Sunday, February 28, 2016

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

And now, the best of the sarcastic and/or flippant comments from my Oscar viewing party. (Yes, this sort of thing is better suited to live Tweeting. But I'm not much for Twitter, and I'm unwilling to sit through the commercials and the more boring speeches.)

Away we go...

Right after Chris Rock jokes about Best Cinematographer, we cut to this incomprehensible shaky cam Blair Oscar Project camera shot.

Kevin Hart made a movie that got him an invitation to the Oscar ceremony?

This new ticker thing for the thank yous makes me feel like I'm watch CNN or something.

Between the ticker and the factoid boxes for the presenters, it's like we're watch Pop Up Video -- Oscars Edition.

I would much rather have seen the "Black Actor version" of The Revenant.

You don't need my amateur snark with Sarah Silverman providing professional snark.

It's awesome that the winner for Best Costumes wore a leather jacket with a sequined design on the back.

Thousands of people just regretted Googling "merkin."

The clip reel of The Revenant is about as long as The Revenant should have been.

Everyone accepting an award for The Revenant should thank the bear for being the only interesting thing about the movie.

How does a movie so full long, single takes get nominated for Film Editing?

(Yes, my group spent a lot of time trashing The Revenant.)

It's quite aggressive to play people off with The Flight of the Valkyries.

Ricky Gervais is sitting at home jealous of what Chris Rock is able to get away with tonight.

Time for the annual 30 second "what's the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing?" conversation.

Mad Max: Fury Road might be on pace to win the most Oscars ever without winning Best Picture.

I love Ex Machina winning the Visual Effects award as a proxy for "should have been nominated in a lot more categories."

You may be wondering where C-3PO's red arm went. Interesting story...

Maybe the people who voted for Bear Story thought they were voting for The Revenant?

If I didn't love Inside Out so much, I'd suspect shenanigans in having Pixar characters give the award to Pixar for another Pixar movie. (On Disney's network!)

What is that thing attacking the head of the lead singer of The Weeknd? Or is he going for the Chris Tucker from The Fifth Element look?

There seems to be one set of prop "giant old lady glasses" back stage that they keep passing around to Kate Winslet, Patricia Arquette... whoever needs them.

Louis C.K. for next year's Oscar host?

The Rural Juror!

You might say Son of Saul was Hungary for an Oscar. (Unless you don't like terrible puns. Then you might not.)

To the guy holding Lady Gaga's picture frame -- dude, you're in frame! (The camera, I mean. Ugh, never mind.)

Elton John was there way ahead of Sam Smith for being openly gay and winning an Oscar. (Ian McKellen was talking about acting categories when he gave the quote Smith was referring too.)

In the Best Director montage, notice how ever other director was talking about the importance of telling a story. Alejandro G. Iñárritu just went on about using long takes. Style over substance.

Iñárritu totally called the orchestra's bluff... and won. Try to play him off, he'll just keep talking until the music stops again.

Yes, Leo did finally scream and cry hard enough to win an Oscar.

Don't get me wrong... I'm thrilled that The Revenant didn't win top prize. But seriously, how does the Best Picture of the year not have the Best Director or even one of the Best Actors or Actresses? I mean, the script wasn't that good.

Friday, February 26, 2016

TNG Flashback: Lower Decks

In my recent review of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Sub Rosa," I noted that in being a Gothic romance, it was a big break in format for the series. Another huge break from format came in the very next episode, "Lower Decks."

Alyssa Ogawa, Sam Lavelle, Sito Jaxa, and Taurik are all junior officers aboard the Enterprise, jockeying for promotions and trying to get on the good side of their superiors. Along with their civilian friend Ben who works in Ten Forward, they're often left relying on gossip to piece together full details on the ship's assignments. But they're all about to get much closer to the center of the action than they ever have before.

This unusual episode puts the main characters in supporting roles as we follow the stories of five minor characters who, in a more traditional episode, would have little more to say than "aye, sir." Freelancers Ron Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias (who had previously sold the episode "Lessons") had an equally unusual way of pitching their premise, creating detailed character notes on the people they hoped to feature. Showrunner Jeri Taylor loved the idea, but unfortunately felt that production was under too tight a deadline to allow the freelancers to develop it themselves. So the actual script assignment fell to staff writer René Echevarria, who felt inspired, in the manner of the classic TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, to "show the downstairs."

There was reportedly some initial discussion over just how far to take the premise, but Michael Piller (running Deep Space Nine, and still involved with The Next Generation) really gave his blessing to go all the way. It has been his arrival on The Next Generation in the third season that heralded the era of storytelling always based in the main characters. And he agreed that for this episode, the main characters needed to step aside in favor of the guest stars.

The result was five characters so fully formed that rumors started among the fans that they'd been developed here to later star in the upcoming Star Trek: Voyager. (Jeri Taylor said this was flatly untrue, and that she was "just mystified as to why people thought that three middle-aged people – Rick [Berman], Michael [Piller], and myself – would ever create a series that had nothing but a bunch of young 90210 people on it.")

Of course, not all the characters were starting from zero. Nurse Ogawa had been appearing occasionally for several seasons, and here stands out as the one junior officer who actually has an easy and comfortable relationship with her superior. It's perhaps unfortunate from a Bechdel Test perspective that her conversations with Dr. Crusher in this episode center around doubts in her love life, but the scenes really do show that there's a friendship there (not just a strictly professional relationship). It also serves as a reminder that while the main characters may stay steadfastly single for narrative purposes, there are people on the Enterprise falling in love and starting families.

Sito Jaxa is also a returning character, after first showing up as a misguided cadet in "The First Duty." She winds up being the real focus of this episode, in a role that stirs up a wide range of emotions. She's dressed down by Captain Picard in a palpably uncomfortable one-on-one. She recovers her own self worth and stands up to both him and Worf. (Actress Shannon Fill holds her own in these scenes, with both Michael Dorn and Patrick Stewart.) Sito sets aside prejudice by working with a Cardassian. And then, in a truly bold ending, she is killed in the mission for which she volunteered. In just 40 minutes, we go from hardly knowing her to being profoundly moved by her death.

Sam Lavelle is deliberately a young Will Riker type, a recognizable character you can empathize with as he frets over whether his boss likes him. The script does a great job juxtaposing the similarities in the two characters, particularly during the poker game. And the performance by actor Dan Gauthier is pitch perfect; at one point, he even performs the "Riker maneuver," sitting in a chair by stepping over its arms and back and plopping down on it.

Taurik is hardly the first Vulcan on The Next Generation, but he really is the first new one we spend any significant amount of time with. In a combination of script and performance, actor Alexander Enberg serves up a take on classic Spock that is familiar but also welcome. You get that this Vulcan is repressing emotion, not that he's without emotion. You can't help but feel that deep down, he's stifling a brief burst of pleasure when he goads Lavelle or LaForge. Enberg definitely studied Leonard Nimoy for this performance. (And reportedly earned the part on his own; though he is the son of showrunner Jeri Taylor, the different last names kept this fact mostly secret, and Taylor didn't help lobby for him.)

The character of Ben was an addition by René Echevarria to put a civilian element in the mix. He says he never gave any thought to putting Guinan in this role of "Ten Forward bartender who bridges the gap between junior and senior officers," though it's easy to imagine it could have been intended that way but for Whoopi Goldberg's lack of availability. One difference that Ben clearly offers is a carefree attitude. Unlike Guinan (and more importantly, the other four guest characters), he clearly doesn't worry about what goes on in any given episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's hitchhiking around the universe and seeing the sights. It's quite a different thing for Star Trek to show us a character who's there mostly for kicks, adding something to both the episode and the universe overall.

But great as these five characters are, and commendable as it is for the episode to give them room to develop, the episode really shines because it doesn't completely sideline the main characters. Instead, it leverages our knowledge of them at every step of the way to support this tale of the newbies. We know Riker probably doesn't have it out for Lavelle, because that's not his way. But we also know that maybe, just a little bit, he does -- because Troi needles him about it. We know what it takes to earn the respect of Worf and Picard, so the fact that Sito does speaks volumes. We know the depth of that respect, because when Picard orders a probe launched in explicit violation of a treaty, we know that's an action he'd never take lightly. Essentially it's not just five characters being given great scenes in this juggling act of an episode, it's eleven. Among the main characters, only Data doesn't get a notable scene (understandably). And Worf and Picard in particular get quite powerful ones.

And I think it can't be a coincidence that this tale of marginalized people getting a chance to shine soars as it does under a female director. Gabrielle Beaumont had directed previous episodes of The Next Generation, but unless I'm mistaken was at the time of this episode still the only female director to work on any incarnation of Star Trek. To this day, over 20 years later, there still aren't a lot of women directing in Hollywood, and fewer still getting any kind of acclaim for it. I don't know Beaumont's personal history, but it sure feels like she brought to this episode an understanding of what it is to be on the outside looking in.

Other observations:
  • Another great way this script uses our knowledge of the main characters is when bad information is given to Lavelle. The moment Ben tells him that Riker is Canadian, fans are already thinking, "uh oh."
  • You could argue that there's even a twelfth character who gets a good scene in this episode. Joret Dal doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he's nicely nuanced compared to the Cardassians we usually meet.
  • I praised the boldness of killing Sito Jaxa in this episode, but that didn't come easily. Apparently, early drafts were more ambiguous on this point, until Michael Piller argued: "Absolutely not, she's dead. She stays dead. [Not killing her] would undermine the whole episode." Yet when he saw the finished episode, he was so moved that he changed his tune to: "We can't let her stay dead. We've got to bring her back. She was wonderful."
  • To that end, an episode for Deep Space Nine began development that would have revealed Sito was not killed in action, but had instead been captured and imprisoned by the Cardassians. The idea never really got off the ground, though pieces of it eventually came together for the episode "Hard Time" (which put perennial punching bag Miles O'Brien in a similar predicament).
  • Taurik also made an impression on the writers, and was apparently considered as a recurring character. With the series just half a season from the end, there was never really time for this. Alexander Enberg would return, however, to play another Vulcan on Star Trek: Voyager. Some joked that this character -- Vorik -- was perhaps the twin brother of Taurik.
  • The "Lower Decks trope" is often said to have originated here, with many other television dramas subsequently making one-off episodes to feature minor characters instead of the main cast. In some cases, this wasn't just an homage, but a case of Star Trek writers moving to other shows and reusing an idea that had worked once before. CSI, for example, did an episode about the "Lab Rats"; Naren Shankar was a staff writer on both series.
I'm simply stunned at how effectively this episode takes a group of characters who were near- or total strangers at the start and leaves us profoundly moved by them at the end. "Lower Decks" is a highlight not only of the final season, but of the entire series. I give it an A.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Merciless Boss

Dungeon Lords continues to be one of my favorite board games, merging a fun theme -- being an evil monster in charge of a dungeon --with a number of cleverly engineered strategic systems. For those who love that theme, but who want something with a far simpler rules set, Boss Monster is aimed at you.

As you can tell from the box, Boss Monster also takes inspiration from classic Nintendo games -- a style that permeates all the game's art. Still, the idea is similar to Dungeon Lords. You build a "side scrolling" dungeon, trying to kill off the adventures foolishly drawn to your lair by dreams of treasure. Rooms are a shuffled deck of cards all players draw from each turn, with Spells also in the mix for variety (and for interfering more directly with your opponents.) You harvest the "souls" of adventurers who die in your dungeon; 10 points total in souls and you win the game.

In my opinion, Boss Monster is meant more for the Munchkin fan than for the Euro game enthusiast. Luck of the draw from the shared deck puts quite a limit on your strategic options. But it's a few aspects to the rules that really hurt the game's potential for me, even in the context of "short game not to be taken too seriously."

First, it's possible to get taken out of the game. Each adventurer who survives your dungeon inflicts wounds upon you; five wounds and you lost, game over. And while I suppose there's something to be said for putting you out of your misery (rather than leave you dreaming of a comeback that doesn't actually seem likely), it's odd to me that a game only meant to last around 20 minutes can't actually guarantee that all the players will stay engaged in it for that brief a time. When I played, I watched a fellow player soar too high, too fast (and not intentionally), only to be knocked out of the game before she even completely understood it.

Second, it's possible to get shut out of doing anything on your turn. Unless we missed something key in the rules, the rock meets the hard place here: you can have only five rooms in your dungeon, and the only rule to voluntarily rid yourself of one is to upgrade a basic room to an advanced room. If you draw no advanced rooms (or draw only advanced rooms that can't upgrade from the particular basic rooms you have), then you eventually reach a point of being stuck. You do absolutely nothing each turn of the game, watching your luckier opponents sail past you. This was my lot in the game, getting stalled completely only a turn or two after I'd seen my friend get knocked out.

Even understanding that Dungeon Lords is too complex for everybody, Boss Monster seemed to me a quite unsatisfying substitute. Forced to play something this uncontrollable, this random, I'd likely opt for Fluxx before choosing this. If Fluxx is your thing, I suppose Boss Monster might offer you some pleasant variety. Otherwise, I'd say there's no need to pick it up. It scores points for fun 8-bit throwback humor, but not much else. I give Boss Monster a D.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Uncanny Resemblance

Every now and then, two rather similar movies end up appearing at almost exactly the same time. Usually, you see it from the big Hollywood studios. But in early 2015, it happened with two independent science fiction films -- Ex Machina (from Britain) and Uncanny (from America).

Here's the plot summary as it could apply to either film: a brilliant but reclusive inventor has succeeded in creating the world's first artificially intelligent android. He invites someone to his lab to interact with and test the creation. But the creation is growing in ways its creator hasn't anticipated, harboring dark and threatening motives. The fork in the road taken by Uncanny is this: both inventor and android are male, and their guest is a female reporter. As a romantic relationship begins to develop between the reporter and scientist, the android begins to exhibit jealousy.

Unfortunately for Uncanny, it does have to exist in the same world as Ex Machina. It comes off as the lesser work on every level. The three core actors in the film all give good performances, but not the exceptional ones of Ex Machina. The relationship dynamics of Uncanny are interesting, but the movie isn't really delving into deeper questions of the psyche; it's simply out to shock you.

The ending of Uncanny really left me on the fence. It's kind of the most interesting thing about the movie, but it also kind of undermines all of the moderately interesting character moments that came before. It turns the story in a way that is telegraphed earlier in the film, and yet the twist still manages to feel a bit untethered, unearned. The movie kind of left me wondering at the point of it all, even though it's actually quite explicit in its aspirations in the first act.

I suppose I wonder what I might have thought of this movie if I'd seen it first and then Ex Machina. Then again, I hardly feel like I should recommend this movie when a far superior one is out there to be enjoyed. Uncanny is a lightweight but modestly entertaining option, I guess. I'd give it a B-.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Struggle II

Oh, X-Files. You could perhaps be forgiven for a lackluster premiere, because everyone was just so damn happy to have you back again. But there's no overlooking how unapologetically terrible last night's finale was.

"My Struggle II" was so stuffed with nonsense that it made the premiere's writing look like a masterpiece. Indeed, if it had only been as convoluted, as filled with characters leaping to conclusions without reason or information, as filled with seemingly bad improvisers pulling their next line of dialogue at random from a punch bowl, it would still have been worse for one key reason: it transferred all that behavior to Scully.

In a complete compromise of everything the character of Scully has ever stood for, she jumped off the deep end even more than Mulder, almost even more than the unhinged Glenn Beck parody played by Joel McHale. You just came across someone with a medical problem? In a hospital?! Clearly it's the work of a conspiracy involving alien DNA! The whole thing felt like a two-hour episode from which one hour of vital material had been unceremoniously cut. Why develop a plot when your characters can simply tell it to you?

Again, the worst excesses of the worst "mythology" episodes of The X-Files were on display, as the episode simply moved without any idea of where it was moving to. And this time, the writers literally don't know what's going to happen next, because they chose to end on a cliffhanger, despite having no assurances that they'll ever be able to pick up the story! I'd heard that series creator Chris Carter settled for only six episodes in this limited run because of a narrow window of availability by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. But this ending felt like he was flipping a big middle finger to FOX television for not giving him more episodes.

It was certainly a middle finger to all fans of The X-Files. And not just because of the cliffhanger, but even more so because the episode denied us of the simple pleasure of seeing Mulder and Scully together as a team. (One last time?) What sort of idiocy led to the decision to keep the two main characters completely apart from one another for all but the last minute of the last episode?

This six-episode revival thus winds up being like a delicious sandwich served on moldy bread. We got one wonderful installment out of it, and a couple of decent others... but it was all bookended by two awful, nonsensical episodes that arguably ruined the entire thing. I don't know what else to grade "My Struggle II" but an F, because I can't point to a single saving grace about it. If this is the last of The X-Files, what a sour note to end on. And if it isn't the last of The X-Files, I can't say it's made me look forward to more.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Two weeks ago, I'd never heard of the film The Witch. Then one week ago, it was awash in buzz declaring it most frightening film to come around in years, a must see. I went to see it this opening weekend, taken in by the hype. And boy, was I taken.

For anyone else who has heard talk of this film, let me give you info I wish I'd had beforehand, and lay out clearly what it is and what it is not. It is not what I would call a horror movie. It's not built for "scares." It's not really about the supernatural, it's certainly not a slasher film, nor is it a psychological horror movie. It's a period piece set in colonial Massachusetts that might -- might -- be best categorized as a family drama. But the family is Puritan, with all the religious notions of that faith and time. Thus, there's a great preoccupation with evil and witchcraft, and from there the movie flirts with the subject matter you expect from the title.

Devout Puritan parents William and Katherine have been drummed out of their village, too zealous for their company. They find a plot of land on the edge of a forest, and set up a small farm for their five children. When their crops can't keep up with their needs, and their infant son goes missing, they believe that God is testing them. But tensions quickly rise, to a point where comments made in jest are soon cause for suspicion of evil intent within their own family.

Despite the efforts of a shrieking musical score, I wouldn't call this movie frightening as such... except in that it makes it abundantly clear how happy you should be not to live in the place and time depicted. Especially if you happen to be female, and especially if you aren't particularly religious. In that, there is some sort of message here, so at least the movie does have lofty aspirations.

But the messengers are often incomprehensible. The script is written in period dialogue, a heightened form of language that takes the ear a bit of getting used to. That part of it actually works; the language is very carefully deployed in a way that the meaning doesn't often get lost in the words. But the characters also all sport an accent from some rural location in their native England -- some centuries-old dialect you're not used to hearing -- and deciphering that takes your full concentration. Whenever the characters get particularly emotional (which is a lot), you simply can't understand most of what they're saying.

Though there are a couple of performances that really transcend this and make you take notice. And it might surprise you, but it's not the two parents. The two oldest children are the real standouts in this cast. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the film's main character Thomasin, and you really feel sympathy for her as her world starts unraveling around her. Then there's Harvey Scrimshaw, the young boy playing Caleb. He's called upon to play a wide range in this film, and he excels. He's particularly strong in one of the film's truly tense moment, an actually shocking scene with a climactic moment that also happens to be filmed all in one take.

But just as the film was trying to win me back, it reaches a truly frustrating ending. The final moments feel wholly unearned by everything that has come before, completely at odds with previous tone and style. The real frustration is that the ending seems to come from some other movie, a movie more like what I was expecting to see in the first place, and thus it only leaves me disappointed at what might have been.

There is an audience for The Witch somewhere, a small niche who loves period pieces and atmospheric spookiness, perhaps. But I didn't get what I was looking for. I'd give the movie a D+.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Sounds of the End of the Back

Not long ago, I wrote about the expanded edition soundtrack of Alan Silvestri's score for Back to the Future Part II. Released at the same time was an expanded, 2-disc soundtrack of the score from Back to the Future Part III. The score for Part II, like the content of the movie itself, revisited a lot of material from the original movie. Consequently, I declared it an inessential album, something only for the real collectors. Part III, on the other hand, is something entirely different.

That's because, to a great extent, the music itself is something entirely different. Not content to mimic his famous Back to the Future score once again, Alan Silvestri created a number of themes, and explored an entirely different sound palette. Part III is a Western score rendered through 1980s sensibilities, using the established series melodies as occasional accents rather than the main focus.

The "Main Title," for example, introduces a new love theme for the character of Doc Brown, a theme expanded upon in "At First Sight," "The Kiss," and other cues on the album. It's a light and sweet melody carried by gentle strings, flute, and harp. It's almost like a lullaby, the most simply stated theme Silvestri created in the entire trilogy. There's also a new Western anthem (first composed for the teaser trailer at the end of Part II), developed in "Hill Valley" and "We're Out of Gas," and fully featured in the "End Credits."

But perhaps even more notable are the many cues in the soundtrack that don't rely on any recurring theme, new or old. "Indians" is a full-throated orchestral onslaught with thumping percussion; it fits perfectly into the idea of a Western film, making it perfect for this film in which fantasy Old West collides with reality. "The Hanging" is an unhinged action cue that bursts onto the scene with an ear-splitting sting. "You Talkin' to Me?" and "The Showdown" are clever explorations of classic Western suspense music, playing with rattles, ratchets, and sharp stabs of a flute.

When elements of the classic Back to the Future score do appear, they're almost always subverted in some way. Familiar themes are given to that staple Western movie instrument, the harmonica, in "Safe and Sound" and "Hill Valley." And then there's the big set piece climax of the film -- pushing the time machine in front of a locomotive. the sequence is scored with three different cues, all brilliant in their own ways like the famous clock tower sequence of the original. Each one expertly blends new phrases from the Part III music with classic phrases from the original film, weaving a sound that's both familiar and tense, chaotic and ordered. And all the while, pounding percussion represents the unstoppable force of the train.

Still, despite my praise, this expanded soundtrack does take "expanded" a bit too far. The second disc contains a lot of alternate takes that are rarely of notable difference from the ones used in the film. And the disc is stuffed to bursting with source music used during the clock christening and town dance sequences of the film -- songs like "Turkey in the Straw," "My Darling Clementine," "Arkansas Traveler," and more. (Oh, so much more.) Perhaps you'd want all of it if you're planning to host a hoedown, but even then you'd find it repetitive. Each cue runs several minutes, usually consisting of the same 20 to 30 second melody soloed in turn by each instrument in the old-timey band.

Despite that minor drawback, this is a soundtrack release you absolutely need to pick up if you're a fan of Alan Silvestri. I'd give it an A-, with the "minus" for the mostly superfluous second disc.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Gazing Into the Darkness

Dark Places is a 2015 movie that, on paper, seems like it should have been a hit. It was adapted from a novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote Gone Girl. It starred Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult, hot on the heels of them both appearing in Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet the movie came and went unnoticed in a paltry number of theaters, before being dumped on home video. Often, this is a sign of a real turd of a movie. But while Dark Places is no masterpiece, I'm still a bit confused about what happened here.

The movie tells the story of Libby Day, a messed-up woman who, as a child, witnessed her mother's and two sisters' murders at the hands of her own older brother. But now, a true crime sleuther group is challenging her memories of that night, and the flawed statement she gave as a child. They claim Libby's brother is innocent of the crime, and Libby is slowly drawn into digging up the buried past.

One undeniable flaw with this film is the script. Unlike Gone Girl, which Gillian Flynn adapted herself from her novel, Dark Places is adapted by the director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner. It's not that he seriously altered the major plot points or compromised the book's themes. But he has a real tin ear for dialogue. There are painfully bad lines peppered throughout this movie. Some of the actors are good enough to muscle their way out of unintentional comedy, but some aren't. There are multiple times you find yourself thinking, "who talks like this?" Still, the story does gain some traction between these moments. The whodunit is largely compelling, and the revelation of the truth at the movie's end does seem to be a bit more "earned" than perhaps it felt in the book.

There's certainly a good cast. Charlize Theron plays the flawed, self-loathing Libby. She's good enough at expressing inner monologue that the movie's occasional voice-over often feels unnecessary. Nicholas Hoult makes his character a bit less creepy than he was on the page -- actually a good thing, when you stop to question why Libby would throw in with this guy. Christina Hendricks (from Mad Men) plays Libby's mother in flashbacks to the fateful day of the murders, a desperate and sympathetic woman. Chloë Grace Moretz has fun as party girl Diondra in those same flashback sequences.

I mean, to be certain, I can't imagine the person for whom this would be a "must see" movie. But it's not a total mess. And in this entertainment landscape where stories of wrongful convictions are all the rage, I can certainly imagine the person who "might want to see" this movie. I give Dark Places a B-.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Life of the Party / Monsters

Last night brought us a double dose of Agent Carter. While each of the two episodes felt good to me as a standalone, I think airing them back to back wasn't necessarily the best move overall for the storytelling. The lighter tone of this season (which I like) doesn't sustain as well over two hours. (And Peggy's miraculous recovery from injury in the second episode was more pronounced without a week off between.)

Still, both hours had plenty of good stuff in them. I'm not sure how much I've really liked the character of villainous Dottie before, but she sure was a lot of fun last night. Of course, putting Jarvis out in the field is always great entertainment. Jarvis was also at the center of my favorite scene from the second episode, where Peggy stops the car ("Unsafe!") for a Jarvis to draw her into a great conversation about her suddenly teeming love life.

Whitney Frost has fairly well completed her transformation into supervillain, and is a more credible one than many Marvel properties manage. I'm still a little murky about what exactly her plan is for zero matter (is it as simple as devouring people who don't agree with her?), but she's certainly dangerous enough to be the bad guy, and espouses motivations of helping others that makes it clear she thinks she's the good guy. Those are pretty much the two key boxes to tick, and Marvel movies generally only succeed in one at best.

I was glad to see Jarvis' wife Ana back in the mix, though I'm cautiously hoping that they don't use her injury in the "motivate the protagonist to boot heads" trope. I mean, I suppose they're off the hook already in that it's Peggy who's the real protagonist (and in that it seems unlikely to me that they'll actually kill Ana, which is the actual trope). I guess it's just that in a show that is ordinarily so smart and subversive about gender-imbalanced writing conventions, I'd hate to see them embrace one of the more notorious.

Still, both episodes of Agent Carter offered up a lot of what they've really polished about the show this season. I'd give both installments a B+. And it turns out that next week will not be the season finale -- this year there are 10 episodes instead of 8. (Though whether it will actually be the series finale when it comes is up in the air. The ratings are not great.) We'll see if they can move toward a satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


The X-Files served up a strange cocktail this week -- part goofy "Were-Monster" style comedy, part 24 episode, and part spinoff setup. The results were a bit mixed, but far better than this season's previous Chris Carter episode, "My Struggle."

Taking those elements in order, the comedic elements of the episode felt like the most successful to me. Most of it came from the juxtaposition of Mulder and Scully against the newbies, Miller and Einstein. (More on them in a bit.) But the most concentrated dose of zaniness came in Mulder's "magic mushroom" trip, a truly hilarious sequence that had it all: dozens of amazing reaction shots from David Duchovny, cameos from X-Files characters past, nods to Mulder's fetishes, and a crazy dance number set to the perfectly schlocky "Achy Breaky Heart." Fantastic and funny, it was the clear highlight of the episode.

The actual case itself was usual in that it was not an "X file"; only Mulder's approach to it (and, to a lesser extent, Scully's) made it one. I do like the angle of putting the duo on a more conventional FBI case, but I'm not sure that it was a good idea for that case to be about Muslim terrorist bombers. The episode was already trying to say a lot about the nature of God and faith, about communication and love, and I'm not sure that stirring such a hot button issue into the stew helped them. It's not that a TV series can't take on Islamic terrorism, nor even (I suppose) that a series deciding to dramatize that has any obligation to express nuance on the subject. (24 seldom did.) But it felt like this series, this story, did want to say more than it really had time to express. I'm not sure the bookend scenes about the trumpets from on high was enough.

So then, what was going on with Miller and Einstein? Was this a one-off joke pairing Mulder and Scully with young dopplegangers, or an actual and earnest attempt to position characters that might replace David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson if they should decide not to return for more episodes? I'd say it was far more successful as the former than as the latter. It's nothing against either Lauren Ambrose or Robbie Amell, who played the young agents -- it's just that there really wasn't anything to them beyond aping the regular characters. The jokes of their similar appearances and similar (if exaggerated) behaviors worked. The idea of actually watching more episodes with two characters exactly the same as the original characters, but not actually them? No... there's no way they could be doing that.

Enjoyable overall, I'd give "Babylon" a B. That leaves just one more episode before this short experiment in "maybe you can go home again" comes to an end.

Monday, February 15, 2016

TNG Flashback: Sub Rosa

Classic Star Trek was always a bit more willing to "break format" than The Next Generation. Take perhaps the most comedic episode of The Next Generation (maybe "Qpid"?) and compare how much lighter "A Piece of the Action" or "The Trouble With Tribbles" were willing to be. Look in The Next Generation for anything as broadly camp as "Catspaw" (the "Halloween episode") -- you won't find it. Still, every now and then, The Next Generation did depart from its own more rigidly defined norm. And arguably one of the biggest departures of all was "Sub Rosa."

The Enterprise has traveled to Caldos II, a colony modeled after Scotland, for the funeral of Beverly Crusher's grandmother. In settling affairs after the service, Beverly finds a journal left behind by her grandmother, and learns of her intensely passionate love affair with Ronin, a man seven decades her junior. When Beverly meets Ronin herself, she is instantly swept up in an intense romance of her own. But Ronin is not what he appears to be.

"Sub Rosa" is straight-up, bodice-ripping, gothic romance. It divided the series' staff. Producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller were against it, and actually believed it would come out as an embarrassment. Showrunner Jeri Taylor "just knew it would work" and persuaded them to give it a shot anyway. Among the writers, Ronald Moore thought it was good to "mix things up a little." René Echevarria thought it was "campy fun." On the other hand, Naren Shankar simply said, "Either you buy it or you don't buy it at all, and I was sort of in the latter category."

After Taylor developed the story from outside writer Jeanna F. Gallo's submission, she handed the actual script work to staff writer Brannon Braga. He and Taylor shared a love of the classic movie The Innocents, and used it (not Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, as some fans accused) as the core inspiration around which to load in "every sort of Gothic ghost story trick one could imagine." The result divided the audience as much as it did the writers. According to Taylor, men hated it, while women loved it, responding to the romance as she had hoped. (Braga wasn't as willing to chalk it up to the gender gap; he felt that "hard-core fans" were "short-circuit[ed]" by the sexual themes.)

I'd love to hear from someone -- man or woman -- who did like this episode. I most certainly did not. There are so many half-baked ideas at play. The idea of a colony trying to recreate a specific Earth community (Scotland) seems like it could be interesting, but is really just an excuse to shoehorn Gothic storytelling tropes into the episode. The danger Ronin represents is murky; Dr. Crusher's grandmother lived a very long and very happy life even while being "cursed," as the over-the-top character of Ned Quint puts it. And why does the episode that was ostensibly for the women in the audience barely even pass the Bechdel test? (Deanna and Beverly scarcely talk about the Doctor's grandmother before turning to the subject of her mysterious lover -- the first of many scenes where Ronin is all they talk about.)

Even the more fully formed ideas are too ridiculous to come off well. Gates McFadden tries her level best in this episode (and episode director Jonathan Frakes praised her efforts), but the script just asks so much. We have to believe Crusher would abandon her career after a few minutes of screen time with a ghost. That ghost, played by guest star Duncan Regehr, has little charisma, and even less chemistry with McFadden. And how can she not look silly writhing around as she's pleasured by a voice-over? (As René Echevarria put it, she was basically "having an orgasm at 6 o'clock on family TV." Which he thought was great, something that by itself made the episode "worth doing.")

Interestingly, Gates McFadden's own opinion of this episode seems to have shifted over the years. At the time, she called it a highlight of the season. But at a convention a few years ago, she ridiculed it. "I was basically in love with a lamp! This woman is a doctor and falls in love with a lamp! How the hell does that work?" Personally, I think past enthusiasm at being given something to do -- anything at all (as Crusher was one of the least used characters on the show) -- gradually eroded as she encountered more fans who told her they thought the episode was bad.

Other observations:
  • The episode does at least follow continuity from one of the better moments from season one, letting us learn more of the grandmother Crusher spoke of in "The Arsenal of Freedom."
  • Brannon Braga named Crusher's grandmother, Felisa, for his own then-recently deceased grandmother. He even used parts of his own funeral eulogy as dialogue for Beverly. (However, much of it was cut from the finished episode. You can see the deletions on the Blu-ray version of the episode.)
  • That funeral also provides one of the few examples of real world religion ever seen on Star Trek, as the colony's governor speaks slightly modified lines from the traditional Anglican burial service.
  • How and why are the environmental systems on the Enterprise even capable of producing fog? I mean, when your thermostat breaks, your house doesn't suddenly turn into the Scottish moors. Even technological advancement has to give way to practicality.
  • Actor Duncan Regehr didn't impress me much here, but the producers evidently took notice enough to hire him back for Deep Space Nine in the recurring role of Shakaar Edon. (He was better there, for sure.)
  • Say Ronin had established a permanent bond with Beverly. What would have happened when she died? There were no further female Crushers/Howards for him to move on to. (Though I suppose some fan out there might have penned some Wesley/Ronin slash fiction.)
The writers of this episode would say I wasn't its target audience. Still, I have to call it like I see it -- which is a D. It's definitely a low point in the final season.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Dip in the Pool

A new and different superhero movie has arrived on the scene in Deadpool, a fun action romp (that at times the hero himself also categorizes as a love story and a horror movie).

If you weren't very familiar with the character of Deadpool/Wade Wilson before (which I wasn't), then surely you've at least got the gist through the film's ubiquitous and hilarious marketing campaign. Deadpool is a disrespectful, R-rated, jokester badass whose wit is even sharper than his bloodlust. It makes for a movie that's welcomely different from most superhero fare.

Most of the time. For the most part, Deadpool is a film where the jokes come a mile a minute, usually pausing only for a bit of over-the-top violence. When it's doing that, the movie is wildly entertaining. It's at its very best in the moments where Deadpool breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience, or make a meta-reference that belittles some sacred cow of the Marvel universe. Even the opening credits are a prolonged, perfectly executed joke. The humor in this movie totally works, and it's hilarious.

But there are a couple sections where the movie falls back too earnestly on the very conventions it seeks to lampoon. Deadpool's origin story is at times (as so many superhero origin stories are) a bit of a drag on the movie. The romance aspect mostly works, as Wade Wilson is paired with Vanessa, a character as sarcastic and fun as he is. But the actual "making of Deadpool" flashback in the middle of the film is an offputting smorgasbord of torture sequences that feels at least twice as long as the 10 minutes it probably is. It's not giving the finger to convention, it's revering it. And reverence does not look good on Deadpool.

Fortunately, the movie is always able to regain its momentum after these few scattered missteps. That's thanks in large part to a perfect pairing of actor and character in Ryan Reynolds. He's played both lovable and smug before in separate movies that never seem to make the best of either of those qualities; here they finally come together at the intersection of a perfect Venn diagram. Morena Baccarin (beloved by Firefly fans) is an excellent romantic foil who is more than a match for him. Other highlights in the cast include T.J. Miller (basically doing a version of the character he always does, but he's good at it) and Ed Skrein (who is basically a stock comic villain, but an effectively menacing one).

Overall, I'd give Deadpool a solid B+. Depending on how much you've been caught up in the hype, it might not quite live up to your expectations. But you certainly won't be disappointed.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Third Shift: Pact is the last of three novellas in the middle volume of Hugh Howey's Silo series. (It's also the point at which talking about the series gets much easier; the last installment, Dust, is straightforwardly a single, full-length novel.) Pact completes the flashback-driven middle of the Silo arc, and is the strongest of the Shift stories.

As with the two previous Shift stories, this novella alternates between two perspectives. In one, a protagonist is again awakened from cryosleep to oversee the response to a crisis. This time, some unknown hacker has actually swapped his identity with someone else; it's not he who was meant to be awakened. With all the personnel surrounding him oblivious to the change, our hero is free for the first time to seek answers to his own questions about the silo.

This is the arc that really puts the entire story on an inexorable road to completion. But it's a more nuanced tale than a simple do-gooder striving for answers. Even as our hero is digging to get to the bottom of the silo's mysteries, he's descending into moral ambiguity. Or even outright moral darkness. Not only is part of him starting to subscribe to the very system he's trying to expose, but the methods he uses in his investigation are decidedly not the actions of a hero. It adds an interesting texture to the overall tale, because even though "the other side" has always had a point of view in these books, it hasn't necessarily been a sensible one. Yet the scales are now balancing a bit, not necessarily because the opposing arguments become more clear, but because our hero is sinking to their level.

The second story line doesn't contain any surprises in terms of plot, but it is perhaps the most fascinating character study of the series. Back in Wool, we got to meet the character of "Solo," an odd but sympathetic man who grew up in isolation. Now, Pact fleshes out his back story, showing us exactly what his experiences were like. It's a quite personal depiction of the human costs that are sometimes abstracted as this post-apocalyptic story often takes a larger view.

I'd give Third Shift: Pact a B+. And the tantalizing (if by this point, not unexpected) hook at the end of the story makes me want to launch straight into the conclusion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Atomic Job

I do love a heist story. So naturally, this week's installment of Agent Carter was right up my alley. Between the attempt to steal a dead body, a key, and two atomic bombs, we had heists galore!

I also thoroughly enjoyed the light touch of this episode too. There were lots of moments of uncharacteristically broad comedy, but I felt that they worked within the format: Peggy zapping Ray Wise again and again with the memory erasure device, the classic "slo-mo team walk" moment for the unlikely spy quintet, or the simple fun of Chadwick unable to sleep next to a lethal and mumbling Whitney Frost.

There were also a lot of good character moments this week. Peggy pulled off arguably her most convincing alias yet, at first almost unrecognizable as an airhead office girl. Sousa had the delightfully derailed proposal to Violet (and the unfortunate heartbreak later in the episode). Jarvis came through under pressure as he defused an atomic warhead. (Two. Two warheads. Nothing like making a soufflé.)

Then there was the addition of Rose and Samberly on the infiltration team. Their odd flirtation may have gone a bit over the top at times, but each individually was a lot of fun. (Particularly overeager but quite capable Rose.) It felt like both characters were speaking for all the nobodies on all the TV shows that have ever been, standing up and demanding their moment. It brought a smile to my face.

I'm less sure about this new villain Manfredi. I'm a fan of Ken Marino, and hopeful I'll enjoy him as much here as I have in other television series. But he basically came off as a more cartoonish version of Daredevil's Kingpin in this episode. (And for the record, I never really sparked to Kingpin like so many did, perhaps the main reason why I liked but did not love the first season of that series like so many did.)

Still, I felt like I was grinning almost the whole way through this episode. It was definitely my favorite of the second season so far. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Home Again

No, last night's episode of The X-Files was not a sequel to the fan favorite "Home." (Unpopular side note: I never really cared for that one.) Instead, it was a fresh idea blending a monster-of-the-week installment with a personal drama for Scully.

The Scully plot line was for me the most successful part of the episode. Most episodes of The X-Files don't really give Mulder and Scully much to do but play CSI by way of The Twilight Zone. They react, but they don't necessarily get to emote. Either because this new mini-season is so short, or because the writers knew they might need to tempt back David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson with meatier material, this episode really gave the characters something significant on a personal level.

The thread of William, the son they gave up, seems to be woven as a continuing element of this season, and I like what that's done for the episodes and the characters. This episode showed us that Scully's regrets about that decision are profound, even more than the recent episode let on. The episode also put her through the wringer dealing with her mother's death. It stirred up memories of early X-Files -- not just in the coma flashbacks actually inserted into the episode (how young they looked!), but in the first season "Beyond the Sea," where Scully faced the death of her father. I'm not sure Gillian Anderson ever had as much drama in an X-Files episode as she had here, and she handled it quite well.

The monster of the week, the Trashman, was fun overall, if a little bit inconsistent and scattershot at times. The core idea of a monster wished to life as an avenging force was clever, and the look of the creature itself was cool. I also thought the shocking violence worked, surely right up to the razor edge of what could be allowed on network TV. But I don't know that we needed the little bait and switch about who "made" it. When the monster went after someone trying to help the homeless, I'm not sure Mulder's previous dialogue about her self-serving nature was sufficient justification for me. And I think the creature's apparent teleportation ability actually undermined its scariness a bit.

Also a bit forced for me was the way the script tried to stitch these two disparate elements together. Gillian Anderson sold the hell out of the final "I hope we didn't treat him like trash" monologue, enough to make me buy it overall, but I still think it's a bit of a mental hike from "loss in the family" to "trash monster." Perhaps I've been spoiled by years of Supernatural, which through many peaks and valleys in its long run has always done well in metaphorically mirroring a one-off monster to Sam and Dean's current personal relationship.

But overall, this was a pretty good episode. I give "Home Again" a solid B.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Smoke and Mirrors

Over the weekend, I caught back up with last week's episode of Agent Carter. Personally, I felt a bit underwhelmed.

I mean, I get what they were going for. This episode was basically the "origin story" for Peggy Carter (and her current adversary, Whitney Frost). And given that gender equality is the message underpinning the entire series, it makes sense that we would get this superhero origin story just as we've previously seen them for Captain America, Iron Man, and so forth. But the thing is, most superhero origin stories don't strike me as terribly interesting. They're often too conventional and predictable. And even when they're not, they don't necessarily provide much insight into the superhero and his or her... uh... superheroics.

I felt all of this in modest measures as I watched Peggy's flashbacks. She's motivated by the death of a loved one -- major comic trope. She didn't always possess the confidence she exudes today -- but I never would have assumed she did. It wasn't "boring" exactly, but it certainly didn't feel like information I needed to understand Carter, certainly not after spending eleven episodes and multiple movies with her.

Whitney Frost's origins were even less essential. I think the season had already done enough to show us her frustrations with her expected role in this time and place, as well as her quiet rebellion against that. Adding a creepy stepfather figure in her past didn't really up the ante... though at least they didn't go for the full cliche in his level of abuse.

Take away the flashbacks, and there wasn't all that much to the rest of the episode. Indeed, things may even have regressed: we're no closer to curing Wilkes' ghostly condition, and a different nuisance has sat down in the musical chair to impede Carter's investigation (just as Thompson was leaving it).

Nothing about the episode struck me as being done poorly. It simply felt inessential to me. And in a season that consists of just eight hours, I'd hope to get by without an inessential episode. I give "Smoke and Mirrors" a C+.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Lilt from the Ground Up

Netflix is generally on the mark with suggestions it thinks I'll like, but occasionally it misses the mark. So it did with the drama Lilting.

Lilting is the story of Junn, an old Cambodian Chinese woman in an assisted living facility in London. Unable to speak English, she is suddenly cut off from the world by the death of her son, Kai. Unexpectedly, Kai's roommate Richard reaches out to her, hiring an interpreter to help both of them communicate and share their grief. Junn doesn't know that her son was gay, and in a long term relationship with this "roommate."

There's a lot of raw emotion on display in the film. Junn's loss is conveyed through lingering camera shots, bittersweet flashbacks, and introspective dream sequences. Richard's loss is conveyed through more showy means: flowing tears and intense monologues delivered powerfully by Ben Whishaw, the one actor in this film you'd most likely recognize. (He starred in Perfume, and plays Q in Daniel Craig's James Bond films.) Nothing about what these characters are going through feels artificial or maudlin.

But the simple fact is, there just isn't much going on in this story. Richard has a secret; Junn doesn't know it; when he finally tells her, that will be it. The movie is only 90 minutes long, and it often feels strained and stretched just to fill that little time. A subplot involving Junn and an amorous senior in her home meanders before ending abruptly. Even the core scenes sometimes feel too long, as characters wait on translation between languages. (It certainly conveys the lack of communication and the sense of isolation, but it also certainly makes for a painfully slow pace.)

I'd like to say more, but the movie simply doesn't give me much to work with. Perhaps you could argue that makes it a good metaphor for the coming out process for many gays and lesbians? (In that until you do it, it seems like it's going to be a much bigger deal than it turns out to be.)

In any case, Lilting has good performances, in service of a truthful story. It's just not a very deep or engrossing story. I'd give the movie a C-.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

TNG Flashback: Homeward

Throughout the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the writers made a concerted effort at giving each character one last, showcase episode. In "Homeward," they seemingly gave a last showcase for a concept, Star Trek's signature non-interference philosophy, the Prime Directive.

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from Nikolai Rozhenko, Worf's adoptive brother. A brilliant but willful anthropologist, Nikolai hopes the Enterprise will help him save the people he's been observing on a doomed planet, Boraal II. When Picard flatly refuses, citing the Prime Directive, Nikolai takes matters into his own hands and secretly beams a group of villagers into a holodeck. Disguised as Boraalans, Nikolai and Worf must now enter the holodeck and foster the fiction that the villagers are migrating to a new home.

There's a certain "been there, done that" quality to "Homeward." The story of the doomed planet that the Prime Directive says we can't save was done in "Pen Pals." The story of the primitive society corrupted by contact with our heroes was done in "Who Watches the Watchers." Both of those episodes are actually alluded to here, when Crusher explains that she can't erase the memory of a Boraalan (an easy out used in the former episode and attempted in the latter).

"Homeward" also has a lot in common with the formula of many bad first season episodes, in that the conflict is created by (and centers around) a guest star character who is given far more to do in the story than the purely reactive main characters. No doubt aware of the flaws in building an episode this way, here the writers try to rope in one of the regulars by making the guest star a family member. In theory, Worf has some skin in the game because his brother Nikolai is at the heart of this storm. But to me, it comes off as irrelevant window dressing. Nikolai never really seems to be at much risk, so Worf doesn't really need to do much to help him.

In truth, it's quite murky to me whether Nikolai has actually done anything wrong. He's a civilian, remember, not a Starfleet officer. (We're specifically told he dropped out of Starfleet Academy.) The Prime Directive is one of Starfleet's directives, so it seems to me that Nikolai can't be prosecuted for violating it any more than I could be charged by the U.S. Army with insubordination. At worst, they could arrest him for using the Enterprise transporter and holodeck without permission -- but they don't even do that at the end of the episode. No, they actually leave him to continue tampering with Boraalan culture by living (and breeding) with them on a permanent basis!

There is an interesting Prime Directive discussion to be had here, even if I feel like the episode doesn't fully articulate it. On the one hand, you can see why the responsible thing would be an absolutist policy not to interfere with less advanced civilizations. If you're smart enough to recognize that interfering is bad, you also know you're not smart enough to be able to pick and choose rationalizations for sometimes violating that policy. On the other hand, this is a classic example of law without compassion. The result is order, but not justice. If Star Trek really aims to show us our own utopian future, surely we can do better than sit by idly and watch an entire species die when we could stop it.

The episode does sort of flirt with these issues through the character of Vorin. Nikolai tries to do "the right thing" by saving the village, but when one of its people is accidentally exposed to the truth, he's unable to handle it and ultimately commits suicide. This is the most resonant note in the episode, thanks in large part to a solid performance as Vorin from guest actor Brian Markinson. The producers clearly noticed him; he would show up in additional roles on the later Star Trek series. So too would guest star Penny Johnson, who appears here prior to her recurring role of Kasidy Yates on Deep Space Nine. (Though this isn't much of a part for her; she plays a doe-eyed damsel-in-distress type.) Veteran actor Paul Sorvino also does solid work here in the role of Nikolai.

Other observations:
  • Another aspect that really gives this episode a "first season" vibe is that a holodeck malfunction figures prominently in the plot. (Though at least here, it's not done to create jeopardy, but to put a ticking clock on the crisis.)
  • It always helps the sense of reality when the show films in an actual location. Here, they return to the ever-popular Bronson Canyon for a few scenes.
  • On the other hand, the purse strings were drawn tight when it came to casting background actors. The supposed "village" of Boraalans seems to consist of about a dozen people. That doesn't leave me hopeful for the survival of their species, even after their relocation.
  • In an act of mind-boggling weirdness to conclude the episode, Nikolai gives Worf the Boraalans' village chronicle as a souvenir. It's the only tie these people have to their old home, and it's not Nikolai's in the first place, but he just gives it away. And Worf, in what could possibly be construed as a Prime Directive violation, just takes it.
This episode's heart was in the right place, but the results are still rather lackluster. I give "Homeward" a C+.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

But Which "Best Picture" is the BEST Picture?

For the second year in a row, I've managed to see all of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the ceremony itself. Last year, I used that to blog about which "horse" you should back, depending on your movie tastes. This year, since I managed to see them all with weeks to spare (rather than days), my version of the post can help you actually see the movie that's right for you.

Here's a list of the eight Best Picture nominees, in the order I personally prefer them. Included are links to my original reviews.

#1) The Martian. I have a reputation with many people as a film snob, but among this year's Best Picture nominations, my pick would be one of the big-budget, stalwartly mass market options. (Even my true favorite movie of the year -- not nominated for Best Picture -- is the widely seen Inside Out.) This big crowd-pleaser is still smart. While that can also be said of Mad Max: Fury Road (we'll get to that), I found The Martian's thrills to be more emotional than visceral, and I'm a sucker for emotion in film. That's what put it on top for me. That, plus the real and entertaining performances from Matt Damon and the all-star cast. And I simply found The Martian to be the most fun of this year's slate.

#2) Room. As I just said, I want a movie to stir emotion. And in a weird way, Room stirs the same feelings of triumph as The Martian. But man, does it put you through the wringer first. If you're not afraid of some truly dark subject matter, and want the full spectrum of laughter, tears, tension, shock, horror, and more, Room is for you. It also boasts (in young Jacob Tremblay) a child performance of a caliber that only comes along once in a decade.

#3) Spotlight. If "based on a true story" appeals to you, Spotlight is the movie for you. It's one of two films in this year's slate meant to inspire outrage over true events. It's the more "conventional" of the two, but that's not a bad thing in this case. It's raw and powerful as it takes you through heartbreak into outrage, and it's loaded with wisely muted performances from a brilliant ensemble cast. The story is the star, perfect for a movie about reporters.

#4) The Big Short. The other big "angertainment" movie among this year's nominees, The Big Short is more fun in its approach and execution. It's almost satirical in its playfulness, but still finds room for some strong performances. Compared to Spotlight, this one won't leave you drained and hollow, but some would say that makes it more approachable. In that way, The Big Short breaks from the "Oscar formula" without really breaking away from the Oscar formula. It's probably folly to hope for a real departure like The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road winning, so this might be the more realistic option.

#5) Bridge of Spies. Compared to the movies I've listed so far, the subject matter here is easier and the morals far less ambiguous. It sounds superficial, but this is your movie if you like Steven Spielberg and/or Tom Hanks. It's a fine movie, a good story of an unlikely hero stepping up in a time of need and winning in the end. But it's not the best work from either of Spielberg or Hanks.

#6) Mad Max: Fury Road. If you read my blog, and you're the sort of person who would like this movie, you've already seen this movie. I suspect I don't need to describe its appeal as much as I need to explain why it's so far down my list. I can only point back to my preference for emotional thrills over visceral ones; this movie offers more of the latter. Even then, I felt it had my eyes popping more than it had my blood pumping. Your post-apocalyptic mileage may vary.

#7) Brooklyn. Here's your tried-and-true, patented "Oscar movie." Girl meets world, girl becomes a woman. Tribulations, and triumph. This is also your movie if you're a fan of expert scene and costume design bringing the past to life. Not too long ago, this movie might have been the favorite for Best Picture. This year, it's the long shot.

#8) The Revenant. It's hard to know who to recommend this movie to, and not just because I disliked it. I mean, the main thing it has going for its carefully staged, painterly visuals. But if you like that, I think you should be backing George Miller. The visuals of Mad Max: Fury Road are just as thought out and lavishly realized as anything Alejandro González Iñárritu presents in The Revenant; Miller just doesn't need to be as conspicuous about it with difficult, long takes. I guess The Revenant is your movie if you love revenge stories, and nothing else I described above sounds good to you. Otherwise, I got nothin'.

What am I hoping for on Oscar night? That Best Picture goes to The Martian, Room, or Spotlight. But since The Martian and Room don't actually look to have a chance, I suppose I'm rooting for Spotlight. I'll still be content if The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, or Mad Max: Fury Road takes top honors. If Brooklyn (no chance) or The Revenant steals the Oscar? Blech.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster

"I forgot how much fun these cases could be." So said Scully during this week's new episode of The X-Files, perfectly summing up the complete turnaround from the two forgettable episodes thus far.

X-Files veteran Darin Morgan wrote this week's "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster," tapping back into the comic zaniness of his original series masterpieces "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" and "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose." But it wasn't just that he seemed to have a great time with this script; this felt like the first episode of this revival where David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seemed to genuinely enjoy being back (for more than a paycheck).

So much about this episode just plain worked. (From here on, there be SPOILERS!) There was the casting of Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby as the hilariously named Guy Mann (and humorously leveraging his role as a werewolf in What We Do in the Shadows). There was the wonderful reversal of format early on, with Mulder having a "losing the faith" crisis of skepticism as Scully tried to encourage him to be the zany Mulder she (and we) loved. There was the acknowledgement of how the very idea of The X-Files plays in this age of smartphones -- and a series of great resulting sight gags. And of course, the very idea of reversing the were-creature myth.

Almost any given scene in this episode would alone make the whole revival venture worthwhile -- Mann's ridiculous flashback of Scully coming on to him, Mulder's close encounter with a creepy motel owner, the visit with the self-medicating psychiatrist... I could go on and on, basically just recapping the entire episode.

I may have a soft spot for this tonal shift, as some of the comedic episodes of classic X-Files were my favorites, but this episode really did it for me. I give it an A. It would be too much of a good thing, I'm sure, for there to be another wacky installment like this among this tiny batch of six episodes, but I'm very glad we got this one.

Monday, February 01, 2016

French Toast

The "worker placement" game -- a staple of Euro board games, and generally one of my favorites. But of course, that's quite a broad category with room for plenty of variations. I'm always on the lookout for a new one I enjoy, and I recently found one when I tried out Orléans.

Set in medieval France, Orléans has players scoring points by moving around the Loire Valley, where they establish trade stations, gather goods, and seek scientific advancement. Workers are discs that come in a variety of colors, and different combinations of colors must be assigned to the different actions you want to take -- including the action to recruit more workers of the various colors. But in Orléans, you don't simply place all of your workers on each of your turns. Instead, you draw them at random from a personal bag, bringing an element of random chance to the actions you can take.

Orléans does an excellent job of including a persistent element of randomization without making the game seem chaotic or unstrategic. There are a contained enough number of worker colors (including a wild) that it's hard to get shut out of doing anything on your turn. Even on the rare occasion where that might happen, unused workers can be accumulated for use on future turns (paired with new workers freshly drawn from your bag). You might not get to do exactly the thing you'd have hoped for, but you do get to do something.

After a couple plays of Orléans, I'm convinced that the game has nailed the "multiple paths to victory" that keeps a Euro game vital in the long run. There are many ways to go after points, and they all seem viable. I've seen differing approaches work, and I've seen still others come close. My thinking so far is that there's only one area of development in the game that you truly cannot ignore -- the ability to draw a larger number of worker discs from your bag each turn. And while perhaps the "perfect" Euro game wouldn't have even one type of thing you absolutely had to pursue, I'm still impressed by the number of different options Orléans seems to have effectively thrown in the mix.

In my brief overview of the game, I've left out nuances that even more convince me that Orléans could have high replayability in my group. There is a series of "buildings" you can purchase, that allow you unique actions in the game. The distribution of commodities across the game board is randomized in each play, which could make a good-centric strategy more plausible in some playthroughs than others. There's a mechanism that lets players permanently remove unwanted worker types from their bags for different benefits (and streamlined drawing odds), with limited opportunities for use that ensures competition. There's a series of events tiles revealed randomly, one by one in each turn of the game -- the benefits and drawbacks they inflict on all the players will cause things to unfold differently depending on the order they come out.

In short, I'm quite impressed with Orléans, and I hope to play it many more times to come. I give it an A-.