Friday, April 29, 2016

The Music of the Final Frontier

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, a concert performance of music from Star Trek. It's been touring all over the U.S. and Canada, and as the tour is now winding down, it stopped at the Paramount Theater (appropriately) here in Denver for a night.

The show was fun, getting to see live performances of a wide variety of music from Star Trek series and movies -- both iconic and more obscure samples. Being a fan of composer Jerry Goldsmith, I enjoyed how much of his work was represented in the show: his main title music from The Motion Picture (which became The Next Generation theme), First Contact, Insurrection, Voyager, and themes from within those movies for the Klingons and the Borg. In particular, the emotional theme to First Contact struck me more powerfully than ever before -- a truly beautiful piece of music.

The classic Trek fan in loved to see and hear the famous battle music from "Amok Time," and the climactic music from "The Doomsday Machine." The completist in me enjoyed music from James Horner (The Wrath of Khan), Leonard Rosenman (The Voyage Home), Cliff Eidelman (The Undiscovered Country), and Michael Giacchino (J.J. Abrams' newer films). Even under the umbrella of Star Trek, there was a wide variety to the musical styles, and packing them all into a single concert was a good experience.

But it wasn't a great experience, for a handful of reasons. One was that this touring orchestra was not as talented as the people of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra just down the street. The poor trumpet player twice missed a note in that famous Star Trek opening blast. The mixing was off at times, burying the french horns completely. The bass and cello players seemed to occasionally lag behind the rest of the orchestra.

Then there were instruments that were missing entirely. I don't suppose I expected a touring production to lug around an actual blaster beam (the massive instrument that makes that weird BWONG sound in The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan), but they were missing the instruments that produce the crisp percussion in the Klingon theme, and the lack of harp was conspicuous during several of the movie score samples.

Then there was the video element of the presentation. On a screen behind the orchestra, montages of clips from all 50 years of Star Trek were presented. They were a decidedly mixed bag, often featuring moments that had little to do with the music being played (if they even came from the right series). There was a rather ridiculous amount of repetition in the clips. (700+ hours of footage to work with, and they couldn't come up with two hours of unique material?) And sometimes they'd let too much of the dialogue play, occasionally competing with the orchestra to be heard. (If I wanted to hear people talk over Star Trek music, I could have stayed home and actually watched the show.)

So overall, this Ultimate Voyage was a fun concept with a less than ideal execution. I still love that I had the chance to see some of this music performed live. But I wish that there wasn't something happening every other song to briefly snap me out of that current of joy. I want to say the experience was grade A, but the truth is it was probably more like a B at best.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Final Review

The "self-aware horror movie" has become a new staple in the horror movie diet. One of the most recent is The Final Girls. The teenage protagonist, Max, reluctantly goes to the screening of a classic horror movie with her friends -- a "sweep-away camp" slasher from the mid-1980s that starred her mother. When the group is sucked into the movie, they find themselves struggling against not only a depraved killer, but the dim-witted, shallow, and poorly written characters of the film itself. And the ordeal is even more emotional for Max, who has suddenly come face-to-face with a younger version of her "mother."

The Final Girls is a clever premise helped along by some good casting. Though you'll find no A-list stars, there are plenty of names and faces that fans of genre movies will recognize. Max is played by Taissa Farmiga (from multiple seasons of American Horror Story), while her mother is played by Malin Akerman (from Wanderlust, Watchmen, and more). Farmiga is playing it straight, the horror heroine who comes into her own. Akerman gets to play it campy in the film-within-the-film, but also has some scenes of surprising emotional depth as she bonds with Max. The unexpected spectrum of her role is showcased in two scenes that prominently feature the fantastic-and-cheesy 80s song "Bette Davis Eyes," once played for laughs and once for something else entirely.

The cast also includes Adam DeVine, Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, and more people you'd recognize from solid TV sitcoms, all of whom bring some decent laughs to the film. Still, the movie is at its best when it's using them all for sight gags; the over-the-top deaths are where the big belly laughs come.

And things sometimes slow down a bit too much in between. One of the pitfalls of a clever "I should have thought of that" premise is that once you hear it, your mind starts playing catch-up. How would YOU tell the story, given the concept? And sometimes, you can be more clever with this idea than the movie itself managed to be. Though it runs only 90 minutes total, it can at times feel longer for the dead spaces between the best jokes.

So overall, I'd give The Final Girls a B. Those who enjoy the horror genre will have fun with it, though it isn't the best "take down" of scary movies that I've seen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Singularity

I love the fact that in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. titled "The Singularity," that title refers not to some kind of science fiction Macguffin, but rather is the name Fitz and Simmons themselves used to refer to finally sleeping together. Their story line was the most compelling to me this week, for several reasons more than them crossing this irrevocable line.

Their undercover mission together made for a lot of fun, as they both worked hard to be cool under pressure and out of their element. Their page from Bobbi and Hunter's book, going dark to get personal was a great scene for them, and a nice nod to the lasting impression those missing characters leave on the show. Then, separately, each had a memorable and tense final showdown -- Fitz being threatened by Daisy, and Simmons coming face-to-sort-of-face with Will. And Ward. When that moment came, Simmons was thrown for a loop -- but still put several bullets into Hive.

Another great character scene came when May called out Coulson for making her do his dirty work. Theirs is a relationship that's been essentially unbreakable all along, and so it's perfect for May to point out that the one relationship that Coulson values more is the one he has with Daisy. Daisy gets a full-blown rescue attempt and Lincoln gets a "murder vest?" Point made, May.

Also welcome is that even in an ongoing story line that involves brainwashing, the series still made a point of respecting character. Daisy is under Hive's sway, but that control ends (mostly) at Hive's direct commands. She'll still stand up to him and insist to be called Daisy, not Skye. She still is in search of a family, and a father figure in particular. And she'll stop short of killing one of her friends... this one time only, if we take her at her/Hive's word. I hope this isn't going to lead to a cliche "fight him, Daisy!" moment down the road, but putting this idea in the mix adds dimension to what's happening. It will also, later, make it harder for Daisy to wash her hands of what she did because "it wasn't really her," because that won't be 100% true.

The one big misfire for me this week was the sudden, unearned, and basically off-screen eradication of Hydra. If Hydra is really just gone now, just like that, what a majorly anti-climactic end to a threat (and plot) that's been running on the show for two years. And if they're not actually gone now, what was the point of even wasting episode time on suggesting they are? Are Hive and Hydra so intertwined in the minds of the writers that they think beating one requires beating the other? I really just don't understand why the hell such a major moment (as Coulson even called it in the episode) seemed tacked in as an afterthought.

But overall, the Hive story line continues to develop in interesting ways. I'd call this episode a B+.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Jade Rebellion

Several months back, I wrote about the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire saga, a fantasy series that cleverly places dragons into the historical setting of the Napoleonic wars. That first book was an entertaining read, buoyed by the sense of "what might have been," and by the fun personality of the star dragon (and his relationship with his captain, Laurence). So, interspersed with other books, I decided to continue with the series.

Book Two, Throne of Jade, sees the Chinese laying claim to Temeraire. As England does not wish to incite them into support of Napoleon, Captain Laurence is ordered to see the dragon transported to China. The premise hints at a fun expansion of the series' core concept, promising dragons mixed into another historical culture. It also suggests a story of diplomacy and intrigue. Unfortunately, very little of that promise is fulfilled in the actual novel.

In practice, two-thirds of the book is devoted to getting Temeraire to China. The sea voyage is chronicled in excruciating detail, making mountainous chapters out of the minutia of shipboard life. There are occasional sequences of mild adventure, thanks to rough weather and other ocean hazards. But when you get down to it, a months-long journey around the South African Cape is far from the most exhilarating tale one could tell in a saga about war in the early 1800s. And it's outright squandering the uniqueness of involving dragons in that historical setting.

The final act is disappointing too. Without getting too specific about the book's ending, the core conflict in the plot is resolved in a quite lackluster fashion. Seemingly aware of her book's lack of action, Novik contrives a lengthy battle sequence in the final act. But the problem of Temeraire's reclamation by China is resolved in a disappointingly slight number of pages after so much preamble.

The characters of Temeraire and Captain Laurence do remain interesting, both individually and in their unusual friendship with each other. But it's really not enough to save a dull slog of a book that immediately robs all momentum in the series that the first book built up. I feel generous giving Throne of Jade a C-.

At this point, I find myself at a crossroads: whether to cut my losses now before being drawn any further into a nine book saga, or to give one more book a chance in the hopes that it will be more like the first than the second. One thing's for sure, I'll be reading some other things before coming back around to answer that question.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Red Woman

Game on!

Game of Thrones is back with season six, and led off with an episode that keenly displayed that even as the show ventures into territory that George R.R. Martin has yet to write in his books, it won't really be spoiling every detail of those books. For the most part, the plot threads that received the most attention this week are ones that have already departed in large measure from the books.

For example, take the reunion of Sansa and Brienne -- a reunion where the books have yet to even have a union, as neither Sansa or Brienne are anywhere near Winterfell. On that far off day when Martin finally publishes The Winds of Winter, we'll probably know the story's ultimate destination, but not the journey: Theon Greyjoy's only help is Stannis' army, which has already fallen in the show. But I do feel like the gauntlet has been thrown with a scene Martin will find hard to top. Brienne once again offering her oath of service, with Sansa's acceptance (and help from Podrick), was a surprisingly moving scene.

Or take the massacre down in Dorne. Martin has been building up a slow burner of a tale centered on a character that doesn't even exist in the show, a character who has been partly grafted onto Ellaria Sand. Myrcella is still very much alive in the books, and Jaime is off in another part of the world dealing with an entirely different problem. So while readers may now know that Prince Doran's days of passive plotting are numbered, there's no telling exactly when or how we'll get to this moment. But it sure made for a bold scene in this episode; season premieres have typically been all setup, with big moves like this typically a few episodes down the road.

Unlike this review, the show didn't make anyone wait to delve into events up at the Wall. I love how the show wasted no time in showing that Jon Snow is most undeniably dead. (Though that's neither here nor there to the prevailing theory of what's likely to happen next.) Davos has always been the character to seek some measure of nobility amid some seriously ignoble conditions, and it's fun to watch him try to do that again with a handful of loyal men of the Night's Watch. That he would now consider turning to Melisandre for help is a big step for him, given his past rocky relationship with her.

Things with Melisandre certainly got interesting and strange in that final scene. Unless I'm forgetting something, this is the first time that either book or show has unambiguously stated that she actually does possess some real form of magic. (EDIT: Okay, other than the whole demonic assassin shadow baby thing.) The books in particular have been really careful to have it both ways -- she says she wields magic from the Lord of Light, but everything that transpires (such as kingly deaths by magic leeches) could easily have a second, non-supernatural explanation. (EDIT: Again, other than the whole demonic assassin shadow baby thing.) For us to see that indeed, she's not completely full of it, that she at least has a glamour to present a youthful appearance, puts her firmly on one side of the fence. And just in time for what book readers expect will come next.

I'll skip ahead to the other story line with notable movement. In one scene, Dany found herself in major trouble (prisoner of Dothraki), seemed to get herself out of that trouble (securing the Khal's pledge that she would not be violated), and then found herself right back in trouble (she's going to be forcibly relocated to "crone central," to live out her days with other Khaleesis). Whether she can make good her own rescue, or whether Daario and Jorah (or her dragon) can somehow help her remains to be seen.

As for the rest? Many scenes mostly just reminding us where things stand -- though sprinkled with all sorts of interesting character moments. We learned that Roose Bolton does have limits to what he'll tolerate from Ramsay; Ramsay seems to be on thin ice with him. We saw that Cersei has not truly been cowed by her shaming ordeal... but neither is she wholly unscathed, as news of Myrcella's death has put her into a fatalistic acceptance of unavoidable fate. (But she could certainly take a lot of people with her on her way to that fate.) Tyrion and Varys remain a fun pairing, trading constant barbs with one another. Arya and Margaery both find themselves is very different, very precarious situations. (Though because of some shuffling of material, book readers for the moment have one last area of the story where they know what's coming, when it comes to Arya.)

In all, a solid and entertaining start to the season. I give the episode a B+.

Friday, April 22, 2016

TNG Flashback: Masks

"Masks" was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that dared to try something quite unusual... and mostly fell on its face.

In their investigation of a rogue comet, the Enterprise crew uncovers a strange alien archive buried beneath the comet's surface. Soon the archive begins to take over the ship, slowly transforming it into a monument to the alien culture -- and possessing Data with numerous personae from its mythology.

"Masks" was the brainchild of staff writer Joe Menosky, who had worked an unusual deal with the production that allowed him to live in Europe for three years and send in ideas to the show remotely. After writing the brilliant episode "Darmok," one can imagine how he secured such a sweet deal. "Masks" even feels a bit like a spiritual successor to "Darmok," in that both stories feature an alien culture with its own carefully detailed mythology that's largely and purposefully kept hidden from both the main characters and the audience.

But where "Darmok" used its mythology as backdrop for a powerful story about how people communicate and bond with each other, "Masks" seems to have no real message at its core. At least, none that got across even to those working on the show. The episode's director, Robert Wiemer, noted that he couldn't find here the meaningful subtext or morality play that he thought typical of the series, deciding the episode "didn't have any heart." Staff writer Ronald Moore recalled that upon seeing the first draft script, "we all sort of scratched our heads and looked at each other and wondered what he's smoking out there in the Alps."

Though to be fair, that first draft was reportedly even weirder than what ended up on screen. Menosky's approach used pure archetypal forms so difficult to conceptualize that a rewrite was deemed necessary. Staff writer Naren Shankar drew that assignment, and added actual characters from the archive that the audience could relate to. Yet even he acknowledged that "the end result's still kinda confusing." Another staff writer, Brannon Braga explained the episode thusly: "Joe is one of those writers who has a unique vision that no one else understands. Shows need to be nurtured by him and it's very tough to come in on one of his scripts and start rewriting it."

But it's not just the broad strokes that don't quite make sense in this episode. Even the details seem off. Why is Troi so blasé at the thought that someone might have broken into her quarters? Why does the crew assume there's something hiding in the center of the comet in first place? And what's the point, script-wise, of uncovering the alien archive in that way, as opposed to just encountering it in space? When the archive starts hacking the ship's computer and transforming the Enterprise in a way that threatens to expose people to open space, why is it not immediately taken as a dire threat? How does a society advanced enough to create this probe still cling to a mythology in which, as Troi puts it, only the sun OR the moon can be ascendance at any one time. (Imagine the tidal forces on a world where that's literally true!)

What started out rough on the page was further hindered in the performance. It's rare for me to cast aspersions at the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but here Brent Spiner himself beat me to the punch. He has repeatedly talked about the making of this episode (including in the documentary on the seventh season Blu-ray collection). He was just coming off "Thine Own Self," an episode in which he was heavily featured, and which was filming past midnight on its final day. "Masks" was set to start the next morning, and he only read the script for the first time in between late night shots of "Thine Own Self." He was so alarmed by what he read that he called showrunner Jeri Taylor and begged her for an emergency episode shuffle.

Spiner recalls saying, "Give me six months and I think I could give all the characters their due." Taylor remembers him arguing that "Dustin Hoffman had a year to figure out how to do Tootsie and portray a woman." She apparently took it as an actors' not-atypical whining, fluffed up his ego, and assured him he could do it. But suffice it to say, whatever magic goes into, say, Tatiana Maslany's stellar multi-character performance on Orphan Black wasn't there that week for Brent Spiner. I give him credit for making firm choices and committing to them... but they were clearly his first choices, with no time to modulate the results.

And so you get a procession of quirky voices (further modulated in post-production) as Data is inhabited by four different characters (and sprouts a morphing chest piece to further signal the character switches to the audience). Meanwhile, the plot flirts oh-so-closely with an idea that might actually have worked better: having other main characters be possessed too. Picard, for example, ultimately poses as Korgano to resolve the story, while the episode twice tries to make us think that Troi is Masaka (once when Data mistakes her identity, and again when the camera lingers on her strangely in Masaka's temple as she ascends the steps toward the throne).

Brent Spiner's sense of self-confidence wasn't the only casualty of having this episode immediately follow "Thine Own Self," either. With the back-to-back positioning of these two stories, Data winds up with amnesia twice in two weeks. And Troi's first responsibility with her new rank of commander? Teaching sculpture to school children.

And yet, there's some pretty great production value on display here, which sometimes lulls you into thinking maybe the episode isn't as bad as all that. The visual effects of the comet are pretty spectacular (from the same people who created the comet for Deep Space Nine's opening sequence). Masaka's temple is a large and impressive set build on Deep Space Nine's stage (because the "Thine Own Self" village was still standing on The Next Generation's own stage); it was later redressed for use on Deep Space Nine in the episode "Blood Oath." There's also a neat moment at the end when the mask disappears off Picard's face, an effect made possible by Patrick Stewart's ability to hold absolutely motionless as someone removed his mask with the camera rolling. (Those seconds of footage were then removed from the scene.)

Other observations:
  • There are a trio of deleted scenes and/or scene extensions included with the Blu-ray version of this episode. One, set early on in Ten Forward, depicts food and drink transformed by the alien archive, and revisits the old gag of Worf enjoying the taste of something that everyone else finds disgusting. Another scene has the characters speculating as to the purpose of the archive; Worf's thought that it might be a weapon is, as per tradition, shot down.
  • Speaking of Worf, Michael Dorn has at least once stated this was his least favorite episode of the entire series.
Despite the episode's numerous flaws, there is somehow a sense here that no one is phoning it in. I find I can't send it to the cellar with the truly worst episodes of the series. Still, I can't see fit to grade it better than a C-.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Just Be Coup

I've written before about the card game The Resistance, a large group game in the style of "Werewolf." The makers of the game have been busily spinning it off over the years, with expansions, an Arthurian version... and then a different game set in the same universe -- Coup: Rebellion G54.

Besides the same science fiction setting, Coup shares other elements with The Resistance. Both are meant for larger groups of players. Both take only 10-15 minutes to play, with the idea being that you'd play the game multiple times in one sitting. And both revolve around lying convincingly to your friends.

Each round starts with five different character roles known to all players. Some characters accumulate money. Some launch attacks on other players. Some are more subtle and devious. From a deck containing copies of all five roles, each player is dealt two characters, kept secret from the group and representing influence ("health"). On your turn, you simply declare that you are one of the characters, and carry out its associated ability. That may or may not be one of the actual characters you hold in secret, but that doesn't really matter... if you can get away with it. Any opponent can choose to challenge the role you've declared. If they challenge, and you then reveal a character card proving your identity, they lose one point of influence. If they challenge and you were lying about it, you lose the point of influence. When you've lost both of your influence, you're out of the game.

Coup is thus part Resistance, part Bullshit (that card game sometimes known by tamer names). And kinda-sorta, it's part Dominion, in that the game comes with 25 different roles, only 5 of which are actually used in any given play of the game. You can thus refresh and vary the game as often as you like by switching out the roles in the mix.

On the one hand, it's good that a game in which players are knocked out as a matter of course is also a short game -- you never have to wait long after being eliminated. On the other hand, I felt as though the game always concluded before it really got interesting. You have only one chance to be wrong; your second mistake takes you out. So you really don't get to enjoy lying about your role much before someone calls you out. You really don't get to challenge other players much before being proven wrong. Hell, you barely even have time to learn what all the 5 roles in your particular playthrough even do before being eliminated. The game simply ends too fast, before I think it reaches its full inherent potential for fun.

I'm also not sure the game actually has a "sweet spot" number of players, either. When I played with just four, the "it's over too fast" feeling was magnified. When I played with the maximum of six, the mechanisms of the game made it too easy for one player to be ganged up on by the rest and eliminated without any ability to defend himself.

The idea of the game seems fun, but this particularly execution felt quite flawed to me. I couldn't see choosing this game over The Resistance itself. I give it a D+.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Team

Next to a good heist story, one of my favorite plot archetypes is "who is the mole?" So this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was right up my alley, with its tale of suspicion and distrust as one of the Inhumans had been secretly mind-controlled by Hive (who thankfully now has a name besides "Ward").

But before we got to that, we got a fun opening act of action where Daisy's Secret Warriors wrecked some shop. I liked the reminders that these weren't trained agents used to this sort of thing, particularly when Joey was profoundly rattled over killing somebody. You don't become a superhero overnight, even if your powers are given to you overnight.

The Inhumans' inexperience played perfectly into how quickly the team came apart at the seams under the cloud of suspicion. I thought the question of "who is Hive's inside man" had a decent red herring in play. While I never believed that Lincoln was actually responsible once the finger had been pointed at him, the knowledge that Hive himself is living inside a dead body made me wonder if zombie Lucio might be getting up off the slab at some point to cause trouble.

But ultimately, the show opted for the twist that gives the most narrative promise down the back stretch -- having Daisy fall under Hive's sway. It plays her powers against a largely powerless team, it taps into the checkered history between Ward and Skye, and it puts a decent obstacle in the way of the not-entirely-shippable-so-far relationship between Daisy and Lincoln. Plenty of angles to play in the coming episodes.

Obstacles finally got out of the way of the other romantic relationship among main characters -- Fitz and Simmons finally shared a kiss in a nice scene that was both sweet and funny at times. Not only was it a big milestone for the characters, but it finally made good use of the ongoing "someone on the team is going to die" tease. Knowing how these stories so often work, the fact that these two have finally gotten together and found some happiness certainly makes you worry that one of them could be on the chopping block.

My one quibble with the episode is how quickly and unceremoniously it dispensed with long-running villain Malick. While the circumspect manner in which he was killed by Hive certainly twisted his vision of his own death in a clever way, the fact that he'd just decided to work with Coulson to get revenge -- and then us not actually getting to see any actual Malick-S.H.I.E.L.D. team-up episode -- felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Still, it was a solid episode overall, filled with great character beats, effective dissension-in-the-ranks mystery, and a plot development that moved another main character into the "bad guy" column. I give this episode an A-.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Confirmation Bias

This past weekend, HBO unveiled a new original movie, Confirmation. It examines the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, and the sexual harassment allegations brought against him by Anita Hill. At the time HBO greenlit the movie, there was no way to know the movie would become "extra topical" for two reasons -- the ongoing obstruction to filling the Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia's death, and the sudden thirst for "real-life legal dramas" stoked by American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

It is in light of the second thing that Confirmation feels rather lightweight. Though I never blogged about it, I watched all of American Crime Story's first season. I won't get sidetracked by a full review of it now, but suffice it to say it was of a much higher quality than I expected going in. The series dug beneath the spectacle and made real people of the trial's major players -- people with understandable motivations that you could sympathize for. In short, American Crime Story presented a very satisfying answer to the question: "how did this all happen the way it did?"

Confirmation falls well short of that. Though you get a rough sketch of the "character" of Anita Hill and her motivations here, everyone else is an empty suit. Clarence Thomas is largely inscrutable, whatever pressures are leading Joe Biden to be such a bumbling pushover are murky, Charles Ogletree's decision to represent Professor Hill feels impulsive, and an interchangeable handful of senators make no impression at all.

The production seems to have relied on casting to generate any personality or emotion at all -- but at least in that, they were fortunate with many of the actors they found. Kerry Washington projects a quiet dignity as Anita Hill, poised under unwanted scrutiny as the wolves tear into her. Wendell Pierce leverages any goodwill you might feel toward him from The Wire or Treme to try to make the narrative seem balanced between his Clarence Thomas and Hill. Greg Kinnear as Biden nails the sense of a cornered (but resigned) animal who would rather be anywhere else. And there are some small thrills in watching Eric Stonestreet shed his Modern Family persona to play a calculating politico, Bill Irwin grandstanding as grandstanding senator John Danforth, and generally watching a parade of working character actors you'll recognize "from somewhere."

But at the end of the day, Confirmation doesn't seem to have much to say beyond, "this is a thing that happened." To be sure, it takes the point of view that Anita Hill was telling the truth, but that just doesn't seem like enough to float this dramatization. At least, it doesn't seem sharpened enough, if "anger-tainment" is the sole aim. I give the film a C+.

Monday, April 18, 2016

TNG Flashback: Thine Own Self

Many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation feature two separate, unrelated plot lines. But occasionally, the plot clearly intended as "secondary" is the more successful of the two. So it was with "Thine Own Self."

Data has been sent to retrieve radioactive material from a crashed probe, planning to avoid contact with the planet's preindustrial society. But when a malfunction gives him amnesia, he wanders into an alien settlement for help -- bringing a "plague" of radiation from the metal he's already recovered. Meanwhile, aboard the Enterprise, Counselor Troi has decided to test for a promotion to commander.

This was the second episode of the season (after "Gambit, Part I") to be pitched by outside writer Christopher Hatton. This time out, his pitch was simpler, yet irresistible: Data as Frankenstein. Staff writer Ronald Moore, who crafted the screenplay, noted how fully that premise was embraced: "He wanders into the medieval village, is befriended by the little girl, and villagers come out and chase him with torches!"

But Moore also would later acknowledge problems with the finished product. He noted this was a bad time in the season for him (possibly because he and Brannon Braga were hard at work developing the script for the coming movie, Generations, on top of their normal work load). Astutely, he observed that "I never figured out what it was about. I didn't know what I was trying to say with the episode." Certainly, things happen to Data in this story, but they don't amount to much. The episode is not even the clear statement on "fear of the new" that the original Frankenstein is.

It doesn't help that amnesia stories are one of the worst, desperate tropes of television writing. Or that Data's amnesia is so bizarrely, unaccountably specific. He remembers cellular biology, mechanical engineering, and scientific method... but not radioactivity. He forgets exactly enough to cause the problem, and remembers exactly enough to solve it. And then, lest he actually learn anything from his experience, he gets amnesia again at the end of the episode; in the end, only the audience knows the full story of what happened.

Yet with only half a personality in this episode, Data still has more personality than any of the villagers he encounters. Talur is perhaps interesting for being a strange amalgam -- she's both the town doctor and the school teacher? But the rest are decidedly one note in concept, and all the more so in lackluster performances.

But where the episode's main plot line disappoints, its subplot strives to fill the gap. It starts off on the right foot, with Ronald Moore's wise decision not to show the rest of the crew searching for the missing Data. Instead, he salvaged an idea originally jettisoned from the episode "Liaisons," to have Troi seek a promotion. His inspiration came not just Troi's temporary command in "Disaster" (which Troi recalls in this episode), but from the novelization that showrunner Jeri Taylor wrote for "Unification." As Moore explained in one interview, "Jeri had a line in there about tasting blood and wanting to again, and that stuck with me. I thought that was an interesting direction to take Troi." Indeed it was, and particularly for Troi instead of other characters you might expect in such a story line, like Data (who wouldn't have to work hard for it) or Geordi (who I think wouldn't "need it" as much).

The particular test we get to see is clever in that it feels like a Kobayashi Maru. It seems that no matter what Troi tries, destruction is inevitable. She even challenges Riker, asking if this test is a no-win scenario. Every long time Star Trek fan surely thinks by this point that it is, yet Riker insists it's not.

Throughout this story line, the interplay between Riker and Troi is wonderful. There's the playful conversation via trombone. There's Riker's use of "imzadi" (which Jonathan Frakes asked for on set, in one of the few instances where a Star Trek actor successfully lobbied to change a line). Particularly great is the moment when Riker reacts with what seems like uncharacteristic harshness, suggesting that Troi simply might not be cut out for command. We soon learn that this is Riker's way of giving her a clue without telling her the solution -- he is hard with her to hint that she must be hard, that she must order a crew member to their death. In short, this subplot contains all the emotion that the main plot is lacking.

Other observations:
  • You might notice that Patrick Stewart appears only in the final scene of the episode -- and has only one line in it. He asked for time off to perform his one-man version of A Christmas Carol, and the request was granted by writing him out of this episode.
  • The Barkon village set was a particularly large and expensive build for this episode, but the cost was mitigated when the set was reused in three more Next Generation episodes ("Journey's End," "Firstborn," and "Preemptive Strike") and one Deep Space Nine ("Shadowplay").
  • The Blu-ray release of Season 7 includes a few deleted lines in which the little girl Gia explains the inspiration for the name she gives Data, Jayden. Suffice it to say, these are not the crucial lines that would have saved the story line.
Though a couple of comedic moments with Data do land, it's Troi's quest for a promotion that makes this episode at all worthwhile. Overall, I'd give "Thine Own Self" a C+.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Which Way the Wind Blows

The board game North Wind first caught my attention because of its designer, Klaus Teuber. While Teuber's most famous work, Settlers of Catan, has been surpassed in my mind by other games and other designers, there's no question that it's a masterpiece. It was the shoulders upon which all those later games stood, one of my first forays into Euro board games, and to this day one of the best "crossover" games for introducing new people to the world beyond Monopoly. So yes, I'd probably give anything from Klaus Teuber a try.

North Wind sets the players up as trade captains, transporting cargo through pirate-infested islands. Your job is to deliver needed goods to three major cities, getting there before your rivals do and cause the cities' demands to change.

Though North Wind does not mechanically resemble Settlers of Catan in any way, I feel a spiritual connection between the two in how they incorporate randomness. 24 ocean and island tiles are shuffled randomly into three stacks of 8 at the start of the game. When you "set sail" on your turn, you pick one of the stacks, and then turn over tiles one at a time in a sort of "press your luck" fashion until you have taken two actions or have been thwarted by pirates. Then the pile is shuffled and reset for the next player who might choose to sail it.

So consider Settlers of Catan. It shows you the odds that each tile will produce goods (letting you plan accordingly), and then dice are rolled frequently enough that things should even out over time. But it is still random, leading to uncertainty in the game. North Wind is much the same. A few rounds into the game, you should have a sense of which stack contains which goods, more or fewer pirate threats, and so forth. But every player faces the randomness of stack order on every turn they take. So you can plan, but it is still random.

That randomness bit one player particularly hard when I first played the game (much as I feel one player in any given 4-player game of Settlers of Catan gets the shaft from the dice). It was painful to watch her struggle through no bad planning on her part; even the steps she took to mitigate randomness -- which the game does offer -- didn't seem to do enough. So my impression in the end was that, however fun North Wind might be, every time you play it, there's the chance you might be the victim of bad luck.

Though it was kind of fun. And yet the thing is, I'm not sure how much of that I should attribute to the game itself, and how much I should attribute to the incredibly slick props the game comes with. Each player receives his own cardboard ship, assembled from thick board stock and placed right in front of him throughout the game. The ship has slots on the deck for wooden bits -- the goods you acquire and pirates you capture. It has slots on the side for cannons to be attached. It has slots for crew members you can recruit, including one spot in a crow's nest at the top of the mast. And it even has a sail you hoist upward throughout the game as you increase the range your ship can travel.

I'm not the sort of gamer that usually goes for flashy bits in a game. But even I was swayed; these ships are freaking cool.

I suspect the fact that I haven't replayed North Wind since that initial experience suggests that indeed, there's more style than substance to this game. But the thing is, I would try it again. Whether that's the mechanics or the props influencing me, credit goes to Klaus Teuber either way. (Well... maybe more to his artists, if the latter.)

I think I'd call North Wind a B-...  provisionally, at least, until I see how it holds up on future plays. I wouldn't say it's a must-buy for most board gamers. But there are those out there for whom solid "bits" are the main draw of a game. For those people, North Wind should not be overlooked.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Six-y Music

The HBO documentary Six by Sondheim has been sitting on my "to watch" pile for quite some time. As much as I enjoy the music of Stephen Sondheim, I wasn't necessarily sure that I'd enjoy this movie -- or at least, what I supposed this movie might be: a long view biography of the composer. If I'd had a better idea of the documentary's actual content, I'd have made more a priority of watching it.

Six by Sondheim examines the career of Stephen Sondheim by way of six particular songs -- "Something's Coming" (from West Side Story), "Opening Doors" (Merrily We Roll Along), "Send in the Clowns" (A Little Night Music), "I'm Still Here" (Follies), "Being Alive" (Company), and "Sunday" (Sunday in the Park With George). By focusing on specific examples rather than generally doting on the man's illustrious career, the movie is really able to dive into technique. It's not "first he did this musical, then he did that musical...", but rather "here's what he experimenting with in this song, here are the lessons he learned from that song..."

And the main throughline of it all is: here's how Sondheim works. The film blends footage of interviews with Sondheim from all throughout his career (alongside brand new interviews). Again and again, it's made clear that Sondheim is not one to leave creativity to whimsy or muse. There are specific principles that govern his work. He thinks very carefully about character and performer, and his compositions are informed by that deep thinking. When he fields questions from actors ("why did you write it this way?"), he always seems to have an answer, thought about ahead of time, never concocted haphazardly on the spot.

It's also clear from the documentary that Sondheim's skill as a teacher might be even greater than his skill as a composer. Some of the film's interviews are actually conducted in front of students (such as the clips from James Lipton's famous Inside the Actors Studio series), and those students are clearly enraptured -- and for good reason. And in his interactions with actors, Sondheim always wants to guide and illuminate rather than swing the cudgel of authorial intent.

These fascinating insights into the creative process are interspersed with actual performances of the songs in question -- sometimes in archival footage, sometimes in newly created "music videos" featuring performers like Audra McDonald, Jeremy Jordan, Darren Criss, and America Ferrera. Sondheim himself even steps into a role during "Opening Doors" (according to him, the only autobiographical song he ever wrote).

Given how few creative people can speak articulately about the creative process (or, indeed, how some have no real process at all), it's refreshing to glimpse inside the mind of someone so disciplined. And, quite simply, so genius. I give Six by Sondheim a B+.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Paradise Lost

It's Villain 101. For your bad guy to be compelling, you have to humanize him. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went about that this week for both Malick and the creature now wearing Ward's skin.

The story of Malick's brother was, for the most part, predictable. From the moment the flashbacks showed us a brother that we've never known Gideon had, we knew he was going to be dead by the end of those flashbacks. But that predictable end still made for some good moments along the way: the brief return of the gone-too-soon Whitehall, the contrast of a quasi-religious zealot to the Judas who betrayed him, and more.

At the same time, the story line actually humanized "Ward" to some extent. He's still a malevolent creature bent on destruction, but the fact that he incorporates his victims' memories -- and can call back their personalities -- does a couple of valuable things. It establishes a context for "Ward" to have more basic human emotions when the story calls for it, such as the thirst for vengeance, as in this installment. And it also sets up that "Ward" can be Ward when he later confronts our heroes (and Coulson in particular).

And there was a nice twist at the end. After setting us up for a classic "villain trade up" from Gideon to his daughter Stephanie (well... that might have been a lateral move at best), "Ward" ended up killing her in front of Gideon just to get even. If it weren't for the realities of television production, specifically the need to keep actor Brett Dalton on the show, the real jerk move would have been for the creature then to start wearing Stephanie's body instead of Ward's. But it still packed an effective punch.

Over on the heroes' side, things were a bit less interesting. Still, we did get a great fight sequence between May and Giyera, and some taste of how Fitz, Simmons, and Coulson are all affected by the revelation of "Ward's" continued existence.

There was also more development for Lincoln, and his relationship with Daisy... but that was a bit of a harder sell for me. I appreciate that Lincoln wasn't thought to be a long-lasting character when he was first introduced at the end of season 2, and that to now keep him around, they need to flesh him out more. Still, he was so "put together" at the retreat and so "complete mess" now that I don't recognize the same character in both places. The writers tried to hang a lantern on that this week by having that bitter recluse wonder why Lincoln got powers... but the problem remains. (And why exactly did Daisy and Lincoln have to double-cross the guy, exactly?)

What's more, it's now official that the show never should have started the back half of the season by showing us the glimpse of the future space disaster. I suspected as much when Daisy saw it for herself last episode, but this week clinched it. Daisy said that she didn't know exactly when it would happen, but that it would result in the death of a team member. But we the audience know when it's going to happen: "four months from now" (as of that first episode).... meaning, "season finale." It totally deflates any tension Daisy might be feeling about the team being in jeopardy when we know the time hasn't come. And it further deflates the tension to talk about bringing in the Secret Warriors just a moment later. Now, that "someone on the team" that will die might not even be, you know, on the team -- it might just be "Yo-Yo" or some other random character we've only seen in one or two episodes.

I think I liked this week's episode overall, but as ground was gained on the villain story, it felt lost on the heroes' story. I give this episode a B.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Good" Dinosaur? That's Overselling It.

Pixar has a long history of mostly outstanding movies, but they're new to the "more than one film a year" game. And it seems to me that they need some work at it. While last year's Inside Out was a triumph at (or even beyond) the level of some of the studio's best ever efforts, their other 2015 film, The Good Dinosaur... was not.

A number of confounding decisions went into the making of The Good Dinosaur, starting right from the premise introduced in the opening minute -- that this story is set in an alternate reality in which no meteor wiped out the dinosaurs, and they went on to begin a simple, agrarian society. It's a wholly unnecessary explanation for why the dinosaurs we meet are a family of farmers -- Why are the toys of Toy Story sentient? Where did Carl Fredricksen get all those balloons? Who cares? It's emblematic of a movie that allocates too much attention to the wrong things.

Take the look of the film itself. The scenery is the best Pixar has ever achieved. The story is set in an environment that's part Yellowstone, part southwest desert, and it's so realistic at times that it looks like actual footage of an actual place. The textures of the trees, the water, the grass, the crops -- they're jaw-droppingly amazing. And unfortunately, they're distractingly so, as the characters placed in those environments are among the most hyper-stylized Pixar has ever produced. I'm not asking for the studio to terrify children with realistic dinosaurs, but this collection of characters is so cartoonish that the result feels like Roger Rabbit -- though less convincing in how it places the animated characters into the environments.

Then there's the story. The overall tale feels like stew of ideas that Pixar has already turned into powerful and effective movies. Achieving emotion with minimal dialogue was done masterfully in WALL-E. The tale of a lost child trying to get back home was told superbly in Finding Nemo (which itself is soon to be revisited in a sequel). Plus, once your mind starts down the path of feeling like you've seen this before, you can't help but make superficial comparisons to the Ice Age series too.

To be fair, there are some scenes peppered throughout the film that tug effectively at the heartstrings. Most of them involve a dog-like caveboy named Spot, a real triumph of character animation. Other good moments are realized through inspired casting. Sam Elliott's role as a brusque Tyrannosaurus named Butch feels like one of the all-time great matches of voice to animated character. Jeffrey Wright, Anna Paquin, and Steve Zahn also make an impression in their rather brief screen time.

The Good Dinosaur isn't outright bad; it's still an animated movie from a group of people that aspire to more than keeping kids quiet and still for 90 minutes. But unfortunately, it's still among Pixar's worst efforts. I give it a C.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Harbour They Fall

As my friend started explaining the game Harbour to me, I immediately thought, "ooo, it's Le Havre Lite!" This was instantly appealing to me, because while Le Havre is a game I enjoy a great deal, it is a lot of game. Lots of bits, lots of rules to explain to a new player, lots of time to play (especially with newer players). A game that could scratch the same itch in a simpler rules set and shorter play time? Sign me up!

In Harbour, each player has one worker to move around from place to place each turn, taking an action either on his own home building, or on one of the small number of general buildings in town (dealt from a shuffled deck). Each building has its own way of accruing resources for you, and can hold only one worker at a time. If an opponent is clogging up the building you want, you must look elsewhere to achieve your goals.

Your accumulated resources are used to buy the general buildings, putting them under your direct control. Once there, you can use them for free, while opponents must pay you to place a worker there. They also provide points toward winning the game. And with each building purchase, a new general building is dealt into the center of town, where it provides still more strategic options (and the possibility of player purchase).

So if you're at all familiar with Le Havre, you can see a lot of the similarities here -- not just the theme of acquiring and shipping goods in an expanding coastal town, but in many of the specific mechanics. But I'm sorry to say that Harbour doesn't play nearly as well.

Despite many similar elements, Harbour somehow comes off feeling like a more luck-driven enterprise than Le Havre. Really, the only true difference that would explain that is that new buildings in Harbour are dealt from a face down deck, where the order in which buildings are made available in Le Havre is known ahead of time. So the only real random element that could foil your plans is a lack of new buildings to support your overall strategy.

But somehow -- and perhaps it's just lack of experience -- Harbour feels vastly more chaotic. In theory, you ought to be able to look around at your opponents, develop some sense of where they'll go next, and plan accordingly (whether than means moving to block them from a desirable building, or planning your strategy around buildings that others are ignoring.) But it's actually quite hard to do that in Harbour, thanks to its wacky commodities mechanic.

There are four different goods in Harbour, arrayed on a market board. One always sells for 2 gold, another for 3, another for 4, and another for 5. When any amount of a good is sold, it's booted down to the lowest price on the market, with other unsold goods sliding up to fill things in. Looking at what your opponents are stockpiling, you should be able to deduce what they're going to sell, and how that will impact the price of your goods if they do. But in practice, the selling of goods feels next-to-random -- or at least, it certainly does when playing with the maximum 4 players. It's hard (and not fun) to build up a lot of a commodity without seeing it chaotically driven to bargain basement prices just before you were about to sell it.

The victory goes to the player who first accumulates a set total point value of buildings. So add the chaos of commodities to the randomness of which buildings (of differing values) are in the game in the first place, and the game can feel out of your direct control. It did to me. And it did to the player who won, when I played. And to the player who finished second because of an unanticipated tiebreaker.

Harbour may have appeal to the sort of mind that adores chess, the sort of person who likes trying to look several moves deep into their opponent's plans. But I feel like if I'm signing up for a game like that, I'd like it to be a bit more sophisticated. Like... well... Le Havre. I give Harbour a C+.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Getting the Drop On

I've never read a novel written by Dennis Lehane, though I have seen several of the movies adapted from his work. I was underwhelmed by Mystic River and Shutter Island, but because I absolutely loved Gone Baby Gone, I remain willing to give his stories a try. That's the curious mix of doubtful and hopeful I brought to The Drop.

The movie tells the story of bartender Bob Saginowski, who works in a Brooklyn bar that serves as a money drop for the Chechen mob. The plot is a bit fragmented, with several threads that don't entirely mingle with one another. One sees Bob bonding with a woman named Nadia over an abused pit bull puppy, then coming into conflict with her ex-boyfriend as their relationship grows. Another sees Bob trying to keep as clean as possible despite the presence of the mob in his life. Still another sees the bar's former owner, Marv, trying to put one over on the mobsters that bought him out.

The resulting concoction is a bit odd, with the romance in particular feeling shoehorned in. Thanks to the performances, each subplot is fairly engaging while on screen... but seems less essential when the focus drifts somewhere else. It often seems like typical shorthand for defining character (he's kind to animals!) ends up expanding into entire subplots and not really being shorthand at all.

But as I mentioned, the performances definitely buoy the proceedings. Tom Hardy stars as Bob, and it's a role that plays to his strengths. Hardy is a more physical actor who can convey a lot while saying a little, and that's this role to a T. In the role of Marv, James Gandolfini makes his final movie appearance before his death. It's casting that leverages his history on The Sopranos; this character is definitely more frustrated and less in control, and it's certainly meant to be a contrast to how most audience members know him. Gandolfini does well with the part (even if it's not the triumph fans might have hoped for in his final appearance.) Also effective is Noomi Rapace as Nadia. She's saddled with an unfortunately stereotypical role in this male dominated story, but her appeal (and, at times, her fear) feels real.

Overall, I'd give The Drop a B-. It's not a must see, save perhaps for a Dennis Lehane fan. Still, it's better than many crime dramas out there.

Thursday, April 07, 2016


This week's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a solid episode, though I think it would have been better if not for decisions made in earlier episodes of the show.

The episode did a great job in presenting Charles Hinton, an Inhuman cursed with visions of awful, deadly futures. I felt sympathy for the poor guy, and for his efforts to try to withdraw from other people. I was intrigued by Fitz's fatalistic interpretation of the science, that the future was absolutely fixed once glimpsed -- yet also entertained by the rest of the team's efforts to try.

The problem was, this wasn't the first time that the show presented us a future-seeing Inhuman. Season two concluded with long-running adversary Raina developing prescient abilities. Actually, despite the fact that there it happened to a recurring character, I actually found the development less compelling than what happened this week. Raina's visions of the future didn't seem to generate as much emotional resonance, provoke the same fatalism from Fitz, stir the same determination in Daisy, and so on down the list. This week was more effective overall, but that effectiveness was taken down a notch by the fact that we'd sort of seen all this before.

Something else we saw before was the glimpse of some future disaster in an orbiting spacecraft. The first episode back after the mid-season break teased that event happening "four months from now," and now that I know Daisy herself got to glimpse that future, I wish that we the audience hadn't seen it beforehand. A nice bit of mystery that could have been introduced here via character was instead used free of context last month, as if to tell the audience, "hang with us, everyone, we promise it'll get cool."

But despite those missteps, there was a lot to like in the episode. Whatever "Ward" now is, he moved into much more menacing territory this week (even as his fashion sense slid into The Matrix). It was satisfying to watch him corrupt Malick with temptations of power, toying with him rather than simply killing him. In my view, it makes "Ward" more dangerous that he knows Malick is not a threat to be dealt with or concerned about at all. And the team's reaction to learning that "Ward" is alive was note perfect.

The fight choreographers poured it on strong to show us that even though Adrianne Palicki is no longer on the show, they can still do a lot with Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet. The "prepping for the future" story element was a perfect gimmick to watch both performers go through the same fight. Both handled it excellently, particularly Bennet -- in another long, single take (that made perfect sense in the moment, as this was keenly set up as a situation where "you have one chance only to get it right").

The one-off character elements landed well too, from Coulson "firing" Lincoln for not having seen The Terminator, to "Ward's" gruesome execution of the company executives, to Coulson once again accidentally calling Daisy "Skye" -- the details felt right.

Though "Spacetime" did suddenly bench the "Civil War run-up" plot from last week, I was caught up in the ride. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Once Upon a Die

Years ago (so long ago, in fact, that my regular group of board gaming friends was an entirely different collection of people), my friends and I would occasionally mix things up with a game called Tales of the Arabian Nights. An unwieldy and cheaply published affair with loads of tiny chits and a shoddily drawn board/map, the game's main allure was its "Choose Your Own Adventure" element. The game came with a giant story book of little one-paragraph adventures, to be read by a fellow player whenever you had an encounter in the game.

The fun was almost entirely tied up in this book. The game itself was lackluster, so much so that even when it was reprinted in a new addition a while back, I made no effort to track down a copy. But I always hoped that someday, someone might come along and make a better game to go along with the storytelling gimmick. That game -- or, at least, the attempt to make that game -- has arrived in Above and Below.

In Above and Below, each player takes control of an emerging village. Workers can be assigned to construct new building tiles, recruit new specialized workers, or explore the mysterious underground caves beneath their village. And with exploration comes -- you guessed it -- a short story, read to you by a fellow player.

Above and Below lacks some of the corny charm of the Arabian Nights game, which isn't a bad thing. And to compensate for anything lost is a more reasonable game with at least some measure of strategy. You're in competition with fellow players to acquire the same building tiles and advanced workers they'll want. There are several types of resources to be gathered. The in-game scoring system for those resources has a fun little wrinkle for maximizing your points. So yes, there is more going on here for a serious gamer to like.

But there are dice. Every action you take involves you rolling a six-sided die against a target success number. Better workers can produce multiple successes on a single roll, and/or succeed more frequently because of easier thresholds for success. Dice aren't exactly a death knell for me in a serious board game, but they certainly have to be used in a way that feels fair. I'm not entirely convinced that Above and Below does. Each player rolls for himself, not affecting the game as a whole -- so one player can go on a streak of good or bad luck. And there aren't really enough rolls in the game to be sure it all evens out; the roughly 90-minute game lasts for only a small number of set turns.

Now the game does let you hedge your bets, allocating more than you "need" to a task in case of bad rolls. And maybe that kind of risk mitigation enough. Because let's face it, a game whose primary feature is "story time with your friends" is not likely to be the go-to game for a hardcore group of Euro-game fans. On the other hand, if you do take your games at least semi-seriously, then the potential is certainly here for you to fail at the game through no fault of your own.

So where does that leave Above and Below? Well, I'm not quite sure. I know I would play it again. And I know I thought far more highly of it than the old Tales of the Arabian Nights that I imagine it replacing. So call it a B, perhaps? It's not something I would necessarily request first on game night, but neither is it something I'd shoot down if suggested.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Speech Analysis

George Takei isn't shy about plugging projects he's involved in, which is how I became aware of a documentary called Do I Sound Gay? It's a film made by David Thorpe, chronicling his exploration of the stereotypical gay man's speech pattern, and his efforts to eliminate it in himself.

I was curious about the documentary, wondering if there was any solid research on the "gay accent." I've known gay men who have it and others who don't. I recall a time when I once thought that the guys who have it must surely be doing it consciously, on purpose. I've long since learned that's not the case -- as anyone who watches Thorpe's earnest struggle in this documentary would quickly understand. But where does it come from?

It's probably not surprising to hear that no one really knows for sure where the gay accent comes from. The documentary features interviews with speech experts who believe that -- like all accents -- it's established very young, as a result of the adults whose speech patterns you unconsciously emulate in establishing your own voice. But the insight really doesn't go any deeper than that.

Though that aspect of the documentary is ultimately a disappointment, there is the other element -- Thorpe's attempts to alter his own speech pattern. This does lead to exploration of how the gay voice is perceived. (Here's where George Takei, and other out celebrities, are interviewed.) Many people look down upon it, consciously or unconsciously thinking less of those who have it. Many others embrace it as a status symbol, and regard Thorpe's quest to lose his "accent" as a sign of secret self-loathing about being gay.

One thing seemed clear to me, watching the film. I didn't see Thorpe's desire to change his speech as a sign of self-loathing so much as frustration or desperation. He admits quite directly that he's in his 40s and alarmed at being single. Wondering one day why that might be, he noticed the way he didn't like how others used the gay voice, and assumed that perhaps that was the reason he himself had been rejected. I suppose that is self-loathing at the core, but I think not about being gay so much as not having found "Mr. Right." (I mean, straight people go through the exact same kind of midlife crisis.)

I can imagine the viewer who might recognize himself in David Thorpe, and thus find his documentary as a valuable step on a journey to self-acceptance. For that reason alone, it does have a place, and I hope it finds its audience. But I myself found it to be a bit long on navel gazing and short on substance. I'd give the movie a C+.

Monday, April 04, 2016

A Stroll Through the Garden

On my recent trip to Steamboat Springs, though my days were filled with skiing, my evenings were filled with board games. Everyone in the group brought some, resulting in a massive collection -- a home away from home that included a great many options I han't played before. So, over the next few weeks, I hope to be unspooling some reviews.

I'll start with Sanssouci, a game I picked up a bit before the trip. It caught my eye because of its designer, Michael Kiesling. He's the man behind Tikal, Java, Vikings, and others I've definitely enjoyed. From the description and reported playing time (just 30-45 minutes), this seemed to be Kiesling's attempt to go for a swift game with a simple rules set. Could it be as satisfying?

In Sanssouci, players are tasked with creating an impressive garden at the famous palace near Berlin. Each has his own board, a grid for playing tiles; there are nine different symbols across, by five colors deep. Each symbol has its own noble, a token you're trying to advance through the garden (down the column) for maximum points. Tokens move only along orthogonal paths of the tiles you've laid, and though they can briefly step outside their original column, they must always end their movement on their original symbol -- and always at least one row farther along than they began.

The core mechanics are in how you acquire tiles for your garden. Tiles are placed face up on a central board, 10 at a time, two for each of the colors on each player's garden board. Each tile has one of the nine garden symbols. On every turn, you'll take one of the tiles. Its symbol and the color you picked it up from indicate exactly where it must be placed in your own garden. (If that spot is already occupied, you may place it for lesser but still useful effect in the same row or column). But you can't always just take whichever tile you want. Each player has an identical deck of 18 cards, played through in its entirety during the game. On any given turn, you play one card from your hand of two, taking a tile for the symbol or color you played.

There isn't a lot of strategy to be mined here. Bonus cards, kept secret until the end game, do encourage all the different players to focus on different things. Still, you're all fundamentally looking for the same kinds of plays, and all probably wrapped up too much in your own garden to pay too much attention to your those of your opponents. Yet there is some amount of "risk mitigation" that helps fill in for the light strategy. Which card you keep in hand versus which one you play does indeed give you meaningful decisions to make each turn. (On average, it seems like you have around 4 tiles to pick from each turn.) Plus, after a few playthroughs, tracking what is left in your deck will definitely help in your planning.

The result is a game that probably wouldn't stand up to repeated, regular plays, but seems pretty good for less frequent gaming. If you've got just a little more play time to work with, I still prefer Kiesling's game Vikings. But there is more going on in Sanssouci than many games you could play in 30 minutes. I'd call it a fairly good addition to my collection, and grade it a B.

Friday, April 01, 2016


I may not have been thrilled by last week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the awkward departure it gave Morse and Hunter, but at least the show springboarded well from it into this week, using that departure to fuel some good character moments.

On the one hand, I'm disappointed that, for the second week in a row, the new "Ward" has been MIA, giving us no momentum on the series' most significant ongoing plot. On the other hand, the series really seems to be making good use of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War to spin up something else. "How do you deal with 'supers?'" seems like an intriguing question that a two-and-a-half hour movie alone couldn't completely contain, so I like that the show is willing to run with that torch too.

To that end, enter the Watchdogs, a militant group of super-haters with some awesomely dangerous tech. (First thought: "so what, they shot the building with paintballs? Ooooo." Followed moments later by: "OOOOOO!") I'm definitely intrigued by the group. Still, it doesn't yet mean much to me that they're being wrangled by Blake; while I'm aware he has been around in the Marvel universe before (on this show even?), he didn't make much of an impression on me. Part of the problem is that the actor who plays him, Titus Welliver, is one of those hard-working actors who has been on virtually every television show ever made; I remember him much more clearly, for example, from Lost.

Our Heroes were split into small groups this week, showcasing how it will be easier to serve all characters from now on, now that there are two fewer characters to serve. While Mack's brother seemed a bit of a cliche, first resenting then respecting him, it was a cliche that mostly worked to flesh out his emotional side. The same plot line saw Daisy slipping down a dark path, stopping short of full on Jack Bauer-style torture, but definitely not on the up-and-up. I like the gradual moves being made with her character since the return from the winter break.

Coulson and Lincoln made for an interesting pairing. I like having Coulson voice the concern I myself had -- why does Lincoln even want to be part of this group? I don't know that the show really answered it, but I feel like it's now at least clear that they know they need to answer it. I also appreciate that the writers found a way to let Coulson take his feelings out on the wrong person just a little bit, without making him a bully about it. He gave Lincoln an arguably rougher time than he deserved, mired in the pain of losing Morse and Hunter.

As for May and Simmons, I liked the emotional content of their subplot. My only quibble would be with the timing. This was the fourth episode since either of them dealt with Lash, and we're only just now finding out that this was a breaking point for Simmons? At least they didn't drop the ball on this completely; I do like Simmons' resolve to no longer feel like the damsel-in-distress. (Even more, I love the way she expressed that desire, talking about being the only woman on the team who can't kill with her bare hands. Fun line.)

So, all told, some interesting material here. I give "Watchdogs" a B+. I was intrigued at the "possessed Ward" story, but I'm now feeling invested enough in the Civil War run-up that I'm okay if they stick with this for a while.