mentioned again, and the uniform Jean-Luc Riker wears matches what we saw before (which in this case was hardly a given, since they'd had to have made a all-new costume for the young actor).
  • The regular actors seem to be having a lot of fun in this episode, particularly in the birthday party scene in the teaser.
  • Marina Sirtis is notably strong in the scene where she talks about Riker's wife. She shows an appropriately subdued but palpable sorrow talking about Min's death.
  • The scene where Riker confronts the future illusion, knowing it's a lie, is wonderful fun. It's hard to know what's a bigger laugh, when he tells Picard to "shut up," or Troi's states-the-obvious comment that he's "angry and impatient."
  • This is the first appearance of the character of Nurse Ogawa, albeit in an imaginary future and without a name.
  • The Romulan ship name in this episode, Decius, comes from a Romulan character name in the original series episode "Balance of Terror."
I do wish this episode had embraced its dramatic potential more fully, but the fun of the science fiction premise here is undeniable. The end result is still pretty good. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Essence of Her

This past weekend, I went to see another of 2013's Oscar nominated films, Her. This is the "science fiction romantic comedy-drama" from quirky writer-director Spike Jonze. It may be a hodgepodge of genres, but it's based on a very straight-forward premise: in an unspecified future, a man falls in love with the sentient operating system he installs on his computer.

Spike Jonze began his feature film career directing movies written by Charlie Kaufman, and the "meta" quality of films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation definitely made a mark. Though Her doesn't pervasively flirt with the fourth wall as those films did, there's still something about the movie that slyly winks at the audience.

The romantic story of Her is played completely straight. The main character falls truly in love with his operating system, Samantha, and Samantha for her part is portrayed as an utterly realistic woman who happens to lack a body. The two express real emotions. And yet I found that I myself was never getting caught up in them. For a romantic movie that was generally working well and playing the right story notes, I found it engendered surprisingly little emotion.

And so the most meta level of Her is that it keeps the audience in its own head the entire time. The intellect is always engaged, even while the heart isn't. I was very much aware of when a given moment was being played for a metaphor, or another moment was being manufactured through directorial trickery. And most of all, when the main character reached a point in the film where he began to question himself and question the nature of love, the thoughts he voiced were exactly those the film was putting in the minds of the audience.

The performances in the film are generally good. Joaquin Phoenix is sympathetic as the awkward Theodore. Amy Adams is actually more real and vulnerable here than in her more lauded role in American Hustle. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara are each good in the single scene each of them has. But of course, all the acting talk about this film surrounds Scarlett Johansson, in her voice-only role as Samantha. She does create a believable person who is never visualized, and she does make the central conceit of the film work -- though I would often find myself put off a bit by her excessive use of vocal fry tones. (What can I say? If the voice is all I have to focus on, I'm going to focus on it a lot more.)

I'd hoped to be more swept up in the strange world of Her, but at least it was intellectually stimulating. I'd call it a B overall. It's a solid enough movie, though for me, it wouldn't have made the Oscar cut.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Empty Hearse

After nearly two years (two long years), the BBC's brilliant series Sherlock has returned with a third batch of episodes. The first of the new crop, "The Empty Hearse," had the challenge of resolving the cliffhanger of the second series finale, "The Reichenbach Fall." In this regard, the episode was mostly successful.

Emotionally, the episode was pitch perfect. For poor John Watson, it was no small thing to discover that his dearest friend had faked his death and sent him into an emotional hell. Writer Mark Gatiss didn't just let Sherlock off the hook, and got many wonderful scenes out of the situation. The ultimate airing of feelings in the climactic scene was well done, but the comedic moments were even better. Sherlock's poor attempt to surprise John was excellent, and the later montage interpolating "Sherlock back on cases" with "John working at his practice" was a masterpiece.

When it came to the mechanics of Sherlock's return, rather than the emotion... well, that's a murkier area. I love the way the writing played with the audience, starting off the episode with a scenario for Holmes' survival that was largely based on ideas actually debated (even favored) by fans -- and that is promptly dispatched as totally ridiculous. The use of the "Empty Hearse" conspiracy group throughout the episode as a further stand-in for the fans was also fun. (And it allowed us one more fun scene with Andrew Scott as Moriarty.)

Then came the final explanation, at the end of the episode. It was presented in a way that suggested ambiguity,b ut it's my belief that this is in fact the real solution... at least, as the writers intended it. When "The Reichenbach Fall" was written two years ago, they surely knew exactly how they were going to have Holmes survive his fall. They're dealing with the genre of mysteries, and the character of Sherlock Holmes in particular; they simply had to plan their solution. But I don't think the writers anticipated a nearly two year gap before they'd resolve their cliffhanger. It was simply too much time for their puzzle to be picked apart, too much time for suspense to build and build, too much time for the solution to be satisfying. And so they did the only thing they could: acknowledge that no ending would be satisfying. (Cliffhanger resolutions rarely are.)

On the one hand, the way this was handled was an incredibly faithful treatment of the Sherlock Holmes' character. In the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes was always reticent about the methods of his deductions. He always bemoaned the simplicity and obviousness of his "tricks," which he knew would seem anything but magical when fully revealed. So it's completely in character for Holmes not to concretely reveal the truth here. On the other hand, the resolution truly was a bit of a letdown, and hanging a bell on it still doesn't alter the fact.

But if I'm at all ambivalent about the cliffhanger resolution, I'm not uncertain at all about the other aspect of the episode, the plot to attack the Parliament. It just didn't work. The episode simply had too much to do in wrapping up last season to make proper room for a new mystery. And if my memory serves, wasn't releasing gas into the Parliament (albeit to poison rather than to cause an explosion) the plot of the lackluster U.S. Sherlock Holmes film? It was definitely the weak link of an otherwise very enjoyable episode.

As always, the performances were stellar. Martin Freeman made us feel the whiplash of a man who had finally moved on, only to be jerked back into emotional torment. Benedict Cumberbatch did even more nuanced work, showing us an evolved Sherlock Holmes who now has a better understanding of friendship in general, and this one in particular. Una Stubbs had a fantastic turn as Mrs. Hudson. Mark Gatiss had some particularly great scenes as Mycroft, bantering with his brother Sherlock. And Amanda Abbington was a wonderful addition to the recurring stable of actors, playing Watson's fiancée Mary. (The fact that Freeman and Abbington are a real-life couple is a fun bit of subtext on the proceedings.)

All told, I'd give "The Empty Hearse" a B+. It was certainly a fine effort, but fell a bit short of the impossibly high bar generally set by the series so far. Still, now that the cliffhanger has been dealt with, I believe the series can get back to business. Or, as the episode so appropriately and thrillingly put it, "it's time to be Sherlock Holmes." I look forward to the next episode.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fort Night

I first played the board game Belfort in June of 2012, after returning from my trip to London. I was in a jetlag haze, fighting to stay awake in the hopes of readjusting to my usual schedule, and so I barely remembered anything about the game. A year and a half passed before I finally got to play the game again. Needless to say, I'm better equipped to give my thoughts on it now.

Belfort is a fusion of a worker placement game with a majority territory control game, all dressed in a rather light-hearted story flavor. Players are working to build up the city of Belfort, using elves, dwarves, and gnomes. They gather the resources needed to construct buildings, and those buildings are then positioned in specific districts of town to reward you with victory points when the scoring intervals come around.

Many of the minor mechanics of Belfort have appeared in other board games, but there are a few interesting twists here and there that make the whole of it distinct. For one, workers in this game are not "one size fits all" entities; while some tasks are flexible in what types of workers can be assigned to them, certain kinds of resources can only be collected by specific worker types. It adds an interesting (but not unmanageable) dimension to figuring out how to allocate your people.

There's also an interesting sort of catch-up mechanic embedded into the scoring. During each round, players must pay a tax of one gold for every 5 victory points they've amassed. (If you can't pay, you lose points.) The more you vault into the lead, the more effort you'll have to devote to treading water just to stay there. I'm not sure that I have a strong sense of just how effective this system is (because, after all, the player wouldn't be leading in the first place if he didn't have quite a lot of resources and power), but the idea is nonetheless a clever one.

The tension in building construction is interesting as well. Each building provides a special game power to its owner. But the locations of buildings in the city is how scoring is determined, and each district has room for only one building of each type. That means that sometimes, the building with the effect you think will help you the most might not actually be buildable in a place where it will help you score points. Conversely, prime real estate sometimes comes with an ability you aren't particularly needing.

There's also a shifting turn order in the game. Though actually quite common in German board games, what's less common is that it can be better to go first or last depending on the turn. There's even a possible strategy in hiding in the middle of the pack, where no one else is likely to take your turn number away -- so you won't have to spend a worker each turn on getting to where you want to be.

I'd have to play Belfort some more to determine if it has real staying power, but I did enjoy it enough to want to give it that chance. I'd give it a B+.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Resident Evil

"The Adventure of the Resident Patient" is a middle of the road installment in the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

A doctor specializing in cataleptic seizures comes to enlist Holmes' services. This Dr. Trevelyan has entered into an arrangement where his practice's expenses are paid by a rather mysterious live-in patient. But that patient goes into a rage when it appears his living quarters have been intruded upon by a pair of mysterious callers on the doctor's practice. Information this "resident patient" is withholding will prove key in unraveling the entire strange affair.

The story starts out on intriguing footing, even though there's something about the construction of this mystery that recalls earlier Holmes tales. This isn't the first time the consulting detective has taken on a client who has made a suspicious business deal with an uncertain party. (See "The Red-Headed League" or "The Stockbroker's Clerk," among others.) But here, the atypical job arrangement isn't really the crux of the mystery, as with those earlier tales, but a colorful bit of background.

Yet the story begins to lose steam when it becomes clear that information is being withheld from the readers. Funnily enough, Sherlock Holmes himself expresses outrage in this tale that the "resident patient" is lying to him, and walks out in the middle of the investigation. But Arthur Conan Doyle himself goes on to reveal additional information in the final pages that improbably explains the situation -- information known to Holmes, but only dropped in at the end for us. Also unsatisfying in this case, the guilty parties go uncaptured. Doyle is upfront with this at least, having Watson tell us at the very beginning that there will be something unsatisfying about this particular mystery... but acknowledging the weirdness in the tale doesn't really remove it.

So, as I said, a middle of the road tale, all told. I give this one a C.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Don't Catch It

A week ago today, Syfy's newest series premiered, Helix. It drew decent ratings by the channel's standards, but I'm here to tell you: if you were thinking of checking it out, don't bother.

My own interest in the show was sparked by the fact that Ronald D. Moore (creator of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica) was listed as an executive producer. Actually, I'd been misinformed that he was the creator of this series, and I was very keen to see what he was doing next. But it turns out that he was only lending his name to someone else's project, leaving no other real trace of his involvement.

Helix is the tale of a viral outbreak at an isolated arctic research station, and of the CDC team dispatched to analyze, contain, and cure it. If that sounds a bit like The Thing, you're not crazy. I suspect that's what drew Ronald Moore to the project (since he wrote an ultimately rejected early draft of the script for the prequel to The Thing). Helix clearly wanted to capture the same feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia. But the pilot didn't even manage to do so as well as the first season episode of The X-Files, the Thing knock-off "Ice."

The two-hour premiere began with an interesting enough premise, and I was pulled in enough to want to see what happened next. But as one predictable cliche followed another, all with tin-eared dialogue, the show became a slog. Nor was the cast skilled enough to muscle through the bad writing -- a criticism I'm sorry to say included series lead Billy Campbell. I've enjoyed his performances in other places, but here he adopted a very conspicuous "whisper-talk" that came off like a transparent code for "you're supposed to take this seriously, people." Too gimmicky to work.

With so many good shows already piling up on my DVR, I have no inclination to give this stinker a chance to find its footing. My advice? Avoid it like... well... the plague.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Show Some Hustle

I enjoyed writer-director David O. Russell's 2012 film, Silver Linings Playbook, enough that I was keen to see his newest effort, American Hustle. The film is a period piece, set in the 1970s, about a pair of con artists forced to help a federal agent reel in bigger fish. It's very much an "actors' showcase" kind of film, and so appropriately, Russell assembled a cast filled with actors he's worked with before.

Headlining the movie are Christian Bale and Amy Adams, both of whom Russell cast in The Fighter. Bale once again completely transforms himself physically for one of his roles, becoming a sad slob with an outrageous comb-over, whose one saving grace is his savvy ability to manipulate. Amy Adams plays his partner-in-crime, the more truly skilled of the two, whose chameleon ability to slip into a false identity helps Bale's character carry off his schemes.

The supporting roles are filled mostly with actors from Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper plays the ambitious and psychotic agent who has the two con artists under his thumb. Jennifer Lawrence plays the unstable and crazy (like a fox) wife of Bale's character. And Robert De Niro makes a brief (and amazingly, uncredited) appearance as a mob boss that falls into the agent's cross hairs.

All of these actors have good moments in the film, and generally do good work. But none of them are anywhere near approaching career-best. In fact, all of them gave more compelling and powerful performances in their respective earlier films with Russell. It's actually the newcomers to Russell's "repertory company" that make the greatest impact: Jeremy Renner plays a corrupt mayor everyone is trying to use to get inside a larger conspiracy, while Louis C.K. is wonderful as the much-put-upon boss of Cooper's character. Renner is actually quite sympathetic as an objectively unlikeable character who should be "the bad guy," while Louis C.K. brings in some of the dry humor he does so well on his F/X TV show without disrupting the generally serious tone of the movie. (And don't be fooled by the fact that the Golden Globes inexplicably placed this film in their "Comedy" category -- it's quite serious.)

The movie is decent enough, but there's something about it that never quite gels. At times, it seems to want to be a breezy heist movie, but the stakes often seem too heavyweight for the fun to really take off. At times, it wants to become a film noir, but refuses to give the narrative over to one character to be firmly designated as the "lead." (In fact, the job of narrating is confusingly handed around between three different characters from scene to scene.)

In short, the film is good to a point, but frustratingly unfocused. In all, I'd give it a B-.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seeds

I found last night's new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode to be fairly satisfying. It certainly had a lot of elements in play, more than I might have thought would fit neatly into 60 minutes less commercials.

As expected, the show pivoted from the mystery of Coulson's resurrection to the emotional consequences of it. Knowing now that his memories of what had really happened were faked, he began to question what else about him might be fake as well. It was a real crisis of faith for him, and good use was made of May's character in dealing with it. May has always been portrayed as stalwart and unflappable, but she has always used those qualities for "the mission," not to provide emotional reassurance in the way she did here.

Of course, in the end, it was Skye that ultimately pulled Coulson back from the edge. Interestingly, Skye's story also really showcased how Coulson's ongoing story was mishandled. For nearly as long as we've been asking ourselves "how did Coulson survive?", the series has also been posing the question "what's the truth behind Skye's mother?" I suggested last week that in waiting too long to address the former, the writers created an ever-worsening situation where the answer would have to be more and more outrageous to be worthy of the hype. By contrast, Skye's mystery was much less hyped, and this week's revelation that she herself is an "object of unknown origin" is exactly the sort of grander-than-expected reveal that Coulson's story didn't deliver. Now we'll see if the writers have learned their lesson. The new question, "what the hell IS Skye?" ups her mystery considerably. They'd better have a great answer in store for that one, and/or not take so long in getting to it that the answer no longer seems like "enough."

Another interesting thread in the mix tonight was that, for two weeks in a row now, the series seems to be in the supervillain making business. Last week, it was the coerced Mike Peterson revealed in the episode's epilogue. This week, it was the character of Donnie Gill, who apparently gained cryokinetic powers by the end of the episode. (The Marvel fans on the web say this makes him the character of Blizzard, not that that means a thing to me.) Of course, they did imply the creation of a supervillain earlier in the season (at the end of the first episode to feature the Ian Quinn character, in fact), and that's on top of the repeated mentions of The Clairvoyant, so it might soon be time for the writers to start paying off some of these things. But there was something about Donnie Gill's "origin story" this week, if you will, that somehow felt more compelling than any of the previous tales. This is the one I hope they come back to sooner rather than later.

All that, plus some pretty good scenes for all of the regular characters. I've already mentioned Coulson, May, and Skye, but Ward, Simmons, and particularly Fitz got some decent moments too. And I have to mention Skye's great little joke about how "bad seed" isn't S.H.I.E.L.D. terminology; it's just terminology. Stuffing the episode so full of story while still finding those moments was a pretty deft bit of work.

I'd give this episode a B+, a tick up from last week.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

True Crime

HBO has recently expanded their empire of shows set in Louisiana that have the word "True" in the title by debuting "True Detective." It's a dark-toned crime story, compacted into a brief six episodes. Each season -- should the show be picked up to return -- is planned to feature an entirely new case with entirely new characters. The short episode block and single season arc is deliberately crafted in an effort to attract A-list actors to make a foray into television. This time out, they landed Matthew McConaughey (who can now be called the Golden Globe winning Matthew McConaughey) and Woody Harrelson.

Based on the first episode, it's clear what drew these actors to the roles. Character is king on True Detective. More time is spent painting the picture of who these people are than the case they're working on. That's not really a bad thing, as the picture is a compelling one. The characters played by McConaughey and Harrelson are cast in the mold of buddy cop opposites, in that one is an upbeat, religious family man, while the other is a pessimistic, almost nihilistic loner. But there's far more to it than those simple sketches, and a component to the narrative that allows us to see how the characters change over the course of nearly two decades.

The dialogue on the show is sterling. It is in turns witty, contemplative, illuminating, and chilling. And it rolls of the tongues of the two leads (and the rest of the solid cast) perfectly; it rarely feels conspicuously overwritten, but natural in the mouths of the characters.

Oddly, what's weakest about the show is the case, the story itself. Granted, we've only had the first episode to get into things, but on the surface it all feels very much inspired by imagery seen on NBC's fantastic series Hannibal. And, in a testament to how surprisingly dark that network show is, the HBO version of it is barely any more explicit in its depiction. Of course, True Detective has made clear from the outset that the case won't be as important as the people, so this may not ultimately prove to be much of a shortcoming for the show.

I would give the first episode a B. It's intriguing enough for me to try another episode... and since that will put me one-third of the way through the season, I reckon I'll be there for the duration unless that next episode is somehow terrible.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Asus High

Some of my readers with good memories may recall several months back when I reported on the demise of my old laptop. Though this was not overstated, the report was possibly a bit premature. I went on kinda-sorta using that laptop for the rest of 2013. With the power supply from a different laptop, I was able to continue running the device -- albeit plugged in to the wall, with the battery no longer able to recharge. Between that and my iPad (for which my boyfriend got me a great bluetooth keyboard for my birthday), I felt like I was able to get by.

But of course, the laptop was already slow, and only being able to use it while plugged in sort of defeated the purpose of it being a laptop. So eventually, I had to figure out a replacement. I finally figured out what I wanted, and ushered in the new year with a new Asus Vivobook:



This is my first touch screen PC, but the pump had been primed for that after all those months of iPad use. It wasn't a feature I thought I really needed, but it has proven to sometimes be a handy thing to have.

Of course, as is always the case with a computer upgrade, I'm blown away by how much faster and reliable the new machine is. And after weeks of use, I might finally have all the settings and layout the way I want it again.

So now the cycle can begin anew.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

And the Golden Globes Snark Goes To...

Some snarky friends gathered together at my place to serve up their thoughts on tonight's Golden Globe award ceremony. Here are some:

Just moments in, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler set a high mark unlikely to be beaten with their joke about George Clooney and Gravity.

Sandra Bullock is wearing both cotton candy and neopolitan ice cream.

There are so many orange spray tans going on here that I'm wondering if I need to adjust my television set.

Another endearing speech from Jennifer Lawrence, but her dress is looking "bed sheet wrapped in electrical tape."

Jessica Lange doesn't mind losing her award to Elizabeth Moss; she's being served another drink when the camera cuts back to her.

I don't know who that is on stage with Aaron Eckhart, but she's very tall and being attacked by a ghost.

Armored dresses are a fun trend this year.

I should have realized the best song in any Disney film for three decades had no chance of winning Best Original Song, because Bono wrote something else, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are star whores.

On a similar note, the HFPA wants to meet Jon Voight before he dies.

What's with all the people without speeches ready to give?

Olivia Wilde might be a lizard.

Amy Adams says "you can't play me off," and the music almost immediately gets louder. Challenge accepted!

Robin Wright is sharing some sideboob with us. But then gives the speech we've been asking for all night: I'm not going to do this, thanks everyone, bye.

Colin Farrell seems to think Jared Leto is dreamy.

Emma Thompson is a wonderful actress, of course. But I'm pretty sure she's not acting tonight during her wild, drunken presentation.

Spike Jones, you're a writer, man! Why did you not write a speech?! (Well, he just said it took him three years to write his script, so there you go...)

Bruce Dern looks like he could play the Caretaker if they remake Phantasm.

I enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Way more than I ever thought I would, actually. But Andy Samberg isn't even the best thing about that show. How is he winning an award in his category?

Orlando Bloom is wearing his prom tux.

The show must be running long, because all the banter appears to have been cut.

Even the co-host doesn't have a speech ready? Et tu, Amy Poehler?

Emma Stone has sperm swimming up her dress.

I think if you don't show up to accept your own special achievement award, you forfeit.

Ben Affleck is definitely drunk and slurring his words.

Again... I was surprised how much I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But I'm way more surprised that it's been judged award worthy. (Especially over that competition.)

Props to Leonardo DiCaprio for acknowledging the lack of comedy in the Comedy category. He seems to know that in doing so, he'll never win an award from the HFPA again, because his speech seems a bit "farewell" in tone.

Reese Witherspoon has a nice dress, but it looks like a swimsuit in her closeup.

American Hustle is a "comedy?" It's not even light in tone. Apparently, the standards here are: if you don't feel like killing yourself when it's over, it's a comedy.

The music started up, and Cate Blanchett's speech charged right off the rails.

Matthew McConaughey got applause in my house for accepting his award with "alright, alright, alright." (Do you think his wife really calls him "McConaughey?")

Johnny Depp seems to be slowly transforming into a Johnny Depp character in real life.

Maybe Sarah Paulson should be giving the speech for 12 Years a Slave; she seems to know all the people to thank.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Marvel-less

I recently got to try Legendary, the Marvel branded deck building game from Upper Deck. As with the raft of deck building games that have been popping up since the runaway success of the progenitor, Dominion, this one tweaks a few things here and there in pursuit of the perfect experience.

The approach here is to have a pseudo-cooperative game. Players are all working together to try to defeat a villain (chosen for each playthrough from a larger selection), and if the villain meets his victory condition, all the players lose. But players also maintain their own separate scores; so long as the villain is defeated, there will be a single winner. This isn't the first cooperative game I've seen try to have its cake and eat it too, but it just doesn't seem to be effective here. There really just aren't any mechanisms in place that let players work together. Moreover (at least in the game I played), the villain seemed no threat to win, putting no pressure on the players to table their competition with each other for any "greater good."

The thematic structure of the game is even more ill-considered. In a Marvel game, the natural thing for a fan to want is to be a superhero, or to at least play superheroes. Here, you do neither. The cards you acquire for your deck don't represent the heroes themselves, but actions taken by the heroes, who seemingly swoop in for a moment in your deck, only to swoop in a moment later in someone else's deck. As one of my friends put it, you aren't the superhero in this game, you're the paper pusher who tells the superhero where to go.

Ordinarily, that sort of abstraction in a game's theme doesn't bother me one bit. But here, it's tied up in a very bad art choice on the cards themselves. Individual heroes from the Marvel universe are each represented on suites of 5 different cards. But each of the cards for a given hero are illustrated by the same picture. You don't get five different takes of, say, Spider-man in action -- you get one picture of him, on cards with five different names. This certainly saved on their art budget for the game (which was already low, because I think this art may have been reused from Upper Deck's earlier trading card game, VS.), but it makes the game very hard to play. Whenever a new card is turned over and becomes available for player acquisition, you can't tell what the card is at a glance, because it could be any of five different possibilities.

This inability to recognize cards at a distance magnifies one of the big problems of most deck building games: you don't tend to care much what the other players are doing on their turns. It's common among deck building games just to focus on planning your own circus-like shenanigans, which can often get so convoluted that other players lose interest as it is. Add to that normal inclination the fact that you really can't see what cards your opponent is playing thanks to this art issue, and the wait for your own turn feels even longer. And it feels long. Legendary can be played with up to five players (which is how I experienced it), which amounts to a lot of down time. It took me only a few turns to grow rather frustrated with all the waiting between my turns.

I suppose in fairness, I should say that Legendary didn't really feel all that much less satisfying to me than the other big names in the deck building genre -- Dominion and Ascension. I find the genre to be an interesting idea in principle that I think hasn't quite been executed well in practice. Legendary is no exception in this regard. (Though I suppose there are a plethora of other deck building games out there. Maybe I just haven't played the one for me yet.) I would give Legendary a D+.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Spoiled Entertainment

Some of my readers will recall the pretentious TV mini-series events of the late 70s and 80s -- things like The Winds of War and The Thorn Birds. Those days are living again right now on IFC. Sort of. As rendered by the people behind the web site Funny or Die. They've taken their act to a longer form (but not all that long; the mini-series is six half-hour episodes) to bring us The Spoils of Babylon.

The series pretends to be an epic series made in the late 1970s, self-produced by the insane director who adapted it from his own novel, and shoved in a vault until now. The comedy is very much in the style of the Zucker Brothers or Mel Brooks, in that they'll take a joke anywhere and anyhow. There are puns, sight gags, parodies, prop jokes, sarcasm -- anything. There are jokes about bad writing, bad acting, bad directing -- hammy line deliveries, overwrought dialogue, horrific framing and editing. And if a joke doesn't make you laugh, not to worry, because there will be another one in a couple seconds.

Adding to the demented, hard-to-define proceedings (and greatly increasing the appeal) is the eclectic cast assembled, as varied as the humor itself. You have everyone from A-list stars to hardworking character actors to where-are-they-now child prodigies. You have established comedians and veteran dramatic actors. Specifically, you have Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Carey Mulligan (voicing a character portrayed on screen by a department store mannequin; yes, really), Will Ferrell, and Val Kilmer. Future episodes promise appearances by Michael Sheen, Haley Joel Osment, and Jessica Alba.

What I've seen so far is not the sort of thing to have you in stitches throughout. But it's hard to imagine that you won't laugh out loud at least occasionally, given its crazed, shotgun approach to comedy. It's almost -- almost -- like somebody made The Room on purpose. (Not that anyone could truly capture by intent the insanity that movie managed in earnestness.) And if you missed the first two parts that aired last night, not to worry; IFC is rerunning them in perpetuity all this week and next until the next part comes around.

Based on what I've seen so far, The Spoils of Babylon gets a B+. But don't take my word for it. It really is the sort of thing you have to see for yourself. (And then maybe still not quite believe.)

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Plutocrazy

I had a peculiar dream last week, especially notable for two reasons. First, I woke up in the middle of the dream, but almost immediately went back to sleep and resumed the dream where I left off. Two, that brief interruption completely altered the trajectory of the dream.

I was an astronaut on the first manned space flight being sent to land on Pluto. I was with something like four or five other people (I'm not certain exactly how many), only one of whom had ever been on any manned space flight before. It took us a long time to reach Pluto, of course, but in movie-like fashion, the dream skipped over the "boring parts."

Our ship landed on the surface of Pluto, and we began our first EVA out on the surface. But then there was some kind of horrible calamity. I don't really know exactly what it was, so frenetic was the pace of the dream. But I know it was some sort of fire/explosion sort of thing that disabled much of our vehicle, and killed the one experienced astronaut on our mission. The rest of us frantically scrambled back into the vehicle and rushed to launch back into orbit -- which somehow was going to mitigate the damage and at least allow us a chance of getting back home.

So intense was this part of the dream that I snapped awake in bed, kind of doing one of those cliche gasp-and-sit-up sort of things. Just a dream, I told myself. And actually, kind of a stupid dream, now that I thought about it. Why the hell would anybody plan a manned space flight to Pluto of all places? I laid back down and went back to sleep so quickly that my dream continued.

But the fun part was that that momentary intrusion of real world logic somehow pierced the haze that normally allows nonsense to go unquestioned in a dream. When the dream resumes, I'm suddenly questioning everything about this supposed mission. How could everything go so catastrophically wrong so quickly? And in what seemed like such a specific way as to kill our one experienced astronaut? How did we really get all way to Pluto so fast anyway?

In a short period of time, I've figured out that this entire mission was a hoax meant to fool the world, and even we the "astronauts" on the mission. Our leader, the experienced astronaut, had figured it out first, and so he was murdered as part of an elaborate cover up! We haven't really gone to Pluto, which explains how we got there so quickly, and how a fire was somehow able to spread so horribly in a place that should have no atmosphere! The gravity was all wrong, the time delay of our communications with Earth was all wrong! Actually, if this was meant to be a world-deceiving hoax, they did a really poor job of setting it up. But maybe they meant for it to be exposed?! Why else would they recruit someone like me to be an astronaut? Who would believe that?

And that's more or less where I woke up again, this time to start my day. This strangely cinematic dream, possibly inspired my recent viewing of Europa Report (but actually more like Capricorn One) would go without an ending.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Magical Place

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back on the case after a month-long break for the holidays, with an episode much improved over the lackluster cliffhanger we were left with.

The best material of the episode was the storyline for Skye, making use of all the training Ward has given her to date, embracing her inner May (and impersonating her both humorously and effectively) to go kick some butt in the field. It was nice to see the character forced out of her comfort zone, to find that she wasn't actually as uncomfortable as she might have thought. A nice showcase for the character.

Of course, the main attraction was the long-awaited reveal of "what happened to Agent Coulson?" Well, sort of. We sort of learned the "what" of his resurrection, if not exactly the "how" -- apparently he is not a robot, a clone, or anything like that. In fact, they seemed to be saying that the "how" wasn't actually important. Would any of us really be satisfied to hear a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo that amounts to: Coulson was literally brought back to life with machines and Frankenstein-esque science and stuff? Are we still meant to assume there are further layers of conspiracy for Coulson to mine here?

On the one hand, it was somewhat unsatisfying in its simplicity. The writers strung out the mystery too long, and with each passing week since the series began, the resolution needed to be exponentially better to live up to the hype. Certainly, we didn't get there. On the other hand, the show touched some real darkness, altogether different in tone from its usually light-hearted nature. Coulson was conscious and in intense pain while being operated on? He was begging to be allowed to die? That's seriously messed up, and this being a Joss Whedon-created show, the series is unlikely to just move on from that revelation. This will have some consequences for Coulson, and exploring them might give the series a much needed new dimension.

And for once, the throwaway tag scene after the final commercial was rather compelling. I think all of us in the audience expected that Mike Peterson wouldn't really be dead. But to reveal him maimed by the accident, and now under enemy control as we've seen in past episodes? There should be a good episode coming to deal with all that.

I'd call this a step back in the right direction for the series. "The Magical Place" gets a B.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Brick Out

Around the time Looper came out, I read somewhere that it was actually the second time writer-director Rian Johnson had collaborated with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They had worked together in 2005 on Johnson's debut film, an independent effort called Brick. I put the film in my Netflix queue, and promptly forgot about it until a few days after Christmas. With days to go before New Year's, several entertainment web sites ran stories about movies soon to become unavailable for instant streaming, and Brick kept coming up as one of the best on its way out.

Before sitting down to watch it, I should have been much more curious about what the movie actually was. Had I done so, I likely would never have bothered watching it in the first place.

Brick is a highly stylized film noir, but in the place of gangsters and hard-boiled detectives, the film is set in high school. It's Chinatown meets John Hughes. In many ways, Brick is to Dashiell Hammett what Cruel Intentions was to Dangerous Liaisons. If that sounds appealing to you, by all means, check it out. But I've rarely met a film noir I've liked, and so unsurprisingly, this one held no appeal for me whatsoever.

The film reveled in all the infuriating conventions of the genre. Hammy, overwrought dialogue. A plot both impenetrably complex and glacially slow paced. Characters with interchangeable behavior, differentiated only by their one assigned personality tick and their preposterous nicknames.

The cast all performs in the expected style with earnestness and gusto. There are a number of recognizable young actors; besides Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you may recognize Emelie de Ravin, Matt O'Leary, and Lukas Haas. There's even an odd cameo-like appearance by Richard Roundtree. But if any of them know what the hell is going on in this movie, their performances aren't enough to make it clear to me. It comes off more dense than amateur Shakespeare.

I stuck around through the entire movie just because part of me was curious to see what would happen in the end, but I would have been better served just turning off the movie and going to read an online plot synopsis. I wound up doing that anyway after the clear-as-mud finale.

I'm glad I came across Looper before this film, or I might never have given that movie a chance. I'm also pleased that Rian Johnson has found success directing the work of other writers (including several series-best episodes of Breaking Bad). The one kind thing I can say about this movie is that it captures its desired tone impeccably well. But it's a tone I would never recommend. For the first time in a while, I've found a movie deserving of an F.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Oh, the Humanity!

I'd been hearing about the game Cards Against Humanity from various people for quite some time, and then it turned out to be the Christmas of Card Against Humanity. Not only did I receive a copy as a gift, so did at least three other people I know.

For those who aren't aware of it, Cards Against Humanity can be most succinctly described as the inappropriate, adult version of Apples to Apples. For those who haven't heard of Apples to Apples (really?), here's the less succinct explanation. Each player in Cards Against Humanity has a hand of 10 cards, each one a description of something -- anything from the relatively innocuous ("Dick Cheney" or "Kanye West") to the likely to get a laugh ("A homoerotic volleyball montage" or "Horrifying laser hair removal accidents") to the you'd-better-know-who-you're-playing-with (which includes some things that, if you don't understand, you should NOT Google!). In each round, one player reads a topic ("What gives me uncontrollable gas?" or "I drink to forget ______________."), and everyone else throws in a card from their hand that they think will be voted as the best answer. Hilarity ensues.

In the case of Cards Against Humanity, hilarity can include gasps, groans, and cringes. But in the several games I've already played, it always includes riotous, tears-streaming-down-face, can't-breathe laughter. It's the kind of game that provokes a discussion among friends: could you play this game with your parents? Not for nothing does the game's box promise "a party game for horrible people."

I've played a lot of Apples to Apples over the years, and I have found that eventually the pool of cards wears thin -- even if you don't play regularly. Only time will tell if that happens to Cards Against Humanity. But that said, the fun and laughter I've seen and experienced has been so much greater than I've ever had playing Apples to Apples that it seems to me like even at the worst, Cards Against Humanity will have a far greater "half life" than its stodgy ol' progenitor.

So, if you have a group of party gamers with at least a few dirty minds and a taste for the tasteless, Cards Against Humanity is the game for you. My grade would probably depend on the players one plays with just as much as the game, but in my case, that's turned out to be an A so far.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Witch Way

As 2013 came to a close, I finished the final book of Terry Brooks' Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, Witch Wraith. You may recall that I didn't think much of the previous book, Bloodfire Quest. But Witch Wraith did manage -- somewhat -- to pull the series back from the brink.

Bloodfire Quest suffered from being too similar to prior Shannara novels from Terry Brooks. The quest to renew his magical tree, the Ellcrys, was portrayed more effectively in The Elfstones of Shannara. And he'd journeyed into the alternate land of his exiled demons in the High Druid of Shannara trilogy. But this third book advanced mostly beyond this retrodden ground.

Witch Wraith, like The Elfstones of Shannara, deals largely with the invasion of a demon army into Brooks' mythical Four Lands. But the clash between worlds is presented rather differently thanks to the technological innovations in Brooks' universe between the two books. Where too many fantasy worlds remain frozen in advancement for eternity, Brooks has been gradually adding science to his fantasy over his last several books. The battle between armies in Witch Wraith involves flying airships, laser-like weaponry, and altogether different tactics than the epic battle of Elfstones -- a wise differentiation for this new book.

Brooks also differentiates this book by departing more from his established formula. He always allows a romantic subplot to develop between two of his characters, and it appeared at the end of book two that he had no less than three couples in play for this series. Without providing specific spoilers, I'll simply say that things did not end according to formula for most of the romantic pairings.

I noted of Bloodfire Quest that Terry Brooks seemed to have adopted the "kill all of your characters" style of George R.R. Martin. He continues in that mode here, but has done a much better job of incorporating that aesthetic into his own. It feels less like one author trying to ape another's success and more like an author trying to grow his own skills in a new direction.

But ultimately, the weak parts of this concluding volume are that the general shape of the ending (if not the specifics) are still very predictable, and the fact the the entire series still seems to be a sort of apology for the weak ending of the chronologically preceding series, The High Druid of Shannara.

In all, I think I would recommend this series for Terry Brooks fans. But if that's not you, this final book, though worth a B grade, isn't enough of an improvement over the lacking middle volume to make the full trilogy worth your while.