Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Third Time Is Not the Charm

If I had written about X-Men: Apocalypse right after I saw it, it might have been a more positive review. There are some fun moments in it, and my general sense leaving the theater was that it had been kinda-decent enough. But it turns out that what is good about the movie has a short half-life, and begins to fade before you even make it out of the theater parking lot.

If I were being spoilery, I could give lots of specifics about where the movie goes wrong, but I think they all pretty much come under one umbrella: character. This movie does a terrible job with its characters, almost across the board.

The movie introduces several new characters to the mix, who have never appeared in any of the previous X-Men movies of either cast. Olivia Munn plays Psylocke, an ass-kicking villain with... I guess psionic powers? Maybe? Whatever her character does, the movie could not have done a more perfect job of confusingly entangling those abilities with those of the arch-villain, Oscar Isaac's Apocalypse. The purple energy of her conjured weaponry seems to the same as the purple energy of the portals that the assembled baddies use to globe-hop and fill their ranks... but it turns out that the portal thing is his power, not hers. What does Psylocke do in this movie? Nothing that justifies Olivia Munn turning down Morena Baccarin's part in Deadpool for this, if you ask me.

Apocalypse may have the more substantial role, but his character is even more murky to someone who hasn't read the comics. He's found in a desert, and the first thing we see him do involves tiny tan particles whirling around. So... I guess he controls sand? Much later in the movie, it turns out he has some kind of generalized molecular manipulation ability (I think), among many other powers. But it's his actions I question more than his abilities anyway. The movie tells us that Apocalypse's M.O. is to assembled the four nastiest mutants to be his minions. Yet one of the people he selects is someone he finds literally broken, who actually just lost a fight we saw earlier in the film. Another is a lowly street urchin who can't even help themselves without getting into trouble -- which he witnesses firsthand. Apocalypse does not know how to pick 'em.

But there's really not much good happening with the returning characters either. Everyone has either the wrong character arc, a half-complete arc, or no arc at all. Cyclops is set up for a journey of self-acceptance that should culminate in him leading the X-Men, but Mystique swoops in to steal that arc from him. Quicksilver is on a journey to find his father Magneto, but (small SPOILER here) inexplicably decides not to talk to him when given the chance. Magneto himself has a family-minded arc of his own, one that starts out strong, but then ultimately winds up mired in some unexplained rapid fire changes of emotion. So on down most of the line.

So don't look for a story that satisfies here, or even one that makes sense most of the time. You'll have to be content with some fun action set pieces. The climactic battle does a good job of giving just about everyone a good hero moment. Wolverine has a solid cameo. (I'd have called that a spoiler, but they gave it away in the trailer.) There are several great mind/space-bending moments with Nightcrawler.

And once again, as with Days of Future Past, Quicksilver gets the best scene of the movie. There might be a certain repetition to the sequence after the previous film, but it works all the same because it's the one scene that perfectly melds character with action. It's not just a fun three minutes of high-speed photography, sight gags, and CG, it's a sequence that captures Quicksilver's personality (in a way the Age of Ultron version of him, I'm sorry to say, never did).

All told, X-Men: Apocalypse is every inch the Big Dumb Summer Movie. Much of the action lands. You see things blow up, and some of it is fun. But it's a series of set pieces hung on a rickety skeleton, a threadbare story with characters lacking internal consistency or logic. Certainly, I've seen many worse Big Dumb Summer Movies than this. But that doesn't change the fact that this is far and away the worst of the three "new class" X-Men movies. I give X-Men: Apocalypse a C.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Blood of My Blood

In season six, Game of Thrones has famously "moved beyond the books," into story material George R.R. Martin has not yet published. Yet this week's episode actually did a lot for readers of the books.

North of the Wall, Bran and Meera were rescued... resolving a plot point that's been dangling since way back in the first season/book. Benjen Stark is alive (mostly), and on the scene to help his nephew. How long his role as protector will last (and whether there's any more to it than that) remains to be seen. The show seems to be merging Benjen with the book character Coldhands. Meanwhile, certain details in the books suggest they actually aren't one and the same... or maybe they are. So in a way, the mystery is resolved and preserved at the same time. (Write, George, write!)

As a side note, there were several interesting moments spliced into Bran's rapid procession of visions, including a glimpse of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen (who Jaime killed to become the "Kingslayer"). I'd wager there are already articles up around the web analyzing the other visions frame by frame, trying to decide if there's any significance to the flashbacks we saw. I'll leave them to it.

Sam returned at last to his family home, a reunion that went as well as expected. After one of the most awkward dinners in Game of Thrones history that didn't end in at least one murder, Sam decided not to leave Gilly with his family after all. Plus, he made off with the family sword. Placing a blade of Walker-slaying Valyrian steel in the hands of someone who has actually killed a Walker seems like a significant plot development. Indeed, it could actually be the point of this whole trip south, despite the stated aim of Sam reaching Oldtown to train as a Maester.

Things took a turn for the worse in King's Landing. (Don't they always?) Young, impressionable Tommen was.... uh, impressed... by the High Sparrow into finding religion. I'm quite curious as to whether Margaery's professed conversion was indeed genuine, but I suppose it makes no matter in the final result. The king is now in the High Sparrow's sway. The Faith Militant have seized even more power in the kingdom. Cersei and Jaime find themselves increasingly on the outside.

Jaime in particular has been quasi-banished to sort out things at Riverrun, where we've just learned Walder Frey is sending forces too, with an imprisoned Edmure Tully as a bargaining chip. As with the Kingsmoot material this season in the Iron Islands, this is a case of the show suddenly backtracking to scoop up material from earlier in the books, material that until now seemed to have been skipped over. Suddenly, all the players who were last seen in the Riverlands in the books are headed there on the show. Of course, this remains a somewhat unresolved thread that we're waiting for book six to take up. Suffice it to say, when both Brienne and Jaime make it to Riverrun, I'll be quite interested to see what happens next. (I've been waiting years, so a few more weeks won't hurt.)

Over in Braavos, Arya's training as an assassin may soon be at an end. Unable to go through with killing her mark, she has now marked herself for death at the hands of the Waif. But she's also gone back to retrieve her sword Needle from its hiding place. Just how much killing is in Arya's immediate future? And just how are the Faceless Men going to react? The Waif doesn't seem at a professional remove in this whole affair any more than Arya; could this too be a test of some kind? It's hard to believe that a season-and-a-half at the House of Black and White is just going to culminate in Arya back on the run with barely more skills than she had going in.

Then lastly, the final moment: How Dany Got Her Dragon Back. I'm not sure a speech from the back of a dragon is as inspiring as it is terrifying... but hey, Dany is a conqueror, as Darrio said. Provoking terror is part of the job description.

I'd call the episode a B+ overall. It was more of a "setup" than "payoff" sort of episode... but one with a lot of fun scenes and bones thrown toward readers of the books along the way.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dinner in the Twilight Zone

I recently watched a fascinating and clever, and borderline unwatchable movie. I've been thinking about it more than I expected since watching it... and I can't truly recommend it. That's because a brilliant idea was squandered in a terrible execution.

The movie is Coherence. Four couples take part in a suburban dinner party, on the night that a comet happens to be passing close to the Earth. Everything is proceeding normally until a power outage, which spurs two people in the group to seek help from a single house two blocks up the road that mysteriously still has its power. But the two return with reality-shattering news. The mysterious house is the same house. In it, an identical set of eight people seem to be having an almost identical dinner party in an alternative universe. The group comes to suspect that only one house will survive when the comet passes and this strange phenomenon ends, and they enter a game of brinksmanship against their other selves. But there's even more to their situation than they realize.

Coherence is the brainchild of James Ward Byrkit, the writer behind Rango and a few other films. He wanted to direct for the first time, and wanted to work outside the big Hollywood engine that would make a first time director compromise his vision. So he spent a year hammering out a story that could be filmed in his own house, using a handful of actors he personally knew. He landed on his science fiction, parallel universe premise as a way of making a single house seem like a much larger tableau.

The story itself is instantly fascinating. And it's layered with several clever plot points that would play extraordinarily well on repeat viewings, after you've become aware of information the characters themselves don't yet have as the story unfolds. The lack of a big budget doesn't hurt the story itself in any way; it's the sort of thing you'd wish you'd been clever enough to concoct and film in your own house.

The problem is just about everything else. Let's start with the script, or rather, the fact that there wasn't one. Byrkit wanted a naturalistic feel to his movie, with characters talking over one another and reacting with genuine surprise as the film unfolded. So at the start of each night of filming, he'd give his actors note cards, detailing the information he wanted each character to reveal next. The rest was up to the actors to improvise.

The result doesn't feel natural to me at all. As people talk over one another, it doesn't feel like an actual dinner party, it feels like actors jockeying for more screen time. When plot revelations arrive, they don't come naturally, they drop in with a metaphorical crash because an actor was instructed to shoehorn them in somewhere. This ad hoc approach worked for The Blair Witch Project (though some would argue it didn't) because that story featured only three characters, and in a very simple situation -- lost in the woods. I found it didn't work at all here for more than twice as many characters (and that's just the one house) in a complex plot that involves quantum theory and parallel universes. I mean, imagine a Star Trek episode left to the actors to improvise.

The lack of an actual script also hurts the movie because of its tight shooting schedule. It was filmed in just five nights, meaning each night needed to produce 15-20 minutes of the finished movie. So a lot of the movie feels like it's "the first take, we got it, we gotta keep moving." It's not that the performances are bad, it's that the actor's particular improv for getting in his or her "scripted" information is a bit awkward. Given more time, you'd imagine the actors could have arrived at things more smoothly.

You'll probably recognize many in the cast from "somewhere," though they're all quite far from the A-list. Nicholas Brendon played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Elizabeth Gracen was Amanda on Highlander: The Series, and Maury Sterling has appeared in multiple seasons of Homeland. Others in the cast are writers and directors in their own right. But the whiplash turns they often make in this movie feel not like the natural choices of a character, but like the tyranny of the notecards and the need to get certain information on the screen in any form possible.

Coherence has developed a cult following, to a degree that James Ward Byrkit has received some offers to remake his movie with bigger stars and a bigger budget. He's rebuffed them all, which to me is a shame. I want to see the version of this movie (from a parallel universe, let's say!) that actually has scripted dialogue as carefully thought out as the plot itself. The obvious shot here would be to call the movie incoherent. If only it were that, I could forget about. Instead, I keep thinking about the wonderful idea rendered almost unwatchable in the implementation. I give Coherence a D+.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Page of Enlightenment

When I finished reading The Enlightened, the third book of Dima Zales' Mind Dimensions series, I felt I may have just experienced the epitome of a guilty pleasure. The book was bad on a lot of levels, but I'd still enjoyed the ride and was seriously considering the next volume.

I've written here before about books one and two, The Thought Readers and The Thought Pushers. They center on Darren, a young man with the ability to stop time by retreating into a mental state he calls "the Quiet." Over the course of the first two books, he learns that this ability is just the first step to unlocking even more mental powers. Book three finds one of Darren's mothers in an assassin's crosshairs, and he himself the target of a powerful group with mental abilities of their own -- a group that seeks to use Darren for their own purposes.

So here's the guilty part of these books: this is some serious Mary Sue fiction (albeit with a male protagonist). The main character of Darren is the writer's proxy, and he leads a perfectly charmed life. He has money, loving parents, a hot girlfriend, and psychic powers. And in a world that he learns is actually brimming with people who have similar powers, his are just better -- he's far stronger and can last longer. (Giggity.) In each of the three books, when events seem to be going against him, he resolves his problems by unlocking another powerful ability he didn't know he had, and kicking psychic ass.

And yet... there is some ineffable quality here that makes this lack of any real suspense or obstacle a bit of a page turner. It helps that the books are all very short. Plus, of course, sometimes you just get a thrill from an invincible hero. Comic book movies (or even comic books themselves) wouldn't be such a big thing if that weren't true. Actually, this is exactly the same thing: Darren has what boil down to superpowers.

Now, the good comic books (and comic book movies) aren't content with simple escapism and wish fulfillment, and set out to tell a deeper story. The Mind Dimensions series is certainly not that. Yet the books do manage to be fun in the end. I certainly hope the next book I read does a bit more to make me think. But after that, I'll probably pick up Mind Dimensions book four. As for this installment, The Enlightened -- I give it a B-.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Nice Night at the Movies

This past weekend, I went to see the latest movie from Shane Black, The Nice Guys. He's known for writing the first two Lethal Weapons, and for both writing and directing Iron Man 3. I was interested because he's also behind a movie I've praised a few times on the blog, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The elevator pitch for this movie seemed to be "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang set in the late 1970s." So count me in!

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are this movie's odd couple pairing. The former is Jackson Healy, an "enforcer" hired to beat people up; the latter is Holland March, a hard-drinking private detective trying to raise his teenage daughter alone. When the two team up to find a missing political-activist-turned-porn-star, hijinks ensue.

Movies like this always hinge on the casting, and the casting here works. I've never been a particular fan of Russell Crowe, but his stern tough guy act is here cut with just the right dash of comedic resignation: "I can't believe I'm in this story with this other guy." And Ryan Gosling is brilliant, perfectly pompous and sly in alternating measure, and playing tons of hilarious physical comedy throughout the movie.

What's particularly fun here is that the movie isn't quite an odd couple pairing so much as an odd trio. March's daughter Holly frequently finds herself (or inserts herself) into the action, and young Angourie Rice is perfect in the role. She has a great comedic instinct that keeps the kid-in-danger conceit from turning horrifying, and plays wonderfully opposite both Crowe and Gosling.

The film is also peppered with plenty of other minor characters that each give some hard-working actor a chance to do something fun and memorable. You'll know Matt Bomer and Kim Basinger (and they are both good), but I'm talking about a procession of actors you won't know by name, and might not even recognize. It's one of those movies where even a character with just one short scene can get several funny lines.

But enjoyable though it is, it doesn't quite stack up to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The tangled plot is considerably more opaque. Sometimes the laughs are more sparse. Several scenes are gimmicky in a way that, while getting the laugh, feel a bit less than satisfying upon reflection. "We know you love this schtick," the movie says, as it tries to do it again just as well, yet not quite reaching the mark.

To be clear, I did have a lot of fun with The Nice Guys, and would recommend it -- but maybe not in the theater, maybe not for everyone. I give it a B+. If you're looking for something not superheroic to sandwich between Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, this is probably your ticket. If movies are a less frequent thing for you, consider a Redbox or Netflix night a bit down the road.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Door

This week's Game of Thrones contracted the number of story threads in play in order to spend more time on the remaining few. It made for an even more emotional hour than usual.

Things began up north with a confrontation between Sansa and Littlefinger that continued the former's "spine-ification." I have to wonder how much of the dialogue was culled from internet reviews of last season's episode which saw Sansa wedded to (and raped by) Ramsay Bolton. Much of what Sansa hurled at Littlefinger was exactly what fans hurled at the writers last year. Still there was tremendous satisfaction in watching her say it, and in watching Brienne threaten Littlefinger into responding. The one criticism I have is the laser accurate criticism of Littlefinger: "If you didn't know, you're an idiot. If you did know, you're my enemy." It's not very like Littlefinger to be caught unawares, so I suppose for now, we have to assume the latter.

Toward the end of the episode, Sansa and Jon set off to gather forces, leaving Dolorous Edd as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. They seem to have forgone an election there in favor of an appointment, but it's all for a good joke for the audience. Meanwhile, Sansa has dispatched Brienne to Riverrun on a separate mission, which might just spark a small group of book readers to hope that the show might pick up the Lady Stoneheart plot line it jettisoned a while back. (I myself bet against it.)

Over in Braavos, Arya (after yet another beating at the hands of the Waif) received a new assassination assignment, a final chance to prove herself. She's to kill the actress playing Cersei Lannister in the local production of "Game of Thrones, Season One." On the one hand, I disliked that so much screen time was spent showing us that play; we got very quickly that the entire scenario was a twist of the knife in Arya's emotions, but the scene kept going and going. On the other hand, it was a really fun scene, with the writers taking a big risk in lampooning themselves so thoroughly. And the presentation of "medieval theater" felt quite authentic.

But I'm unsure of just what the endgame is in Arya's latest adventure. Yes, we did get the scene in which Arya seemed to empathize with Actress Cersei and gently push for her to be spared. So on one level, this would be a test of Arya's dispassionate mercilessness. And yet, did Jaqen H'ghar really know Arya would be tempted by kindness in this way? I mean, wouldn't the more natural expectation be that Arya might enjoy (too much) a chance to kill a proxy of Cersei Lannister? And where's the test in that, unless someone is watching Arya and judging her level of enjoyment in her task? I suppose we'll find out in a future episode.

In the Iron Islands, the Kingsmoot took place, with Yara making a fair showing (aided by Theon's speech) until Euron swooped in to seize the day and the throne. Euron's plan to build a fleet and sail for Daenerys and Meereen tracks with the books (and the melding of two book characters into one show character). But the wild card here is that Yara and Theon stole ships of their own and are now on the run. Bound for where, and to do what, who can say? (Side note: I wonder how many past kings of the Iron Islands have died during their coronations? I'm sure the Ironborn would say that if that happened, then the deceased wasn't worthy of the throne anyway. Still, the show quite vividly and uncompromisingly depicted a harsh idea from the books.)

After seizing her new army last week, Daenerys didn't do much this week but face down the situation with Jorah. I wonder if we're going to be seeing any more of him. His quest to cure himself hardly seems of narrative importance at this point, with so much else in play. On the other hand, making this Dany's only scene this week certainly seems to ascribe a lot of importance to the idea that Jorah might just be able to find a cure. Unless this was all just meant to be a poetic goodbye... in which case, this particular poetic end paled in comparison to what would come later in the episode.

Politics continue in Meereen, where Tyrion attempted to reach out to a local Red Priestess. Plot wise, this felt like the most stalled of this week's narratives, yet it did give us more fantastic "reaction acting" from actor Conleth Hill. He showed us Varys' emotional barriers stripped away as the Priestess revealed knowledge of his past she shouldn't possibly have.

Lastly, we had the (mis)adventures of Bran beyond the Wall, the tragic culmination of a story we didn't even really know was tragic until now. First, we learned that the Children of the Forest are responsible for the creation of the White Walkers -- and while the origin of the Walkers doesn't do much to alter the threat they pose, it does add an element of tragedy to learn that even their own creators are now threatened by them. Tragedy continued when Bran's own actions caused his training with the Three-Eyed Raven to be cut short. Curious to go poking around in visions, he found the Night King and his army, bringing them right to his door.

Or should I say, The Door. The final tragedy was the simultaneous revelation and sacrifice of Hodor. In a round of interviews that dropped as soon as the episode aired, the showrunners were quick to credit George R.R. Martin himself for this plot twist: Bran's own meddling in time is what turned Hodor into a simpleton. Whatever nobility there was in Hodor having a purpose in life and finally fulfilling it was undercut by the fact that the sacrifice of his life was one that ended up lasting almost his entire life. Hodor was an object of derision for decades, all because of Bran's lack of responsibility.

It's interesting to me that of all the new material so far this season, the showrunners made a point of saying that this one is from books yet to be published. Perhaps they're sharing credit because I suspect the show's handling of this reveal will be better than whatever Martin will published. (Some day. Maybe.) The juxtaposition of the attacking wights in the present with Hodor's collapse in the past, thorough tense back and forth cutting, was presented in a way that can't possibly be so tight in written narrative. And more so because of Martin's writing technique in this series, to restrict his narrative to certain character's points of view. I suppose one day, we'll see. (Maybe.)

We'll also see whose loss the fans will be mourning more today, Hodor's or Summer's. We're losing Dire Wolves at an alarming rate this season. (A creative decision, or a budgetary one?)

Though not every story line this week packed the punch of Bran's, it was still an excellent episode overall. I give it an A-.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Scottish Play's the Thing

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Macbeth, so of course I had to check out the recent film adaptation, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Stage productions of Shakespeare often transpose the story into different times and settings, but the movies often play it straight as written. For the most part, that's true of this film. It's actually filmed in Scotland (and partly in England), and is accurate to the story's period. But it also cribs a bit from "comic book hyper realism," that style of movies like 300 and Sin City, where "real" is more than real.

Because of that choice, the film is a visual triumph. The fog in this Macbeth is tangibly thick, and is often backlit with bloody crimson light that transforms the world into a hellscape. The world feels dirty, primitive, and deadly. Shots are framed with extreme attention to detail, and you can't help but notice how beautiful it all is.

But part of why I couldn't help but notice is that I wasn't entirely engaged by the story itself. Early on, I may have been a bit distracted by looking for excisions from the original text. Knowing that the movie had a run time under two hours (from a play that usually runs at least 30 minutes more than that), there had to be cuts somewhere. But the cuts were handled deftly enough that I never truly missed them, and soon stopped hunting for them.

No, in the long run -- and much to my disappointment -- it was the performances that put me at arm's distance from the action. This is the most low key presentation of dramatic Shakespeare I think I've ever seen. Certainly, some allowances should be made for the fact that the bombastic acting style of the stage is not appropriate to the close-up, intimate possibilities of a movie. Still, I felt there were very few scenes where any of the characters let any real emotion show.

Fassbender was shockingly stony as Macbeth, barely getting worked up for murder, ghost sightings, or anything else. Cotillard matched his lack of energy as Lady Macbeth, displaying little of the fiery indignation that seems required to me by the text. It's odd, because those two were widely praised by critics among a cast that was praised too. But where others apparently saw compelling nuance, I saw disengaging lethargy.

To be sure, Macbeth could be done far, far worse than this. But I've personally seen it done far better. I give this incarnation a C-.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

TNG Flashback: Eye of the Beholder

It's a story I've told before... a long 26-episode season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was barreling along without reprieve. The writers, strapped for ideas, had to get something in front of the cameras. The result this time was the weak "Eye of the Beholder."

When crew member Daniel Kwan commits suicide by hurling himself into the plasma stream inside one of the Enterprise's engine nacelles, Captain Picard wants an explanation to send back to his family. Counselor Troi undertakes an investigation, and soon experiences potent telepathic images suggesting that a violent murder took place in nacelle control room years ago, when the ship was being built. By the time that it has become apparent that Kwan was driven to suicide by having seen these same "empathic echoes," Troi herself is under their spell -- and may become the next victim.

As show runner Jeri Taylor later recalled, this episode was culled from a year-old pitch from staff writer Brannon Braga about a "haunted room" on the Enterprise. The whole staff rushed to flesh out the idea, then gave the rough notes to staffer Rene Echevarria to draft the script. The result falls short on virtually every level.

For starters, the episode lands in a sort of uncanny valley of emotion. Because it wants to honor the late Gene Roddenberry's notions of future perfection, it can't fully embrace a story that makes sense. No one reacts to Daniel Kwan's suicide in a plausible way. Either suicide is so unthinkable in Starfleet in the 24th century that everyone should be utterly aghast and immediately suspicious of an outside influence, or they shouldn't spend so much time talking about how they can't understand why anyone would do such a thing. The closest you get to genuine emotion, ironically, comes when Data likens suicidal thoughts to a period from his "childhood," when he was developing new neural pathways... yet it still feels like a pretty strained analogy.

The suicide itself isn't a very compelling scene. First of all, it's asking too much of a "day player." Actor Tim Lounibos, playing Daniel Kwan, is called on to make the audience care about this character we've never seen before. He has to do it with over-the-top, soap operatic dialogue. And he has to do it wearing one of the more goofy forehead makeups the show ever served up. The staging is awkward too; Riker is standing right there next to him, yet makes no attempt at even a desperate lunge (though Kwan gives him ample warning). I doubt even an actor of, say, Patrick Stewart's caliber could have spun gold out of this straw.

But poor guest star Lounibos is hardly the only one giving a shaky performance here. Mark Rolston plays the murderer Pierce, and either by script, directorial advice, or personal choice, is hitting every cliche of "TV murderous sociopath." And one of the victims, Marla Finn, is played by Marina Sirtis' longtime stand-in, Nora Leonhardt. She gets just a line or two, one of them repeatedly shrieking "NO!" at the top her lungs before a comical scream. (And I hear a bit of a Texan accent slipping in there, which is quite incongruous for a Starfleet officer, absent any actual character development to set that up.)

Not that the main actors are doing their finest work here, either. It turns out that most of this episode is happening inside of Counselor Troi's head, and much of the cast took that as a cue to behave more broadly than usual. And because some of them were confused by the slapdash script, they didn't confine their broadness to "dream sequence" scenes. According to Rene Echevarria, Jonathan Frakes believed that the scene where Worf awkwardly approaches Riker about his emerging relationship with Troi was part of the hallucination. There was brief talk of reshooting the resulting strange performance.

The few scenes that work are the ones that seem like they could have been lifted from this episode and dropped into any other. Troi's story about sense memories, and Worf's response of likening it to his fire vision quests, is a nice bonding moment between the characters. I'm not sure it paves the way to a believable romantic relationship between them later in the episode, but I chalk that up more to the surrounding soap opera than the absence of rapport between the characters.

Perhaps knowing that he had ground to make up on a deficient script, director Cliff Bole really pulls out the stops in his camera work. There's an unusually large amount of conspicuous handheld camera here for a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And there are several odd setups, from the rack focus/pan off the red alert signal that opens the episode to the cockeyed glimpses of murderous Pierce's memories. These visual tricks hardly save the episode, but they do generate a modicum of interest along the way.

Other observations:
  • What is the logic of having a one-way force field in the nacelle control tube? I would think you wouldn't want anything getting in any more than you'd want anything getting out.
  • Troi should know immediately that her vision shows the killer looking at his own reflection; the communicator on the wrong side of the chest is an instant giveaway.
This scattershot mess of an episode has one or two moments to raise it above the series' all-time worst efforts. But it's still an unfortunate misfire. I give "Eye of the Beholder" a D.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Absolution / Ascension

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wrapped up its third season last night, but it didn't exactly punch out strong. Though there were plenty of good moments throughout, there were nearly as many elements that just didn't work for me.

Let's start with the Shell Game of Death that was watching that cross necklace and jacket get passed around from character to character. It was supposed to be a tension-ratcheting device, as we all knew from Daisy's vision that the person with those things was the one who was going to end up dead. But it had basically the opposite effect for me. Knowing we had a two-hour episode ahead of us, every time someone would lay hands on the "mark of death," I'd mentally cross them off my list rather than fear for their safety. Plenty of episode left; you know the hot potato is going to move again. And after they tried to play with me several times, I got tired of the whole thing.

And it was a lot of build up for little real payoff, because the character killed was (um... SPOILER...) Lincoln. He's a character that has never really clicked on the show in his (relatively to the other characters) short run, so it hardly feels like a sacrifice to lose him. Indeed, before the threat/promise of "someone's going to die" was ever placed on the table, I probably would have guessed at the start of season three that Ward and Lincoln weren't going to last until the start of next season.

Worse, Lincoln's death doesn't really land within the universe either; the one person truly affected by it is Daisy, whereas everyone would have had a reaction to losing, say, May, or Fitz, or Simmons. Instead of ripples directly touching multiple characters, we'll get ripples touching just one character. And we already got a taste of how those ripples will play out in the "six months later" flash forward to cap the episode. It seemed to take us into a narrative space we just left: Daisy's on the run, doing bad things, and our heroes our trying to bring her in. Sure, last time she was under Hive's sway, but in terms of the beats of likely stories that would play out in this scenario, that's a distinction without much of a difference.

In the long run, if feels like "Ward's" death will be a much bigger deal for the show. You knew they were going to defeat Hive by the end of the season. Still, the reality of that is that actor Brett Dalton, who has had more reinventions on this show than anyone, is finally done with the series. (Well, barring some implausible thing involving the Life Model Decoys teased in the final scene.) Don't get me wrong, I think they'd played out everything his character had and then some. Still, it's going to be a different show without him on it.

What did work? For one, the bond between Mack and Yo-Yo. (I believed that relationship a lot more than the Daisy/Lincoln romance they were trying to sell me.) Her near-sacrifice to protect him resonated well for me. For another -- in small doses -- Dr. Radcliffe. His schtick would wear thin for me at times, but he'd always manage to make me laugh a bit later with some tossed-off one-liner. Actually, the comedy throughout the two-parter played well, culminating for me in Coulson's "help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" hologram. And, as is so often the case on the show, the fight sequences were a cut above for television. May vs. the primitives and Daisy vs. Hive were two great scenes.

Still, I hope the writers take the summer to recalibrate a bit, to make certain that this new direction they're setting out in for season four truly is new and not a redux of things just covered in this last half season. I give the finale a B-.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Strike One

After completing the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling went on to write The Casual Vacancy, a book I found utterly unreadable. But it was not the simple idea that she'd tried something different that put me off, and so I was willing to give her another chance with The Cuckoo's Calling.

This book was published under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. As is so often the case when big writers try using a pen name, her secret was quickly exposed. We'll never know if the book would have been commercially successful on its own merits, but we can still judge its artistic merits.

I do credit Rowling for committing wholly to the pen name; The Cuckoo's Calling doesn't feel at all like the books she's written before. As Robert Galbraith, she jumped into the "hard-boiled detective" genre, creating a curmudgeonly war veteran named Cormoran Strike and leaning into many of the conventions of the format (albeit through a Londoner's lens). This book has her detective hired by a wealthy man who refuses to believe that his sister -- a famous supermodel -- committed suicide. He wants Strike to prove it was murder.

I found the book to be intermittently successful. The two main characters, Strike and his temporary secretary Robin, are both fairly interesting individuals. The blend of their oh-so-British mannerisms with the oh-so-traditional trappings of private detective fiction feels like something both familiar and unusual. Robin is particularly intriguing, seeing her struggle between the feeling that she shouldn't get caught up in this world, and the simple fact that she loves it.

But the book is, quite simply, far too long for the genre. It may have been published under the name Robert Galbraith, but one senses the editor knew this was really the work of J.K. Rowling... and was too timid to insist on some sorely needed edits. Sure, a web of possible suspects is the bread and butter of a good mystery. But The Cuckoo's Calling is easily twice as long as the average detective novel, and really begins to feel the strain of that length long before the final chapter. The sheer number of red herrings becomes tedious.

And ultimately, the ending is pretty terrible. I was sort of circling the "solution" to the mystery around the halfway point, but I dismissed it out of hand, thinking "it couldn't possibly be that, because that doesn't make any sense!" And yet that was indeed the ending. And indeed it didn't make any sense.

The Cuckoo's Calling is a far better effort than The Casual Vacancy, to be sure. But even though it was the first of a series of Cormoran Strike novels, I don't really think I enjoyed it enough to investigate the next one. I give the novel a B-.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book of the Stranger

This week's Game of Thrones started off with a real "stand up and cheer" moment, as two long-separated siblings actually reunited after being split apart clear back in season one. Sansa actually made it to the Wall, and to Jon Snow.

It's only when you really pause to think about it that you realize how odd it is that on a long-running TV series with more than a dozen people in its principle cast, many of those actors never share scenes with one another. Imagine Lost if Jack and Locke were kept apart for five years, or Firefly if Jayne and Book never crossed paths. Game of Thrones works as it is, of course, but it's a real oddity in the television landscape.

So when Sansa and Jon Snow reunite, it's a Big Frakking Deal. As big as Jon Snow's death and resurrection, if you ask me. Maybe bigger, because it's not going to go down this way at all in the books. Though you could begin to see in this episode how the show was taking steps to realign itself with the books, by pointing several players toward a meeting at Winterfell. For Jon, it's a mission to rescue Rickon from Ramsay Bolton (spurred on by a letter of similar content that actually reached him before his death in the books). For Davos, it's a similar quest to find Rickon (a quest given solely to him in the books). Sansa and Littlefinger, in each other's company in the books, are here separately pointed toward Winterfell too.

And I'll get back to Littlefinger in a moment, but first, I love how the show didn't miss an opportunity in having Brienne up at the Wall too, to confront Davos and Melisandre over the deaths of Renly and Stannis. I'll be curious to see what friction develops between the three characters. Melisandre has already transferred her zealotry for Stannis to Jon Snow, so it likely means little to her that Brienne executed the king. But what about Davos... particularly if he ever learns the true circumstances of Shirene's death, as he was probing?

So then, Littlefinger. I'm thrilled to see Westeros' biggest power player back in the mix this week. On the one hand, I'm perhaps a touch disappointed to see him rounding up an army for a big battle. It's decidedly not his style. On the other hand, his manner for doing so, manipulating a powerful (child) lord to do his bidding, very much is his style. And in the same breath, he fired a warning shot at a rival, saying "you're only alive as long as I allow it." Yeah, classic Littlefinger. The day someone actually gets one up on him will be a day to see.

Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion actually took the reins (and reign) this week as he worked for peace, much to the distaste of all parties involved. I liked the characterization of Missandei and Grey Worm throughout this sequence, particularly the chiding of Tyrion for imagining that his brief experience as a slave (far briefer here even than it was in the books) in any way taught him the full horrors of the practice. The interesting thing, though, is that despite his numerous faux pas, despite the way everyone bristled at the moral and financial compromises, he did seem to be moving the needle. Tyrion is a political animal. He too was in his element here.

Of course, it's Daenerys who was working the real solution to the slavery problem. I got exactly what I've wanted this last few weeks: she solved her own problem -- no dragons, no rescue from Jorah and Daario. (Though those two did in fact get their heroic moment of being there for a rescue, which Dany then refused. And the mini "odd couple buddy cop movie" they played out before that happened was a lot of fun to watch.) Before Daenerys had any followers, or dragons, or control of any cities, she had one "super power" -- she's the Unburnt. So she used that power in a dramatic show to rally new followers in much the same way she did the first time: walking unscathed out of a blaze. Now she has a brand new Dothraki army that she can march back west to cut through the Meereenese Knot once and for all.

And though I've now skipped ahead to the episode's flashy ending, there's a lot that happened in between. King's Landing provided some interesting developments this week. We picked up on Margaery's captivity, and I found the thread strangely compelling. Put in much the same situation as Cersei, she has proven to be far stronger than Cersei. She puts on some image of being broken down, but she's in fact holding quite strong. She tosses out a few barbs about the "Shame"ful septa, gets the High Sparrow to reveal a very personal story from his past, and gets what she has demanded: a chance to see her brother. Unfortunately, Loras has not done well in prison at all. He's fallen apart completely, and that might be the thing that finally forces Margaery's compliance.

If we ever get to see that moment, anyway. Because within the Red Keep, Cersei and Lady Olenna are on the same page now. That's a rare and frightening prospect. While it's a shame that on the show Kevan Lannister (who in the books is much more stern and commanding, in the image of Tywin) is such a pushover on the show, I'll go along with it to see him bow in the face of these two women who almost always get what they want. Cersei would never ally with Olenna, of course, if she knew how Joffrey's death really went down. And there's also a flaw here that's the same flaw in all of Cersei's plans: what's step 2? Sure, let's bring in an army to take down the church supporters. But then what if that army doesn't continue to do what you want, Cersei?

Theon Greyjoy returned to the Iron Islands and his sister Yara. He could not possibly begin to make her understand why he turned down her rescue only to later escape himself. And how could she understand? But she seemed to perk up when he offered his help to get her elevated to the throne. Yet it's hard to imagine what broken, shattered Theon, who hardly spent any time in the Islands before becoming a ward of Ned Stark, could possibly do to influence things at the upcoming Kingsmoot. (And particularly hard to imagine for book readers to imagine, as the Kingsmoot has already taken place there, and Theon was nowhere to be seen.)

And lastly, we got a short scene between Ramsay and Osha. I'm glad they didn't play out more "torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton" for a few weeks. And yet, I wasn't expecting Osha to get back into the story after three years only to die so quickly. It's easier by far to get the drop on Ramsay than Littlefinger, of course. But then, give Ramsay even the slightest provocation, and he'll kill you. So goodbye Osha. And here's hoping Jon Snow rallies his troops quickly for Rickon.

A satisfying episode overall. (Even if Bran did sit the bench for a week, further delaying revelations at the Tower of Joy.) I give the episode an A-.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Eight is (Long) Enough

This past January and February, I focused my movie viewing on catching up with all the Oscar contenders for Best Picture. When Quentin Tarantino's newest, The Hateful Eight, didn't make the Best Picture cut, it fell off my to-do list in favor of other movies that did. But I did recently get a chance to backtrack and see what I missed.

A quasi-successor to Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is an Old West story of a group of loathsome strangers forced to ride out a blizzard inside a general store. Grudges heat up between them, until they're all at each other's throats in a series of violent climaxes.

I'll start by noting that I missed this movie "as intended" on a sprawling screen in 70mm projection -- the ultra-wide screen format Tarantino decided to resurrect specifically for this movie. I found that artistic decision to be a bit of a mixed bag. It is an Old West tale, set in the aftermath of the civil war, and when lavish landscape vistas are being thrown at us, the 70mm is pretty breathtaking. (Even on a television, and I can easily imagine that I missed out on something not seeing the movie in a theater.)

But most of the movie takes place indoors, in a single, deliberately rather claustrophobic location. And, in the way of all Tarantino films, most of the movie consists of long (long) scenes of dialogue. And while directorial decisions in framing characters on screen does subtly impact the audience, it simply doesn't feel like there's much that can be done here between two talking heads that can't be done in a more traditional film format. Tarantino isn't racing chariots or parting the Red Sea here.

As for that dialogue? Well, as always, Quentin Tarantino is desperately in love with the sound of his own writer's voice, and desperately in need of an overseer with editorial control to tighten up his movies. But I did find The Hateful Eight to be a variation on his norm. Most Tarantino movies feel to me like they're constructed of scenes that just go on too long -- scenes that make their point after 3 minutes when they last 6 minutes. The Hateful Eight, being something of a "locked room mystery" kind of story, does benefit at times from drawing out the action. So this time out, rather than lifting whole sections entirely out of scenes, I felt it more appropriate to trim lines of dialogue in multiple places throughtout a scene. Characters repeat themselves (and each other) quite a lot in this movie, unnecessarily. And many of the same beats play out repeatedly in successive scenes.

But at least if a Tarantino movie is always going to sound the same in its dialogue, he's long ago found a troop of actors who know how to deliver it. Tarantino stuffs this film with veterans of his past work, and they all present intriguing characters: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walter Goggins, and Bruce Dern. Among the handful of newcomers, Jennifer Jason Leigh has the most substantial part, and scored her first Oscar nomination for the role. I don't know that I'd call her a standout among this cast, but she certainly takes to the world, to Tarantino's style, well.

I found the movie reasonably fun, if a touch long-winded. But that's what I expect from Quentin Tarantino most of the time. I'd give The Hateful Eight a B-.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Criminal Investigation

A few weeks back, I reviewed (unfavorably) the podcast series Sword and Scale, which played fast and loose with the "true" part of "true crime." Fortunately, in leaving that podcast behind, I immediately found another that was much more to my liking: Criminal.

Criminal was created by Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel, and Lauren Spohrer -- a trio of (in their words) "full-time radio people" looking for something fun to do "when we go home at night." Judge is the regular host, but all three have been featured in different episodes of the podcast. The common thread between episodes is stated succinctly in that title: the series deals with all sorts of criminal activities and their perpetrators. But a wide variety of material fits under that umbrella, from lightweight to deadly serious, crimes both recent and historical, tales oddball and mainstream.

The eclectic mix is part of Criminal's charm; you never know what to expect from the next episode. You get the story of a professional soccer player who solved a murder that the police detectives could not. You get a glimpse inside the strange world of illegal Venus Flytrap harvesting for black market sale. You hear the unexpected tale of a low security prison inside a leper colony. You follow the hunt for a serial rare book thief.

But there is one recurring theme that Criminal keeps coming back to: sympathy for crime victims. Sometimes the criminals are the villains, as in the case of a man who for decades was conned and extorted by the same individual. Other times, the system itself is the villain, as in episodes about the (in)effectiveness of lie detector tests, or how juries often scrutinize victims more than those accused. And the show doesn't shy from sometimes showing police themselves as the villains, as in the cases of a transgender woman mistreated by the cops, and a man shot by the police who misentered his car's license plate number. (But lest you think the show is anti-cop, consider the episode devoted to the bond between an officer and his canine partner, or the episode about a retired policeman still striving to right an injustice 50 years later.)

Criminal always features compelling interviews, intriguing subjects, and skillful reporting. And it's also very concise. Each episode is around 20-25 minutes long, making it the perfect length for my drive to or from work. And while I may be sad when I very quickly work my way through its 40 episodes to date, the quality will make it worth the two week wait for each new episode. (So far, only one or two installments have struck me as "duds.")

In short, if you like podcasting and/or true crime stories, Criminal will be right up your alley. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I'm of a mixed mind about last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There were many good elements in play, though I'm not sure they paid off in the most satisfying of ways.

For example, this felt like the most seamless of all "movie integration" episodes the series has tried to pull off. The danger of Inhumans has been part of the fabric of this show for an entire season and then some, which actually made the issue from Captain America: Civil War, the question of the Sokovia Accords, feel if anything even more earned here than in the movie. There was also a nice beat in having Coulson acknowledge Peggy Carter.

But on the other hand, we know there's not really going to be much of a lasting impact here from the events of the movie. The Inhumans on Coulson's team either aren't going to register, or it isn't going to stop them from kicking ass if they do. And when Talbot says that this is exactly the sort of thing the Accords were meant for, a situation like Hive, we know that doesn't mean he's going to call in the Avengers. (Mind you, I'm not looking for movie stars to swoop in at the last second to solve problems our TV heroes have been working on for a year. But the internal logic of Talbot's thinking here simply doesn't add up.)

The episode all built to a pretty great moment of turning Lash loose on Hive. Here again, it felt earned by the history of the show. Of what possible use is an Inhuman that mindlessly kills other Inhumans? Well, killing the Big Bad Inhuman and being immune to his powers, of course. It makes sense to me.

But then to have Lash not do that, to instead have him rescue Daisy (a stretch, in his bloodlusty state) use a completely-unhinted-at-before ability to cleanse Hive's "sway" (convenient), and then immediately be offed because one freshly made Inhuman got the drop on him (with a power than in the grand scheme of things isn't as threatening as most)? Well, it was a trifecta of asking too much of the audience. Or of me, anyway. The feeling of "yes, this is what the Lash subplot was all about!" immediately gave way to "wait, this is what the Lash subplot was all about?"

The beats along the way were similarly of mixed effectiveness. Lincoln was being a team player in the end and helping the cause. Good there. But you either never actually doubted him during his "deception," or you believed until the reveal that he was even stupider than you thought where Daisy was concerned. Neither way is a win for the character or the audience. And then there was the friendship-of-sorts previously forged with Talbot. It basically went out the window, undoing previously good developments and leaving Coulson looking foolish for trusting Talbot without any apparent reason for doing so.

So it felt like an unfortunately weak episode to me overall. Maybe not weak in the grand spectrum of television, but certainly weak coming down the back stretch of an otherwise engaging run of episodes. I give "Emancipation" a B-.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Time In

Love Actually is a sentimental favorite with many people (myself included). Not long ago, I watched a more recent effort from its writer and director, Richard Curtis: About Time.

The film is the story of young Tim Lake, who after his 21st birthday is informed by his father that the men of his family have the ability to travel backward in time within their own lifetimes. Tim immediately tries using the power to get a girlfriend, only to learn that saying the right thing at the right time isn't going to help if it's not said to the right girl. And even once Tim finally does meet "the one," he faces surprising struggles even with his unique gift on his side.

For anyone familiar with the melange of emotions and relationships blended together in Love Actually, it would not be surprising to learn that my above summary of the plot of About Time only scratches the surface. I've possibly made it sound a bit like Groundhog Day... which, early on, it certainly seemed like the movie aims to be. Then it seems like the movie might be a sort of black comedy or comedy of errors, as Tim's efforts to "fix" one problem only create another in its place. But no... the movie wasn't trying to be a rom-com Final Destination about the inexorability of fate, either.

Actually, the film rambles around a bit, flirting with a few different ideas, before finally sneaking up on its real message in the final act. And while I would readily concede that its hardly the most original point in the history of cinema, the circumspect journey makes it a quite touching one. It was like unwrapping a present, and being genuinely surprised by the well-thought out gift inside.

The cast helps make the movie shine. Tim is played by Domhnall Gleeson, appearing here before his breakout year that would see him in everything. He's pleasantly awkward at first and increasingly confident over time -- the best parts of Woody Allen or Hugh Grant, minus the grating neuroses. Rachel McAdams is charming and a touch sarcastic (so, even more charming) as love interest Mary, in a role that picks up a fish-out-of-water quality within this British film. Past Curtis collaborator Bill Nighy is excellent as the father, capturing both the lightness and the sentiment when the movie calls for each in turn.

This movie fell just outside my top 100 list, but it still made me smile (and ultimately, moved me) enough to give it an A. It's simply a clever approach to a familiar message.

Monday, May 09, 2016


This week's episode of Game of Thrones picked up where the last left off, with the long expected "unexpected return" of Jon Snow. I'd hoped for a bit more insight into what Melisandre makes of his resurrection, though actress Carice van Houten did make the character's shock plainly clear on her face. The episode circled back around to end at the Wall too, with the execution of Jon Snow's executioners, and his apparent resignation from the Night's Watch. He's served until his death, as his oath required, so seems legit to me.

But the Night's Watch plot doesn't stop at the Wall anymore, as we checked in on Sam and Gilly in their voyage to Oldtown. Sam's plan to set Gilly up with his family seems fraught with potential disaster. This is the family that sent him to the Wall in the first place, after all. We'll see what drama develops in the weeks to come.

We're also in "wait and see" mode with Daenerys. I continue to hope she can somehow affect her own rescue -- not that I can see what good Jorah and Daario would be against all those Dothraki. (A dragon, on the other hand...) Yet it's certainly unclear how Dany could help herself at this point.

Things stayed mostly as is in Meereen as well. (I'm just not sure the revelation of who is funding the Harpies is that... well, revelatory.) Still, we got a series of nice character moments. It's been a while since we've seen Varys doing what he does best -- gathering information. (And nice that he makes a point of how torture isn't the best means of doing that.) And while I could grouse that Tyrion did absolutely nothing to advance the plot this week, his attempt at conversation was a nice lighter moment in an otherwise serious episode. 

There were a couple of bones thrown toward book readers this week. Or, in the first case, a bit of a cruel tease. Bran's sequence this week jumped back to a pivotal past moment long talked about in the books (and the show). Bran wanted to see what happens next at that tower as much as the audience did, but was denied by the Three-Eyed Raven (and the writers). Seriously, dammit, we were right there! But no, confirmation of the longest running theory in this whole epic tale will have to come another week. Way to get the audience re-engaged in what happens to Bran, though.

Then there were the events in King's Landing, as Jaime and Cersei found themselves on the outside of a disgruntled council. There's still a rather dramatic development from the books yet to transpire in said council, a development involving a character nowhere near the city in the show. This episode might have sown seeds suggesting we could get to the same destination by a very different road... depending on just what you think Jaime and Cersei might be willing to do. And how will Tommen play into their plans? The young king seems clearly influenced by whoever is in front of him at any given moment, as the High Sparrow demonstrated this week. But Tommen's going to get a lot more face time with Cersei than him, I would think.

Over in Braavos, a girl now has her sight back. And all it cost her was her own sense of identity. The way this sequence played out, it seems impossible that Arya could have deceived the Faceless Men in any way. So is this the end of her list, her family, the things she formerly cared about? And did you notice how cleverly this sequence reminded everyone about Arya's youngest brother Rickon...

...just in time to have him reappear on the scene! Ramsay Bolton has lost one Stark but gained another. Poor Rickon (and his Wildling guardian Osha) have landed themselves in serious hot water. But there's reason to believe a rescue could be coming (from a few possible people). George R.R. Martin has laid a bit of track in this direction in the books, but here again, it seems like we're heading to the same destination by a different route. (Which preserves some fun for readers if Martin ever manages to finish the next book.)

Peaks and valleys are expected in the telling of a good story, but it does seem to me overall, the writers may have pumped the brakes a bit too much this week. But I'd give this week a B+.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Civilized Discussion

Captain America: Civil War has arrived, a sequel to both two Captain America films and two Avengers films (and, arguably, three Iron Man films and a handful of other Marvel movies besides). It is stuffed to bursting with characters, a plot of its own, continuations of ongoing story lines, and set-ups for future movies. It's an extremely difficult balancing act to pull off, as evidenced by the fact that even multi-character, multi-plot master Joss Whedon (who pulled it off quite successfully with these characters once) stumbled a bit in trying to do it again.

Maybe Marvel overseer Kevin Feige realized he'd gone a step too far when he basically broke Joss Whedon making Age of Ultron. Or maybe Civil War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had more energy for this project, as they weren't directing it too. Maybe something else. In any case, Captain America: Civil War swoops in as one of the best films to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What's really impressive is how all the competing interests here somehow don't feel competitive or awkwardly wedged in as they did in Age of Ultron. The movie is absolutely Captain America's story, as the overall emotional throughline tracks his stalwart efforts to stand by his longtime friend Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier. But the "civil war" arc (no doubt massively abbreviated from its comic book source) feels complete too, and provides meaty and meaningful stories for Iron Man and Black Widow.

Actually, every superhero character in the film gets their due, both in a high octane action moment and in an off-the-field-of-battle character moment -- some more thoughtful and serious (Vision, Scarlet Witch), some light and funny (Ant-Man, Hawkeye). And then there are the new characters, solidly introduced.

I like the overall vibe of Black Panther, and look forward to his solo movie -- but I think that's more on the strong commitment in Chadwick Boseman's performance, because (having never heard of Black Panther outside of this movie) I still don't quite get the character. I felt the movie was a bit ambiguous/confusing as to whether he's just a skilled fighter in a suit or a guy with a magic ring. And I have no idea how he juggles both being a nation's leader and a superhero; I'm trying to imagine Barack Obama slipping out of the West Wing in a cat suit to boot heads and I can't get there. But the emotional content of Black Panther's story line was clear and relatable throughout. With the full time of his own movie to spread out in, I think the character will be quite compelling.

Then of course, the moment so many fans have been waiting for, the introduction of Spider-man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This script slides him into the mix well, giving Spidey fans enough to sink their teeth into while not detracting from the overall story here. You definitely get a sense of who actor Tom Holland's Spider-man is, and it really does feel like a "best of both worlds" between Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield; he captures both the "weight of the world on his shoulders" seriousness of the former and the pure sense of joy of the latter. He nails the sense of a teenager too -- at times starstruck, cocky, unskilled. Indeed, the only flaw I can see in casting Tom Holland is that since he really does seem as young as Spider-man is supposed to be, it makes Scarlet Witch (who the movie repeatedly reminds you is just a kid) seem miscast by Elizabeth Olsen. That won't be a problem for Spider-man's forthcoming solo movie, so go ahead and start looking forward to that.

There are a few flaws in Civil War, but they're pretty minor. The first half is a bit slow in places. It does pay off in spades in the back half, so patience with a movie that feels more Jason Bourne at times than superhero is rewarded. There's the muddiness about the powers of a couple of the characters. (In addition to Black Panther, who I mentioned above, I remain completely unclear about what The Vision can and can't do, having now seen him in two movies.) And of course, it wouldn't be a Marvel movie without an uninteresting villain (unless Loki's around). Actor Daniel Bruhl does what he can with the role of Helmut Zemo, but a short cameo earlier in the film by Alfre Woodard packs more of an emotional punch with a similar back story. But then, I guess Zemo isn't supposed to be the star here; you came to see Captain America fight Iron Man. Also, don't see this in 3D if you have a choice; directors Anthony and Joe Russo opt for hyper-kinetic action with a constantly moving (and sometimes shaky) camera, which doesn't play well at all in 3D.

I'd give Captain America: Civil War an A-. I'd say it's not quite as good as either The Winter Soldier or The Avengers (despite the fact that if you look back on the reviews I wrote for both those movies at the time, I gave them each B+; I've shifted my scale a bit since then). Marvel fans are sure to be satisfied.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bard Is the Word

When I first heard of the book The Millionaire and the Bard, it seemed like it might be tailor-made for me. The book's full title fills you in more as to its tale: The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio. It's the true story of early 20th-century oil executive Henry Folger, and his efforts to buy up every surviving copy he could find of Shakespeare's First Folio -- the original 1623 printing of the playwright's full collection of plays. This tale sounded like it lived at the intersection of Shakespeare, collecting, and treasure hunt. Brilliant!

Author Andrea Mays starts her book in a compelling way, detailing the actual creation of the First Folio. She explains how it was only through the Herculean efforts of two of Shakespeare's actors that the Folio even exists -- and how without them, fully half of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost forever, leaving the compromised remainder littered with textual errors. It's a sobering reminder of how much of history is lost to history, and revealed much to me I didn't know before.

But when the book then turns to the life of Henry Folger and his collector's compulsion... well, my expectations for the book really didn't line up with reality. I think perhaps I was expecting some kind of Indiana Jones type of tale. I don't mean that I was foolishly expecting some action-adventure with narrow escapes and menacing villains. But I did expect to see some effort, some historical sleuthing, in the hunt for First Folios. Where had these surviving copies been hiding? How did Folger track them down? Did their owners know what they had? How did Folger persuade them to part with such treasures?

The book is almost never about any of that. Thanks to her exceptional research, Andrea Mays can tell you about every First Folio ever acquired by Folger -- when he bought it, what he paid for it, how it was catalogued. But there's rarely an interesting story behind the mere acquisition of the thing. Folger did none of his own hunting; he learned of each Folio from an auction house, or from a contemporary catalogue of Folios published by a British researcher. The "Obsessive" part of the book's subtitle is clearly present, but there's no real sense of a "Hunt."

On one or two occasions, the story of acquiring one particular copy of a First Folio merits a longer telling: when a copy once owned by a library comes up for sale, when a bitter British noble waffles on whether to sell his copy, when an attempt to leverage a purchase like a business deal blows up in Folger's face. But generally, the saga of Folger's collecting is a monotonous litany: this year he bought this many copies, next year he bought this many more, on and on and on. The "how" of it equally boring: he was a rich man with a ludicrous income, who denied himself the trappings of that wealth to collect Shakespeare. It's not a story that sustains itself well over many chapters.

So in the end, I really can't recommend this book. True fans of Shakespeare will appreciate the story of the First Folio's creation. And a couple of compelling essays might have been written about two or three particular acquisitions from Folger's lifetime. But there's a lot of repetitive fluff lurking in the pages of The Millionaire and the Bard. I give it a C.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Failed Experiments

On this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hive basically unfurled his master plan... and became rather less scary in the process.

First of all, his plan seems so ad hoc, considering that he had untold centuries in isolation to work it out down to every possible contingency. He's doing an awful lot of improvising here.

Second, the fact that he didn't just kill the doctor and take his body (as he threatened to do) doesn't really make sense. Again, the realities of television and using actor Brett Dalton take precedence over logical storytelling. Which I understand... but then maybe don't have Hive point that out to the audience. (I guess maybe he got used to hanging with one host for a long time on the alien planet?)

Third, we learned that Hive doesn't exactly have encyclopedic knowledge of all the past hosts he's inhabited. It's in there somewhere, but at the end of the episode, Daisy had to remind him of a fact he already knew. Sure, sometimes I can't remember where I left my sunglasses, and I just have one lifetime of memories. I get it. But it does take a touch of menace out of Hive to portray him this way.

Fourth, Hive's master plan is to make everyone into an Inhuman. And while we can certainly understand why some characters might not want that -- particularly with the whole mind control aspect in play -- you have to admit that it would be a pretty cool thing for the show if a couple more characters came out of this with super powers, right? I mean, as audience members looking for maximum entertainment, shouldn't we now be rooting for Hive to succeed a little bit before the heroes take him down?

While I may have been a touch uncertain about the main plot developments this week, there were at least a few character accents on the side that landed well for me. I liked the material surrounding Fitz and Simmons trying to negotiate their new relationship. I appreciate that the writers didn't just go for instant drama that simply wouldn't have been realistic for these two very logical characters. Along similar lines of enjoying a cliche that the writers did not indulge, I was expecting a wholesale slaughter of those S.H.I.E.L.D. grunts the moment we saw them bickering over gear. But all of them made it out alive, and one even got a pithy line or two during the mission.

I enjoyed May's brief undercover stint, flirting to get the information she was after. The fight between Hive and the Kree was also kind of neat, for the way it was choreographed to show a very different fighting style for Hive. (Though why he wasted time with any of that before using his skin-flaying ability, I couldn't guess.)

All told, I'd give the episode a B. Not bad, but a bit of a step back from the last few.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016


I recently watched an unusual documentary film called The Institute. It was another case of "I put the movie in my Netflix queue when I heard about it, but forgot where I heard about it before I finally got around to watching it."

Produced in 2013, the movie looks back on the "Jejune Institute," an alternate reality game (ARG) that ran for several years in San Francisco, starting in 2008. For those unfamiliar with the idea of an ARG, it's a sort of puzzle/scavenger hunt that unfolds over time in the real world, with actors sometimes hired to interact with the players. But this game in particular defies so simple an explanation; having over 90 minutes to work with, the film doesn't ever make it explicitly clear what the Jejune Institute was or what its creators hoped to accomplish with it. It was part art installation, part philosophical thesis, part memorial (maybe?), part self-help seminar... and part many other things too.

The documentary features interviews with different participants in the game, each with very different perspectives on the experience. Some found it a fun diversion from everyday life. Others found it increasing frustrating and weird. Some found it to be a quasi-religious experience. One was convinced it wasn't really a "game." There are also interviews with the creators behind the Jejune Institute... but their comments are often guarded and vague. As is so often the case among artists, they want their art to speak for itself. (And yet, why be interviewed for a movie at all?)

The film also features footage of players participating in different sections of the game, each instance stranger than the last. You get to see the bizarre induction video that kicked off the entire experience. You see people caught up in a staged protest in the San Francisco financial district. You see people trading spy movie-style code phrases on a pay phone. You see a guy dance on the street with a Sasquatch. No kidding.

The thing about the movie, The Institute, is that it seems to be extension of the game, the Jejune Institute. Only parts of the film seem like an objective telling of the story from a reporter's remove. The majority of the film feels like it's trying to make you the viewer have the same blurring-of-reality experience as the game's original players. You get the distinct impression that at least some of the interview subjects are playing for the camera. You're never sure if what you're watching are actual participants, or some staged reenactment for the purposes of this documentary. The entire film itself is "meta" -- part Blair Witch Project, part Punked.

On some level, I suppose I appreciate that a film about a game that wanted to transcend into reality would itself try to mess with the audience and be more than just a film. But it can't really change the fact that you're sitting there comfortably for an hour-and-a-half, taking the movie in and not really interacting with it as you would with a game, ARG or otherwise. I'm not saying I wanted to be force fed, but neither did I feel like I was toyed with in a way that amounted to much.

So all told, I think I'd give The Institute a C+. The idea of actually participating in an ARG sounds compelling to me. But the film seemed like a pale imitation.

Monday, May 02, 2016


Game of Thrones clearly has places to go and things to do, and so in just the second episode of the season, it stuffed in enough major developments to content many other shows for an entire year.

It's hard not to start with the end, the moment that fans spent a year speculating about (and that book readers have been anticipating for nearly five). Ummm.... SPOILER ALERT. (Duh.) I'm talking of course about the return of Jon Snow from the dead. Or something that may be mostly/partly Jon Snow. Considering what we saw a few seasons back with Beric Dondarrion, resurrection can have diminishing returns. Which now gets us to the real mystery. Many people were expecting Jon Snow back from the dead. But just what that means is considerably more murky.

So, shall we go back to the beginning then? The episode kicked off with another event we've been waiting for for more than a year: the continuation of Bran's story line. Right away, we're introduced to his new ability to see into the past, by witnessing a young Ned Stark and a pre-Hodor Hodor. For my money, just as tantalizing as the notion that Bran can now search the past for the answers we're madly seeking is the promise that he won't be staying up north forever. Yes, get that kid (who is looking decidedly not kid-like anymore) back from "Dagobah" and into the action!

Before the big moment at the Wall at the end of the episode, we had another big moment at the Wall in the form of a Wildling rescue of Davos from certain death. And speaking of walls, it was the first of two grisly deaths this episode in which a wall figured prominently, as we saw a giant quickly and ruthlessly take care of business. Stay gruesome, Game of Thrones, stay gruesome.

After a second death by wall, this one at the hands of Ser Robert Strong (aka Frankenzombie Mountain), we got a taste of where the story in King's Landing may be heading. The High Septon may be overplaying his hand behind his veneer of mock humility. Jaime is itching for a fight, as is young Tommen, who is now looking to his mother to show him the path to the Dark Side. She's only too happy to teach him, of course. With all these forces opposed, this cannot end well for everyone. Or probably even anyone.

I give MVP of the week to actor Conleth Hill, who gave us some quality reactions as Varys, watching Tyrion confront Daenerys' two remaining dragons. Because this was Tyrion, of course, it went better for him than the unfortunate soul who served a somewhat similar role in the books. And speaking of the books, Tyrion telling his story of a childhood love of dragons was also a nod to book material -- and quite moving, within the suspenseful context. A nice mingling of old and new there (and not for the only time this episode, as we'll come to in a while).

But not before first seeing Arya's continuing trials as a blind No One. It's a story that could easily stagnate if allowed to continue for too long -- and so they didn't. With the return of Jaqen H'ghar (or whoever is now wearing his face), Arya has seemingly passed a test, and may be starting back into the good graces of her twisted little group.

Though "twisted" is a word that would better describe Ramsay Bolton, and his actions this week. I know that in my loose mental time table, I was expecting the death of Roose Bolton at some point. Perhaps I was even expecting it to come at Ramsay's hand. But I suppose I wasn't expecting it yet. I can't otherwise account for my surprise at Ramsay being the depraved sicko he is, offing his father, stepmother, and brother all in one sequence. With no one now reigning in his instincts, I expect Ramsay to grow even more terrible. But I also expect the number of mistakes he makes to grow.

Bran was not the only one to re-enter the story after a long time away, as we revisited the Iron Islands for the first time in seasons. And here again was a blending of oldbook and new show, as things "backtracked" to an event that transpired much earlier in the books: the death of Balon Greyjoy (the third of Melisandre's leeches). In the book, it occurs off-screen, mysteriously, in an almost blink-and-you-miss it way -- and without a certain culprit. Can't have it that way in a TV show, which led to a confirmation of the suspected fratricide from the books. This sets up another vacant throne, and another battle to claim it. It's a story line from the books that I found a bit lackluster; I hope the show will find a way to spice things up.

Which leads us back to where I started.... the return of Jon Snow. I'll be interested to see not only what he's like coming back, but what his return means for Melisandre, who was in the midst of a deep crisis of faith. Faith restored? Brighter than ever? That too remains to be seen. By an audience who will just have to wait another week.

Until then, I'm quite satisfied. I give this episode an A-.