Friday, December 30, 2016

Dory Telling

I dragged my feet a bit on seeing Finding Dory. Even though Toy Story 2 and 3 turned out great, I was still skeptical of a seemingly unnecessary sequel to a fantastic Pixar film. And the comments I'd heard from people who had seen it suggested it was fine, but not exceptional. Together, it all played into some lowered expectations, which the movie was then able to exceed a bit.

Picking up one year after the events of Finding Nemo, this sequel centers on the forgetful Dory and her quest to find her parents. When she learns that she was raised in a California marine institute, Dory (with Marlin and Nemo in tow) set out on a new adventure.

It's a bit easier to talk first about what isn't so great about Finding Dory: the overall plot. The script feels a bit piecemeal, designed from the outside in. It's as though a list was made of situations not covered in the original film, and then this movie was crafted to systematically tick them off -- hence the marine institute setting, and the ideas that follow. On the one hand, it's refreshing for the movie not to completely retread the ground of the original; on the other hand, it sometimes feels quite workmanlike the way scenes attach to each other.

Also making the whole thing feel manufactured is that the entire story turns on Dory's highly selective short term memory. Every time the plot needs to advance, Dory suddenly remembers something new. Though this is always excused by some trigger words some character says, excusing is not earning. It's a very convenient device for the writers for moving things along, and Dory goes back to being her daffy self when plot momentum isn't necessary.

But while the skeleton of the film is flawed in these ways, the muscle built upon it is actually pretty strong. It's hard not to get swept up at least a little in the sentiment of searching for long lost parents, and the movie does manage to make you genuinely feel for Dory -- thanks in no small part to the sympathetic performance of Ellen DeGeneres. Also anchoring this serious side of the film are Albert Brooks (returning as Marlin) and Hayden Rolence (taking over for Nemo), plus new additions Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory's parents.

The humor really works in the movie as well, with a series of clever premises and jokes supported by still more solid casting. Idris Elba and Dominic West play a pair of territorial sea lions (echoing the seagull joke of the original). Kaitlin Olson (as whale shark Destiny) and Ty Burrell (as beluga whale Bailey) are key to many of the more kid-oriented jokes of the film. And hilarious mileage is had out of Sigourney Weaver playing herself and not being intrinsically funny. (For details, you'll have to watch it yourself.)

Stealing the show as the breakout of the film is Ed O'Neill as octopus Hank. O'Neill isn't digging deep to voice the cantankerous character, but he's perfectly cast all the same. And the animators have a Genie-from-Aladdin-like field day with the visuals, using the octopus' camouflage for joke after joke.

For me, what's difficult about rating and ranking this film is comparing it to Moana. Each felt strong to me in ways the other was weaker. Moana had a more carefully crafted story, amazing visuals, and felt like there was a message underpinning it. Finding Dory feels more slapped together in places, but was nevertheless the movie that actually pulled on my heartstrings more effectively. Today, I'd give the slight edge to Finding Dory -- but I feel like I could change my mind down the road, and I certainly wouldn't seek to change the mind of someone who felt the opposite.

Either way, I'd rate Finding Dory a B+. If you're looking for something to rise to the heights of Finding Nemo, it predictably falls short. But it's still a respectable effort from Pixar.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Band Aid

Looking back in my blog archives, I see that I never wrote anything about the release of Rock Band 4. Harmonix's hit franchise had been hibernating for a few years, but in the fourth quarter of 2015, they updated it for the new generation of consoles.

I suspect that a big reason I never wrote about Rock Band 4 was that it turned out to be something of a disappointment. Music games were no longer a license to print money. Gone were the media conglomerate partnerships. And because of this, a franchise that was once being worked on by a massive team was now being labored on by a comparatively tiny group -- a group that had to prioritize its efforts and cut features to release in time for the holidays.

I understand the realities at play here. The fact remains that Rock Band 4 felt like an underwhelming and compromised effort, and was a game I played far less than any previous entry in the franchise. The keyboard and Pro Guitar instruments had been removed. The character customization options were significantly narrowed. The song list was shorter, and the weekly DLC more limited. There was no online play of any kind.

Now, a year later, an expansion has arrived to further flesh out the game: Rock Band Rivals. It includes a number of minor (but good) improvements like better filtering for your song library and new clothing options. But mostly, the expansion is about two added play modes: Rockumentary and Rivals.

Rockumentary shores up the core game's anemic story mode with a whole new system larger than anything previously seen in Rock Band. Your band becomes the subject of a "Behind the Music" style documentary that chronicles its rise from obscurity. In between songs, live footage of interviews with musicians, fans, high school teachers, and more talk about "you" back in the day. All the while, a quippy narrator praises your successes, chides your failures, and completes the faux documentary feel.

I have mixed feelings about Rockumentary as a mode. It's definitely funny, and there seem to be enough variations within it to allow multiple replays. On the other hand, to actually experience any of that, you have to spend a lot of time watching movies and not actually playing Rock Band. Because of that, I can't imagine ever playing this mode on a Rock Band night with friends. It seems like a single-player experience, and one that probably isn't as rewarding as the amount of effort Harmonix clearly put into it.

Rivals Mode is for the hardcore players, and aside from the existence of leaderboards, is the first thing approximating an online multiplayer experience. You join a "Crew" of up to 10 players. Every week, a new themed challenge invites you to play songs from your collection -- songs with female vocalists, songs with titles (or band names) containing a color, and so forth. Every song you play that fits the theme earns experience for your Crew, which is jockeying for position against every other Crew to be promoted in rank at the end of the challenge.

Any player, playing on any difficulty, can earn XP and help contribute. But XP is only half your Crew score in a challenge. The other half comes from three specially selected "Spotlight Songs" (also fitting the weekly theme, and usually found on the Rock Band 4 disc itself). Within each Crew, the single best score on each instrument counts toward a total that is also ranked against all other Crews. Here's where the Experts need to be doing their Gold Star, Full Combo best to keep your Crew in the hunt for promotion.

To be clear, none of this is actual online play. It's really just a system to get you loosely cooperating with 9 other players out there in the world somewhere, working against everyone else. You don't even actually talk to any of these people, unless you avail yourself of your console's chat features.

There is a "be the best of the best" appeal to all this, if you're the competitive type. It does encourage you to play perhaps-lesser-played songs from your library, as the challenge themes change from week to week. And I will admit, it has me playing Rock Band 4 more over the last month than I did in the entire year prior.

Still, it's not what I was really looking for. When Rock Band really had its claws in me back in the day, I had a whole Playstation Friends List full of fellow players. True online multiplayer let me join in with all-expert bands -- not fun in the same way that having close friends there in the room can be, but a different kind of fun that had me logging on almost every night for a song or two. That mode is planned for a Rock Band Rivals patch (at no charge) in January, and we'll see if it brings back the "glory days."

For now? Rock Band Rivals is something of a mixed bag. Props to Harmonix for trying something different. And for actually getting me to play more regularly again... for now, at least. But even this expansion still leaves Rock Band 4 feeling like it lacks a lot of what the franchise used to have going for it. I'd grade the expansion about a B- (to the unaltered game's C). If you have Rock Band 4 already, Rivals might be worth picking up to rekindle your interest. (It is priced less than a complete new game.) But if you left Rock Band behind on the last generation of game consoles, this probably isn't the thing to convince you to upgrade.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La B (Plus)

I was eager to see the movie La La Land for a variety of reasons. It's the newest film from Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of my favorite movie of the last several years, Whiplash. It's considered by many to be the front runner for this year's Best Picture Oscar. And it's an actual, original, non-animated, musical.

Though I did enjoy the movie, I almost certainly let my expectations build too high.

La La Land follows two people struggling to fulfill their dreams in Los Angeles: an actress trying to land a good part, and a jazz musician who wants to open his own club. Chance encounters push the two together into a couple, each trying to encourage the other.

The movie is at its strongest in the musical moments. The visuals are so beautiful, so carefully considered, that it's like watching a moving painting. Vivid colors abound as one striking image after another is presented. Long single takes are used throughout to accentuate emotion, evoke the feeling of a stage play, and recall the days of classic Hollywood musicals. Words seem short to convey how stunning it looks.

In large part, that's due to how ambitious it all is. These are not minor musical numbers. There's an opening set in a traffic jam, a tap routine on a mountain side at the "magic hour" of sunset, and more than one elaborate dream sequence. Most movies would be remembered for any one of these sequences; La La Land has them all.

And yet, contradictory as it may seem to say this, it doesn't have enough of these moments. Not the moments to dazzle and amaze, necessarily, but simply the musical numbers themselves. The movie is never as good as when it bursts out into song and dance, and the stretches between become awkwardly noticeable, particularly throughout the middle act.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are paired as the couple of the story. Though they are very likeable together, one definitely outshines the other in this movie. Emma Stone is given all the film's more demanding acting moments. Many critics have talked about "the audition scene," and for good reason. In the movie's longest single take, and she puts everything into taking you on a powerful, emotional journey. What's more, it's only one of several scenes in which Stone gives a transcendent performance. Ryan Gosling certainly trained on piano and can dance, but his singing doesn't stand up to Stone's, and his low-key performance, though authentic, sometimes feels too muted for a movie that calls for a more heightened mode.

La La Land has any number of scenes I'd hold up for best of the year. But as a whole, it's not as great as I was hoping for. Good still, for sure -- a B+. But the way my own best of the year list is shaping up, it's not looking like enough to crack the top 10.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Moonlight Stroll

As film critics release their "best of 2016" lists, a handful of movies are showing up over and over again -- a likely precursor to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. One of the films appearing a bunch is Moonlight, and I recently watched it to see if it would make my list.

Moonlight is a film in three parts, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." Each section looks at a character named Chiron at a different age -- first as a child, then a teen, and finally a young adult. It looks at how, as part of growing up, he learns to cope with an absent father, a drug-addicted mother, being bullied at school... and being a closeted gay man.

Though there are a fair number of "coming out" films around, most are pretty lightweight in tone (and often, even more lightweight in quality). Moonlight stands out from the pack right away with its more serious approach (and with the caliber of its acting). But above and beyond this is a strong cultural element. Moonlight isn't simply about what it's like to accept being gay; it's specifically about what it's like to be gay in one particular slice of hyper-masculine black culture. There's a quality to the writing that feels personal and authentic.

Each of the three actors cast to play Chiron in the movie's three different time periods -- Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes -- does at great job of making you sympathize with the character. It's not an easy thing, as the character is (understandably) quite closed off, saying little and showing emotion even less. (After Manchester by the Sea, it seems this is the year for closed off characters in Oscar movies.)

But I did feel a number of distractions getting in the way of the movie for me. First, director Barry Jenkins employs a lot of conspicuous camera movement. In multiple scenes, the camera is moving so fast and/or so unsteadily that it not only calls attention to the camera, but to the idea that there's an operator holding it. It really pulled me out of what should have been private moments between two characters.

And while the story is primarily about Chiron, it does include a few other characters so vividly drawn that it's awkward when the movie doesn't pursue their stories. Most notably, actor Mahershala Ali is being talked about as a possible Best Supporting Actor nominee for this movie, and indeed is compelling as a drug-dealer-with-a-conscience that befriends the young Chiron. But he completely vanishes after the first act, leaving a hole in the story I don't think the audience was meant to care about so strongly.

Another aspect I'm not certain was intended is an odd tension in the final act. Hopefully without saying too much, it feels like there's a clear fork in the road of the story -- two paths it could go down to reach a conclusion. One of those options would have resulted in a very different movie, and I'm not sure the movie meant to suggest that as a possibility as strongly as it does.

While there's some good acting to commend in Moonlight, I feel it also has nearly as many elements working against it, resulting in a mixed experience. I'd give it a B-. If you're looking to view some of the movies likely to be in the conversation for this year's Oscars, Moonlight is good enough to be worth checking out. But if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it's not exceptional enough for me to want to change your mind.

Friday, December 23, 2016

An Empire, Built in Considerably Less Than a Day

It's a rare board game that can be both short and strategically satisfying. But one game that makes a reasonable play at it is Eight-Minute Empire, by Ryan Laukat.

Eight-Minute Empire is a territory control game played over eight rounds. You're given a fixed amount of money to use for the entire game. Each turn, you take one of six cards from a face-up row of choices; the leftmost card is free, while other cards require you to spend increasingly more of your funds. Each card represents both an action you take immediately on the board (usually to place or move your forces), and an item used in set collection for endgame scoring. And that's basically it.

There are tons of territory control games out there, with different mechanics and of varying qualities. If you're looking for something revolutionary, a system you've never seen before, Eight-Minute Empire isn't it. But I did find it surprising just how much of the flavor of those games was successfully captured in a far simpler system. You still have to make many familiar decisions. Spend big now, or hold back in anticipation of something better on a later turn? When is it time to spread out, and when is it time to consolidate? Should you be favoring points on the board, or points from collecting sets of cards? Who do you think is ahead, and how much of your efforts should be directed at stopping them?

But the game's title speaks to the core appeal here. Now the truth is, to really play this in just eight minutes, you'd need some swift thinking players (or just two of them; the game can take 2 to 5). But it IS fast. Learning, setup, and playthrough for four players took less than 20 minutes the first time I played it. And while the game might not scratch my itch for somewhat similarly themed games like Concordia, Attila, or others, this takes a fraction of the time. It's maybe 15-25% of the time investment, but I felt it offered considerably more than 15-25% of the fun.

So consider this not in competition with meatier territory control games, but in competition with 15-minute lightweight games -- the sorts of games that often begin or end a gaming night. On those terms, Eight-Minute Empire made a pretty good first impression on me. I'd grade it a B+, and I look forward to trying it again.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Breathe Analyzer

Horror/thriller movies often have short runs in the movie theater, winding up on video a short while later. That's how, even though it premiered less than four months ago, I was recently able to catch up on Don't Breathe at home.

Don't Breathe has a gimmicky premise. Three teens, on a series of burglaries, target a man they believe is keeping a large amount of cash in his home. He seems like an easy mark, too: he's a blind man living in the only occupied house on a rundown street. But when the teens break into his home, they're quickly in far deeper than they expected. Their "victim" is also a trained soldier harboring a dark secret. He locks the teens inside his house, and the would-be predators quickly become the prey.

The setup of this film is pretty fun, and is almost Hitchcockian. Not that I'm out to overpraise this movie too much, but Hitchcock's main characters were often of grey morality, and his plots unfolded as a consequence of one ignoble decision. Don't Breathe pits home-invading robbers against a psychopath. No one's a hero to be truly rooted for here, and The Blind Man (that's literally how the movie credits him) is made increasingly despicable as part of making you forgive the teens.

There's a pretty good amount of suspense in the first half of the film. You get a lot of clever setups from the "he can't see them" premise, and plausible counterplay that makes The Blind Man dangerous all the same. But the longer the movie goes (and at just 88 minutes, it's not like it's very long), the crazier measures it has to go to to keep the story going. When The Blind Man's big secret is revealed, it seems a bit silly (and certainly lacking the methodical thinking he's demonstrated to that point). Things generally start to slide downhill from there.

Part of the problem is that the movie gives away the ending it's building to. The opening scene is an eye-popping exterior shot that gradually zooms in to reveal a grisly visual. We then jump back to follow the story that leads to that moment. And while technically there is 5 or 10 minutes of movie left beyond this previewed moment, the opening shows enough that you can make big assumptions about the bulk of the story. I mean, it is a great opening shot, but it's ultimately so memorable that you never stop thinking about it as the movie unfolds. Ultimately, I think it does more harm than good.

The pros and cons here probably weigh out favorably, but only by a bit. I'd give Don't Breathe a B- overall. This is another one of those movies that's probably good to catch if you love the genre, but should definitely be skipped if horror is not your thing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Before the Arrival

A few weeks back, I blogged about the movie Arrival, a smart science fiction film that some critics are touting as an Oscar nominee. The film was based on a short story by Ted Chiang, and I found it compelling enough for me to seek out that original effort, titled Story of Your Life.

The core of the short story is the same: linguist Louise Banks is tapped to help communicate with aliens who have arrived at Earth. Intertwined with her experiences is a personal tale, the loss of her daughter to cancer.

When considering a film adapted from a novel, you often focus on what had to be cut from the novel to create a concise, two-hour film. An adaptation from a short story is quite different. The film could have conceivably been a transcription of the story, so the ways in which it differs are quite interesting.

Some of the differences aren't surprising, the removal of non-visual elements that wouldn't have played well on a movie screen. Chiang's original story puts more emphasis on the linguistics, and touches on other efforts to communicate with and learn from the aliens, particularly in the areas of mathematics and physics. It also touches a bit on other linguists who also learn the alien language as Louise does, and portrays the world view they share as a result.

The short story is arguably an even more personal journey than the film, and so does not concern itself with answering some larger questions the film chose to address. The motives of the aliens remain a complete mystery in the original story. The reactions of different countries and governments around the world is also largely ignored in Chiang's original work. The film wisely chooses to flesh out both these aspects.

But the principle differences between the short story and the movie have to do with technique and message. And I can't address either issue while continuing to dance around SPOILERS. So if you have not yet read the story or seen the movie, either bail out here or skip to the last paragraph.

In terms of technique, the movie is very much trying to pull off a "twist ending." And while it's impossible to know how I would have read the story if I hadn't seen the movie first, I feel confident saying that the story is far less cagey. Right out of the gate, Chiang plays with tenses in his writing. He sometimes uses the past tense, other times the present tense, and still others the future tense. On a few truly impactful occasions, he even weaves all three into a single sentence. (My pick for the most clever, polished line in the story: "I remember a conversation we'll have when you're in your junior year of high school.") Where the movie waits until the end to reveal that its main character's "flashbacks" are actually "flash-forwards," the short story gives this away much sooner (and must) due to its constant switching of tense.

In terms of message, I found the short story considerably more bleak than the movie. First, by adding a reason behind the aliens' behavior, the movie introduces a hopeful message about cooperation. The idea of "one message broken up in 12 parts" is also invented for the movie, and supports this dream of a world uniting after one extraordinary event. Second, the movie minimizes the question of free will when one knows the future. It implies that a person with future knowledge must decide whether or not to embrace that future, but doesn't explore this issue in much depth.

That's probably because the short story delves deeply into this issue, and comes to a very dark conclusion. You can have free will, or you can see the future. Not both. The short story concludes by explaining (in detail) that free will is as strange a concept to the aliens as future sight is to us. And anyone who truly internalizes the alien language as Louise does assumes a life of performance. Every moment of every day, every thought and every conversation, plays out exactly as she knows it must; there is no free will, only the "satisfaction" in fulfilling a preordained role.

It's great stuff for thought-provoking science fiction. It's also a major bummer. But just as Chiang suggests in his own story, there can be two equally valid ways of perceiving the universe. In this case, I feel like the short story and the film are two different but valid ways of telling the same story.

In my mind, I prefer the film adaptation. Nevertheless, praise goes to Ted Chiang for the fascinating idea he put down first in Story of Your Life. I give the short story a B+.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hellish Thoughts

If I had seen Hell or High Water during its theatrical run months ago, I'm not sure I would have thought as much of it. Having seen it more recently, I think I appreciate it more -- but not because of the bit of awards buzz it's been gathering.

Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers: Toby, a divorced father of two, and Tanner, an ex-con. Desperate for money to save their family farm, they embark on a series of bank robberies. Soon they're pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers, one on his last case before he retires and hands the reins over to the other.

So, not to go too far down a "think piece" kind of road here... but since the election of Donald Trump as president, a lot of pundits have embraced the narrative of the poor white voter: suffering just like impoverished people of color, but overlooked in the focus on minorities. Hell or High Water is in no way a politically charged film, and race is not its central issue. But it is all about what desperate acts people will turn to for lack of money, and I can't help but feel this movie plays differently now in that post-election narrative.

This theme of desperation plays out again and again in the movie, and not just with the two brothers who turn to robbing banks. Multiple one- or two-scene characters rail against how they too are kept down by the powers that be. The Texas Rangers never do anything questionable in their investigation, yet are largely made the heavies of the piece both by other characters and the script itself. The movie's original title, Comancheria, was a nod to a scene between Tanner and a man of Comanche descent -- an exchange I won't spoil, but which also reflects on the theme of systemic subjugation.

I think there's room for comparisons between this movie and No Country for Old Men. As that's an Oscar Best Picture winner (and a Coen Brothers movie to boot), I imagine most people will find this movie coming up short in such a comparison. For me, Hell or High Water is actually the better experience. Both films have two concurrent plots about the criminals and the lawman chasing them; this is the movie that I think integrates those two threads better. And in my mind, it's certainly the movie that has the more effective social commentary.

It might just have the better performances too. While it's true that nothing in Hell or High Water approaches the chilling specter of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, there is an across-the-board consistency here. Chris Pine plays Toby, and while the movie is absolutely trading on his charm and looks as a starting point for audience sympathy, his performance has plenty of depth on its own. Ben Foster is excellent as the screw-up brother, in turns noble and despicable. Jeff Bridges is perfect casting for the retiring Texas Ranger, and Gil Birmingham is great as the partner (outwardly) eager to be rid of him.

All that said, though a lot of this movie feels true, I also felt the hands of the writer and director deliberately manipulating the strings. The movie offers plenty to think about, but not many moments that made me feel much emotion. And its "stick it to man" ethos crumbles a bit in the face of the collateral damage that begins to mount up, damage that rises to a level higher than the moral ambiguity I think they were aiming for.

Good but not great, I'd give Hell or High Water a B.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Go West, Young Fan

I probably should have been blogging about HBO's Westworld as it ran over the past few months. I don't know that there was anything else on TV I was enjoying quite as much, and it offered plenty to dig into. Perhaps I'll take up writing about it whenever season 2 finally rolls around.

But one thing I don't have to wait on is the recent soundtrack release for season 1. Released just days after the season finale, this 34 track album presents both a healthy collection of composer Ramin Djawadi's original score and all the major pop hits he reorchestrated for different episodes.

It's this latter aspect that has probably driven this soundtrack to unusually high sales. There is a market, it seems, for player piano renditions of Soundgarden, Radiohead, The Cure, and Amy Winehouse. Glibness aside, I don't want to be too dismissive of the subtle creativity at work here. There's a variety of techniques used to give the music a mechanical feel, like wildly different "left hand" and "right hand" parts, and strangely rigid trills and slides. The songs are also played on different pianos for different emotional impact; some tracks use a sharp tack piano, others have a brash and echoing sustain, and others fall somewhere in between.

More interesting are the non-piano covers. Two songs are played by a string quartet: Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" and Nine Inch Nails' "Something I Can Never Have." The former has an unsettling squeezebox quality, while the latter feels like accompaniment for some strange ritual. Then there's the pivotal track from the series premiere, a full orchestral rendering of the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black." First unrecognizable as anything but meandering piano over ominous strings, we get a "showdown at high noon" statement of the melody on horns before the orchestra joins in to luxuriate in the music as the on-screen visuals luxuriated in violence.

But in my opinion, best of all on this album is Ramin Djawadi's original work. Any fan of the show can instantly recall his haunting title theme (the first track on the album, of course), but there are many other gems too. Much of the music involves clever ways of injecting an unfamiliar element into more conventional "Western" music. There's the theme for "Sweetwater," tack piano over menacing strings, but with some odd percussion and sinister scratching just audible as the music fades out. There's the sorrowful piano chords of "This World," that are backed by a motor-like, stereo-panned noise in "Online." Or the track "Reveries," a blend of melancholy violin with an electronic sound evocative of water droplets.

Instrumentation is key even in music queues that aren't explicitly trying to blend the natural and the synthetic. Many tracks are almost divided in half -- the first part a solo or concerto, and the second part a full restatement of the melody using the entire orchestra. The technique shows up again and again, in "Memories," "Bicameral Mind," "Exit Music (For a Film)," and more, but it remains fresh and interesting each time it's used.

I have a number of favorite tracks on the album. "Dr. Ford" features several different melodies, some using natural instruments and others synthesizer (an overt echo of the show's thematic content). "Pariah" is a fun twist on Western movie music featuring a solo, vaguely mariachi trumpet. "MIB" has at least five distinct leitmotifs in just three minutes (and, for Game of Thrones fans, feels most like Djawadi's work there). "No One's Controlling Me" is an angry nest of backmasking, buzzing, and clicking percussion. And "Violent Delights" is pure synth-driven action, a sinister and relentless piece vaguely evocative of Daft Punk's work on Tron: Legacy (in a good way).

Simply put, this Westworld soundtrack is one of the better additions to my collection this year -- though I probably didn't need to tell anyone who watched the show how great its music was. I give the album an A-.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue's Gallery

I think just about everybody reading this already has their plans set to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend. (And a few like me already have.) This review won't reveal much more than you'll already know if you've watched the trailers (I will talk character some, but not plot). But if you're looking to stay completely unspoiled, then here's the short version:

Prequel is no longer a dirty word in the Star Wars franchise.

If you're still here, I assume you're okay digging a little bit deeper. Rogue One definitely pulls off a few very difficult balancing acts. Chief among them, it feels like a Star Wars movie without feeling like the Star Wars movies that have come before. It's by far the most "adult" of franchise, less swashbuckling in tone. It's full of brazen heroics and it's plenty of fun, but the consequences and stakes feel more real.

There's loads of fan service sprinkled throughout, sometimes hanging out in the background of a shot. But there are also just as many shots that feel like something new -- more realistic somehow, more gritty. Even the opening shot, revealing a planet as Star Wars movies always do, feels more 2001 than Star Wars.

Another balancing act here is injecting suspense into a story where everybody knows the ending. Rogue One rises to the occasion by providing the most exciting, intense third act since the original Star Wars. It never lets up.

Following in the steps of The Force Awakens, Rogue One also succeeds in presenting engaging new characters. Jyn Erso is another compelling female lead, and debatably more successful than Rey. If you thought Rey's skill set implausibly vast in The Force Awakens, you'll find Jyn much more realistic (though by no means incapable). Felicity Jones perfectly captures Jyn's resilience through trial after trial.

Rebel spy Cassian Andor is perhaps the most realistic Star Wars character of all. He's certainly the most mired in moral ambiguity, a "good guy" who has not and does not always act like the good guy. In some ways, he's a Han Solo without the charm; that's all been drummed out of him by the horrors of war. Diego Luna's performance shows all this without wallowing in the darkness of the character.

K-2SO is my new favorite droid in the Star Wars universe. Sorry BB-8, you had a glorious but brief run. Once again, the droid is the prime source of comic relief in the film. But this time, it often comes in the form of sarcasm. Alan Tudyk's vocal performance is a highlight of the film.

Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus are an intriguing duo, though a spoiler-light review prevents me from digging much into them. Bodhi Rook is the more grown-up, realistic take on the character of Finn.  Mads Mikkelsen, after giving good villain in Doctor Strange, gives us something completely different here as Jyn's father Galen. And the world-weary Saw Gerrera is brought from the Clone Wars cartoon to the big screen by Forest Whitaker. The bench of interesting supporting characters runs deep.

On the villain side, Ben Mendelsohn has the rather thankless job of playing Orson Krennic. He's the least developed of the new characters, and totally overshadowed by the brief appearances of Darth Vader. This movie, not the prequels, is the redemption of Darth Vader -- as a menacing and powerful bad guy.

I really felt there were only two notable bad marks against the film. First, Jyn Erso may be a great female lead, but she's also the only woman among the core characters. She's not "the only woman in the galaxy" as Leia seemed to be in the original Star Wars, but it still feels like there should have been another in this more egalitarian time for the franchise.

Secondly, there is one truly unfortunate, ineffective use of CG in the film. You'll know it when you see it, because you're mind will scream at you its rejection of what you're seeing. It doesn't ruin the movie by any means, but it does kick you out of the moment when it appears.

Not only does Rogue One surpass The Force Awakens in my esteem, but I think it also surpasses Return of the Jedi. I give it an A-, and a slot on my top 10 list for the year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Plane Spoken

I haven't taken to the blog before to praise the TV series Fargo, but I enjoyed the first two seasons a great deal. (And far more than I expected.) One of the ways I've filled the time waiting for season three was to follow the show runner, Noah Hawley, into a different medium. This year, he published a novel titled Before the Fall, and my enthusiasm for his Fargo was enough to get me to take a look.

Before the Fall centers around a luxury jet that crashes in the Atlantic Ocean on a short East Coast flight. The novel is a character study of the roughly dozen people aboard the plane, particularly the two survivors: an unsuccessful artist on the brink of a mid-life crisis, and the four-year-old boy he saves by swimming to shore after the crash. Casting a shadow over the entire tale is the big question, why did the plane crash?

There's interesting writing technique on display in this novel. Switching from television to the written word, Noah Hawley clearly changes in some ways, and clearly doesn't in others.

On the one hand, Hawley really seizes on the chance to turn a clever phrase outside of spoken dialogue. A character's inner monologue can be laid bear in a novel, and that's exactly what this one does. Every few chapters, we're given a new flashback centered on a different passenger on the plane, and the lives we see are very different. There's a rich media mogul, a shifty friend about to be indicted, a by-the-book pilot, a worldly and street-wise flight attendant, a calculating head of personal security, and more. Each character study is as interesting and detailed as the next.

On the other hand, the narrative moves choppily at times. Scenes often end sharply and with little warning; I occasionally found myself stopping suddenly as I realized the last few paragraphs had abruptly transitioned from one scene to another. And the mystery itself, the "how" of the plane crash, ultimately seemed like a tacked-on and unimportant element for as much as focus as the novel gives it.

Ultimately, I liked the book well enough. But my recommendation would depend on knowing the reader: which is more important to you in a book, strong characters or a strong plot? If the former, then Before the Fall is worth a read. If the latter, you'll probably want to pass. I'd call it a grade B myself. There are things to like here, though I'm not sure it's a novel that's going to stay with me for a long time to come. It's neither helped nor hurt the wait for season three of Fargo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Choppy Sea

The Oscar nominations won't be announced until next month, but consensus is already forming around a few movies sure to be up for Best Picture. One of these is the somber Manchester By the Sea, which I saw last weekend.

Set in Massachusetts (as you'd expect from the title) Manchester By the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler, a man living a drab day-to-day life in the wake of a tremendous personal tragedy. As the story opens, yet another one arrives -- his brother dies of a heart attack, leaving behind a 16-year-old son and a will asking Lee to become the boy's legal guardian. The film follows Lee's struggle to put himself back together before he can even contemplate helping a teenager cope with his own grief.

Scattered throughout this film are many poignant vignettes of loss, and I imagine these have been striking many viewers in a powerful and true way. Some scenes depict long-repressed grief bubbling over in sudden bursts. Other scenes contrast different reactions to different kinds of loss: fixating on an object as a totem for keeping a loved one's memory alive, maintaining the routine one is expected to maintain, and (above all) deep-seated self-loathing.

While these moments are moving, I'm less convinced they add up to a compelling whole. It's a languidly paced film (at 137 minutes), and at the risk of saying too much about the plot, it doesn't really take the characters on much of a journey. The movie definitely has a point to make, and I'm not here to suggest that it should take an uplifting or redemptive view of death. But the story doesn't really take the characters (or the viewers) on a journey. Instead the movie kind of just goes from A to A.

A movie steeped in grief is, expectedly, going to be all about performance. Much praise has been lavished upon Casey Affleck's here, as Lee Chandler. It's a largely subdued take, with very few "Oscar reel" moments. It's being touted as a Best Actor frontrunner all the same, which I find a bit surprising on a number of levels. His work here doesn't feel appreciably "better" or more "career-defining" than, say, his work in the excellent Gone Baby Gone. It doesn't strike me as a performance than no other actor could have given. And I don't even think it's the strongest performance in the movie; I'd give that praise to young Lucas Hedges, who plays 16-year-old Patrick. (The cast also features Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Matthew Broderick, though all of them are in supporting-at-best roles.)

It's possible that what's depicted in this movie will feel more familiar to some people than others. Those who make a more personal connection here may be the ones pushing the film into the Oscar conversation. But I felt its few strong moments weren't enough to forgive the whole. I'd give Manchester By the Sea a C-. I have many more Oscar contenders to see, but I'm already sure this won't be the one I'm championing for the win.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An Overstuffed Feast

With Agricola, Uwe Rosenberg cemented himself in the highest tier of board games. He's a designer whose name sells games, whose every release attracts attention from board game enthusiasts. His newest effort, A Feast for Odin, is his biggest yet -- a massive box so loaded with boards and wooden pieces that it retails at $100.

Players each manage a group of Vikings, hunting for food, expanding to new lands, building ships, raiding enemies, and developing a powerful infrastructure. The mechanics are something like a mashup of Caverna and Le Havre with other bits mixed in, and are sufficiently involved to defy any easy summary here. And that's potentially a problem. Uwe Rosenberg has done a few lighter games over his career, but he's mostly leaned into his reputation for depth and complexity, releasing ever more involved games. A Feast for Odin might be a step too far.

First, it's a worker placement game. Players all work with a shared action board, placing from 1 to 4 of their workers on different spaces to take an action. There are dozens and dozens of actions (around 50, I think), and while the board groups similar ideas together, the fact is that each individual action is different. It's Agricola multiplied by 4 or 5 -- a lot to take in.

Second, there are a lot of goods in this game. Rosenberg revisits an idea he used in Le Havre, where basic goods were printed on one side of a token, and advanced goods on the other. (Wheat being baked into bread, for example.) A Feast for Odin ups the ante to four stages of goods (two sides of two chips; you swap chips as you move from stage 2 to 3). Unlike Le Havre, where each good had its own color, color here refers to the stage of advancement of a good. But the colors don't follow a typical rainbow progression, making it tough to remember what it going to turn into what.

Third, all those goods come in various "Tetris shapes," geometric configurations of squares, which are then deployed onto each player's personal land board to cover spaces in strategic ways. This part reminded me a bit of The Princes of Florence (not a Rosenberg game), but again, with the dial turned up to maximum. The Princes of Florence used a 7x7 grid. A Feast for Odin uses boards around 15 x 15 (and you can acquire new land masses during the game, each with weird layouts of their own).

It's typical of these complex board games (for people who enjoy them) that at some point during your first playthrough, you have an "aha!" moment where all the rules lock into place and you understand how it all works. Often, this comes with the realization that you've made poor strategic choices and really ought to play again... but you at least see how the pieces of the contraption fit together. I got there very, very late in the game with this one. And many of the people I played with never got there, being generally miserable throughout the experience.

And what a long experience that was. It took over an hour to deliver the rules explanation for the game, and over three hours to play. Plus, it ended with half the players never wanting to touch the thing again. As for myself? Well... I'd consider it, but with great skepticism. Consider all the other games I've name-checked in describing this one. A Feast for Odin feels like it's trying to be the Frankenstein hybrid of three or four other games. And while the whole does arguably present something more than the sum of the parts, I just don't know that I need a game that makes me play parts of four other games at once. I feel like I'd more happily play Agricola, or Le Havre, or The Princes of Florence -- any of which would take less time -- than take time on the sprawling beast that is A Feast for Odin again.

But that said... yes, I probably would try it. So I think I'd peg the game at something like a C+ overall. I think only a Uwe Rosenberg completist needs to own it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Angry Thoughts

Two years ago, the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch made a big splash. The glam rock show about a genderqueer singer starred a procession of great performers including Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, and more. For those of us who couldn't get to Broadway for it, a touring production has been making the rounds, and this past week stopped here in Denver.

It feels like large theaters really aren't the ideal place for Hedwig. I'm glad that creators John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask have been able to enjoy the success of a Broadway hit and its subsequent tour, but this show feels like it was meant to be a smaller, more intimate experience. It's essentially a one-man show (despite the on-stage four-piece band and the secondary character of Yitzhak), and unspools one character's entire life story. Because it's not so stuffed with music that it plays like a concert, it really relies on a raw and touching performance by its lead. And there simply aren't that many actors one could imagine reaching a Broadway-sized audience in that personal way.

This touring production stars Euan Morton, and while his singing skills are top notch, I just don't think he had the acting chops to reach all the way to the way to the back of the ridiculously oversized-for-this-show theater. Or perhaps it's that he never found (or was specifically directed not to look for) his own take on Hedwig, and thus didn't fully internalize the story he was telling. Even people who never saw Neil Patrick Harris perform the role can pick up the original Broadway cast recording or watch video of his Tony performances (including one as Hedwig). Morton seems to be playing the part in the same way, giving us something of an NPH impersonation more than a Hedwig unto herself.

Still, the production did deliver some good moments. It's full of great music, from the loud and brazen "Tear Me Down" and "Sugar Daddy" to the thoughtful and emotional "The Origin of Love" and "Wicked Little Town." And Hannah Corneau really shines in the role of Yitzhak. As I noted, this is mostly a one-man show, and poor, put-upon Yitzhak only gets a couple of moments in the spotlight. But in those moments, Corneau did make the sympathetic connection with the audience that reminded you that yes, there are some performers who can make you feel like you're the only spectator who matters in an audience pushing a thousand.

If the alternative is not to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at all (and, other than the 2001 film version, it is), then -- for a musical theater fan -- this is likely better than nothing. But at the ticket price that touring Broadway productions command, many people probably ought to think twice about seeing this when it comes to their wicked little town. I'd grade it a B-.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Oddity

Though I've never read any of Dean Koontz's "Odd Thomas" series, I'd been aware of the movie adaptation of the first book for some time now.

This story centers on a young man (actually named Odd Thomas) with an array of psychic powers. He can see dead people (though they're incapable of "speech," in the literal sense). He can also see bodachs, strange creatures whose arrival portends great disaster. And in the hero's own words, when he sees trouble coming, "he does something about it." Odd Thomas follows his efforts to stop the biggest tragedy he's ever encountered, foretold by bodach swarms far larger than any he's ever seen.

This movie is aiming at a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of space. It's a supernatural tale that generally stays light in tone, but wants to go for drama at times. The protagonist has a "Scooby gang" of sorts, a small number of non-powered friends on his side. The movie doesn't reach the level of good Buffy, but it's probably fair to say it's at least as good as an average first season episode (and maybe better).

The movie is directed and adapted by Stephen Sommers, the man who gave us the first two action-packed in The Mummy franchise (among other similar fare). He's working here on a much tighter budget, and the ambition is scaled down accordingly. Still, there are some decisions here (presumably from Koontz's original book) that really work. We don't get any sort of "origin story" for Odd Thomas; we just find out what we need to know about him along the way. Odd's not out to save the world, he's just trying to avert an impending crisis on a local scale (and that's plenty). The mystery is also rather compelling -- not a whodunnit, but a who-will-do-it and a what's-he-gonna-do?

Yet there are definitely some things that stand in the movie's way. The humor doesn't always work. In fact, the dialogue in general is pretty stiff and manufactured throughout. And then there's a truly terrible musical score, by composer John Swihart. It's hokey and cheap, on par with a bad cable TV movie, and sometimes actually dragging the movie down to that level.

There's also a bittersweet aspect to the casting in the film, one that couldn't have been anticipated at the time it was made. Odd Thomas is played by Anton Yelchin, whose accidental death earlier this year at age 27 was widely reported. With themes of death so prevalent in the story, you're often reminded about Yelchin's real world fate. And he's trying so hard here, pouring charisma into the part and basically being the best thing about the movie.

I wish the actual execution could have been as compelling as the story itself. Moreover, I wish Anton Yelchin could have been in a better Odd Thomas movie, or could have lived to make another. Maybe all this is reason to look to Koontz's original novels instead.

The movie isn't a total loss, but it is something of a disappointment. I'd ballpark it around an optimistic B- (but maybe a realistic C+).

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Laws of Inferno Dynamics

This week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. served as the show's winter finale. While it definitely had cliffhanger teases for the rest of the season, it also felt more like an ending to a story arc than any of the mid-season finales of years past.

The episode seemed so crammed with elements that it sometimes felt rushed. Yet, at the same time, it's hard to argue with any of the inclusions. Take the "Daisy comes in from the cold" subplot. It felt a bit silly for Mace to just claim she'd been with S.H.I.E.L.D. all along (and for everybody to just buy his explanation). Yet I can't think of any interesting purpose that would have been served by keeping her separated from the group any longer.

Or consider the sudden rekindling of a romantic subplot between Mack and Yo-Yo, after that had been ignored for quite a while. It felt a bit unearned, bringing it up again out of nowhere. But it does add an interesting dynamic for the show to explore. (There's actually a lot of "relationship drama" in the mix right now, between Fitz and Simmons, Mack and Yo-Yo, and maybe even Coulson and May depending on how you choose to read it.)

Another fast development was the removal of Ghost Rider from the show (albeit in a "he could come back some day" sort of way). I seemed a bit abrupt to get rid of him when we've only recently seen Robbie interact with characters other than Daisy. On the other hand, his character wouldn't be very compelling without his vengeance to pursue; wrapping up Eli necessitated wrapping up Robbie.

Speaking of Eli, I'm not sure he ever completely coalesced for me as a villain. Some of it may have been that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. conditioned me to expect longer runs from the villains, after everything with Ward and Hive. Some of it was that the writers waited until episodes 7 and 8 of an 8-episode story to develop him as the bad guy. And some of it was that his powers and the threat they posed felt similar to Whitney Frost from the second season of Agent Carter.

It's this last thing that has me curious for the season going forward. That's because, while I am intrigued by the threat of Aida and how that story could play out, there's no question that the show is pointed down story paths that have been trodden before. As we were reminded in this very episode, an evil Aida does conjure thoughts of Ultron. And the episode's final reveal, that May has been replaced with a duplicate, recalls the long-running subplot in which "Agent 33" wore her face. There are plenty of ways these threads could lead to different stories, but also plenty of ways in which they could lead to very similar stories. Here's hoping the series can be clever with what's to come.

I guess I'd say this winter finale didn't leave me super-satisfied, but it's not like it made any critical mistakes either. I'd give it a B. That's a decent enough place to leave things for a month.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Book Report

At some point after having watched this year's live-action update of Disney's The Jungle Book, the thought occurred to me: "was there really a point in doing a live-action version of The Jungle Book?" After all, aside from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, this new film actually isn't live action -- it's a bunch of actors recording their lines for animators to later complete the performances. The only different is the type of animation.

That's not to say that this new movie is without merit. For one, that change in animation method isn't nothing. There's a lot of great animal movement throughout, and mostly good modelling too. Occasionally, the lighting feels off, as though creatures aren't believably in a real space, but these moments are few and far between. Indeed, the most jarring aspect of the animation is that it's generally so realistic that it puts a flaw of the story itself right in your face: exactly what jungle is this that's populated with North American wolves and a brown bear?

The animation brings so much to the performances that it might have been easy to overlook the voice work, but solid casting staves off that problem. Most attention-grabbing is Bill Murray as Baloo and Christopher Walken as King Louie. But there's also Idris Elba giving great villain as the tiger Shere Khan, Ben Kingsley nobly voicing the panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa (gender-swapped from the original film), and Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito as Mowgli's adoptive wolf parents.

The Jungle Book is an eclectic, meandering story. The connective tissue is a bit slow-paced at times, but the big scenes (which usually involve introducing a new character) generally work. Less effective is the movie's hesitation to go full musical; the remake cuts most of the original's songs and relegates another to the end credits, yet preserves "Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." (But then, I suppose you have to let Bill Murray and Christopher Walken sing, if you can remotely justify it.) Also changed is the end of the story. Without getting too specific, it's a little odd that one of the few bittersweet endings from classic Disney now gets cleaned up.

Whatever flaws The Jungle Book may have, I still think it's an improvement over the rather dry original. That may not be particularly high praise, but to be more clear: you could do worse than give your time to this film. I'd give it a B-.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Stitch, Not on Time

Moana is not the only Disney-animated, Pacific-island-set film I recently saw. I'm 14 years behind on this, but I finally got around to watching Lilo & Stitch, the tale of an unruly young girl who befriends an even more unruly alien creature.

Lilo & Stitch is often said to be a bright spot in the midst of an otherwise lackluster period for Disney animation, a notion I'd probably support. Not from personal experience, though, because I haven't seen most of the Disney animated films from that decade. Yet Lilo & Stitch was consistently the only one that people ever seemed surprised that I'd missed.

I can see some of the appeal. The film is a good grafting of several quintessentially Disney elements into a new context. Absent/dead parents abound in Disney classics, for example, but it seems new and distinct to depict a young adult struggling to care for her child sister. Many Disney characters are dealing with poverty, but it's more impactful and current to actually see someone waiting tables to make ends meet and then, when that falls apart, scrambling to find a new job. Lots of Disney protagonists commune with animals and/or the natural world, but the island of Kaua'i is quite different from everything that came before.

Also, in this age of computer animation, this movie is a nice throwback. CG elements are still there (though far less obvious than in, say, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, from the decade before), but Lilo & Stitch is, by-and-large, drawn by hand. This is used to great effect in presenting various alien creatures. It's also nice to be able to compare the classic "Disney face" to the characters here, modeled with Pacific Islander features.

All that said, Lilo & Stitch is far from being one of Disney's all-time great films. The characters -- especially the alien ones -- are inconsistently written, spontaneously changing their behavior to advance plot or score a cheap joke. Unfortunately, Stitch himself is perhaps the biggest examples of this; the whole story is about his personality changing, but I feel like we never see any moments that would explain such a change.

I also feel there's a real clash in tones in the movie. On the one hand, you have the relative realism of the Hawaiian island setting, and the characters who live there and face real problems. On the other, you have all the alien material, which at times approaches almost Looney Tunes craziness. To me, "Lilo & Stitch" are a pairing that is often more oil and water than peanut butter and chocolate.

Overall, though, the movie is fairly entertaining, and better than most. I'd give it a B. I'm glad to have finally seen it, but it's not one I'd imagine watching again down the road.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Great (Well, Pretty Good, At Least) Dane

Almost every Oscar season has at least one film that, while excluded from the Best Picture race, is lauded for multiple performances. Most recently, The Danish Girl was one of those films. It tells the true story* of Lili Elbe, the first person** to undergo sex reassignment*** surgery.

Those various asterisks illuminate some of the reasons this film may have been excluded from Best Picture contention. First, * -- this story is fictionalized, based on a novel by David Ebershoff that took considerable liberties with the actual facts. Second, ** -- though much of the talk around this film anointed Lili Elbe as the "first" to undergo surgery, that also isn't factually accurate. Third, *** -- such surgeries are often called "gender confirmation" procedures in our more enlightened age, though some aspects of Lili's character in the film belie this more affirmative terminology.

If you head into the movie with eyes open, knowing it's not quite reality, and accepting that it may not be authentic to the experience of most modern transgender people, then the film is commendable on many levels. Seeing past those shortcomings might admittedly be a big ask; certainly, those issues could spark a worthy discussion of whether a largely positive on-screen representation (even if flawed) is to be praised and encouraged. It's a discussion I don't think I could do justice to here.

So instead, I will say that the movie does spin a moving tale, regardless of how much is fact and how much is fiction. The journey that Einar Wegener takes to become Lili Elbe is emotional, filled with highs and lows. And I also the Oscars were very right to single out the actors as key to making the movie work.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili, and gives a strong performance. Praising Redmayne's work does lead to still more fair discussion points -- the appropriateness of casting a cisgender actor to play a transgender character, and whether the century-old period setting of this story affects that question in any way. Regardless of whether you see no problem here, or think Redmayne's casting is as offensive as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the fact remains that Redmayne's work here is excellent: soulful and sympathetic.

But Oscar also got it right in giving a nomination only to Redmayne, and giving an actual win, for Best Supporting Actress, to Alicia Vikander. That's because Vikander, as Einar's wife Gerda, gives an even stronger performance across the board. (And the only controversy there is that she was in the "Supporting" category for what is clearly a Lead role.) Gerda is an even stronger character, even more sympathetic. Vikander lands every moment of the emotional wringer her character goes through, trying to understand how to help the person she loves. As good as Redmayne may be in this movie, one could imagine other performers doing as well with the material. But I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else that could do what Vikander does here.

Ultimately, the audience for this movie is probably rather narrow. I say that not because it's about a transgender woman, but because it's a sometimes stilted period piece, very much about subtle and close-up acting. I'd give it a B+, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everybody.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Hobnobbing With Society

If you're a really long-time reader of the blog (and have a good memory to boot), you know that my reactions to Woody Allen movies have run the spectrum -- I've hated a few, been indifferent to many, and have loved a few. Now there's a new one to place on that spectrum, Café Society.

Set in the 1930s, Allen's newest film follows a young New Yorker who relocates to Hollywood in search of a change. He finds himself struggling to start a relationship with a woman who loves another man, and torn between the vast differences of his new home and his old one.

Café Society is a return to form for Woody Allen, in that the main character is absolutely a proxy for him. In his heyday, Allen would have played the part himself; these days, he serves instead as the narrator. Where other filmmakers might shy away from being so autobiographical when their lives are controversial, he boldly unfolds a story in which adultery and womanizing play more than incidental parts.

Separating the artist from the art is extra difficult when the Allen proxy character is embodied by Jesse Eisenberg, who takes his existing screen persona and muscles it that last step of the way into impersonation territory. Eisenberg is "doing" a young Woody Allen here. But he's not the only character who's hard to root for, and may in fact be among the more sympathetic people in the movie. In short, if you need your characters to be likeable, you can probably just stop here. This movie is not for you.

That said, the story does pick up steam in the middle, as it moves out of mere "slice of life" territory and settles into its actual plot: a love triangle with a splash of "comedy of errors" mistaken identity. It's helped along by some of the performances. Steve Carell plays a rich Hollywood producer as an interesting variation of his persona from The Office -- all the selfishness and unchecked emotion, but without the ineptitude or cluelessness. Parker Posey and Corey Stoll both cut loose and have fun with small supporting roles. And Kristen Stewart is interesting as the third point in the love triangle. This isn't the movie that will convince you she can act (for that, see Still Alice), but neither does she stand out as a weak link in the movie.

Ultimately, this lands somewhere among Woody Allen's average work. If you're willing to endure a slow story to see a great performance, Blue Jasmine is probably more your speed. If plot figures more heavily for you, even if there are no true standouts in the cast, then this probably gets the nod. I'd say it warrants a B- or so.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

"Lost" in Adaptation

You might recall my recent account of re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark (this time, with the score supplied live by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra). It shoved Raiders to the front of my mind, which in turn pushed me to watch a documentary I've had on my list for a while -- Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.

Raiders! is the story of two best friends who in turn cajoled their friends into helping them create a shot for shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What makes this notable is that they did it as teenagers, pouring into it all their allowances and spare time over a seven-year period (from 1982 to 1989). In the present day, as adults, they've reunited to shot the one scene they'd never completed: the fight on the airfield.

As a documentary, Raiders! reflects on many intriguing topics. There's the passion of fandom, and how it can transport people of all ages away from the trials and tribulations of life. There's a coming of age component, and one example of how friends can drift apart over the years. There's a look at obsession, and the examination of how much a person is willing to risk to achieve a lofty goal.

Mostly, though, the documentary gets me quite curious to see the actual fan film itself. That's because the real appeal to all this is in what these kids were actually able to accomplish. I don't know about you, but I definitely went through a phase where I begged my parents to let me play with the camcorder so I could make my own rudimentary films. I know the scope and quality of those efforts, and I also know the attention span I had for sticking with any given one.

In the snippets of the teens' film that you see in the documentary, any of my childhood movie aspirations are put to shame. I mean, think about some of the amazing visuals Steven Spielberg packed into Raiders of the Lost Ark -- fleeing from a giant rolling boulder, a fist fight in the middle of a burning bar, an action sequence that sees the hero crawling over and under a moving truck. These kids actually did all this stuff! Quite unsafely in many cases, but they actually did it all. I mean, I can understand that they never shot the airplane sequence as children, but there are tons of other sequences they never should have been able to pull off either.

So ultimately, Raiders! (the documentary) is an oddly inspirational little tale about following your dreams, even if the specific dream in this case maybe isn't as inspiring. I'd grade it a B.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Deals With Our Devils

After several weeks off (but only days since my last review), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last night with a new episode.

I'm not saying that Star Trek has the monopoly on "characters have been turned into 'ghosts' and everyone else thinks they're dead" story line. Still, The Next Generation did do that exact story, and did it very well. So I think another series is taking on a challenge in trying the same thing. S.H.I.E.L.D., being a far more serialized show with many irons in the fire, had other boxes to check, and this may have crowded out some of the deeper issues Star Trek was able to get at in their take.

For example, the notion that Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie might actually be dead never completely seemed to gel. Daisy didn't believe it from the jump. Even when things started to look grim (and dim) in the alternate dimension, Coulson and Fitz never really grappled with the possibility that they might not make it back. (Emotionally, I mean. The physical struggle with the vortex of darkness didn't really count.)

I guess, putting it another way, the couple of scenes that really did examine the emotions of the situation were fantastic, and I really wish there had been more of them. May's private breakdown (one actually shared, unknowingly, with Coulson) was a great moment about regret and putting off things until it's too late. And Fitz's meltdown at realizing that Simmons would have to hear about his "death" was strong; even with his life in peril, he was thinking more of her.

But speaking of Simmons, her subplot felt to me like an excess element that crowded out time where more of those deeper A story moments could have been found. I'm sure Marvel fans are geeking out over who was hatching from that terragenesis cocoon (if it was made explicit enough), or are geeking out over who it might be (if it was left vague). Either way, it seemed like a distraction in the midst of a life and death situation, and could easily have been introduced in a later episode. After all, between Eli and Ghost Rider and now Aida and her Darkhold knowledge, there are already plenty of ongoing plot balls being juggled without adding another.

The Ghost Rider material didn't quite work for me either. Having the Rider jump into Mack was a neat idea, but the payoff wasn't as exciting. So Robbie doubles down on a pact he's already made? So what? And if the Rider was capable of rescuing Robbie from the alternate dimension all along, why did it leave him in the first place? Wondering about these questions was more time I wish had been spent really grappling with the life-or-death premise at the core of the story.

But while I felt the subplots misfired a bit, I think the overall approach to the script was very strong. Alternating acts, first showing us scenes without the "ghostly" characters, and then revisiting things with them, was a great choice. The higher, meta layer of repetition was effective too -- first, you weren't sure exactly what happened to Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, and then got to see; second, you got to speculate what those three were doing in the next batch of scenes you were watching, knowing that they'd be there. (If I'm comparing to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, this was a more sophisticated storytelling technique that really did bring something new to the party.)

I'd peg the episode at a B+ overall. If I found it at all disappointing, it was really just because I recognized potential for something truly exceptional that didn't quite get there. It was nevertheless a very solid hour of the show.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catching Disney's Wave

Over the holiday weekend, I went to see Disney's newest animated feature, Moana. It was a triumph on many levels -- though I felt it didn't quite reach the heights set by Disney of late.

The movie absolutely continues Disney's push to tell more topical stories with more progressive characters. First, Moana is a welcome addition/revision to the stable of Disney princesses. As the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, she's "royalty." But as she is being groomed to lead the tribe herself, her destiny is far greater than to be an object of affection. (At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, there isn't even a romantic subplot of any kind in the movie.) Second, the threat that spurs the whole plot into motion is climate change; Moana's lush island is dying, and her quest is to see a delicate natural balance restored.

A lot of things work well in service of these modern messages. For one, it's simply a gorgeous movie -- I think the most visually stunning Disney or Pixar has ever produced. The movie is stuffed full of fertile vegetation, mighty ocean waves, and menacing lava floes. There are bioluminescent creatures, a character with living tattoos that comment on the action, and scenes set in otherworldly dreamscapes. There are sequences that seem wholly original, and others that seem meticulously crafted to evoke recent pop culture titans like The Hobbit and Mad Max: Fury Road. The Thanksgiving release feels appropriate; this is a Thanksgiving feast for the eyeballs.

The characters also make a good impression. I've already noted the mold-breaking qualities of Moana herself (though I mention her again now to highlight the vocal work of Auli'i Cravalho). Moana also has a fun and memorable grandmother named Tala, voiced by Rachel House. Casting Dwayne Johnson as demigod Maui is a perfect use of his public persona, and a jumping off point for deeper things. And the animators surely had a field day with Maui, probably the most... well, animated Disney character since the Genie in Aladdin. Also harkening back to Aladdin (in this case, to the magic carpet and the monkey Abu), Moana includes a great non-speaking character in the rooster Heihei (proudly labeled by one of the movie's directors as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.")

It's harder for me to peg just what secret sauce was missing for the movie overall. I think one shortcoming -- and I'm sure some Hamilton fans will dispute me on this -- is the music. The songs of Moana are written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. They definitely capture the Polynesian flavor of the story and advance the plot, but I don't feel they make a lasting impression. Forget "Let It Go" levels of earworminess, I don't even think there was a "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" in here. (Maybe Maui's self-congratulatory anthem "You're Welcome"?)

The movie might also be a touch too long. In rigid adherence to the hero's journey formula, Moana (the character) goes through perhaps one too many setbacks only to (of course) rebound. Or perhaps it's that the rebounding is sometimes too easy for you to have ever taken the setback all that seriously.

Still, whatever drawbacks Moana may have are minor. And I'd say the film outshines Disney's other effort this year, Zootopia. I give Moana a B+.