Friday, May 30, 2014

Descent Into Darkness

A couple years back, I wrote about a novel called Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. The thoroughly enjoyable thriller was not the author's first effort, though, and I recently got around to reading one of her prior books, Dark Places.

Dark Places is the story of a woman who, as a young girl in the 1980s, survived a brutal massacre of her mother and sisters. Her older brother, supposedly spurred by an interest in Satanism, was convicted of the crimes, while she herself offered testimony that helped condemn him to life in prison. But now, all these years later, a group of true crime enthusiasts reaches out to her, convinced that police coerced her testimony as a young girl and that her brother is really innocent. She sets out on an investigation into what really happened that night, stirring up dark memories.

Between this book and Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has definitely carved out her voice as a writer. She's very good at writing about unsympathetic yet complex female characters. You don't really like the people Flynn's books are about, and yet that somehow doesn't stop you from rooting for these protagonists, or at least becoming engrossed in their lives. Flynn's simple-looking but carefully crafted phrases really put you in the head space of her characters.

The spine of both plots is a mystery. And while Dark Places' mystery is compelling and twisted, it unravels a bit in the final chapters. The need for a surprising twist seems to have won out here over a more sensible resolution. (It seems Flynn learned from this in writing the later Gone Girl, where she placed a big revelation halfway through the book and used it to springboard the story in an entirely new direction.) Still, the road is an entertaining one up until that last, questionable turn.

Flynn also uses alternating chapter structures in both of the books I've read. In Gone Girl, the technique was used to build a "he said, she said" narrative. Here, things switch between the present (and the protagonist's investigations) and the past (in the days leading up to that fateful night). Things also alternate between first person (as we follow the protagonist's journey) and third person narratives of multiple characters (leading up to the murders). Flynn is strong in both formats, and the march of both threads towards climax is part of what makes the book such a page turner.

Interestingly, both Gone Girl and Dark Places have been turned into movies, and both will be released later this year. Gone Girl is the bigger event, directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck. But Dark Places promises to be interesting too, with casting that is simultaneously promising and yet not at all who I pictured in reading the book -- Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, and Chloe Grace Moretz will take on the major roles.

Gillian Flynn has written one other novel so far, and my enjoyment of these two will definitely push me to give it a try. As for Dark Places, I give it a B+. If you like mysteries and a taut, punchy writing style, you should check it out for yourself.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Sounds of Winter

It's been a few months since Captain America: The Winter Soldier swept into theaters. But there's been a lot keeping it on my mind. Besides the fantastic run of episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that resulted, I've been enjoying the soundtrack album of the movie's score.

The Winter Soldier was scored by Henry Jackman, not necessarily one of the more well-known composers scoring films these days, and not the man who scored Captain America's previous outing. (He does have a superhero pedigree, however; he scored both Kick-Ass films, and X-Men: First Class.) There are many composers whose work I can identity from just a phrase or two of music, but Henry Jackman's voice is one I don't quite know yet.

Actually, some of what's here seems imitative of other work... though not at all in a bad way. The first track of the album, for example -- "Lumerian Star" -- seems quite reminiscent of the music for The Dark Knight, scored by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. But here's the key distinction: it's inventive too. Consider Zimmer's work from Man of Steel for comparison. I enjoy that score too, to be sure, but it's so similar to his style for The Dark Knight Rises that when one or the other comes up on my shuffle, I can't always tell which one is which. They seem like copies of one another. But Henry Jackman, to the degree he adopts the style here for this opening track, feels like he's created a cousin of the Joker's theme, not a clone. It's an effective blend of the disjointed and the familiar.

There's plenty more innovation throughout the rest of the score. Jackman uses a strong blend of orchestral and synthetic sounds in most tracks, showcased most strongly in "Fury," his pulse-pounding music for the big chase sequence involving Nick Fury. Sometimes the balance shifts between those two sound palettes. For example, his theme for "The Winter Soldier" himself is more soundscape than music at times, a sonic assault that perfectly represents the brutal character.

There are a few source cue tracks at the end of the album (Harry James and Marvin Gaye) that I leave out. And sometimes and not in the mood for the quieter, more sedate tracks in the score. But generally, this soundtrack serves up a lot of energizing action-adventure. I'm still listening to it weeks later. I'd give the album a B overall.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day 9: 3:00 - 4:00 PM

This week brought a drink-light installment of 24 (bringing us but one "within an hour"), in large part due to it also being a Jack Bauer-light installment of 24. It was actually a relatively Chloe-light hour as well, meaning the story had to be carried along in large measure by the new characters established this season.

Fortunately, Agent Kate Morgan continues to be interesting. Hearing every single week about her traitor husband has gotten old of course (though it may be worth adding to the drinking game this season), but watching her bend rules and stay ahead of everyone else remains great entertainment. In this episode in particular, she really was the substitute for Jack Bauer, given his low presence in the episode, but she carried things well.

The writing indulged several of 24's tried (and tired) traditions, but thankfully managed to avoid others. Terrorist Margot baiting our heroes into a trap seemed an example of the former, but managed to transform more into the latter. Traditionally, this felt like the moment 24 would bring us a Shocking Death, all the more so for the fact that we're now almost halfway done with this abbreviated 12-episode season and could conceivably do without a character or two for what remains. But it seems instead that the people whose names we know (though I admit I don't always remember) managed to survive the bombing of the decoy villa. (Terrorism apparently pays well enough to buy two different lavish villas in England.)

I'm not disappointed to see the end of Naveed. His case of dumb turned out to be terminal, as Margot coldly executed him at the end of the hour. (Without a silent final countdown clock, telling us we're not meant to be broken up about it.)

What I was interested to see, somewhat to my surprise, was the softening of Chief of Staff Boudreau, who actually did the right thing by bring Jack in to see the President, as opposed to renditioning him into a dark hole somewhere. I think I would have also liked the reunion scene between Jack and Audrey, but the sad fact is that between the crying and the whisper talking, I think I only understood about one-third of the dialogue.

Mostly, I'm continuing to enjoy the ride. But I do think we're right about at the point where past seasons of 24 that started out good began to turn bad -- that point where, after having planned out the first few hours, the writers had to start improvising to fill the rest. Here's where we'll see if cutting the season in half helps them avoid any British cougars. I give this episode a B+.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Game (of Solitaire) is Afoot

As I was enjoying a Memorial Day cookout with friends yesterday evening, I'm afraid Jack Bauer will have to wait a day. I suppose he'll be very upset with me. Hopefully I can avoid the torture.

Instead, I bring you "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," an odd entry in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It's a standout as one of the few times that the great detective's client is a woman, though it's still a rather chauvinist product of its time in how it treats the woman.

One Violet Smith comes to Sherlock Holmes, having taken a job in the country as a music teacher. Every weekend, she commutes by bicycle to the train station, and is followed along the way by a bearded stranger who has confounded her efforts to identify him. As Holmes takes the case, trying to ascertain whether the strange man is a threat, Miss Smith is revealed to be in the middle of a much more tangled web.

At the risk of spoiling the game (but one has to figure that a spoiler alert on a century-old story is unnecessary), the odd circumstances at the core of the mystery are essentially that Violet Smith is desired by just about everyone. No less than three men are seeking her hand in marriage (four, if you count the man she actually intends to marry), and her troubles are ultimately stemming from this.

The climax of the story features a truly bizarre abduction where a villain has arranged someone who will forcibly marry him to the woman against her will, a situation just one notch less ridiculous than a mustachioed rogue tying a damsel to railroad tracks. The whole thing just seems oddly old-fashioned, in a way that makes you entertain the admittedly fanciful (though false) notion that the bicycles being ridden in this tale might be the kind with enormous front wheels and little tiny back wheels.

In short, the circumstances of this story make the whole thing play out like a cliche old silent movie. It thus feels like one of the more archaic among the Holmes mysteries. Though it's certainly not intriguing or elaborate enough to be adapted by the BBC Sherlock series, I'd be truly curious to see what they'd do to modernize this one.

There is an unintentional comic value I found in reading it, and for that reason, I'll give it a B-. But I'm certain that's not the reaction Doyle was hoping for when he wrote it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Future Shock

I thought the films of the original "X-Men trilogy" ranged from average to awful, and I never even bothered to see either of the two Wolverine spin-off movies. But the one X-Men story that I did quite enjoy was X-Men: First Class. And the goodwill that movie earned was enough to interest me in the newest installment, X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Based on a "fan's holy grail" two-issue storyline from the comic series, Days of Future Past follows the attempt to avert an apocalyptic future by traveling back in time to prevent the key event that sent everything spiraling down. The film version seems to have been conceived in a rather callous money-grab way: let's use the original film cast (from the ones that made all the money) to try to re-launch our prequel film cast (from the one that was critically praised, but didn't earn as much money); and who knows, maybe we'll set up one of those comic mega franchises for ourselves in the process!

Well, maybe not everyone sees it that way. In any event, I'm glad to say that the film itself is far better than those possible origins. In fact, look the other way on one or two time travel quibbles (which you pretty much always have to do with time travel stories), and it's by far the best of the X-Men movies.

Days of Future Past really nails what so many other superhero movies miss, the human touch. All the larger-than-life heroics of these films often mask the lack of personality in the characters; that lack in turn means these movies often feel empty of stakes, a feeling that any of this actually matters to any of the characters on an emotional level.

In this movie, the characters have much more going on. The Charles Xavier of the past is so tortured by his abilities that he'd rather give them up. The Magneto of the past has been repeatedly punished for trying to do "the right thing," and has decided to no longer try. The Mystique of the past is adrift, no longer having either of the people in her life that provided any sort of emotional stability. The central hero, Wolverine, has more reason than anyone to be broken, having seen so many people he cares about die. And yet he finds strength in going back to a time before his friends helped save him, to discover they too once needed saving.

The film also benefits from the addition of a few new characters. Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, makes the biggest impact, leaving you wishing he were in more of the movie. His frustration with living in a slow world has left him a borderline sociopath -- but a very entertaining one. (Indeed, I think it sets the bar quite high for the other Marvel film universe to handle the character well, when he appears next year -- played by a different actor -- in the Avengers sequel.) Visually, the character of Blink, played by Fan Bingbing, also commands attention. The script doesn't give her much of a personality, but some inspired use of her portal-making powers (quite possibly inspired by the Portal video game) make for some very cool action moments.

Really, the cast is great throughout. Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are given the most meat, and make a proper feast of it. Nicholas Hoult (as Beast), Peter Dinklage (as Trask), and Evan Peters (as I mentioned earlier) inject some effective nuance into smaller, but still substantial roles. Patrick Stewart's role also isn't big, but he's strong in a key scene with his younger counterpart. And of course, there are plenty more people with still less to do, but who seem to have a lot of fun doing it: Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, and Shawn Ashmore among them. (There's also Anna Paquin, whose part in the movie was trimmed to a mere few seconds of screen time and no dialogue; she still receives billing over more than half the stars I named above.) 

Few superhero movies reach this level of emotional heft. The ones that do are my favorites, and are usually praised by the comic fans too. Days of Future Past is perched on the line of B+, but I think I'd nudge it just to the other side and call it an A-. It's well worth checking out.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

McCarthyism in Star Trek

I write a fair amount here about my love of Star Trek and my love of soundtracks. Those things have intersected on occasion too, particularly when I've praised the work of composer Ron Jones (and been less enthusiastic about the line-toeing scores from others working on Star Trek series).

One composer I'm lukewarm about at best is Dennis McCarthy. When Next Generation producer Rick Berman pressed an edict that the music on the show be unmelodic, indistinguishable, sonic wallpaper, McCarthy epitomized that approach. His scores are usually bland and interchangeable. Not that you can blame the man for wanting to keep a job, but it generally doesn't make for good soundtrack purchasing.

But there are exceptions, because McCarthy wasn't always kowtowed. In the first season of the show especially, he was still willing to test the boundaries of what would and wouldn't get a slap on the wrist from Berman. And, of course, in the very beginning, those boundaries weren't defined at all. GNP Crescendo recently released a soundtrack of the best of McCarthy from that period, an album compiling all his music from the pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," and a late first season episode, "The Arsenal of Freedom." Both are uncharacteristically bombastic scores from Dennis McCarthy.

"Encounter at Farpoint" is really playing around with just what the sound of Star Trek will be. There's pronounced brass throughout, some occasional pizzicato strings for tension, odd percussion accents, and some experimentation with unconventional instruments. (For example, Troi is introduced by something the liner notes of the album call a waterphone.)

Captain Picard has an actual character theme that recurs throughout the score (something Berman immediately declared a strict no-no). It's doubly interesting in that it's actually music that McCarthy was pitching for the theme of the series itself. Before the series had committed to using Jerry Goldsmith's indelible theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the anthem of The Next Generation, McCarthy tried his hand at an original brassy fanfare. It definitely comes off as "something that makes me feel like that Goldsmith piece does" without actually sounding too close to an actual style adaptation of the other composer. Not only does the theme pop up in phrases throughout the soundtrack, but the album actually includes a full recording of what the opening credits would have been like scored with this theme. It's a fun taste of what an alternate Trek universe might have been like.

"The Arsenal of Freedom" is the most action-packed score Dennis McCarthy ever delivered. It's even more aggressive than the music he provided for the Trek film he actually scored, Generations. With battles set in space and cat-and-mouse games of a planet surface, he had lots of material to work with.

I would stop short of calling any one track on the album an unqualified A.Still, there's a much higher quality here from beginning to end, with very few skippable tracks. So I'd give the album a B+ overall. Among the many, many Trek soundtrack albums out there, this is one a fan should seriously think about picking up.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Invitation to the Dance

I might say that "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" hasn't aged particularly well among Sherlock Holmes tales, but I don't really have knowledge of how it was perceived in its time.

The story involves a man whose wife has had a strong reaction to a series of stick figure "children's drawings" found around their house and adjoining lands. He pledged to her in the terms of their marriage that he would not inquire into her past before they met, and on those terms she has refused to discuss the "dancing men." So the man turns to Holmes to decipher them.

And that is literally what Holmes must do, as it is ultimately revealed that the stick figures are actually a series of coded messages. And here's where I must struggle to imagine whether this revelation would have been at all surprising to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's audience of the time. In this age of daily cryptogram puzzles (in the few newspapers that are left), the meaning of the "dancing men" is completely transparent from the moment you read of them. Indeed, it's tempting to set aside the story to see if you can solve the puzzle yourself.

In how the short story treats the code, it's simultaneously too complex and too simplistic. These "dancing men" are a simple 26-symbol substitution cipher that is supposed to be incredibly difficult to crack. (Such ciphers really aren't, given a fair enough sample of the writing to work with.) And yet Holmes actually cracks the code rather too easily, given the tiny sample he has. He's able to pull the culprit's name out of the writing despite missing several necessary letters. (And by the way, why is a criminal signing his messages with his name when it will be clear to the recipient that he's the only one who possibly could have written it?)

Looking past all this awkwardness, this mystery at least distinguishes itself in one other way. Although Holmes as usual gets his man, he fails to save the life of the man who contracts him. It makes for a sort of downbeat ending. While I'm not entirely sure I like it, I do at least appreciate the variation on the usual Holmes formula.

On the whole, I'd give "The Adventure of the Dancing Man" a middle of the road C grade.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 9: 2:00 - 3:00 PM

Last night's 24 was a drink-light affair (they set up one "perimeter"), but was still a pretty fun episode throughout. It was a rather clever construct by the writers to slow the plot without making it look like the plot was being slowed, locking Jack up in a room for most of the hour. Where past episodes have given us a lot of action, this episode served up tension instead, and was one of the best so far.

If there was a weak part of Jack's storyline, it was that the military people were rather dumbed down in order to make Jack seem smarter by comparison. Still, that's hardly a new conceit for 24, and at least this time Kate got to be lifted up by it as well. It's unthinkable that no one would be guarding an air duct leading into the sealed room, if for no other reason than the possibility (however remote) that Jack might have used that method to escape. Still, it was fun to see Kate (have we reminded you lately that she didn't know that her husband was a mole?) put all the pieces together and make a big move to trust Jack.

For his part, it was fun to watch Jack whiplash back and forth from menacing to comforting, as he'd threaten people on the phone and then moments later assure his captives that he had no intention of harming them. Also, the so hilarious, so awesome, so Jack way in which he declared that he'd only grazed people because he shot them. I have to say, I like the show universe acknowledging that Jack's a badass in the way the audience knows he is.

President Heller found out what his weaselly chief of staff Boudreau had been keeping from him for the past three hours, but the weasel maneuvered it all in such a way that it didn't matter. Even though Heller spoke directly to Jack on the phone, in the end Boudreau got want he wanted and convinced Heller to give the kill order. This is also rather good writing, because it all seems genuine. Even though we the audience are all rooting for Jack, of course, Boudreau's hatred for Jack seems rational, given his back story. He's trying to protect Audrey (and maybe, not-so-deep down, personally threatened). Heller's dementia might provide the justification for why he trusts Boudreau's analysis more than his own personal history. In short, it's nice to have "direct line to the president" not be the answer to everything on 24 this time.

But the surprise fun came in the villain story line. At first, I was just as bored with it this week as I was last week, with silly Naveed blathering on about not wanting to go through with the evil plan and stupidly trying to get his wife to run off with him. But things took an awesome turn when we got to see just how villainous Margot is. You won't do what I want? I'll start chopping off my own daughter's fingers! It certainly rockets Margot into another league among 24's long history of villains.

I say this episode gets a B+. It was great to see 24 shift gears a bit. Perhaps they'll show us yet another next time.

Monday, May 19, 2014


With HBO choosing to take a break next Sunday for Memorial Day weekend, last night's Game of Thrones will have to tide us over for a couple of weeks. While the episode may not have packed quite as powerful a punch as Tyrion's brilliant speech at the end of the previous installment, it was still up to the task.

We picked up with that riveting plot line from last week, with Tyrion back in his cell. There was another wonderful scene between he and Jaime. (With the highlight perhaps being Jaime's droll "they'll be talking about it for days to come.") Even better was the later scene with Bronn. I loved that there was no lying or sugar-coating between the two men. Bronn laid out why he was refusing to take up Tyrion's cause again, and Tyrion could only be disappointed, not angry. In a way, it was a strange sort of relief for Tyrion; after a recent series of betrayals, Bronn's abandonment could hardly be seen as one. He was a sellsword from day one, and Tyrion knew and accepted that.

Ultimately, later in the episode, it's Oberyn who comes to Tyrion and agrees to fight for him. It's a wonderful scene. All Oberyn really needs to do is agree to fight. If he needs to provide reason to Tyrion at all, it's simply that the fight is against Gregor, the Mountain. But Oberyn goes a step farther, telling the story of meeting Tyrion as a baby. "You weren't the monster they said you were" is clearly intended to speak of the present situation too; Oberyn shows some kindness and understanding to the "Lannister who shares my enthusiasm for dead Lannisters."

Once again, the adventures of Arya and The Hound did not disappoint. After all their lying to everyone they meet, and to each other at times too, it was a great scene to have them come upon the dying man at the start of the episode. Since the man was as good as dead anyway, both risked nothing by telling the truth, Arya confessing her true identity and the Hound acknowledging that he was Arya's captor, not savior-escort. That would have been plenty to enjoy, but the episode delivered even more, with Arya's pithy dispatch of her brand of justice, and her bit of mercy to the Hound in trying to dress his wound.

Brienne and Podrick ran into Hotpie, getting a tiny clue as to Arya's whereabouts. (Well, a major clue, in learning that she's still alive!) The relationship between these two characters is growing more interesting as well. Podrick is such a good guy at the core that it's very interesting to have him cautioning Brienne to be more reserved and dissembling. Brienne proves herself the noble knight Jaime styled her as, in proving that (at least in this case) honesty really is the best policy.

A brief scene up at Castle Black shows Jon Snow trying to make his superiors do the smart thing, only to be shot down by Alliser Thorne. In the long while since I read book three, I'd really forgotten how infuriating the higher-ups at Castle Black were here in the last stretch of the book. Not that it's hard to root for Jon Snow really, but scenes like this certainly help.

Dany's scenes this week depict a fling with Daario, and the fallout with Ser Jorah. The positioning of these two scenes back to back is very interesting, driving home something that is maybe not so clear in the original books. Jorah is giving good council here, trying to keep Dany from sinking into a quagmire. But it really does come from a selfish place. Not only does Jorah have a personal history here (as he says, if Ned Stark had treated him as she would treat the slavers, he'd be dead), but he's jealous that Daario and not he got close to the queen. The track is laid for a rivalry between Daario and Jorah.

Melisandre. Well, there had to be some weak material somewhere in the episode, and here it was. Unless Melisandre's boobs are your sort of thing; at least there was that. I suppose it was illuminating (ha! Lord of Light pun!) to get insight into why Selyse lets this woman around her husband: she really is a true believer, more even than Stannis. Still, I'm just not that engaged. And yet, the show has "rehabilitated" characters I didn't find as interesting in the novels. Perhaps they'll do so later with Melisandre.

The episode finished up in CrazyTown, aka the Eyrie. I liked the touch of putting snow into the scenes (winter really is coming, you know). Poor Sansa. The one time she's finally able to stand up for herself, it's slapping around a little boy. And what does it lead her to? A creepy kiss from Littlefinger, and an up-close look at the Moon Door courtesy of Aunt Lysa. But it's Lysa herself who goes tumbling out, as Littlefinger continues his murderous spree. And not only does he kill her, he crushes her hopes first, by telling her he never loved her. Littlefinger's one cold dude.

Another great episode in a season of great episodes. An A-, the "minus" probably only for the boring Melisandre scene. (Excise that, and I'd call it an A.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Oh, God(zilla)

Last night, I went to see the new Godzilla movie. There were a half dozen in my group, with a fairly wide range of expectations: from enthusiastically expectant of giant monster violence (stoked by a life-long love of Godzilla), to me, just cautiously hopeful that something Bryan Cranston signed on to might be at least pretty good. All of us left disappointed, the Godzilla fans most of all. There was universal agreement that last year's Pacific Rim was a more entertaining movie. (And I thought that was average at best.)

There are three major flaws with this new incarnation of the King of Monsters. First, the movie spends its first act establishing the wrong character. There's a fairly interesting "15 years ago" opening that introduces Bryan Cranston's character, a man whose family is ripped apart in a monster-caused disaster that is covered up. It leaves him broken and empty of anything but the desire to expose the truth, and actually does a really good job of setting up a character with personal stakes to follow through the large-scale chaos to follow. Except the movie doesn't follow him. By the end of the first act, the narrative has been handed off to his son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a comparatively personality-free military character who just happens to be anywhere and everywhere in the world where the action occurs.

Second, the movie manufactures a tremendous amount of unnecessary jeopardy. One could debate whether any additional problems even belong in the film at all when you have giant city-destroying monsters on the rampage, but it would be nice at least if any further complications aren't directly caused by the characters themselves. There's a staggering amount of stupidity on parade here, from voluntarily separating a family just so their reunion becomes a question, to setting up a literal ticking clock only so that the characters will be later forced to unset it. Indeed, with only one exception in the entire film, events would reach a better conclusion if nobody did anything. And needless to say, characters who perpetually only make things worse belong in a comedy, not a disaster movie.

Third, the movie tries way too hard for scientific credibility, and trips all over itself in the process. Godzilla has never been a particularly sophisticated premise. "Radiation makes giant monsters. Just go with us on this." That's the bargain. The movie tries to explain things too hard, often using concepts that can't possibly work the way they're being described. For example, does anyone think that echo location could work from halfway around the world, no matter how big a thing is? Can anyone come up with a reason why a creature drawn to radiation would travel thousands of miles east, heading straight for Hawaii and San Francisco? Worst of all is the principle "scientist" character, who dispenses with the scientific method after only minutes of initial exposition, to embrace a decidedly unscientific religiosity about Godzilla.

Honestly, as the end credits rolled, I didn't think I'd disliked the movie that much. It was just another vapid summer blockbuster. But then I heard my friends who I'd assumed would have enjoyed it, tearing into it. And then I went to place the movie on my Flickchart, and was surprised at just how low it ended up. In the end, I feel a bit like I'm being generous to give this incarnation of Godzilla a D+. It's better than the last attempt starring Matthew Broderick, but not by a lot. And that's not saying much anyway.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kind Words

Christopher and His Kind is a largely forgettable movie, without much profound to offer. And perhaps it's an encouraging sign of the times that this is the case.

The movie is based on the same-titled 1976 autobiography of Christopher Isherwood, an English novelist. The book made waves in its time for its candor. Isherwood had written several novels inspired by the time he lived in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II, but in doing so he had completely concealed an important detail: he was a gay man. The autobiography revisited that period of his life and exposed the whole truth as a duty, he felt, to "his kind." The book thus became important in the gay liberation movement.

We're still a long way from achieving equality, particularly if you look at the state of the global stage. But pollsters and such will also point out that the needle has never in history moved faster on a social issue than it has on the issue of gay rights, and there's truth in that as well. Things have moved fast enough that this story, except when considered in its full historical context, just doesn't seem that special.

As a movie, a piece of entertainment, it probably doesn't help that its largely about Nazi Germany. A number of profound and moving films have been made about the time and subject, and this movie doesn't do much to try to access those emotions. Christopher Isherwood (the character) does find love in Germany, but the movie doesn't portray that love more convincingly than any of the several surface relationships he has in the first act. He does struggle to try to get his lover out of the country, but comparatively little time is spent on this. The movie does spend some time depicting the threat gays and lesbians were under from the Third Reich, but this too is a somewhat surface-only treatment that simply feels like it "doesn't rate" next to the other atrocities of the Holocaust (in reality, or even on film).

So what's left? Well, some interesting performances at least. This film was made by the BBC Studios, and stars Matt Smith, on hiatus between two seasons of Doctor Who. In a way, this too says something about the moving of the needle on gay rights. In interviews, the director spoke some about demands by the BBC on just how much nudity and sex he could show involving "the Doctor." And yet, the BBC still ultimately greenlit the film. With the livelihood of a 50-year franchise possibly to be affected, here's the Doctor, playing gay. In fact, Smith's persona in this film is actually not all that radically different from his characterization of the Doctor. And it's really no big thing. If anything, two of Smith's co-stars, Toby Jones and Imogen Poots, deliver more nuanced and affecting performances.

This is a true story at its core, and that story is an interesting one. But I think perhaps that's more reason to read the original autobiography than to see this film. I'd rate Christopher and His Kind a C-

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Beginning of the End

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finished off its first season in style last night. (And hooray! It's been confirmed we'll get a second season in the fall.) I might have a quibble or two here and there, but it was amid an episode that generally did everything right.

My favorite material of the episode was between Fitz and Simmons, trapped together on the ocean floor. The "only one of us can survive" conceit is well-traveled story ground, but it's rarely done any better than it was here. The way the two characters -- and the two actors -- played off each other was wonderful. From their very scientific talk of the nature of life and death, to Fitz confessing his feelings, every moment rang true and was moving. Some might say that the fact Fitz actually survived may have undermined some of the emotion of this, but I'm not so sure. Multiple times, we were told that Fitz was in bad shape after the rescue. And very pointedly, we never saw him again for the rest of the episode. Who knows how the character may be affected come fall.

But back to that rescue. It was great to have Samuel L. Jackson on as Nick Fury. And for real this time, not it a mere schticky epilogue cameo. Both character and actor injected the proceedings with sky high bad-assery and quips. Fury was just plain fun in every scene he was in. (With one exception; he was instead touching in the moment where he told Coulson he considered him an Avenger.) Fury was definitely a presence that wouldn't work on the show all the time, but I do hope we haven't truly seen the last of him.

Garrett unraveled a bit too quickly for my tastes. Perhaps he should have received his injection an episode or two earlier, if only to make Ward seem less fickle for only now starting to question him. But since only Garrett was killed (fantastically) and not Ward, perhaps season two will delve further into what was going in his head. And bring some more abuse/justice from May.

We have a few other unresolved threads, some more compelling than others. On the dull end of the spectrum, gravitonium showed up again, but again for no apparent reason other than to make us wonder if the scientist living inside it might emerge at some point,you know, ever. In the middle of the spectrum, we saw that apparently the alien healing drug instills its subjects with crazy wall-doodling compulsion. This could become interesting in season two, but I do feel like we'll need some explanation about why Garrett started up immediately when Coulson didn't indulge for a year (was it the memory block? a smaller dose?) and Skye hasn't yet shown symptoms at all (because she's a "monster?").

Of course, the Skye mystery is still in play too, with the late revelation that her father is still alive. This whole arc, along with Raina's fixation with "evolution," all seems like it could lead somewhere interesting. If not just for the story itself, but for the evident gymnastics the show is going to perform to avoid using the word "mutants" when that aspect of the Marvel universe is controlled by another studio.

But for my money, the best late episode revelation might just be that Koenig is alive! Well, sort of. His twin? His clone? His... what were the comic fans thinking Coulson was early on in the series, his "Life Model something-or-other?" I wrote about being sad that Patton Oswalt's run on the show was too brief, and apparently the folks involved agree! We get more Patton Oswalt next season.

I'd say season one ended on an A-. Certainly, this run of post-Winter Soldier episodes has been excellent overall. I'll be eagerly awaiting the fall to see what they do next.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Day 9: 1:00 - 2:00 PM

Jack Bauer was back in action again last night for a two-drink episode ("Dammit!", "Dammit!") that kept some of the momentum generated by the promising premiere last week. But it also slid back into a few of 24's bad habits.

We spent a great deal of time fleshing out the villains this week. And while I'm certainly all for avoiding cartoonish, one-dimensional villains, these were by far the weakest scenes of the episode. Lots of ham-fisted exposition awkwardly clued us in on the family relationships (brother, husband) before leading into more awkward storylines. He's upset she slept with another man. Except he's really upset because he no longer wants to kill people. And creepy Mom wants to watch their makeup sex (talk about a quickie, by the way) on NannyCam. I say the brother needs to convert the non-standard bus or whatever ASAP, because this just wasn't interesting.

Meanwhile, the hacker lair, for all its built-in feeling of being "not CTU," certainly began to feel a lot like CTU this week. The leader's petulant efforts to screw Jack over felt like many of the office politics squabbles we saw over the years. (Some mole-driven, some not.)

But the rest of the episode held more promise. Agent Morgan is quickly shaping up to be one of the better "new characters" the series has ever introduced. She's definitely cast in the mold of a female Jack Bauer, but has a little nuance to keep it from being just that simple. For one thing, she comes to us pre-damaged, where we the audience basically saw every bit of the abuse over the years that made Jack who he is. For another, Morgan still doesn't seem quite ready to do literally anything to get the job done... though she still certainly blurs the lines.

The best scene of the hour was the quiet and close moment between Chloe and Jack, an all too infrequent kind of scene on 24. While the series does sometimes include emotion and pathos to cut up the action, it's invariably one character suffering in solitude. Rarely is another character there to share the moment and comfort, and even more rarely is that character Jack Bauer. Both Mary Lynn Rajskub and Kiefer Sutherland did an excellent job in the scene where Chloe reveals the loss of her husband and child, and Jack relates to the loss from very personal experience.

Some fun action bookended the hour, making good use of the fact that this was actually filmed in London. (Though the major train station underground stops are going to be a lot busier at 1:00 in the afternoon on a weekday.) Still, I'd call it a slower hour overall, worth about a B.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Laws of Gods and Men

This week's Game of Thrones followed a rather orderly structure, bringing us events in one part of the world at a time before moving on to another.

This started across the Narrow Sea in Braavos. The city made an eye-catching impact in both the opening scene and the credits that preceded it. It was wonderful to have Mark Gatiss show up as the leader of the bankers. Yes, he brings perhaps insurmountable mental baggage with him for a lot of the audience, indelibly associated with his role on BBC's Sherlock as Mycroft. But it was baggage suited to this situation; his character here seemed an equally infuriating know-it-all, all the more aggravating for his accurate depiction of the facts. In the end, Davos made an impassioned argument in favor of Stannis as the king who pays his debts. And I must say, I've never been as interested in either Davos or Stannis. It was a persuasive enough speech for the bankers, enough even to move me as a viewer at least a bit. It was wonderfully written and excellently performed by Liam Cunningham.

From there, we moved on to Meereen to check in on Daenerys. Well, first, to check in on her dragons. The visual effects team did not disappoint in realizing the ever-growing creatures. Nor did the set designers disappoint in realizing the queen's pyramid-top throne room. I have a much clearer memory of these parts of the story from the books, because I believe I've read them far more recently. That is, I think we're firmly in book five territory here with Dany. Here again, the series is dealing with this material more cleanly and compellingly than the book. Then, following up on her squaring things with the goatherd, we dealt with the fallout of her rash crucifixion of the slavers. It may have seemed like justice when she did it a few episodes back, but here we learned of another side of the story -- that she may have condemned a (relatively) innocent man. Meereen, the land where actions have consequences.

Next, we traveled to the Dreadfort, as Yara attempted an assault to rescue her brother. All this was definitely setting up book five material, as we saw Theon too far submerged in his new "Reek" persona to even accept the rescue offered him, then subsequently commanded by Ramsay to pretend to be "something he's not" -- Theon Greyjoy. Actor Alfie Allen gave a wonderful performance in the surprisingly tense bath scene. You could feel Reek calculate every response, trying to avoid punishment, and see him recoil at every grazing touch. (What you did not see was the evidence of Ramsay's mutilation. I kind of expected the show to "go there" when he stripped off his clothes.)

The episode then turned to King's Landing, and the trial of Tyrion. (In devoting the rest of its time here, I think it may have become the first episode of the series not to show us any of the Stark family at all.) This was yet another wonderful performance by Peter Dinklage. It offered strong moments for many other characters and actors as well. There was a wonderful, new for TV scene between Varys (absent for too many episodes before tonight) and Oberyn. There was Jaime's ill-considered bargain with his father, who accepted so quickly than it was clear Tywin was getting even more than he wanted.

And of course, there was the procession of witnesses at the trial, full of emotion as they offered damning, shaded half-truths. Mostly. Shae's betrayal was the final indignity, and Tyrion could not help himself but to try and wrest some measure of control back. He demanded a trial by combat, recalling his same gambit from season one -- and yet the speech he first gave, condemning everyone in attendance, was powerful enough that it hardly felt like a retread of familiar dramatic ground.

Aside from a few ham-fisted moments of Game of Thrones' characteristically unnecessary nudity and sex (with Salladhor Saan and Ramsay Snow), this was an excellent episode throughout. I give it an A-.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Saving the Best for Last

After watching all eight other Oscar-nominated Best Pictures from last year, I finally made my way to Philomena. It turned out that I saved the best for last. And it's probably just as well. If I'd actually seen the movie before the ceremony, it would have seriously bummed me out that the movie was said to have no chance of winning (amid all the "12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity, but maybe American Hustle" talk).

Philomena is based on the true story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), who is trying to locate her long lost son. Impoverished as a youth, and living in an abbey, she was shamed by the nuns for becoming pregnant, and forced to give up her child for adoption. Now journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan), facing something of a career crisis, gets hold of her story and tries to help her in her search.

The screenplay, adapted by Jeff Pope and co-star Steve Coogan, packs a great deal into a tight hour-and-a-half. The emotion and drama of the piece is ever present, but the film finds ample opportunities for light comedy. It also finds room for moral introspection, especially on the subject of religion. Sixsmith, a staunch atheist (as a character; in real life, he apparently labels himself agnostic), is dumbfounded that Philomena has remained devoutly religious in light of all that as happened to her. Or more accurately, as he sees it, after all religious people have done to her. Philomena, for her part, is equally mystified by Sixsmith's attitude. Why should God be tarnished by the actions of people -- people who the faithful ought to find forgiveness for in any event?

And yet it's not as though religion alone has filled up Philomena's life. Her longing for her son, for any possible detail of information about him, no matter how small, is clear. In some scenes, the anguish seems quite acute indeed. And still that's only part of the tale. Perhaps it's spoiling a touch too much to say this, but they do track down Philomena's child in the course of the film, and that too is the springboard into an entirely new, thought-provoking chapter of the story.

Judi Dench, so excellent in so many films, gives one of her career-best performances here. Steve Coogan reveals depth some might not expect beyond his comedic roots. And though there are only perhaps one or two other actors in the film that most people might recognize, it's a truly excellent cast from top to bottom.

Stronger than any of the other Oscar contenders, Philomena gets an A- from me. In fact, it makes my Top 10 of 2013 list, strongly landing at #2. I give it my enthusiastic endorsement.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Building a Mystery

"The Adventure of the Norwood Builder" is a rather fun mystery in the Sherlock Holmes canon. This despite the fact that the secret behind the puzzle is quite predictable, and the behavior of the culprit truly mystifying.

Holmes is contracted by a lawyer about to be arrested for a murder he did not commit. The lawyer was retained to draw up a will for an eccentric old bachelor. Stranger still, the provisions of the will establish the lawyer himself as sole inheritor, casting him as the sole suspect when the old man turns up dead the very next day. Though Holmes believes in his client's innocence, he finds himself hard-pressed to find any evidence that doesn't in fact corroborate the official investigation's theory of events.

The twist makes the story on this occasion. The body of the victim has been burned to ash in a fire, concealing any evidence that might reveal the crime. It isn't difficult for the reader to imagine why this is; the man has in fact staged his own death and framed the poor lawyer.

Still, despite this foreseeable outcome, the journey to it is quite entertaining. Holmes is quite frustrated in his investigation this time, and seeing him unable to prove one of his own hypotheses makes for a nice variation on the formula. Also different, a bit of fingerprint evidence turns up in the course of the mystery. Although the uniqueness of fingerprints was hardly a new concept even in Arthur Conan Doyle's time, it's an aspect he'd never much used in his writings. The mystery has a somewhat more modern feel for its inclusion.

But there is another aspect to the tale that threatens to bring everything down, were the rest not quite so fun. The culprit, having pulled off the perfect crime right down to transferring most of his money to an alias he intends to assume, decides to hide in a secret room inside his own house, remaining there for days. It's incomprehensible why, with an escape plan already in place, this man wouldn't simply hit the road as soon as his "death" had been faked. Sure, it makes for one of Holmes' typically showy reveals when he catches the man, but the criminal could have gotten away with it. (And indeed, because he lingers, he comes to feel a need to embellish his frame job, and that's what allows Holmes to capture him.) Sure, a criminal is unlikely to win in a Sherlock Holmes story, but does he have to make it so easy?

Still, despite the flaws in its construction, I found "The Norwood Builder" to be one of the lighter and more enjoyable Holmes adventures. I give it a B.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


The gang on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was on their own this week, for what felt like truly the first time -- no Providence. It actually seemed like on-your-own situation in the new season of 24, though a more fun take on it, thanks to this series' established lighter tone. And Triplett's grandfather's trusty spy kit.

There were a few hard "asks" of the audience, such as believing that Cybertek, a company that makes, well, cyber tech, somehow has no computers in its office. Or that there's still good in Ward somewhere, just because he struggled to kill one dog around a decade ago. But get past those things, and it was quite an entertaining episode.

A lot of time was spent on Ward's back story. This served several purposes. First, it continued to add dimension to a character some fans (at least as of Captain America 2) found boring. Second, it served as a message to anyone in the audience who might still be thinking like Fitz -- that somehow Ward was doing all this against his will. This was the explanation of why he has done what he's done. That said, I doubt the show would spend quite so much time on it if it weren't planning to try and redeem him. Yet after dumping Fitz and Simmons in the ocean (adding to his long list of dastardly deeds), and again failing to do anything about Garrett when he had the chance, I think it would be very hard to redeem him. A challenge for the writers, then, in a possible season 2.

Ward's motivations weren't the only ones explored this week. We also got the backstory of Garrett, the "first Deathlok," and how he became disillusioned with Shield to work for Hydra. (I'm tired of typing out the all-caps and periods.) Speaking of disillusionment, it seems as though comeuppance for Garrett might just maaaaybe come from "Flowers" too/instead. She voiced her reasons for getting in on this crazy super-soldier plan, along with her disappointment that Garrett's ultimate reason for doing all this was a selfish one.

As for our heroes? A mix of fun action. Coulson and May acting undercover as mouthpieces for Fitz and Simmons was worth it alone. As I mentioned earlier, the Howling spy kit was a great source of fun too. May's offer to mentor Skye in Hate Fu, another great moment. Really, the episode was just peppered with nice little moments like that. Although the good guys in general may have gotten a little short shrift this week, with so much time spent explaining villain motivations.

Still, it all sets the table nicely for next week's season finale. I give it a B+, and I'm eagerly awaiting next week.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Day 9: 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM

Jack is back. And it's true what they say: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

When last we left our intrepid (anti?)hero, 24 had devolved into such a farcical parody of itself that I wasn't even bothering to write thoughtful blog entries about new episodes. Instead, I was writing down the award show style stream of consciousness snark of me and my friends. And keeping track of the drinks, of course. (Every time Jack says "dammit!", and any time anyone says "perimeter" or "within the hour.")

I won't pretend 24 is now a new show, the "Live Another Day" subtitle notwithstanding. They're not pretending it either, as the episodes are labeled "Day 9," as though it were just another season rather than the rather revolutionary idea of reviving a hit TV series for a psuedo-mini-series event. But it doesn't have to be a new showfor me to be entertained. I just want it to be the show I liked in the first place.

In that regard, 24: Live Another Day is off to a pretty good start. It seems as though what the writers really needed was a break. Back in the day, two months between seasons that were longer (by two episodes) than most other network television simply wasn't enough time to recharge the creative juices and plan ahead. They would never get far into the season before they were just barely running ahead of the boulder of whatever initial premise they'd concocted, just trying to get something before the cameras in time for air. Thus we got the endless rotations of the same concepts.

A handful of those old tropes were in play as this new season opened. There was an assassination plot in the works against the President of the United States. There was a mole. But the tropes were twisted in ways that seemed less stale. (They're going to kill the president using a drone! The mole was planted with the evil hacker!) And there was a lot more going on that felt even more promising. We have a Jack Bauer completely on the outside, with no friends inside the government. ("I don't have friends.") We have a broken Chloe, empty enough of a cause that she latched on to an anarchical hacker gang, but still dedicated enough not to betray them even after three days of torture. (That somehow left her eye makeup undisturbed.)

Of course, with neither Jack nor Chloe working for the counterterrorist cause, the story now requires someone else to actually be competent in that role. And so we introduced Yvonne Strahovski (fresh off Dexter, less freshly off Chuck) as Kate Morgan. It's a relief to see a new character who's not a complete bumbling idiot... though to be sure, everyone else around her certainly seems to be. (Though at least they seem to be a bit more ethnically diverse than the CTU of old.)

It's also interesting to me having Tate Donovan in the cast. I associate him indelibly with his role on Damages (even though he wasn't in the later seasons), and his role here is in many ways not different enough to break that connection. But he's at the core of a potentially interesting storyline. In past seasons of 24, the "president-centric" storyline was almost always a weak time-filler next to the adventures of Jack Bauer, but here it puts two intriguing threads in play.

First, there's the ripped-from-the-headlines controversy of drone strikes. It hardly needs any dressing up to be grist for a political drama's mill, but of course 24 only ever brushes up against ethical controversy before diving over the line in pursuit of action. And so comes the idea that a drone could be hacked by enemies and used against their creators. (By Catelyn Stark! Go Michelle Fairley!)

Second, there's the story of Heller's emerging (though unspecified) dementia/Alzheimer's condition. That is a truly horrible stripping of self that I hope no one I know in life suffers in their twilight years. And the show gets help building sympathy by making the president a character we've already met in past seasons, rather than a wholly new person. Still, important to consider along with any empathy here is the fact that we're talking about the President of the United States here. If this sort of condition were claiming the country's leader even as slightly as depicted here, I'd be screaming to 25th Amendment that person out of office. (And yes, there's ample evidence one could find to suggest Ronald Reagan was in a similar situation during his presidency. I plead too young at the time to know what the 25th Amendment was.)

All these new elements in play. Interesting new cast members, even if in some cases (Benjamin Bratt), their characters aren't yet interesting. Some fun little surface charges to the format. (A prologue! "The following takes place between 11:06 AM and 12:00 PM."? A font now new-and-improved with flames!)

Not that I'm going to abandon the drinking game, though. (I counted three, maybe four?, Jack "dammits" and one perimeter. Not a bad start.)

I'd say this two-hour premiere deserves around a B. I'm not blown away, but I am glad the show is back. Let's face it, when 24 last left us, it wouldn't have even earned a passing grade, so it is certainly improved by any measure.

Monday, May 05, 2014

First of His Name

The week's new Game of Thrones episode marked the halfway point of the season, believe it or not. As with last week, the were a number of changes big and small from the original book, but this time it seemed to me easier to determine why the writers were making them and where they were aiming toward.

For example, they seemed to begin a campaign of softening the character of Cersei this week. George R.R. Martin did this in his writing too, but primarily by making Cersei a perspective character in book four. The series can't just put you into a person's head that way, so it must go about the business differently. I don't recall book Cersei resigning herself to her family's relationship with the Tyrells in the way series Cersei did tonight, but it made for a series of interesting new scenes.

First, at Tommen's coronation, she seemed to swallow her first instinct and actually extend an olive branch to Margaery. She even acknowledged the horrid disposition of her own late son, Joffrey. And while Margaery generally accepted the peace offering and feigned innocence about her ambitions to marry Tommen, she couldn't resist getting one dig in on Cersei at the end of their conversation. ("Should I call you mother?")

Later, Cersei appealed to Oberyn to see to it that her daughter hasn't forgotten her in the long year since they were separated. And later still, Tywin revealed the true state of the family's finances to Cersei, making it clear why Lannister marriages to the Tyrells need to go forward. Again, Cersei seemed to simply bear it -- if not with a smile, then at least with acceptance. Perhaps this was all more depression on her part than truly getting on board with "the plan," but either way this was definitely not the claws-out Cersei we've seen before.

Across the sea, we got one scene with Dany. As the books devolve from this point into the morass of ruling Meereen, it's easy to forget why Dany felt compelled to stay in place and do so. The show uses this scene to spell it out clearly and effectively, as her advisors report the retaking by slavers of the two cities she'd previously freed. If she can't hold on to her conquests, she reasons, they really don't count for anything. And if her potential subjects feel her actions don't count for anything, they won't follow her in the first place. Dragons are great at all, but they're a hammer where politics requires a scalpel. Perhaps the show will continue to depict the Meereen storyline in these more sympathetic terms.

From there, we returned to the Eyrie for the first time since Season 1, to visit crazy Aunt Lysa and crazier cousin Robin. I hope the fact that it's been so long didn't confuse TV-only followers of the story, because a huge bombshell was dropped here this week: Joffrey's was not the first political assassination Littlefinger helped to orchestrate. He also pulled the strings on the death of Jon Arryn, Hand of former King Robert, whose death originally led the king to recruit Ned Stark for the job. This was essentially the point at which this story began for us, and it turns out it was because Littlefinger convinced Lysa to poison her own husband. But moreover, in case I hadn't made it clear: Lysa is crazy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire for poor Sansa, whose brief relief at being back with family was then snuffed by the realization that that family might just kill her in a fit of jealousy.

Another callback to the first season came when we checked in on Arya and the Hound, as Arya again began to practice her "water dancing, taught by swordmaster Syrio. You have to admit, the Hound has a point: how good could he have been if he's dead now? Of course, it's one of the many debatable points among book fans, whether he's actually dead or not. Similarly, the show never presented Syrio's death to us on screen. So I suppose one never knows.

We also had some nice exchanges between Brienne and her new squire Podrick, who warmed himself into her good graces by revealing that even he was there when it counted on the battlefield -- for Tyrion at Blackwater.

From there, the episode closed out north of the Wall, attending to both of the new plots added for the series. Jon and his men laid waste to Craster's Keep, and Bran extricated himself from captivity. Both plots seemed a way for the writers to get where they needed to go in a more visually interesting way than the books. For Jon, it was a victory to earn him some respect among the men -- more believably, I feel, that the book's approach of having him return to work as a steward in the Night's Watch. For Bran, it was taking a further step in his ability to control Hodor with his mind -- more born of urgency and necessity than the book's more "Jedi training montage" approach. (At least, this is how I remember the book. I admit, it's been a long while.) In the process of all this, Ramsay's man on the inside was killed, thus neatly wrapping things up for the not-in-the-book character.

It was a solid episode again, though I've come to expect that from Game of Thrones. I give it an A-.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sense of Dredd

Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd is among the worst movies I've ever seen. Coming back from an out-of-town trip to a Renaissance Festival many years ago, the group I was with insisted on going to see it and dragged me along. In my life, I've only ever abandoned four movies without finishing them -- and only one of those involved me actually walking out of a movie theater. But I would have walked out of Judge Dredd if I could have.

So needless to say, seeing the new incarnation, Dredd, was not particularly high on my list. But a number of my friends did see it, and bit by bit, the word trickled in that it was actually pretty good. So I recorded a broadcast on HBO and let it languish on the DVR for months. One evening, it finally bubbled to the top.

Dredd isn't a masterpiece action movie by any stretch, but it does get a number of things right. For one, it has key actors in it doing very good work. Karl Urban is excellent in the title role. He's just the right amount of hardass to be entertaining, more "unflappable" than "emotionless." Olivia Thirlby is solid as the rookie assigned to work with him. The two have a nice rapport too; while not as fun as Urban had on Michael Ealy on Almost Human (a moment of silence, please), it does elevate the proceedings.

Better still is Lena Headey as the psychotic villain of the piece. And that's another of the interesting things about the movie -- it makes the major villain a woman. I'm hard-pressed to think of another film in this genre that did that.

But otherwise, the movie is a bit too "style over substance" for my taste. The simplistic plot brushes up against some potential social commentary about poverty and overpopulation, but quickly shies away from doing much with it. Instead, you get the expected procession of action sequences, artfully choreographed to evoke comic book framing. They're certainly visually compelling, but they don't really get the blood pumping. The action is beautiful, but not tense.

So, all told, I'd probably only give the movie a C-. But that said, if you're an action fan, and you like very visually oriented films, this could well be the one for you. You could certainly do worse. Judge Dredd, the character, did once before.

Friday, May 02, 2014

House Party

After the "prequel novel" The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle soon decided to resurrect his famous character of Sherlock Holmes and return to the short story form. The first of his new stories was "The Adventure of the Empty House." As good as it might be to have Holmes back in action for more adventures, this return itself is a largely unsatisfying story, for a number of reasons.

First, there's the explanation of Holmes' non-death. Holmes says he faked his death in order to go into hiding, so he could track down Moriarty's remaining lieutenants. This statement is completely at odds with Holmes own declarations in "The Final Problem," in which Holmes made a point of noting that he'd already mopped up the entire organization save for the criminal mastermind himself. The explanation of how he faked his death seems similarly revisionist of the facts as Doyle laid them out -- as one would expect, given that he'd originally intended exactly what it had seemed, to kill off Sherlock Holmes. Poor Watson, often the buffoon in a Holmes adventure, comes out looking even more foolish for having been taken in by such a threadbare and spontaneous ruse.

Second, Holmes' miraculous return undermines all the earlier trumpeting of Moriarty's greatness. If Moriarty was truly all he was said to be, then why is it he is concretely dead when Holmes somehow managed to survive? In subsequent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, the character of Moriarty was expanded far out of proportion with his role in the original tales; one is left wishing Doyle himself had thought to do the same, and revived Moriarty for repeat adventures as well.

Third, much has transpired in the intervening years that goes without sufficient explanation. Watson's wife Mary has died, leaving the doctor a widower, and yet this gets barely a mention from the man himself. It's all just machinations to get Watson and Holmes back living together on Baker Street, and utterly lacking in any of the emotional heft that such a profound loss ought to have. To say nothing of what the loss -- and return -- of Watson's friend himself must have meant.

Lastly, the case itself in this story is given short shrift. Obviously, Holmes' return is the important story to tell here, but so little space is given to the mystery that it barely makes sense. Holmes comes out of hiding in order to draw out the last of Moriarty's remaining henchman... but it seems, paradoxically, that the man has already hidden himself in the house across from the Baker Street residence so that he can spy on Holmes? Perhaps the chain of events is not as nonsensical as I perceive it, but Doyle's writing does a poor job in this case of making clear the facts. In any event, the baiting of this henchman with a simple ruse merits only a page or two, wrapping things up in too neat a bow and too quickly returning Holmes and Watson to business as usual. A revival ten years in the making seems like it deserved matter.

In fact, I'd gave to say "The Adventure of the Empty House" ranks as one of the worst of Doyle's Holmes tales, notable only in that it contains the character's return. That is, without this story, there wouldn't have been any others. But that doesn't really excuse the story itself in my esteem. I would grade it a D+.