Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Holmes in the Valley

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about Sherlock Holmes in a pair of novels, before switching mostly to short stories. Still, he revisited the longer format twice more over the decades, the last time being The Valley of Fear.

Sherlock Holmes receives a coded message which the sender apparently thought twice about sending. In any case, it doesn't arrive in time to prevent a grisly murder by sawed-off shotgun. Holmes investigates the crime with his usual verve and skill, exposing a tangled motive that stretches back across 20 years and an ocean -- the victim's secret past in America seems to have caught up with him.

The Valley of Fear invites comparison the the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. In both, past events in the American West are to blame for events unfolding in England's present. Both those histories involve a man involved in a sweeping criminal conspiracy. Both of the men want to run off and marry a young woman. But more than the plot similarities, it's Doyle's writing style that push the comparison even farther. In both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, he devotes most of the book's last half to a flashback narrative involving neither Holmes nor Watson.

Generally, The Valley of Fear feels to me like the stronger book of the two. First, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is well established by this point, which allows the mystery to dominate the first half of the novel. That mystery is actually an intriguing "locked room" puzzle on a massive scale -- the murder takes place in actual castle, surrounded by a moat with a raised drawbridge. The mystery also has a satisfying and clever twist in its resolution. Doyle also seems to have a better handle here on his idea of "frontier mobsters" than he did when writing about Mormons in A Study in Scarlet. The saga of the back half of this novel is melodramatic at times, but still feels generally closer to reality than anything in that first Holmes book.

There are a couple of dry chapters. Set-ups just aren't Doyle's forte. When the action first migrates to the aforementioned castle, he awkwardly pauses the story to introduce the place and its inhabitants, in a chapter that feels more like notes from an outline than a narrative. And when the mystery essentially wraps up at the novel's halfway point, it takes a few more chapters before the lengthy flashback grows to be as compelling as the murder case was. There's also a small misfire for continuity fans. In trying to set up this novel as a prequel (before Holmes' "death") he raises the specter of the Moriarty. But here, Watson somehow has full knowledge of the evil professor he only learned of for the first time in "The Final Problem."

Still, I'd say this is probably the best of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. I'd give it a B. Now it's on to the last few collections of Holmes short stories.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Pop-Up 'Dook

Because indie films and foreign films often don't get the attention they deserve, you'll sometimes find that critics lavish praise on them as something of an overcorrection. I think such was the case with The Babadook, a 2014 Australian horror film that seemed to get near-universal acclaim.

Amelia is a widowed mother raising her 6-year-old son Sam, but both are mired in grief and struggling to get by. In particular, Sam's fear of monsters is costing both of them much needed sleep. One night, Sam finds a pop-up book called "The Babadook," which describes a horrific monster that torments anyone made aware of its existence. Almost immediately, creepy signs of this creature's presence begin to manifest, and their lives become even more nightmarish.

The Babadook is sort of a potpourri of a number of other more well-known (and I'd say mostly more effective) horror films. The base is The Ring, in that it's centered on a mother and child, hunted by an inexorable force that can't hurt you until you know about it and can't be stopped once you do. But mixed in with that, you'll find elements of Sinister, The Amityville Horror, The Sixth Sense, and more. I suppose the plot elements of horror films get recycled even more than those of other Hollywood films.

There are several effectively creepy sequences in The Babadook. The movie is actually at its best before the monster is made indisputably real. For at least two-thirds of the story, you could pass off everything that happens as psychological distress brought on by lack of sleep -- visions at the corners of your eyes, an inability to think clearly, and the stress of a young boy who really doesn't know how to handle his emotions. It's when things become definitively supernatural that the movie begins to borrow more heavily from other, greater films, and becomes far less interesting.

I do have to give props to the film for trying to generate legitimate suspense and dread rather than dipping into the bag of cheap scares. Still, it's a tough movie to recommend. The very people most likely to appreciate it will also be the people most familiar with other films that "did it better." I give The Babadook a B-.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Freedom, Rings

Unless you've been hiding in a rainbow-proof cave, you've heard by now that yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the nationwide right to marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. The case of Obergefell v. Hodges will go down in history, much like Loving v. Virginia, the case which in 1967 struck down bans on interracial marriage.

But there's a key difference between the two cases. The correctness of Loving was manifest even at that time: the verdict from the Court was unanimous. The majority opinion in Obergefell, in sharp contrast, was supported by only 5 of the 9 justices. The other 4 justices offered up not just one dissent, but one dissent each (and each variously endorsed by other dissenters). And each is a flawed bit of rhetoric.

At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I'll extend that criticism to the majority opinion itself, authored (as was expected) by Anthony Kennedy. It is, without a doubt, peppered with stirring flourishes. The closing in particular is a powerful piece of writing:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.   In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.
But in between lofty passages of the Obergefell ruling, there's not nearly as much legal reasoning as there ought to be. I had similar criticisms of his Windsor ruling, though it turned out that many lower court judges would later read between its lines to infer the correct answer to the larger marriage question. But it's exactly what all those judges wrote -- dozens of district court rulings, and several circuit court rulings -- that makes Kennedy's work seem somewhat lacking by comparison.

If you read any of the opinions from the lower courts in the last two years from the marriage cases leading up to this (and I have -- every one of them), you'll find many examples of judges who articulated the argument more clearly than Kennedy. On the more technical side, there were rulings like Judge Shelby's at the district level in the Utah case, Kitchen v. Herbert -- which systematically refuted every argument made by the other side. Or on the more philosophical side, Judge Posner's ruling for the Seventh Circuit pithily detailed the injustice of the situation, and was loaded with brilliant rhetorical flourishes for the layman. ("Go figure.")

I guess I'd expect a Justice for the Highest Court in the Land to do better. But maybe everything had already been said as well as it could be. In any case, Kennedy's Obergefell ruling is a bit like swiss cheese on the substance, and the dissents all pounce on this. But of course, the dissents are all even worse in their own ways, and only able to get away with being worse because they're not actually engaging the arguments -- they're simply crossing verbal swords with Kennedy. The result is four dissents that seem even less worthy (far less worthy) of the Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Roberts' dissent tries to cast this ruling as having no basis in the Constitution, and compares what the majority has done to the "Lochner era" of the Supreme Court. You can read all about that case and the years that followed in The Case Against the Supreme Court (which I recommend). Suffice it to say that Lochner is generally thought to be right behind Dred Scott (defending slavery) and Korematsu (upholding World War II internment of Japanese Americans) as one of the worst and wrongly decided cases in Supreme Court history. Roberts is making a bold claim to compare Lochner to this same-sex marriage ruling.

And moreover, he's completely ignoring why Lochner is considered to be so wrong. Lochner involved laws established to protect employees at a bakery from inhumane working conditions. The laws were designed to equalize the power balance between the employees (who had to take what job they could get) and the employers (who had no reason to treat their employees well). The Supreme Court in that case crafted an upside-down ruling that would boggle even the Mad Hatter, striking down the laws as unconstitutional infringement of the weak employees' "right" to take a worse deal if they chose to.

In short, Lochner is reviled in legal circles not because it represents judicial overreach, but because it preserved power for the powerful. Roberts' now cries "judicial overreach" without awareness of any irony, after a decade-long string of cases which have cemented power for corporations and the wealthy -- the real repeat of the real travesty of Lochner.

And the dissents only get worse from there. Scalia uses his to flog his pet cause of constitutional originalism -- the idea that people today should be bound by the conceptions of those who wrote laws centuries ago. And his irony detector is even more damaged than Roberts'. He scolds Kennedy for writing an opinion designed to be memorable, when it's he himself who always peppers his opinions with dollar words and bon mots.

Alito wastes a few pages quoting his own dissent from Windsor, and arguing that the real injustice here is that he and others who believe as he does may be branded as bigots. His core argument of course being the very definition of bigotry: "I have nothing against you, I just sincerely believe that you don't deserve the same rights I have."

Worst of all is Clarence Thomas, who pretends that government can neither bestow nor deprive dignity on an individual. He believes he has made this point perfectly with this shocking declaration:
Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them.
If you don't believe slavery or internment are deprivations of dignity and humanity, it seems pretty clear you don't understand a thing about dignity and humanity.

Where have I been going with this lengthy, meandering post? (And kudos to you, if you're still here.) Just this. Yesterday, four Supreme Court judges made utter asses of themselves, and committed their dumbassery to print for all time. And even Kennedy, who at least got the outcome right, revealed himself (in my view) as less knowledgeable and less articulate than dozens of judges on lower courts.

My point: it's time to refresh the Supreme Court. Of course, there's no scheduled mechanism for this. Only when a Justice retires or dies in office does the sitting president then get to nominate a replacement, subject to approval by the Senate.

Think about this next time you're voting for your Senator and for the President. Choose accordingly.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Report Music Report

More than a year ago, I blogged about a low-budget sci-fi film called Europa Report. The movie was a bit of a disappointment, but one good thing did come of it: another interesting score by composer Bear McCreary.

Bear McCreary doesn't have a lot of movies on his resume, but he's one of the hardest working composers on television. If you're reading this, I can guarantee you've watched at least one of the shows he's worked on -- Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Eureka, Human Target, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead, Outlander.... like I said, he's a busy guy. His score for Europa Report is a nice experiment in favoring some of his recurring techniques while excluding others.

On most McCreary scores, percussion takes the lead. He'll use instruments from anywhere around the world, but often favors big, booming taiko. On Europa Report, however, McCreary explores how bass can serve the role of percussion. Much of the soundtrack is dominated by a pulsing, synth bass sound that digs inside your head. Depending on the tempo, it can sound like a drilling machine, a heartbeat, or a distorted helicopter. The sound isn't constant on every song in the score, but it never goes away for long either. It's an inexorable force.

Often just above this relentless bass is a lyrical ostinato on the strings. It's vaguely reminiscent of some of the "opera house" material McCreary wrote for Battlestar Galactica, though it rarely feels as uplifting. The minor key makes it mournful, bleak, hopeless. The feeling is continued by the melody that often plays above it. The proper "theme" for Europa Report changes instruments on different tracks -- sometimes played on piano, sometimes flute, sometimes violin -- but it almost always seems dark.

What's interesting is how much mileage McCreary is able to get out of this basic palette. He plays a lot with where the sound seems to be coming from. Sometimes, individual instruments begin to play as though muffled behind some barrier. As a music cue develops, the instrument slowly comes out from behind its wall, gradually gaining strength and clarity. Other times, parts of the orchestra sound like they've been moved into a different space; the cue "Mausoleum," for example, features a quiet piano that sounds alone in a large, empty room -- perhaps exactly the place the title suggests.

When the score does depart a bit from these techniques, the effect is very noticeable. Sometimes, the rhythmic swirl of the strings collapses into something shrill, dissonant, insistent, and the music begins to sound like something written for a horror movie. But it's not the sort of horror movie that squeals at you when a cat suddenly jumps into view. Rather, it's the constant nervousness of searching a large house you know you aren't alone in. Very late in the score, the strings collapse further still, trembling and then melting as the story builds to a tense climax.

Occasionally, McCreary tinkers with the instrument selection. "Europa Report (for Solo Piano)" is exactly that, with the string ostinato transferred to the lower half of the piano. The result is something still quite melancholy, but somehow less ominous than other statements of the theme. On the cue "Water," McCreary brings in the vocalist he uses on many of his scores (his wife, Raya Yarbrough), and the tone changes again. The lone human voice seems to pull the strings up to a lighter tone, and when the film's theme emerges, it seems somehow more serene. In "Under the Ice," silence becomes as much a voice as the instruments, swallowing up sections of the sounds to create something mysterious.

The final cue before the end credits roll, "A World Other Than Our Own," contains the most subtle, and most clever, tweak. That bass sound that has pulsed throughout the score instead plays long, sustained notes. When the melody comes in, it too is supported by more harmonies than before. For once, the movie's theme is actually tinged with hopefulness.

Admittedly, in trying to do so much with relatively little, the album overall can get a bit repetitive in places. It's probably not a score to listen to from beginning to end, outside of the context of the movie. But I enjoy having its somber tone shuffle up in my music mix from time to time. I give the Europa Report soundtrack a B+.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

TNG Flashback: Starship Mine

After high science fiction concepts, thought-provoking morality plays, and emotional character studies, Star Trek: The Next Generation served up something different in "Starship Mine": a slice of pure action-adventure.

The Enterprise is docked at the Remmler array, where all personnel are being evacuated for a maintenance procedure. When Picard makes an impromptu return to the ship, he finds a gang of thieves attempting to steal trilithium resin from the ship's engines. While most of the senior staff is held hostage on the planet below, Picard enters a game of cat-and-mouse with the thieves aboard the ship. And the clock is ticking for them all, as the baryon sweep being conducted will kill them all if they don't escape in time.

You'd never guess it, but this script came from the same man who wrote "The Inner Light." His idea here, as he once described it, was to do "Die Hard on a spaceship." (Though later, trying to distance the episode from Die Hard, he'd note that the concept had been iterated on many times, including Passenger 57 and Under Siege.) Perhaps it was only the goodwill he'd earned selling "The Inner Light" that led to him selling this one. Showrunner Jeri Taylor remarked that this episode was so far from the series' norm that they probably wouldn't have even attempted it in an earlier season.

Executive Michael Piller would later acknowledge that "it's good to have one of these kind in the mix." Yet he also maintained that "it didn't feel like Star Trek to me." He worried that it was derivative and too violent, and he tasked Ronald Moore with doing a late, uncredited rewrite on the script. A very late rewrite, as episode director Cliff Bole reported that as many as 10 new pages a day were coming in while he was filming it!

Perhaps it's only because something needed to be in front of the camera that this episode was made at all, because it's hard to imagine Moore's rewrite satisfying Piller's concerns. Moore acknowledged that this was "just straight run and jump," possible only because of the character focus the show had developed otherwise. And he was constantly reigning in his own instincts to make it more brutal, with more killing... an instinct he would one day let fly in his Battlestar Galactica.

That said, the script does go out of its way to keep Picard on the moral up-and-up. When he is forced to kill some of the invaders on the ship, he only does so indirectly, and we see him pause for a moment to mourn what he's had to do. Still, he sees plenty of action, which Patrick Stewart was reportedly thrilled to do. (He'd even call this one of his favorite episodes in the run of the show.)

If it were just mindless action, the episode wouldn't work nearly as well as it does. But the setup is quite well concocted. The baryon sweep serves as both a ticking clock and a physical restriction that corrals the action aboard the Enterprise. Little details count for a lot too. There's the fact that phasers don't work, serving to make the action more visceral. Worf is carefully excluded from the reception on the planet, to avoid putting him in another situation where he'd look bad at his job. The villains trying to steal the trilithium resin are led by a woman -- and the script doesn't shy from putting her in a fistfight with Picard in the episode's climax. (Plus, it's another woman who captures Picard. Twice.)

Plus, it's not just the action that's fun. Before the hostage situation develops on the planet, we get a wonderful bit of comedy involving the character of Commander Hutchinson, and Data's attempt to mimic his "small talk." Brent Spiner gives a hilarious performance, while just about every member of the main cast gets an opportunity for a funny joke or two. (My favorites are Marina Sirtis' scowl when Troi knows Picard is lying about needing his saddle, and Jonathan Frakes' dumbfounded line reading about how long two people can talk about nothing.)

Director Cliff Bole brings a lot to the episode with great staging and pace. He pulls off a really entertaining single take during the teaser (that includes Riker and Data appearing in different "cars" in the same turbolift). And he completed the whole episode under very adverse circumstances. Besides the late rewrites I noted earlier, he had one entire day knocked off his shooting schedule as a budget saving measure. The same cuts kept him from having enough extras to make Hutchinson's reception feel like an actual party, and forced simplifications in some of the makeup designs Michael Westmore had planned for the various aliens in the episode. All these cuts definitely hurt the episode overall, but thanks to Bole, they don't sink it.

One area where time and expense couldn't be trimmed was the lighting. With the ship supposedly shut down in this episode, none of the established lighting setups could be used. Director of photography Jonathan West was eager to play though, free from the restriction of using the looks established seasons earlier by Marvin V. Rush.

The episode has a handful of notable guest stars in it. The alien Orton is played by Glenn Morshower, best known for 24 (though he also appeared in another, earlier role on The Next Generation). Patricia Tallman, a frequent stunt performer on The Next Generation, would later play telepath Lyta Alexander on Babylon 5. Then, of course, there's Tim Russ, who would become Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager.

Other observations:
  • The area most clearly lacking in this episode is the music. It really calls attention to executive producer Rick Berman's unfortunate mandate for bland musical wallpaper. This is one of the most action-packed episodes of the series, yet Jay Chattaway was forced to provide a lifeless drone of a score for it.
  • Morgan Gendel originally wanted to call this episode "Revolution," continuing on his own private joke in naming "The Inner Light" for a song by The Beatles. The producers vetoed this, feeling the title was too similar to the earlier episode "Evolution."
  • After Hutchinson is shot at his own reception, he's not seen or talked about again for the rest of the episode. Some dialogue in the script reportedly indicated that he'd been killed, but it didn't make it into the end product. (Though you can see a purple sheet that appears to be covering his body.)
  • When he dispatches Devor, played by Tim Russ, it appears (appropriately enough) that Picard delivers a Vulcan nerve pinch. According to the script, this was intended to be a more conventional carotid-artery block.
Morgan Gendel's own opinion of the finished episode essentially mirrored mine. He said in an interview that the "first time I saw it, I wasn't sure how well it worked. But when I went back to watch it a second time, I really like it, and thought it was true to what I was trying to do." I too recall not liking this episode too much when I first saw it during the series' original run. But now, I find it a rather fun break from the norm. Made today, with what can be achieved on television now, it would have been worlds better. But I still think it's worth a B.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How the West Was Undone

Blazing Saddles has got to be the definitive comedy-western, right? Well, its existence didn't stop Seth MacFarlane from bringing us A Million Ways to Die in the West. Of course, any comparison to the Mel Brooks classic sets the bar unfairly high. But if your expectations begin from a more humble place, MacFarlane's movie does serve up its share of laughs -- more than I expected, in fact.

The comedy of A Million Ways to Die in the West generally sorts into one of two categories. First, there's the scatological. Even if you're familiar with Seth MacFarlane's other work (Family Guy, American Dad, Ted), you'll find there are a lot of poop jokes in the movie. It's enough to get tiresome after a while -- though I won't pretend I didn't laugh and/or cringe at some of them.

It's the other category that makes the movie truly fun: de-romanticizing the Old West. The movie does a hilarious job of showing the dark underbelly of the time period. It even pokes fun at how many things about the era, that the movies portray as great, were actually anything but. The modern, knowing wink on history never really gets old -- perhaps in part because the gags (and deaths) keep getting broader and broader.

The supporting cast is a lot of fun. Sarah Silverman gets to be her wonderful, filthy self as the town prostitute. Neil Patrick Harris is fun as one of the villains of the piece (the decidedly less serious one). And some of the bigger laughs come from actors you might not expect to see in a slapstick movie like this. You have an Academy Award winner in Charlize Theron, and another nominee in Liam Neeson. Both seem to be having a lot of fun cutting loose here. And then there are the cameos. It would be spoiling the fun to list them all, but suffice it to say that jokes range from hilarious miscasting to "you got him to show up for that?"

It's a pretty stupid movie overall, but it's a fun kind of stupid. I give A Million Ways to Die in the West a B.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Entering the Silo

A while back, I wrote about The Martian, a case of a self-published author hitting it big. Since then, I've come across similar example of success -- and again in the science fiction genre.

Wool, by Hugh Howey, is a short novella you can read in just an hour or two. It's set in an apocalyptic future where the Earth has become uninhabitable, and humanity's few survivors live in an underground silo where resources and population are carefully controlled. The Silo's sheriff, Holston, is still reeling from the loss of his wife a few years earlier. He's troubled by the circumstances surrounding her death, and the novella's brisk chapters explore exactly how.

You might roll your eyes a bit to hear about "another post-apocalyptic science fiction story," but the triumph of Wool is that the setting truly is only background to a quite personal tale the author sets out to tell. What Holston suspects, and ultimately uncovers, is important. But more important still is his character himself: his emotions, his past, his motivations. This is a science fiction story well grounded in a person and not just in a setting.

From what I've read, the success of Wool led Hugh Howey to follow up with more novellas set in the same universe. The so-called Silo series ultimately spanned nine volumes in all, and I enjoyed the first one enough that I have every intention of reading what's next. That said, Wool (retroactively titled Wool: Holston) in no way reads like a book that was trying to tease a long-running series. It feels like a completely self-contained entity, and is one well worth recommending.

That said, it is a quite bleak work. This is no young adult apocalypse, no backdrop tailor made for some plucky hero. This has more in common with Battlestar Galactica (the re-make) than Divergent. It's not a feel-good read. Unless, that is, provocative writing makes you feel good. I'd give the tightly woven Wool an B+. You can read it for yourself and decide whether you, like me, want to continue on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Just Alright

Late last year, Weezer released a new album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End. The release was accompanied by the same press blitz that seems to accompany every Weezer album. Band leader Rivers Cuomo gives interviews about how they got away from their core sound on their last album, but that this new album has fixed all that. To me, it always feels like a ruse, trying to beg old Weezer fans (who think everything but The Blue Album and Pinkerton were sell-out crap) to come back and try the new album. This time, however, I don't think Cuomo is just blowing smoke -- the band really has given up on experimentation.

Actually, Weezer sounds rather like a Weezer tribute band on this new album. Virtually every track on it sounds like what someone trying to craft a Weezer sound-alike song would do. Many of the tracks have overtly self-referential lyrics. All of them feature a stripped-down verse leading into a distortion-laden chorus. Most of them use a familiar four-chord progression. (One song, "Back to the Shack," dares to use only two chords.) Some songs even feel like they're riffing on specific older Weezer songs; "Ain't Got Nobody" is a double-time version of the Red Album's "Dreamin'," while "Lonely Girl" has a strong "Buddy Holly" vibe. None of the songs are copies to a degree where, say, Weezer could sue another band who released an album like this. Still, they're awfully close at times.

It does make very welcome the few moments where the band tries some minor departure from formula. "Cleopatra" is the only song on the whole album that isn't in common 4/4 time (and even it only tosses in a single 5/4 measure before each repetition of the chorus). "Go Away" has a female voice, bringing in Bethany Cosentino to duet with Rivers Cuomo. "The British Are Coming" plays with a falsetto chorus sung to an interesting melody.

The thing is, it's not like any of these songs are "bad" as such. It's just that listening to an entire album of them gets very monotonous, very quickly. How fortunate for Weezer, I suppose, that no one listens to whole albums in this day and age. Nearly any one song here, coming up on shuffle or Spotify, would be enjoyable on its own. And maybe experimentation isn't really want anyone wants from Weezer anyway. Hypocritical as it might be of me to say, I didn't actually like the one place on the album where the band does try something different ("The Waste Land," the instrumental introduction to the so-called "Futurescape Trilogy" that closes the album).

On my iPhone, I've rated nearly every song on this album four stars. (So, B grade?) That's good enough in small doses. But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts. I'd only give the album itself a C+ overall.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stopping to Enjoy the Roses

Jon Stewart may have a lot of fans (who have been lamenting his decision to leave The Daily Show later this year). But those fans didn't turn out last year for his directorial debut, judging by the paltry box office take of his film Rosewater.

To be fair, Rosewater was hardly a film with mass commercial appeal. It tells the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist imprisoned by the Iranian government under the ludicrous and false pretense of him being a foreign spy. Determined to tell the story, and struggling to get Hollywood filmmakers on the project, Jon Stewart ultimately decided to write and direct the movie himself, taking a summer 2013 sabbatical from The Daily Show to make it all happen. It was a personal project for Stewart, in part because a Daily Show piece featuring Bahari was used in the "case" to arrest him.

A dramatic "passion project" from a known comedian with no directing experience -- not a likely recipe for a great film. But the key is that the film comes across not as Jon Stewart's bid to be taken seriously, but as his plea that this story be taken seriously. The result is something earnest and well-crafted. Stewart actually proves to be a very capable director who knows how to move the camera and how to frame a shot for emotional impact. He also shows skill in working with actors -- though he himself would likely demure and say he was just getting out of their way.

Gael Garcia Bernal gives a wonderful performance as Bahari, showing increasingly raw truth as each layer is stripped away from him in his captivity. Kim Bodnia plays his torturer, known only as "Rosewater," whose powerful performance makes clear that torture need not be physical to still qualify as torture.

If there's a weak spot to the film, it's the script itself; Stewart is not as solid a screenwriter on his first time out as he is a director. Scenes rarely have a turn within them, and their sole tone too often serves a transparent and formulaic purpose within the larger narrative. There's a reliance on tricks worn out by other filmmakers, such as starting the narrative with a flash-forward, and having Bahari converse with his dead father in a series of now-you-see-him-now-you-don't camera cuts. It's not a bad script, though it feels like it surely must have lost a lot in the translation from Bahari's own book about his experience.

Still, the film deserved more attention than it got. It may have been unfairly dismissed (by people who were even aware of it at all) as a dark movie about torture. It's actually more uplifting than that. I give it a B-.

Friday, June 19, 2015

TNG Flashback: Birthright, Part II

Part one of "Birthright" suffered from a lack of focus, split between two subplots that didn't quite work. Part two gains focus by following just one storyline, but picks up other problems in the process.

Worf is being held in the Romulan prison camp where he'd hoped to find his father. But it's quite unlike any other prison. The Romulan captors and Klingon survivors have been living together in peace for decades, even intermarrying and giving birth to a new generation -- a new generation which, to Worf's disgust, knows nothing of Klingon culture and tradition. He sets about teaching them, and in the process sparks a rebellion.

It's a shame not to see the story about Data's dreams continued here in part two, as it was the more compelling storyline from the first half. Also jettisoned is the question that set the whole story in motion to begin with, the question of whether Worf's father Mogh is still alive. Part one dispensed with that mystery all too fast, confirming that he'd indeed been killed in the massacre.

What remains is the part of the story that Michael Piller felt merited a two-part episode to begin with, a sort of Bridge on the River Kwai inspired battle of ideology between Worf and the Romulan prison commander Tokath. (It's also possible Piller was hoping sparks would fly as they did in "Chain of Command" between Madred and Picard.) But the big problem here is that the story isn't balanced between two valid points of view, nor is it even weighted to favor our hero, Worf. In fact, Worf is pretty reprehensible in this episode.

While the children of this camp are admittedly unable to leave the planet, their home is in no other way like a prison camp. It's actually a society. They've invented their own new traditions (using Klingon artifacts in new ways). They're free of bigotry. They're happy. Into this paradise comes Worf, who brings (in his own words, from his final speech) knowledge. This is a pure Judeo-Christian parable here... and Worf is cast in the role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Not good company, even if the knowledge he brought was truly to the betterment of these people.

But in fact, I'd say it's objectively not. Alongside Klingon traditions, Worf brings an unhealthy dose of bigotry and racism. (Of course, Worf's traditions play very much like a religion, and bigotry and racism have gone hand-in-hand with religion far too often.) His message is that Klingons and Romulans should hate each other because we're Klingons and they're Romulans. He can't see the harmony this group has found. He can't even continue liking Ba'el, an attractive young (too young?) woman he was drawn to right up until he learned she was half Romulan. Worf teaches Toq that it's important to hunt and kill animals even when you don't need them for food or other resources. He berates L'Kor and Gi'ral for simply doing their best to survive in a tough situation, one in which they in fact thrived, thankyouverymuch.

The only way in which Worf is remotely the good guy in this episode is that Tokath foolishly overreacts to the interference. It defies belief how Tokath doesn't see that martyring Worf with an execution (an unnecessarily public one) is going to undermine his authority. Basically, Worf's point of view is given credibility by Tokath not having a credible one at all. Yet that still leaves Ba'el, who passionately argues that Worf should accept her for who she is. It still leaves L'Kor and Gi'ral, who argue the merits of the society they've built.

Worf isn't the only main character who has a bad week here. We occasionally check in on the rest of the Enterprise crew, who is trying to follow Worf's trail and rescue him. But by the time they finally catch up to him, he has already secured his own rescue without their help.

Still, despite how weak this script is, the episode isn't bottom of the barrel awful. Composer Jay Chattaway provides a solid score, with some particularly interesting South American instruments during Worf's escape attempt. Dan Curry, a visual effects supervisor for the show, was given the chance to direct here, and he really tries to make the most of the character-driven scenes. (Indeed, he gave them so much space that the episode ran 7 minutes long and had to be trimmed down. Much of the cut footage can be seen on the Blu-ray collection of season six.)

It would have been a better episode had there been time to include some of the deleted material. There's a great scene in which Gi'ral takes Worf to task for his criticisms, explaining how she left a son behind on the Klingon homeworld when forging her life here. There's also an extended version of Tokath's final speech advocating Worf's execution, in which he makes individual pleas to members of his community to try to shore up their support. Perhaps there really was a great two-hour episode in here somewhere, had there not been the need to break it in half on a cliffhanger.

Other observations:
  • Some deleted scenes you won't find on the Blu-ray involve Jaglom Shrek; they were never filmed. During the holiday hiatus between parts one and two, actor James Cromwell broke his leg. The writers therefore cut his two big scenes, leaving him no dialogue and only a brief appearance in part two. One of the scenes would have helped explain Shrek's motivation for helping Worf, as he confessed that he himself was an escaped prisoner. The other scene would have had Shrek trying to get help from the son of another Khitomer survivor... only to be murdered when that Klingon didn't want to hear the truth about his father.
  • Another casualty of the holiday break was the jungle set. It used lots of live vegetation, which accidentally sat in total darkness for weeks and died. The whole set had to be replaced, making a big dent in the budget that was supposed to have been conserved by filming a two-parter.
It's not the attempt at moral ambiguity that's bad here, but rather the fact that Worf's "morality" in this episode seems utterly indefensible. Still, it's a credit to how smoothly The Next Generation was running by this point, that even with such a bad script, the episode isn't a total loss. I give it a C-.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fatalistic Thoughts

Goodreads hasn't figured out what I like yet. I started using the web site a while back, hoping I could eventually stuff it with enough ratings that it could suggest a few off-the-beaten-path books for me. (Netflix, for example, has become fairly good at anticipating what I'll think of a movie.)

Specifically, I decided at some point that I really wanted to read a book with a gay main character. I'd read a couple of books by Christopher Rice (and had generally liked them), but I was looking to try a new author. So I perused a few suggestions from Goodreads, and decided to check out Fatal Shadows, a mystery-thriller by Josh Lanyon. Despite the sillyish, Danielle Steele-like title, readers seemed to think highly of the book. And if I liked it, Lanyon had written several more adventures featuring the main character.

My review of the book itself, I can encapsulate rather quickly. The prose was sometimes clever, but sometimes corny. The secondary characters felt underdeveloped. The mystery was dull, its "solution" easily anticipated for lack of credible suspects in the story. It was a rather average, and ultimately forgettable, book. But thinking about why I'd had that reaction led to some much more interesting places.

Something just felt "off" about the whole book.The main character, Adrien English, is not an LGBT activist, isn't part of a club scene, and isn't actively dating -- yet his world is somehow inundated with other gay men. I think there may actually be more gay characters than straight characters in the book; I have no clue how he's meeting them all. Of course, my personal experience isn't remotely the only one a gay man can have, but this didn't feel like it reflected reality to me -- any reality, not just specifically mine.

This got me thinking about whether this author had strayed from the old "write what you know" saw. And that in turn made me wonder, if the author in fact wasn't a gay man, what might make him choose to write about one? It hardly seemed like it could have been a strategic decision for bestseller success, particularly in the year 2000 (when this book was first published) -- a time when LGBT acceptance was at a much lower level than it is today.

So I decided to do a little Googling about Josh Lanyon, and quickly found some forums engaged in discussion as to whether he is, in fact, a woman writing under a male pen name. (Josh Lanyon has readily acknowledged that he is using a pseudonym, as he did not want his real name out there.) It turns out that a large swath of fiction featuring gay men -- perhaps even the majority of it -- is actually written by women, for an intended audience of women. They're not primarily mysteries, or sci-fi novels, or contemporary fiction, or whatever. They're essentially romance novels (a genre largely aimed at women), written for a subset of the audience who think that if one sexy man is hot, two of them together is at least twice as hot.

I have no problem with this audience getting stories to satisfy them. (Certainly, they're not generally getting it from film and TV. Those mediums are still at a point where female-female relationships are presented as titillating, while male-male relationships are typically chaste if featured at all. Apparently, girls kissing is awesome, guys kissing is gross.) I also think a man (gay or straight) certainly could choose to write a story of this type if he wished. But with this kernel of doubt about Josh Lanyon's identity planted in my brain, I felt like it might "explain" some of the inauthentic parts of Fatal Shadows.

This in turn got me thinking about sexism. At first, it was me challenging my own reaction. Was I saying anything like, "well, of course a woman couldn't write a gay man believably!" Egad, I hoped not. But that line of thought made me realize some sexist tropes of the mystery genre that were subverted in the book. At the risk of spoiling the ending a bit, I'll say that Adrien Engish, after finding out who the killer is, still proceeds to have sex with him. It's part of a poorly constructed ruse to buy time, and it's utterly ridiculous. But then, isn't this maybe just a gender flip of the traditional "stupid female character who just can't quit her man?" A gender flip of the "weak woman who is powerless against a man, so uses sex to subdue him?" The more I thought about it, the more I really felt it was. And, more importantly, I really felt while reading I was reading it that this resembled no person in any reality I could believe.

How many women have read how many versions of this trope in how many novels, and thought the same thing of a female character? Or worse, what if this trope isn't seen as so ridiculous a departure from reality when featuring a woman as it is when featuring a man? Ugh.

So, ultimately, I suppose I'd have to say Fatal Shadows was a provocative little book. As you can see, it really got me thinking. That said, I hardly think any of this was the result of shrewd authorial intention (regardless of the author's gender). No, I think the book was just a flimsy mystery with average writing. I give it a C. But then, apparently, I'm not the target audience.

I guess I'm back to Christopher Rice for now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

TNG Flashback: Birthright, Part I

Perhaps spurred on by the success of "Chain of Command," the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation attempted another two-part episode in season six, "Birthright."

During a visit to Deep Space Nine, Worf is approached by a shady alien with information to sell. Jaglom Shrek claims that Worf's father Mogh survived the Khitomer massacre, and has been living for decades in a Romulan prison camp. Though first in denial that a Klingon would be taken alive in such dishonor, Worf soon decides to attempt a rescue. Meanwhile, Julian Bashir tests an alien device aboard the Enterprise, which triggers strange hallucinations for Data.

Michael Piller was overseeing the writers of Deep Space Nine by this point, but still involved himself as much as he could with The Next Generation. When word of this Worf storyline came along, he was convinced there was enough material for another two parter. But in developing the story, the writers concluded that the best place to break the story in half was on a cliffhanger, with Worf being captured. That exposed that there truly wasn't enough material to fill the first hour, so they went searching for a "B-plot" to pad out the episode.

The writers bandied about ideas for Data. Ronald Moore suggested that the android have some sort of religious experience. Brannon Braga suggested a near-death experience instead, though René Echevarria pointed out that idea had just been covered in "Tapestry". In the end, they landed on the idea of Data having his first dreams.

Neither plot line works completely. There will be more to say about Worf in part two. The main thing that's wrong here is the character of Jaglom Shrek. He's played by a heavily made-up James Cromwell (who would later portray Zefram Cochrane in the movie First Contact). Cromwell is a great actor, but can't save a nonsensical character. For a man who prides himself on knowing things, Shrek apparently knows nothing about Klingons -- particularly, how one is likely to react to an attempt at extortion. Shrek approaches Worf all wrong, and rather than making money or hightailing it out of there, he winds up deferring payment and agreeing to transport Worf into Romulan space!

The Data half of the episode is conceived somewhat better, though it too has its flaws. The dream sequences aren't really that unusual or special. Director Winrich Kolbe had hoped to use an array of wild photography tricks to present a true dreamscape, or at least an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The producers shot it all down, leaving him little more than a fisheye lens and a body double for Brent Spiner that's painfully obvious in most shots. In an apparent attempt to compensate and keep things dream-like, Spiner amps up his performance as the younger Dr. Soong to a rather wild-eyed and strange level.

Even if the presentation of Data's dreams had lived up to the tantalizing idea of them, the road getting there is fairly clumsy. Doctor Bashir crosses over from Deep Space Nine, bringing a mysterious alien artifact whose purpose is never actually revealed. (It's as pure a Macguffin as you can get.) Worse, Bashir kind of spoils the ending of the episode immediately after Data's first "vision." He correctly speculates that Data has had a dream, taking most of the tension from Data's exploration of what has happened to him.

If Bashir seems unusually worldly and insightful in leaping to this conclusion (given the naivete of his character, circa season one Deep Space Nine), it's because the episode wasn't originally written for him. The writers had planned for Jadzia Dax to be the character crossing over, bringing the wisdom of many lifetimes with her in advising Data. But the Deep Space Nine episode being filmed at the time was "Move Along Home," where Sisko, Kira, and Dax are all trapped inside a game in which Bashir is "killed off" early on. Simply put, Terry Farrell wasn't available for filming, while Siddig el Fadil was.

Ironically, Bashir's behavior here in this episode does end up making a tremendous amount of sense later down the road. No one knew it at the time, but years later, the writers would decide that Bashir was secretly a genetically-engineered human who had been concealing his enhanced abilities. It's a happy accident, but it perfectly explains why here, Bashir is so curious about Data's respiration, his pulse, his growing hair. Bashir is naturally drawn to the things that allow Data -- a clearly artificial "human" -- to pass as "normal!"

Despite weak plot lines, the episode does serve up several good scenes. There's a great Troi-Worf scene early on, in which she's able to give him a solid mocking that actually calms him rather than enraging him. (It's a fine example of why the writers decided to try a romance between the characters in the final season.) Data's attempts to get advice from friends also play well. Worf is clearly the most spiritual character on the show, so it's natural that he seek the Klingon's advice on "visions." (Even if the scene also hamfistedly tries to connect the two subplots by theme.) Picard's advice to Data seems to draw on the captain's archaeology hobby, as he tries to help Data understand that he is a "culture of one."

Other observations:
  • The scenes aboard Deep Space Nine are fun. It's strange to see Dr. Crusher and Geordi there.
  • Composer Jay Chattaway treats us to a couple bars of the Deep Space Nine theme (by Dennis McCarthy) to open the episode.
  • While several writers and producers acknowledge that the second part of this episode came off a bit weak, they don't seem to have their eyes similarly open looking at this first half. Executive producer Rick Berman somehow thought both storylines were given equal weight, and claimed "I loved every element of it and so did my son, Tommy." (Oh... well... if his kid liked it.) Writer Brannon Braga said "I don't have a single complaint."
In truth, this isn't so bad an episode. But it feels like exactly what it is: one storyline choked for time when it deserved an episode of its own, and another storyline stretched too long when it could have been compressed into a single hour. I give "Birthright, Part I" a C.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Worldly Thoughts

Chances are that you, like me, saw Jurassic World on its massive opening weekend. How does your opinion compare with mine? Well, that's what I imagine you're here for.

By and large, Jurassic World does get the job done. There are fun action sequences and plenty of great dinosaur mayhem. Chris Pratt reaffirms his reputation as a likeable hero. Bryce Dallas Howard does well with a paper-pushing character that could have come off much more shrill. (And the script even gives her some heroic moments too!) Even the one-dimensional roles are enjoyable most of the time; Jake Johnson gets a few good gags as the tech-head comic relief, while Vincent D'Onofrio chews scenery as the villain of the piece.

Still, for all its CG fireworks, some of the alchemy is missing here. And it wouldn't be so noticeable if the film wasn't busy making so many shout-outs to Steven Spielberg's 1993 original. When a character lures a big dinosaur with a flare, it's an entertaining moment... but it lacks the visceral thrills of the big T-Rex sequence from the first film. When the characters actually come across the crumbling museum from the first film, your mind drifts to its more tense sequences. A sequel being worse than its predecessor is hardly a rarity (and it should be noted, this movie is at least considerably better than Jurassic Park III), but it's also a rarity for the sequel to so directly invite comparison. It even has one character commenting on how great the "original park" was, as though apologizing to the audience!

That's not the only thing the movie tries to apologize for. It's stuffed to bursting with product placements, noting its own crass capitalism with an early scene in which characters denounce the evils of corporate sponsorship. The characters also lament how audiences won't come to the theme park unless the dinosaurs keep getting bigger and meaner, as though blaming us for the fact that the movie feels compelled to top the franchise past with a bigger, meaner dinosaur.

Sadly, the movie didn't have to roll out a bigger dinosaur to give us something new. The great new conceit of this film doesn't get nearly enough screen time: the fact that Jurassic World is now a fully operational, open-to-the-public theme park. Aside from the T-Rex-in-the-city bonus act of The Lost World, this series has only ever put a small handful of people in harm's way. What was truly different here was that tens of thousands of people were in immediate jeopardy. But instead of trying to up the stakes by having characters truly care about that, the film uses the park guests as anonymous meat for the slaughter, mere backdrop for a "save a couple of kids" plot that very closely follows Jurassic Parks past.

But the fact is, not all of this occurs to you while you're watching the movie. After a bit of a slow start, it's remarkably well-paced throughout. The good guys are all pretty smart, and the set pieces are all fairly enjoyable. It's only after you've left the theater that the glow begins to recede, and you realize that this movie, though competent, was done much better 22 years ago.

I'd say Jurassic World lands somewhere around a B-. When the year is done, it will be neither the best nor the worst blockbuster Hollywood served up.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mother's Mercy

Well, Game of Thrones fans: those of you who haven't read the books are now basically in the same boat as those of us who have. There's a scattered chapter here or there yet to be picked up, but generally it seems pretty clear at this point that if the show hasn't adapted it, the plan is to cut it from the story entirely. At the same time, there are several plot threads where the book has passed the books entirely.

Take Stannis' storyline. In the books, Ramsay Bolton has sent a menacing letter that claims he defeated Stannis in battle. But come on, it's Ramsay Bolton. Are you going to believe him? Well, maybe now, after seeing tonight's episode. Things unraveled quickly for Stannis after burning his daughter and legacy. His wife killed herself, Melisandre abandoned him (after half his army did the same), and he lost the battle (albeit taking out most of the other side in the process).

Then Brienne got her big moment. After watching the broken tower window diligently for... weeks?... (who knows exactly how long it's been)... she left at just the critical moment to go exact revenge for Renly. And you can understand her choice, within the rigid code of a knight. Her first vow was sworn to Renly, not Catelyn, so even though Sansa is alive and Renly long dead, Brienne chose vengeance over being a guardian. But she did get her man.

This left Sansa's rescue to someone else. Sansa did as much for herself as she likely could, recognizing the moment to break out of her room and light the signal candle. But when that wasn't enough, Theon Greyjoy reemerged from within the depths of Reek, and the two jumped off the ramparts of Winterfell together into a snowdrift below. Where they'll go next and who will find them is anybody's guess.


Brienne wasn't the only one to get her man, as Arya exacted a brutal revenge on Ser Meryn. There was, I think, a deliberate echo to the Red Viper's death at the hands (literally) of the Mountain -- though after taking out both Meryn's eyes, Arya wanted to be sure he knew who she was and why she was killing him. Her actions may have felt good in the moment, but it didn't sit well with "Jaqen H'ghar" (whose name now goes in quotes, because who knows who he really is, or if Arya even ever met the original). After one "Jaqen's" fanatical sacrifice to balance the scales, the other inflicted blindness on Arya. The adventures of the little blind girl (book shout-out!) will be picked up next season.

Still another assassin would claim her target, as we zipped over to Dorne for the apparent payoff of the slowest storyline of the season. Just moments after Myrcella confessed to Jaime that she knew he was her father -- and that she still loved him anyway -- she dropped dead of a poisoned kiss delivered by Ellaria Sand. It still hardly seems necessary to have introduced the Sand Snakes to tell this story (though at least we now know what the poisoned Bron subplot was all about: setting up the antidote for Ellaria this week). That Myrcella would die (even though she's still alive in the books) isn't exactly a shocker -- Cersei's prophecy tells us she's fated to outlive her children. But what repercussions fly back in Dorne's direction feel much less predictable.

Across the Narrow Sea in Meereen, Tyrion secretly assumes power behind Grey Worm and Missandei. The surprise here was the return of Varys, but it was a welcome one, giving us a great little verbal sparring match between him and Tyrion. The two made quite a pair before Jorah rudely tore them apart, so the promise of seeing more of them next season is something to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Jorah and Darrio teamed up for a road trip to find Daenerys. And it seems she'll need the rescue, because -- just as in the book -- she's forced to leave Drogon and set out on her own, only to be found by a group of Dothraki. We can only speculate as to what the Dothraki will think about finding her, but given the way Dany quickly removed and dropped that ring (a gift from Khal Drogo, if I recall), she doesn't seem to think they'll be happy to see her.

Cersei's walk of atonement ("Shame!") was as much a swirl of conflicting emotion as it was in the book: a thrill to see her brought low, a horror at how dehumanizing it was, and a realization that the punishment probably wasn't out of line with the crime (given what she's truly guilty of). The show offered us nothing about the status of Maergery or Lorys (or the barb-tongued Olenna), but it was far more direct about the identity of Cersei's new protector, the zombified Gregor Clegane.

And speaking of zombies, it's north to the Wall for the finale. Early in the episode, Jon sent Sam away to train at Oldtown as a maester. (Which here in the show was Sam's idea, not Jon's -- a nice moment of agency for the character.) That set the stage for the brutal finale, where a band of Night's Watch men executed Jon as a traitor. ("Et tu, Ollie?") This is exactly where A Dance With Dragons ends when it comes to the story up north, so I think I'm not spoiling anything when I say that many book readers are convinced that this is one death in this story that isn't going to stick. And one of the theories about how that might come to pass is intact, given the way things were set up in the final minutes of the episode.

It will be a long year before we get more Game of Thrones, though it will be comforting to know we have only a year before the story is continued, as opposed to the four-years-and-counting since George R.R. Martin last published a book. He has reportedly dropped everything else to redouble his writing efforts on book six, but one way or another, we get more story in a year. And this episode -- a tantalizing grade A, certainly made me hungry for that.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sketchy Free-for-All

Board game designer Vlaada Chvátil is mainly known for games as goofy as they are elaborate -- Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and Dungeon Lords all strike a light-hearted tone, perhaps at odds with the rather substantial rules you have to understand to play them. But he has on occasion gone in a simpler direction, such as with Sneaks and Snitches. He tried another different direction -- into party game territory -- with 2011's Pictomania.

At its core, Pictomania is a drawing-guessing game, in the family of Pictionary, Telestrations, and others. But the tweaks to the formula make Pictomania a dramatically different experience. Each round begins by placing six different clue cards in racks that all the players can see. Each card has 7 different things to draw on it. Players draw from separate decks, secretly and at random, to determine which clue on which card will be drawn. Then each of the players draws his own clue, simultaneously. And each player, using a personal hand of cards numbered 1 through 7, makes guesses as to what his opponents are drawing -- simultaneously with his own efforts to draw.

If you're thinking this sounds chaotic, you won't be surprised to hear the scoring can be equally so. Each player has chits in his color, worth decreasing numbers of points. The first opponent to guess your drawing gets your highest valued chit to add to his score. Later correct guesses are worth progressively fewer points. But you want to be sure to draw your own clue as best you can, as you'll lose points for every incorrect or missing guess on your own drawing.

But wait, there's still one more wrinkle. Each of the 7 things on any given clue card will be related somehow -- for example, all parts of the body, or all basic tools. This helps you make your guesses, but it can also be tricky for differentiating your own drawings when dealing with similar things.

There's a certain amount of cleverness and fun in this whole construct. But there also seems to be one key weakness. Strategy and time management are critical to doing well in the game -- you don't want to have your nose buried in your own drawing as opponents are already making guesses on each others' developing sketches. But put simply, "strategy" is a rather foreign concept for a drawing game. It's alien for most party games as well. And frankly, it's not an especially welcome addition. What happens when the so-called drawing game devolves into a game of chicken where no one wants to be the first to start, you know, drawing?

Worse, at the same time as this game is aspiring to loftier goals, it seems even more dependent on luck than the average party game. If one player gets to draw "needle" while his opponent is stuck with "conference table," who do you think is going to have more time to scrutinize the other players' drawings? And because this can happen, are you supposed to wait a second or two, to see if anybody is drawing something simple? What if everyone does that? We're back to an awkward state where no one wants to draw in the drawing game.

I'm hard-pressed to identify the target audience for the game. It seems too convoluted for party game fare, and too chaotic and fickle for something you're supposed to strategize about. It wasn't terrible, but at the same time, not everyone in my group actually had fun playing it. So all told, I'll have to give the game a middling C+.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Elfman Snippets

A while ago, I wrote about Danny Elfman's score to the film Sleepy Hollow, music I'd (re)discovered after attending a concert of Elfman's music from over a dozen Tim Burton films. Sleepy Hollow was just one of the soundtracks I felt compelled to hunt down after the concert; another was Edward Scissorhands.

I absolutely loved the movie when I finally saw it for the first time a few years ago, and it's apparently a favorite of both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman as well. Elfman has said it boasts one of his most personal scores. It was the grand finale of the entire concert. For that performance, Elfman actually revisited the music -- nearly 25 years later -- and wrote additional material exclusively for the live show. (It was a spirited fiddle solo played by a young female who skipped around the stage like a sprite, dressed in "Edward couture.")

Listening to the soundtrack album, it's easy to understand Elfman's attachment. It may not be the most innovative of his scores -- indeed, the wasn't until the late 1990s that he seriously began to explore beyond his signature sound. But even if Edward Scissorhands sounds in places like other Danny Elfman music, the one thing it does better than those other scores is actually tell the story of the movie.

On films like Beetlejuice and Batman, Danny Elfman's music is simultaneously dark and fun, like the music for a wild and demented carnival. The same sensibilities exist in his Edward Scissorhands music, but almost completely separated from each other like oil and water. The opening three tracks of the album (and film) set up the character of Edward and the world he comes from. It's all written in 3/4 time, airy and filled with fantasy. It's earnest, and above all, pure. This is the sound of naive, unspoiled Edward before he encounters the world outside. The land of surburbia, in sharp contrast, gets a manic theme quite reminiscent of Elfman's title for The Simpsons, using similar instruments and rhythms.

As Edward's relationship with Kim (Winona Ryder's character) develops, the waltz time of Edward's music falls away and a new melody develops... yet still the music retains the light sonic palette of Edward's world. It reaches a pinnacle in "Ice Dance," a marvelous track where the choir soars through a delicate and sentimental melody.

Then things start to sour. "Death!" is a cue that seems at first to belie its serious name, starting in Edward's soft soundscape. But it turns dark in its final minute, demonstrating how he's unprepared to grapple with the harsh realities of the world. And from there, the soundtrack embraces Danny Elfman's more expected approach. Throughout "The Tide Turns" and "The Final Confrontation," a sinister undercurrent infects the music. Much of it is still in 3/4 time, but there's little or no trace of Edward's traditional melody. He can't change the world; the world is changing him.

Things resolve in the perfectly bittersweet "Farewell....", before the unspoiled Kim/Edward melody returns for "The Grand Finale." The story has come to an end, and the music has echoed its emotional arc at every step of the way.

While on the journey, the listener gets a few fun treats as well. "The Cookie Factory" is a track that underscores a Rube Goldberg-like contraption in the film. This wasn't the first (or last) time Tim Burton put such a machine in one of his movies, but Elfman's music here is still distinct and quite different from, for example, his music from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Then there's "Edwardo the Barber," my favorite track on the album. It opens with the Simpsons-esque surburbia theme, but quickly cuts loose with a flamenco-tinged movement in tango rhythm. Then even that is supplanted by one minute of furious fiddling (the basis of the expanded live music I mentioned earlier). It's the most carefree and experimental piece on the album, and I really can't get enough of it.

Really, I have just two complaints about the soundtrack album. First, it's not the complete score. To my knowledge, no soundtrack-specializing company has released one. And the album seems to rub this in your face by including the cue "Esmeralda," which is less than 30 seconds long. Why bother including that fragment of music if you're not including everything? And then there's the inclusion of a Tom Jones song at the end of the album, "With These Hands." I've got nothing against Tom Jones in general, but divorced from the film's context, this song comes off far less genuine than Elfman's score. It's more schmaltzy than catchy, and definitely to be skipped.

Still, the Edward Scissorhands soundtrack has become a new favorite in my collection. I give it an A-, and I'll certainly pick up an expanded edition, should one turn up.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Stain in the Holmes Canon

In "The Adventure of the Second Stain," Sherlock Holmes is approached by no less than the Prime Minister of England and the Secretary of State, to assist in a most sensitive investigation. A letter from a foreign leader has been stolen, containing such indecorous language as to bring about certain war, were its contents to be widely circulated. Holmes must track and retrieve the letter before it is given or sold to a party hoping for just such a European conflict.

This story is a curiosity among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes adventures, for at least two reasons. For one, this was seemingly the second time Doyle chose to retire the character of Sherlock Holmes. The last time, he'd famously killed off the character in "The Final Problem," in a struggle with Professor Moriarty. Presumably not wanting to use the same trick twice, Doyle this time offers a much less dramatic reason for Watson to stop sharing these adventurers: Holmes has retired from detective work, and has specifically asked Watson to stop sharing such sensational nonsense. It's an explanation that seems fitting enough for the character, even if it would hardly have satisfied a rabid fan of the day.

But Watson has secured Holmes' permission for one last tale. And therein is another curiosity about this adventure: it was actually teased 11 years earlier when Doyle published "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty." In that story, during Watson's characteristic preamble to each adventure, he mentions this "Second Stain" case, too sensitive to be chronicled at the time. So it's only natural that Doyle would decide that in "permanently" ending Holmes' stories this time, he could go out by presenting a "lost adventure." Yet that old mention of the case was surely just a fun bit of flavor Doyle offhandedly tossed in at the time; it's unthinkable he actually had a plot in mind, or he would surely have written it before what he thought would be Holmes' last adventure (his death). To tell the story now, Doyle would have to craft it to fit the few details Watson had already mentioned: it had to involve a "second stain" (and, presumably, a first), and a matter of sensitivity that implicated major political figures in England.

The actual story does at least check those boxes. But otherwise, it's not exactly the most satisfying tale. The guilty party is rather obvious early on, for lack of any real suspects. The Macguffin of the stolen letter, absent a better working knowledge of British politics in the 1880s, feels contrived. And the resolution is patently absurd. In order to preserve the reputation of the Secretary of State's wife, Holmes returns the letter to the very place from which it was first stolen, then carries out a wholly unconvincing ruse suggesting that it must never have been stolen in the first place. As incompetent as the official's original loss of the letter may have been, doesn't it make him look even worse for being mistaken about the theft?

In all, I find it a rather disappointing finale for Sherlock Holmes, an average grade C. Thankfully, though, Doyle would take up writing his adventures for a third time, a few years later.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Have a Ball!

Tonight, I'm heading to Red Rocks to see Barenaked Ladies in concert. They're touring in support of their newest album, released only last week: Silverball.

As with their previous release, Grinning Streak, the band continues a steady drift toward a more pop-oriented sound. Percussion is stripped down throughout, crafted to be something simple you might dance to. There's occasional experimentation with echo, reverb, and other vocal effects. The guitar is often loaded up with distortion and crunch.

There's a bit of a retreat from the rapid-fire lyrics that characterized some of their greatest hits. There are still some dense songs, but delivered at a noticeably slower tempo (such as "Globetrot"). There is a bit of expected Ed Robertson patter in "Matter of Time," the most classically Barenaked Ladies song on the album. And clever wordplay is featured throughout, perhaps most noticeably on "Piece of Cake."

They've put most of the best material right up front on this album. It opens with the celebratory "Get Back Up," a straight-to-the-point but uplifting tune about resilience. "Here Before" showcases Kevin Hearn's piano skills in a great way, as he plays around in the space between the rock anthem beat. (Then there's the aforementioned "Matter of Time," with its dark lyrics camouflaged by a bouncy and playful melody.)

Among the less characteristic songs on the album is "Duck Tape Heart," a fun but strange song that sounds vaguely like a Taylor Swift song and vaguely like a Weezer song. (And it has a catchy crowd vocal hook in the bridge.) "Hold My Hand" plays with stereo panning, putting one guitar in each speaker. Bassist Jim Creegan's contribution to the album, "Narrow Streets," is also a bit off the norm.

It may be that the band's favorite songs in this batch are some of the weaker ones. The title track, "Silverball," is almost at the end of the album, and is oddly low energy to provide the name for the entire collection. The album's lead single, "Say What You Want," is also quite low key -- though it at least showcases the multi-part harmonies the band does so well.

But the truly lowest points are, yet again, the Kevin Hearn songs. He's a fantastic musician (great on the piano, and skilled on several other instruments), but his voice and his songwriting always grate on me. "Passcode" isn't too bad (though it sounds rather like a theme from a 1980s sitcom), but "Tired of Fighting with You" is a terrible capper to the album, a trite and dull tune with a childish rhyme scheme.

Overall, I'd say the album is touch more consistent than Grinning Streak. And I appreciate the attempts at trying some different things without straying too far from the sound their fans love. I give Silverball a B, and I'm looking forward to the show tonight.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Creepy Crawler

This past year's race for the Academy Award for Best Actor was always said to be a two-horse race between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton. But it was also said to be the major category with the most credible competition, boasting three other worthy nominees who could have easily won in a less competitive year. There were also a number of other performances that didn't even get nominated in a year of such excellence.

One of those performances was given by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. In it, Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a young man who whizzes around Los Angeles every night, hoping to film horrible crimes, accidents, and tragedies. Choice gruesome footage can be sold to the local news for a morally alarming price, and Louis finds the right buyer in a callous news producer looking to juice her broadcast's ratings. It's a dark, bleak film -- both in look and content.

Gyllenhaal's performance is certainly award worthy. His character is a sociopath that stands out even among fictional sociopaths, less charming and "functional" than most. Yes, Louis is another character who comes across like a robot incapable of truly understanding or feeling human emotion. He's also a character who has read and studied enough to pick up catch phrases, buzzwords, and other jargon. But Louis isn't good at parroting this material in a natural way. And he doesn't really want to "pass" in society anyway; he just wants other people to do his bidding. Gyllenhaal's performance thus lacks the polish of, say, a Dexter Morgan -- and very intentionally so. He creeps you out, on a deep animal level, in every single scene of the film.

Rene Russo is also good, as news producer Nina Romina. Her success is linked to Louis', but her personal level of control runs absolutely opposite to his; as such, Russo gets to play a fun range of scenes. Riz Ahmed does well as Louis' out-of-his-depth assistant, while Bill Paxton is all oily fun as a rival "nightcrawler" who first sets Louis on this grisly line of work.

But the performances -- Gyllenhaal's in particular -- are individually better than the movie is as a whole. The plot doesn't really resolve, ending in a minor narrative cliffhanger and a handful of emotional ones. I suppose it's all in keeping with the unsettled feeling the movie is meant to invoke, but it does leave you wondering why the story stops being told at this particular moment. (It can't be for some vague plan of a Nightcrawler 2.)

Still, this movie comes in the proud Taxi Driver tradition of presenting a disturbed protagonist, and does a credible job of that. I give it a B+.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Dance of Dragons

Last week's Game of Thrones ended impressively with 15 solid minutes of action that you'd expect to have blown the budget for the season. And yet they did it again this week! But we'll get to that.

Though Ramsay Bolton wasn't seen this episode, he made good on his vow to end the threat of Stannis with just 20 soldiers. That left Stannis in a rough place No one has ever really wanted to see him come out on top here. And he's never been a particularly nice guy; he was largely responsible for the death of his own brother Renly. Nevertheless, he went several shades darker this episode, serving up his own daughter in a horrific, religious sacrifice. (And despite not showing it, the show made the moment more than effectively terrible.)

It's possible that the show has now spoiled the books in at least two ways. Shireen is not traveling with Stannis in the books, so it seems unlikely that this fate awaits her there. But there is another character in Stannis' custody in the books, one with debatably royal blood. Could that character be in for a burning early in book six? And moreover, is the show presenting us a different characterization of Stannis, or saying that Book Stannis will soon come to believe his own hype? (In the books, it's his wife that's the true religious zealot, while Stannis himself seems to rather skeptically and cynically use other people's faith to get what he wants.)

To get to this point of no return, Stannis had to send away his voice of reason. Davos is also separated from his king in the books, though on a very different mission. I suspect we will see him arriving at the Wall in next week's finale. But if not, he ends the season on a strong scene, bidding an unknowingly permanent goodbye to Shireen.

Speaking of the Wall, Jon arrived there near the top of the episode, with Wildling refugees in tow. He was allowed back into Castle Black, but endured many harsh sideways glances once there. He certainly can't feel he made the wrong decision after what he faced last week; the question still remains whether anyone else will agree.

Dorne got the most screen time of any episode this season. And it's simply gorgeous. The lavish sets, ornate props, detailed costumes... what a feast for the eyes. Plus, story-wise, we finally got some scenes that would have been better far earlier in the season. The Sand Snakes taunting one another in prison certainly fleshed out those characters more than they have been so far. And Doran was looking tougher (despite rolling over for Jamie) in his stern threat to Ellaria Sand. Of course, Ellaria didn't seem entirely cowed, and went on to have a very meaningful conversation with Jamie. At least, it certainly seemed meaningful. We're far off book here, and I'm honestly not sure what it means.

Over in Braavos, Arya has become distracted in her assassination mission by sighting Ser Meryn, a name on her kill list. In case viewers have forgotten why he is to be hated (he killed Arya's "dancing instructor," Syrio Forel... though theorists note we never saw the body), the writers made Meryn despicable all over again with his behavior in this episode. To me, the most interesting moment in this storyline was when Arya lies to Jaqen H'ghar and isn't swiftly slapped for it. Has Arya truly become good enough at lying to deceive him, or is Jaqen simply standing by his claim that death is all the same to the Many-Faced God? I have my own (book informed) theories on where this is going, but we should find out soon enough in next week's finale.

That just leaves Meereen, setting of this episode's epic arena finale. Though there was a lot of amazing action, there were plenty of great character moments too. I loved Daario and Tyrion attempting to verbally spar with Hizdahr over the merits of smaller people. It was also great to see Dany's temper flare at the sight of Jorah, bringing with it a momentary bloodlust for the fighting she'd found reprehensible just moments earlier.

But the real battle was not among the gladiators, but against the Sons of the Harpy. Their move here was much more overt and alarming than the corresponding sequence from the books. Where A Dance With Dragons really tried to advance the suspicion that Hizdahr is in fact the leader of the Harpies, the show has either gone in a different direction or explicitly disproved that theory by having them kill him. Indeed, this suggests that an assassination attempt in the books (not depicted on the show) that was apparently aimed at Daenerys might in fact have been aimed at Hizdahr. But as intriguing as this revelation might be, the greater thrill was in seeing Hizdahr, a frustrating character and side plot, killed off on screen.

Of course the biggest thrill of all was Drogon swooping in to save Dany and carry her away. Readers may have known that was coming, but that hardly lessened the rush of seeing the dragon burn and rip apart dozens of attackers. How those Dany left behind will fare, though, is a much more fraught question. The peril of the other characters is considerably more intense on the show than it was when Daenerys flew away in the books.

Teeing things up for a jam-packed finale, this episode gets an A-in my book.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

OK Ghosts

OK Go, the alt-rock band best known for their viral music videos, released their fourth album late last year, Hungry Ghosts. And while it's possible that none of their albums is as clever as their videos, I've still been mostly entertained by this one.

With Hungry Ghosts, the band is definitely pushing for a more polished electronic sound than the sort of "garage band" vibe that defined their first big hit, "Here It Goes Again." Various tracks on the new album use 80s video game samples, manipulated vocals, and loud synth leads. Actual bass guitar is nowhere to be heard on many of the tracks; presumably, the band's bass player is switching to keyboards for much of this album. Sound layering is also a common technique, with many of the tracks building up one brick at time from simple vocals and a single instrument into a heavy sonic wall.

Still, the songs don't all embrace a single style as such. Indeed, many songs seem inspired by perhaps one artist in particular, as filtered through OK Go's sensibilities. There's "The Writing's on the Wall," with a hook many have compared to The Cure. There's a hint of a more pop-like version of Nine Inch Nails in "Obsession." There's a disco vibe in "I Won't Let You Down." And things go a bit Prince on "Another Set of Issues," thanks to lead singer Damian Kulash's airy falsetto.

The album is pretty solid until its last quarter. The final three tracks "take it down a notch" -- or, rather, several notches. The songs lose more and more energy and spirit, until culminating in an actual "Lullaby" that truly could put you to sleep. Still, the nine preceding tracks, all "good" or better, many bouncy and catchy, make for an album that's pretty solid overall.

Though chances are you've seen the videos for "The Writing's on the Wall" and "I Won't Let You Down," you might think about picking up the music too. I give Hungry Ghosts a B+.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Sleuthing Grange

"The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" sees Sherlock Holmes summoned to the country to investigate a murder. The victim, one Sir Eustace Brackenstall, was by all accounts a thoroughly loathsome individual. The murder seems to have been carried out by a trio of burglars already known to be working in the area. The case seems open-and-shut. But when Holmes' initial disinterest subsides and he begins to look beyond the banality of the crime, he begins to suspect another explanation of events.

If my memory recalls, this is not the first Sherlock Holmes short story in which Holmes decides not to press for justice against the culprit he ultimately identifies. But it stands out far more on this occasion for the nature of the crime. Brackenstall was indeed murdered. Holmes does indeed find the culprit. Yet because Brackenstall was a drunkard who routinely beat his wife, Holmes and Watson decide to let the murderer get away with it -- even explicitly appointing themselves judge and jury in the text.

This is the fuel for an interesting debate in the mind of the reader. Does Sherlock Holmes' sterling reputation fall for letting a murderer get away? Or does he become more human for allowing mitigating circumstances to influence his otherwise dogged pursuit of justice? There's no clear answer here, which makes this rather unique within Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's canon.

One other bit of trivia surrounding this story: it's the one and only time where Holmes actually speaks the words with which he is so often credited: "the game is afoot." It comes right at the opening of the tale, in what feels like such a quintessential moment for the sleuth that it makes what follows even more impactful: his decision to behave quite out of character.

Speaking of out of character, there is one sour note near the opening of this story. On the train ride to the country, Holmes takes the opportunity to berate Watson for his accounts of their cases together,  dismissing them as frivolous, even loathsome. Certainly, Holmes is a dour individual at times, but I feel like this comes well past the point where he treats Watson in such a manner. It's a sudden regression in their relationship, and an oddly discordant note. (It comes, I presume, because Doyle was laying track to retire the character for a second time.)

Despite the slightly sour note early on, there's plenty here to like. I give this adventure a B+. It feels like one of the more essential of Holmes' tales.