Friday, January 29, 2016

TNG Flashback: The Pegasus

I remember the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as loaded with lackluster, disappointing episodes. But there was one moment where the series delivered two great installments back to back: "Parallels" and "The Pegasus."

Admiral Erik Pressman, Riker's former captain aboard the U.S.S. Pegasus, comes aboard the Enterprise with a special and secretive mission. The Pegasus, long thought destroyed, may in fact still be out there -- and about to fall into Romulan hands. Since the ship was lost during the testing of highly secretive technology, it's imperative that the Federation finds it first. But tensions between Pressman and Riker raise suspicion in Captain Picard, who uncovers there's more to the story: there was a mutiny aboard the Pegasus right before the end. Now Riker is once again in the position of having to choose sides.

The script for this episode was written by Ronald Moore, whose starting inspiration was Clive Cussler's novel (and the movie it spawned), Raise the Titanic. The Macguffin aboard this missing ship led to a moral dilemma for Riker, which Moore acknowledged was similar in ways to his earlier episode, "The First Duty." (Albeit with Riker getting off more easily, thanks to a longer, distinguished career.) I find "The Pegasus" to be the more compelling rendition of similar themes, for a number of reasons.

First, the stakes here are much higher. The secret of the Pegasus is an illegal cloaking device, which puts espionage and the threat of war in play. (It also canonically explains the lack of Federation cloaking technology, a question Moore says he was really sick of answering at conventions. Fan of classic Star Trek though he was, Moore particularly hated Gene Roddenberry's explanation: "our people are scientists and explorers – they don't go sneaking around.") This business with the Pegasus plays out like a U-2 incident, a Cuban missile crisis, a moment of going to the brink of war. Riker's decision to continue hiding the truth here would have very potent consequences. And the script is incredibly clever in handling this secret. It's rare in Star Trek for one of the characters to have information that the other characters -- and the audience -- don't have. This makes for great, coded exchanges between Riker and Pressman (that play perfectly on a subsequent viewing), and also sets up a plausible, powerful conflict between Riker and Picard.

Second, the guest character here is fascinating. Erik Pressman is one of the few morally dubious Starfleet personnel ever on The Next Generation. His moral grey makes the story more interesting; he's a character more like what you'd expect on Deep Space Nine. (More on that in a moment.) There's a great scene contrasting Pressman's command style with Picard's, when Jean-Luc tells the story of choosing Riker to be his first officer. Which is more important -- integrity (Picard) or loyalty (Pressman)? Plus, there's an unspoken but present undercurrent of Pressman being a father figure to a young, fresh-from-the-Academy Riker. We know Riker had a bad relationship with his actual father, which makes taking a stand against Pressman that much harder.

Third, the acting in this episode is fantastic. Under the directorial guidance of fellow actor LeVar Burton, Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart are both in top form. The scene where Picard threatens to demote Riker is tense and shocking. Frakes tells the story of the Pegasus mutiny so vividly, you can almost envision the scene in flashback. They even nail the comedy of the opening "Captain Picard Day" scene (which was written specifically to use Frakes' spot-on Patrick Stewart impression, but which also fits the episode's themes of role models and integrity).

But of course, the make-or-break performance comes from guest star Terry O'Quinn as Pressman. This was a full decade before he'd become widely known as Locke on Lost, but his reputation was already solid enough to earn him on screen credit here as a "Special Guest Star." Here, he makes a very war-minded admiral understandable, almost even sympathetic -- not at all the caricature presented in, say, Star Trek Into Darkness. The production staff was reportedly so blown away by O'Quinn's performance that Deep Space Nine showrunner Michael Piller wanted to reuse him (and the character of Pressman) over on that show. (It would have been a perfect fit; what a shame that never came to pass.)

Other aspects of the episode seem a cut above normal too. There are fantastic visual effects throughout, from the crowded field of asteroids to the dark journey the Enterprise takes inside one of them. The lighting and camera work in the scene aboard the Pegasus is perfect: all brooding shadows, with arch Dutch angles on Pressman and low angles up at Riker as he makes his defiant stand. Also, a different composer comes in to provide a more engaging score than usual; John Debney had previously worked on a couple of Deep Space Nines, but this was his first (and only) Next Generation episode.

Other observations:
  • I suppose this episode creates some slightly strained continuity with "The Next Phase," since the idea of a phasing cloak first appeared there. I credit Riker for being able to keep a secret back then, though everyone else's incredulity here at the technology feels a touch amnesiac.
  • In the opening scene, the conference table is a treasure trove of hilarious tributes to Captain Picard. They feel authentic because they are: students from two local elementary schools produced the art.
  • Brent Spiner must have had an easy time memorizing dialogue for this episode. Data doesn't say much, and every other sentence is: "Theoretically, it is possible."
  • I mentioned above the brilliance of guest star Terry O'Quinn. The episode's other significant guest star is Michael Mack, who plays Commander Sirol and in doing so became the first "non-Caucasian" Romulan. Interestingly, he had to film his scenes three times. The first re-shoot happened because of confusion across the production; the makeup department hadn't been informed that they wanted Mack's natural skin color, and he'd been made up to look like all previous Romulans. The second re-shoot happened to soften his earlier performance, which was judged to be a bit too sinister.
  • This episode was later linked to the notorious series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise, "These Are the Voyages..." When the Enterprise producers decided they had to craft a sendoff for all of Star Trek and not just their one TV show, that episode was framed as a 24th-century holodeck simulation, run by Commander Riker as he sought moral guidance in this "Pegasus" dilemma. It's hard to know which is more awkward, the St. Elsewhere-ish packaging of Enterprise's finale as a flight of Riker's fancy, or watching this episode and trying to imagine Riker stopping to visit the holodeck and talk to Troi.
A great episode that presents Star Trek morality without getting high and mighty about it, "The Pegasus" stands out amid The Next Generation's final season. I give it an A-.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Brook Some Disappointment

With many of the pre-Oscars award ceremonies disagreeing on their top honors, there's now more uncertainty than usual about which of the Academy's eight Best Picture nominees is likely to take home this year's top prize. But all the handicappers and odds-makers seem to agree: Brooklyn should consider it an honor just to be nominated; it has no chance. I recently saw the film (for me, completing my look at all the Best Picture candidates), and I'd have to concur.

Set in the early 1950s, Brooklyn is the tale of an Irish girl named Eilis. (That's AY-lish, to the non-Irish.) With prospects slim to none in her small town, she desperately grabs an an opportunity to move to America and start a new life in (you guessed it) Brooklyn. Though initially overwhelmed by homesickness, she slowly finds her way to happiness. But then suddenly, tragic circumstances call her back home to Ireland. Over an intended month-long visit, sudden opportunities materialize, tempting her to stay. What should she do? Where is her home now, Ireland or Brooklyn?

Despite some moments of sorrow, Brooklyn is a fundamentally uplifting tale about an aimless girl becoming a determined woman. It methodically ticks the boxes of work, love, and family without ever making too-serious demands of the audience; the movie's complications don't feel all that complicated. It's a take on a formula that has produced award bait films in the past, a formula that will surely do so again in the future. I don't mean to say that I disliked Brooklyn as such, though I did find it rather trite and simplistic. Still, it does have two strong points in its favor.

First, the movie excels in portraying a specific time, place, and culture. I wouldn't say that anything about rural Ireland, the 1950s, or Brooklyn feels wholly alien to me, but this movie certainly portrays very different times and places from what we know today. It does this with seemingly effortless authenticity. I feel like many period films come off looking like someone simply cracked one history book to envision their world on the silver screen; Brooklyn somehow feels like it went deeper.

And I'm pretty sure that authenticity is due in large measure to the second big strength of the film -- the acting. Saoirse Ronan has earned a Best Actress nomination for Eilis, and it's well deserved. She runs a spectrum from low to high, and it's all believable. Her homesickness is not overwrought, but familiar to anyone who has ever moved far from home. Her happiness is infectious.

But it's actually the surrounding cast as a whole that really builds this reality. In Ireland, Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott (as Eilis' mother and sister) make a family we care about leaving behind. As prickly busybody Mrs. Kelly, Bríd Brennan epitomizes the forces pushing Eilis across the ocean. Jim Broadbent plays Father Flood as a warm taste of home in New York. Jessica Paré (who many will recognize as Megan from Mad Men) is the boss at Eilis' new job, and a surprisingly nuanced character for such a small part. Eilis' boarding house is filled with memorable women, from the strict-but-kindly mistress to the various boarders -- some catty gossips, some dowdy pushovers.

Both of the love interests are well cast. In New York, Tony is played winningly by Emory Cohen. (His family is also a riot, in particular the young actor playing his kid brother.) Back in Ireland, Domhnall Gleeson is the more staid -- but still interesting -- Jim. (And man, did that guy have a banner year, appearing in Ex Machina, The Force Awakens, The Revenant, and this.)

But ultimately, though the movie isn't too slow or tedious to entertain, it's a mild entertainment, an experience that starts to evaporate even as you're gathering your coat to leave the theater. I give Brooklyn a C+.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Better Angels

Agent Carter this week served up a pretty fun episode, with the solid comedy and heist-like spy sequences the show does best.

A pleasant dose of the familiar came in the form of Howard Stark. In the first season, with Howard on the run as part of the main plot, we didn't really get to see much of Stark, Carter, and Jarvis together as a team. So while I missed out on the fun of Jarvis' wife Ana this week, Stark replaced her in the comedy-action triad this week, to fun results. (And a build to a nice tossed-off joke about Jarvis spending eternity as a disembodied voice.)

We also saw the predicted reappearance of a not-dead Wilkes. Compared to what Whitney Frost got from her encounter with zero matter, Wilkes definitely got the short end of the stick. You might even say there's unfortunate symbolism in adding an African-American to the Agent Carter characters only to render him invisible and silent (at first), and then unable to physically interact with the other characters. But I supposed the trope being played here is not marginalization, but killing/threatening others as motivation for the protagonist. (Though that is one that Marvel -- well, really, comics in general -- lean on far too much.)

Carter swung into action with another of the stealth mission sequences this show does well, heading into the gentlemens' club. I liked that Carter still came off like the smartest agent around this week, even while not really succeeding in her mission, and needing an assist from Jarvis. We're past the point of the show having to endlessly prove her skills to the audience, making it possible for more nuance.

Hopefully we're now moving on to more nuance for the character of Agent Thompson. It was disappointing and familiar to see him swoop in from New York this week to basically be "the bad guy" within the S.S.R. But it seems this season it may have only taken him one episode to figure out Carter was right; I'd much prefer to see him truly join the team in episodes to come.

I'd call this episode a step up, to a B+. We'll see where things go next.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Founder's Mutation

Last night's new episode of The X-Files, the second of six in this mini-run, was a bit of an improvement over the first. Still, it fell far short of my hopes for this revival.

"Founder's Mutation" was certainly a more coherent story, with a more logical plot. More importantly, it actually gave Mulder and Scully personal stakes in the action as they pined for their lost son William. The dream/nightmare sequences in particular were a nice touch, though I think Mulder's spoke more specifically to a vision of parenthood lost, where Scully's played more generically on fear.

I am grateful the episode at least took those two scenes to slow down and breathe, because the rest of the story felt a bit overstuffed. This single investigation started out with a sonically driven suicide but then veered sharply into the issue of genetic experimentation. Before it was all done, we were seeing X-Men. (X-Files Men?) It all moved a bit swiftly, and didn't even cover how in the world Mulder and Scully are just back working for the FBI as if nothing has happened these past 10 years. (I know, the first episode said the X-Files were reopening, but is it really just as simple as Skinner snapping his fingers?)

I noticed the episode went out of its way to be current, with Mulder's conspicuous jokes about Edward Snowden and ObamaCare. It's as if the writer really felt compelled to remind us that these are new episodes of the show. I'm not sure that will help the shelf life of these episodes, but then again, so far I don't envision watching either of them again.

Muddled, but moving in the right direction, I give "Founder's Mutation" a B-.

Monday, January 25, 2016

My Struggle

It's a whole new ball game for television, where a beloved show can just return for a new run of episodes, even more than a decade after its (former) series finale. FOX is leading the charge here, having revived 24 (and with a fever dream scheme in the works to revive Prison Break). Last night, they reopened The X-Files. For the first time in ages, The Truth Is Out There.

But watching "My Struggle," this first of six new episodes, I felt like a more appropriate tag line might have been: The Struggle Is Real. This hour represented all that was the worst about The X-Files in its final, waning season, the period where the so-called "mythology" -- the ongoing story line about the alien conspiracy -- had grown so large and convoluted that I longed for the stand-alone episodes instead.

In "My Struggle," a blowhard TV personality has somehow managed to piece together the "truth" that Mulder hasn't with a lifetime of dedication. Yet the Powers That Be haven't yet shut this guy down, not before he [SPOILERS!] can reunite Mulder and Scully, show the former an actual flying saucer, and lead to the latter's discovery of alien sequences in her own genome.

That's as much as was clear to me. The rest was a veritable stream of nonsenseness, a Sarah Palin-esque word salad of conspiracy buzzwords. Somehow, the drumbeat of "Roswell," "ARVs," "scoop marks," "abductions," and "9/11," intercut with pictures of Gerald Ford, fast food burgers, Edward Snowden, and whatever was handy, led to the obvious and certain conclusion that Mulder had been wrong his whole life. Now, he knew that elusive "Truth." It was bizarre, impenetrable, boring, off-putting. Just like all the other mythology episodes from the last few seasons of The X-Files. So, yeah? The X-Files is back!

I'm sure hoping for better from the episodes to come, because the few pleasures I derived from this hour sure aren't going to last five more installments. Seeing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson back as the iconic characters was a treat, of course -- particularly, for me, the latter. I'd most recently seen Anderson on Hannibal as the calm Bedelia, who always maintained a put-together demeanor and even tone of speech even while shaken to her core. Even just watching Scully raise her voice was a nice change of pace.

There were plenty of fun nods to the show's glory days. The opening credits, still just as they appeared more than two decades ago. The images of Mulder's sea of pencils, still stuck in the office ceiling. The coded references to Mulder and Scully's romantic relationship -- now become a failure (and yes, what a bad idea that was). Still, these moments were but small life rafts in the surrounding insane gibberish.

Of course, I'll be there for every new X-Files episode they'll give me. But if they're all like this, I'll definitely end up wishing they'd left well enough alone. I give "My Struggle" a D.

Friday, January 22, 2016

What to Make of "Making a Murderer"

It's been the trendiest of water cooler discussion topics of late, and I'm now equipped to participate: I recently finished watching all 10 episodes of Netflix's documentary series, Making a Murderer. If you're one of the few who hasn't at least heard of it, the documentary chronicles the story of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, only to be freshly accused of a murder soon after his exoneration and release.

Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are the dynamic duo behind this documentary, and they've created something compulsively watchable, the sort of binge-worthy experience that is Netflix's bread and butter. Through its editing, Making a Murderer brings narrative conventions of episodic drama to the telling of a real-life story. So it's no surprise how compelling it is. You have sympathetic protagonists and detestable antagonists. You have plot twists and reversals, highs and lows. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that leaves you eager to know what will happen next. This is addictive television. You could argue that there's something a bit ghoulish in mining real people's lives for entertainment, but I personally don't find Making a Murderer exploitative in the manner of, say, most reality television. Ricciardi and Demos are simply presenting their documentary in the most lively and engaging way they can.

But then, exploitation is hardly at the forefront of the accusations some people are leveling at the two filmmakers. A quick Google search will quickly drown you in articles cataloging the evidence they chose to leave out, decrying their manipulative framing of the story, and more. Personally, I don't think of news reporters and documentarians as equivalent. It's the job of the former to relate objective truth; it's the job of the latter to present a compelling story or argument. Some documentary makers choose to strike as neutral a tone as possible, but I don't see that as a requirement. (Indeed, I think it often leads to a rather boring documentary.)

Yet the fact that so many people are focused on this issue of "omitted facts of the case" is the foundation of one criticism I think could be fairly leveled at the filmmakers: they don't quite make the point they set out to make. Ricciardi and Demos have been giving a lot of interviews lately, and they always try to divert focus away from the question of Steven Avery's guilt or innocence. Instead, they note that their larger point is about the flaws of the criminal justice system in the United States. And there is plenty in the documentary that speaks to this: that so many people involved in the process are pressured to pursue incarcerations rather than truth, that the poor are horribly disadvantaged in a courtroom compared to the wealthy, and more. The documentary does hit these points. It just doesn't hit them with nearly the effectiveness as the coverage of Avery's case in particular.

There's no voice of a narrator in Making a Murderer, and while this is a directorial choice that's incredibly effective at pulling the audience in rather than keeping them at arm's distance, it may also be the reason for this confusion. So many people are walking away from the series not asking the questions about justice in general that Ricciardi and Demos would have them ask; instead, absent a voice from on high to guide the viewer's thoughts, many are coalescing around Steven Avery. The major question is not meant to be "is Steven Avery guilty?" but rather, "is this an acceptable method by which a person can be found guilty?" I think the documentary answers that question with a clear and loud "no," but is not as clear about extrapolating that answer to the system at large. So as a targeted think piece or call to action, you could argue that Making a Murderer misses its intended mark.

That said, plenty of movies, books, songs, you name it, are loved by people for reasons completely other than what the creator intended. Ultimately, Making a Murderer is a piece of entertainment. And a damn... well... entertaining one. Watching it, you'll feel shock, rage, emptiness, futility, concern, sympathy, and lots more in between. So really, I can't recommend the series highly enough. I give Making a Murderer, perceive warts and all, an enthusiastic A.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Lady in the Lake / A View in the Dark

This week brought us the return of Agent Carter (again filling the hiatus of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Much of the two-hour premiere I found fun and familiar, though I'm a bit hesitant about what seems to be this season's overall plot.

In the unreserved enthusiasm column, Hayley Atwell is still perfect as the title character; she makes the show. She can handle the action and fight choreography, she has great comic timing for the funnier moments, she nails the more dramatic sequences, and she's incredibly nimble when Carter has to adopt a different accent and demeanor in an undercover persona.

What's more, Atwell plays wonderfully off so many others in the cast. Carter and Jarvis remain the most fun pairing on the show, and they're potentially even more interesting now that Jarvis' wife Ana is in the mix. What a relief that we're not going to see any petty jealousy from Ana over this clearly platonic relationship. It paves the way for plenty of fun in contrasting Ana's outgoing cheerfulness with Jarvis' stuffy fastidiousness. The typical triangle is instead reserved for Carter and Sousa (another great pairing), and Sousa's new girlfriend Violet -- and even that may come in blessedly mild doses thanks to Atwell having still more chemistry with new actor Reggie Austin as the scientist Wilkes. (I don't buy that he's dead.)

Wilkes is an interesting new presence on the show (part of why I don't believe they've offed him already), allowing the writers to explore racism in the 1940s in the way the first season explored sexism. Not that the sexism angle is off the table; though Carter is now working with people who respect her and her skills, the new character of actress/villain Whitney Frost was used to continue portraying attitudes against women. Indeed, in this season's new Hollywood context, those attitudes (sadly) don't even come off very dated.

Where I'm not on board yet with the new season is the more supernaturally based story of "zero matter" and its weird properties to consume, flash-freeze, and what-not. The X-Files revival is just days away, and Supernatural is still part of my regular viewing (it still manages many good episodes, even in season 11). I'm just not sure if this shift in tone on Agent Carter is filling a void in my entertainment. And at the moment at least, I feel like it's asking my memory to be better than it is. When we saw the hovering, morphing blob of zero matter, I recalled seeing something like that way back in season 1 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Where it last swallowed up a guy, I think? Never to be heard from again? Unless it was meant to be the same "monolith material" that transported Simmons to the alien planet in this season's story line? Am I supposed to already be clear on all these questions? I'm not.

Overall, I'd say that Agent Carter is once again poised to be a pleasant enough distraction until March. I'd give the two-hour premiere a B.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

It's What's Inside That Counts

I recently watched Sicario, last year's dramatic thriller about efforts to bring down a Mexican drug cartel. Emily Blunt stars as an FBI SWAT member who, after a raid so grisly it becomes her "last straw," agrees to assist the CIA in a full-scale operation against the cartel. But it gradually becomes apparent that the task force leader (played by Josh Brolin) may be nearly as corrupt as his targets, and that their special advisor (a menacing Benicio del Toro) has yet another agenda.

If I were judging Sicario only by its bookends -- the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes -- it might well be one of the best movies of the decade. The film opens on a tense raid of a suspected drug house, and the discoveries there bring a palpable sense of revulsion. On the flip side, the pivotal final scene of the movie is a perfect encapsulation of the film's murky moral landscape.

But there's about an hour and a half in between those sequences, and it's not nearly as compelling. Certainly, there are some good set pieces to make you sit up and take notice -- in particular an assault filmed in night vision and infrared. But the plot is unexpectedly convoluted. The main character is kept in the dark about what's happening for most of the story, and consequently, so is the audience. The sense of "this is not right" is always clear, but the plot mechanics of moving from A to B to C feel muddy more often than not.

Certainly the movie features some strong performances. Emily Blunt makes a sympathetic journey from righteousness to disillusionment. Benicio del Toro is a terrifying presence, particularly in the final act. Josh Brolin is infuriatingly smug and sanctimonious throughout. And smaller appearances serve the atmosphere well, from the likes of Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, and more. Also effective is a truly ominous musical score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, that cloaks the entire movie in a relentless sense of dread.

But basically, I found the experience of watching Sicario to be a steady cycle of being pulled in, only to slowly become bored until the next major event. This is not what a "roller coaster of a movie" is supposed to be. Overall, I'd grade Sicario a B-. If you're the sort of person for whom one or two great scenes can make a movie, I'd actually recommend it. Generally, though, I'd call it a mixed expression of a compelling statement.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

My Sense of Order

For those of you who have been tracking my slow progress through Hugh Howey's peculiarly numbered Silo series, I've reached the middle section of the second volume. (That is, the seventh story of nine.) Second Shift -- Order continues the "flashback" portion of the overall story, chronicling earlier years in the Silo program.

As with First Shift -- Legacy, this installment tells two stories in tandem (this time alternating every few chapters rather than in a strict A-B rotation). A major revolution is at hand, threatening to envelop and destroy the silo. One plot line follows one of the silo's creators, awakened from cryosleep to offer insight on how this revolution has come to pass and how it might safely be averted. The second plot line follows a young porter named Mission, who is unwittingly caught up in violence.

Each of the two story threads brings something interesting to Howey's overall story. This is the first time that we've been inside the head of someone "in the know," an architect of the silo who remembers the distant past and holds himself responsible for the destruction of the world. This allows the exploration of complicated emotions that haven't previously figured into the narrative.

Meanwhile, the Mission story allows exploration of another part of Howey's world building. Porters, carrying loads up and down the stairs of the silo, have been part of his vision from the very beginning, though very much in the background. Yet they have a quite unique perspective in his world, being among the few people who actually move around within the silo and get to see different parts of it. Porters are a unique blend of Everyman and specialness, and it feels necessary that Howey should tell a piece of the story from a porter's perspective.

The perspectives are more interesting than the story arcs themselves, though. There just aren't many surprises along the way. There is a quite intriguing cliffhanger introduced at the end, though that of course is a matter for the series' next installment. In terms of narrative, this isn't Silo's most compelling installment.

Still, I'd call it a bit of an uptick from First Shift. I'd give Second Shift -- Order a B.

Monday, January 18, 2016

I Spy

I don't normally drag my feet about seeing a new movie from director Steven Spielberg, but I only just now got around to his latest, Bridge of Spies. (The recent Oscar nomination for Best Picture was the nudge.) It's the story of events surrounding the famous U-2 incident of 1960, in which a captured Russian spy was traded for a captured American pilot. More specifically, it's the story of lawyer James Donovan, who negotiated the exchange.

The script for Bridge of Spies from an unlikely source: British playwright Matt Charman joined forces with the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel. The unlikely part is that the Coens chose not to direct their own script -- though after the movie Unbroken, this is the second time in as many years that they've done so. Certainly, Bridge of Spies doesn't feel like a Coen Brothers movie when you watch it.

In fact, it feels very much like a Steven Spielberg movie. It's an expertly put together film. It's methodical enough to give actors room to perform, yet reasonably paced. The camera moves are noticeable when there's a point being made, and unobtrusive when called for. The environment of the late 1950s and early 60s is incredibly well realized, but not in a showy way. The bitterness of a German winter makes you feel more effectively cold while watching it than the far more self-important The Revenant.

But you kind of feel like Spielberg could have made this in his sleep. Not that it's sloppy by any means. It's just that you've seen him tackle "common man against the system," "period piece," "film set in Germany," -- all of it feels pretty familiar. And, of course, it's starring Spielberg's frequent on-screen collaborator, Tom Hanks. You feel the same thing from Hanks too. He gives exactly the right performance for this film: soft-spoken, determined, relatable... and you've basically seen it before.

Thus, it's the small differences in Bridge of Spies that really stand out. For example, there's the fact that you almost get two movies in one; the first half of the story is a "one noble man against the system" courtroom struggle (with clear allegories to modern imprisoned terrorist suspects), while the second half is the tale of an untrained "agent" being drawn into a web of espionage. There's a great supporting performance by Mark Rylance as Russian spy as Rudolf Adel, who out-Hankses Tom Hanks with unflappable cool and Everyman wit. There's an intriguing musical score by Thomas Newman -- here working with Spielberg for the first time, as John Williams was having health issues at the time which prevented him from scoring Spielberg's film as usual.

Really, I can't point to anything about Bridge of Spies that was bad. But it feels almost workmanlike for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to produce something that's simply "good." The movie engages plenty of interest, but little emotion. It's a fine film, yet simultaneously I can't really see what made it worthy of a Best Picture nomination. It's a solid B, perhaps even a low B+... and yet it falls short of my top 10 list for the year. I can recommend it, and yet I feel like a few years from now, I probably won't even remember much about it.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Train of Thought

I recently watched Trainwreck, Amy Schumer's first major movie as both writer and star. As a fan-from-the-beginning of her hilarious TV series, Inside Amy Schumer, I was hopeful that the laughs would be big and numerous. And parts of the movie are really funny. But the package as a whole isn't quite what I was expecting.

Trainwreck earns its R rating, but is otherwise a rather conventional romantic comedy. Schumer stars as "Amy," a magazine writer with a serial love life and the expected emotional void. When she's assigned to write an article about a surgeon in sports medicine, played by Bill Hader, a romance begins to blossom. Ups and downs -- and hilarity -- ensue. You know how these things work.

I suppose I was expecting something a bit different from Amy Schumer. Not necessarily craziness, and not an unhappy ending, but something a little more... subversive. Her show, Amy Schumer strikes that note all the time. Even more, her show is often the vehicle for incisive social commentary. So many of her sketches are powerfully feminist and hilarious, so it surprises me a bit that her movie would toss most of that out in favor of connecting all the traditional rom-com dots. It just feels awfully conventional.

That said, the movie does deliver plenty of great laughs. Schumer shares the wealth as a writer, giving plenty of characters (not just herself) funny lines. Brie Larson plays her sister, in a 180-degree turn of a performance compared to her Oscar-nominated role in Room. Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable as the tyrannical, uncaring boss of Amy's magazine. Unlikely though it may seem, John Cena (yes, the wrestler) may be the funniest actor in the movie. Plus, there's reasonable romantic chemistry between Schumer and Bill Hader (and both are funny too). The movie even manages to get me to like Colin Quinn a bit, a comedian I otherwise truly hate for his ability to strangle jokes with a dull thud delivery.

Really, if you like rom-coms, you'll like this one. As an Amy Schumer fan, I was a bit disappointed... yet I'd still have to say this movie is better than many in the genre. I'd give Trainwreck a B-. Maybe even a B, were I somehow able to watch it again fresh, with more reasonable expectations. I hope the movie's relative success means we'll be seeing more Schumer movies in the future.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Sounds of the Future

A lot of fresh attention and love was thrust back on Back to the Future when, last year, we reached the future target of Doc and Marty's adventures in Back to the Future Part II. (Wow... let me take a moment here to note how weird it is that we're now in a year beyond the "impossibly distant" 2015.) Part of the celebration of October 26, 2015 was the release of some new BttF merchandise. Intrada Records marked the occasion by releasing new 2-disc soundtracks of Alan Silvestri's scores for Part II and Part III -- the first time the complete scores for either movie had been made available. And being a huge Back to the Future fan, of course I had to pick them up.
For today, I'll just delve into the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack. But honestly, it's by far the weaker of the two -- a relatively laid back score without much original material. You can't entirely fault composer Alan Silvestri here, given the nature of the movie. Part II doesn't have as many action or suspense sequences as the original, so less bombastic music was called for. And Part II's plot actually took the characters back into the story of the original film, so not many new themes were needed either.

In fact, there are several tracks on the Part II soundtrack that are virtually identical to tracks (or portions of tracks) on the original Back to the Future soundtrack. "Hoverboard Chase" is the first film's "Skateboard Chase" with just a couple of new low brass lines peppered in. "Burn the Book" is just part of the epic Clock Tower sequence from part one (for when you're not wanting to listen to an 11-minute song, I suppose). "Western Union" joins the music from the original's bulletproof vest reveal with the conclusion of the Clock Tower sequence (though to be fair, you're literally watching footage from the first film in that moment). Still, familiarity isn't always bad. "Tunnel Chase" is one of my favorites on the album, despite it using many of the already established themes. Its inexorable timpani and snare creates a relentless pulsing rhythm that feels to me like the orchestral equivalent of "four on the floor" rock and roll.

There are some minor bits of experimentation here and there. A lot of the material for the 2015 section of the movie leans more heavily on the xylophone than anything from the original movie. ("A Flying DeLorean?" and "Biff Steals DeLorean.") The last minute of "The Future" is an interesting, almost sinister take on Silvestri's main Back to the Future anthem. Other tracks play around with how sparse the orchestra can be made to sound; "Alternate 1985" and "The Book" feel like they hardly use more than a quarter of the orchestra at any one time. And while most of Silvestri's music for this trilogy rests on a prominent 4/4 rhythm, tracks like "If They Ever Did" and "You'll Never Lose" feature long sections in free time, with total silence among the percussion.

There is a little bit of new material, if you're on the lookout for it. "Biff's World" and "My Father" both use a melodramatic, defeated melody to accent the bleakness of the altered 1985. "He's Gone" uses similarly dark material at the moment Marty briefly believes that Doc may have been killed. There's also one of the best tracks on the album, "The West," previewing the Western theme for Part III. Silvestri wrote that music just to accompany the Part III preview trailer originally at the end of Part II. It's only a taste of the score to come, but it sets a perfect tone -- it's not pure Western movie, but more the idea of what a Western movie "ought to sound like," a perfect mirror for Marty McFly's own experience of traveling to the Old West.

The album also offers something akin to "concert versions" of the series' main themes, in the form of "Main Title (Extended Version)" and "End Title." The first Back to the Future actually opened with no music, and ended with Huey Lewis and the News' song "Back in Time." So Part II was actually the first time where both opening and end credits were completely scored with orchestral music.

The second disc of the album is dedicated to alternate takes of tracks in the score, but I must say that even as it fan, it's hard for me to perceive the differences in most of them. I'd say the most noteworthy alternates are the disc 2 takes on the bookends of the film, the opening "Back to Back" and closing "I'm Back." The alternate takes frame the movie with a very ominous treatment of the first three notes of the Back to the Future theme, quite dark and rather inappropriate for the overall light tone of the film. It's an interesting (and appropriately discarded) take on the music.

But ultimately, this is a score that only hardcore fans of Back to the Future (or film scores) need in their library. There's little here you can't get in better form on the soundtrack for the first film. I give the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack a B-.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Story at the Margins

I recently finished reading a book that I can't recommend, and have to recommend. I found it a bit of a slog, and I was intensely intrigued. It's a tough one to review, needless to say.

The book is titled S, written by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. Yes, that J.J. Abrams. First published a couple of years ago, Abrams actually originated the idea, handing it over to novelist Dorst to bring to fruition. And it's that idea that's incredibly compelling. (We'll get to the execution in a bit.)

S comes in a slipcase with a seal you actually have to break to release the book. Once it has been slid from the case, there's no further hint of the book's true identity. Instead, a masquerade has begun. You are holding in your hands a decades-old library book entitled Ship of Theseus. The cover is worn (and bears a Dewey Decimal filing sticker on the spine), library checkout dates are stamped inside the cover, and all the pages are stained at the edges from the ravages of time.

Ship of Theseus is presented as the 19th and final novel published by the mysterious and reclusive (and fictional) V. M. Straka. It was completed just before his unusual, possibly staged, death -- and may actually have been finished by a longtime collaborator who he never met face to face, F.X. Caldeira. Caldeira, fluent in numerous languages and responsible for multiple translations of each of Straka's novels, annotated this final novel with extensive and cryptic footnotes. It's believed among literary scholars that these footnotes hold a secret key to Straka's true identity -- or that they at least were an attempt by Caldeira to reach out to the still-alive-but-in-hiding Straka after his "death."

But we've only just started down the rabbit hole. This particular copy of Ship of Theseus comes from a university library, and has been the object of intense scrutiny by two people. Eric is an expelled graduate student trying to uncover Straka's true identity. His thesis advisor has stolen Eric's work and plans to publish a book revealing "his" theory. Jen is a college senior who works at the library, suddenly realizing that the life waiting for her after graduation may not be the one she truly wants. Taken by the writing of V.M. Straka, she finds this copy in the library, filled with Eric's penciled-in investigative notes, and decides to write back. The result is an entire interaction between Jen and Eric, avoiding a face-to-face meeting, passing the book back and forth every night via the library and gradually filling its margins with their hand-written exchanges.

Every few dozen pages or so, there's an extra surprise waiting for you -- something actually inserted into the book by Jen or Eric. You get letters each wrote to the other. There are postcards from travel, photos and newspaper clippings that accompany their research into Straka. There's a napkin with a crudely sketched map, and an actual code wheel used in trying to crack the hidden footnote messages.

This multi-layered experience is, quite simply, an incredible idea for a book. It's very cleverly presented, too. Jen and Eric's comments appear to be authentically hand-written on every page. They come from a period spanning several months, and are not strictly chronological from cover to cover. Through the use of different colors of ink "over time," you can delineate different comments as coming from different points in the relationship: there's Eric's original notes before "meeting" Jen, remarks from early in their friendship, comments from when their joint hunt for Straka's real identity has begun to bear fruit, and comments from when that fruit has attracted unwanted attention both from Eric's scheming thesis advisor and a shadowy organization that may be out there trying to protect Straka's secrets.

One of the remarkable things about S is that you can choose to read it in any number of ways. You could first read Ship of Theseus itself, perhaps looking at Caldeira's footnotes but avoiding Eric and Jen's margin notes. You could read those margin notes page by page, or use the "color coding" to read them chronologically. You could read the entire thing cover-to-cover, mentally locking all the pieces into their proper spots in the timeline (as I did). The reader has incredible agency in reading this book.

The problem? It's not a very good book. Eric and Jen's storyline is fairly engaging, even if several bumps in the road seem to resolve too quickly and neatly. But Ship of Theseus is, quite simply, terrible. The conceit of the entire affair is that this book would somehow have inspired scholars all over the world to speculate about the man behind the masterpiece. But the writing isn't dense in the way of a classic piece of literature, it simply ambles all over the place. Tedious and monotonous, it feels contorted (as in truth, it is) simply to provide sentences for Eric and Jen to underline and either scrutinize for clues to Straka or wink at parallels in their own lives. Ship of Theseus is so snail-like in plot that it's hard to remember what you've just read on the previous page. At numerous points, I strongly considered abandoning that element of the book just to complete Jen and Eric's story; finishing it was a relief, not a resolution.

So, in terms of dramatic satisfaction, I simply can't recommend S to anyone. It's too dull, too dry. But in its narrative structure, it's one of the most compelling ideas for a novel I've ever come across. And it's so lovingly produced, with the "aging" of the book, the authenticity of the included bits, and the appearance of the "hand-written" notes. It's just so damn clever and cool, it's a shame it couldn't be better.

Forced to put some kind of grade on S overall, I suppose I'd call it a B. But that's a strange synthesis (not average) of an A for concept and presentation, an F for Ship of Theseus, and a B- or so for "the trials of Eric and Jen." If it sounds cool to you, you should pick a copy and try it for yourself. If it sounds like a gimmick to you, it's certainly not going to win you over.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Irreverence for the Revenant

This past weekend, I went to see The Revenant, just hours before it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture -- Drama. That made for a one-two punch of disappointment.

Inspired by a real frontiersman, The Revenant dramatizes the story of Hugh Glass, brutally mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow fur trappers. He fights for survival against impossible odds, fueled by the need for vengeance.

The movie is directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who helmed last year's Oscar winning Best Picture, Birdman.nThough the subject matter of the two films couldn't be more different, there is a similarity to how each movie is staged and filmed. Birdman was famously made to look like a single two-hour camera take without cuts. The Revenant doesn't go nearly so far, but does utilize a lot or noticeably long shots with slow and methodical camera moves. Here, that decision feels like less of a gimmick; it often serves to make the viewer the island of stillness in a swirl of activity. Add in the stunning location photography in three different countries (Canada, the U.S., and Argentina), and The Revenant is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. It's a precise ballet, pulled off in environments truly inhospitable for making movies, and accented with mostly seamless CG (adding wild animals into shots).

Beautiful it may be, but engaging it's not. The Revenant lumbers along in desperate need of an editor. It's not just that the movie's two-and-a-half-plus hours are far too long for a dirt-simple revenge story, it's that the film is painfully repetitive. The bear mauling sequence seems to end only to start again. Hugh Glass has multiple yearning dream sequences. We watch him escape from Native American hunters again and again. Twice in just five or ten minutes, he eats raw food. (Both times, with a perfectly good fire just a few feet away.) I lost track of how many lingering shots of a crescent moon were inflicted upon us. I suspect a full hour of needless repetition could have been excised from the film -- a Tarantino-esque amount of bloat (but without the sharp dialogue -- or often, any dialogue -- to keep you engaged).

Then there's the much-lauded performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, thought to be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar. If he wins, I believe it will be primarily for two things. First, the ever popular "apology award for not giving him an award sooner" -- something I really dislike. Second, an acknowledgement of the difficulty of making the film -- something I'm conflicted about. Iñárritu was reportedly a rather merciless taskmaster on this film (and that must be true, to have gotten so many perfect, painterly shots). DiCaprio is said to have gone through hell. But I'd personally rather give an Oscar for a performance that ends up on the screen rather than for struggles behind the scenes. And I found DiCaprio's performance here to be rather one-note, thanks to a one-note script. We get it, he's in pain. Except when he's mad, I guess -- so call it a two note performance? You don't have to look far for a more layered performance of a man in a survival struggle; Matt Damon did it in the very same year, in The Martian. I was less convinced by DiCaprio's performance than the work of his amazing make-up artist. (Now there's someone who unquestionably deserves an Oscar. At one point, the audience gasped at a simple closeup of the protagonist's brutalized hand.)

Frankly, I would most liken The Revenant to movies like Saw or Hostel. It so reveled in human suffering, and had so little else to say, that it felt like "torture porn." Very pretty torture porn, made by an Oscar winning director -- but torture porn all the same. And simply too long for such base visceral thrills. A movie more suitable for framing than viewing, I give The Revenant a D.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Pattonly Absurd

This weekend, I got to see Patton Oswalt perform stand-up here in Denver at the Paramount Theater. I should say, I finally got to see him, as this performance was originally scheduled four months ago, and delayed on account of a filming schedule. Fortunately, the show was worth the wait.

Oddly, I was entertained by all the things Oswalt's show offered up that I wasn't really expecting. I expected loads of film- and geek-themed humor. I expected a fair amount of political humor. And while he did have a splash of those things, his topics actually ranged far and wide. Aging and parenting were more common themes than movies or politics, but it was all great material.

Particularly impressive was the way he grabbed hold of some spiky subjects. He did a riff on civil rights support and un-PC language that used a lot of taboo words. He did a fairly extended 9/11 joke. And it was all miraculously hilarious.

He took a risk going off-book to "interview" some random people in the front row about their jobs, using that to spring into improvised territory. (And invoking help from the spirit of Lenny Bruce when one of those audience members had given him an especially boring job to work with.)

It really all comes down to delivery, which I now realize is what was really lacking for me when I read his book a while back. Patton Oswalt is a truly funny guy, but stand-up is the forum where he shines. If he's touring near you (and doesn't have to postpone), I'd definitely recommend checking him out.

Friday, January 08, 2016

TNG Flashback: Parallels

Staff writer Brannon Braga contributed many "trippy concept" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation over the years -- things like "Cause and Effect," "Frame of Mind," and "Timescape." But the final season saw one of his trippiest ever in "Parallels."

Worf returns to the Enterprise after winning a bat'leth tournament, but finds a number of incongruities awaiting him. At his surprise birthday party, the cake, guests, and gifts seem to change. Then so does the console configuration at his security post, and the clues found in the investigation the crew is pursuing. When suddenly Worf finds himself first officer under a Captain Riker -- and married to Deanna Troi -- it's clear that it's not his memory that's at fault. He is hopping around between parallel dimensions, each a reality that has unfolded according to increasingly divergent histories.

What really makes "Parallels" work as an episode is that it's barely about the scientific problem of getting Worf back to his own reality. The explanation of his displacement is some brief hand-waving about how Geordi's VISOR works, and returning things to normal is an equally short and unimportant bit of technobabble. Instead, "Parallels" is pure joy for the fans, as Braga (with input from the writing staff) plays around with various what-if scenarios, springing from past episodes like Worf's paralyzing accident and the Enterprise's encounter with the Borg.

It's not just the big moves with the characters that are fun. Spot-on flourishes can be found all throughout the episode: Worf casually talking about the maimed competitors in the bat'leth tournament; Riker's glee at springing an unwanted surprise party on Worf; Troi subtly probing if Worf's request to become Alexander's "godmother" in fact contains a marriage proposal getting lost in the translation from Klingon; Captain Riker's bittersweet reaction at seeing a long-dead Picard alive again.

Given this great material to play, the actors really rise to the occasion. Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, and Jonathan Frakes all subsequently went on record saying how much they disliked the romantic pairing of Worf and Troi, but I think fans (and the writers, who would continue pursuing this angle) wouldn't have responded to Worf-Troi like they did if Dorn and Sirtis didn't play it so convincingly here. (In any case, the movies would ultimately marry Riker and Troi, while Deep Space Nine married Worf and Dax.)

Other departments get in on the fun of portraying alternate realities. The bridge is redecorated in a fun way (as is the ready room under Captain Riker); Data loses his signature yellow contact lenses in one reality; the alternate communicators from "Future Imperfect" make a return; a Cardassian is placed among the bridge crew; and so much more. The visual effects department bring us fantastic images of hundreds of Enterprises and half a dozen Worfs (reportedly on time and under budget!).

Wil Wheaton returns for a fun little cameo here as Wesley Crusher, in advance of his story-concluding episode later this season. Originally, it was thought that Tasha Yar would appear, but it was decided that it could make the episode seem too similar to "Yesterday's Enterprise." Unfortunately, we don't get an appearance from Alexander (whose absence is briefly explained on screen). Nor do we see parallel Troi and Worf's two children, though I personally think seeing them even for a moment or two would have dialed up the personal stakes a bit.

Other observations:
  • I love the design of Worf's tournament trophy, which incorporates the symbol of the Klingon Empire in a clever but subtle way.
  • The episode spends no time trying to convince us that Worf might be losing his mind. Brannon Braga wisely realized that he needed to put some distance between this episode and "Frame of Mind."
  • Roberto Orci, co-writer of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, cited this episode as a way of mollifying fans about the re-boot's obliteration of decades of universe continuity. Both the new timeline and the original continue to exist, he reasoned.
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven contains a short extension within the briefing room scene where parallel realities are first explained to Worf (and the audience). Everyone gets it without the extra lines, but they do have a fun personal touch where Crusher reacts to the possibility of a universe without her. (A strong contrast to a universe where she's the only person, I suppose.)
"Parallels" may not express any high-minded Star Trek ideals, but it's most surely a Star Trek episode all the same thanks to the focus on and exploration of long-established characters. I give it an A-.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

A Shift in Perspective

Having completed the five novellas that collectively make up Wool -- the first volume of Hugh Howey's Silo series -- I've now moved on to the next collection, Shift. This "middle part" of the "trilogy" is itself divided into three novellas, the first of which is called (appropriately enough) First Shift -- Legacy.

Shift as a whole is a prequel, telling the tale of how the post-apocalyptic silo of Wool came to be. Legacy spins a double narrative in alternating chapters. In one storyline, set just a few decades in the future, a newly elected U.S. congressman works on the creation of silo itself, unaware of its true purpose as a subterranean "ship in a bottle" for the last of humanity. In the second storyline, set roughly a century after Armageddon, a supervisor awakens from cryosleep to oversee a six month shift as leader of the silo.

Legacy continues to showcase solid writing technique from Howey. He definitely knows how to write a page turner that's compulsively readable, and can pepper it with interesting turns of phrase along the way. The alternating chapter structure used here creates an even stronger pull through the book, as you want to rush through one story to get back to the other.

But this book itself is the weakest of the Silo series so far. The "silo creation" storyline holds no surprises, and features a character who has less information than the reader. It's the classic prequel problem, where a story with a known end point needs to have especially powerful content leading up to that ending to compensate. Legacy doesn't get there. The main character is naive, the senator pulling his strings is evil (without sufficient nuance), and that's about all there is to it.

The "early silo days" story does generate a bit more interest... but its ending too is easily guessed. A late plot twist can be seen coming halfway through the book. And "future history," if you will, ends up repeating itself; Howey treats this main character in much the same way he treated the main characters of earlier stories in the Silo series.

Still, Howey's writing is good enough for me to forgive a small stumble. And I remain as intrigued as ever to see where the series as a whole is headed. First Shift -- Legacy gets a B-. But I'll still be forging ahead with the story.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Sad Chronicle

As a fan of Terry Brooks' books -- albeit one whose level of enthusiasm has waned a lot over the years -- I took an interest when, a while back, it was announced that his Shannara book series had been optioned for a television show. And I felt great trepidation when I heard that should would air on MTV. Was there any world in which a high fantasy show could be good on a network that makes the CW look like PBS?

Not this world, as I learned when I sat down last night to watch the two-hour premiere. The first half anyway; it was so painfully bad that I bailed after the first hour. Where to start in chronicling Chronicles' many flaws?

The writing. The single wise decision made in drafting this television series was to start it by adapting Terry Brooks' second novel instead of the first. To this day, The Elfstones of Shannara remains of his best books. It's perhaps a touch dated and not flawless, and even great books undergo some degree of alteration when making the jump to film or television. But here, the writers kept perhaps 5% of the book's original content. The character names were the same, as was the overall premise of a magical tree's death threatening to unleash a horde of demons on the world. But not one scene from the novel was depicted in the first hour of the show.

This might have been forgivable if any of what did appear in the show was any good. Yet the dialogue was simply awful. From one line to the next, characters flipped between an awkward attempt at high fantasy formality and even an more awkward millennial teen moodiness. It was like Terry Brooks fan fiction or something. And the actors, generally a super young and oh-so-pretty bunch, simply didn't have the chops to muscle it anywhere near credibility.

The visuals were uninspired. Instead of designing any true new look or feel to the costumes, sets, or visual effects, the series cribbed nearly everything from Peter Jackson's Tolkien films. An occasional rundown piece of technology was awkwardly dropped in to remind us that Brooks' world is actually our own after some future apocalypse, but doing that hardly resulted in a distinct setting -- it just looked like a pretty bow stuck on a badly wrapped present.

And the music! When we weren't being driven out of the moment by lame attempts at emo pop songs, we were suffering through a score that played every single scene as if it were the climactic moment of a blockbuster movie. Either the composer felt this was a big break, or was desperately trying to compensate for emotion that otherwise wasn't present in the show.

As I said, my like of Terry Brooks has been slipping over the years -- both as his books became repetitive, and more sophisticated works were being published in the fantasy genre (that he helped make viable decades ago). The fact that he approved of any of this deals another major blow to his reputation in my mind. The Shannara Chronicles is a disaster without redeeming quality, an unmitigated F. Do. Not. Watch.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

2015 in Review -- Games

I'm feeling as though 2015 was the year I practically quit playing board games altogether. My love of them hasn't waned a bit, but it basically came down to this: the people I've played games with in the past simply weren't getting together for games very often.

Consequently, I managed just 63 games played in 2015. That broke out like this:

1    7 Wonders
2    Alchemists
2    Bruges
4    Cards Against Humanity
3    Codenames
2    Concordia
1    German Railways
3    Hanabi
1    Istanbul
3    La Isla
1    Las Vegas
1    Metro
1    Mutant Meeples
2    Orleans
4    Perudo
1    Pictomania
1    Poker
3    The Resistance
6    Say Anything
2    Sorry
4    Splendor
4    Telestrations
1    Telestrations After Dark
1    Ticket to Ride: Asia
2    Time's Up
2    Time's Up Title Recall
1    Vikings
2    Viticulture
2    Voyages of Marco Polo

Yes, Say Anything -- a random party game (and not even my favorite of that genre by a long shot) -- took top honors as "most played" last year. Not that the bar was that high. Note also that my gang's monthly poker game has literally become an annual poker game.

But to focus on the handful of bright spots: I discovered (and loved) Orleans. (Review forthcoming.) Bruges still hits a nice sweet spot for me between reasonable strategy and fast pace. Splendor isn't bad for a "stick around for one more quick one" game. (Hmm... I don't think I've reviewed that yet, either.) Perudo re-emerged after a year away, and I do love that game.

In the last couple of years, I'd also been tracking board games played via iPhone app. I can tell you that outnumbered the in-person games by a wide margin. But as for an official count? I simply lost track. It's too easy to finish a game of something and immediately start another without thinking about it. I can tell you that the games I did play were:

Le Havre
Stone Age
Ticket to Ride: Europe
Ticket to Ride: Switzerland

Plus, there was a ton of Disc Drivin' (which is essentially Pitch Car on your phone), and almost as much Evil Apples (which is even more Cards Against Humanity on your phone).

I sure hope the play list doesn't drop even farther in 2016. If so, you may not seeing the version of this post at the start of 2017.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Here Comes the Bride

It's a bit of a paradox. Because people love Sherlock, we don't get very much of it. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were less well known when the BBC's modernization of Sherlock Holmes began, but have now become so popular (initially because of Sherlock) that their schedules are too full to find time for more. So we aren't getting the fourth series this year. We have to make do with a solitary episode, "The Abominable Bride." And while many critics seem not to have liked it, I thought it was a good one.

It what appeared to be a lark by the show's creators, this episode discarded the modern angle. Set in the late 19th century (and adhering much more closely to elements established in Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories), this installment let Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play out a classic Sherlock Holmes adventure. "The Abominable Bride" lifted a few plot elements from different Doyle stories (sometimes to reverse expectations based on how it was originally written), adorning a new story about a woman who appeared to return from the dead to murder her husband.

Early on, I appreciated the way this story dealt with a supernatural premise in a more credible way. Doyle himself tried to take Holmes into unexplained phenomena in a few of his late stories, always to disastrous effect. The way this episode dealt with the idea of a ghost (and ultimately explained it) was a vast (and entertaining) improvement.

As the episode unfolded, I appreciated all over again how much BBC's Sherlock is a character-driven affair. While never slowing down the plot, the episode took full advantage of the 90-minute format to give us a number of great moments: Mrs. Hudson's indignation over the way Watson writes her "character" in his stories, Molly Hooper's interesting role in this unmodernized incarnation of the show, marital sparring between John and Mary Watson, and more.

Particularly strong, as of course you'd expect, were any one-on-one scenes between Holmes and Watson. This is surely the stuff that keeps Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman coming back for more of these (however infrequently), and they knock them out of the park every time. The scene that saw Watson probing Holmes' buried emotions as they waited on a "murderous ghost" was pure joy. The banter was perfectly written and perfectly delivered.

But there were also a few ways in which the episode misfired. (SPOILERS from here on, folks.) The fact that the episode in fact wasn't as self-contained as it appeared was a neat idea, but the payoff of mixing the present and the past seemed muddy. Holmes' mental exercise was supposed to be a means of discovering how Moriarty might have faked his death. Yet after deducing a manner in which the titular bride could have done just that, his contrary conclusion regarding Moriarty was that it was impossible.

The idea that the episode as a whole was making a statement on feminism was another good idea, but there again, the payoff was muddy. When the crucial moment came for the underground society to fully argue their case, Sherlock did most of the explaining rather than the women themselves. And then, instead of their figurehead, we got Moriarty. The message fell by the wayside.

That said, I did love having Moriarty show up again, even if only in dream form, even if ultimately to confirm that Moriarty is well and truly dead. (He has now appeared in three out of four episodes made since his death, so that hardly seems an obstacle to us seeing more of him.) I love Andrew Scott's demented, irreverent, scenery-chewing take on the character. And I really loved the way this episode's "mind palace" premise allowed us to see a version of the famous confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.

So ultimately, though I do wish the main plot device and its related message hadn't been brushed aside so casually in this episode's conclusion, I was still quite entertained overall. I give "The Abominable Bride" an A-. Of course, I would have wished for more Sherlock this year, but at least this one I can be content with.

Friday, January 01, 2016

2015 in Review -- Movies

As has now become tradition here on the blog, I begin the new year with a look back at some entertainment from the old. I watched 71 movies in 2015, once again making for a small decrease from the year before (where I managed 77). I'm still averaging better than one a week, which puts me well ahead of the "if you see only one movie this year..." crowd.

Here's my top 10 list for 2015 as it stands now. (I'll update this post in the future whenever a new, more worthy movie comes along.)

1. Inside Out
2. The Martian
3. Room
4. Ex Machina
5. Spotlight
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
7. Ant-Man
8. The Big Short
9. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
10. Steve Jobs

I know I'll catch flack from some people over not having Mad Max: Fury Road on this list. More than one person I know has placed it in their personal top 10 period, not just for 2015. All I can say is that I certainly enjoyed the movie, but clearly not as much as some people. It just missed making my list. If it's any consolation to you, several critic groups have named it the Movie of the Year -- enough that there is now a reasonable possibility for it to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

If I find another 2015 movie that I liked more than Inside Out, I'll be truly amazed. If it doesn't receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it will be artistic robbery, facilitated only by the existence of the "kids' table" category of Best Animated Feature (an award they should just go ahead and give to Inside Out now).

I've already written a rather extensive review of The Force Awakens, but now that a couple of weeks have passed and people have relaxed their attitudes on spoilers, I'll take this opportunity to clarify one of my earlier comments. (Um, SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph, in case that wasn't abundantly clear already.) Many people have noted the plot similarities between the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens, as did I in my review. For me, when it was fun little nods like "hiding the plans inside a droid" or "introducing the Falcon as a hunk of junk," I loved it. But when the third "Death Star" showed up in the form of Starkiller Base (complete with an Endor-style shield and a trench run leading up to its "insert bomb here" port), that's when the grade dropped from "some form of A" to "some form of B" on my scale.

It was a good year for Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, who appeared (together) in two of my top 10 -- Ex Machina and The Force Awakens. Sadly, the former movie is likely to be overlooked at Academy Award time, in part because science fiction so rarely interests Oscar voters, and in part because it was released too early in the year.

Speaking of Oscar speculation, this year there seems to be more uncertainty than usual among critics over just which movies are likely to be nominated -- let alone win. But the closest thing to a frontrunner seems to be Spotlight. If it does win, it'll be similar to 2014's movie crop for me, where I found Birdman to be the fifth best choice.

We'll see what's in store for 2016.