Thursday, July 31, 2014

TNG Flashback: First Contact

As many fans of film and television know, multiple credited writers is usually a sign of a rocky creative process and a compromised finished product. But Star Trek: The Next Generation definitively bucked that trend with one of the series' best, "Yesterday's Enterprise." And roughly one year later, they did it again with "First Contact."

On the planet Malcor III, a strange being is brought to a hospital after a severe accident, an apparent alien from another world. But this encounter proves only the beginning, as soon an extraterrestrial named Captain Picard makes contact with the planet's Chancellor, Avel Durken, and leading scientist, Mirasta Yale. He claims to come in peace, representing an interstellar federation of planets. But not all the Malcorians are ready to embrace the revelation of other life in the universe.

One key element sets this episode apart. It's told from the point of view of the alien life forms. It's almost as though our heroes are the guest stars on the pilot episode of an entirely different television series about alien geopolitics. But it wasn't an easy creative road getting there, as reflected by the lengthy writing credits.

Working from a pitch from an outside writer, multiple complete drafts of a script were attempted. In one, a damaged Enterprise shuttle was to have been rescued by the alien life forms. In another, an Away Team made such a splash on the Malcorian world that they became global celebrities. For a while, the writers were considering the story for a season cliffhanger. At another point, they were envisioning this as Wesley Crusher's last episode, with a plan to leave him behind on the alien planet in the final act.

Head writer Michael Piller felt that none of these approaches were working, and he became convinced that the way to tell the story best would be to do it from the aliens' point of view. He faced strong opposition from producer Rick Berman, who finally relented only upon receiving the promise that the show would never break the format in this way again. (And they didn't, although Star Trek: Voyager would much later produce a similarly styled episode.)

Focusing on the aliens forced the writers to build a more convincing world for them. As a result, this episode boasts one of the more realistic cultures of any one-episode aliens ever depicted on Star Trek. We see a delighted scientist eager to embrace change. We see a conservative militant who is deeply suspicious of it, and willing to die a martyr. We see a diplomatic chancellor trying to balance the two views, forced to deal with underlings who are betraying him. We see a medical practitioner following his own code of ethics for guidance. There's even a sci-fi fan girl who just wants to have sex with an alien.

It all comes together because of the impressive guest cast assembled for the episode. Carolyn Seymour, who played a Romulan previously and would later play a different one, is strong as the high-minded Mirasta Yale. George Coe, a veteran character from a number of places (perhaps most notably, Kramer vs. Kramer) is a sympathetic Chancellor Durken. George Hearn, one of Broadway's earliest Sweeney Todds, makes a lot out of his small role as the doctor Berel. Michael Ensign makes enough of an impact as the duplicitous Krola that the producers brought him back once for each of the three Star Trek series that followed.

And of course, most memorably, there's Bebe Neuwirth in the role of Lanel. Her comedic turn came as a late addition to the script, written specifically with her in mind. She was a longtime Star Trek fan herself, and well established with Paramount thanks to her years playing Lilith on Cheers and Frasier. Apparently, this made it easy enough to get her onto the show.

Perhaps most interestingly, the episode doesn't really have a "happy ending" as such. The wounded Commander Riker is rescued, of course. And they even manage to save the Malcorian who tries to kill himself and frame Riker for murder. But in the end, the alien chancellor concludes his planet is not ready for alien contact, and asks our heroes to leave, their mission a failure. It's another unconventional choice for the series, and adds more to the realism.

Other observations:
  • This episode presents the moment of discovering warp drive as the moment when an alien species is ready to be contacted by the Federation. This same concept would later play into the plot of the second feature film using Next Generation characters, which appropriately enough reused this episode's title.
  • The wine that Picard was given by his brother earlier in the season is opened here. As Jean-Luc promised, he did not drink it alone.
  • In a tantalizing bit of fictional history, Picard mentions that it was a disastrous first contact scenario with the Klingons that led to their long decades of hostility.
  • Lanel's bargain with Riker, to help him escape if he'll sleep with her, feels like a throwback to the original series. We all know Kirk would have bagged himself an alien. (He wouldn't have even needed the incentive of escape to do it, either.) It's left a bit ambiguous whether Riker does what he's asked. But Lanel does wind up helping him...
This interesting departure for the series resulted in one of the season's best episodes. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Case Study

Over the years, HBO has distributed a number of documentary films on a wide array of subjects. Their latest is The Case Against 8, a chronicle of the legal battle to overturn California's anti-gay Proposition 8. This was the case that famously paired the opposing lawyers from Bush v. Gore, Ted Olson and David Boies, and ultimately wound up at the Supreme Court in 2013 -- only to be essentially dismissed on legal grounds that brought marriage equality back to California without deciding the issue nationwide.

The film is an interesting one for the sheer scope of its access to the subjects. Everyone involved in the case knew of the potential for making history here, and so the documentary cameras were covering it from the very beginning. The story spans over four years in all, through a twisting legal labyrinth. The bulk of the film focuses on the initial district court trial -- the search for the ideal plaintiff couples, and the process of preparing them to give testimony.

The judge in that case had originally planned to allow cameras into his courtroom to film the entire proceedings, but the state defendants appealed -- all the way to the Supreme Court, in fact -- and secured an injunction to overrule him. The documentary is thus forced to recount this part of the story through the trial transcripts, using the lawyers and plaintiffs themselves in interviews, reading the words they actually spoke in the courtroom. It's not ideal, but the best that could be managed under the circumstances. And it is interesting (though not surprising) to see how little emotional distance this separation of time gives them.

The viewer easily becomes swept up in the personal stories of the people involved. Yet after this stage, moving beyond the district court trial, the documentary actually gives the rest of the process rather short shrift. After the celebration of the favorable first ruling, the rest of the legal journey is compressed into only perhaps half an hour of screen time. And that journey included an appeal hearing at the Ninth Circuit, a detour into the California state Supreme Court to argue standing, a return trip to the Ninth Circuit, and then finally the big day at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court showdown seems particularly truncated, probably because what happened there didn't quite comport with the heroic narrative the filmmakers were trying to paint for the lawyers and plaintiffs they were following. At the same time the Supremes were perfunctorily deciding this case on issues of standing, they made a landmark decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in a different case. That case, its lawyer Roberta Kaplan, and its plaintiff Edie Windsor, became the gay rights folk heroes that this lot "should" have become. That's not to diminish any of the efforts these people put forth... and yet it could be argued that this film, in its narrow focus on California, IS diminishing the efforts of the others.

Still, it's easy to forgive and forget that (if it's even true at all) when watching the final 15 minutes of the documentary, when the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case are finally able to get married. It's moving and surprisingly tense -- a wedding tinged with the suspenseful phone split-screen vibe of your average episode of 24.

In any case, it seems likely that history will look back on this battle as an important one, even if it wasn't a decisive one. Having a documentary that covers it so thoroughly is a good thing. I give The Case Against 8 a B-.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TNG Flashback: Clues

"Clues" is one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's more pure mystery episodes. It's also a case of a fan dream come true.

The Enterprise unexpectedly passes through a wormhole, causing everyone in the crew, except for Data, to lose consciousness for 30 seconds. But as a number of strange inconsistencies are discovered, it appears that the crew has in fact lost an entire day, a day in which they were actually awake. Not only have they all lost their memories, but it becomes clear that Data is concealing the truth about what happened during the missing time.

Beginning in the third season, show runner Michael Piller instituted a very rare policy for television -- he directed the production to accept script submissions, unsolicited and unrepresented by agents, from the series' own fans. This was one occasion on which that policy bore fruit. "Clues" was an idea submitted by a hopeful fan of the show. Piller thought the idea was first rate, but found the writing itself (particularly the dialogue) to be in poor shape. He contracted an outside professional, Joe Menosky, to do a polish draft, which was very well received. Not only did the series get an episode out of it, it got a new staff writer; Menosky was offered a permanent position on the writing staff.

Mysteries on Star Trek are seldom that compelling. They almost always turn on some vital information an alien-of-the-week is withholding, and are invariably resolved with a swim through technobabble. Actually, this episode is awash with technobabble too, from Crusher's growing moss to out-of-sync transporter trace biorhythms to tampered computer clocks. But what makes the crucial difference here is that the person withholding information is one of our own.

It's truly fascinating to watch Data "lie" in this episode. Given his lack of experience, he's unsurprisingly quite bad at it. When pushed into a corner, he responds with some incredibly suspicious variation of "I cannot dispute that it appears I am not telling you the truth." And this only deepens the mystery for the crew and the audience, as we wonder what could have happened that was so terrible that Data of all people would conceal it.

The revelation is the truth is perhaps a bit of a letdown: the fact that the Enterprise encountered a race of xenophobic aliens called the Paxans. The idea is compelling, but perhaps for lack of time in the episode, the aliens themselves are remarkably... well, "convenient." They apparently have the power (and immediately, the desire) to simply destroy the ship and everyone on board. Yet twice, they are almost instantly agreeable to a "memory wipe" solution. I guess there's just a strange mix of mercy and ruthlessness here that doesn't quite track for me. The "what" behind the mystery is certainly compelling, but the fact that the Paxans are dealt with so easily undermines their credibility as a threat. The way Data is acting throughout the episode, I suppose I expect a bit more of a menace.

If a few extra minutes could have gotten the writers the time to give the Paxans sharper teeth, I know where I would have taken them. The episode opens with a long Dixon Hill sequence that doesn't serve much purpose in my mind. Sure, it's fun to see Dixon Hill again, and fun to see Whoopi Goldberg play some comedy by stepping into that world. But did the episode really need to present us a tonal echo for "mysteries are compelling," as opposed to just showing us a compelling mystery? Did we really need several minutes of watching Guinan try to talk her way through an imperious secretary? And if you're going to put Guinan in an episode, is it really going to be just for that and not to appear anywhere else in the story? Perhaps this extended, unnecessary sequence is a consequence of the episode's fan origins; it smells like fanboy wish fulfillment to have Guinan and Dixon Hill in your episode.

Other observations:
  • There are a few firsts in this episode. We see Worf teaching a martial arts class for the first time. Nurse Ogawa also makes her first appearance... though strangely, she only gets a first name here, Alyssa, and not a last name.
  • Some fans of Red Dwarf have suggested this episode was actually ripped off from an earlier episode of that show. "Thanks for the Memory" apparently had a similar plot.
  • When playing Dixon Hill on this occasion, Picard intermittently adopts a bad Chicago mobster kind of accent that I don't recall him embracing in previous adventures.
  • The series somewhat frequently seems to end a Data-centric episode with a tight closeup on his face. I suppose they do it because Brent Spiner is the master of giving a truly subtle expression that lets you in on Data's thinking without actually showing what we'd consider full "emotion." In this episode, it's a very slight smile of satisfaction that this time, the plan to cover up the Paxan encounter has worked.
As one of the show's more effective mysteries, I feel "Clues" earns a solid B. It's a fun entry in the middle of the season.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Ghostbusting Team

The cooperative board game is still a somewhat rare animal amid the many German style board games now being produced. The problem is, cooperative is a hard style of game to do well, with two common pitfalls: it's hard to give every individual player his or her own agency within the group process, and it's hard to strike the right balance of difficulty in allowing the players to win. I don't know that I've ever truly loved any game in this genre, though I do think fairly well of Pandemic.

Recently, a game called Ghost Stories tried to change my mind. It's one of the more distinctively flavored games I've ever come across, an odd blend of undead, Lovecraftian horror, and Taoist philosophy. Up to four players take on the roles of monks trying to save a small village from being drawn into hell by the evil minions of Wu-Feng, who seek their master's ashes to return him to life.

Players move on a 3 by 3 grid of tiles, each tile with a unique power they can wield against the enemy. Those enemies congregate along the edges of the grid, threatening the player who sits along each particular edge. As is typical for the cooperative genre, the game itself puts up a relentless onslaught of calamity that the players must try to mitigate. If they survive long enough, Wu-Feng himself shows up in the final act of the game. When the players defeat him, they win.

Ghost Stories does pretty well with the "player agency" problem. Each of the four monks has a unique power (two, actually, which can be swapped from one playthrough to the next), and all four monks can prove very useful in the efforts to win the game. It's harder to tell how the game does with the difficulty issue. Moments through your first playthrough, you'll realize some very basic strategic considerations you simply must adhere to; if you ignore them as a group, you'll simply have no chance of winning.

Luck plays a pretty large role in the game, which is also typical of the cooperative genre. But where I think Ghost Stories isn't quite as strong is that it's very easy (more so than in Pandemic, I think) for one player to get pigeonholed into a kind of "janitor" duty -- taking the unfun job of keeping the crap at bay so that another player can try to be the hero. At least Ghost Stories rules don't provide for a "true winner" as some co-op games do; you either all win or all lose together. Still, it's possible even in victory to feel like one player didn't get to have as much fun.

Still, I have played far worse co-op games. If you're a fan of that genre and haven't tried it, it may be worth a look. The easiest difficulty level certainly seemed to offer a challenge, and the three harder difficulties above that would surely keep a play group striving for many plays to come. I give Ghost Stories a B.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

More Music from Westeros

It's been a month or two now since the recent season of Game of Thrones concluded, which means it's time for the release of the soundtrack. As three times prior, composer Ramin Djawadi has compiled about an hour of highlights from these last 10 episodes and served them up on an album. And just as the show tinkers with its conventions from year to year, the music has changed with it.

Listening to the album tracks in isolation, I was quickly struck by something I hadn't noticed when the music was paired with the visuals. Djawadi's sound palette has drifted a bit back to what it was when he was scoring the TV series Prison Break. That series had a signature way of building suspense, a blend of rhythmic strings in the low register with the orchestral version of a four-on-the-floor rock beat. (Albeit, sometimes not strictly in a 4/4 time signature.) That technique reigns here in tracks like "Oathkeeper" and "He Is Lost."

This season (or at least, the music from the season curated here) also relies on Djawadi's established leitmotifs a bit more than past seasons. Phrases from the famous main title pop up at least twice as often here as they have before. Also used often, as a theme for the Lannisters, is the melody he created for "The Rains of Castamere"; it pops up most prominently in the tracks "Two Swords" and "You Are No Son of Mine."

Fittingly, "The Rains of Castamere" itself appears also on the soundtrack, in an entirely different arrangement than the one that previously graced the Season 2 soundtrack album. Personally, I'm not a fan of the bizarre falsetto that performer Sigur Ros uses here, though the strange "leaky squeeze toy" sound effects that haunt the background are effective in unsettling the listener.

Percussion is a big part of the soundtrack, as in past seasons. There are a few interesting tweaks on expectation, though. In a track entitled "Watchers on the Wall," Djawadi uses rhythms with an oddly tribal quality, where one might expect a militaristic attitude to represent the Night's Watch. Conversely, "Meereen" strikes a martial posture where one might expect a more tribal element to represent the society's different culture.

The best music on the album is used to represent the wildlings. In a pair of tracks, "Thenns" and "Let's Kill Some Crows," Djawadi knocks you over with deep bass horns, thundering war drums, and pulsing low strings. The theme stands with some of the composer's best music for the series.

But overall, the collection loses steam in the middle. The "spine" of the album is filled with too many low energy tracks. And unfortunately, they aren't just restrained in the way that a more dramatic scene often requires -- they're simply amorphous, atmospheric music. Because of this, this probably isn't the album for you if you aren't already collecting music from the show. Pick up one of the previous seasons' soundtracks if you're looking for the main title and other highlights. This season 4 collection, I'd give a B- overall.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: Devil's Due

Rarely since the second season had Star Trek: The Next Generation produced an episode as bad as "Devil's Due." But that's not surprising when you learn that the origins of the episode can be traced back to that season... and earlier.

The Enterprise rescues a science team from Ventax II, a planet whose people turned away from technology a thousand years ago and established a global peace. Legend has it this was because the citizens sold their souls to their "Devil" figure, Ardra, in exchange for this peace. And now, a woman claiming to be Ardra, and wielding powerful abilities, has come to collect her payment.

I've written before about how the 1988 Writers' Guild strike sent Star Trek (and other shows) scrambling for scripts to put before the cameras. I also wrote about how one of the places they looked was "Star Trek: Phase II," the late 70s attempt to reboot Star Trek with most of its original cast (which ultimately spawned the first Trek movie instead). Thirteen scripts were written for that aborted series, and when times were tight, The Next Generation recycled one of them to produce "The Child." Other possible candidates for adaptation were earmarked at the time.

What became "Devil's Due" was one originally of those. Reportedly, the Phase II version featured Kirk going up against a male Devil figure, and ultimately resolving the dispute in a trial arbitrated by the Enterprise's computer. It sounds to me like you can be thankful that never got made. Unfortunately, what did get made was scarcely better.

In my view, the chief problem of this episode is one of tone. One of the many writers to take a crack at adapting the old Phase II script opted for a comedic approach, and Next Gen show runner Michael Piller loved that angle. He responded and advanced it by switching "the Devil" to a female character, throwing in flirtatious elements with Picard and still more opportunities for humor. The end result is an episode that can't be taken seriously. And that's a shame, because the core idea here is deathly serious.

Imagine if a whole society thought the literal Devil was coming to claim their planet and all their mortal souls. We're talking literal, Biblical armageddon here. The planet's leader, Acost Jared, seems rather nonplussed (or certainly, not frightened) to be face-to-face with his concept of Evil Incarnate. Troi mentions in this episode that some Ventaxians are on the brink of suicide, but it seems to me in this situation, you already would be dealing with mass suicides on a global scale.

Then there's Ardra. In reality, she's a con artist posing as a demonic figure, but she really doesn't seem to have a "then what?" to her plan, beyond establishing her alias. Ardra makes no attempt to use the subjects she has conquered for any meaningful purpose. Shouldn't she be living the high life, extorting everything from her victims? Shouldn't she be using the cowering Ventaxians as weapons to stop the efforts of Picard and the Enterprise crew from exposing her ruse? A few forced suicide bombers, for instance, might get the doubters to back off.

Ardra's behavior may be inexplicably dumb, but that of Picard and our other heroes is scarcely better. Grant them points, I suppose, from disbelieving the con right from the beginning. (But as an aside: Why? Picard has seen things much stranger than this woman claiming she's the Devil. They even mention the Q Continuum a possible source of her powers.) But even doubting Ardra's claim, the crew hardly makes an effort to disprove it.

When Ardra boards the Entperprise -- on multiple occasions -- they don't even so much as raise the shields to try to prevent it. They don't try to use phasers to stun her or force fields to confine her. Picard almost immediately believes that her "powers" could be the product of technology: transporters, holograms, and so forth. But rather than using that exact technology, already at his disposal, to demonstrate how, he's utterly a loss until his crew locates and seizes Ardra's ship.

If you keep picking at this story, it breaks into even more jagged pieces. Apparently, Ardra is a low grade con artist wanted on other worlds. Yet the Enterprise crew aren't able to search any records or anything to learn this; they only discover her true identity when they take her ship. So apparently, she's doing the equivalent of driving around in a car with printouts of her arrest warrants in the passenger seat.

Yet somehow, this low rent con artist has managed to get her hands on technology that, while similar to Federation gadgetry, seems to be superior. Her transporters work faster, her hologram generators can generate substance outside of a holodeck, and she has a cloaking device that can be extended to envelop other ships! Our gang is lucky this criminal didn't come up with some much more nefarious use for her super-cool ship. But then, if she were actually smart at all, she wouldn't make her attempt to control a planet anywhere near Federation space. She'd find some undeveloped planet of relative savages somewhere and subjugate them.

Perhaps worst of all, this implausible plot filled with foolish characters is resolved in a peculiarly dry way. Who settles armageddon with a legal arbitration? What writer thinks that's satisfying television?

Other observations:
  • Very (in)conveniently, Troi is unable to sense the emotions of Ardra to provide evidence of her deception.
  • I noted in the previous seasons that Data's study of Sherlock Holmes gave way to Shakespeare, thanks to copyright issues. Here, it changes again to be more generally a study of acting. The episode writers are trying to draw a connection between Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the events of this episode. I feel it's a suspect connection, since in the scene, Scrooge is dismissing a real haunting as a fake, while the episode is instead about a fake Devil pretending to be real. Later dialogue instead tries to play the connection as one of "what fear can make people do," but since none of the aliens seem convincingly fearful, this only serves to underscore how the episode is not taking armageddon seriously enough.
  • For some random reason I can't possibly understand, this episode brought in the highest ratings of any Star Trek: The Next Generation since the series premiere. Why couldn't all of those people have tuned in for a better episode?
The one kind thing I will say about the episode is this: even though I didn't think it should have been funny, it is funny. Thanks to the skills of the actors, particularly Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, the lighter moments of this episode really do bring a smile to your face. For that reason, I won't shove this one in the basement of the truly worst Star Trek episodes. But I still can't bring myself to rate it higher than a D+. I'll be amazed (and disappointed) if I come across a worse episode in season four.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Somewhere along the line, I heard generally good things about a horror film that screened at Sundance Film Festival, called In Fear. It's a taut little 85-minute movie about a fresh couple that gets lost on labyrinthine forest roads in the dead of night, apparently by the design of a mysterious tormentor. Adding to the curiosity factor for me was that one of the leads was played by Iain de Caestecker, now known to us geeks as Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The movie was directed (and ostensibly written -- but I'll come back to that in a moment) by Jeremy Lovering, a man who clearly knows his horror. The films definitely feels like a soup made from a number of familiar ingredients. There's some of the slow, creeping dread of the original Halloween. There's the car-bound claustrophobia of Joyride. There's the unexplainable randomness of it all, as in The Strangers. And although it is not a "found footage" film, I couldn't help but feel a sense of The Blair Witch Project permeating it all.

After watching the movie, when I turned to the DVD's brief "making of" featurette, I understood where that feeling came from: the movie was improvised. The director had a sense of the types of characters he wanted, and the thematic tones he wanted to touch on. There was no script. He did not specifically know the ending he was working toward. The movie was filmed chronologically, and as he worked out the plot beats, the actors would only learn of them as they were playing the scenes for the first time. (Upon retakes, he would sometimes feed them lines of dialogue he wanted spoken.)

Ah... well, now that explains it -- both the things that are good and bad about the movie. The good includes an effective sense of dread throughout the film. The characters are believably on edge as they inch deeper and deeper into their ordeal. There are also a number of situations that are quite unnerving without relying on violence; indeed, the movie's most significant theme is one of pushing someone to the point of violence to see whether they'll take that final step.

What's not so good? The setup takes a lot longer than it should, with more than a third of the running time elapsed before anything really starts to "happen." The character decisions are questionable throughout, starting from the acceptance of a very sketchy situation in the opening minutes. These moments are a likely consequence of having no script. The actors couldn't build an overall logic for their characters, they just had to do what they were asked in a given scene. In particular, the thinking of one of the characters in the final scene of the film, while consistent with the tone of the film, doesn't really seem to make logical sense.

Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project, with its largely improvised style, is probably the barometer you should use to measure whether you should see In Fear. I really liked that film, and so found more to like than dislike here. Others who weren't keen on that past film will probably be bored or put off by this one. I'd give In Fear a B-.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Deep Brethren

When I recently finished reading The Nine, I decided my itch for Supreme Court non-fiction had not quite been scratched. So I decided to pick up "The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court." This book was published in 1979, covering an entirely different period of the Court's history -- the first several years under Chief Justice Warren Burger.

This book was written by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. The former is the Woodward of the famous Woodward and Bernstein team that were crucial in revealing the Watergate conspiracy (and who chronicled the story in All the President's Men). The Brethren is built in that same investigative journalism tradition. The opening explains that the stories within were revealed to the authors on condition of anonymity, but that they're almost always verified by two or more sources.

In the 35 years since the book was published, the Supreme Court has completely transformed. None of the Justices of the 1969-1975 period the book covers are still serving; all but one is now dead. It's been decades since the revelation that Justice Potter Stewart was the primary source of information for the book. (Though it wouldn't have been that hard to read between the lines on that; among the Justices who were actually there for all six years covered, Stewart certainly comes off looking the best.)

Today, The Brethren is a fascinating study in contrast, punctuated by a few things that haven't changed much. Chief Justice Burger, Richard Nixon's first Supreme Court appointee, takes control as the book begins, following the long and celebrated career of Earl Warren. Burger is determined to be just as revered, and equally determined to steer the court sharply right in a more conservative direction. Nixon would end up placing four men on the Supreme Court before his resignation, more Justices than any president since has appointed, and yet one of the surprising things of this book (and this period of time) is that the Court in fact did not fully lurch as sharply to the right as one would imagine.

This is the period of time in which the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in a 7-2 decision, legalizing abortion nationwide. It was a time in which most laws barring obscenity were struck down as violations of the First Amendment. It was a time in which numerous campaign finance reforms were upheld (many the very laws that in the last few years finally have been overturned by the Roberts Supreme Court, which finally has moved as far to the right as Nixon and Burger might have envisioned).

And yet this is also the period of time in which a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was held in place for many years before giving way to a new precedent allowing executions. It was a time in which Fourth Amendment precedents limiting police actions were eroded. In short, it was a time where the Supreme court appeared to fluctuate between two political poles a great deal more than it does today.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a lot more give and take in the process back then. I suppose until the day someone publishes a similar expose inside the Roberts Court, we won't really know for sure if all the votes are as rigid as they appear to be in the published opinions. But The Brethren presents a number of cases in which multiple Justices switched their votes upon being persuaded by a convincing argument.

But it was also a more naive time. The book follows a number of recurring legal matters, and the landmark cases in which the Justices apparently thought they'd disposed of the issues once and for all, only to wind up revisiting them a short while later. There's the issue of desegregation in schools, brought about by a policy of extensive busing of children to other districts. There's the issue of the death penalty, which the Justices hilariously-sadly thought would never come up again when they ruled that it was capricious application of the penalty that made it unconstitutional. (Surely no state would respond by making the death penalty mandatory for a crime, they foolishly reasoned.)

The real takeaway from The Brethren is that Chief Justice Burger was an inept buffoon. Every other Justice seems to be critical of him, characterizing him as paper pushing management with little real command of legal principles. Time and again, the book shows him changing his votes not on any merits, but out of a desire to control which Justice would write the majority opinion in a case. (The Nine's brief mention of Burger in the opening pages confirms this assessment.)

Other justices are painted in unflattering terms as well. William O. Douglas, the longest serving Justice in Supreme Court history, was so determined to stay on the Court that he worked a full year after suffering a largely paralyzing stroke -- and then continued to try to work even after retiring from the job. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, is characterized as a follower of other liberal Court members who wasn't even always aware of the arguments his own clerks wrote in his name. Harry Blackmun is portrayed as so paralyzed by his hyper-attention to detail that he couldn't get any work done in a timely manner. William Rehnquist is an affable but calculating hard right-winger who appeared to be slowly achieving the political momentum Burger imagined. (Authors Woodward and Armstrong had no way of knowing that Rehnquist would become Chief Justice himself seven years later.)

Fascinating as the book is, it does have a few flaws. One is that there's very little narrative throughline to it. The authors are simply presenting several years in the life of the Supreme Court. There's no "ending" as such; Warren Burger wasn't even halfway through his time on the job when this was published. Another is that the book devotes almost its entire 1974 chapter to the Watergate case, without really providing enough background to fully comprehend that case. Both these choices are understandable in context. No reader of the time wouldn't have been intimately familiar with the details of the Watergate scandal, and the scope and importance of the case would have well justified so many pages of the book. But to a modern reader, the story needs a bit more exposition.

Overall, it's an excellent book. But it's very much a history book, in contrast to other, more current things you might read about the Supreme Court. If that sounds interesting to you, then I'd certainly recommend picking it up. I give The Brethren an A-.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flight Time

It was Rio 2 that was playing in theaters earlier this year, but I only recently got around to watching the original 2011 animated film. As I imagine many parents out there know, Rio is the story of a citified bird who becomes separated from his owner during a trip to (duh) Rio de Janeiro. He winds up shackled to a free-spirited wild bird yearning to return the jungle, and adventure ensues.

This movie came from Blue Sky Studios, the animation company that hit upon Ice Age and proceeded to churn out sequels ad nauseum. In some ways, Rio shows a similar lack of originality -- it plays very familiar story beats of the well-worn "opposites attract" genre. But while the plot maybe doesn't receive much attention, the characters do, and that helps elevate the film above average.

The voice cast also helps a lot. Jesse Eisenberg's stock in trade is his ability to play an uptight social misfit, and it's put to good use here as Blu, the sheltered bird forced out of his element. Anne Hathaway is strong as Jewel, his more adventurous (forced) companion. Leslie Mann and Rodrigo Santoro voice a pair of humans whose relationship mirrors the birds. And then, rounding out the comedy, is an eclectic list of names including Jemaine Clement, George Lopez,, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Wanda Sykes, and Jane Lynch.

The jokes aren't generally laugh out loud, and the story isn't especially great... yet there is a strong sense of FUN permeating the entire film. The filmmakers seemed to aspire to something that the parents of their target audience wouldn't mind watching, and I do think they mostly got there. I give it a B-. The recent sequel hasn't rocketed to the top of my list after seeing this one, but it has found its way into the queue.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You MUST Have Fun!

Unless you haven't been using the internet in the last week, you're aware that "Weird Al" Yankovic has planted his flag back in the mainstream. (And looking at my Facebook wall, I'm not the only one who has been sharing his new material.) His "eight videos in eight days" push has been to promote his new album, "Mandatory Fun." It's his first album in several years, and the last under his current recording contract. (He's indicated that he may move to independent distribution in the future to allow his parodies to get out there in a more timely manner.)

I've been a huge fan of Weird Al since the 80s, a time when no one would ever have dreamed he would outlive many of the artists he was lampooning. And while I myself have certainly fallen even farther behind the trends (I don't always know the songs he's targeting anymore), he has stayed on the top of his game. Mandatory Fun is a very strong album.

The hallmarks are, as always, his parodies. There are five this time. From most to least clever, in my opinion: "Word Crimes," a grammar lover's take on Robin Thicke's controversial "Blurred Lines"; "Tacky," a hilarious adaptation of Pharell Williams' ubiquitous "Happy"; "Foil," a parody of Lorde's "Royals" that includes a funny and sinister twist; "Inactive," a re-imagining of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" (including a much-deserved ribbing of the original's strange sound effects); and "Handy," a take on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" that is the most current of the album's parodies.

And also as always, Weird Al's original material is just as inspired and clever as his direct parodies. These often take on the style of other artists without directly mimicking a specific song, and the lyrical wordplay is just as smart. "Lame Claim to Fame and "First World Problems" are particularly funny among this crop -- though the latter is so perfectly styled after The Pixies, a band I truly cannot stand, that I have a hard time listening to the pastiche. "Sports Song" is a hilariously generic fan anthem that could conceivably show up at future college or high school events. "Mission Statement" is everything I hate about corporate jargon distilled in an uncanny pastiche of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. "My Own Eyes" feels like a song the Foo Fighters might actually have recorded on an odd day and then shoved into the vault. And "Jackson Park Express" is Yankovic's now-expected long song to close the album, a stalkery love song with a Cat Stevens' vibe.

Of course the other now-expected element on a Weird Al album (and perhaps a future casualty if he does abandon the album format in the future) is the polka medley. This album's "NOW That's What I Call Polka!" is a tight collection of every recent song you're probably sick to death of -- a pop music time capsule.

If you missed the videos that went with most of these songs, it would be well worth your while to catch up -- either on Weird Al's web site or elsewhere on the internet. And as for the album? I'd recommend picking that up too. I give it an A-.

Monday, July 21, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Wounded

It's time for me to pick back up with Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray, starting with an episode that marked a number of firsts for the series: "The Wounded."

Another starship captain, Benjamin Maxwell of the Phoenix, has inexplicably attacked an outpost belonging to the Cardassians. The Federation has only recently secured a peace treaty with the alien race, and Captain Picard is tasked by Starfleet to preserve that peace at all costs. Soon the Enterprise is hunting down one of its own, working with the Cardassians themselves, and using insight from one of Maxwell's former crewmembers, Chief O'Brien.

This episode marks the first appearance of the Cardassians in Star Trek. I can't imagine the writers knew at the time that they were creating one of the major villains of their next spinoff series. But they definitely knew they were building a recurring alien race. The makeup and costumes of the Cardassians were far more elaborate and expressive than the many one-off aliens that had appeared over the years. (Even though the goofy helmets they wore here never appeared again, thankfully.)

There was also a good chunk of the budget devoted to new spaceship designs. In addition to the Cardassians' signature ship, the Galor, this episode marked the first appearance of the Nebula-class starship. This finally gave the series another recurring Federation ship besides the Excelsior and the Oberth style ships -- a Next Gen original that wasn't borrowed from one of the Star Trek movies.

The story here is a take on the plot of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, a tale of a decorated military leader going rogue. But moreover, it's a story about bigotry and the emotional costs of war. Maxwell is presented as a character who can't let go of his hatred of an enemy he fought. It's actually a rather immoral situation for a Starfleet character.

The morality of Miles O'Brien is more interesting still. I suppose it's possible the writers had seen something in actor Colm Meaney, and had decided to give him something meaty to play here. But I imagine it's also likely that they were hedging their bets. In this episode, O'Brien comes off as less than squeaky clean. He's basically racist against Cardassians, and initially is blind to his own bigotry. To his credit, he realizes later what he's done, and confronts a Cardassian about his feelings. (In the episode's most powerful scene, in fact.) But there was a real risk of the character at the center of this story coming off a bit ugly, and I wonder if the writers didn't want to chance doing that with one of the major characters. (Although I suppose they had previously allowed Worf to be similarly racist toward a Romulan -- and he didn't even buy that back later with a conversion or apology.)

Where O'Brien may come off briefly as less than noble, Picard stays firmly on the high ground. Patrick Stewart is excellent in the scene where the two captains finally meet face to face. Picard is aghast at Maxwell's feeble justifications for his actions. But then, at the episode's end, he also puts the Cardassian leader, Gul Macet, in his place. Picard actually believes Maxwell's accusations (dispelling any doubt that may have been in the mind of the audience), and tells Macet as much.

This episode benefits from some solid guest stars. First, of course, there's Colm Meaney (O'Brien still only being a recurring character at this time) and Rosalind Chao (already returning as Keiko after just being introduced). Veteran character actor Bob Gunton, perhaps best known for The Shawshank Redemption, is solid in the role of Ben Maxwell. Marco Rodriguez plays one of the secondary Cardassians, racking up his second Star Trek appearance.

And then there's Marc Alaimo. It's fitting that he appears here as Macet, the first Cardassian. (His character's strange facial hair here helps distinguish him from his later, major role on Deep Space Nine as Gul Dukat.) With this appearance, Alaimo tied the then-record held by Mark Lenard for playing the most aliens in Star Trek. (A record Vaughn Armstong would later demolish through future Star Trek spinoffs.)

Other observations:
  • We get a taste of how married life is going for Miles and Keiko, after their wedding in the previous episode.
  • There's some particularly painful technobabble that allows O'Brien to beam aboard the Phoenix while its shields are up, but it's a truly necessary conceit so that the episode's pivotal scene between O'Brien and Maxwell can happen face to face.
  • Several elements of back story introduced here would recur throughout Deep Space Nine. The massacre of Setlik III was one. More significantly was the song "Minstrel Boy." The song even shows up in the Deep Space Nine series finale, during the farewell montage for the major characters.
  • The Blu-ray set for this season includes a number of deleted scenes from this episode, but they mostly amount to simple line deletions to streamline it for running time. Nothing really feels like a major loss.
  • The director of this episode, Chip Chalmers, made an interesting observation about it in a later interview. He noted that this story is about doing anything and everything to avert a war, yet it aired at the beginning of 1991, at a time when (as he put it) "the United States of America was doing everything it could to start a war." (The Gulf War.)
Although the emotional underpinnings of this episode aren't quite as resonant as they maybe could be, the end result is nevertheless fairly strong. I'd give "The Wounded" a strong B. It's perhaps a less-remembered gem of the fourth season.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Game of Stones

Reiner Knizia is in the upper echelons of German board game designers. His games usually have only the thinnest veneer of flavor or story, but typically have clever mechanics to make up for it. In that respect, Indigo is a bit of a misfire for him.

Indigo is a tile-laying, "track building" game -- a crowded genre that includes Metro, Linie 1, Tsuro, and more. Players take turns adding tiles to a board. Those tiles create pathways along which moves a series of "gem stones" of three different values. You're trying to direct the most valuable gem stones into one of your own bases, while keeping them away from your opponents.

Indigo has really only a few wrinkles to differentiate it from those other "track" games I mentioned. Where the others are played on grids of squares, Indigo uses a hex grid. The impact this has on strategy is subtle, but there. More uniquely, the players share each base (on the outer rim of the board) with another player. You can't score in this game without also scoring for one of your opponents; the trick is to try and spread your conquests around so different opponents benefit each time, leaving you to seize the victory alone.

It's a neat idea in theory, but in practice the game did not impress me as much. The board struck me as too crowded with the maximum four players, and it was too unwieldy to literally share every scoring opportunity with a rival. Watching three opponents interfere with your plans before you could make one single attempt to get things back on track seemed to make Indigo less a game of "who will win?" than "who will lose." Because make no mistake, if the other three players decide you're not winning this game, you won't.

However, I would be interested to try the game out with just three players. Not only would that leave you just two foes instead of three to manage, it would seriously change the nature of the six "bases" on the board's outer edge. In that format, you have three bases, sharing one with each opponent... and having one entirely to yourself. To me, that would greatly increase the strategic considerations. Should you even try to claim solo victory points, knowing your opponents will probably ally to stop it? Should you try to sneak low value scoring in there, figuring your opponents might let you have it, so long as you're not going for the high-valued stuff? Since my gaming group invariably provides at least four players, I may never get to find out -- yet I still suspect that it's with three players that Indigo might thrive.

But as a four player game? I wasn't really impressed. In this genre, I prefer Metro -- a game where each player has enough places he can score that getting screwed in one of them isn't fatal. Indigo, putting only 12 chances to score for all players for the entire game, sets the stakes too high. It simply doesn't take much to put you hopelessly out of contention. It's fast and simple enough that I can see my way to giving it a C, but I really wouldn't recommend it.

At least, until the day I get to try it with just three players...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Aping a Good Thing

Years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So the new follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was pretty high on my to-see list. It crept even higher when the critics almost universally declared it better than the first film, lifting it to a 90+% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I should not have let my expectations soar so high.

Picking up a decade after the events of Rise, Dawn follows the society that ape Caesar has formed in the woods near San Francisco. A war-minded rebel named Koba begins to plot against him when Caesar dares to help a group of human plague survivors in their efforts to restore power to the nearby city. Similarly militant people on the human side seem to ensure that a violent clash between the two cultures is inevitable.

Rise is not a bad movie, but it is a movie with a lot of "air" in it. First, there's the editing itself, which is noticeably lax in a number of places, with camera angles or scene endings lingering longer than feels necessary. I imagine that, having spent the money to realize the visual effects, the filmmakers were unwisely (but understandably) loathe to cut them. Second, there's story itself, which unfolds at a rather slow pace. A lot of time is spent setting up the society the apes have built for themselves. And it does make sense that the film does this -- it's trying to portray the apes as fully realized characters, as much as the human characters. But we get the point a lot faster than the film gives us credit for. And it doesn't help that the vast majority of the apes' communication is done by subtitled sign language, resulting in truly long stretches of silence on screen.

Actually, I amend what I said above. The film is probably trying to portray the apes more as characters than the humans. The humans are one-note movie cliches. There's Jason Clarke's hero with a soft side, Keri Russell's "see, we put one smart female character in our movie" doctor, Gary Oldman's irrationally belligerent leader, a young teen with parental issues, and other stock cannon fodder. It probably adds to the slow pace of the movie's first act when half the characters don't speak and the other half speak only in the tropes of movies you've seen before.

But the quality of the ape performances do save the movie from coming apart. Master-of-motion-capture Andy Serkis at last receives top billing in a movie, reprising his role of Caesar. He's joined by a group of actors doing incredibly nuanced work. Toby Kebbell (Koba), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), and Karin Konoval (Maurice) in particular are wonderfully expressive without often having dialogue to lean on. And the "puppets" (of a sort) these actors all inhabit are more convincing a group of CG creations than ever before. Only a very few scenes -- invariably scenes in which the characters interact with physical objects in the environment -- are anything less than totally believable. As a testament to the quality of this union of technology and performance, it's only the scenes in the final act that kick you out of the moment; you see the overimagined green screen sets and think "that doesn't look real," still basically forgetting that none of the characters you're seeing are real either.

For taking another great step forward in performance capture, and delivering a few exciting action scenes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately worth recommending if you liked its predecessor. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend rushing out to the theater for it. I give it a B-.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Lost in the Desert

I'm no particular fan of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune, but even among those who are, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone with much praise for David Lynch's 1984 film adaptation. But that was not the first attempt to bring the story to the big screen. The tale of one previous failure has now become the basis of a documentary film, Jodorowsky's Dune. And that story is far more interesting than the Dune movie we did get.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made a splash as the writer-director of some highly stylized avant-garde films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I'd never heard of him or the films, but from the clips you see in this documentary, they were towering monuments to guerrilla filmmaking, style over substance, and surrealism. They attracted the attention of a French producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who wanted to make something -- anything -- with Jodorowsky. When he approached the director, Jodorowsky declared he wanted to make Dune.

The film's account of what happened next feels like the story of how a cult (almost) forms. With incredible charisma and powers of persuasion, Jodorowsky assembled a multinational pool of talent to bring his highly bizarre vision of Dune to the screen. He tapped Dan O'Bannon for his visual effects. He approached artist H.R. Giger to work in film for the first time, creating the look of the Harkonnen family. He convinced Orson Welles to play the Baron Harkonnen himself. He persuaded Salvador Dali to act as the Emperor... once he agreed to pay Dali more than any actor had ever been paid. (This was accomplished by agreeing to pay Dali $100,000 for every one of the three to five minute of screen time he would have in the finished film.)

Unmindful of what could realistically be achieved by visual effects in the 1970s, Jodorowsky imagined his opening as a long single shot panning over the entire galaxy. Unburdened by considerations of what theaters might be willing to show, he didn't care if the running time of his finished product might be 18 hours or more. Uncaring of how it might warp his own son, he cast the teenager as Paul Atreides and forced him into martial arts training, 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 2 years.

Finally, armed with a shot for shot storyboard of his entire movie, bound in copies of a massive book, he shopped the project around to every studio in Hollywood. None were able to wrap their heads around this fever dream from a strange surrealist. Despite the exhaustive planning, despite commitments from a number of actors, no one bought the film. And maybe it's just as well. This documentary leaves one with the distinct feeling that the result would have made Un Chien Andalou (the notoriously non-sensical film from Salvador Dali himself) look perfectly sane by comparison.

But the documentary makes the case the even the unmade Dune cast a long shadow over Hollywood. Most of the team Jodorowsky assembled, chiefly O'Bannon and Giger, went on to make the absolute classic Alien. The Dune storyboards, apparently circulated throughout Hollywood, seemed to influence visuals in at least a half dozen films that appeared over the next decade. And even some of the inexplicable choices in David Lynch's Dune gain context when you learn of Jodorowsky's prior plans. Why cast Sting, a rock musician, as Feyd-Rautha? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had secured Mick Jagger's agreement to play that role? Why enlist a rock band like Toto to do the music? Does it help to know that Jodorowsky had a commitment from Pink Floyd for his version?

Jodorowsky's Dune tells a tight and engaging story that seems too crazy to be true. And it tells it just before the moment it might be too late to do so; Dan O'Bannon has already passed away, as has H.R. Giger just in the time since he was interviewed for this documentary. The film paints an amazing picture of an alternate universe of cinema where this movie, not Star Wars or Alien or Blade Runner, defined science fiction and blockbusters for the medium. If you're a film enthusiast, you won't want to miss it. I give the documentary an A-.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Road Deconstruction

In chronicling our exploration of Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago, I noted that the park is constantly changing. A news story hit last week illustrating just how true that is: one of the roads in the park has suddenly melted (not our photo, obviously):

Apparently, an underground geothermal feature intensified, which damaged the road above it. This happened on Firehole Lake Drive, one of those one-way side roads we took to explore what was a little off the main paths. There were some neat sights back up there too, like the Firehole Spring (our photos):

The unusually blue Surprise Pool:

And the Great Fountain Geyser:

I guess until things cool off and they repair the road, the things we got to see there will be a bit more exclusive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Day 9: 10:00 PM - 11:00 AM

Last week, I wondered if this revitalized half season of 24 would manage to stick the landing. Now I know the answer is yes, definitely. (And along the way, it delivered us three or four drinks in the form of "perimeters," the exact count depending on whether you counted the on-screen appearance of the word or not.)

If my memory serves, 24 hasn't really put a big character death in the season finale since all the way back in the very beginning, when Jack lost his wife Teri in the final minutes of season one. But arguably, the lost of Audrey here was even more potent. Make no mistake, I wasn't Audrey's biggest fan as a character. And it was awfully (in)convenient to put her out in the open right at the end just to kill her off. Yet what made all the difference here was the context and the consequences.

Actress Kim Raver really did a hell of a job in her final scenes as Audrey. Unable to actually acknowledge her situation out loud with dialogue, you could nevertheless tell that the realization Cheng was still alive -- and that she was once again in his power -- had an effect on her that shook her to her very core. And then later, 24's first ever time jump allowed us to see the aftermath of a major character death, in a way we'd never seen it before. It didn't matter that I didn't care for Audrey as a character; I still felt President Heller's pain as he mourned not only for his daughter, but for the fact that in a few short months or years, he wouldn't even remember his daughter. It was a powerful performance from William Devane, his best ever on the show.

The episode didn't just deliver on the emotion, it delivered on the action too. The triad of Jack, Chloe, and Belchek, working together in the assault on the ship, was certainly the most satisfying action sequence of the season, and probably one of the best of the series as well. Nor did the writers skimp on the blood lust of Jack and the audience, allowing our hero to behead the villainous Cheng with a freaking sword!

It's the nature of 24 that even when the world is saved, you can't really have a happy ending. So it all ended on an appropriately sour note. Kate had the death of the president's daughter on her hands, to add to her recent misery of having learned her husband was innocent. Mark Boudreau was going away for treason, knowing his wife had also been murdered. And Jack, in acknowledging Chloe as his only friend in the world, was going away for imprisonment/torture in Russia.

When 24 ended as a regular series, it had been years since they'd pulled off such a satisfying finale. I'm glad they came back to end the show right. Assuming it's actually ended now, I suppose. Things are certainly set up for another future continuation, should FOX and the writers wish to do so. They might even go the spinoff route, having clearly set up the adventures of Kate Morgan, should they bravely (foolishly?) decide to have Jack Bauer sit out the next incarnation.

In any case, if taking a few years off and cutting the season in half yields this overall level of quality, then I would welcome 24's return some future summer. But at the same time, if this wonderful "epilogue" is all we get, I can be satisfied with that too. I'd rate the finale an A-, and probably give the same mark to the season overall.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Miss "The Princess Bride"? Inconceivable!

This past weekend, the Alamo Drafthouse had three special screenings of one of my very favorite movies, The Princess Bride. And, just as it was the last time Alamo showed one of my top 10 favorites, these were special "quote-along" screenings. There was no way I wasn't going.

Alamo quote-alongs are rowdy audience participation events. Beloved lines from the movie were subtitled on the screen, and the audience was invited to recite along with the actors. That is, when they weren't busy blowing bubbles during "kissing scenes," fighting their neighbors with inflatable swords during the duels, or ringing bells whenever there was talk of "true love."

I hope I don't need to delve too deeply into why The Princess Bride is a personal favorite. It's a movie filled with sharp wit and comedy that makes you laugh out loud, thrilling adventure that makes you cheer (literally, at this screening), and a romance you can root for more than any in the lame romantic comedies that try too hard. The cast is amazing. It's been called The Wizard of Oz of its generation... but I think that sells the movie far too short. Oz has nothing on this. Absolutely everyone, of every age, should see this movie.

The Alamo Drafthouse does a special quote-along event of some kind nearly every week. If one of their theaters happens to be near you, and they show a movie you especially love, I can't recommend the experience highly enough. A movie you love, in a theater packed with other people who love it just as much as you? It's impossible not to have a good time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Game of Love

Love Letter is a very simple little card game packed with a lot of story. Each player takes on the role of a suitor to the princess of a fantasy land. The princess is out of easy reach, so in order to profess their love, the players must slip their "love letter" into the hands of someone at court, hoping that the right person will deliver it.

Mechanically speaking, the game is played with a very small deck of "roles," ranked 1 to 8. Some roles appear multiple times in the deck, while others are one of a kind. Each player starts the round with a single card, while an additional card is secretly put out of play. Players then go around the table in a simple "draw one, play one" manner, choosing to hang on to their previous role card, or playing it to take the new secret role they just drew. When played, these role cards challenge opponents in various ways, perhaps knocking them out of contention for the round. When only one player is left standing at the end of the round, he scores a point. The whole process then repeats, until one player has 4 points -- and the love of the princess.

The game is ostensibly for 2 to 4 players, though with just 2, I couldn't imagine it being any more fun than a game of War with a standard 52-card deck. Even when we played with the maximum of 4, there wasn't much strategy involved. But there was some. The game had a poker-like vibe to it, from trying not to betray your identity from your facial expression, to trying to deduce your opponents' identities based on their behavior in previous turns. It probably wouldn't be enough to satisfy over a long single session, but for the maybe 15-30 minutes it takes to play the game, it does well enough.

Sometimes you do find yourself "stuck" in the game, with no real way to play out of a pair of bad options. I suppose it's a bit like poker in that respect too. Fortunately, each round moves quickly; with the next round may come improved luck. Hmm... yet again, like poker. Not that I mean to imply in any of this that the game feels as sophisticated or nuanced as your average hand of Texas Hold 'Em. Don't look for ESPN to start annual broadcasts of the World Series of Love Letter.

But most other games as short as this tend to be more shallow than this. So on that score, Love Letter is pretty good. A decent "start of night" or "end of night" game for 4 people. I give it a B.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

To the Bottom of the Nine

Blog regulars will know that I've been following the various marriage equality cases bubbling up through the U.S. legal system with great interest. Doing so has scratched a long forgotten itch from my middle school days, a brief blip in time where I was pretty sure I wanted to be a lawyer. (Well, maybe not that, but I sure thought "mock trial" was a hell of a lot of fun.) It's led me to digging a fair amount into other cases that appear before the Supreme Court, and reading some about the Court's history.

That brought me to a nonfiction book by Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. It covers how dedicated polticians, beginning in the early 1980s, sought to move the Court in a conservative direction, toward an "originalist" judicial philosophy: one that argues an interpretation of the Constitution limited to how it's believed the writers intended it in their time.

As the above description probably makes clear already, this is a partisan book. Originally published in advance of the 2008 election, the book was trying to make the point that when it comes to the Supreme Court, elections matter a lot. That said, this may be a partisan book that readers on either side of the political spectrum can enjoy: for the left, it's an important wake-up call; for the right, it's a detailed chronicle of, basically, how you won.

The book starts at the point William Rehnquist was elevated to Chief Justice. The Reagan and Bush presidencies, spanning 12 years, could have easily led to a far right wing Court, but the unanticipated centrism of a number of appointed justices kept things in roughly the same ideological place. But the death of Rehnquist and retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor (under George W. Bush) led to the appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito, moving the court farther to the right than it has been nearly a century.

Along the way, the book offers a number of interesting anecdotes about day-to-day business within the Supreme Court, relationships between justices, and the highlights of a few landmark cases from the Rehnquist years. But it ultimately comes back to central point: in 2008, the Court was right on the cusp of going irrevocably to the far right, for decades to come. The election of Barack Obama, and his appointment of Sonia Sotamayor and Elena Kagan, has kept the most extreme version of that scenario from coming to pass. And yet in a number of rulings over the past few years, from Citizens United to Hobby Lobby, we've seen that the Court is already farther right than even this book seemed to realize.

As such, this book retains its relevance today, with the 2016 presidential election around the corner. Ideologically, the Supreme Court is perched in exactly the same position: if you're a conservative, you're one presidential win away from what very likely will be a lifetime lock on Court; if you're a liberal, you need a win to at least hang on to the status quo.

The Nine does get a little slow in a few places, and surely a bit speculative in others. Nevertheless, I think it's a very accessible look at a subject that many people probably think is ordinarily too dry. I give it a B. If you're one of those people who thinks that presidential elections always come down to choosing between the lesser of two evils, you're not considering the very important issue of the Supreme Court, and you really need to read this book.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Day 9: 9:00 - 10:00 PM

It took me a few days this week before I was able to get around to the adventures of Jack Bauer, but they proved worth the wait. Though a stubbornly dry affair (Jack favored "son of a bitch" this week over his customary "dammit"), there was plenty of fun adventure, packed in so tightly that the hour flew by.

As we come down the home stretch here, we no longer have much time for the season's new characters. Kate was there storming the castle in all of Jack's ops, but had very little to do otherwise. (But hey, she did get to drive for a bit! Jack's been reserving that for himself all season.) Similarly, the people at the new "CTU (ish)" pushed buttons from afar and provided reassuring comm voices.

Weaselly Mark Boudreau fared better in terms of screen time, caught in his lies and now forced (though quite willingly) to try to clean up. 24 so often puts Jack (or someone equally capable, like Kate) into the action that it's refreshing here to have Mark be the operative. He did much better than the poor techie Jordan, whom Navarro sent into the field to be killed earlier this season.

And speaking of characters not normally in the crosshairs, Chloe was great this week. She pulled a bait-and-switch on the audience a bit at first, getting caught with the cell phone in what we thought might have been the beginnings of an escape plan, only to turn around and use it to leave Jack a pivotal clue. Then she had her most kickass moment since the long-ago season where she got James Bond background music, managing to beat up several of Cheng's thugs before making an escape. Okay, so her awesomeness was undermined a bit by her getting knocked out by a tree, but still, a neat showing for Chloe.

Audrey got the emotional material this week, as we saw her reaction to learning her tormentor Cheng is still alive. (Jack, as per usual, strangled his own feelings on the matter, after shooting them in the thigh.) Of course, you knew from the moment that Audrey announced her plans to leave the hotel that she was going to wind up in jeopardy, as surely as Kim Bauer announcing plans for a cougar hunt. Still, it's nice to get Audrey out into the thick of the action one time before this season wraps up.

It maybe seems a little too convenient to me that this season's Russian villain and the returning Cheng were somehow in cahoots, but we have only one episode left, dammit! It's funny, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like 24 had enough story to tell that they maybe could have gone 13 more episodes. Somehow, they expect to cram it all next week into a mere 42 minutes without commercials. Perhaps it's that immediacy and urgency that has made the show better this season, and thus I should not complain.

In any case, I'd give this week's hour a B+. We'll see next time if they can stick the landing.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Stakes on a Train

South Korean director Joon-ho Bong made a big international splash with his film Memories of Murder. I didn't care for the movie myself, but it earned him the prestige needed to make his first English language film. And the movie that resulted did catch my interest.

Snowpiercer presents a dystopian sci-fi future concept that's part Hunger Games, part Cube. In a near future where efforts to counteract climate change resulted in a global ice age, nearly all life on Earth has been wiped out. The few human survivors have been stuffed into a bullet train -- the Snowpiercer -- that cruises endlessly around the planet like a Noah's ark. A very class-delineated Noah's ark. The wealthy luxuriate in cars near the front of the train, while the destitute subsist on food stuffs in the back-of-train squalor. One man now leads a revolt among the poor, fighting to reach the front of the train and the mysterious overlord in the engine.

The film boasts an interesting cast. Chris Evans stars as Curtis Everett, the leader of the revolt. Most of the film seems to be trading on the inspiring reputation he carries with him from playing Captain America. But there are also some later turns in the storyline that allow him to play much deeper and darker material. John Hurt is featured prominently as Gilliam, the aging patriarch of the back-of-train gang, and mentor to Curtis. Hurt's performance is full of subtle nuance that provides a nice contrast to the aggressive plot.

Not yet impressed? How about adding a couple of Oscar winners to the mix? Tilda Swinton undergoes another transformation to play Mason, a bureaucratic oppressor in the train's hierarchy. Her wild appearance and demeanor could have been laughable, but somehow feels dangerously serious in the oppressive world of the film. And Octavia Spencer plays a sympathetic mother spurred by the abduction of her son to join the revolt. The cast has a multinational element as well, with Korean, British, Romanian, and Icelandic character actors joining other faces recognizable to an American audience. (For example, there's Alison Pill of The Newsroom, and another well-known actor whose later appearance in the film is best not spoiled.)

Just as important as the movie's casting is its brilliant set design. As the insurrectionists make their way further forward in the train, the sights and settings grow ever stranger and more fantastic. The movie depicts places running the gamut from slum to factory to restaurant to salon, with countless more in between that (again) are best not spoiled. The movie presents a visual feast, but also a context for the feast that makes sense.

That said, Snowpiercer's message against classism isn't exactly new ground in film, or even in the sci-fi genre. And the deeper thoughts it has to offer materialize a bit too late in the film to truly haunt the proceedings. It's a good movie to be sure, but I think falls a bit short of being a truly great one. Still, its head and heart are in the right place. It squeezes all the juice from its premise, and manages to deliver good action as well. Added up, I'd give it a B+. Fans of the dystopian sub-genre will definitely want to check it out, at least later on video if not now in its limited theatrical run.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Yellowstone Postscript

Over the past several posts, I've covered everything we saw and did in Yellowstone. Usually, the vacation stories would end there... but there were a few interesting things worth sharing about the return trip.

For starters, we decided to leave a different way than we'd come in, along the south entrance road. This way takes you through another beautiful national park, the Grand Tetons. As easy as it is for a Coloradan to become jaded at the sight of mountains, the Tetons still manage to impress:

Indeed, for the next several hours, Wyoming offered up a lot of inspiring scenery -- nothing like the drab flat expanse I'd otherwise associated with the state:

Early in the evening, as we passed into more expected terrain, in began to rain. Or at least, that's what it seemed for perhaps a few seconds. Very quickly, we realized that the "rain" was in fact the constant impact of bugs on our windshield. I'm jumping ahead here, but this is what the truck looked like by the time we got home:

I took over driving duties as the sun was going down, for the next long, empty stretch. We finally came to the city of Rawlins. It would have made a good spot to fill up on gas, I briefly thought. But the last gas stations in town were on the left side of the road, the dashboard said we had more than 100 miles of fuel remaining, and we had reached I-80 at last. There would be plenty of more opportunities to get gas, right? I kept going.

But this next stretch of I-80 was all uphill, through windy terrain. And as I watched, the estimated distance to empty started to tick down, and fast. We weren't getting a full mile before the readout would take a mile off its estimate. We began to eagerly track the signs for an exit with gas. All that would come were empty boards, promising gas without showing any actual logos... and all without any stations visible from the highway.

With 50 estimated miles to go, the truck started beeping at us in warning, and that's when I very actively started drafting semis, rolling down hills as much as possible, keeping it at 55 MPH or less, any trick that would hopefully let us reach Laramie before running out of gas. The numbers said we would, but the estimate on the dash stubbornly continued to take a mile away from us about every three-quarters of a mile.

Finally, with around 35 miles left according to the lying dashboard (and about 20 miles out of Laramie), we did find a gas station. Nobody was there so late at night, but the pumps took our credit card all the same and let us avert calamity.

I wasn't allowed to drive the rest of the way.

The other surprise awaited me when we got home. Along the journey, when we'd stopped for dinner (and the gas), my bug-bitten ankle was feeling much worse when I would walk on it. I'd figured it was just the usual stiffness one gets after riding in the car for a while, but by the time we made it home, I could barely walk. We'd already planned to unload the bare minimum from the truck, shower, and get to bed as quickly as possible, but that was all I would have been able to do in any case.

The next morning, I couldn't walk at all. Couldn't even get out of bed. Putting the slightest weight on my left foot sent jolts of pain all around my ankle, which had very noticeably swollen in size. So I went to the doctor, and was told I'd picked up an infection.

My last souvenir of Yellowstone was eradicated by a week's regimen of two different antibiotics. By the next morning, I was at least able to walk without pain (though standing up and getting started was still no picnic). Another day later, some swelling was still visible, but the pain had subsided. Still another day later, and things were finally back to normal.

So as it turned out, it was just as well we'd made the decision to leave Yellowstone a day early. If I had woken up there unable to move, the long drive back would have been excruciating. (But then again, I surely would not have been behind the wheel calling the shots, so we wouldn't have had our brush with running out of gas.)

In any case, we got home safe and sound. And once I was able to walk again, I was left with only the fun memories of our vacation. Geysers and mudpots, bison and elk, springs and waterfalls, something entirely new every few minutes. I can't recommend Yellowstone National Park highly enough.

Bring plenty of bug spray.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Fishing, Gone.

Just a few miles north of the Artists' Paint Pots, we came to the middle road in the figure 8 Grand Loop around Yellowstone. We hadn't taken it before, so we used it to cut across the park and return closer to our campsite. There either wasn't much to see along this road, or our energy levels were finally running out; we didn't stop anywhere along the way. But we did make a stop at the other end of the road, at the Fishing Bridge. This was a spot we'd passed on our way into Yellowstone two days earlier, but we'd skipped by it then in favor of setting up our tent.

Fishing Bridge is one of the more ironically named landmarks in Yellowstone. In decades past, the bridge was a prime spot for (duh) fishing, as spawning fish in the Yellowstone River passed through in huge numbers. The spot was so popular, in fact, that by the 1960s, the fish population had been utterly decimated. Fishing in the area was banned early in the 1970s, in time for the fish to bounce back over the decades.

We walked the length of the bridge and checked out the observation points at either end.

We gazed intently into the waters hoping to see something. But the rather murky cast and the time of day we were there didn't leave us much to see. So we soon were on our way back to our camp site.

It was only about 3:30 in the afternoon. Plenty more daylight left. But we'd seen nearly everything we'd set out to see. Neither of us seemed much in the mood for a long hike. But neither did it make sense to us to just sit around the tent for hours and hours doing nothing. So after a brief discussion, we decided to pack it in. We had originally planned to leave Yellowstone the next morning, but we realized if we left then, we'd get home around 1 or 2 in the morning. It would be a long drive, but worth it to get back to our soft bed.

We had the tent put away in a flash, and soon we were on our way home after a fun, whirlwind tour of Yellowstone National Park.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Getting Down in the Mud

On our previous day in Yellowstone, our efforts to find bubbling mud pots hadn't gone quite as well as we'd hoped. The Mud Volcano had been more watery than what we'd imagined, so we were still on the hunt. We did much better on this day, starting with our visit to the Lower Geyser Basin. Right away, we came to the Fountain Paint Pot:

This gurgling mud pot is the said to be the most famous in Yellowstone, and was certainly much more what we had in mind. But it wasn't the only interesting sight in the basin. The Red Spouter was a nearby Sarlacc of a pit that hissed loudly enough to be heard long before you drew within sight of it:

And just around the corner was a row of very active geysers, including the Fountain and Clepsydra Geysers. Apparently, at least one of the geysers is in the midst of a minor or major eruption at virtually all hours. Two were in full swing as we came through, and had drawn quite a crowd.

Up close, it was very easy to see why:

We then returned to the truck and decided to detour along one of the side roads we'd taken the night before, Firehole Canyon Drive. Disappointingly, the swimming area still hadn't opened up, but it still made a nice spot to stop for lunch, near the waterfall.

Continuing on north, we stopped at the Artists' Paint Pots, a spot that was supposed to be good for more gurgling mud. It was about a half-mile hike in. My bug-bitten ankle was definitely more irritated, but still not so much that I said anything. In any case, the short hike proved to be well worth it. It led to a trail that took you to a hillside peppered with interesting features. And not only could you follow along the front of the hill, you could hike up for a higher vantage (and a breathtaking view):

Best of all, high on the hill, we found a bog of gurgling mud -- exactly what we'd been hunting for all along. And you could get much closer to it than the more famous Fountain Paint Pot.

Some people apparently wanted to get closer still. At every geyser and spring throughout Yellowstone, you'll find warning signs cautioning about the dangerously hot temperatures and sulfuric content of the features. The signs were another way you could separate people just starting their Yellowstone tour from the "veterans" -- these were the people stopping to read these signs for the first time, as opposed to passing them by for the hundredth.

As we were entering the Artists' Paint Pots area, we came upon a young Japanese couple eyeing the runoff from a watery spring. I couldn't understand the exact words of their conversation, but the context was very clear as the following scene played out:

Woman: "I'm going to go touch it!"
Man: "You're not supposed to do that."
Woman: "Come on. I'm doing it."
(Woman puts hand in.)
Woman: "Wow. It's hot!"
(Woman keeps hand in.)
Woman: "Seriously, it's really hot!"
(Incredibly, woman keeps hand in.)
Woman: "Ouch! It burns!"
(Woman finally takes hand out and comes back to the Man, cradling her hand.)
Woman: "Help! It's still burning! It hurts!"
Man: (unknown, but clearly not "I told you so.")

We left the couple behind, toured the area, then returned to our truck.