Friday, February 28, 2014

I'd Rather Not

A friend recently recommended an oddball movie called Would You Rather. The movie tells the story of a wealthy eccentric who invites eight people to a dinner party. All are in desperate need of money, and he is willing to provide all that is needed and more... to the one of them who wins the sadistic game he's crafted. The unwilling players must compromise their principles, and ultimately fight just to survive the ordeal.

Essentially, this movie is the strange love child of Saw and Dinner for Schmucks. It's exactly what you'd expect, a sadistic entry in the "torture porn" genre that is utterly predictable. The ending of the entire movie is readily apparent by the end of the first 30 minutes, with the only mystery the exact nature of the cruel stunts the players will be forced to perform. (And even many of those are rather predictable.)

What friend would recommend this to me and why? Well, a friend who knows I'd recognize a lot of the actors in it. It's peppered with people who have had significant roles on the genre shows that are the bread and butter of folks like us. There's Enver Gjokaj, from Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. There's Lawrence Gilliard Jr, currently recurring on The Walking Dead. Chances are you've seen star Brittany Snow somewhere.

But the real crown jewel in the casting is Jeffrey Combs. Most people won't know his name, but he's the chameleon-like actor who played a half-dozen roles on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise -- most memorably Weyoun, Brunt, and Shran. (And he was completely different in every one of them.) This guy is one of the most underrated working actors today, a man who deserves to be a whole lot more famous than he is. And I'm not the only one who thinks so; when I searched the web for other reviews of Would You Rather, I found an avalanche of praise for his work (including one guy who thinks he gave an Oscar-worthy performance in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners). Jeffrey Combs has a ton of fun in this movie. Frankly, he has more fun that the audience -- but he does manage to redeem an otherwise unwatchable movie. His playful/menacing, insane/sane role as the party host is simply delicious.

Still, if the nicest thing I can say about a Saw knockoff is that it has better acting than Saw? Well, that's not saying much. Even if you're a Jeffrey Combs fan, there are far better choices than this movie. Basically, if you're a "torture porn" horror film fan that wants to see all the movies in the subgenre, this is for you. For the rest of us? Would You Rather is only worth a D, and not worth your time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I'm a huge fan of deduction games. I love Code 777. Sleuth is one of my all time favorites. I even enjoy a game of Clue. So I was excited to try a more recent, pirate themed deduction game: Plunder.

Players each have a three-part code, drawn from three different colored decks of cards. Everyone is trying to ferret out all the other players' codes. (The "codes" are represented by different objects, numbered for easy reference. So for example, your 2-2-6 might be a "spyglass, hook, cutlass.") Separate decks of cards represent multiple copies of all the different possible items in a code. On his turn, a player turns over the top card from each of these decks to establish the code he'll ask about. He gets one chance to reject one of the draws and replace it with a new one. Each opponent must then answer whether his code contains any of the objects presented in the example. You score points for guessing other codes (and more points, the faster you guess them). You lose points as people guess your code.

The trouble is, for a deduction game, there's an really unsatisfying amount of randomness here. I'm not asking for none; the three games I mentioned earlier all have different random elements at play. But here the lack of control seems to frustrate the deductive element.

The random draws of Plunder means you really don't have much control over what information you get to seek on your turn. Sleuth gives you a hand of questions to choose from. Code 777 turns things around so that you provide information on your turn rather than seek it. Clue gives you control over all the information you seek (although you do have to be in the room you ask about, so the die can be a factor there).

In Plunder, you don't direct your questions to specific players, so often your opponents are learning the same things at the same time you are. In both Sleuth and Clue, you can pitch your questions to people (and do it using information you have that opponent's don't), controlling how much opponents get to learn from your fishing. And again, in Code 777, at least you're getting information far more often than you're giving it, thanks to the inverted questioning system.

In Plunder, there's no way to conceal bits of information from anyone; you always just have to answer whether you have any of the questioning cards in your code or not. Clue only forces you to reveal one card when you have multiples in your hand, giving you a chance to conceal information. Granted, Sleuth and Code 777 also have no mechanism for concealing things, but the more complex matrices of those games make you feel less bad about what you are forced to give away. More importantly, you aren't directly scored on your hidden information! In Plunder, you lose end game points every time someone guesses your code correctly, and there's not a thing you can do to stop that from happening!

In Plunder, there doesn't appear to be anyway to go back and reference earlier information you got. In Sleuth, Code 777, and Clue, the discovery of one card often lets you recall back to earlier questions and concretely eliminate other options. But in Plunder, learning that an opponent holds one card does NOT mean he might not ALSO have one of the other cards in a question he answered positively for.

In short (too late), the game feels like a bit of a craps shoot. I suppose that might -- might -- make people less inclined to enjoy a deduction game give this one a shot. But I think it frustrates the true fans of the genre in the process. I give it a D.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Not So Fantastic

Not long ago, I took a chance on an older, classic film (as I occasionally do). The 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage was a Jules Verne style tale of a group of people miniaturized in a custom submarine, injected inside a human body to conduct a delicate brain surgery. It inspired many subsequent films, some more generally by the visual effects, a few quite specifically (like the 80s comedic take on the premise, Innerspace).

The movie has aged better than many of its contemporaries, but it shows its age nevertheless. The pace is not as languid as many films of the era, but it's still slow. The premise is treated more seriously than those of other sci-fi films of the time, but there are still more than enough plot holes to snap you out of the narrative. The acting (from a cast that includes Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasence) is not quite so self-aware as you usually see in a classic movie, but the dialogue is still silly enough that the more naturalistic approach can't always make it believable.

The movie's visual effects clearly inspired films that followed, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. All three of those films employ visuals that are quite well realized for the time, and must surely have cost a fortune, and thus the movies often linger on them too long (to get their money's worth). Conveying a sense of wonder becomes more important that keeping the plot moving. Fantastic Voyage is also a tangential part of the disaster film family that got skewered hilariously in the movie Airplane. Some of the situations and characters here, and even occasionally the very dialogue, are so close to that of the later parody that it's nearly impossible to take it seriously.

More interesting to me than the movie itself were some of the stories I read after the fact about its novelization. The filmmakers went hard after noted author Isaac Asimov to write it. He reportedly resisted at first, citing numerous holes in the plot. He spotted all the ones I did watching it, and many more (most of which revolve around miniaturized debris being left inside the patient at the end of the movie to presumably expand back to full size and kill him after the end credits roll). Asimov ultimately did agree to write the novelization, provided they let him fix all these problems in his version. The result was a book subtly different from the movie, and because Asimov wrote with such speed once he signed the deal, he published six months before the film was released! Apparently, some audience members thought the movie was actually the adaptation, of "an Isaac Asimov book."

But if what happened behind the scenes was interesting, what wound up on the screen just wasn't nearly as interesting to me. I'd give Fantastic Voyage a D. Film buffs might want to give it a look, but I don't think I'd recommend it otherwise.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ultimate Failure

On occasion, in discussing other games, I've mentioned that when my gaming group gets especially large, we sometimes like to play a game called Werewolf. It's a simple hidden identity game you can play with a few cards from a standard deck. In successive rounds, one or two "werewolves" kill off other members of the group, as the remaining "villagers" try to identify and lynch the guilty one(s). If the werewolves (aided by mistaken, bloodthirsty villagers) kill off enough of their prey before getting caught, they win; if the villagers find and kill the werewolves, they win.

Over the years, there have been a few different products trying to package the concept up in a pretty way to sell cheaply. One recent effort along these lines caught the attention of my friend: One Night Ultimate Werewolf. The appealing promise of this incarnation was that no player needed to sit out as the "moderator" -- an iPhone app could be downloaded to narrate/officiate the game.

Unfortunately, the makers of this product made other key changes that completely gut Werewolf's already debatable value as a game. They decided to take out the "eliminations" from the game as well; everyone gets to play. A noble goal, perhaps, but utterly foolish. The key to Werewolf is the successive rounds and the dwindling pool of players. Players try to use logic and manipulation to identify the werewolf based on the victims he has taken. Without successive rounds -- a history of data upon which to draw -- Werewolf is just a crap shoot. Who did it? Was it that guy? Nope? Well, game over! There's no deduction, no social interaction, no game. One Night simulates exactly what its title says, and it's utterly meaningless.

The story doesn't even make sense any more when distilled to this level, as someone in our group hilariously pointed out. The entire premise of a mob out to string up a werewolf depends on them having found a brutalized body after the night of a full moon. Without a victim, then you have a weird Shirley Jackson story or something. The village wakes up one morning and decides to lynch someone! And even if they luck out and kill a werewolf, the werewolf was just as innocent as any other villager, having not actually done anything!

Even if you like social party games, even if you like Werewolf in particular, there's sadly nothing here for you in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. It's a total bust of a game that surely can't have been playtested. It took us mere minutes to conclude, as a group, things were seriously amiss. Perhaps you can use the snazzily produced pieces for your own purposes, but otherwise the game can only be called an F.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Days of You're

I recently watched an independent horror movie released last year, You're Next. It tells the story of a wealthy family uniting to celebrate the parents' 35th wedding anniversary, only to come under siege by a masked group of vigilantes. It's the building blocks of The Strangers, with a dash of The Purge, and other new ideas swirled in.

The film caught my attention for some of the people involved. Oh, they're not people I really know by name, but I am familiar with their work. One of the smaller roles in the movie is played by a man named Ti West, who wrote and directed the surprisingly good horror film The House of the Devil. This movie apparently came from some of his friends, and drew upon much of the same talent pool both in front of and behind the camera. I was very curious to see what else might come from that circle.

The film starts off quite strong. The first hour is wonderful, building a gradual sense of dread and then lighting the fuse in an exciting way. But unfortunately, the film doesn't sustain. That seems to be because the filmmakers had other goals in mind. By the end credits, it has become abundantly clear that You're Next was never meant to be a pure horror movie. Instead, it aspired to be a kind of black comedy. (Very black.) What starts off playing things straight is really going for laughs by the final act.

But the journey isn't as smooth as it should be. The film very slowly stirs in the laughs at first. By about the mid-point, when it reaches a Scream-like level of humor, things still feel fairly natural. The movie has signaled well that it's okay to laugh, without getting too crazy. But the filmmakers wanted to go farther, and they didn't have much movie left to work with. And that's when things get too over the top. Things take on a sudden Home Alone kind of vibe. The dialogue turns preposterous. Even the music suddenly transforms into a ridiculous, low quality synthesizer score. It's clearly all intentional, but it's jarring, and a failed fulfillment on the fun promise of the opening acts.

Still, it's impossible to dismiss the movie entirely, because it is a really well made horror for the first hour. Snarky characters, clever deaths, tense situations... the people here knew what they were doing. I just didn't love everything they wound up doing. All told, I'd give You're Next a B+. Horror fans will almost certainly want to check it out, but this is no genre-hopping must-see for the rest of you.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Don We Now

Last year, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt made the jump to triple threat by writing and directing his first feature film, Don Jon. He sought the advice of directors he'd worked with, Christopher Nolan and Rian Johnson. They strongly encouraged him to cast someone else to star in his first film so that he could focus on things behind the camera, but Gordon-Levitt had a vision and forged ahead.

Interestingly, it's not the directing I found lacking, but the script. Don Jon is the story of a young man trying to make a relationship work with a new girlfriend, stymied by two obstacles: her efforts to mold him into a movie-perfect fantasy boyfriend, and his addiction to web porn. It sounds like a simple concept, and there indeed really isn't much more to it.

The movie is peppered with some interesting character sketches, cast with interesting actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself is good as the matter-of-fact Jon, whose narration plausibly spells out why for him, porn is better than an actual woman. Scarlett Johansson plays the girlfriend Barbara, and is a woman you can imagine a guy like this wanting to change for. Julianne Moore plays Esther, a more insightful woman the main character meets while attending community college at the urging of Barbara. Don Jon's father, mother, and sister are played by Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, and Brie Larson; the characters are rather stereotypical, but all three have fun playing with it. Also look for some brief but fun cameos by Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum as movie characters Barbara eats up with a spoon.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt develops a strong style for the film -- rapid cuts for emphasis, good use of repetitive staging, knowing when to hold on an actor's face while they do their thing. But the story simply isn't that interesting. The exploration of the "he likes porn, she likes romance films" premise is decidedly one-sided, and the resulting conflict seems trivial. It hardly seems important to either of these characters whether their relationship survives or not, which may be an accurate behavior for the characters, but makes for a rather dull movie.

Style and performances count for something, but only enough to pull this movie up to a C- in my book. Probably the best thing to come from this movie are the lessons Joseph Gordon-Levitt hopefully learned, should he choose to make another.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Towering Achievement

One of designer Stefan Feld's more recent board games (and of all his efforts, surely the one with the largest box) is Amerigo. It's loosely themed around exploring islands and gathering commodities in the New World. It carries many of the hallmarks associated with most of Feld's games, and one big new twist.

As almost always, there's a "Feld track" (as my gaming group calls it), used to determine the order of play each round, and on which players jockey for better position. There's a relatively easy to understand system where commodities of five different types can be found on the islands, and multiplier tokens for each of those can be purchased to enhance end game scoring. There's an array of special chips giving the players who purchase them unique powers during the game.

But the major mechanic of the game is something different entirely. One of the more unusual games in my own collection is Wallenstein. Rare enough that it's a German board game that actually involves taking of territories through warfare, but the mechanic for doing so involves tossing players' cube tokens through a tall tower structure with an array of obstructing baffles inside. The cubes that actually make it to the bottom without getting stuck are used to determine the outcome of fights.

Amerigo takes this same tower concept and uses it in an entirely different way. Here, the colors of the cubes represent all the different actions players can take on their turn. Each round, a fistful of cubes are tossed into the tower, and whatever emerges from the bottom governs the available actions players can actually take. You can do the action corresponding to any one color that emerges; the potency of that chosen action is equal to the number of cubes of the color that showed up most.

The result of this system is clever and fun. And a bit diabolical. Nearly every German board game, and certainly all of Stefan Feld's, puts you in a position of wanting to do many more things than you actually have allotted actions to work with. In Amerigo, the opportunity to take those actions becomes a determining factor as well. You want to take the blue action to move your ships. Do you do that now, or risk waiting for the next time a blue cube happens to fall from the tower? You want to take land tiles with your red action? Well, you can do it now -- but you'll only get to buy 3 points' worth of tiles. Do you delay your entire plan and hope that red drops again soon with more cubes so you can buy more land?

It's a bit challenging to wrap your brain around, and I did rather poorly the first time I played Amerigo. But the second time, having an idea of what was to come, I resolved to focus on fewer things and not let myself get distracted by the shiny objects of sudden opportunities. That time, I was able to win. Yet with the randomly distributed islands with their randomly distributed goods, the random array of point multiplier tiles available for purchase on any given turn, the random bonus tiles, and the ever present chaos of the tower, it seems unlikely that any one strategy you dream up will work every time in this game. You have to adapt on the fly. And yet all this randomness seems to affect players evenly, and results in probabilities you can analyze rather than totally unpredictable events. This is to say, the game doesn't actually feel that random when you play it, which personally is how I like my German board games.

I'm not sure Amerigo has risen to the ranks of a new favorite yet, but it's certainly a game I want to try again. Subsequent plays will help me figure out whether it lands as an A- or B+ on my list. But if you're a gamer, it's definitely one you should experience for yourself.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Old Model, New Manufacturer

After being infected by the world's catchiest song this weekend, I also went to see the new remake of Robocop. It will probably be impossible to review it without talking some about the original, and at least casually brushing up against a plot point or two of the new one. So if you're looking for the spoiler-free summary: it was decent, but not great. Good enough to justify the remake (beyond financial reasons), not good enough to be a real triumph.

The rest of you who have either seen the original, or don't care? Come with me.

There are some very smart decisions at the core of the new Robocop. Script writer Joshua Zetumer recognized the commentary buried in the blood and guts of the original, and did a very credible job of updating it to today. Media satire was a small piece of the first film, and it's brought front and center here. Samuel L. Jackson is featured prominently as a loudmouth political talk show host named Pat Novak, and his schtick is brilliantly only a notch or two past the sort of person you see on television today. Corporate greed, also an element of the first film, is also given a modern coat of paint. The corporate evil of this Robocop manipulates politicians and lives by focus groups. It frankly feels like an accurate reflection of reality, rather than a heightened satire of it. (Sigh.)

Smarter still is a decision to change the nature of the main character. The Alex Murphy of the original becomes an emotionless machine, oblivious to his past. The arc of the film is his slow realization of who he once was. The Murphy of this film remembers everything from the moment he wakes up as Robocop, and the film devotes a great deal of time to exploring the real emotional toll of a trauma like that. The emotional consequences figure much more interestingly into this film. Hand-in-hand with that are brushes with philosophy, the nature of free will, heady stuff for the average action movie.

Alas, the film then becomes the average action movie. Somewhere around the halfway point of the film, everyone seems to remember that the audience came to see people get shot and stuff. And while that's not wrong, it's still sad how quickly the movie dispenses with everything that makes it an intriguing improvement on its predecessor. Murphy is purged of his memories by the scientist that built him, and from there the movie follows rather stalwartly in the steps of the original, telling the story of a machine who slowly remembers he's a man.

This part of the movie is far less satisfying than the original for a number of reasons. One is the tame PG-13 rating. This is a violent vendetta movie, forbidden from actually having much violence. Though there are one or two moments I'm shocked they got away with (the reveal of what's really left of Murphy, for example), things simply don't get visceral enough -- particularly if you have in mind the over-the-top insanity of director Paul Verhoeven's original.

Another problem is the unsatisfying array of villains. The original had Ronny Cox as the slimy Dick Jones and Kurtwood Smith as the sadistic Clarence Boddicker. Oh, how you wanted to see those two guys get what's coming to them in the end. Here, Michael Keaton's character of Raymond Sellars is reasonably oily, but not wicked enough to instill real hatred from the audience. And Patrick Garron as Antoine Vallow barely even registers. He's such a non-character (and Murphy's "death" in this film so comparatively tame to the original) that you hardly even care if Murphy catches his own "killer." A third quasi-villain is manufactured out of Jackie Earle Haley's Rick Mattox, but he doesn't quite get there either.

Joel Kinnaman makes for a solid lead, but when the plot shoves Murphy back down into the machine, he doesn't have much to do. Still, there is some bright stars in the cast. I've already mentioned the brilliantly cast Samuel L. Jackson, whose scenes are the hilarious highlights of the film. Also wonderful is Gary Oldman as conflicted scientist Dennett Norton. He injects as much angst and uncertainty into the film as it will allow before taking off on the action rails.

If the movie had stayed the course and continued to "dare to be different," I think it might have ended up as something truly special. Instead, the result starts strong and finishes weak. I'd put it about on par with the original, which I think never tried for lofty heights, but benefited from knowing this and ended up as a fun sort of robosploitation film. This new incarnation of Robocop gets a B-.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Ton of Bricks

This weekend, I went to see The Lego Movie (apparently a week after everyone else in the universe did, judging by the enormous opening weekend box office take.) The movie is the newest effort from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team who wrote and directed the surprisingly entertaining Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Though I found it not quite as good as that previous effort, it was still a very fun film, equally enjoyable for children and adults.

Any CG-animated film about toys is inevitably going to stand a bit in the shadow of Pixar's superlative Toy Story series. In particular, the Lego Movie is traveling some of the same ground plot-wise as Toy Story 2. (A version of the "toys are meant to be played with" message at the heart of that film is the basis for this movie's "moral.") Still, the Lego Movie changes things up enough that you don't really sit there thinking "this is just like Toy Story 2."

Indeed, you hardly have time to think much at all, as the Lego Movie is an endless onslaught of jokes in all sizes and styles. Puns, sight gags, groaners, pop culture references... you name it, it's in there. Not since Airplane has a movie so doggedly sought to bury you under an avalanche of humor until you just give in and laugh already. (Not to mention that you've never in your life had a song stuck in your head as thoroughly as you will the penetrating earwig "Everything Is Awesome.") The plot holding these gags together is a bit loose, but there's something about the result that makes this not matter much. (There's also a predictable but appropriate explanation in the final act for how scattered everything has been.)

There's quite a cast assembled for the film. Chris Pratt is the "Everyman" hero Emmet. Will Ferrell channels shades of his villain Mugatu (from Zoolander) as the evil Lord Business. Elizabeth Banks is fun as Wyldstyle. Will Arnett is perfectly cast as Batman. Morgan Freeman has never been as playful as he is here embodying the wizard Vitruvius. Liam Neeson similarly cuts loose as Bad Cop/Good Cop. Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and Cobie Smulders round out the secondary characters -- and that's not even getting in to the sprinkling of cameos throughout the film.

All told, I'd give the Lego Movie a B. I'd say its sky-high score on Rotten Tomatoes is a consequence of it being almost impossible not to at least "like" the film. It isn't quite a film to "love," though I can't imagine anyone would regret checking it out. (Except maybe later, when you can't get that song out of your head.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Aloha, Gamers

Though I actually received the game as a gift quite some time ago, it's only recently that I was finally able to crack open the board game Hawaii and give it a try.

From designer Greg Daigle, Hawaii is at its core an action point game where players take turns moving across an island gathering tokens. The game uses two currencies: one for movement of the player marker, the other for purchasing the tokens in each location. (A third "wild" currency can be used as -- but not mixed with -- either of the two.) Tokens expand a series of villages that the players maintain, providing extra benefits during play or points for end game scoring.

The configuration of the island is randomly determined for each game. Because players must start each round at the "coast" and travel inland (paying for each step taken), different playthroughs can be very different -- it's the resources positioned farthest inland that wind up being the most scarce and difficult to acquire.

The real meat of the game is in how tokens are acquired. A series of price chips are randomly distributed each round, and there are no less than four twists they put on the game. First, the chips not only change the cost of tokens each round, but the number of times that players may acquire tokens of a particular type. Second, virtually every token in the game is double sided; whenever you acquire one, you can pay double its purchase price to flip it over to a second side that is twice as powerful.

But the biggest wrinkle of all is that you might not always want to pay the cheapest price you can. Whatever price you pay, you take that price chip and place it in front of you, contributing to a cumulative total for that round. Each player who reaches a certain threshold before the round is over is eligible to score points, with the first and second place players getting a significant bonus. (When you pay double, you only get the "single" value toward your total for the round -- a very challenging consideration to balance.)

Still not enough for you? Well, price chips come in two colors, and the chips of one of those colors will score you here-and-there victory points for particular tokens you might have acquired earlier for your village.

The game plays over five rounds, and most of those are a bit daunting for your first playthrough. But this is definitely one of those games that isn't actually as complicated as it sounds. By the end of the game, you realize all you've done wrong. By the second game, the game is running so smoothly that four players can complete it in about an hour.

I've played it a bit, and I really like all the strange gears and cogs in play here. But I'm a little hesitant about that price chip scoring mechanic I mentioned. So far, in each game I've played, the winning player has been the one who invested most heavily in that. Other strategies have been in the running -- trying to capitalize on the best round end bonus every time, trying to acquire tiles that generate lots of that third "wild" currency. But they've always fallen a few points short of the "nickle-and-diming at every step along the way" strategy. Still, I'm not yet ready to declare this a core imbalance of the game. And even if it were, the fickle nature of the price chips and the randomized island setup might render that strategy untenable in any given play of the game.

In short, this is quite an interesting little creation from a designer I didn't know before. It plays out very differently with different numbers of players. And it moves rather swiftly for its myriad of possibilities. I give it a B.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Not-So-Final Problem

Although I'd never read it before, I was generally familiar with what I was going to read in "The Adventure of the Final Problem." This was the story in which Arthur Conan Doyle created the character of Professor Moriarty and killed off the great Sherlock Holmes.

From what I have read, Doyle felt that writing Holmes stories was too base, too pulp, and that the effort was keeping him from more serious writing. He felt compelled to kill off his creation so that he might move on, and "The Final Problem" was crafted specifically for the purpose. What he didn't anticipate was the reaction of his fans.

It seems to me that a modern version of the situation might be when the writers of a long-running television show are trying to craft the perfect series finale. Many fans have a wildly different idea of what would be the appropriate ending than what the writers themselves plan to deliver. Doyle, of course, didn't have the advantage (or disadvantage?) of the internet; what fan letters he might have received couldn't really have provided him detailed insight into what his fans might expect of a Sherlock Holmes finale. (After all, they didn't even know the end was coming.) Doyle could only offer what he wanted in a finale. But the trouble is, all he really wanted was "out." And so "The Final Problem" is actually a rather unsatisfying ending for the great detective.

Doyle takes great pains in the story to spell out how he believes he has the perfect ending for Holmes. No less than four times in the narrative, Holmes states point blank that if only he could take out Moriarty, he would consider his life's work complete. Holmes even says to Moriarty himself that he'd willingly give his life to assure that end result. It's Doyle's message to his readers: Holmes is alright with this end, so you should be too.

That premise is sound enough. The problem is that we don't actually get to see that end. When the climax at Reichenbach Falls arrives, Watson hikes an hour back down the mountain under false pretenses and isn't there to witness the final confrontation. When he realizes he's been duped and returns to the scene, he finds only Holmes' trademark hat, and a hastily scrawled farewell letter that Holmes says Moriarty allowed him to write before the two fought to the death. Watson reads the signs (as Holmes himself would have done, he writes), and can only conclude that the two men went over the falls together.

We the readers are thus cheated out of the finality of seeing Holmes' actual death. We have only Watson's post hoc interpretation of events. And frankly, given how often Watson (as written by Doyle) has posited theories of crimes that Holmes dismissed as just this side of stupid, Watson is simply an unreliable source of information. The overall takeaway from the story is thus one of: "That's it? That can't be it!" It's no wonder fan outcry was intense enough to compel Doyle to eventually resurrect his character for further adventures.

Parts of the story do work. Moriarty is a clever creation; it's little wonder that the character so captured the imagination of later writers who would adapt the Holmes universe. An "evil version" of Sherlock Holmes, equally skilled and clever, a "Napoleon of crime." What's not to love? Also great is the tone of the narrative, as told by Watson. His grief over the loss of his friend is well realized through the repressed, "stiff upper lip" ideals of the time and place.

But the ending isn't the only flaw. Moriarty's villainy is rather abstract, and established by Holmes' account of the man rather than through any objective examples of his plots. An important Macguffin is largely unexplained: Holmes says he must go into hiding for three days in order to ensnare all the minions in Moriarty's web, but there's no hint as to why this is, or how the wait will accomplish this end.

Perhaps strangely, reading "The Final Problem" actually gave me a greater appreciation for just how smartly the BBC series Sherlock treated their story of Moriarty. They shored up many of the flaws in the original, and twisted others to their advantage. Moriarty was built up as a villain in early episodes, in advanced of his first appearance rather than half-heartedly insinuated into past tales as Doyle does. Moriarty displays his evil in stark action and not in the mere abstract, most dramatically in "The Great Game." And then the climactic episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," pays everything off brilliantly. Doyle's plotting oversight, that we have only Holmes' word of Moriarty's villainy, becomes a major plot point. And then Watson is there in person to witness Holmes' "death," which seems quite definitive, inescapable even, compared to Doyle's loosely woven original.

I think in his rush to be rid of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle didn't deliver the finale his creation deserved. Fortunately for him (though he might not have seen it that way), it wasn't really the end. The long shadow cast by Moriarty makes it hard to give "The Final Problem" a truly weak grade, but I'd call it a B- at best.

Monday, February 10, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Loss

With the season four departure of Wesley Crusher, Star Trek: The Next Generation was now down to the core cast of seven characters that would carry them for the rest of the run. The first episode with that smaller ensemble was "The Loss."

When the Enterprise is caught up in a mysterious interstellar current, Counselor Troi suddenly experiences the loss of her empathic abilities. As she tries to cope, the crew tries to escape from the colony of two-dimensional lifeforms that is carrying the ship along to certain destruction in a cosmic string fragment.

According to head writer Michael Piller, somebody was pitching the idea of "Troi losing her powers" every single season. Here, feeling that the show was overdue for a Troi-centric episode, he decided to pursue the idea. Unfortunately, the episode was a bit of a misfire -- and Piller himself even acknowledged as much in later interviews. There's a lot of "air" in the episode, scenes that seem to linger a little too long, a mark of loose editing necessary to pad a fast-running episode out to the necessary run time.

But the core problem with the episode is the difficulty in relating to the situation. Producer Rick Berman was fascinated by the idea of Troi losing a sense that no one else around her could appreciate losing, but the trouble is: neither could the audience. And the writing just doesn't handle the idea credibly in any case.

Everyone rushes to the conclusion that Troi's loss of empathic powers is a permanent condition. Even though the characters acknowledge that this happened at the same time the ship became trapped by the two-dimensional creatures, no one seems to seriously entertain the notion that breaking free from the creatures might restore Troi's empathy. It's difficult to say exactly how much time passes in this episode, but it seems no more than 24 hours after Troi's loss that she's pronouncing herself "disabled." Now sure, there are people out there who find a mole on their shoulder and immediately suspect cancer, but it diminishes Troi's character to make her such a person, and undercuts Crusher's expertise that she can't offer any insight one way or the other. (Troi makes her pronouncement before Beverly has come anywhere close to exhausting any search for a remedy.)

But even if you grant all this overly dramatic behavior in such a compressed time frame, the episode still doesn't quite work. The analogy is laid out for us very clearly in the episode -- Troi has lost one of her senses; it would be like one of us suddenly losing our sight. Yet she doesn't even realize it for a while. I know for damn sure I'd notice if I suddenly couldn't see! And once she does realize it, no one seems to take her panic seriously. Everyone plies her with pep talks and platitudes: she can still do her job, she'll get used to it in time. Are these the things you'd tell a person who was struck blind? In time, absolutely. But mere hours after it had happened? This isn't a skinned knee; you don't tell someone to dust themselves off and play through the pain in a situation like this.

Come to think of it, with all this talk about comparing the situation to losing one's eyesight... what if the episode had actually been that? Sure, it was conceived out of a need to have a Troi story, but wouldn't it have been more relatable as a Geordi story? All the other story beats could have been exactly the same. The aliens' presence could have overloaded Geordi's VISOR rather than Troi's brain. Where Troi was forced in the end to reason through the behavior of the aliens without her empathy, Geordi could have been forced to figure out a technical solution for the ship without the benefit of his sight. (Although I suppose they already did a "blind Geordi" subplot in the episode "The Enemy.")

Despite the problems, the episode is rather notable for featuring real conflict between recurring characters. Gene Roddenberry was generally against such writing, despite that being the core of good drama. For a while, the writers had been sneaking conflict in through guest characters clashing with the regulars. Here, they flew in under the radar by making Troi understandably "not herself," panicking in her circumstances and lashing out at the other characters. She snaps at Riker, rebuffs two attempts by Picard to give one of his typical encouraging speeches, and has a great exchange with Guinan. Her most overt clash is with Beverly Crusher, though given the usual lack of conflict between the show's characters, this scene might go too far. Even though Troi's situation warrants sympathy, even though she apologizes for yelling at Beverly at the end of the episode, Troi ends up coming off badly for doing it just because it's so unusual for the series.

Other observations:
  • Picard's horseback riding hobby gets a brief mention in the teaser, a nice callback to an earlier episode.
  • Fans of The Next Generation will know that Worf is always making suggestions that Picard shoots down. Here, for once, when Worf suggests shooting something as a solution to a problem, Picard actually agrees!
  • Marina Sirtis has said that she received very positive feedback on this episode from fans with disabilities. Perhaps my lack of empathy for Troi's... uh... lack of empathy... comes from my own privilege and good fortune?
  • Michael Piller said in later interviews that the writers briefly considered the idea of making Troi's sensory loss permanent. Perhaps this explains why the writing seems so fatalistic in this regard. Although I'm usually a fan of a show shaking things up, I think they made the right choice in not doing so here. There simply wasn't much to Troi's character beyond her empathy, and I think losing that would have made her less interesting in the long run (as they struggled to find uses for her in stories), rather than more interesting.
An obvious idea, seized on only because the writers had no better Troi idea, resulted in, well, an obvious episode that felt like it had no better idea. Some of the good character moments keep it from being a total (ahem) loss, but the episode is still definitely subpar. I give it a C-.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Adventure Begins

Back in November, as part of the BBC's 50th anniversary celebration of Doctor Who, they premiered an original docudrama about the series' genesis, An Adventure in Space and Time. I recently dug out from under the DVR backlog a bit and got to watch it.

The film was certainly a love letter to the series, written by one of the people who loves it most: Mark Gatiss, one of the creative minds behind the modern incarnation of the show (and creator/writer/actor on the BBC's Sherlock). In particular, the film is a look at the three-year tenure of the First Doctor, William Hartnell, until his replacement in 1966.

As is often the case with biopic movies, An Adventure in Space and Time doesn't quite have any sort of grand message behind its narrative; it's simply showing how things were. On the other hand, biopics also rarely have much of a character arc either, beyond the exhaustive chronicling of the main subject's life. Here, this film does better, following the changes in the life of not just one person, but two.

William Hartnell's tale is a bittersweet one, of an aging actor almost resigned to being typecast in undesirable roles at the end of a long career. Suddenly, he's swept up in a wave of fandom that brings him success greater than he's ever known, but his own failing faculties sadly keep him from staying with it as long as he might have chosen. We get a happier story in the career of Verity Lambert, the tough producer who became the BBC's first female to occupy such a role. She comes to believe in the project even more than the executive who assigned her there, and succeeds despite impossible limitations in creating a massive hit.

Ultimately, the movie is more simple entertainment than anything else. It works as such mainly on two levels. One is the performances, from two actors in particular. Brian Cox plays BBC executive Sydney Newman in a way that's just enough cliche without being tired. And David Bradley is excellent as William Hartnell. Not only is he relatable and ultimately sympathetic, but dressed up in the Doctor's costume, he actually looks the spitting image of the real William Hartnell.

The other entertainment is in the numerous loving Doctor Who references and Galaxy Quest-style jokes peppered throughout. I'm sure I only caught half at best, as I'm hardly what you'd call a big fan. Still, I smiled at Hartnell's determination to make the buttons on his TARDIS console makes sense, at the executive's desire to cast a new Doctor to bring about a "renewal or regeneration" of the series, and much more.

An Adventure in Space and Time was hardly a revelatory movie, but as a loving look back at the roots of Doctor Who, it works quite well. I was entertained enough to give it a B.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

"I'm Gonna Wreck It!"

Do you remember Rampage, the classic arcade game where players become giant monsters in competition to do the most damage to a city? Well, clearly board game designers Antoine Bauza and Ludovic Maublanc do, as this seems the clear inspiration for their game of the same name.

Rampage is a "dexterity" game in which players physically play out the same scenario. The board is populated with wooden people of different colors, supporting multi-story buildings made of thick cardboard levels. Players flick their monster tokens around to move, pick them up to drop on buildings, and even lean over the board to place their chins on top of their pieces and literally "huff and puff" to blow things down.

A few simple rules are included to bring order to the chaos. Each monster begins with a number of teeth representing how many people they can eat each turn. Clashes with other monsters, or knocking people off of the board, costs you teeth. You score points for each level of a building you clear, each tooth you eat from another monster, and for each set of people (one each of six colors) you eat. A small deck of "trait" cards lends some variety for replays: monsters get special powers they can use (some only once per game) and special conditions for which they alone score end game points.

As I'm sure you've surmised by now, this is no brain burner. This is a first or last of the night kind of game, something fast and simple to play when you are waiting for people to show up or trying to tempt them not to leave yet. As such, I find myself comparing it to other fast and easy games like For Sale, and feeling like it's not really going to be my first choice. It's just a bit too loose weave and too random for my tastes. But it certainly is different, meaning it's hard to make a direct comparison. (You're not going to talk a group of people who want to play Rampage into playing For Sale instead!)

So for those differences, I give Rampage a passing grade. It's one I won't seek for my collection, but I wouldn't mind playing it now and again. I'd give it a B-.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Way Out

When Jim Rash isn't busy getting huge laughs as Dean Pelton on Community, he's an active screen writer. His work on The Descendants won him an Academy Award, and last year he added "co-director" to his resume by helming his own script, The Way Way Back.

The Way Way Back is a quiet coming of age story about a young teen named Duncan, forced to summer in Cape Cod with his mother and her new boyfriend. Nothing is going right for him until he meets the quirky man-child running the local water park and begins working there. Gradually, he begins to come out of his shell.

The interesting cast of the movie is what drew my attention. Toni Collette plays Duncan's mother. Steve Carell is cast somewhat against type as her overbearing boyfriend that gives young Duncan a hard time. Allison Janney is a boozy neighbor, while Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet play a free-spirited Cape Cod couple. Sam Rockwell plays the wild water park owner, and Maya Rudolph is his much put-upon employee. Jim Rash himself turns up as another sad worker. Even the young boy, Liam James, might be familiar to you if you're a fan of the TV series Psych. (He played "young Shawn" on the show for many years.)

The cast isn't the problem with this film, though. It's not even the directing, despite the fact that both Rash and his writer-director partner Nat Faxon were both new to the job. It's the aimless script, a huge drop in quality from the effort that won the two of them their Oscars. As my boyfriend humorously but astutely put it, watching this movie is like taking a bite of a hamburger, chewing it for an hour, then spitting it out -- which is to say that the movie seems like it will be good, but never actually gets there.

The first 20 minutes or so is a brisk and fun setting up of the characters. So many odd quirks are in the mix that some sort of hilarity seems sure to ensue. But once things are established, no plot truly manifests. We kept waiting for a narrative, but the film plowed along in its loosely woven "slice of life" mode. The story, such as it is, is nothing more than young Duncan's depressing life slowly (oh so slowly) becoming somewhat less depressing. A moment or two comes where it seems sparks might fly, that a plot might manifest, but things quickly settle back down into their rather dull norm.

In the end, there simply isn't much here. The performances are entertaining in places, but then it's not like this film was intended to offer a lot of belly laughs. The Way Way Back is a forgettable, D+ movie.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Naval Idea

By the time of "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty," it seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle was keen on switching up his established Sherlock Holmes formula in various ways. He'd done a "flashback" to Holmes' earliest case, he'd brought in a family member, he'd depicted cases where Holmes did not "get his man" in the end -- anything to mix things up for his readers (and possibly to keep his own boredom at bay?). This time out, he lengthened the formula.

"The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" is the longest of all the Holmes short stories to this point, and noticeably so. Obviously, Doyle had written two novels with the character to kick things off, but since then he had settled down into a short story formula that went generally went like this: a vignette about Holmes and Watson to get things rolling, a recitation of the case background by the client, Holmes mysteriously going about his investigations and/or baiting a trap (usually overnight), and then Holmes' reveal of the solution (usually the next day). "Naval Treaty" adds extra steps: Holmes fails to crack the case in his first night of deliberations, returns to his client and receives an update of events that transpired in the interim, then baits his trap for that evening, to ultimately crack the case on day three.

I believe Doyle added this wrinkle in an effort to stress the high stakes of this crime. A man has been asked to copy out a sensitive treaty between England and a friendly country, but it's been stolen from his possession. The client fears it man be sold to England's enemies, scuttling the entire treaty and causing an international incident. (In a fun reflection of the times in which this was written, the two named enemies are France and Russia.) Some online critics have suggested Doyle was grasping for the prototype of what decades later would become the "spy thriller" genre, though I think this case is far less visceral than that.

The solution to the case is found by pursuing one of Holmes' deductive maxims, though it isn't explicitly articulated during this tale: when you eliminate all the other options, whatever remains must be the truth. The circumstances of the crime, particularly the fact that the treaty hasn't been sold to enemy countries by the time Holmes is on the case, leads to its solution. It's a cleverly constructed mystery, though the fact that it does take so long to play out does make the pace feel slack in places.

One other odd fact about this story, which I read online: in Watson's introduction of the case, he mentions by name two other cases he might have written about on this occasion, before dismissing the first ("The Second Stain") and settling on this one to regale us with. Interestingly, years later, Doyle would actually write "The Second Stain" story. We get barely enough details of it here to constitute anything like foreshadowing, but it is interesting how the simple mention of it does work to strengthen a sort of grand continuity of Sherlock Holmes that lends authenticity to the body of work.

As for this story? "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" gets a B- in my book.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned from a short break last night... only to frustratingly go back into hiding for another month, thanks to other networks running scared from the Olympics. This was just long enough to give us a hit and run cliffhanger to last us until March. But it was also one of the better episodes the series has managed to serve up.

The "same event from multiple perspectives" device is hardly new, but it was new to this series. Moreover, they used it in effective way that didn't just gradually unfold the plot at an interesting pace, it put emphasis on character moments. In particular, it let us see a few character pairings that haven't really received much focus before.

Coulson and Ward were played largely for comedy, but this was a solid writing choice. From the beginning, Coulson has been a solid vehicle for humor on the show (largely thanks to the skills of Clark Gregg in the role), so pairing him with Ward allowed for some of that to rub off. Ward has been such a steadfast stick in the mud, arguably even more so than May. (May at least gets a few deadpan moments now and again.) Watching Ward struggle with the holotable was such a ridiculous moment, and yet oddly may have rounded out the character more than anything outside of his childhood back story. (And it was just plain funny too.)

Skye and Fitz was an interesting pairing too. We've seen both "in the field" before, but not really together. Both seem to be getting competent enough at this that the writers won't be able to convincingly play the "fish out of water" beats with them much longer, but they nevertheless got some good juice from the fruit here.

I feel like my memory must be on the fritz, as my recollection of the previous episodes were that we the audience learned Skye was an "unknown object," but that Coulson had kept that particular information from her. But sure, let's just jump ahead to Skye chipping away at this newest mystery. Letting things simmer too long was a problem for the Coulson mystery, so if things will be moving faster with Skye, I have no objection.

Then there was the continuing saga of Mike Peterson. I'm intrigued at the possibilities of the critically maimed yet still superhuman soldier he has become. The whole "Deathlok" thing is meaningless to me (other than all the entertainment news articles that have touted how it's meaningful for comic fans), but as long as the writers keep focus on his personal, emotional torment and keep him a real character as opposed to a cartoonish cipher, I think I'll be satisfied.

Stan Lee's cameo? Whatever.

I'd give this one a B+. More so than for the "mid-season finale" cliffhanger of Coulson's abduction, I admit I'm interested to see what happens next.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

All That Jasmine

Woody Allen's latest film, Blue Jasmine, missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but all the smart money is on its nominated star, Cate Blanchett to take home Best Actress. I was curious to see what all the fuss is about.

Blue Jasmine is the story of a falling-apart woman whose rich husband has been caught up in a financial scandal, leaving her alone and penniless. She moves across the country, and in with her sister, to try to get back on her feet again.

Generally, I've thought better of the Woody Allen films in which he himself does not appear. I find his overly neurotic behavior cloying and phony, and for me it detracts from all the films in which he appears. Still, even the more recent films he did not insert himself into tend to have a "Woody Allen character" in them. (In Midnight in Paris, for example, it's Owen Wilson.) Blue Jasmine is interesting in that the "Woody Allen character" is female. There are different traits in the mix, and a very different kind of back story, but still -- close your eyes, and you can hear the rhythm of Woody Allen in Cate Blanchett's delivery.

Of course, Cate Blanchett does far better with the character. Her role, Jasmine, is an almost thoroughly detestable one. Her character is spoiled, oblivious, entitled, condescending... a litany of traits for which the audience would like to see her be knocked down a peg, even though the movie already begins with her having been knocked down several. It's a testament to Blanchett's utterly believable performance, that somebody actually could be like this, that the movie is watchable at all. In fact, Jasmine is actually funny at times. And by the end of the movie, impossibly, she's sympathetic. It's hard to rank Blanchett's very emotional performance here against other nominees like the wisely understated performance of Amy Adams amid the self-indulgence of her co-stars in American Hustle (though, as I noted, still not her best work), or the technically demanding work of Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Suffice it to say, Cate Blanchett deserves this Oscar nomination, and I certainly wouldn't begrudge her the win.

There are other good performances throughout the cast. Sally Hawkins plays Jasmine's sister Ginger (get it?), and is compelling enough to get you wrapped up in a subplot that you realize afterward was almost certainly unnecessary to the movie. Louis C.K. also shines in a brief appearance in that subplot. Alec Baldwin is wonderfully charming/smarmy (smarming?) as Jasmine's corrupt husband. Peter Sarsgaard is winning as a new man in Jasmine's life

That said, the movie doesn't amount to very much beyond the good performances. I mentioned the unnecessary subplot. Also, the main plot itself feels too much inspired by Tennessee Williams' famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire. As soon as the final credits role, and the skilled actors are no longer right there before your eyes working so hard to make the movie enjoyable, you begin to realize you've had an appetizer or maybe a dessert, but no meal to fill you up.

I'd give Blue Jasmine a middle of the road C. If you like good acting, then it's probably worth your time to see Cate Blanchett in a great performance that likely will take home an Oscar statue. Otherwise, only Woody Allen devotees need apply.

Monday, February 03, 2014

His Last Vow

In the moments after "His Last Vow" ended, I felt that this final episode of the third series of Sherlock was my favorite of the batch. But given a little time to reflect, I became less sure of it.

Certainly, this was the most plot driven episode of the lot. Where "The Empty Hearse" and "The Sign of Three" only carved out a handful of minutes for a traditional mystery, "His Last Vow" was predominately about the emergence of Sherlock's new heir apparent to the supervillain role, Charles Augustus Magnussen. Much of his introduction worked. He was oily, unlikeable, and as played by actor Lars Mikkelsen, took command of the screen whenever he appeared.

But that said, the character's actual villainy was less clear. While his threat to control people was clear enough, the fact that we never actually saw an example of him exploiting his information by actually carrying out any threat against someone made him feel all bark and no bite. You had to reach back into "The Empty Hearse" for an example of him actually doing anything, when he was responsible for almost burning Watson alive -- and yet his confession here that he never would have actually let Watson die seemed to undermine that. It simply fell to Sherlock to tell us all how much we should hate Magnussen, and the choice of words he used in doing so illustrated another reason why Magnussen wasn't quite a satisfying villain. Sherlock called him "the Napoleon of blackmail," which certainly seems like a downgrade from "the Napoleon of crime" -- all crime -- that was Moriarty.

I was alarmed at first at the plot twist regarding Watson's new wife Mary. I'd enjoyed so much how the character had fit into the show in the previous two episodes that the revelation here that she was some sort of "bad guy" made me feel like the writers had made a misstep. Fortunately, there was more to this change-up than met the eye. It wasn't about making Mary a new villain for Holmes and Watson, but about serving up another devastating emotional blow to Watson -- and brilliantly showing him rise above it. (Stellar work by Martin Freeman, by the way.)

Of course, an even bigger character moment was in store for Sherlock. The whole episode -- and really, this whole batch of three episodes -- was leading up to this. Sherlock had encountered a problem that had no resolution in cleverness or deduction. He'd spoken of thinking about murder before, as a mental exercise. And now he committed one in reality, gunning down Magnussen in cold blood. It was a shame to lose the new supervillain before he'd even really gotten started, but in service of such a game-changing moment for Holmes? Probably the right choice.

As they were shipping Holmes off to eastern Europe at the end of the episode, it felt false to me. The show had done cliffhangers -- and damn good ones -- at the ends of both previous series. It seemed like the writers were reaching here to try to do the same thing. But then came the twist to save it, as Moriarty literally broke in right as the credits were about to roll to offer us the real cliffhanger. And perhaps it was his final question that exposed the real shortcoming of this episode, this season: "Did you miss me?" Yes. Yes, we did. Although the show was great before Moriarty showed up, it had been merely "pretty good" in this batch of episodes, after he was gone. (How telling was it that his cameo appearances during the first and last episodes were highlights of those episodes?)

The big character moments for Holmes and Watson's made "His Last Vow" enjoyable. But the misfire with Magnussen did make it a bit of a disappointment. In all, I'd say the episode was about average for this third series, which is to say I'd give it a B+. Though still very good in the grand scheme of television, this group clearly fell short of the sky-high standards set by series one and two.

But that doesn't mean I won't be looking forward to series four.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Music for a Journey

The Desolation of Smaug may be the most recent Hobbit movie, but my music collection is lagging behind the times in this area. It's only recently that I picked up the soundtrack to the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. (The special 2-disc version of the soundtrack, in fact.)

The composer on Peter Jackson's new trilogy is Howard Shore, the same man who created the wonderful music for the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. There simply could be no one else for the job; Shore's music is as much a part of the identity of Middle-earth as John Williams' is for "a galaxy far, far away." I mention the Star Wars scores very deliberately, because as much as I love John Williams, what Howard Shore has done in the Hobbit films is superior work in the face of similar challenges.

The scores for the classic Star Wars trilogy are all-time greats in the history of film. The expanding leitmotifs of the series are as recognizable as the characters they accompany. But when it comes to the prequel trilogy? You'd have to find a true aficionado who could hum any of that music (outside of possibly The Phantom Menace's "Duel of the Fates"). You could say that the scores were a perfect match for the films, in that both were a disappointment.

Howard Shore had a similar task in writing music for The Hobbit films. He'd created a large library of themes for The Lord of the Rings that would need to be incorporated, but expanded upon. The story, set a generation earlier, used only a handful of the same characters. And any new music would need to feel like it integrated naturally with the old.

For negotiating all those challenges so skillfully, the score to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a major accomplishment. Shore is unafraid to make use of his old themes, particularly that for the Hobbits and the Shire. Phrases of Sauron's theme are deftly woven in as well, to punctuate references to "the enemy" and "the Necromancer" throughout the film. All of this fits like a well-worn shoe, and grounds the score in the familiar.

But there's a host of new music as well. And it isn't simply content to blend quietly into the whole. Radagast receives a racing, manic theme that perfectly embodies the flighty character. An intimidating male choir supports the menace of Azog and the Orcs. The Dwarves get a strong but wistful melody as well, the same melody used for the song of the Misty Mountain. This is a particularly skilled accomplishment, as any Middle-earth fan of any reasonable degree will be well familiar with the old "Misty Mountain" song from the 1977 animated version of the story. Howard Shore managed to compose a similar but different tune for Tolkien's lyrics -- even though he surely must have had the older version blaring in his mind.

I find myself listening to the soundtrack for An Unexpected Journey far more than I recall ever listening to those of the first three movies,in fact. And I generally find myself only skipping things I would likely have cut from the film itself too (such as the dopey "Blunt the Knives" song in the overlong "rude house guests" sequence). For music that plays as well on its own as it does with the film for which it was written, I give Howard Shore an A-. I expect not to be so slow in picking up the soundtrack for the latest movie.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

One Feld Swoop

I recently got a chance to play Bruges, one of the newer efforts from a favorite board game designer of mine, Stefan Feld. Most of his games are rather involved affairs with multiple mechanisms all precariously balanced against one another, taking at least 90 minutes to play. But occasionally, he aims for something more compact... and Bruges is such a game.

The gameplay of Bruges revolves mainly around a large deck of five different colors of cards, divided into two piles. The fronts have all sorts of characters the players can hire, while the backs are marked in a way that you can tell which color a card is as it sits atop the two piles. Whenever a player is to draw a card, he chooses whichever pile to draw from that's offering the color he wants. Color is important, as every card can be played to take a variety of basic actions (instead of paying money to hire the person depicted on its face). Cards are needed to claim spaces on the board, hire workers, construct houses for your character cards to be played in, and generate income.

There are plenty of things to do in the game (even without Stefan Feld's customary "turn order track" to fight over), and yet the means for doing them are very simply connected to the cards in a way that makes the game far easier to understand quickly than Feld's other games. But the character cards themselves offer plenty of variety to dive into. In fact, many of the character cards have powers that make Bruges considerably more interactive than many German board games. Player interaction in these games is often indirect -- doing things yourself before an opponent can do them, working to gather different resources than an opponent, and so forth. Bruges character cards can steal from opponents, capitalize on the actions they take, and just generally gum up the works at times.

But it all comes back to that relative simplicity in the core rules. Bruges can be played in under 60 minutes, and is plenty satisfying in that time frame. These days, I don't find I need to purchase many board games; friends of mine are building substantial collections of their own, and seem to get to them first. But Bruges is the first game in a while that I found myself thinking "I might want a copy of that one, even though someone else has it." I'd want the option to play it, whether or not my friend who owns it is around.

I think it's another winner from Stefan Feld. How it holds up through repeated plays remains to be seen, but as of now, I'd call it a solid A.