Friday, March 28, 2014

Last... But Least?

Last Will is a game that might well have been called "Brewster's Millions: The Board Game." Players are each heirs to a small piece of an eccentric relative's vast fortune, and must be first to completely spend all their money to win the game and claim the entire inheritance.

Each round, a board is filled with various tiles, representing different bad investments. There's rapidly depreciating real estate with high upkeep costs, enormous yachts to rent and sail around the world, well-paid servants, and the like. You also draw a number of cards each turn to use in conjunction with your tiles. There are lavish nights out for dinner and theater, dates to take with you on your wild adventures, and more.

There's a lot of flavor here, but there's something about the gameplay that feels a bit lacking. The cards, drawn randomly from round to round, seem to have a bigger impact on the game than the tiles acquired openly and in direct competition with the other players. In other words, the random element often feels like it's louder than the non-random element. And while there are certainly many different cards and tiles to work with, not many of them truly feel like different strategic approaches to the game, so much as different flavors of the same strategic approach to the game. That is, the game looks like it has more tactical variety than it seems to actually have.

The game played fairly quickly, and I think I liked it at least well enough to try it again and see if there was more "there" there than I was suspecting. But the people I played with didn't seem to care for it as much. I'll be surprised if this one ever makes the rounds again. I might have called it a B-. (Maybe, with further evaluation.) But adjusted for the general opinion of the group, I think I'm going to give it a middle of the road C. If it's not already in your game collection, it's probably not worth picking up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Release the Hound!

Almost a decade after killing off his famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reversed course. He wasn't yet prepared to bring Holmes back from the dead, but he did decide to write a new adventure set in the years before the character met his end. Doyle also changed things up in the format. Instead of creating another short story, he returned to the full length novel that first introduced the detective. And so The Hound of the Baskervilles came to be.

The Hound of the Baskervilles might just be the most influential tale Doyle ever wrote. It's the story of a wealthy old country man who dies under mysterious circumstances, having perhaps been frightened to death by a ghostly hound that has allegedly haunted his family's manor for generations. Now that the man's only living heir is taking over the estate, Holmes must get to the truth before this phantom reappears.

This is the first time that Doyle ever wove anything overtly supernatural into a mystery tale, and you don't have to look far to come up with countless writers since who took the idea and ran with it. Standing on the shoulders of The Hound of the Baskervilles is everyone from Stephen King to Scooby Doo. (Indeed, the true nature of the ghostly hound feels like a scheme that would have been revealed by the latter.)

That said, it's probably not Doyle's best effort from a writing standpoint. Within his clever construct of a story, he really plays around with style more than he should. It's easy to understand the impulse; if he was going to return to Sherlock Holmes, he would certainly want to do something different. But the narrative is a bit choppy for this experimentation. After starting off in the traditional style of Watson writing a post hoc chronicle from his own memories, two chapters in the middle suddenly switch to a transcription of letters Watson supposedly wrote at the time. It's also not very effective to separate Holmes and Watson for the middle act of the tale as Doyle does; fans clamoring to see the two characters together again after so many years must surely have been disappointed to have them apart for most of the novel.

Still, the mystery holds together fairly well overall. The writing is more brisk than most of Doyle's efforts, despite the greater length. And as I said, the influence this story had on the genre can't be underestimated. I'd rate The Hound of the Baskervilles a B. If you're curious about the tales of Sherlock Holmes, but don't plan to read them all as I'm doing, this story at least should be on your "must list."

Sunday, March 23, 2014

TNG Flashback: Data's Day

Although Star Trek: The Next Generation had a rather entrenched format, the writers would occasionally bend the rules a bit to try to do something different. "Data's Day" is one such episode.

In a letter to Bruce Maddox, Data recounts his activities throughout one particular day aboard the Enterprise. He is serving as honorary "father of the bride" in a wedding between Miles O'Brien and his fiancée Keiko -- while also having to negotiate her last minute doubts. The ship's current mission is to transport a Vulcan dignitary to a summit with the Romulans. And throughout it all, he comments on everyday social interactions with his friends.

The idea for a "day in the life" episode was something the writers had been kicking around since an outside pitch of the concept was made during the third season. They'd considered using Picard as the point of view, and for a while even the Enterprise itself. Ultimately, they decided they did need a character at the core, and Data was the most logical one -- the only character awake 24/7. Brent Spiner is given a lot of voice-over narration for the episode, far more than the traditional "captain's log" entries, but carries the hour well.

The writers had also been planning for a while to feature a wedding on the show. Those plans, believe or not, also had centered on Picard for a time. I couldn't find any interviews explaining how they settled on O'Brien, though I suspect the writers simply wanted to keep all the romantic options open for the main cast.

There are quite a few "firsts" in this episode. Keiko makes her first appearance. Although it would have been nice to meet O'Brien's bride before the big event (for instance, the detail that Data introduced them is a fun one), at least the writers didn't then abandon the character. Keiko would show up many more times, both on this series and Deep Space Nine. Data's pet cat Spot also appears for the first time. And so does the ship's Bolian barber -- though he's named V'Sal in the script, not Mot. (Neither name is given on screen.)

Data interacts with nearly every character at one point or another, and many of the scenes are very thoughtfully constructed. There are the expected (but good) scenes in which Data mediates the pre-wedding jitters between Miles and Keiko. There's a lovely moment between Worf and Data, in which the latter comments on their being "kindred spirits" aboard the Enterprise. There's an especially strong scene with Counselor Troi.

And, memorably, there's the dance sequence with Beverly Crusher. Gates McFadden is an accomplished dancer outside the show, whose credits include all the choreography of the movie Labyrinth. The show finally found a way to use that skill here. The producers reportedly handed off this entire scene to her and Brent Spiner. McFadden choreographed everything and did all her own dancing. (Spiner occasionally, but obviously, relied on a double.) The two even suggested most of their characters' dialogue for the scene -- practically unheard of on a show that typically called the writers from the set just to change a word or two during filming. And what the two did with this freedom was wonderful. The dance scene is light and fun, and the comedy plays well.

What doesn't work so well is the episode's "A plot." Producer Rick Berman and head writer Michael Piller reportedly both insisted there had to be some big plot to carry through the episode; character vignettes weren't enough, nor was the wedding storyline. And no surprise, the story of a Romulan infiltrator returning home to her people feels tacked on and shallow. The big moment of the infiltrator's faked death is dealt with awkwardly in dialogue, taking place off screen. It also doesn't help that the actress playing her gives an obnoxiously wooden performance, not remotely excused for the fact that she's posing as a Vulcan. The actor playing Romulan leader Mendak is almost as stilted. Composer Ron Jones really has to amp up the music on these Romulan sequences to inject tension that simply isn't there.

Other observations:
  • The dialogue in the wedding ceremony is deliberately similar to that from a wedding depicted in the original series, in the episode "Balance of Terror." (Also with a heavy Romulan storyline.)
  • Let's just drop the pretense that Picard isn't comfortable around children. The moment where he goes to the newborn baby and says "welcome aboard" is surprisingly poignant.
Despite the unnecessary Romulan elements, most of the episode is good. It's particularly fun to watch Data repeatedly display an understanding social nuances he claims not to fathom. He catches himself subconsciously manifesting a nervous tick. He says he has no "gut feelings" or intuition -- in precisely a moment where he's displaying just those qualities. It's fun writing, and a too-rare opportunity to just see characters interact. I give the episode a B.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Prison Watch

In the run-up to the announcement of the most recent Oscar nominations, I heard a few critics talking about the movie Prisoners. It deserved to be in the Best Picture race, they said... though it probably had no chance of making it. Indeed, they were right about the second part. As to the first?

Why check out a "not even a nominee" when there are still three actual nominees I haven't seen? Because this one sounded a whole lot more interesting. A suburban family is fractured when the young daughter vanishes, apparently abducted, along with a neighbor girl. When the police quickly nab a suspect only to just as quickly clear him, the father of one of the girls is pushed over the edge. Certain of this suspect's guilt, he begins to take matters into his own hands, crossing boundaries of legality and morality to get his little girl back.

The film has a hell of a cast. The leads are Hugh Jackman as the father, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective. But that's only scratching the surface of a group loaded with Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, and actors who appeared in past Best Picture contenders. There's Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano, and several more good, working character actors you'll probably "know from somewhere."

And the performances really are wonderful. In any other year where the field wasn't so crowded, Hugh Jackman could have been in the running for Best Actor. Paul Dano is put through the wringer. Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Maria Bello are all wonderful as grieving parents who deal with their losses in very different ways from the hero.

But the plot isn't entirely there. It is largely satisfying as a mystery, because the plot is rather tangled up and not easily unraveled. But as a study of character -- which seems to be the movie's true aspiration -- it's a bit lacking. Hugh Jackman's character unravels, to be sure, but it's an awfully quick journey that doesn't feel earned. It also feels "complete" far sooner than the end of the film. His behavior is perhaps -- perhaps -- understandable, given the situation, but the film moves too fast for it to be sympathetic. And because of this unnecessary haste early on, the middle of the film drags. The characters have gotten where they're meant to go emotionally, but the plot isn't ready to be unraveled.

So ultimately, I give Prisoners a B-. It's not bad, but I wasn't really left feeling that a worthy Best Picture contender had been overlooked.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fine Wine

I've now had two opportunities to play a board game I added to my collection a while back: Vinhos. It's a game set in the wine country of Portugal. Players purchase and maintain vineyards, preparing special vintages to showcases at wine festivals and impress the critics.

The first time I played, my friends and I were all a tad overwhelmed. As is often the case with the more involved German style board games, things only seemed to make complete sense a good ways into the game. This was especially true of Vinhos, as the first time a "wine festival" is held is at the halfway point of play. (Two more such festivals come later.) But we all generally liked the game, and agreed we'd try it out again some time.

But the second time, somehow, all of us actually came out more confused. Maybe it had been too long since our first playthrough. Maybe we were casting a strategic eye in more directions this time. Maybe we were all a little more buzzed than last time, as we'd all decided that a game about wine making ought to be played with everyone at least enjoying some beverage, if not actual wine. I think we're all still generally liking the game... but man, does it have a lot of weird stuff going on.

First of all, there's the way actions are taken. The nine possible actions are laid out in a 3 by 3 grid at the center of the board, and you place your action marker on the center square to start the game. Each turn, you must move your marker to a space and take that action. (So you can't take the same action twice.) If you don't move directly adjacent (which in this game, includes diagonal), you must pay money for the move. If you move to a space occupied by any other players, you must pay each of them for the move. If you move to the space where the current round indicator sits, you must again pay the bank for the move. (Different actions are thus costlier on different rounds of the game.)

Money wise, the game gives you both cash on hand and a bank account marked on a track on the board. Purchases must be made with cash, but any profits you make from selling your wine go to your bank account. One of the actions you can take is to go to the bank, where you withdraw money for spending, and/or "invest" in a way that compounds your interest to grow your bank account faster. It reminds me somewhat of the "supply and demand" mechanic of Power Grid, not that the two systems are in any way similar, but in the way that a lot of effort was spent on creating a game mechanic to approximate a form of real world economics.

At each of the three festivals of the game, each player must showcase one wine. Are you showing a wine praised for its color, alcohol content, aroma, or taste? Well, there are six spaces on the board to occupy for this, each one marked by a different pair of the four wine characteristics, and each having room for only one player. Players can "pass" on one of their actions in the rounds leading up to the festival, and issue a "press release" declaring right then and there what wine they'll show. This let's you get the jump early to occupy the particular combination of two traits you want to focus on. Whether you announce early or wait until the festival itself, you're declaring which two kinds of "wine experts" you'll play at the festival.

Yes, there's more. You can acquire wine expert tiles, who can be used repeatedly for minor benefits they provide, or played and discarded at a festival (if their type matches one of your two showcased traits) to advance your status on the wine festival track. Position on this track awards points at the end of each festival.

Actually, there's even more... you can sell wine, export wine, get in with a critic who allows you to take bonus actions and lock up end game points. You can kind of see why we were overwhelmed. And yet the whole thing is not only drenched with flavor, it's loaded with a lot of interesting mechanics, some of which I haven't really seen in any other board games.

So I am inclined to recommend Vinhos, even though I'm nowhere close to understanding it. For the moment, I'll give it a provisional B. I'll update somewhere down the road if I play it enough that that changes.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Dead Rise Again

I am truly surprised to be writing these words, but The Walking Dead is good again.

For that brief, six-episode first season, I thought it was the best thing on television. (And that's high praise, considering the amazing things you could and can find on television these days.) But then Frank Darabont stumbled slightly in setting up season two, AMC decided to fire and replace him, and things went into a tailspin.

First, there was season two, a narratively stagnant quagmire that didn't move the story, barely grew the characters until the last few episodes, and regurgitated the same beats week after week. Then there was season three, an entire season built around a cartoonish villain that culminated in not even resolving the damn storyline! Then came the first half of season four, a drawn out flu storyline just marking time until the mid-season finale could resolve the story that season three should have wrapped up in the first place. And all the while, the writing was increasingly terrible. First, there was the way it looked like it was written by two different sets of writers -- one struggling (and failing) to come up with interesting character developments, and the other thinking of ridiculous zombie gimmicks. (This week, they'll fall down through the ceiling! This week, they'll bust out of the wall of a hedge maze or something!) Then there was the formulaic way they kept killing off major characters. (If someone who doesn't usually get much screen time suddenly seems important this week, watch out! They're futilely trying to make you care at the last minute before they die at the end of the episode.)

At at least three points during all this, I was sure I'd watched my last episode of The Walking Dead. But Sunday night was still a television viewing night at my house, with a small group of friends coming over to cheer on The Amazing Race, enjoy something else like Game of Thrones or American Horror Story, or (increasingly) mock The Walking Dead. Whether I could have actually given up The Walking Dead or not, the group could not. But certainly, we all acknowledged it was the show we wanted to get out of the way first so we could go on to truly enjoy whatever else was lined up for the night.

But now we have the back half of season four. And though I was predisposed to bag on it at first, I grudgingly came to realize over the next few episodes that it was actually pretty good again. And after this week? (No spoilers.) Well, I'm ready to proclaim the show "back" in good form.

If only we could have skipped over the two-and-a-half years since season one and gone straight to this somehow. If only AMC had hired Scott Gimple (the current showrunner) immediately instead of the clown who took over for Frank Darabont. (I have a feeling that the only reason the first half of season four sucked under Gimple's watch is because they had all this crap to mop up, left over from the last guy.)

The Walking Dead is back to doing what I loved in the beginning: every week, it's horrible. Horrific. I mean emotionally. Each episode puts the characters into some truly awful situations. The answers aren't clear-cut. Or if they seem like they are to a callous, bloodthirsty audience, they certainly aren't for the characters. Decisions carry major emotional consequences that leave deep scars on the characters' psyches. In short, the show realistically portrays the way that living in an apocalypse would change a person.

It's great. So great that I might get back in to writing about the new episodes each week... well, if it weren't for the fact that we only have two more now before we're done until the fall. But in any case, I had to speak up and acknowledge: I'm glad I didn't give the show up. I could never have imagined thinking that a year ago, but there it is.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Mars Resurgent

This weekend, Veronica Mars returned with a feature film famously funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. For me, this big screen return of a beloved television series got me thinking of Firefly and Serenity, and I found it hard not to draw comparisons.

Unfortunately, Serenity set the bar pretty high. Brilliant as it was, you can't even say that Firefly was cut down in its prime. With only two-thirds of a season, it didn't even get that far. This only added to its mystique for the fans who loved it. The film Serenity thus felt like something that would bring closure that had been cruelly denied. And Joss Whedon crafted a movie that left it all on the field. It was grander than anything the series could have brought us, a true last hurrah.

Veronica Mars was a different situation altogether, though just as brilliant in its own ways. That series found a way to keep going for three years. And while the witty writing and wonderful characters were there right until the end, the essence of the show had already been compromised in its final season. Creator Rob Thomas gave in to network pressure (understandably, trying to keep his show on the air), abandoning the season-long story arcs that marked years one and two. Any fan would acknowledge that season three was the weakest of the series, even if in the same breath they'd wish the show had kept going.

From the moment Firefly left the air, Joss Whedon and all the actors were out there in the public eye, vowing it would return some day. And it only took them a few years to do it. On the other hand, while Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, and others were out there for a while pounding the pavements for Veronica Mars, it seemed like that talk had long since died down. All the Veronica Mars fans I know were shocked last March when, seemingly out of nowhere, the word of the Kickstarter campaign arrived. Really? A Veronica Mars continuation was still even a possibility?

But Veronica Mars (the movie) doesn't come to us as the conclusion of an unfinished story. It's absolutely as welcome to its fans as Serenity was to Firefly fans, but it's not something we've been clamoring for. Nor did Rob Thomas envision it as the grand finale that Joss Whedon clearly saw in Serenity. The plot of the film is not a larger than life tale that could only be told at the end, and only on the big screen. Part of this is budget. Rob Thomas put on the screen every penny of the nearly $6 million given to him through Kickstarter. Yet that's still less money than Serenity had. And then there's the other part of this: intention. Veronica Mars didn't really "end" before, and Rob Thomas isn't "ending" it now either.

And so this movie comes to us largely as just another chapter in the adventures of Veronica Mars. Through the lens of "ten years and one unprecedented Kickstarter campaign," that is almost inevitably a disappointment. But through the lens of "a chance to see more of that thing we all really liked?" Well, Veronica Mars is a chance to see more of that thing we all really liked.

Everything fun about the series lives on in the movie. Smart characters with crackling dialogue. Great relationships, particularly between Veronica and her father Keith. A tangled mystery with lots of suspects and surprising twists along the way. A romantic throughline for all the 'shippers. It is, simply, a movie that's impossible not to like for anyone who liked the show.

But that said, I didn't quite love it. The plot unfurled rather slowly in the opening act. The efforts to find space in some scene for all the significant characters of the series felt sometimes forced. The odd cameo appearances (from people I won't spoil) felt bizarre and out of place.

Yet overall, the fact that we got a Veronica Mars movie is a great thing overall. The Kickstarter supporters did a good service for all of us fans. And the word is that if the film manages to drum up enough money (no one is saying exactly what the magic number is), Warner Brothers has expressed willingness to pay for another one themselves. We'll just have to see.

For now, we have this one to see. And you should. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yes Men

I was skeptical going into last night's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I knew this was going to be a big episode steeped in comic back story that I only hoped would be sufficiently explained to "the rest of the audience." Worse, it was tied in to the Thor movies, the most boring and scatterbrained of the Marvel films so far. (Disclaimer: I didn't see either of the Hulk films.)

So imagine my surprise when the show pulled off a "Thor" story better than either of the films did.

The galactic scale of the action, relative invulnerability of the main characters, and stoic and largely emotionless nature of the hero -- all that is what made the Thor movies a slog for me. I found them so dry, in fact, that I don't even clearly remember the character of Lady Sif from the movies. I'll just take it on faith that she was there. Comic relief from Loki was just about the only bright spot. But "Yes Men" addressed nearly all of this.

First, it brought the action definitively down to Earth. In fact, it narrowed the scope even more than the average episode of the show, cutting down on the globe-hopping that usually marks the stories. Yet at the same time, the show opened up visually by actually filming a couple of scenes on location in Las Vegas.

The relative invulnerability of the characters? Well, can't do much about that. That's superheroes for you, Asgardians especially.

But as for the emotion? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made all kinds of strides here beyond the Thor movies. First, much of the tale was grounded in our regular human characters. And even though we still aren't as connected to them as an audience as we were to, say, the crew of Serenity or the Scooby Gang, things still mattered. It was compelling to see the normally unflappable May be somewhat... uh... flapped by Ward's defection (under Lorelai's control). It was interesting to watch Coulson try to pump Lady Sif for information about aliens, following his discovery from last week. Even Lady Sif had a nugget of an emotional back story, certainly one more accessible than Thor's spoiled brat character history; her personal stake in coming after Lorelai made her easier to root for.

Perhaps the budgetary constraints of a television show did them some good here, forcing them to tell a better story rather than throwing money at the big screen as in Thor. (Not that they didn't have any visual effects here, but you could tell they had to pick and choose their moments.) However it came to be, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. managed to pull off a coup and make me care an Asgard-centric story.

They even got the post-credits tease right, in my book. Rather than tossing another meaningless comic reference our way, we learned that May is a double agent of some kind, informing on Coulson to... Nick Fury? Someone else? Now that's something that can grab my interest.

Overall, I give "Yes Men" a B+.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Hail the Republic

It has been many long years since author Scott Lynch published his second novel in the "Gentleman Bastards Sequence," but he has finally returned to the scene with book three, The Republic of Thieves. Whether it was "worth the wait" is something of a loaded question, but I can say this: I believe this to be the best novel of the three.

The Republic of Thieves follows Lynch's antihero, Locke Lamora, as he's strong-armed into a game of political brinksmanship. He and his ever-present friend Jean are charged with rigging an election in a foreign city. As with the first two books, this setting is a well-realized departure from "generic fantasy," a place grounded in real-world history but spiced with some imagined twists. And new to the mix this time is a love interest for Locke, the equally crafty Sabetha, a figure from Locke's past.

Once again, Lynch uses a structure that interpolates an adventure from Locke's youth with the events unfolding in the present. In this case, it involves a teenaged Locke being sent undercover with his young cohorts to perform in a stage play (named for the title of the book). This story is just as engaging as the main plot, with plenty of twists and turns and fun. But it also features the one weak link in the novel, the play itself.

Just as Red Seas Under Red Skies incorporated a lot of nautical adventure, Scott Lynch wants to delve into the theater with this book. (And in his afterword, he begs indulgence from anyone who may know about the details he fudged.) The problem is, he gets a bit too involved in the play within his novel. Whole chapters deal with the rehearsal of the play, which wouldn't be bad in and of itself, but for all the long passages of dialogue we have to slog through. It tries to ape Shakespeare in style, while lacking the substance. And as near as I can tell, the plot of the play bears little or no thematic connection to the events of either plot in the novel. Reading sections of "The Republic of Thieves" is the one time that The Republic of Thieves bogs down.

Still, it's a very strong book overall, which I can heartily recommend. With one small asterisk. After my review of Red Seas Under Red Skies, I was criticized for saying it didn't end on a cliffhanger by someone who felt otherwise. (I still stand by my original statement.) In any case, this novel is much more definitive in its ending. It leaves a few open-ended questions on the table, but the story definitely resolves. That said, the epilogue just as definitely sets up the next volume of the story, and might be considered by some to be a cliffhanger. If you don't want that, then simply skip the epilogue. Read the rest, then put it on a shelf and wait for volume four to come out.

Either way, The Republic of Thieves is worth a read. I give it an A-.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Filthy Hoard

A friend of mine recently picked up the new game Dragon's Hoard, impressed by samples of its fantasy artwork that he saw online. Unfortunately, the art turned out to be about the only good thing going for it.

Dragon's Hoard is a very simple card game where players try to amass treasure. Its wilds, cards that make other players lose turns, and other basic mechanics call to mind games like Uno, which should give you a pretty clear idea of where the game falls strategically. It involved a whole lot of luck, very little skill, and even less fun.

And that was hardly the end of the game's deficiencies. That pretty artwork I mentioned was printed on very low quality card stock that would surely show signs of wear after only a handful of games. And the theme was rather nonsensical. Each player took the role of a dragon, playing cards of different suits of sheep. Eating them, I guess; so far so good. Except somehow those sheep became a currency used to... buy treasure or something?

I wish I could say more, but there really just isn't much of a game here to say anything about. And given that there are countless better places to get great fantasy art (better still than this), I can't really recommend the game for anyone. I'd have to call this one an F.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last night, bound and determined to break the period on my keyboard, with an episode entitled T.A.H.I.T.I. It was a pretty solid installment that picked things up right where they were left, with Skye at death's door.

As I expected, it was an episode all about Agent Coulson, wrestling with whether he should do to Skye what was done to him. I actually expected it to be more of a wrestle, and was a bit surprised at how gung ho he was to load Skye on the Resurrection Express. But in the end, we did get to where I thought things would go. Well, sort of... in the sense that Coulson suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to back out.

What I did not expect was what we learned about "T.A.H.I.T.I." I guess it stands for "Torso And Head Inside Tube, Interstellar." One of my comments a few months (but only a few episodes) back was that I was a bit disappointed that after all the implied buildup, Coulson's rebirth simply didn't have much to it. Turns out that's not the case. There's another story to tell, and I'm intrigued.

I'm also intrigued at the prospect of more appearances by Bill Paxton. His presence on the show was a wonderful addition, and I hear there are more in store. (His character also promised as much as he departed.) He's a useful blend of both Coulson and Ward -- witty commander and ass-kicker.

But I'm not at all intrigued by this week's end credits scene. Over the last few episodes, the show has gone full Marvel on these epilogues. It used to be these scenes often would be character moments that reflected on the earlier events of the episode. Now, like the post-credits scenes of a Marvel movie, they're just a future tease designed to make fanboys squeal while leaving everyone else scratching their heads. I refuse to scratch my head anymore over this stuff. I gathered we were dealing with someone from Asgard. It was clear that some people were meant to know who Lorelai is. I don't, and I don't care. Come back to me when you have an actual story to tell.

Still, an off-putting ending wasn't enough to sink an otherwise enjoyable episode. I give it a B+.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

Welcome to the 2014 Oscars, everyone. On with your regular snark.

Ellen DeGeneres comes out wearing Jerry Seinfeld's "puffy shirt."

And now, Anne Hathaway's dress:
  • Paparazzi in Anne Hathaway's dress are taking pictures of us.
  • You know who would love Anne Hathaway's dress? J.J. Abrams.
  • Anne Hathaway's dress used to be hanging above my grandmother's dining room table.
Jared Leto came as Buddy Christ.

Jim Carrey's job wasn't camera tested either. This might be the Shiniest Oscars Ever.

Bono stopped laughing really fast after Jim Carrey mentioned LSD.

The backdrop behind the presenters... at a distance, it's the blood elevator opening in The Shining; in closeup, it looks very American Beauty.

Amazingly, a Jackass movie didn't win an Oscar.

Harrison Ford came as Pirate Colonel Sanders.

Now the backdrop has gone all "rotate the pod, HAL."

Kim Novak wants to tell Bruce Wayne how she got her scar.

Whoever is controlling the microphones tonight is falling asleep on the job.

Gravity wins for Visual Effects. You think?

And now, Ellen holds a guitar for no clear reason.

The Short Film category seems like an extra Foreign Film category this year.

One of the Documentary Short Subject winning directors is wearing one of Ron Burgundy's jackets. No, scratch that. Even Ron Burgundy wouldn't wear corduroy alligator skin.

When Ellen suggests ordering pizza, Kerry Washington is all over the idea. Don't joke about food with a pregnant woman.

Yeah, these Oscars are SO SHINY!

Danny Trejo. Has that guy ever turned down a part? "No!"

Is it U2 or Nelson Mandela getting the standing ovation? (It had better be the latter.)

Gravity wins for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. You think?

Christoph Waltz without facial hair looks a bit like Woody Allen.

As fun as it might have been to watch them bring an Oscar to Jennifer Lawrence as Ellen suggested, Lupita Nyong'o was the right choice.

Despite their falling out, Bill Murray tips the hat to Harold Ramis. Good move.

Glenn Close's intro to this year's "Dead Segment" very strategically covered "if we forgot someone this year (like we do every year), we love you too."

Couldn't they have had Bette Midler perform during the montage?

Goldie Hawn looks like the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring when you see how the One Ring would corrupt Galadriel.

John Travolta had ONE name to say: Idina Menzel. Who the hell is Adell Nazim?

Idina Menzel is rushing through "Let It Go" like she's got somewhere else to be. The poor orchestra conductor must be like "what the hell?" (And moment's later, we find out he's not even in the building.)

Great movies with great stories will blow.

Your mind.

Steven Price (composer of Gravity) has Vulcan ears.

The nice thing about being a married couple winning an Oscar together is that you can totally rehearse your acceptance speech.

Every typewriter left in California is there on the stage.

Steve McQueen has a really odd clapping technique. It's like an alien who has only heard clapping described and is trying to approximate it.

Conspicuously long shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Seriously, what's with all the sparkly? It's like someone glitter bombed the Oscars.

Cate Blanchett starts strong acknowledging the other nominees in fun ways, but then the audience doesn't know whether they're supposed to applaud Woody Allen anymore.

Matthew McConaughey mentions God, and God manages to get less applause than Woody Allen. Wow.

In the end, even though Gravity won in virtually every other category for which it was nominated, the Very Important Film took home the prize.

Wow, who's sporting the prospector beard behind Steve McQueen?

It kind of undercuts the Very Important Speech for the Very Important Film when you turn around afterward and start jumping up and down.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A State of Mind

I've seen five out of the nine Oscar nominated Best Pictures this year, and I'd figured that was as good as it was going to get before tomorrow's ceremony. But then Netflix surprised me this week by sending the just-out-on-DVD Nebraska.

Nebraska is about an old man suffering from increasing dementia, who becomes convinced that the magazine solicitation he's received in the mail is a promise that he's won a million dollars. He is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his prize in person -- even if that means walking there. So his son agrees to a road trip, with a stop first at the small town where his father grew up.

A number of this year's Oscar contenders are flawed movies featuring great performances. Nebraska might just be the epitome of this. Bruce Dern is wonderful as the aging father who isn't quite "all there." He's the right blend of sympathetic and prickly, clueless and smart. Even better is June Squibb as his much put-upon wife, delivering the biggest laughs of the movie. Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte gives an understated and natural performance as their son. In other solid but smaller appearances, there's Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, and Rance Howard, among a number of other wonderful character actors.

But the movie isn't exactly brisk. It's chasing smiles much more than belly laughs, and even those it wants to earn amid a bunch of more introspective moments. And yet on the dramatic side of the coin, the movie is good without ever really being profound. It doesn't have much more to say than "this is dementia."

Still, it would be agreeable enough if it weren't for director Alexander Payne's decision to film in black and white. This turns a light comedy-drama into something unnecessarily pretentious. You're simply too aware of the stark look of the photography. It plays like a Calvin Klein commercial, or a too-arty foreign film that ought to be subtitled. The story wants to be very human and pull you in; the look of it wants to keep you at a remove and push you away. Something that should feel current instead feels historical.

Nebraska is by no means a bad movie, but it certainly doesn't deserve to be an Oscar contender in my book. I give it a B-.