Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nothing Personal

After a bit of a stumble last week, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got well back on track with this week's installment. The emotional weight that I felt was only strong last week in the Skye/Ward storyline was present throughout this new episode.

If Ward is really the super agent he's said to be, then there was really no way Skye was going to be able to fool him long. So the show gave us just enough of her stringing him along -- and just enough of us wondering if he knew she was stringing him along -- and then had her let loose with both barrels. The insults she slung at him in the diner made clear just how much she'd been hurt by him. Possibly she even came on a bit too strong, since she later wasn't willing to let Ward die. But then, Skye isn't really as hard as she pretends to be; so long as her reason to save Ward's life stemmed from her unwillingness to kill anyone, rather than just "some part of her still loves him," I buy it.

Perhaps even more interesting was seeing how hard Fitz took the revelation of Ward's betrayal. I love that the show has made Fitz and not Simmons the most emotionally vulnerable member of the team, and how losing Ward after losing so much else was really more than he could take. First, he simply couldn't believe it, and then he couldn't process it. Good stuff for both the character and the actor playing him.

Cobie Smulders made a fairly organic appearance in the episode. Despite the "Special Guest Star" nature of Maria Hill's appearance here, she really felt like she fit in. Hill and Coulson had more interaction here than they actually did in The Avengers, but it certainly felt like they'd had a vast history together we'd never seen. Solid work in both script and performance.

But of course, the always reliable Clark Gregg stole the show. This week, it was mostly his nimbleness with the tossed-off humor that impressed, but the big revelation in the epilogue was great too. So, we learned that Coulson himself was the man originally behind TAHITI, only to become its subject/victim. The contrast of past Coulson's revulsion and present Coulson's shock was well played by Gregg.

There were a couple of weak spots. I couldn't quite buy that Ward really cared that much to be seen as a good guy here. And although May had a fun scene early on with Hill, she mostly drifted out of the episode after that (until the epilogue). Still, I'd call the episode an A- overall. Good movement toward the season finale in two weeks.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Visit to Bruxelles

I recently had a chance to try out a new board game from a new designer, Etienne Espreman's Bruxelles 1893. It's a truly strong entry from a first timer, a game that kept revealing new layers as play progressed. Players take the role of late 19th century architects, competing to create buildings in the Art Nouveau style. They do this in a worker placement structure set on a highly modular board.

It's the board that's the truly clever achievement of the game, a gift that keeps on giving. 25 spaces are arrayed in a 5x5 grid. There are five actions (each of a different color), and each row offers one instance of all five. But the rows are printed on separate, double-sided boards, allowing for a large number of random configurations.

Players place their workers onto the board to gather building materials, construct buildings, buy and sell works of art, and recruit associates to help their cause. But there's oh so much more going on on this board. First, the buildings the players create actually occupy spaces on the board. Whenever an opponent uses the space occupied by a building you've created, you get to "piggyback" on his action with a special action of your own. What you get depends on the type of action space it is.

Placement of workers matters too, beyond the actions being taken. Players must place each worker with an amount of money of their choice. At the end of each round, the player who has placed the most money in a column receives a special bonus card to give him a leg up in the game. And more, intersections matter too. If all four placement spaces around an intersection are occupied during a round, then the player with the most workers there (regardless of the amount of money spent) scores victory points.

In short, there are at least four ways in which the placement of your workers matters -- you getting the action you want to take being just one of them.

As is often the case in German board games, the "start player" of a round is a position you must jockey for. Here, it has even more significance, because players don't get to use the entirety of the 5x5 grid in every round. A series of cards, one per round, indicates two possible intersections on the board where an "outside corner" marker is placed by the start player. Only the actions within that placement are available in the round. Thus, some rounds offer more of one action than another, offer some players more opportunities to have their buildings used than others, and make the bonus cards in certain columns just plain ineligible to contend for.

If it sounds complex, well, frankly it was for the first round or two. But in truth your available options are not that hard to explain or understand. It's the ramifications of those options that leave you pondering. And although I only have one playthrough of the game under my belt so far, it was a truly fun one with a very encouraging finish. I snatched the win with an emphasis on building as much as I could, but the second place player was just a single point behind me and didn't build a single building all game long; her entirely different approach to the game revolved around buying and selling art.

With only one play, it's probably premature to praise the game too much. But the fact is, I can't wait to play again. And as of right now, I'd call the game an A- at least. It's deep strategy, but great fun, and I recommend it highly to German board game enthusiasts.

Monday, April 28, 2014


It's been more than a decade since I read A Storm of Swords, so it's not an uncommon thing when the TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, sends me rifling through my memories, struggling to recall if something on the show has been altered from the book or not. Last night, it wasn't much of a struggle: we are in uncharted territory here, full of modifications, departures, and additions. And now, for pretty much the first time in the history of the series, book readers are in the same boat as everyone else, wondering what's going to happen next week.

It's awesome.

The tone was set gently, but right from the beginning, as a series of scenes not taken from the book focused on Grey Worm, chief of Daenerys' Unsullied. We saw him learning to read and speak another language, and then saw him take the lead in an infiltration inside Meereen. From there, conquering the city seemed to be as simple as having a mob swarm this one guy -- but we'll chalk that up to budget considerations.

Despite other council from Barristan, Dany was set on justice, and nailed up slavers in retribution for their ghoulish road milepost markers from this season's premiere. This is a decision that seems poised for ramifications, as (very minor spoilers here), Dany is not going to be hitting the road after this conquest as quickly as she did after her others.

From there, we moved to King's Landing and Jamie's sword training. More recent book readers reminded me after the first Bronn/Jamie scene weeks ago that this was a change from the book, where Jamie's training was with a man unable to speak. That made him a more logical keeper of Jamie's secret, but this makes for far better dialogue for a TV show. And the writers made the most of it, using Bronn to push Jamie to go see Tyrion.

What followed was another great scene for Tyrion in prison. It was fantastic throughout, but could have been terrible and still saved by two great moments -- the wry declaration of "The Kingslayer Brothers" and the exchange about whether either man would truly kill family.

Book readers got their last chance to feel smug and aloof this episode as things turned to Littlefinger and Lady Olenna, and the full revelation of Joffrey's assassination was revealed. The show handled both scenes very well, first further helping Sansa seem a bit wiser for her ordeals than the book (she didn't take at face value Littlefinger's first weak attempt at explanation), and then giving us a devious glimpse inside the mind of Olenna that the book never provided.

There was a great outcry across the internet after last week's episode, in which the show changed the context of Jamie and Cersei's consensual book sex to a TV rape. I remarked how this definitely changed things for the characters. The follow-up was present this week, though rather indirect. It seems the incident, combined with his inability to help Tyrion directly, pushed Jamie to want to do something to reaffirm he's a "good guy." His solution was to put Brienne out on the road -- armed with his own sword -- to look for the Stark daughters.

And from there, we were pretty much exclusively into "new for the TV show" territory. There was a delicious seduction scene where Margaery came to Tommen's room at night. There was of course an ick factor in the age gap (though it hardly registered as ick by Game of Thrones standards), but it was far outweighed by the entertainment in watching Margaery really mold the young king to her whims.

Up at the Wall, Jon rallied people for a raid on Craster's camp to take out the Night's Watch traitors. And his band included... Locke? Lord Ramsay came nowhere near this plotline in the book, but now we have his henchman (incidentally the same character who "behanded" Jamie in the show) infiltrating the Night's Watch to come after the Stark brothers.

But the surprise of that was nothing compared to this week's scenes with Bran, which have no basis in the book whatsoever. Bran's journey north of the Wall did not bring him into contact with Jon in the book. Indeed, George R.R. Martin seemed to delight in writing several "near misses" for the Stark children, moments when they almost reunite but don't. And yet now, with Bran and his gang captured by the traitors, I'm hard pressed to imagine how they'll escape without Jon affecting a rescue. Except clearly it can't go that way. Color me intrigued!

And then the epilogue, our biggest dose of White Walker action yet. Put simply, in book land, we still don't really know what the "Others" (as they're called) are all about yet. Lots of fans have lots of theories, but I'm not sure many of them involved carrying babies up to some kind of zombie king to Borgify them into creepy little White Walker babies. I have no idea what that's all about, but it's certainly a potent reminder that there's more to the overall plot than just the struggle for the Iron Throne. And it might just be our first taste of information that the show runners have, but George R.R. Martin has yet to fully reveal in his writing.

I give this episode and all its tantalizing modifications an A-. I'm eagerly looking forward to next week.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cave of Wonders

Designer Uwe Rosenberg has made many great board games, but among most enthusiasts, the most beloved is his farming game, Agricola. Last year, he decided to serve up a sequel of sorts by releasing Caverna: The Cave Farmers. It's rather hard to get right now for any reasonable price, but my friend somehow managed it, and not long ago I got to try it out.

Caverna transports the farming concept into a new setting. The families the player manages are now living in a cave which they can also mine, and raising animals in pastures just outside their home. The mechanisms are largely the same as Agricola's: each space on the board offers an actions, with new spaces (and new actions) becoming available each round. Some spaces accumulate resources with each round in which they're not taken. Caverna also ropes in a concept or two from Rosenberg's expansions for Agricola, the most notable being the idea of having to "clear land" outside before being able to use it for planting or keeping animals.

So what's new? First, there's the idea of "expeditions." Each member of the family is equipped with a weapon worth some number of strength. When a family is assigned to an expedition, the strength of his weapon determines the effectiveness of that action -- the player can select one or more rewards (depending on the space), and how deeply he can plumb the table of results depends on the strength of the weapon. Expeditions are a great "wild" action to take, letting you mix and match rewards that might normally take you multiple other actions to acquire. So increasing the power of your weapons is key. But an interesting wrinkle is that when assigning workers, you must assign the ones wielding your lowest valued weapons first. In short, your whole family must be kept strong and upgraded if maximizing expeditions is key to your strategy.

The other big wrinkle -- and this is huge -- is in the improvements you can build. In Agricola, these are represented in a large deck of cards. There are hundreds of options, and each player is dealt only a few in any given game. It makes for a tremendous variety, but it can also make for imbalance as not all the options are created equal (or fairly balanced, frankly).

Caverna puts the upgrades on tiles that must be built as rooms in your home, and the entire array of tiles is presented on a board for all players to choose from. No longer can one player simply luck out into an upgrade that other players didn't get; everyone has equal access to every possibility. This does wonders for both fairness in the game and the sense of competition with other players (which already felt pretty high in Agricola). However, it also makes the game even more daunting. Even though there are far fewer tiles here than there were cards in the Agricola deck, there are dozens of options to choose from. Keeping tabs on them all is going to take a Herculean effort, and I fear a new player would simply be lost entirely.

Caverna is probably a better balanced game overall than its predecessor Agricola. But there simply doesn't seem to me to be any way a new player will easily pick up Caverna without first knowing Agricola. Or if he could, it would surely be the most daunting game he'd ever played. I myself certainly would want many more plays of Caverna before I made any solid judgments about it, but for now I'd provisionally grade it an A-. I predict a spirited debate among the German board game fans about which game is better, it or Agricola.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Only Light in the Darkness

Last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had several interesting ideas in play, but for the most part there were flaws in the execution.

Let's start with the unfortunate waste of casting Whedon alumni Amy Acker as "the cellist." Were it not for the internet, I would have completely forgotten that Agent Coulson actually had a throwaway line in The Avengers where he mentioned the relationship. Clark Gregg being awesome the way he is in delivering every single line with meaning and soul, this apparently got fans wondering if we'd ever see this "cellist," and this alone inspired the writers to craft this story.

Although both Gregg and Acker struggle mightily to infuse their parts of the story with emotion, the relationship just doesn't get the screen time it needs to be meaningful. We're too busy with the villain of the week, and far too interested in the continuing adventures of Evil Ward. The romance is simply crowded out, and Fitz-Simmons and Triplett just don't have anything invested in their interactions with this guest character of Audrey.

As a villain, Marcus Daniels was a bit of a misfire too. You knew he had to be something from the comics when the camera lingered on his "hospital band" long enough for you to read his name. (Blackout, the internet informed me after the show.) His whole behavior in the show turned on an obsession with Audrey, yet that obsession was never really explained or given even the slightest context. It was just simplistic, King Kong-like animal behavior, the desire to grab a pretty woman and drag her up a building or something.

His death was just as "I guess that's all there is to it." After an hour watching our heroes run from his awesome powers and trying to stop him by shining flashlights at him, in the end they just shined bigger flashlights at him and poof! He turned into dust or something. In short, the "A story" of this episode just felt flat on virtually every level.

Fortunately, the story back at the Providence base was far more compelling. While there was little tension in whether Ward would beat the lie detector (THE lie detector), it was still interesting to watch the cat and mouse between him and the team. It's a shame we had to lose Patton Oswalt's character of Koenig when we were just getting to know him (he certainly seemed fun), but understandable to grease the skids of the plot.

I'm proud of Skye being clever and figuring out the truth, and I admit that seeing the story of her and Ward both trying to outwit each other is the more interesting story to tell. And yet, I think there's no logic in her suspecting Ward when she found Koenig's body. With May having just left, suspiciously, and her having already lied to the team, surely Skye would have suspected her first. (At least, until the moment Ward claimed to have just talked to Koenig when that was clearly impossible.)

As for May, she appears to be the way Cobie Smulders will be brought back soon for a guest appearance as Maria Hill. Thumbs up to that.

In the end, I'll give a bit more weight to the half of the episode that engaged me over the half that didn't. Still, I'd call this episode a B- at best. But at least it seemed to set up for better in the last few weeks to come before the end of the season.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Going Off With a Hitch

The movie Hitchcock is probably best characterized as a biopic at its core, but it doesn't completely slip into that mold. For one thing, despite the title, the film is actually concerned with two subjects: famous director Alfred Hitchcock, and his wife Alma Reville. For another, it's confined to a quite narrow band of time, as much concerned with an "event" as it is with the people involved.

That event is the making of Hitchcock's masterpiece, Psycho. It's 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock has just had considerable success with North by Northwest. Yet despite this success, he feels a need to do something daring to reassert his creativity, and quickly sets his heart on adapting a new novel called Psycho. When no studios will back the plan, Hitchcock slashes his budget to make the film with his own money, straining his relationship with his wife in the process. And when the first cut fails to come together, it is she who must come to the rescue to save the picture.

This movie is based on a non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, an excellent book by all critical accounts that's said to be one of the best examinations ever of the creation of an individual movie. Unfortunately, the film adaptation is less inspired. It rides the line ineffectively and awkwardly between comedy and drama, trying all kinds of narrative models in succession. It's "man against the world," it's romance, it's "the woman behind the man," it's expose, and it's many more things. It's so many things, in fact, that it fails to do any of them particularly well, and thus feels like a disservice to one of the truly good classic movies.

What does redeem the movie, though -- and indeed makes it rather watchable -- is the solid work from the cast. Anthony Hopkins is wonderful as Alfred Hitchcock, turning in an oddly compelling performance that transcends impersonation. Even better is Helen Mirren as Alma Reville. She's the truly sympathetic hero of the piece, and stands out wonderfully despite having the less overtly showy lead role. The supporting cast includes Toni Collette, Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh), Kurtwood Smith, Danny Huston, and Jessica Biel, each of them making a lot of a little screen time.

Still, this muddled telling of How Psycho Was Made was more intriguing than enjoyable. It made me think about hunting down the book to read the real story, where this two-hour condensation couldn't quite satisfy. I give Hitchcock a C+. It may be of interest to film buffs, or to fans of either of the two leads. Everyone else should probably pass.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Breaker of Chains

Last week's episode of Game of Thrones culminated in one of the biggest events of George R.R. Martin's third book in his series, A Storm of Swords. Events this week picked up at the very moment the last episode left off, showing us who was behind the assassination plot on Joffrey (though not the one who actually did the deed): Littlefinger made his grand return. From there, however, the episode was made up mostly of material altered or absent from that source. As usual, the writers of the show did great work with their changes.

Margaery Tyrell had a wonderful scene about the way that kings seem to wind up dead around her, filled as always with pearls of wit from Lady Olenna. The development of these two characters, far above and beyond their depiction in the original book, continues to be one of my favorite improvements in the show.

Next came the longest scene of the episode, in a gorgeously created set representing the Great Sept of Baelor. Tywin's council to Tommen was a wonderful addition, revealing so much about all the characters -- even Cersei, who though nearly silent, seemed to be effectively screaming "must we do this now, in front of my dead son?" Of course, that sentiment would be amplified moments later, when Jamie arrived in the scene. Jack Gleeson gave one last amazing performance as Joffrey, remaining motionless as Jamie forced himself on Cersei, right then and there. This piece had foundation in the book, yet also represents a major departure. The incestuous siblings did have a reunion, but here it was a rape. Whereas the book by this point had fairly well thrown the switch on making Jamie one of the "good guys" (maybe "better guys" is more accurate?), the TV series makes this dramatic alteration to remind us that Jamie isn't necessarily one to be rooting for.

Then came more of the wonderful buddy road movie that is the adventures of the Hound and Arya -- and it was another study in "don't think this bad guy has really turned good." The Hound and Arya have certainly been rubbing off on each other, but the former's treatment of the poor farmer and his daughter showed us: not as much as you might think.

The plots involving Sam and Davos were among my least favorites in the book, and the episode did lag for me a bit as the show turned its eye to them. Still, the writers are doing a good job (particularly with Davos) in building interest in what's going to happen next.

Another new scene followed, between Tywin and Oberyn. Charles Dance as Tywin has played so many great two-person scenes throughout his time on the show, and here was another. Both the character and it seems the actor are at their best in a scene where Tywin and some other party are each trying to extract some advantage from each other -- each fully aware of what the other is doing. Though Tywin's past verbal jousts with Olenna have wound up as ties, it certainly felt like he got the upper hand of Oberyn here.

Tyrion's dungeon scene was wonderful. I can't remember whether this particular scene appeared in the novel or not, largely because I can hardly remember the character of Podrick Payne from the book. He hasn't been all that much a presence on the show either, really, but in a testament to Peter Dinklage's skill, I certainly cared about this scene between Tyrion and Podrick. Last week, Tyrion had to send away Shae by masking his true feelings. Here, Tyrion reveals them for and to Podrick, and it's strangely touching.

Another added scene depicts the savagery of the Wildlings as they massacre a village south of the Wall. This scene not only does a good job of showing how credible a threat they are to Jon Snow and the Night's Watch, it also showed us how Ygritte has nothing but vengeance in her heart now, as her arrow (through the throat!) was the first volley in the attack.

Finally, we had an extended sequence in which Dany arrives at Meereen. It gave us a great moment for Daario to be a badass, followed by an even greater moment in which Daenerys was even more of a badass -- the launching of the catapults loaded with broken slave collars was a powerful moment on which to end the episode.

Another solid episode of Game of Thrones. I give it an A-, the "minus" probably only owing to my lack of interest in the Sam plot.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Phillips, Crew Driver

In the mid-90s, Tom Hanks was the Oscar King. Not only did he win back to back Best Actor awards, but every movie in which he appeared instantly picked up award buzz. His cachet subsequently faded a bit, but kicked back up last year with the one-two punch of Saving Mr. Banks and Best Picture contender Captain Phillips.

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, the film depicts the battle of wits between the ill-prepared crew of an American shipping vessel and a desperate band of Somali pirates. Moreover, it's the clash of wills between the leaders of both groups, Abduwali Muse and the titular Richard Phillips.

The movie does run aground a bit on the problem plaguing many "based on true story" movies: it generally has difficulty generating tension because the outcome is known. But director Paul Greengrass certainly managed to overcome this when he made United 93, making him the right man for the job here. While this film is less successful on that front, it's still interesting and worthwhile for a few other reasons.

First, the script manages to take what seems like an inherently limited premise and really keep things varied and moving. The trailers for the film made it seem like it would be a long standoff on the bridge of the freighter, but this is actually only a small piece in the puzzle. In fact, the nature of the conflict changes several times throughout the story, well before the audience has time to feel any sense of stagnation.

Second, the film is buoyed by a pair of strong performances. Tom Hanks excels in the title role, though it's truly the second half of the film where he comes alive. A minor plot spoiler here, but Phillips ends up taken aboard a "life raft" by the pirates, separated from his crew and stuck on his own. This makes for a final hour where the character is slowly stripped of the confidence he once had, and culminates in a total breakdown that should have won Hanks another Oscar nomination. (Swap out Leonardo DiCaprio from the nominee list, I say.)

Then there's newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Though he has the obvious advantage of being unknown to his audience here, he nevertheless slips convincingly and completely into his role. He imbues the ostensible villain with a great deal of humanity and desperation. Though you hardly root for him to "win," you empathize with his plight. The movie does try a bit for a "there's two sides to every story" element, and to whatever degree that actually succeeds, it's owed to Abdi.

Though Captain Phillips was never thought to be a serious contender among the year's nine Best Picture nominees, it was actually among the better ones. I give it a B+.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The March of Progress

In various articles about gay rights, journalists often notes that public polling has showed movement faster than any other social issue in history. For an example of how far and fast things have come -- but also of how far we still have to go -- you can turn to the documentary movie Outrage.

Outrage is a documentary made by Kirby Dick, the man who made This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It takes a look at U.S. politics, specifically closeted gay politicians who consistently vote against gay rights. It was made only five years ago in 2009, but is in many ways a time capsule.

The film opens with a look at Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who famously (and rather recently, at the time) solicited gay sex from an undercover policeman in an airport bathroom. He did not seek reelection after the scandal, though he already done plenty of damage in his 18 years in office through his anti-LGBT voting history. The film then moves on to several other public figures including former New York mayor Ed Koch and to then-Florida governor Charlie Crist. Lest the film seem to be tossing around tabloid-like accusations about sexuality, it's worth noting the film also looks at Ken Mehlman, manager of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, who came out one year after the film was made and rededicated himself to advocating pro-gay policies (though only after putting gay marriage bans on the ballot in numerous states, as part of a strategy to secure Bush's reelection).

In any case, trading in gossip isn't really the point of the film. It's in fact pushing several messages. First, it seeks to show how self-destructive it is to be gay and in the closet. The psychology of someone who must deny thousands of others equality as part of denying his own truth is a twisted one indeed. It's a sort of schoolyard mentally where a bully is happy to be picking on someone else as a way to avoid being picked on himself. Highlighting this message are interviews with former Congressmen Jim Kolbe and former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, both of whom attest to the weight lifted in coming out. (And yet, it's telling that neither of them remained in their jobs after doing so.)

Second, the movie looks at the way the media covers gay rumors. If a celebrity or politician is caught up in a sex scandal, it will dominate the new cycle for days or weeks. But if it's a gay sex scandal? The story is quickly swept under the rug. The film makes a compelling case that this double standard, this near-paranoia about outing someone against their will (even if their hypocrisy means they deserve it) serves no one any good.

To a large extent, these attitudes haven't really changed in the five years since the film was made. On the other hand, plenty of other things have. We now have the first openly gay Senator (Tammy Baldwin, interviewed here in this film when she was in the House instead). Marriage equality has been achieved in a dozen more states, including California (where the well-known Proposition 8 was challenged in court). Charlie Crist has lost his governorship in Florida, converted from Republican to Democrat, has reversed to support gay rights, and is now trying to run again for governor. (He still hasn't acknowledged being gay himself, though.)

I imagine in another five years, Outrage will be even more of a curiosity, as gay rights issues move even farther along. But on its way to being an historical chronicle, it serves in the meantime as compelling social commentary. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was mostly dedicated to showing us the lay of the land in regards to the villains. It would seem Garrett truly is "the Clairvoyant," no matter how perfect a fit Zola-in-the-machine from The Winter Soldier might have been. That's alright, I think; putting Bill Paxton center stage is not at all a bad thing. (And there may still be an out; see below.) Joining Garrett is a parade of adversaries from earlier in the season, including "Flowers," Quinn, and maybe even corrupt-scientist-trapped-inside-gravitonium-or-whatever-they-called-it.

But more than all that, we're supposed to walk away understanding: Ward is a villain. Some might question how he had too perfect an explanation for all his behavior throughout the season (and that the writers made a point of calling this out), but it seems to me that he's now shot and killed way too many people to be any kind of mole for the good guys. (Brainwashed? Maybe an outside possibility. But he seems a much higher-functioning thinker than brainwashed Bucky Barnes.) Nope, he's just a flat out double agent, with the episode even telling us to think of him as the male Black Widow.

With such a plot-driven agenda, there weren't a lot of moments for good character scenes. Still, we got a few. Skye acknowledged the "what are we agents of?" joke that everyone (myself included) was making last week, in a scene that also pointed out that she was losing something just when she finally belonged. And Clark Gregg again served up a great performance in Coulson's breakdown just before the secret bunker was revealed.

Guest stars! Fans of Heroes got a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance by Adrian Pasdar. He'll surely be back later in the season. And Patton Oswalt, fanboy-in-chief, debuted as the lone agent at the Providence facility.

But mostly, this episode was a bit of a deep breath after the big blowout of last week. There seems to be plenty of neat things in store, though. What's going on with the metal on Garrett's torso? Is he being controlled by someone else, Deathlok style? What fun tension will result from having Ward back with the team? I'm certainly looking forward to next week, though I'd give this episode only a B+.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lion and the Rose

Another wedding on Game of Thrones, another evening of Twitter and Facebook going crazy. But before we get to the big finish, there were plenty of other great elements of the episode to consider.

This week, a number of characters sat on the bench in order to make room for the ones we didn't get to see in the premiere. Of those, I'm particularly intrigued to see what the show is going to do with Bran. His story slows down considerably in this section of the book, with very few chapters dedicated to him. On the show, they're either going to have to leave him unseen for several episodes at a stretch, or invent some new storyline to involve him in.

The show appears to be taking the latter approach when it comes to Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos. The material between Melisandre and Stannis' daughter is entirely new, and seems to be laying track for at least another episode or two. Shireen is set up as a willful little girl, but not insolent to the point of falling out of her father's favor. (Something you definitely don't want to do.) Is Melisandre going to mold her? Break her? How? It's fun to see something depicted on the show that I don't know from the books.

Somewhere between the books and new invention is the material with Theon/Reek. As I mentioned last season, readers didn't get any of him in books three or four. Book five fills in or implies the broad strokes of the horrors visited upon him, but it's an entirely different thing to see them played out. Alfie Allen has an entirely different acting challenge in playing Reek, and is rising to meet it. The scenes at the Dreadfort were very well written. Even knowing Theon was not going to slit Ramsay Snow's throat, the shaving scene was still fun and tense.

But naturally, the most tension of all was in watching the wedding and its reception unfold. There were wonderful performances throughout. Lena Headey excelled as a petulant Cersei, and Pedro Pascal as Oberyn perfectly delivered the barbs that worked her into such a foul mood. Sophie Turner delivered several beautiful moments as Sansa with little or no dialogue, from the pity she took on an embarrassed Tyrion to the horror she contained as she watched Joffrey's awful show unfold. Peter Dinklage too was great as always, trying to endure Joffrey's torment (and he was even better earlier in the episode as he turned on Shea to make her want to leave King's Landing). But a special nod must go to the departing Jack Gleeson, as the departed King Joffrey. His final episode was a showcase of why we all loved to hate his character so much.

Of course, the episodes of Game of Thrones with these huge story developments have a leg up on becoming favorites. Nevertheless, they still have to be executed well... and this one was. This episode gets an A.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Wolf It Down

I'm not one of those film enthusiasts who worships at the altar of Martin Scorsese. He's made a few good films and at least one really great one (The Departed), but he's also made his share of stinkers (does anyone want to try defending The Aviator?). So it was not the director that drew me to last year's The Wolf of Wall Street. I was intrigued by the strong performances the movie was said to showcase.

Perhaps I was also a bit intrigued by the controversy. In the run-up to this year's Academy Award scenario, The Wolf of Wall Street -- though a nominee for Best Picture -- was never said to be seriously in contention. And the reason often cited by critics was the polarizing nature of the movie's characters. The story was stuffed top to bottom with reprehensible people, nobody to root for, and thus the film couldn't ever muster the enthusiasm from the voters to win the top honor. But some of my favorite movies have, let's say, unheroic or unconventional protagonists. I was curious.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a glamorized look inside the stockbroking business, along the lines of Wall Street (which is even mentioned in the film). Of course, Wall Street was a film of its time, where this movie comes to us 25 years later as a "period piece." It is indeed an actors' movie, and has several interesting performances.

Leonardo DiCaprio collaborates with Scorsese once again, in a role that earned him a Best Actor nomination. I don't feel it was deserved. Though his wry narration does inject a lot of the film's humor, his presence on-screen is showy to a degree of being too self-aware. Jonah Hill was also Oscar nominated for this film, an apparent acknowledgement of the weird challenges associated with his performance -- he wore strange teeth, actually got smacked by actor Jon Bernthal, put a live fish in his mouth, and had a particularly notorious scene with a prosthetic. But if physical discomfort alone were enough to earn you an Oscar, Sandra Bullock should have won her second for Gravity. Jonah Hill is good, but in a film stuffed with showy performances (obsessed Kyle Chandler, annoyed Rob Reiner, steroidal Jon Bernthal, oily Jean Dujardin, high-strung Margot Robbie, sympathetic Cristin Milioti), Jonah Hill just isn't really prominent enough to stand out.

If you want to talk about an actor who does a lot with a little, look to Matthew McConaughey. He's in this movie for perhaps five minutes at most, but casts a shadow a mile long. His weird, chest-thumping improv (reportedly an off-camera warm-up Leonario DiCaprio encouraged him to use during a take) has become the signature moment from this film, actually changing the script before rocketing into the zeitgeist.

But as for the film? Well, it's style over substance. And a lot of it, clocking in at nearly three hours. There are certainly entertaining moments sprinkled throughout, but there's also a lot of down time in between. Some people will have the patience to sit through and extract these juicy morsels, but most are probably better off taking a pass. I give The Wolf of Wall Street a C-.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Big Day in Court

Yesterday, I had the chance to witness possible history in the making.

But first, some background. Depending on where you get your news, you may be aware of the significant number of court rulings on same-sex marriage in the United States over the last four months. Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio have all made headlines with a federal court judge issuing a ruling on the subject. Differences in each case have led to rulings of different scopes, but in each of these rulings (made in the wake of last summer's Supreme Court ruling in Windsor v. United States), marriage equality has a perfect record.

Challenging a law like this in federal court is inevitably a three step process. First, a court at the state level hears the case and rules. That's the step each of the seven states I mentioned above represented. The third and final step is a trip to the Supreme Court. In between are the Federal Courts of Appeal, divided into a number of Circuits. Lose your argument at the State level, and you're off to whichever Circuit includes your state.

In the case of Utah and Oklahoma, that's the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. And it happens that the Tenth Circuit is located right here in Denver. The oral arguments in the Utah case were scheduled for yesterday (and are scheduled in the Oklahoma case for next Thursday), and though seating is limited, court proceedings like this are open to the public.

Now I'm certainly no expert. But I've been following these various court proceedings with understandable interest, and so I'm going to lay claim to a deeper understanding of the cases and laws at issue than the average layman. And if I'm asked to place a bet, I'd say there's a very good chance that of all these various cases, this case from Utah (known as "Kitchen v. Herbert") will be the one that ends up before the Supreme Court in 2015 to settle the matter of same-sex marriage nationwide. So, on that chance, I decided to wake up early yesterday morning, drive down to the court, and see if I could get into one of those limited public seats.

I did.

You can listen to an audio recording of the one hour proceeding here, at the Tenth Circuit's web site. But there was something special about being there in person. I wound up crammed into a bench with a gay couple on my right, and a Salt Lake City-based morning radio personality on my left. All of us were hoping for the same outcome, and so the hearing itself became an odd cross between church (maintain a respectful silence) and a sporting event (cheer for your side!).

A panel of three judges heard the case. You can find commentary all over the internet now, people musing over the disposition of those judges during the hearing. You'll find just as much commentary advising you not to read too much into the questions asked by judges during such a hearing.

That said, there was simply no room for doubt that one of the judges, Carlos Lucero, could not be more supportive of "our side." Whenever he'd direct a particularly withering question to Utah's lawyer, the couple on my right would pump their fists, and the radio personality to my left would star her notes with a flourish. There was another judge, Paul Kelly, who seemed to want to rule the other way, in support of the marriage ban, but Lucero's questions clearly painted the box that any such ruling would have to fit into:

How do you even make such a ruling here when the Supreme Court's opinion in the Windsor case seemed to clearly state that such discrimination is unconstitutional?

If banning same-sex marriage is supposedly for "the good of the kids," how can you possibly square that with the fact that same-sex couples are also raising children?

But near the end of the hearing, Lucero dropped a real bomb that I've never heard of coming up in any other marriage equality case. He compared Utah's refusal to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state (Iowa, in this case) to the most notorious Supreme Court ruling in history, Dred Scott -- the ruling that upheld slavery and precipitated the Civil War. Yeah... he went there. And there was an audible gasp in the courtroom when he did.

Commentators have seized on how the third judge, Jerome Holmes, is thus now positioned as the "swing vote." In my opinion, there's little cause for concern. Though he did ask pointed questions of both sides, he happens to be one of the judges who in December ruled not to stay the original ruling in this very case. That refusal led to a period of a few weeks where same-sex marriages actually took place in Utah before the other side ran to the Supreme Court for their stay. It simply defies reason to imagine this judge would not stay a ruling if he would choose to overturn it, given the chance.

Well, here's his chance, and his questions seemed mostly to do with the questions of scrutiny (whether or not, to win this case, gays and lesbians have to be defined officially for the first time as a suspect class worthy of additional legal protections) and of standing (essentially, whether this case could wind up being thrown out by the Supreme Court on a technicality similar to the one that prevented last year's California case from being the one that settled this issue).

I am going to join the prevailing chorus in predicting a 2-1 win for our side here. But I think there's an outside chance of a 3-0 win too, if Judge Kelly tries to write the opinion no other judge since Windsor has been able to and finds he can't credibly do it either. Perhaps we'll get further insight into the thinking of these three judges next week when they also hear the Oklahoma appeal.

If this does wind up being the case that goes to the Supreme Court, then I had a chance to watch the parade drive by here in Denver on the way to that final destination. And even if it turns out to be one of the other cases, it was still an encouraging morning, watching a handful of people fight for their rights, my rights, and the rights of thousands of others like me.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Turn, Turn, Turn

Last November, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plugged an episode that would cross over with the events of the latest Marvel film, Thor: The Dark World. Though the episode itself was decent, the connection to the film was... well, it would be generous to call it much more than non-existent. But this week's connection to Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Well, suffice it to say, the show is forever changed. What to even call it now? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Whatever it is, the show once again topped itself and delivered its best episode yet. As with last week's hour, which was essentially the first half of a two-parter, paranoia was everywhere. The episode really put you in Coulson's head, and at some point or another, every single other main character (but Skye) was someone he wasn't sure he could trust.

The episode was so full of reveals that even if you anticipated one or two of them, several more were still to come. As expected, May's role as informant on the team was fairly benign. Still, it was interesting the way the writers took the opportunity to explain the somewhat odd makeup of Coulson's team. Why so many eggheads? Because that's the way May (and Nick Fury) wanted it, to monitor his condition.

Expected by some (including me), Agent Garrett was revealed as a villain. But there was more to the story than the surprise; the characters' reactions to it was just as important. Clark Gregg as Coulson was given a tough job as an actor, playing a familiar "you just gave yourself away" scene. But his performance was powerful enough to forgive the cliche. In the same scene, Iain de Caestecker as Fitz may have been even better. The tear that rolled down his cheek as Garrett threatened him told you all you needed to know: Fitz had lost all hope.

Speaking of Garrett's big reveal, I'm by no means convinced that things are as simple as "he's the Clairvoyant." Given how thoroughly the TV series has integrated with The Winter Soldier, it seems to me that the sprawling underground computer Captain America and Black Widow discovered has to play a role. Dr. Zola as "brain in a jar" was describing exactly the sort of far-reaching data-mining that would explain the "Clairvoyant's" powers. It would also explain why the Clairvoyant has only communicated with his minions in the TV series by phone or text, never in person. On the other hand, Cap and Black Widow destroyed said computer in the movie, and it's not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.would want to have its season-long big villain killed (for them) off screen. We'll just have to see.

Of course, to really bring the HYDRA reveal close to home and really change the show, the thing to do would be to make one of our people a double agent after all. And it seems we got that. I suppose there's still a chance to Ward has cooked up some kind of reverse super double-cross thing with Coulson, but it's not like past Whedon shows have shied away from making one of the main characters a villain. (In fact, all of his shows have done that at some point.) Either way, the writers seemed to be engaging snarky fans directly in this episode -- the ones who have whined how boring a character Ward is -- and retorted, "oh yeah?"

How cool was this episode? I've never read a comic about SHIELD or HYDRA in my life, and even I thought the final moment was pretty sweet, where the traditional closing SHIELD logo was replaced with the HYDRA symbol.

This was the series' first grade A episode. Now let's just hope that the buzz leading into it brought back some of the viewers who have drifted away.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Medium Heat

Sandra Bullock received wide praise (and an Oscar nomination) for her performance in Gravity last year, but that was one of two recent movies to feature her. From the "and now for something completely different" file, we have The Heat.

The movie treads almost painfully familiar "buddy cop comedy" ground. Two talented law enforcement officials. One is straight-laced, the other rebellious. The two are forced to work together, and hate every minute of it until they each gain a grudging respect for the other. There's really nothing unique about this movie. And yet there's one quite unique thing about it: the two leads are female.

It's frankly sad that it's taken so long to see a movie like this headlined by two women. And unfortunately, the script basically takes this one bit of "originality" and calls it a day. It's really just not a very clever or entertaining film otherwise. But then, to a large extent, I suppose every movie of this genre begins and ends with the casting of its two leads.

Any shortcomings of the movies aren't really the fault of these two leads, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Both have strong comic chops. Their styles complement each other, and they definitely cut loose and have fun with the roles. But it's as though the two have to manufacture most of the laughs themselves. The best moments in the movie feel improvised, caught in the odd "one more take" or in the seconds after the director called "cut."

All told, I'd only rate The Heat somewhere around a C-. I'm not sure that much better could have come from such a simple premise, but I wish it had.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Two Swords

Game of Thrones has returned, and it will never be the same (or at least, the theme song certainly won't) now that I've watched the South Park trilogy that ran last November. Fortunately, the quality of the show remains as strong as ever, strong enough to drive the satire from my mind.

The big new development of the episode was the arrival of Oberyn, "The Red Viper," in King's Landing. While I've heard one or two people mention him as a beloved character, he never really quite popped off the pages of A Storm of Swords in my mind. I'd thought that perhaps this was just all the years that had passed since I red the book, except that my boyfriend (who has just finished reading the book within the last few months) wasn't sure he'd even read about the character. (He definitely has.)

The good news is, based upon his first appearance here, Oberyn is not quickly going to fade from anyone's mind. In a show filled to bursting with dangerous characters, he instantly made an impact as one of the most dangerous. The scene in which he lays out his quest for vengeance to Tyrion was chilling and effective. I'm immediately more invested in his storyline than I was reading the book.

Interestingly, this wasn't the only character who made a better impact on me in this episode than in the book. Poor old Sansa Stark. As a reader, I spent most of my time silently yelling at her to just get up and do something. Of course, that's not her nature, and eventually I gave up even mustering hatred for her. But the series is finding ways to give her small victories that keep her likeable, such as this episode's callback to the man she saved from execution. It was a wonderful little scene that had the added bonus of reminding you that the world of this story is also filled with countless people also affected by the struggle for the throne.

Across the ocean, Dany's story is on a collision course for the reason that it took George R.R. Martin 11 years to publish more chapters about her. Ugh. The show runners have done a good job fixing up some of the potholes in Martin's road, so I'll be curious to see just what they do with the story of Meereen. They've already made Daario Naharis a more interesting character -- and this despite the fact that they had to recast the actor for this season. We'll see.

More fun villainy from Tywin. More wry wit from Lady Olenna. More humiliation of Jamie that you shouldn't pity him for, but you do. All fun stuff. But they saved the best for last when they presented the continuing road adventures of the Hound and Arya. Arya is turning into quite the little psychopath. Yet while the show really does serve up more blood than you could ever want, there's still something wonderfully satisfying about seeing her get a moment of vengeance. Yes, child, give in to the Dark Side. Of course, the Hound is every bit as interesting. I suspect that it's not for the first time this season that I'm calling their scenes the best of the episode.

A strong start to the year. I give "Two Swords" an A-.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Winter Is Coming

Over the next few months, a veritable parade of comic book movies will be making its way to theaters. And you can see the trailers for all of them if you go to see the first of the lot, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While I'm skeptical about some of those upcoming movies, this is one I could get behind. After all, the first Captain America movie was easily the best of the Marvel lot up to that point in time (pre-Avengers).

In many ways, The Winter Soldier is like "The Avengers 1.5." The big Marvel heroes that get to carry their own movies aren't in residence, but Black Widow and Nick Fury are -- and both integral parts of the story. Maria Hill is back too, plus room is made for a new quasi-Avenger in Sam Wilson (minor spoiler: aka Falcon).

What's more, the plot of the film feels much more part of a larger universe than the other quite stand-alone post-Avengers movies have been. It's perhaps a bit overly convoluted in the way it contorts to bring in elements from so many different places, but it's interesting all the same. The short version: Captain America must go up against a possible corruption within the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization itself, and against the powerful hitman employed by the corrupting force.

This movie is easily the most realistic of the Marvel canon. There are still plenty of outrageous superhero antics, but the plot is that of a much more grounded spy thriller, and the themes of the film much more based in reality. The Winter Soldier touches on such heady stuff as freedom, the price of security, post traumatic stress disorder in veterans, Alzheimer's disease, and more. In most cases, it isn't just paying lip service to these themes either; the movie actually has some commentary to offer. This makes The Winter Soldier a fascinating contrast to the earlier Captain America film. The First Avenger was a retro movie with a fun 40s, Rocketeer kind of vibe. The Winter Soldier feels very current and topical.

Of course, movies like this are expected to deliver the action goods first and foremost, and there it also does very well. There are several cleverly conceived action sequences throughout the film, and each has a different tone. I particularly enjoyed the film's opening, a short of "stealth shooter," infiltration sequence. But in any case, you'll get everything from car chases to fist fights to shootouts to a massive finale in the skies above Washington D.C. In short, it's well modulated action, not all one thing.

As Steve Rogers, Chris Evans remains one of the most relatable of the Avengers, a hero who's very easy to root for. But just as enjoyable here is Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow. Her character is woven very well into this plot, not at all tacked on as she was in Iron Man 2, and with a lot more to do than the crowded Avengers could afford her. Black Widow shouldn't have to keep auditioning for her own movie, but if that's what this is, it's a good audition. Anthony Mackie does a good job of establishing Sam Wilson as a real character before the fantastic elements of his story kick in. And of course, Samuel Jackson and Cobie Smulders both kick some ass. (Though it might be that the best performance in the movie comes from the bit player who appears in one scene as an Apple Store employee. He certainly got the biggest laugh from the audience of the entire film.)

But there are a few flaws. The pacing is a bit lax at times, particularly through the middle of the film. It's commendable that they wrote some grounding character moments into the movie, but the plot is generally too dense to make room for them comfortably. And, as always with these Marvel films, the villains just aren't that interesting. (Loki excepted.) There's supposed to be a question of who to trust in play here, but Robert Redford's virtual mustache twirling never leaves you in any doubt where he's concerned. As for The Winter Soldier? Well, he does give us some great action sequences, but the film also seems to be hanging a lot of weight on the "shocking" reveal of his identity, when it's so apparent I don't even feel compelled to issue any kind of spoiler alert.

Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has enough going for it to claim the top spot on my list of Marvel stand-alones. I still think The Avengers had just a little more secret sauce, but otherwise this movie is pretty good. I give it a B+.

Friday, April 04, 2014

We're Doing A Sequel

As a lifelong fan of the Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted was high on my to-see list. But the plan was to wait a week or two for the crowds of kids to die a bit, then pick a late show with a couple Muppet-loving friends of mine and enjoy. The plan worked flawlessly; the three of us got an entire theater to ourselves.

Although this is actually the eighth Muppet movie (a fact actually pointed out in the movie's opening number, "We're Doing a Sequel"), it invites the most comparison to their most recent film. Muppets Most Wanted is better in some ways, not as good in others.

The Muppets scored big points with me for bringing back the right small dose of sentimentality that the best Muppets stories have had. Muppets Most Wanted dials that down quite a bit, with a plot that isn't nearly as engaging. But Muppets Most Wanted does dial up the zany. The story is simply more ridiculous and fun.

Cameos abound, which of course is nothing new for the Muppets, but somehow even that felt turned up here. There seemed to be an endless list of celebrities lining up to poke a bit of fun at themselves, cut loose and be goofy, or even just show up for a single line. Half the fun was in not knowing who would appear next, so I won't spoil things with a list. But suffice it to say, it was great to see so many other adults who enjoy the Muppets as much as I do. And the main stars, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, and Tina Fey, are all clearly having a blast.

Also improved this time around? The songs. Every Muppet film has featured at least a couple, though not all of them have gone full on musical. The last film had some memorable numbers (highlighted by "Man or Muppet"). So, as then, Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie was brought on to write the songs.If anything, he upped his game this time around. The melodies are more catchy, the lyrics more clever. And there's even an homage to cap the film, when they perform a slightly modified version of the signature song from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "Together Again (Again)."

In short, Muppets Most Wanted is just what I was looking for. Though not quite as good overall as the last outing, it's still well worth any fan's time. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

End of the Beginning

Just what does the title of this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. mean? Is this the moment where the show finally and irrevocably moves out of the awkward "good, but shouldn't it be great?" phase where it's lived up until now? Is this the moment where the show starts consistently just being "great?"

If this episode set the new bar, the answer could maybe be yes. It was definitely my favorite episode of the show so far. It wove around the characters a strong and believable net of suspicion bordering on paranoia, and even managed to rope the audience into feeling it too.

Why are they separating Fitz and Simmons now, of all times, when those two can probably trust each other more than any other two characters can? What is the nature of May's betrayal? It just doesn't seem likely that's she's a flat out villain. Why did Ward kill the "Clairvoyant?" Coulson's right, it seems awfully unusual. What's really going on there? Why cast Brad Dourif for a role where he's not even going to talk? (Oh... wait... that really is his voice speaking the computer's dialogue. So then...) Why cast Brad Dourif to kill him off in five minutes? Ah! To try to make the audience believe he really was an important character. And so on, and so on. Every turn of the episode had you actively working to look around the next turn to guess what was coming next, putting you in an effectively sympathetic situation with the characters.

But there was plenty more to like about the episode. We finally got full-on Deathlok action, and ultimately it was probably worth waiting for. By building the Mike Anderson character up over time, giving him essentially an "origin story" more involved than, say, your average two-hour superhero movie can do, his corruption actually meant something -- and to the characters even more than the audience. Plus, they definitely made him a badass, and squirreled away enough of the budget to show that.

We got the return of a raft of established S.H.I.E.L.D. agent characters. The most entertaining were Blake (played by the always effective Titus Welliver) and, of course, Garrett (can Bill Paxton be on the show more?).

All that, plus we got a revelation as to the true nature of the Clairvoyant -- which to me seems like a much more interesting story angle than the road we'd been apparently headed down until now.

Now we'll see if the series can keep the momentum moving. And if it does, then hopefully avoid being canceled by ABC just when it started to get good. I give this episode an A-.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Mother of All Finales

Though I've never written about How I Met Your Mother here on the blog before, last night's series finale seems like an event worth noting. (And in case it's not abundantly obvious, I'm going to talk spoilers here.) Like any show that runs that long (nine years!), it had brilliant stretches, became "not so good anymore" for stretches, and got "good again" (if not so great as it used to be). And befitting all that, the final episode was a bit of a mixed bag.

There was plenty that was great, because the finale was true to the spirit of what the show had been along the way. The show had regularly played around with time, and the finale did that in spades, first taking us back to the beginning and then jumping farther and farther into the future to show what would become of the characters. Over the years, the show had dared to mix emotion, drama, and sentimentality with the laughs, and the finale did that too.

The creators of the show, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, clearly planned their finale way ahead of time. Episodes from months and even years ago pointed to how the story would end, so much so that many online fans predicted it exactly. And the final minutes included footage filmed years ago with the in-real-life-no-longer-young actors that played Ted's kids. But this sticking to the master plan was also what led to what was not good about the finale.

Specifically, in retrospect, I feel like there never should have been a season nine. I didn't feel that way at the time it was unfolding. As I mentioned, the show wasn't as good overall as it was in its heyday, but there were still many great moments along the way. Most of them revolved around getting to see and know The Mother in bits and pieces of episodes (and the one episode that focused entirely on her back story). I wondered how Thomas and Bays could ever have thought to really just have the Mother show up only in the final episode of their series and have it be in any way satisfying.

But now, with the realization of the Mother's death, it's crystal clear how that would have been satisfying. The story was never about the Mother, title notwithstanding. This too was true to the nature of the series, which was always Ted's saga with Robin, right from the very first episode. It always seemed like it was the story of how Ted had to get over Robin before he could find the Mother, but true as that was, it was ultimately revealed to really be the story of how Ted and Robin were always meant to be.

Except the ninth season as a whole really soured that ending in a number of ways. It served up too many glimpses of how perfect a fit the Mother was for Ted. It even gave us plenty of how great a fit she was for the group, by way of all the moments that revealed her meeting everyone else before Ted. And it provided too many future glimpses of how happy Ted and the Mother were together to then deny us their happily ever after.

Even more problematic, the series had made us invest far too heavily in the relationship between Barney and Robin. Yes, their ending does make narrative sense -- the two weren't really good together (and had broken up before), and the only thing that was really going to change Barney was a daughter, which he certainly was never going to adopt and which Robin could otherwise never give him. But dammit, we spent an entire year watching their wedding. (Which as it turned out was a significant percentage of the time the marriage actually lasted.) We sat through the twelfth "Ted lets Robin go, for real this time" episode. We were really sold -- oversold -- "Barney and Robin," and it turned out to be a lie.

In short, the ending does make sense, given what the show was. Absolutely. (Well... with one exception. If the thing that drove Barney and Robin apart was how much she traveled, how was it likely that Ted and Robin would end up any differently?) But this final episode, this ending, would be a lot easier to accept if it had come at the end of season eight. And so How I Met Your Mother managed somehow, frustratingly, to simultaneously stick the landing and fall flat on its face. Whether you consider the "final chapter" to be the entire season or just this last hour, whether you were a fan of the Mother or were 'shipping Robin and Ted from the pilot episode, one way or another the ending just wasn't right.

I'm still very glad we had the series as a whole. It served up many great laughs over the years, while also daring to challenge what a sitcom could do and be. But I think the finale only rates a C.