Friday, July 29, 2016

Seeing Red (Well... Reading It)

Since it was first published in 2014, I'd come upon several critics enthusiastically recommending the novel Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. Knowing that it was the first book of a trilogy, and being currently mired in more unfinished series than I can keep straight, I filed that praise away. But when the series was completed this year, I decided it was time to take a look. I probably should have done a bit more research into exactly what the book (and series) was about, because I found myself recoiling from a sense of "been there, done that" by the end of the first chapter.

Set in the future on the planet Mars, Red Rising depicts a rigidly class-divided society in which the lowborn are made to serve the elite. It follows a young man named Darrow as he tries to rise above his station and potentially lead a revolt against the system. In short, this is The Hunger Games, Silo, Divergent -- or, in other ways, Ender's Game or Lord of the Flies. For a story about revolution, there's little here that's revolutionary.

That said, in the same amount of time it took me to conclude that I'd read "this story" before, I also concluded that Pierce Brown was a bit better at writing it than the versions I'd read (or what I would infer from their movie adaptations). Darrow's origin story is largely interchangeable with Katniss Everdeen or Beatrice Prior, but the character felt like less of a do-gooding, destined-for-greatness cipher to me than the protagonists of most dystopian fiction. Through the occasionally clever turn of phrase, or the slight mixing up of recognizable plot elements, Brown managed to keep me from putting the book down.

I suppose it's because society feels so hopelessly class divided that stories like this keep getting remixed. (Someone more well-read than I could probably go back and track how long the trend has been going, and whether it has intensified of late.) So I credit Pierce Brown for striking a nerve, mining a vein that still has ore in it, or whatever metaphor you'd choose. But the fact remains that all throughout the book, I was alternately "intrigued and involved by his writing," and "exasperated by regurgitated plot elements."

But I did finish the book.

Whether I go on to read the next two, however, remains to be seen. With a "to read" stack that feels a mile high, perhaps not. But if this particular sub-genre is your thing, I'd have to say that this felt like a worthy entry I'd probably recommend. I'd call it a B.... maybe? Let me put it this way: if Pierce Brown isn't a one-hit wonder, if he goes on to publish some other book or series, then I'll probably investigate it. Until then, I'll be seeking greener pastures. (Or is that pages?)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Next Up

Michael Moore's latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, is eye-opening and challenging. Unfortunately, Moore has become such a politically polarizing figure that the film is unlikely to get the attention it deserves. This documentary examines a variety of government programs in several foreign countries (mostly in Europe), looking at how tax money is allocated and what that money gets for citizens. It provokes some meaningful introspection, and could spur equally meaningful conversation.... if Moore weren't in some ways his own worst enemy.

Moore's framing device (as indicated by the title) is that he is going to "invade" each of these countries, taking back to America some single great idea. And while America's military industrial complex is another topic worthy of introspection and conversation, it's somewhat ancillary to the points being made here. "How would you pay for these programs?" is an important question, but I'm pretty sure it alienates a lot of the potential audience right out of the gate by, in the opening scene, positioning the military in one corner and everything the film is going to present in the other.

I mean, I'm generally a fan of Michael Moore, and certainly a fan of the ideas presented in this film -- but even I was put off at times by his grandstanding gimmicks this time around. At the end of each segment of the documentary, each examination of one country, he melodramatically plants a flag in the office/room/factory of one of the people he's been interviewing, claiming their ideas for America. At the start of the next segment, he's striding through the airport in the next country literally draped in the America flag. Ugh.

It's a shame, because setting aside the tricks, each segment of the film is fascinating. Things start off in rather uncontroversial territory, looking at mandated vacation policies in Italy, and school lunch programs in France. After slowly winning you over with these simple notions ("Couldn't we all use a nice vacation?" and "Grade school is already paid for by taxes; shouldn't kids get to eat -- and not crap -- while they're there?"), the movie wades in deeper. We go to Slovenia, one of many countries where education at the college level is free (and some students from America are taking advantage). We travel to Germany, where education includes hard looks at painful history never to be repeated.

Now the audience is ready to consider some ideas that might be way outside its comfort zone: Portugal's complete decriminalization of drugs, and Norway's rehabilitative (and comparatively luxurious) prison system. Or ideas that shouldn't be outside the comfort zone, but somehow are: the measures taken in countries like Tunisia and Iceland to ensure gender equality.

Overall, the film is a great look at "other ways things can be done." For some, it will be a validation of ideas for change, proof that they have actually worked elsewhere in the world. For others, it will be an actual look at the "free stuff" that political opponents seem to want. It feels like a good documentary for any audience, if you can sometimes look past the messenger. I give Where to Invade Next a B+.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Oh Myyyyyy!

Last week, I published my review of the new Star Trek Beyond. In it, I mentioned the new film's treatment of Sulu, and promised to come back to the subject in a future post. Many of you will have seen the movie by now, but I'll still warn everyone that even though I'm talking about only a specific aspect of the movie, you might get spoiled (by me, or by a potential commenter). Proceed accordingly.

So... as was widely reported in the run-up to the film, Star Trek Beyond reveals that Sulu is gay -- married to a man and raising a daughter (the latter fact already established in Generations, in the original, non-Kelvin timeline). Gay Sulu made waves because, as progressive as Star Trek is, as focused on integration and positive role-modeling, there has never in the franchise's 50 years been an LGBT main character in any of its incarnations. While this was understandable in 1966 (the original series' premiere), frustrating in 1987 (The Next Generation's premiere), and galling in 2001 (Enterprise's premiere), it's inexcusable in 2016.

Many of the people involved with Star Trek Beyond gave interviews in which this development was discussed -- most notably John Cho (Sulu), Simon Pegg (Scotty, and co-writer of the script), Zachary Quinto (Spock, and openly gay), and J.J. Abrams (producer, and all-around "shepherd" of the re-boot movies). The main takeaways from these interviews were that "it was about time" (and they're absolutely right about that), and that they're all proud of the nonchalant way in which their film handles this development: Sulu's gay; it's no big deal.

On that second point, I must disagree. I understand and even agree with the sentiment, that it shouldn't be a big deal that Sulu is gay. But I don't think the movie is nonchalant about this fact; I think it's cowardly. The relationship is depicted in a "blink and you'll miss it" way. Sulu has a photo of his daughter at his station, but not of his husband. When his family is reunited in the film for what we're told is the first time in nearly three years, we see him kiss his daughter, but not his husband (played by the movie's other co-writer, Doug Jung).

According to John Cho, a kiss was filmed. It didn't make the final cut of the movie. Obviously, the film was not running two to three seconds long, necessitating this cut. No, this happened because these movies are no longer just Star Trek films, they're summer action tentpoles meant for international audiences. Paramount can't risk being shut out of the market in Russia, China, or other countries that drive foreign box office (and an increasingly large percentage of any big movie's overall take). Yet rather than making two cuts of the movie for different markets, Star Trek Beyond "takes a stand" in the least challenging way possible: leaving bigots to just assume the man with Sulu could be his brother, or whoever. I can only hope that when Star Trek: Discovery starts up next year, it's more direct. Yes, Sulu and his husband do put their arms around each other -- and that itself is risky public behavior for a modern gay couple in many contexts. But would the movie really have omitted the kiss if Sulu's spouse had been a woman?

There's another significant aspect of the gay Sulu reveal: George Takei's reaction to it. The original Sulu actor (and openly gay man, and master of the internet) was asked what he thought of the development. While there was nuance to his opinion (which he later had to clarify), it boiled down to this: he was thrilled to have a gay character on Star Trek, but would have preferred that it be a new character rather than Sulu. The response from Beyond's creative forces: we talked about that possibility, but we felt it would be a token representation to make a new minor character who would essentially be defined by their sexual orientation and nothing else. Setting aside the fact that there were multiple new characters in this film with other roles in the plot that could have been gay or lesbian and defined by more than their orientation, I here again understand and even agree with the sentiment. But it feels to me like a token representation is exactly what they ended up with, because they weren't willing to do anything more than the barest, token acknowledgement that Sulu is gay.

Then there are the likely unintended implications of having Sulu be gay. Among George Takei's reservations on the reveal was the fact the character -- as he knew and played him, as he says Gene Roddenberry conceived him -- is straight. At the moment, I can't recall any original series episodes that gave Sulu a love interest, but we did see him get flirtatious with Uhura on a few occasions. ("The Naked Time," "Mirror, Mirror.") From what we've seen on screen (large and small), it's certainly possible that Sulu is bisexual, but that's not what the current powers-that-be were trumpeting; they were proud of gay Sulu.

So what does it say that Sulu is straight in one timeline and gay in another? In my view, unfortunately, nothing good. It can certainly be read as subtle endorsement of the myth that "sexuality is a choice"; Sulu is gay only in the altered "Kelvin timeline," so he must have chosen that. Or you could say that "original Sulu" was closeted, and that it took some big, scary events like the destruction of Vulcan to make him realize that life's short and decide to come out. But that assumption fixes one problem by introducing another; do we really want to say that being closeted is even a thing in the bright and hopeful future of Star Trek?

I do feel that everyone involved was trying to do a good thing here. But I also feel like they didn't really look at it from all the angles -- a feeling that's underscored for me when you consider that the movie then takes its newly minted gay man and makes him a "damsel in distress" for half the run time. (As I alluded to in my original review, Uhura and Sulu -- the minorities of this cast in race, gender, and now sexuality -- spend the bulk of the story as prisoners.)

To be clear, Star Trek Beyond was never going to be the "Sulu movie," and I wasn't asking for that. But I do think they needed to do better with "Star Trek's first gay main character" if they were going to be bragging about it in the media.

Even if Star Trek Beyond had unassailably nailed the nonchalant approach to a gay character that it was attempting here, there would still be light years to go. One day, I want to go see a big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster full of explosions and action in which a shoehorned-in subplot sees the main guy getting the guy in the end. I want that to not be a big deal. You know, just like any other tacked-on heterosexual romantic subplot in any other big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Is that 10 years off, maybe? 25? Someday, I hope.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lights, Camera, Tension

Star Trek Beyond was not the only new movie this weekend that I got to check out. I also saw the new horror film Lights Out. It marks the feature film debut for David Sandberg, though he has made a number of shorts -- the first of which was the inspiration for this very movie (and which can be watched on YouTube).

Lights Out is a tight 80 minute movie with a simple premise. There's a monster terrorizing a young boy and the adult half-sister he turns to for help. The creature is powerless in direct light, but at night, when the lights go out, it's a terrifying specter with murderous intent.

If you watch the original short film, you might be hard-pressed to imagine how even 80 minutes could be wrung out of such a straightforward idea. But that's where this new version scores some points with me. Screen writer Eric Heisserer has crafted a character-driven story with a solid metaphor: mental illness can destroy a family. This full-length Lights Out unfolds in the context of a woman who escaped her disturbed mother, and who must now return to rescue her half-brother from the same situation. The story is worthwhile and interesting on its own, apart from the supernatural horror.

But then the set pieces work well too. The movie manages to explore all manner of situations in which lights suddenly come and go: basic switches, motion-activated sensors, flashing neon signs, hand-crank operated emergency flashlights, and many more. The monster occasionally displays an unfair ability to counter attempts to stop it with light, but the overall give and take of "now you see it, now you don't" never stops being intensely creepy. Nor does the movie need gore to evoke a visceral response; this is about classic, suspense driven chills.

The film also benefits from acting more solid than your run of the mill horror film. Most of the performers aren't easily recognized from other work, but Teresa Palmer plays a convincing psychologically damaged protagonist, Alexander DiPersia is believable as her determined boyfriend, and young Gabriel Bateman is exactly what you're looking for in a horror film from a child actor. Genre actor Billy Burke (who has appeared in everything from Twilight to the short-lived TV series Revolution) has fun in an extended prologue that also features the actress from the original Lights Out short, Lotta Losten. And Maria Bello handles the role of the mentally ill mother with a wise restraint that makes the character familiar and sympathetic.

In short, there's more going on here than in the average horror film. And all the jumps and spookiness you'd expect too, of course. I'd give Lights Out a B. Fans of tense scares will want to check it out.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Partly Cloudy

In the recently released board game Sea of Clouds, each player is the captain of a pirate ship, sailing from island to island is search of relics, rum, and new crew. I had a chance to try the game recently, and had a mixed reaction at best.

The game unfolds over a prescribed number of rounds. About one-third of the way through (and again, at the two-thirds mark, and at the end), you clash 7 Wonders style with the players on your immediate left and right. Each of the crew cards you've acquired adds to your battle strength; if you defeat a neighbor, each of those same crew cards provides its own reward for victory. You also have to keep an eye on end-game scoring, which comes primarily from two sources: gathering relics (an open set collection mechanic) and hording rum (a hidden information collection mechanic).

How you acquire your crew, relics, rum, and other cards is where the game is hoping to hook you. Three face down cards start off in three numbered locations. When it's your turn, you look at card #1. If you want it, you take it (and refill the slot with a card from the deck). If you don't want it, you add a new face down card to it (without looking), then proceed to look at Card #2 and repeat the process. If nothing in slots 1, 2, or 3 suit your tastes, you get the top card of the deck -- and because the card backs of each card type are distinct, that's not necessarily a total shot in the dark.

One player's trash is another player's treasure. When your turn comes, each rejection from an opponent has sweetened the pot. There may be two cards now in slot #1... and if you reject them, it will gain a third for the next player to consider. Each slot can hold three cards before the bribes start coming in the form of money -- 1 gold piece added to the three cards with each rejection.

It's an interesting "draft" mechanic, but I'm unsure how well the card set itself actually supports that mechanic. It feels as though a lot of the cards in the deck are negative. There are loads of hot potatoes you don't want to be stuck with, and all of the relics you collect actually start with a negative point value -- you have to get sets of them going before they flip around and become worth something. Avoiding a bad outcome doesn't strike me as nearly as compelling a decision as choosing between two good outcomes. And taking a bullet to stop the plans of an opponent is more palatable when it's simply "not as good for you"; here you have to put yourself in the hole relative to all players just to slow down the perceived leader.

The theme is also a bit hit-and-miss in this game. And while that's not normally a super-important consideration for me, I thought it significant enough to mention here. The cards are certainly filled with images of enough parrots, rum, treasures, and scurvy dogs to convey "pirate." But it feels like a thin and sometimes unfitting veneer on the game's mechanics at large. And worth noting, I only found out in preparing this review that the game is called Sea of Clouds because you're supposed to be in flying pirate ships; nothing overt in the game's visuals actually conveyed that element. (Even the front of the box is pretty subtle.)

The game's drafting mechanic is intriguing, but not by enough. Other games feel close to it, from Puerto Rico's "bribe the untaken jobs" system, or any game where opponents draft cards from your rejects (Notre Dame comes to mind, though there are a great many). So as a whole, Sea of Clouds just doesn't stand out as something I'd be eager to try again. I give the game a C+.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Beyond Reproach?

It's "lucky thirteen" for Star Trek movies this weekend as Star Trek Beyond, the third film of the rebooted franchise, warps into theaters. I went in hoping that I'd modulated my expectations correctly; man did that first trailer look terrible, but I certainly didn't want to hate it.

For the most part, the movie is successful. Bringing in Justin Lin, director of four Fast and Furious movies, did not suddenly wrench Star Trek in a wildly inappropriate direction. It simply meant that the you got some rock solid action sequences that were well executed and fun to watch. And the script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, did a good job making the action flow organically, not too tacked on just to jolt the audience.

This film also does a great job of taking its substantial budget and showing it all on the screen. There are some truly spectacular visuals, from epic space battles to the most plausibly alien planet I think the Star Trek franchise has probably ever had. It's a visual treat.


The "core three" characters -- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- are in all in top form. They get their hero moments, and their personalities are all dialed in perfectly. (This is something the reboots have always shined at, the sense that the movies are doing right by the classic characters.) In particular, the banter between Spock and McCoy this time out is a real pleasure to watch, and goes deeper at times than just good laughs.

As you'd expect in a script written by Simon Pegg, Scotty gets a good role this time out too. He has more to do, including plenty of interaction with the movie's best new character, a badass alien survivalist named Jaylah (performed solidly by guest star Sofia Boutella). Another place you feel the contribution of Pegg is in the movie's sillier moments. This one feels lighter overall than probably any Trek movie since number 4, The Voyage Home (the whale movie). And in most cases, that lightness works.

But there are a few missteps. There are two or three major moments in the plot that are direct re-treads of things we've seen in earlier Star Trek films -- and not even just from the earlier films, but sometimes from the rebooted installments. The big Act One Moment, in particular, has been seen twice before in Trek movies, an apparently go-to method for stirring the audience's feelings. Because of that "been there, done that" feeling, combined with the simple fact that we haven't spent the time with this incarnation of Trek that we did with the original crew or The Next Generation, it just doesn't hit you anywhere near as hard as the movie seems to think it will.

And fun though it is, the movie has a pretty jarring optics problem in the second act. Keeping seven "main characters" (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov) all engaged in one two-hour story isn't an easy thing to do, so it's expected that some characters are going to sit on the sidelines to some extent. (I mean, did any of the Next Generation movies ever do anything interesting with Beverly Crusher?) But here, two of the characters are taken out of the action for at least half the film in a particularly marginalizing way. And which two characters is it? You'd better believe it's not the five straight white men. Uhura and Sulu -- not only the two racial minorities, but the woman and the gay man -- have to sit out the majority of this movie. It helps the overall picture a bit to have the aforementioned Jaylah in the mix, and that the villain Krall is played with relish by Idris Elba (albeit unrecognizable beneath some cool makeup). But really... I have to wag my finger at everyone on this.

(Side note: I didn't think it a spoiler to comment that Sulu is revealed as gay in this movie, as the fact has been widely reported in the last few weeks -- along with George Takei's reaction to it. I haven't posted about it myself, as I wanted to wait to see how it was handled in context. I'll probably have a separate post on that coming next week.)

Star Trek Beyond is a definite improvement over Star Trek Into Darkness. They took on a new story this time, thank goodness, and it was fun and entertaining. Still, this falls well short of the first reboot film. I'd put it near the back of the pack of "good Trek films," though well ahead of the pack of "bad Trek films." I'd call it a B... perhaps a B+ on a more charitable day.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

An Attack on the Defenders

The last time I blogged about fantasy author Terry Brooks, it was to decry the abysmal television adaptation of his writing, The Shannara Chronicles. I found the show to be a hackneyed, teenaged version of one of his greatest books, The Elfstones of Shannara.

Now I've read his latest book, The Sorcerer's Daughter (the final book of three in The Defenders of Shannara set), and I find that Brooks' writing seems to have sunk almost to the level of that dreadful show. Was his writing always this way, and my younger self -- less well read, closer in age to the characters -- didn't see it? (I would have sworn not that; I just re-read Elfstones a few years back and still appreciated it.)

The Sorcerer's Daughter follows two distinct plot threads. In one, a group of Druids shepherded by Paxon Leah is fleeing from a peace conference that was attacked by a magical creature -- they themselves having been framed for the attack. In the other, Paxon's wife Leofur is trying to track his sister, who has been abducted for reasons unknown. Both situations have likely been caused by the Druids' nemesis, the evil mage (and Leofur's father) Arcannen.

It's been decades since Terry Brooks last published a "doorstop fantasy novel," but even as his page counts have been dwindling, he'd still mostly been telling "epic" tales of significant sweep and scope. The Defenders of Shannara series has been a definite push away from that, and The Sorcerer's Daughter feels like the culmination of this. It feels anything but epic, in the worst of ways. The stakes are extremely personal, and the characters are so shallow as to make that a real problem.

Much of what's going on here is recycled from earlier Brooks novels, even from within this very trilogy. This is the second time the same character has been abducted, the second time the evil sorcerer has used the same trick to fool the heroes. And the prose itself is repetitious too; the two main characters have the same internal monologue with themselves in chapter after chapter (sometimes even within the same chapter) without actually evolving until it's time for the book to end.

Brooks does try a couple of new things for which I should give credit. Where his past books have been using a similarly shaped romantic subplot, this novel actually depicts a married couple that may be on the way to divorce. The problem is, the major complication in this relationship is a potential new romance that plays out just like all the others, so it ultimately doesn't matter much that there's a pre-existing marriage here at all. Secondly, Brooks explicitly includes LGBT characters in his fiction for the first time, in the form of two Druid characters who are themselves a lesbian couple. Unfortunately, the personalities of both are rather underdeveloped (though one, at least, for reasons that make sense in light of the plot). Really, all the other characters in the Paxon Leah half of the plot are underdeveloped, so this is not a mark against Brooks' handling of a gay character... though it is a mark against his interest in supporting players beyond their immediate service to the narrative.

Though The Sorcerer's Daughter was quite short for the average fantasy novel, I found it a slog -- likely the worst of Terry Brooks' many books. I give it a D.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

TNG Flashback: Generations

Star Trek: Generations marked a "handing over of the baton" in the Star Trek feature film franchise, the first starring the cast of The Next Generation.

In a prologue, Captain Kirk is presumed dead after the Enterprise-B rescues a ship from an interstellar energy ribbon called the Nexus. 78 years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D comes into conflict with Dr. Soran, one of the survivors of that event. With the help of the Duras sisters, Soran is destroying stars to alter the course of the Nexus so he can get back inside. Waiting inside is a timeless utopia where all things are possible... and Captain Kirk, the one man who can help stop Soran.

Paramount gave the order to begin developing a Next Generation Star Trek film while the series was still in its sixth season. Former Next Gen staff writer Maurice Hurley was contracted to develop one story, while current staff writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga were told to create another; the stronger script would become the movie. (Executive producer and Deep Space Nine showrunner Michael Piller declined the chance to develop his own script, objecting to the competition.) Hurley's version reportedly used Kirk only as a holodeck character, which I imagine gave Moore and Braga's use of "the real thing" the inside track.

In a commentary track for the movie done by Moore and Braga, the duo recalls that several mandatory plot elements were handed to them. The original Star Trek cast would appear in the opening, while Kirk alone would figure in the finale. There had to be a Khan-like villain. But also Klingons (because people love Klingons). There had to be a humorous subplot involving Data. If these recollections are accurate, it's pretty easy to understand the form of the resulting movie, and the reason for most of its flaws.

Let's look at the mandates one by one. First, the original cast had to appear. Moore and Braga conceived of the Enterprise-B prologue to address this, and on paper I think it was a solid idea -- all seven of the original characters were written into the script. But there were two problems in executing that vision: with only 10-15 minutes for the entire sequence, some of the characters got only a couple of lines; moreover, Star Trek VI had already served as a quite effective sendoff for the original crew.

Leonard Nimoy was thus already reluctant when the production approached him -- not only to return as Spock, but as the first choice for the director's chair. Furthermore, after enjoying a lot of creative control on his previous Star Trek directorial efforts (III and IV), he wanted script revisions. In particular, he felt "there was no Spock function in the script," that the lines "attributed to Spock [...] had nothing to do with Spock." DeForest Kelley also passed on returning as McCoy. Just like that, the dream of reuniting the crew, or even just the classic Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio, died.

When you watch the Enterprise-B prologue, you can see moments that were clearly intended for other characters. Chekov pressing reporters into service as nurses is pure McCoy, and the pride he takes in introducing helmsman Demora Sulu would surely have felt better coming from her father. Scotty makes some very Spock-like leaps in logic, while ribbing Kirk at times in a very McCoy-like manner. Despite clear hints of "what might have been," a lot of the prologue does work. The actors we did get deliver solid moments, from the way William Shatner's hand lingers longingly on the captain's chair, to Walter Koenig's delivery of "I was never that young," to one of James Doohan's best ever moments as Scotty -- the hollowed out "aye" he gives when he realizes that Kirk is dead.

The Enterprise-B crew is a who's who of faces from genre television (and often, past Star Trek in particular): there's Tim Russ (just months before being cast as Tuvok on Voyager), Glenn Morshower (known for 24), Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Jenette Goldstein (most of James' Cameron's movies, including the role Vasquez in Aliens), and Thomas Kopache (numerous Trek roles, including Kira's father on Deep Space Nine). Sure, Captain Harriman is spineless and incapable, and Shatner gets a bit hammy squirming in his chair, but the sequence as a whole is filled with good action and visuals.

The next mandate, that Kirk return for the finale, is less successful. Really, the third act of the film in general is flawed, largely due to the plot device of the Nexus. Moore and Braga say they arrived at it because they didn't want to have "old Kirk" in their movie, but neither did they want to use straight-up time travel. They envisioned the Nexus as a mingling of past, present, and future, and rightly admit that the film doesn't do the best job of conveying that. In my view, the problem isn't just that the Nexus is a confusing idea, it's that what we do see is just plain silly. There's Picard's Dickensian family (with an unfamiliar wife instead of Vash, Jenice Manheim, or any of the TV series characters that might have resonated). There's the notion that Kirk's ultimate dream is to chop wood for eternity (and not to remain forever in command of a starship). Or the laughable fact that both men are wearing their Starfleet uniforms in their fantasies.

Most problematic is the notion that you can leave the Nexus simply by willing it, and go to any time and place you want. First of all, if what you want is to leave the Nexus and save the day, how do you know you're really doing that and not just being conned by another Nexus fantasy? Second, if you do leave the Nexus and anything goes wrong with your plan, why not just throw up your hands, get sucked back into the Nexus, then leave again to have another go at it? And thirdly, why exit the Nexus at a moment you're in dire peril, as opposed to any of countless earlier and opportune moments? (This last flaw, Moore and Braga acknowledge in their commentary. They half-heartedly defend themselves by saying that most time travel stories -- "even Terminator" -- have this problem, and that hopefully you just get caught up enough in the story not to let it bother you.)

But even bigger than the plot holes is the problem that Kirk's return really doesn't amount to much. His death feels perfunctory, and totally avoidable if they'd gone in with anything like a plan. (And that's even after reshoots; originally, Soran simply shot Kirk in the back.) It feels like Picard saves the day, while Kirk merely (arguably) saves Picard. Which is maybe what you want for a Next Generation movie, but certainly isn't great for the "last ride of James T. Kirk." Even his last line feels off. William Shatner was reportedly insistent about the final "oh my" (where the writers preferred "it was fun"), and it's hard to know what to make of the moment. Is Kirk seeing a glimpse of hell just a split second before he heads there? Is he having an Arrested Development-esque "I've made a huge mistake" moment? He's not going out swinging, as Captain Kirk should, that's for sure.

As for the mandate for a Khan-like villain? If you realize that what made Khan Khan is his personal vendetta against Kirk, then it's clear Soran falls short on that mark. His conflict with our heroes is completely beside the point to him, and his plot makes no sense. He's blowing up stars to reach the Nexus, claiming no ship can take him there. But how did Guinan and Kirk -- and Soran himself (the first time) all reach the Nexus? From a ship! But at least Malcolm McDowell does make the character fun and urbane villain, quoting literature and shrugging off the annihilation of billions while effectively stealing the spotlight from the mandated Klingons. Lursa and B'Etor succeed in destroying the Enterprise, which should make them great villains. But they're comic relief at best, second fiddles at worst. B'Etor's name is never even spoken aloud in the film.

How about that Data subplot? Well, it does generate some laughs... though getting there seems so glib. "Oh, we didn't mention that the emotion chip was mysteriously repaired at some point, and that Data could have just put it in at any time?" It feels like exactly what it is: something the writers chose to do only because it was the movie, to help this feel more like a movie than a regular episode. But Brent Spiner really sells it, from the hilarious Ten Forward drinking scene to the fist-pumping bridge celebration to the actual use of the word "shit" on Star Trek. He even makes the final discovery of Spot in the Enterprise wreckage a meaningful moment -- though he reportedly begged Moore and Braga to do something else, saying: "Does he have to find the cat? Can't he find, like, Geordi or something?"

And while Spiner is the standout in this film, you really can't fault any of the performances. (Not even Shatner, who secured a Razzie nomination for this film.) A lot of moments that could be goofy instead play perfectly straight. The intended jokes work, and there are several good scenes. Still, despite the cast's efforts, I feel like Generations doesn't quite focus on what it's trying to be about. There's the sense that it was supposed to be about "mortality," but most of the moments that touch on this theme are half-baked or muddled, swallowed up by the movie's need to check all the prescribed boxes. Soran's quest to return to the Nexus seems driven not out of fear of death, but out of desire to achieve nirvana. Kirk doesn't pine for his youth as such; he simply wants to keep adventuring, to be back in command of a starship again. Picard tells Troi that he regrets not having his own family, but his reaction to the death of his brother and nephew seems much more about grief than regret (and when the Nexus actually gives him that family, he gives it up quite easily).

But if the theme meanders a bit, I'd say at least the movie stays consistently feeling like a "movie," as opposed to an episode of the TV series. The scope of the problem is inflated, with a villain destroying entire stars. The Enterprise is destroyed! Captain Kirk dies! There's lots more filming on location: at sea for Worf's holodeck promotion, in beautiful mountains for Kirk's Nexus "heaven," and in the desert for the finale. Visual effects take a big jump up, particularly in the saucer crash sequence (though a few shots, such as the exploding Klingon ship, are stolen from earlier Star Trek movies). It's definitely a "big screen adventure."

This is already longer than my typical Star Trek reviews, so let me start wrapping things up with "other observations":
  • The lighting in this movie drives me absolutely nuts. Everyone was eager to do something more than the TV show, on its tight timetables, could achieve. But dammit, we know what the Enterprise looks like, and it's not this. Every scene is drenched in moody shadows, to a point where you can't even see some of the characters when they speak. It feels like it's supposed to be capital-I Important, but it's capital-D Distracting.
  • Dennis McCarthy scores the movie, continuing in his role as composer from the series. His music here is still a bit too steeped for my tastes in the "musical wallpaper" ethos sanctioned by producer Rick Berman. But he does cut loose here and there, with a new heroic anthem, and a poignant choir used to symbolize the Nexus.
  • Marina Sirtis often poked fun at the writers during convention appearances: after letting both a blind man (Geordi) and a child (Wesley) drive the ship, the first chance she gets to do it, she crashes it.
Generations doesn't hang together like the great episodes of Star Trek, but it is -- despite its flaws -- more coherent than many action movies. I'd grade it a B overall.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dice Town

Although it was first released several years ago, it was only recently that I got a chance to play the game Machi Koro. It's a dice-driven city building game that became a "crossover hit," one of those gateway games simple enough to help you transition your Monopoly playing friends into the wide world of Euro board games.

Each player begins the game with six building cards in front of them: two standard buildings (face-up) and four mega-buildings (face down and unbuilt). In the center of the play area, stacks of building cards are arranged, which players can construct throughout the game. Each building has a cost in coins to add it to your own growing town, and also has a number (from 1 to 12) that triggers its game text and provides you income. On your turn, roll one or two dice; the total of your roll then triggers your corresponding buildings to do their thing.

One of the game's small twists is that not all your dice rolls will help you and only you. Some buildings trigger each time any player rolls the corresponding number. Others trigger when an opponent rolls a particular number, paying you and penalizing them. The card designs do take the math into account to some extent, with both the building costs and effects scaled relative to the likelihood of a particular number being rolled. But you shouldn't let yourself get too distracted in creating a grand infrastructure that touches every number on the dice. To win the game, you must build each of the four mega-buildings in front of you. And the order in which you do it can matter, as each mega-building provides some kind of bonus to your efforts.

Machi Koro feels to me like a gateway game particularly good for people who like Sorry or Aggravation. The idea that "certain numbers work differently" with be familiar to those players, and the overall feeling of all these games is one of chaos over which you can exert just a tiny measure of control. In the case of Machi Koro, I think that measure is too tiny for my tastes. Working your way up to the "two dice" buildings (the buildings that trigger on rolls of 7 through 12) takes time, and that's where I felt like I wanted to be to master the dice rolls (turning the possible results from a statistical flat line into a bell curve). In fact, it wasn't until the last few turns of the game that any of the players got to that point at all, and you can find stories of many people winning without ever getting there.

I did get to pursue my "dice de-ficklement" strategy in the game I played. I even won, actually. Yet the whole experience still felt like random chaos to me. With the game perhaps 3/4s of the way to completion, I was in last place and felt hopelessly out of the contention. But I had struggled my way to a few buildings that triggered on 7s and 8s... and then that's exactly what I rolled, four turns in a row, to abruptly win the game. The result was oddly unsatisfying; I'd done exactly what I set out to do, but it still felt like blind luck had let me snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I'm in no particular hurry to play the game again.

And yet... Machi Koro uses a lot of mechanics that casual gamers will find familiar, or will tune to quickly. It takes only 30 minutes to play. I can absolutely imagine the player who will love it... and then hopefully go on to love more advanced Euro games. So the game definitely has a place. Just not in my collection. I give Machi Koro a C+. But if you're looking to make new gamers, you may want to give it a try.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Seeing Green

The movie Green Room didn't linger long in theaters during its run a few months back, perhaps in part because people like me -- who knew of it and wanted to see it -- didn't go. But it has now arrived on Blu-ray, and I'm very glad I went back to catch up.

Green Room follows a young punk band traveling in their beat up van. Desperate for cash, they take a gig playing at a neo-Nazi bar in a secluded Oregon location. When they see something they shouldn't, they wind up barricaded in the bar's green room, cowering in fear at what the bar's ruthless owner might to do them.

I'd heard that Green Room was a taut and suspenseful thriller -- and it most certainly is. But it also drinks some from the "slasher horror" well, toggling back and forth to capture the best of both sub-genres. One moment, the movie is loaded with the tension of wondering how the characters will get out of their impossible situation. The next moment is one of shock and revulsion as something horrific transpires. It's a perfectly arrayed path of wind-up and release, peaks and valleys -- and always building in intensity.

Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier clearly takes the often-maligned genre very seriously. In so doing, he's able to attract a great cast willing to take it seriously too. Alia Shawkat completes a transition from comedy (Arrested Development) to comedy-horror (The Final Girls) to just straight horror. Even more intense is Imogen Poots, who believably moves from "checked out" to "amped up" in the tight turns the script demands of her character. There are also several talented unknowns and lesser-knowns.

Anton Yelchin is the top-billed actor, and gives a marvelous performance (as always, regardless of the quality of the movie around him). At first, it's hard not to think of the young actor's recent and untimely death, but you're quickly caught up in the movie itself. His character has the widest range to cover by any actor's measure -- action, obstacle, or emotion -- and there's never a false moment.

The main villain of the piece, the bar's neo-Nazi owner, is played by Patrick Stewart. There's something subversive in casting "Captain Picard" (who you never once think of while watching the movie) as another commanding leader, this one so cold and dangerous. The performance is all the more chilling for its restraint; there's rarely so much as a raised voice as this ringleader tosses off racial slurs and casually plots ghastly crimes. You simultaneously want to lean in to hear him and recoil backward at everything he is.

I think my hopes for this movie were somewhat modest, and it soared well beyond them. I give Green Room an A-. It's dark and intense (and too violent for some), but I'd definitely recommend it.

Friday, July 15, 2016

TOTAL Total Recall

Jerry Goldsmith is probably my favorite composer of film music. His triumphant anthems heralded five Star Trek movies (and two Star Trek series). He subverted liturgical music for The Omen. He invoked tension and terror in Alien and Poltergeist. He's also responsible for what I regard as one of the best action movie scores ever written, Total Recall.

Long before I'd built my soundtrack collection to even a fraction of what it is today, I played my cassette tape (and later, my CD) of Goldsmith's Total Recall over and over again. And since that was years before I became a real movie score enthusiast, I never really noticed how incomplete it was. At the time the movie was released in 1990, Goldsmith was one of the few composers whose work could get a soundtrack album of any kind released. But even this album contained only 10 tracks, with a running time amounting to barely half of the music he'd written for the movie. Nowadays, there are several small labels catering to fans like me with small print run releases of movie scores, re-mastered from the original source recordings. And last year, for Total Recall's 25th anniversary, Quartet Records released a fantastic new 2-CD version of the soundtrack.

This version of the score is more than complete. The first disc includes all orchestral cues from the film itself -- even including sections of music that weren't actually used in the completed film. The second disc preserves tracks that were slightly different in the original album release, adds several new alternate takes, and presents all the movie's "source music" (TV jingles, dance club songs -- any music whose "source" is visible in the movie itself). It's finally the release that one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores deserves.

In a Goldsmith trademark, this music is clever about how it blends conventional orchestra with synthesizers. (According to this album's extensive liner notes, three different synthesizers were used in the score.) An echoing ostinato that pops up throughout the movie comes straight from the uncanny valley, blending woodwind with some artificial noise. The main title itself is full-throated brass over sweeping strings... but slaved to scratchy synthetic percussion. Different tracks have synthesizer phrases that sound like a mocking laugh ("The Implant"), sonar pings ("Clever Girl" and "The Johnny Cab"), whale song ("Where Am I?"), choir ("Without Air"), and more.

Even when his focus is away from the synthesizers, Goldsmith toys with how different instruments change the perception of the same music, turning an action melody into a love theme, or a chase into a tense game of cat and mouse. Sometimes, percussion seems to take on the role of melody ("A New Face"), while other times Goldsmith sets up a call and answer between different sections of the orchestra ("Howdy Stranger / The Nose Job" and "Identification").

The score also throws conventional time signatures out the window. The theme itself may be in familiar ol' 4/4, but the action scenes are routinely scored with skip-beat patterns that relentlessly press forward -- 5/8 in "The Implant," both 5/8 and 7/8 in "The Big Jump", and 15/8 (? !) in "End of a Dream." Other action rarely stays on one motif for long. "Old Times Sake" changes up melodies every 5 to 10 seconds, while "Swallow It" toggles between pizzicato stealth and brazen action (after kicking off with a wailing brass chord that builds note by note).

The music is in fact so complex and demanding of the musicians that the first orchestra contracted to play it wasn't up for the job. The album's liner notes describe how the score was first recorded in Germany, by a group of "pickup players." After completing just two cues (and pieces of a third that both Goldsmith and the film's director, Paul Verhoeven, found unusable), they scrapped the rest of the session and started again in London. That third cue is one of the score's most complex, "Clever Girl," and the album presents the original orchestra's attempt to play it, assembled from seven(!) different takes. It's a powerful illustration of what a difference good performers can make (or, at least, it is to me, knowing this particular piece so well). The less skilled orchestra plays with noticeably less confidence, their staccato notes not filling the space in the way the final performance does.

The only weak part of the album are three source cues composed by someone else, Bruno Louchouarn. Two of them ("Rubble City" and "Running Out of Air") are almost painful to listen to. The other, a squeezebox future synth-pop track called "Mutant Dancing" is better -- though the four-minute song wears out its welcome in a quarter of that time. Still, in the interests of this truly being the complete score to Total Recall, I don't mind them being on the album. They show that Jerry Goldsmith is even a master of intentionally cheesy music, when you compare those three tracks to Goldsmith's commercial and promotional jingles later on the same album. (Also, for classical fans, you'll find a snippet of Mozart's "Divertimento in D" included too.)

I could keep going on, in excruciating detail, about how much I love Jerry Goldsmith's work, and this score in particular. But I've surely made my point. This is a must-have album for film music fans, an absolute grade A.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Salvaged Entertainment Value

A couple of weeks back, I blogged about Filmspotting, a weekly podcast that celebrates excellence in movies. Today, I'm blogging about a podcast devoted to the other side of the spectrum: How Did This Get Made?

Now in its sixth year, this podcast focuses on bad movies. The title question is generally rhetorical, and accompanied by questions such as "what was the actor/writer/director/studio-executive-that-tinkered-with-this thinking?" Each episode plumbs the baffling creative decisions of a different cinematic disaster, with varying episode lengths depending on just how much of a mess the film in question is.

The main appeal rests in the hosts: Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas. Chances are you don't know any of them by name, though you've seen one or more of them if you've ever watched NTSF:SD:SUV::, Fresh Off the Boat, Grace and Frankie, or The League (among others). Because they're all comedians, they're great at mocking failures. I find myself laughing constantly throughout each episode. But because they're all working actors, it's not purely about poking fun. They can be quite insightful about a movie's core flaws. And I get the distinct sense that they speak from having been there -- they've appeared in bad projects that they wished would somehow be good.

In nearly every dive into a movie, the core hosts are joined by a guest. They've had Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Chris Hardwick, Michael Ian Black, Kristen Schaal, Damon Lindelof, Danny Trejo, Tatiana Maslany, Dan Harmon, Andy Richter, Amy Schumer, and many, many more. Several episodes are recorded live at the Largo, a Los Angeles club known for great comedy. The Largo performances, in front of an audience, seem to bring out even more from the hosts and guests.

With over a hundred films in the archives, the podcast has covered disasters of every kind. There are famous train wrecks like 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau, Battlefield Earth, and Gigli. There are notoriously weak installments of film franchises: Superman III, Spider-man 3, Batman & Robin, and Jaws 4: The Revenge. There are a LOT of Nicolas Cage movies: Season of the Witch, The Wicker Man, Con Air, and Face/Off. There are even movies they poke at even while proclaiming they love them all the same: the three most recent Fast and Furious movies. And so much more.

How Did This Get Made? is a weekly podcast, but the format is sort of bi-weekly. Every other week serves up a "mini-episode" consisting of the best comments from the show's fans about the previous week's movie. It also alerts you to next week's movie, if you're inclined to watch it yourself in preparation. I haven't yet gone that far... but after first skipping around the show's archives for episodes on movies I have seen, I've been branching out into movies I haven't. Whether I've seen the film or not, I'm still entertained.

My only real complaint about the podcast is that its commercials are particularly intrusive, even by podcast standards. Paul Scheer always reads long form "testimonial" style ads that run on for three minutes or more at a stretch, and they pop up multiple times during an episode. Though once you get used to these interruptions, they're easily skipped -- it just takes several more "15 seconds forward" skips than the typical podcast.

The movies may be terrible, but the podcast has been terrific. I give How Did This Get Made? an A-. If you're a regular reader of my blog, I have to imagine it would be right up your alley.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

S/PG: RPS

Last night, I caught a concert at Pepsi Center -- Sting and Peter Gabriel, together on their "Rock, Paper, Scissors" tour. Neither is promoting a new album; they just decided it would be fun to go out there together and share a concert stage.

There was no opening act, no "who plays their set first?" They more or less alternated songs from each others' catalogues, playing straight through for over two and half hours. Some of the numbers divided along "red team" (Gabriel) and "blue team" (Sting) lines, with one band and headliner taking the stage alone while the others slipped away. But most of the show mixed things up.

There were songs where each artist added members of the other's band, doubling up guitarists, keyboardists or (most interestingly) three percussionists. (The couple of songs where all three played a traditional kit at once made for some big sound.) There were songs where Gabriel and Sting would trade off singing verses, or even lines within verses. For me, the real highlights were when each performer "stole" a song from the other. Sting's version of "Shock the Monkey" brought subtle hints of the rock/reggae sound from his days with The Police. Peter Gabriel's take on "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" was a fun yet creepy slow jam with dashes of Barry White vocal stylings and Beck keyboard licks.

I was going in mostly for Peter Gabriel. I have multiple albums from both artists in my collection, but I've always preferred Gabriel's biggest hits to Sting's. And judging from the rapturous applause after "In Your Eyes" and "Sledgehammer," it seemed like maybe the audience as a whole was tilted that way too. But it turned out that Sting was the one really shined throughout the evening. He seemed like the more dynamic and playful force on stage (and was really killing it on bass, as I overheard several people commenting as we left the show). Peter Gabriel was more low key and quirky, a David Byrne type of presence.

Still, both men seemed to have fun twisting up some of their hits a bit. Peter Gabriel turned the bridge of "Don't Give Up" into something of a gospel revival and changed keys on a few of his songs -- most notably "Games Without Frontiers." Sting took things even farther in places, whether it was giving a violinist an extended rock solo in "Driven to Tears," turning a female vocalist loose on an improvised aria in "The Hounds of Winter", or mashing up "Roxanne" with Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine."

It wasn't a concert that blew me away, but I definitely got what I was looking for. The pairing has several more stops on their tour, and it might be worth checking out if one is coming near you. If you're a fan of either artist, you'll definitely enjoy the show.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Not Constantinople

I have high regard for board game designer RĂ¼diger Dorn. I've played his games Goa, Traders of Genoa, and Las Vegas a ton -- and he has several other games I wish I'd played more. One of his more recent efforts, Istanbul, has reached the top 100 on BoardGameGeek, and I've now had a couple of chances to play it.

In Istanbul, 16 large tiles -- each allowing its own unique game action when you move there -- are shuffled to form a 4 x 4 bazaar in which players move around acquiring goods. Goods can be combined in different ways, or sold for money, to ultimately inch you toward your real goal: obtaining five rubies before your opponents.

There are several intriguing gameplay mechanisms at work in Istanbul. One surrounds movement. Where most games give you a meeple to move around, Istanbul gives you a merchant disc that sits atop a short tower of assistant discs. You can only move one or two tiles on your turn, and at the end of each move, you must "pay" to take the tile's action. You do this by either leaving the bottom disc of your stack behind, or "reabsorbing" into your stack a disc that you left there previously.

This system creates two interesting dynamics in your movement decisions. First, it creates a tether of sorts as you work your way across the board; you can only go so far before you have to backtrack. Second, it forces you to devise a strategy in which landing on the same tile several times is advantageous -- because backtracking lets you reabsorb a disc, which in turn increases your range. This is all on top of more customary considerations in an action-based game: paying rivals to take the same action they just took, and roving tokens that add other incentives to the actions on specific tiles.

Many of the tiles are set up with rising cost systems, adding another challenging dynamic to the game. On nearly half of the "board," each time one player takes an action, it becomes more expensive for the next player to take it. As a result, even though "pay me money to land on my space" is the one of the only forms of direct player interaction in Istanbul, there's an enormous amount of indirect player interaction. You're constantly trying to beat your opponents to the punch, constantly scrambling to raise more resources for a much-needed action that your opponent just raised the price on.

While I find the relationship between all these mechanisms to be clever and fascinating, it pains me to say I have some rather significant reservations with the game's scoring system. As I mentioned, the goal of the game is to collect 5 rubies. There just aren't many increments on this scale -- you're either 20%, 40%, 60%, or 80% of the way to winning... or you've won. Where other games leave score a bit murky, it's easy to see here who is in the lead. And when that's someone else, they can feel hugely ahead of you; a difference of just two rubies can feel insurmountable. I say this having been in both situations in different playthroughs: feeling completely out of contention even with 2 rubies collected, and feeling like "I've totally got this" with just 3 rubies in hand to my opponents' 1.

I think I'd peg Istanbul around a grade B. Because of the clever ways the game pits the players against each other (and against its own movement system), I'm willing to keep trying it. But I'd really like to see someone pull off what feels like a "come from behind win" within the next couple plays, or it might fall off my radar completely.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Surveying the Kingdom

Wes Anderson is one of those directors that inspires almost cult-like devotion in many film buffs. I'm certainly not in that cult, having seen only a handful of his movies -- not "hating" any of them, but not quite loving them either. Still, I'm willing to give another Anderson film a shot every now and then. Most recently, that was Moonrise Kingdom.

Crafted in Wes Anderson's signature style (which I'd categorize as "conspicuously quirky"), Moonrise Kingdom is a love story at its core. But the couple is a pair of pubescent runaways, both possessed of oddly mature personalities more "adult" than anyone else in the movie.

To whatever degree you'd consider Rushmore "realistic," this is not that kind of Wes Anderson movie. Moonrise Kingdom hews much closer to The Grand Budapest Hotel, an intentionally broad story that's as close to self-aware as you can get without crossing that line. Environments in the movie often look like miniatures until characters start interacting with them. Conversations are often filmed not in conventional "two shots," but in head-on alternating cuts that have people talking straight into the camera. Nearly everything is center framed.

The acting style is similarly off-kilter. I found it evocative of movies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun -- very earnest and serious even in situations that are objectively ridiculous. (Though I wouldn't say the movie is as "joke-centric.") It's interesting to see how different actors work within this style. Bruce Willis has played the Everyman throughout his career, and does so here without irony. Edward Norton is a notorious Method actor, leaving one to wonder how he ever reconciled that thirst for realism with such an unrealistic character. Wes Anderson favorite Bill Murray seems to be subtly winking to the audience, too cool for it all, through the entire movie. And Tilda Swinton uses the lack of realism to do what she does best: vanish into a bizarre role. The whole thing turns on the performances of the two young leads; Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward perfectly walk the line between naivete and world-weariness that this style demands, helping the whole thing feel like a light fairy tale.

But light is ultimately what the movie is, despite the pronounced auteur's touch. I enjoyed it overall, though I did sometimes find myself thinking that the movie had gone quirky for quirky's sake, extolling eccentricity over story or character. I give Moonrise Kingdom a B-. It was good enough that I will try another Wes Anderson film at some point, though it certainly didn't induct me into the cult.

Friday, July 08, 2016

TNG Flashback: All Good Things...

The final, two-hour episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. All good things (and "All Good Things...") must come to an end.

Captain Picard finds himself moving back and forth between three times: the present, the past in the days when he first took command of the Enterprise, and a future almost 25 years down the road. When he discovers that Q is the cause, he also learns that this is not simply some new game for the entity's amusement. The trial of humanity, begun years ago en route to Farpoint Station, never ended. The Q Continuum has judged humanity and has decided to wipe it out... and Picard is to be the architect of its destruction.

The stakes for the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale were incredibly high. Months in advance, the studio had asked for a two-hour episode. The original Star Trek had never had a formal finale of any kind, having ended its third season with just another installment. The writing staff of The Next Generation needed a very special idea.

Executive producer Michael Piller was the first to cobble together the rough story for what became "All Good Things..." He combined a time travel story that writer Brannon Braga was proposing for Worf and Alexander (that may have reconstituted as "Firstborn") with writer Ronald Moore's suggestion to bookend the series with Q's courtroom, and suggested the three-time-period format. Show runner Jeri Taylor assigned the actual script to Braga and Moore.

A lot of writing followed in a very short time. The duo squeezed out a first draft in little more than a week (juggling their duties on the upcoming movie, Star Trek Generations). The draft was reportedly loved by the cast and crew who read it, but Michael Piller ordered a complete restructure of the second half, which he felt contained a lot of side elements that weren't "good storytelling." The resulting revision removed a future heist to steal the mothballed Enterprise from a museum, and a large number of quiet character moments. The latter excisions upset the actors so much that Patrick Stewart reportedly requested a weekend meeting with the writers to protest the changes. A fresh rewrite followed, one that would retain the streamlined plot while restoring as many moments from the first draft as possible.

Episode director Winrich Kolbe recalled later that because of all this frenetic rewriting, he never got to hold a production meeting with a complete and final script in hand. And though he was ready to roll with the punches, things came to a head halfway through the filming of the episode. He felt that among both cast and crew, too many people were focused on their next job -- the upcoming movie, or new television series they were lining up after The Next Generation. "You gotta focus on this show!" he demanded, in a major production argument. But then, as he remembers it, everyone pulled together and did just that.

That's what I see, watching the finished product. (And I'm not alone. Executive producer Rick Berman called this "the best season-ender we ever did." Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga acknowledged that this turned out far better than the movie, Generations. And "All Good Things..." also won the 1995 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.) The time-hopping conceit is just so perfect to end the series on, and each of the three time frames has something special to offer.

In the present, Worf and Troi finally give being a couple a try (not in an alternate reality or hallucination). Troi's coy playfulness with Worf even makes the pairing convincing (though never as much as Troi/Riker was). We also see a serious overture toward Beverly and Jean-Luc as a couple too, spurred on by the revelation that Picard may be at risk of a terminal disease. Tomalak makes a return (with Andreas Katsulas carving time from his Babylon 5 schedule for the appearance). Q gets to playfully thumb his nose at everything we love about Star Trek, mocking Riker's career woes, Troi's psychobabble, even the name of the series itself! ("It's time put an end to your trek through the stars.") There's even a classic Star Trek moral at the heart of it all: the trial never ends; the journey always continues.

The past is a loving procession of quirkiness from the pilot, before the series ironed things out. The bridge is restored to its 80s wood-paneled appearance. Data babbles on at length about idioms. Everyone is back in the low-necked, slowly ascending spandex -- save Troi, once again dressed as a galactic cheerleader. And back to bid farewell to the show are Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar and Colm Meaney as O'Brien (in original red).

The past time frame actually goes back before anything we saw on the show the first time around. We get to see Picard actually take command of the Enterprise (under orders from Norah Satie, in a great continuity reference for the fans). He hasn't yet programmed the replicator to make his signature "tea, Earl Grey, hot." And the fact that he begins to act so strangely leads to new scenes with resonant emotion. Tasha has to stand up to his borderline insanity and demand an explanation; she doesn't get one, though she does get an inspiring speech from Patrick Stewart instead.

As for the future, it plays like a love letter to the fans. Geordi has married Leah Brahms and become a novelist. Picard is tending the family vineyard (in a sequence filmed at an actual California winery). Data has become an eccentric professor in the very Cambridge position held by his holographic poker opponents Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking, and has developed eccentricities including dyed hair and an insane number of cats. Beverly Crusher has pursued her love of command (begun in "Descent" and tracked in "Thine Own Self") and now has a ship of her own. The Enterprise has been upgraded with a mighty cannon and a third warp nacelle.

But the future is dark in many ways too. The Klingons have defeated the Romulan Empire and gone rogue. Riker and Worf are nursing a two decade long grudge over the death of Deanna Troi, meaningfully explored in a Ten Forward scene. Beverly and Jean-Luc gave marriage a go and wound up divorced. According to Ronald Moore, they were only allowed to be this wild with the future because the end of the episode was going to explicitly disavow everything as only a possible future, leaving the path clear for the movies. (Sure enough, neither Troi/Worf nor Beverly/Jean-Luc are an item in Generations or the movies to follow.)

These future scenes hold extra poignancy today, as they're set "close to 25 years" in the future -- which is almost exactly where we find ourselves now, in 2016, after the original 1994 air date. We get to see how these actors all really aged, compared to their old age makeup. We know they all remained friends after the show was ever (at least, far closer friends than the average television cast remains after a series concludes). We too can look back on the old glory days, right along with the characters.

There are really only a couple of small flaws in the episode. One is that the "anti-time" gimmick is so clever, it seems to have fooled the writers themselves in a few places. With the anomaly growing backward in time from the moment of its creation, the Pasteur should have been able to see it when the ship first arrived at the Devron system, not six hours after the moment of its creation. Also, though Data says that all three tachyon beams that caused the anomaly (past, present, and future) appear to have originated from the Enterprise, one in fact came from the Pasteur. This latter error was actually caught when the episode aired by someone close to the show -- Rick Berman's ten year old son. "Kind of humbling," Ronald Moore confessed.

The other "flaw," not to be held against the episode itself, is that this is actually a far more poignant ending to Star Trek: The Next Generation than what actually followed. None of this cast's four movies was as good as this episode. None had as clever a gimmick, none showed as much reverence for the show as a whole, and none had as much emotional heft. I'd even give up First Contact if it could somehow mean that "All Good Things...," and not Nemesis, could be the final chapter of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Consider how the episode literally ends -- with one final poker scene, and Picard actually joining the group to play for the first time. He takes one long look around at his crew as though seeing them for the last time. We get an overhead shot containing all seven cast members on screen at once, for one of the only times in the entire series. And then the Enterprise gracefully slips off into the unknown. It is, quite simply, the perfect ending.

Other (final) observations:
  • Sharp-eyed fans (shocking, I know -- they exist!) will note that not everything in the past time frame was perfectly restored to its original appearance. The captain's chair, for example, is missing the old flip-up panels. Nor could Jonathan Frakes be asked to shave his beard with a movie around the corner; the footage of a baby-faced Riker is stolen from "The Arsenal of Freedom."
  • Early in development of the story, there were plans for a fourth time frame centered around "The Best of Both Worlds." Though I can understand the temptation to revisit one of the series' finest episodes, it was wise of them not to do so.
  • There are tons of fun moments throughout the episode, but reportedly many more got cut out before filming. There was to have been a scene in which Riker gives his blessing to Worf and Troi, only to surprise all three of them by withdrawing it after a moment's thought. Geordi was to have imagined in the present that he'd be in Starfleet for life, setting up a twist when we see him in the future. Q would have appeared in many more costumes and characters throughout, though Rick Berman wisely pushed for most of those moments to be removed, to avoid undercutting the serious threat he posed.
  • There was originally a plan to do a riff on being "the fifth Beatle." In the past time frame, the writers planned to put a famous celebrity at the conn station. Pushed over the edge by Picard's erratic orders, he was going to resign from Starfleet in a huff, thus basically missing out on his chance to be part of Enterprise crew. The production was in early talks with Star Trek fan Christian Slater (who had made a cameo appearance in Star Trek VI), but the idea was then scrapped.
  • Damon Lindelof, who would later work with J.J. Abrams on the Star Trek reboot film, has said that this episode was an inspiration for him on Lost -- specifically the episode "The Constant," in which Desmond finds himself hopping around through time. (As with "All Good Things...," many Lost fans consider that episode to be among the finest of the series.)
The seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was rocky overall, but it did go out at its peak. "All Good Things..." is an unqualified grade A. It sits at the very top of the final season, in fact, with the top 5 rounded out by "Lower Decks," "Parallels," "Gambit, Part I,"  and "The Pegasus."

And that, after almost four years, brings these TNG Flashback Reviews to a close! I'm considering a look at the Next Generation movies next (but, as I said above, I think it's all downhill -- to varying degrees -- after "All Good Things..."). I may also do some sort of full series summary, if anybody is interested in that sort of thing. I'm open to suggestions, Trekkers.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Tribal Knowledge

Since its 2014 release, the board game Five Tribes, by designer Bruno Cathala, has been rocketing up the BoardGameGeek charts. (It now sits a lofty perch in the Top 50.) I finally got a chance to play it and see what all the fuss is about.

The game has some decent flavor draped over it: a struggle to become sultan of a city-state by invoking djinns, maneuvering tribes, and securing influence. But the gameplay itself is somewhat more abstract. Play takes place on a 6 x 5 grid of tiles, each tile beginning with three randomly placed meeples on it. The meeples come in five different colors (the titular Five Tribes), and each color has its own specific game power. On your turn, you pick up the meeples from one tile and then distribute them Mancala-style, dropping one per tile as you work your way from one location to another.

The complexity comes from where you arrive at, and how you arrive there. Whichever meeple color you drop last on your last tile determines the action you get to take on your turn. The number of that color meeple on that tile determines the relative strength of that action. You also then remove all those meeples from the game, and if that empties the tile completely, you gain control of it for end game scoring. And control or no, you also get to take the action innately printed on the tile itself.

I very quickly understood why the game is so popular. It's really a fairly straightforward rules set; the rulebook itself is notably shorter than those of many Euro board games. But you have a lot of strategic options on each turn you take. I mean, I haven't even attempted to explain the powers of the meeple colors, the tiles, the djinns you can buy, or the markers that can be placed on the tiles. Then there's the bidding for turn order each round. Put simply (and obviously), lovers of strategy games are loving this because there's plenty here to love.

You'll probably never count yourself out in a game of Five Tribes, because there are so many different approaches you can take, too many surprise attacks your opponents will have a hard time anticipating, and no way to defend against everything. The rules set just allows for that much variety, and that's before you even add the randomness of the game set-up -- the arrangement of tiles and distribution of meeples on those tiles. There seems to be massive replayability here.

That said, there is something of a double-edged sword too, depending on the type of people you have in your gaming group. For many, the number of choices will lead to crippling analysis paralysis. That in turn will lead to impatient or annoyed opponents. I lucked out and played with a pretty easygoing group, in which each player was willing to stop looking for the "perfect move" after a reasonable amount of time. Because make no mistake, you could spend a long time looking for the perfect move. Indeed, the possibilities seem so vast that I'm not even sure you should spend much time at all planning a turn during the first half of the game; only as the options narrow with dwindling meeples could you possibly run though most of your options.

I could see myself playing Five Tribes again and again. I'd just be careful about the players a chose to play it with. Overall, I'd grade the game an A-.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Flight Time

I never watched the HBO series Flight of the Conchords during its original run, but man, did I love it when I finally did find it. When I heard that the duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, were back on tour this summer in the U.S., I was eager to go. I was a little surprised that Red Rocks was the venue for their Denver stop -- were they really big enough for Red Rocks? -- but that was just icing on the cake.

Yes, Flight of the Conchords was big enough for Red Rocks. Big enough to sell out Red Rocks. And they gave a fantastic show. Perfectly, it was probably the least visually dynamic concert I've ever been to: they both sat for virtually the entire show (and asked the audience to do so too), moving only occasionally to swap out instruments. They had just a pretty basic lighting set-up, and a screen hanging at each corner of the stage. They started the night just the two of them, until being joined early on by the "New Zealand Symphony Orchestra" (a cello player) to play the rest of the show as a trio.

They didn't really need anything flashier than that to hold the crowd for the entire performance. Undoubtedly, part of what made the show so fresh for the audience was that a lot of it seemed fresh to them. There were definitely specific,planned joke premises in their banter between songs, but from the way they were cracking each other up throughout the night, they riff within them from show to show.

Even when performing the songs the audience knew best (because they were featured in their series at some point), they mixed things up with a different arrangement, different lyrics (mostly intentionally, but not always), and a willingness to chase whatever digression got a laugh. But they also played a lot of new material too, and it was every bit as fun.

If you've never watched the series Flight of the Conchords, you need to get on that. And if the second half of the tour they've now entered is bringing them to your city, you should definitely look into getting tickets.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Years in Review

I had heard lots of critical praise (from the Filmspotting podcast, and other sources) for actress Charlotte Rampling's performance in the modest drama 45 Years. Oscar worthy, was the buzz; it just had the misfortune of being up against shoo-in Brie Larson for Room. I was curious to see what the fuss was about, and to find out just what this tiny film I'd never heard of actually was.

45 Years follows an elderly couple in the week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary. Kate and Geoff Mercer have, by all appearances, led a wonderful and happy life together. But it turns out there's a major "road not taken" in their past, and the choice to take it was denied to Geoff years before he ever met Kate. In the 1960s, his girlfriend Katya fell into a crevasse on a hike in Switzerland. Now, decades later, melting glaciers have revealed her body. Kate suddenly feels herself competing with a woman she never met, and worrying that even 45 years of history may not stack up against the woman taken from her husband.

This movie was written and directed by Andrew Haigh (who created the HBO series Looking, and who was also behind the film Weekend). It's one of the most thoroughly "British" films I've seen in ages, in the sense that it's a tiny and restrained affair with muted, "stiff upper lip" performances. A raised voice is as much of a transgression in this film as it would be in a cathedral.

That goes doubly for the character of Geoff, because this is very much Kate's story. The movie adopts her point of view and puts her in every scene; we're meant to identify with her struggle. On the one hand, her situation is certainly fraught with emotion, and focusing there is a valid way to tell this story. On the other hand, any 45-year marriage (real or fictional) is very much a tale of two people, and the movie shows little interest in what might be going on in Geoff's head.

This focus is why critics spoke so highly of Charlotte Rampling's performance and (as far as I can tell) rarely said much of Tom Courtenay, who plays Geoff. To a point, I can agree with the praise for Rampling. She definitely conveys a lot in this film without dialogue; you can read on her face the emotions she's not putting words to, and you can see it peeking through a crumbling mask her character is trying to keep in place.

And yet the movie is simply too subdued for my sensibilities. Its most meaningful scene, the moment in which the most rug-pulling revelation is revealed, not only has no dialogue in it, but no later scene in the movie even directly acknowledges the information that was revealed. And rather maddeningly, the movie barely even comes to a conclusion. I'm going to risk spoiling it here (because I'm going to tell you not to waste your time on the film), but the couple ultimately decides to box their feelings on all this away and never speak of it again. The final scene is a big party in which every impression is given that nothing we've just spent 90 minutes watching will ever matter to anyone involved ever again. Why then were we made to watch it?

Well, no one made me watch it, I guess. But I'm hoping no one else falls into the trap I did. No matter how good Charlotte Rampling is here, her performance would be the only reason to watch this film... and that's simply not reason enough. I give 45 Years a D+.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Evolve or Die

Over the years, I've come across a lot of board games about evolving dinosaurs. Amazingly, it was only a couple of years ago that one finally called itself Evolution.

As with most of the "evolution games," Evolution lets you graft new abilities onto existing creatures you control, as you try to guide them to the food they need to survive and protect them from predators. The specific mechanics here are different than the rest, in some ways resembling a trading card game. Card advantage drives you to play with as many species as you can, but it grows increasingly difficult to protect more than a couple creatures at a time. Card combos emerge not just by the abilities you pair together on a single creature, but in the ways each of your creatures can interact with the others.

There are some satisfying ways to use herbivores to interact indirectly with your opponents. If you've got your feeding needs under control, you can take steps to try to deliberately starve enemy creatures. If your opponents evolve a particular means of attacking you, you can evolve abilities that work as direct counters to them. There's a nice relationship between everything, and the game lasts long enough that you can really enjoy the way it ebbs and flows.

I'm just unsure how good it works as a multiplayer game. The game's system for carnivores uses direct attacking, and you can't protect yourself from everyone. I mean that literally; if everyone decides to gang up on you (for legitimate reasons like your perceived lead in the game, or more questionable reasons that might have nothing to do with the game), there's really nothing you can do. And if you've fallen behind in scoring (because of your bad choices, or because your opponents collectively put you there), the game doesn't seem to offer much help in catching up.

So while I had fun playing the game, and would play it again at least a few times more to further explore the interactions between the creature abilities, I'm not sure than the game has legs for me in the long term. I'd call it a B-, or maybe a B, overall. I was definitely intrigued in some ways, but with some reservations.