Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Lobster It Up

Another movie I learned of from critics' "best of the year so far" lists was The Lobster, a darling of the independent circuit with a bizarre premise.

The dystopian world of the near-future gives single people 45 days to find a romantic partner. If they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choice. The story follows a man named David through this process as he checks into a "hotel" (a strange hybrid of clinic/senior home/singles retreat), resigned in advance to his certain failure and perhaps already looking forward to being turned into a lobster.

This movie feels like the result of someone trying to out-Kaufman Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind such bizarre (but usually entertaining) films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The "someone" in this case is a Greek filmmaker named Yorgos Lanthimos, whose other major touchstone here seems to be absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. There's certainly a clear vision here. It's just not one that held my interest for a full two hours.

The Lobster is an aggressively quirky film. Every performer acts with some degree of deliberate malaise. The narrative spends no time establishing anything; you just have to take on faith that the world works as these characters say it does, because it's rarely demonstrated on screen. And don't wait for a deeper meaning to reveal itself; the movie doesn't strike me as interested in allegory or subtext either.

Bringing convincing seriousness (and therefore, dry humor) to the movie is a cast of solid actors. Colin Farrell stars as David. The other characters (all without specific names) include Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and a number of interesting but lesser known British actors.

For a while, the concoction totally works. I laughed out loud several times during the first half hour as the parade of strange marched before me. For the next half hour, I remained engaged as I tried to anticipate where the story was going. But there was another hour beyond that where I just grew increasingly tired of the whole thing. I can't fault the movie for cheating me with false pretenses, as it makes no attempt to hide its nature. I won't claim the movie has no story, as it in fact becomes a rather conventional romance within its own oddball confines. But the movie remained strange above all else, and about halfway through, that simply stopped being enough for me.

I can see why some critics ranked this as a top film of the year. It's not a film snob thing, it's a "form over function" thing. And if that style of filmmaking is in your wheelhouse, then I'd wager you'll love The Lobster. But for me, it was only a C-.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In a Rush

The 2013 movie Rush was never high on my list, probably because auto racing isn't exactly my thing. (Beyond a background level of awareness that's inevitable when you're from Indianapolis, thanks to the Indy 500.) The movie did make it on my list, however, because of its director Ron Howard. High speed thrills just seemed like such a strange choice for him. Though he's by no means an exclusively art house type of filmmaker, the blockbusters he makes tend to be somewhat cerebral in nature. (See The Da Vinci Code. Well, not literally; it was average at best.) I was always a bit curious to see what was going on here that attracted his interest.

Rush centers around the rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. A rivalry builds between them throughout the 1970s, coming to a head during the 1976 season in which the championship seemed certain to go to one or the other.

I struggled with the pacing of this movie. It opens as a pivotal race in the middle of the 1976 season is about to begin, but then immediately flashes back to 1970 and recounts the intervening years over the first half of the film. I understand why the audience needs to see all this; caring about who wins the championship depends on caring about these two men. We need to understand who they are and how their rivalry developed. That granted, I think the movie could have done all that far more efficiently. Just 15 minutes in, everything we need is crystal clear: Lauda is a self-made star with confidence that projects as arrogance, while Hunt is an incorrigible thrill-chaser who bristles at rules. Watching the movie paint in all the side characters orbiting these men started to get tedious.

Of course, the movie knows exactly what it's doing in starting with that 1976 race -- that feels in many ways like the moment the story actually begins. Once the movie catches back up to its opening, the final hour is quite compelling. There's tension and emotion in turns, moments to bring you to the edge of your seat and moments that make you look away and cringe. It's all anchored by two great performances: Daniel Bruhl as Lauda, and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt. Both are quite unlikable at times, each in different shades of a similar sense of entitlement. Yet both are also sympathetic at times. You can root for either of them, and indeed do at different points in the story.

It's possible that another reason the first half of the film lags is that much of it is manufactured. It didn't feel "false" to me as such, but it did feel awfully familiar in a Hollywood sort of way, to a point where I didn't need to see so much of it. It turns out that much of this part of the story is false. The rivalry between Lauda and Hunt was purely professional, not personal as this movie portrays for dramatic emphasis. In fact, the two were roommates early in their careers and remained friends afterward. I'm okay with the needs of drama taking priority over faithfully telling a true story, but I'm not sure this movie struck the right balance in basically being half fact and half fiction.

Still, once Rush does get to the meat of the tale, I was totally with it. I'd give it a B- overall. It's by no means a "must see," but at least was considerably more entertaining to me than an actual auto race.

Monday, August 29, 2016

You May Think You Want Some, But Believe Me: You Don't

Writer-director Richard Linklater built up an enormous supply of goodwill from me with the outstanding Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight). I loved those movies enough to take the bad (Fast Food Nation) along with the good (Boyhood), and pretty much give anything Linklater makes a shot. But my goodwill was exhausted when I sat down to watch his newest movie, Everybody Wants Some!! (With two exclamation points, which I'm going to drop for the rest of this review.)

This movie has been billed as something of a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, and was dubbed by Linklater himself as a sort-of sequel to Boyhood (as it begins where that film ends -- with a young man arriving at college). This movie follows freshman Jake as he tries to settle in at college before the first day of class, socializing with the teammates on his new baseball team. And of course, as the title suggests, chasing sex.

I couldn't even finish watching this aimless two hours. Nothing coalesced that resembled a plot. No stakes or complications appeared. And while some have made a similar criticism of Boyhood (that the film is less a narrative than a series of events), that movie at least had a major advantage over this one. I'm not even talking about the inventive way in which Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years, I'm talking about something far more fundamental to a movie: compelling characters. Everybody Wants Some is stacked top to bottom with shallow, unlikable jocks. Every character is the same character -- a showboating, carefree cad who neither exhibits nor elicits sympathy.

It's hard to even get behind this movie as an extension of any kind to Dazed and Confused. This is not a movie that does for the 80s what that film did for the 70s. Everybody Wants Some is set in 1980, so the world we're shown hasn't really moved on from Dazed and Confused. Synth-pop has not yet dethroned disco. Neon has not yet replaced bell-bottoms. If you're looking for another dose of the nostalgic rush you got watching Stranger Things, don't bother. Indeed, this movie isn't different from Dazed and Confused, it's like Dazed and Confused on steroids -- every single character is Matthew McConaughey.

I looked online for a plot summary, just to see if I'd missed something here by bailing before the halfway point. But every synopsis was as meandering as the part of the movie I saw, reading like a four-year-old telling a story: "This happened... and then this happened... and then this happened..." (Um... cute, but are you going anywhere with this?) My brief research only confirmed my takeaway: Everybody Wants Some is weaponized crap.

As one of only 5 to 10 movies I failed to finish in my entire life, I can only give it an F. Avoid at all costs.

Friday, August 26, 2016

TNG Flashback: First Contact

With Star Trek: Generations having passed the movie torch from the classic cast, First Contact was the Next Generation cast's chance to stand alone... and shine.

When the new Enterprise-E thwarts a Borg attack on Earth, the cybernetic villains go to "Plan B," traveling back in time to assimilate humanity by stopping their first contact with alien life. Our heroes follow the Borg to the past, and soon face troubles on many fronts. Warp engine pioneer Zefram Cochrane is riddled with doubts about his destiny. The Borg are gradually taking over the Enterprise. And Data has been abducted by the Borg Queen for experimentation... and temptation. Can Captain Picard and his crew save the day and tomorrow?

I've never met a Star Trek fan who doesn't think First Contact is the best of the Next Generation movies. I think the reason for that is that there are so many measures by which one can view it as superior to the other installments. It has the biggest stakes, with all of Earth and the very future that is Star Trek itself hanging in the balance. It effectively combines adventure, science fiction, and even horror. The story has deep ties to the series, but the emotions it stirs don't depend on having seen the series.

That story came from the same writing team as Generations, Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore scripting a plot developed with producer Rick Berman. Berman felt that the best episodes of Star Trek (plus the fourth film, The Voyage Home) had all dealt with time travel, while Braga and Moore wanted to do something big with the Borg -- bigger than the show could ever have done. They decided to do both.

The script itself came less easily than that core "time traveling Borg" idea. The notion to travel to the Italian Renaissance and meet Leonardo da Vinci was dropped in the idea stages. There was a draft that had Picard replacing Zefram Cochrane in his historical flight, which Patrick Stewart felt kept the captain away from his greatest potential drama: facing the Borg again. The Borg Queen was introduced in a rewrite, after a studio executive argued that the film needed a specific adversary amid the Borg "zombies."

The finished script arguably has a few shortcomings, but they're mostly defensible in the name of focusing on what matters. The initial Borg cube is destroyed rather easily (front-loading the movie in a rather Empire Strikes Back kind of way)... but the movie isn't about that attack, of course, it's about the time travel. The Borg time travel with such ease that you wonder why this wasn't "Plan A" all along... but then, it's not like anyone would actually want a bunch of technobabble here (plus, the beloved Star Trek IV is equally flippant about time travel). The Borg have never historically been "zombies" like this, "biting" and "turning" their victims... and yet this horrific take on them is far more scary and visceral than their past portrayals.

In swatting away all those less important details, those inconsistencies, Braga and Moore are able to achieve many poignant moments. It's compelling for the crew to learn that their hero Zefram Cochrane isn't the man the future thinks him to be, and moving when Cochrane rises to the occasion and starts to become that mythic figure. Lily is a wonderul proxy for the audience, delivering great humor ("it's my first ray gun") and the movie's most powerful scene (the "blow up the damn ship!" confrontation with Picard). Worf and Picard get into a chilling argument. The moment of first contact with the Vulcans is as potent as any Star Trek fan would have imagined. A romantic subplot with Lily is wisely avoided (both with Picard and with Cochrane), in favor of a deep friendship instead.

The movie is also fun in a way Generations certainly wasn't (nor do I recall the subsequent films being). The Borg Queen's seduction of Data is creepy but also entertaining. There are fun cameos from Robert Picardo (as an Emergency Medical Hologram), Ethan Phillips (not as Neelix), and fan favorite Dwight Schultz (as Barclay). There's a crazy holodeck sequence -- not because it's necessary, but because it lets Picard loose with a machine gun. There are moments that cleverly puncture Star Trek's high-minded sensibilities ("Don't you people from the 24th century ever pee?"). Marina Sirtis gets to cut loose and show us a drunk Troi, in a moment that Jonathan Frakes seems to truly enjoy not as Riker but as a happy director.

And speaking of Frakes' skills as director, he succeeds not just in getting great performances from the cast, but in crafting the most visually dynamic of the Next Generation films. There are so many memorable shots here: the opening oner that pulls back from Picard's eye to reveal a vast Borg environment (and then returns to that eye in skin-crawling fashion), the moment the Borg Queen takes physical form for the first time, the reveal of the Vulcans, and more. Dutch angles and strange lenses are used to augment the tension of the Borg invasion.

Frakes also trusts other departments to deliver the goods. Jerry Goldsmith composed a moving, wonderful score (with some great new material, even if several melodies are lifted from Star Treks I and V). In costuming and makeup, the new look of the Borg is a quantum leap beyond what the TV show gave us. The movie goes on location to great effect -- to the mountains, and to an actual missile silo. We get new militaristic uniforms, new lighting, a new ship, and it all looks great.

There are really just a couple ways in which I'd try to shore up the movie. Foremost, I think it's a much better story for the characters on the ship than the ones on the planet. The Earthside story is much more about Cochrane than Riker, Troi, or LaForge, and I'd try to find a few more moments for them. Second, I'd retroactively not destroy the Enterprise-D in Generations. It's simply not as powerful to threaten a ship we hardly know (and scarcely get to see in an un-Borgified state). It would have been far more potent to see the ship we loved for seven seasons in jeopardy, being assimilated deck by deck.

Other observations:
  • In the opening minutes of the film, the enlarged bridge and shrunken observation lounge of the Enterprise-E (relative to the D) tells you all you need to know about what's important to this movie. Less talk, more action.
  • Four new CG starships were designed for the big opening battle against the Borg cube. Three would go on to appear later in Star Trek, but a computer glitch destroyed the model of the Noway-class vessel, and so it was never seen again.
  • Data being able to turn off his emotion chip undermines the big forward step of him having emotions. Plus, the Borg Queen then reactivates the chip anyway, meaning it was all just for a cheap gag.
  • Speaking of the Borg Queen, it's notable that this is the only Star Trek film where the main villain is female. Remarkable, and a bit disappointing, I'd say.
  • It's kind of hilarious that LeVar Burton finally got his wish to lose the VISOR, and then Geordi wears sunglasses in his biggest scene.
  • Reportedly, Tom Hanks was approached to play Zefram Cochrane -- and being a Trekker, he was actually up for it. But Hanks opted instead to make his feature directorial debut on That Thing You Do! Hanks or no, James Cromwell was a fine Cochrane. He'd been on Star Trek twice before, and also brought award credibility with his Oscar nomination for Babe. (And he wasn't the only Oscar nominee "guest star." Alfre Woodard was also a nominee, for Cross Creek.)
  • During production of the movie, a persistent rumor (fanned by LGBT media) claimed that the ship's new helmsman, Hawk, was going to be gay. Obviously, there's no indication of this in the finished film, and the producers have denied ever having that intention... leaving the gay character issue for another day
  • Two audio commentaries were release on the 2-disc DVD version of the film. Of those, Jonathan Frakes' track is a bit of a waste, as he just gets caught up watching the movie and joking about his directorial choices without offering much insight.
  • ...but writers Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore are again thoughtful as they were on Generations. They defend their "the audience doesn't care about the details" choices, talk about the flaws they see in the deflector dish sequence (even though fans seemed to like it), acknowledge how much Jerry Goldsmith's music helps the movie, and make note of this being the first PG-13 Star Trek movie. Of particular interest is a discussion they have near the end of the film, about the blessing/curse nature of Star Trek's elaborate continuity. They talk about how reviving Star Trek might well require some grand move to wipe the slate clean -- which is exactly what the reboot movies did.
  • Speaking of the reboots: their controversial (among some fans) use of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." It's worth noting that this movie got "there" first with Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" (a great choice) and Roy Orbison's "Ooby Dooby" (a more questionable, goofy choice).
Star Trek: First Contact looks positively like a low-budget indie film compared to the modern Trek reboots, but The Next Generation really never looked better than this. Indeed, on the big screen at least, it never was better. I give the movie an A-.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Next Level Criticism

I've written previously about Filmspotting, an engaging podcast that examines films past and present. Filmspotting has been around long enough to generate its own spinoffs, and I've branched out into one of them, The Next Picture Show.

As stated at the start of each episode, the premise of The Next Picture Show is that no film exists in a vacuum. Comparisons to earlier movies are not only inevitable, but something to be encouraged. Releasing episodes in pairs, the podcast looks at a "classic" movie, then relates it to a current release.

The Next Picture Show differs from more conventional movie criticism in several ways. First, this is not about recommending or rating movies. This podcast is interested in the comparison between old and new, and sometimes one of those movies doesn't compare favorably. Second, it's a deep dive. Each hour-long episode is focused on just a single movie (or, in the case of the second episode of a pair, a new movie and its connections with the previously discussed movie). Third, it's a probing conversation. The podcast features not one or two critics but four, and their format is to each bring a broad discussion topic to the table for everyone to explore together.

Every episode I've listened to has been really provocative, getting me thinking in detail about a movie. Some of the pairings have been obvious, like the episodes examining the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens. Other pairings have had a sort of "film historian" quality, as when the first Toy Story was compared to the then-newest Pixar effort, The Good Dinosaur. Perhaps most intriguing of all are the episodes that delve into thematic connections between movies, as when Psycho was considered with 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The catch is, I can't listen to every episode. I doubt anyone could. This level of analysis can't take place if one is worried about "spoilers." And comparison between two movies is largely meaningless if you've only seen one of them. So really, you can only listen to the episodes that pair two movies you've seen. Which, even for a movie enthusiast like me, turns out to be not all that many episodes. (Though the existence of the podcast is making me think about chasing down particular movies for the sake of the comparison.)

The Next Picture Show podcast is an absolute A when you've seen both movies and can actually listen to it. But given how much of the podcast's back catalog is going to be "inaccessible" to the average listener, I think I'd have to call it a B+ overall. But it's well worth checking out if you're a film buff.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Last Year's Vacation

On a night when I was looking for some truly lightweight and undemanding entertainment, I watched Vacation, the recent reboot/sequel to the classic National Lampoon's Vacation. My expectations were low, and I was quite worn down and exhausted from a long week. Perhaps one or both of those factors played into my somewhat surprising reaction -- the movie was alright for a few laughs.

In a conscious repackaging of the original Vacation's premise, members of the Griswold family hop in the car for a cross-country road trip to Walley World amusement park. They have plenty of misadventures, gross-out gags, and hijinks along the way. The format here isn't an avalanche of jokes, but more a procession of sketches. They visit Debbie's college. They stop off at a "hot spring." They visit relatives. The movie sticks with each mini-premise for a while before moving on.

That the movie is effective at all probably has a lot more to do with the cast than the script -- it feels like several gags here wouldn't be funny on paper, but they work thanks to the game performances. Ed Helms uses his trademark earnestness from The Office to full effect as the fifth(?) actor to play Rusty Griswold in a Vacation movie. Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins have several great moments as Rusty's two sons, particularly when playing around with the funny notion of the younger sibling being the bully. And the strongest of the whole cast is Christina Applegate, who goes for broke with lots of physical comedy as Rusty's wife Debbie.

The episodic nature of the movie gives several other performers chances to pop up in extended cameos. The script gives some a lot to work with, as with Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Day, and Keegan-Michael Key. It underuses others, like Leslie Mann and Ron Livingston. And yes, there are appearances by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo too. It's a bit uneven overall; the movie is definitely stronger when focusing on the family and not the wacky side characters. Still, a good moment usually comes along before you get too restless.

I'd grade Vacation a B-. There are better comedies out there, but this one still delivers enough laughs to be generally worthwhile.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Party Time

Animation for adults is hardly an uncommon thing, but it's still apparently rare enough in America (even with South Park and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim around) that each new example gets a lot of attention. So people were shocked all over again a week ago when the movie Sausage Party arrived in theaters.

In a grocery store where all the food hopes to be purchased by one of the Gods and taken to The Great Beyond outside the store doors, a hot dog named Frank is hoping to be paired with a bun named Brenda. But when calamity forces them out of their packages and separates them from their friends, their adventures across the store reveal a terrible truth. "The Great Beyond" is a fiction, concocted to mask the horrific slaughter that awaits at the hands -- and mouths -- of the Gods.

I mentioned South Park deliberately in the intro, as this movie embraces the same spirit of delirious profanity as Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In particular, Sausage Party has a lot in common with Team America: World Police (in just how far it's willing to go) and The Book of Mormon (for it's barely coded message).

When the movie is in "funny" mode, it's hard-to-catch-your-breath funny. The Disney-style opening number (with music by Alan Menken, no less!) sets the stage for an opening act of hilarious jokes that run the gamut from gross-out humor, playing with stereotypes, parody, and everything in between. And the final 15 minutes are even better, and often even more shocking than funny.

In the "message" mode, Sausage Party actually has something to say -- and it goes about it more cleverly than most people would expect a "stoner film" to manage. The middle act is a not-at-all-subtle dig at organized religion, with a nice joke or two at the expense of overly smug atheists too.

The flaw of Sausage Party is that these two modes of the movie rarely work together at the same time. Half the movie (the bookends) is laugh out loud hysterical. The other half is just plain smart, and seems all the more so for coming when you don't necessarily expect it. But invert your point of view on that, and you could also say that half the movie isn't nearly as funny as it should be, and the other half is just a procession of stupid jokes. I don't mean to undersell the whole package, which is good overall, but I felt like it could have been even better, given the separate hints of greatness.

The cast here is largely made of the usual suspects -- Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Nick Kroll, Paul Rudd, and David Krumholtz. But there are also some new voices for this gang -- Kritsen Wiig, Bill Hader, Salma Hayek, and (incongruously and unrecognizably) Edward Norton. It's a solid ensemble that definitely elevates the funny.

I'd say Sausage Party merits a B+. I'd wager that's more than high enough for most people's hopes of it, though I'd have to say after seeing it that I might have hoped for even higher.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Word on the Street

Throughout July, a number of movie critics were talking up their lists of "the best films of 2016 (so far)." I noticed one movie in particular that kept popping up: Sing Street.

Set in Dublin, Ireland in 1985, Sing Street is the story of Conor, a young man who is forced by his family's financial woes to transfer to a new high school. He struggles with bullying classmates, a tyrannical principal, and bickering parents. But there is a potential bright spot in his life: the enigmatic and beautiful Raphina. When Conor tries to impress her by claiming he's in a band, he must quickly make that band a reality. With the encouragement and eclectic musical influences of his brother Brendan, Conor is soon writing his own songs and shooting his own music videos.

Sing Street is a movie with a host of "access points" for the audience. Any given viewer might identify with school struggles, or with the close relationship with a brother, or with the chase for an unattainable girl, or with parents on the brink of divorce, or with using music as an escape. You might love the comedy of the film, or the more serious moments. You might love all the references to 80s pop culture. (It sure worked for Stranger Things.) Or you might love the music.

This film features half a dozen original songs, and they really are perfect for the film. As Conor is exposed to Duran Duran, The Cure, or Hall and Oates, he winds up creating songs heavily influenced by each in turn (and his fashion sense transforms to mimic his new idols). The songs are a loving pastiche of catchy 80s tunes, with lyrics that reflect on the plot, and a performance quality that improves realistically throughout the movie as the band gains more confidence and skill.

Director John Carney (who also wrote the movie) pulls from a great bag of tricks throughout the film. We see the band's first attempt at a music video in all its awkward glory. There's a fantastic single take that tracks the time-lapse development of a new song. There's an all-out musical extravaganza where the whole cast gets to play in a dream sequence of Conor's imagining.

And that cast is outstanding. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo makes his acting debut as Conor. He was apparently a prize-winning singer throughout his youth, and convincingly "dumbs down" his skill as this story calls for. (His bandmates and friends are all also first time actors.) Lucy Boynton is endearing as Raphina, working the best angles of the "wise beyond her years" type. Jack Reynor is great fun as Conor's brother Brendan, and equally skilled in more dramatic moments as the movie pulls into the third act. Plus, there are two recognizable veterans making the most of small roles as Conor's parents: Aidan Gillen (from Game of Thrones and The Wire) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (from Orphan Black and The Tudors).

The movie's ending is a touch suspect, and overall it isn't really breaking any of the coming-of-age story tropes. Still, it's an excellent take on those tropes, with some catchy music to boot. I give it an A-. It is indeed among the best movies of 2016 (so far).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Outsmarting the Great Detective

Last year, I wrote about Hanabi, a cooperative card game with a cute gimmick -- players face their hands outward, so that they see all the cards except their own. It was a fun little game, but with perhaps a ceiling on that fun due to its simple rules set and lack of a concrete victory condition. So now comes a new game to try one-upping Hanabi: Beyond Baker Street.

Players are Scotland Yard inspectors teaming to solve a crime before than busybody Holmes beats them to the solution. As in Hanabi, everyone plays with their hands faced out, and players can take an action on their turn to give a fellow player a clue about their hand contents. But then Beyond Baker Street piles on additional rules. It definitely increases the complexity, but adds some rewarding depth in the process.

Each clue given makes Sherlock Holmes advance one space along a track. If he reaches the end of it, he solves the mystery and defeats the players. Each time the players successfully confirm one aspect of the crime (motive, method, or opportunity), Holmes is forced one space back on the same track, giving the team a whisker of breathing room. There are also a variety of other actions that can be taken in limited fashions that give the players strategic ways to "punt" their turn, helping the team by not unnecessarily advancing Holmes.

Then there is the small deck of character cards, from which each player is dealt one at the start of the game. Enthusiasts of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories will recognize various characters from the canon. Gamers will enjoy how the variety injects replayability into the game -- and can even make it more of a challenge, as some characters actually hinder success rather than help.

That's not the only way in which difficulty can be modified. There are 6 different levels of challenge at which you can play. Each one starts Holmes progressively farther along his track, and also restricts the number of cards the players can dump without penalty to "The Impossible," a special discard pile which the players must build to a specific number exactly before they can win the game.

For all the added rules this game has over Hanabi, it still plays in roughly the same 20 minutes. So assuming your gaming group is willing to embrace the additional overhead, you'll be rewarded with a more variable and strategic experience. It seems only appropriate to me that I grade this game a notch better than the B+ I gave Hanabi. Indeed, A- feels about right for Beyond Baker Street. Thanks to the brisk run time, I've already played this several times since it was introduced to me. And since we still haven't attempted it on difficulty levels 4 and higher, there seems to be plenty more for us to explore.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Gift of Suspense

If you were asked to name an actor you'd expect to see headlining a psychological thriller, I doubt you'd name Jason Bateman. That unexpected casting is part of the draw for last year's The Gift. The movie is also the directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton, who himself wrote the script. So there are a lot of subverted expectations going on here right out of the gate.

The Gift follows a married couple, Simon and Robyn, who have recently moved to the L.A. suburbs. Simon used to go to high school in the area, and happens to run into an old classmate, "Gordo," while the couple is out shopping to furnish their new home. There's something creepy about Gordo, who increasingly pushes a friendship Simon isn't willing to reciprocate. Things only get worse from there. Not only does Gordo develop into a full-blown stalker, but Robyn begins to discover buried truths about her husband.

As a less experienced writer and first time director, it seems clear that Joel Edgerton was looking more to find his footing here than to reinvent cinema. He's crafted an engaging and creepy story, but it's one that clearly stands of the shoulders of what has come before. The Gift feels steeped in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, with dashes of Fatal Attraction stirred in. Nevertheless, it's a good homage.

The film proceeds faithfully through its paces, but it does feel fresh in large part thanks to that subversion I mentioned earlier. Jason Bateman thwarted his nice guy image with Bad Words, and now thwarts his comedy image with this. His character of Simon isn't a nice guy -- a fact that's made increasingly clear as the film unfolds -- and it's great to put a face on that character that the audience is otherwise predisposed to like. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton casts himself as the awkward and creepy Gordo, which contrasts wonderfully with his hyper-masculine characters in Warrior and Zero Dark Thirty.

There are other recognizable performers in the movie too. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn, who becomes the more conventional protagonist in the middle of the film. The couple's life is populated with actors from a variety of TV shows: Allison Tolman (from Fargo), Tim Griffin (from Wayward Pines), and Busy Philipps (from Cougar Town), among others. And in a conspicuous case of not playing against an actor's established image, Wendell Pierce (of The Wire) appears as a police detective.

The Gift is an effective and slightly retro thriller film that fans of the genre should enjoy. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Salmon-chanted Evening

I recently got to play the new game Happy Salmon. Maybe "experience" is a better word than "play," because it's not a typical game.

Happy Salmon fits into a few peculiar niches. It's a game that little kids can play (the designers say ages "6+"), but that adults can still have fun with. It's the ultimate in fast filler -- it takes only a few seconds to explain, and can be played in about two minutes.

Each player is given a small deck of cards showing four different actions: High 5, Pound It, Switcheroo, and Happy Salmon. You flip over cards one at a time, calling out the action you've revealed and trying to find another player with the same action. If you find a match, you "celebrate" with them by doing the action: giving a high five, pounding fists, switching places around the game table, or giving a floppy wrist-touching "hand shake" known as Happy Salmon. You can then discard your card and draw a new one. The first player to discard all their cards wins.

The game purports to take from 3 to 6 players, but I really couldn't imagine playing it with less than 6. The fun is the chaos, the frantic shouting at other players in search of your action (or, in the suggested silent alternative, frantic gesturing). There really wouldn't be much point to it without enough chaos (or alcohol, or children in the mix, or whatever it takes for you to relax and just go with it).

Many people reading this review wouldn't think of this as much of a game, and I understand if this isn't your bag. (By the way, I should have mentioned -- this game comes in a bag. A bag shaped like a fish, of course.) But within a certain category, Happy Salmon definitely has a home. It's more crazy and silly than, say, Spoons (and the cards are more durable than a standard 52-card deck). It's not long and drawn out like other kid-friendly games that are far less fun, like Candy Land or Uno. It's easy to explain at a big, loud party and can take players coming and going. (I would bet that someone, somewhere has probably played Strip Happy Salmon.)

This isn't exactly a masterpiece. (Then again, compared to other two minute games, maybe it is.) But it seemed more fun to me than you'd probably expect. Is there even a way for me to put a grade on it? B? Let's say: absolutely worth picking up if your game nights are really more like party nights.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Silence Isn't Golden

I'd heard some scattered praise for the movie Hush, an indie thriller picked up by Netflix in their efforts to grow their "original movie" business as they have their "original TV series." I really didn't know much about the movie beyond the mask showcased in its posters and publicity stills, but that was fantastically creepy enough for me to try the film behind that aesthetic.

Hush is, quite simply, a home invasion film. Novelist Maddie Young has retreated to the woods to work on a new book, and comes under siege by a masked killer. A teenage bout of bacterial meningitis has left Maddie deaf and mute, leading the killer -- secure in feeling he has the upper hand -- to torment her as much as possible before dealing the fatal blow. But Maddie may not be as helpless as the killer imagines...

In the tradition of tight horror-thrillers, this movie is a sleek 80 minutes, and uses every moment to thoroughly mine its simple premise. Director Mike Flanagan (working from a script he co-wrote with wife and star Kate Siegel) does make the most of having a deaf protagonist. A lot of old genre cliches pop up, but feel a bit spruced up and novel in this new context. (At even the most basic level, shouting "look behind you!" at the screen feels different when shouting it at someone who can't hear.) I think the story also handles the impairment well; the killer assumes Maddie to be less capable, but the film does not. (Nor does the film feel like it's making her unrealistically superhuman in other ways to compensate.)

But absent the gimmick, this movie feels awfully similar to me to The Strangers, and not as effective. The suspenseful set pieces here feel a bit less tense than The Strangers, and the overall plot a bit more flawed. To me, the biggest problem here is that while this scenario begins plausibly enough, credibly is stretched much too far, too fast. The killer continues to toy with Maddie long past the point where it should be obvious she's no easy mark. Short as the movie is, it's hard to believe this situation would actually continue this long.

The two key actors here both give solid performances. Kate Siegel is great as Maddie, giving us many staple "horror victim" beats without the cheat of blood-curdling screams to convey her terror. John Gallagher Jr. is intriguing as the killer, partly because of his Dexter-like demeanor, and partly thanks to the sharp contrast between this film and his role in another recent thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Still, if the movie captures the imagination, it would be in inspiring would-be filmmakers to think about what movie they could make on the cheap like this in their own homes. Though there is some talent on display here, it's in service of a fairly rote film. I give Hush a C. Fans of horror films might enjoy it, but I can't see it appealing to a wider audience.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Lapse, in My Judgment

Across the internet, you can find more than a few lists of "little known sci-fi movies you can stream on Netflix." One such list is how I heard of the movie Time Lapse, a 2014 indie that was sold as "Primer meets Shallow Grave." I took especial interest in this movie, because its slightly more detailed synopsis seemed superficially similar to a novel that a dear friend of mine has been trying to get published for years. Were there actual similarities here, and any hope/encouragement I could give my friend by watching the film?

Time Lapse follows three young adults sharing an apartment: dating couple Finn and Callie, and Finn's best friend Jasper. When the mysterious tenant across the street goes missing, they enter his apartment and discover an enormous contraption bolted to the floor: a giant camera, pointed straight at their front window, that takes a picture once a day... of what will transpire 24 hours in the future. What starts out as a fun and exploitable gift soon becomes a confusing and disturbing curse -- the images become increasingly strange, promising a twisted, upsetting future.

By this point in my review, my friend with the novel definitely knows I was talking about him. So let me briefly set his mind at ease: any similarities to this film are incredibly superficial. Time Lapse did not beat you to the punch as you were struggling to find a publisher for your long-finished work. And as this film never saw a theatrical release (wide or limited), it's fair to say it too has struggled in finding its audience. (Someday, when you succeed and publish your book, I can use my blog's exceedingly minimal reach to send readers your way. For now, I can only point a few eyeballs toward this movie.)

Though Time Lapse has a science fiction gimmick, the movie is essentially a thriller that leverages dangerous knowledge against the characters. For reasons explained early on in the film, they all believe that the future they see in these photos cannot be altered. So the resulting suspense isn't about attempting to avoid the unpleasant, it's about coming to terms with it. How will these future visions come to pass, and how much deeper will the rabbit hole go?

The three actors in the lead roles are effective to varying degrees. Most convincing, I think, is Danielle Panabaker as Callie. I can imagine this movie being the thing that got the casting director's attention over on the TV series The Flash, where she now stars as Caitlin Snow. Panabaker walks the line between vulnerability and agency quite well, with the character feeling swept up in events and responsible for them in turns. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I'd previously seen Matt O'Leary, who plays Finn. When I finally looked it up, I realized why I hadn't been able to place him -- I'd last seen him as a child actor, giving an absolutely riveting performance in Frailty. His work here as an adult isn't nearly as potent, but he still serves the movie well. It's the last leg of the triangle, George Finn as Jasper, who is the weakest of the three. His character exhibits the wildest behavior in the film overall, and I think his performance gets a bit superficial in presenting an emerging, somewhat generic "madness."

That said, I feel like maybe the script itself lets the actors down just a bit in the final act. There's a steady progression of twists and revelations that are mostly quite satisfying, but the final scene turns on a sudden, unearned change in behavior by one of the characters. Hopefully without getting too specific, this character suddenly stops believing in specific rules that have governed the entire story thus far. I'm on the fence about whether the motive that's offered up is convincing enough to justify the change.

Still, Time Lapse is a fun movie at all, a clever example of low-budget indie filmmaking. I give it a B+.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Monumental Game

When trying a new board game for the first time, it's only natural to have a better opinion of it if you win. That's how I know Imhotep must be good -- I'm eager to try it again, even though I got crushed when I played it, dead last of four players.

Players take on the role of builders competing in the construction of five ancient Egyptian monuments. On your turn, you may either add 3 stones from the quarry to your personal supply (which holds a maximum of 5 stones), assign one of your stones to a ship (each ship having a limited number of slots), or sail a full or nearly full ships to one of the monuments (where it delivers its stone cargo).

In classic Eurogame style, each of the monuments scores points in different ways, and you'd be foolish to pursue them all. Unlike many Eurogames, you're not in full control of where your focus will fall. That separation between first loading stones onto ships and then sailing ships to monuments is a big deal. You may have your eyes on, say, the Burial Chamber, but if an opponent chooses to sail a boat full of your stones to the Pyramids instead? Maybe you need to shift plans. Or if an opponent sails a ship with none of your stones to the place you were chasing? Well, it's probably time to rethink your plans, because each monument can receive only one ship per round.

I failed spectacularly in my first play by misjudging the power of those thwarting kind of moves. But was that a bad appraisal of the game's power balance in general, or in just that one playthrough? I have no idea, and that's what has me intrigued about the game. So many Eurogames rely on less direct interaction between the players -- opponents beating you to a space on a board, taking all of a limited resource and leaving you none, that sort of thing. Here's a game that, without any mechanism for directly "attacking" a rival, has a mechanic that lets an opponent say: "That thing you were building toward? Yeah, not so much."

Add to all this the fact that the game has many mechanisms for variance on each replay. Each of the five monument boards in the game has an A side and B side that score differently, making possible plenty of different setups. Also, the ships used to transport stones have different capacities, and the options for available ships each round are determined by a shuffled batch of cards.

The box for Imhotep promises a 40 minute play time. That proved right on the mark (even with time to quickly explain the rules), giving you just as many meaningful decisions as lots of strategy games that take two or three times as long to play. That makes it a "filler game" (played while waiting for more friends to show up on game night) that isn't actually filler.

I'd give Imhotep an A-. (And maybe the "minus" is just me pouting about getting beaten the first time I played.) I look forward to playing it again, and trying to "figure it out."

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Warrior, What Is It Good For?

Boxing movies aren't generally my thing, but I recently decided to make an exception for one from a few years back, Warrior. (It's actually about mixed martial arts, but given that there aren't many MMA movies, I hope you'll forgive me blurring the lines a bit.) I'd heard enough sporadic praise of the film to give it a shot one afternoon... and was generally reminded why I don't watch these kind of movies.

Warrior follows the template for a fighter movie. Against long odds, and with "something to prove," an unlikely hero must fight his way to the top. The wrinkle here is that Warrior follows two men, brothers, as they both enter the same MMA competition for very different reasons.

I imagine it was the performances that drew the accolades for the film. The two brothers are played by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, and each gives a committed and intense performance. There's more to their roles than just the physical component. The brothers both have a strained relationship with their alcoholic father, played by Nick Nolte, and the film serves up strong scenes exploring those relationships. There are several other supporting characters with good moments too, the standouts being Jennifer Morrison as Edgerton's conflicted (but thankfully, not suffocating) wife, and the very funny Kevin Dunn as the principal at the high school where Edgerton's character teaches.

Still, even acknowledging some good acting, I don't understand the love for the film overall. This movie slavishly follows the formula for this subgenre, despite its two protagonists. Twenty minutes in, you know not only how it's going to end, but every major beat it's going to hit along the way. And when it then takes two more hours to do that? Well, my attention certainly wandered.

The movie seems to pretend there will be suspense in the inevitable confrontation between the brothers: who will win? But with every hackneyed trick in the Hollywood playbook, the film telegraphs exactly what the outcome will be. If you can't figure this one out, you must not watch very many movies. (And if you don't watch very many movies, you owe yourself a better one than this.)

There may be good acting here, but it's all coming from performers who have done as good or better in other things. Perhaps enthusiasts of MMA will like the fight choreography. (Then again, they might not find it realistic, for all I know.) I can only give Warrior a C-.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Skye High

Those who follow board games won't be surprised to hear that Codenames won this year's coveted "Spiel des Jahres" (Game of the Year) award. But I was eager to see which game would take the Kennerspiel des Jahres -- the "Connoisseur's" award (or, if you prefer not to swap one foreign word with another, the "Gamers' Game" of the Year). That honor went to Isle of Skye, by designers Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister.

Some people have made comparisons between Isle of Skye and Carcassonne, but I think that's a superficial comparison that fails to convey much about this new game. Isle of Skye is a tile-laying game in which geographic features are lined up against each other... and that's about as far as I'd go. First, each player in Isle of Skye is using tiles to develop his own, personal territory. Second, tiles are acquired through a challenging auction system. Third, the game uses a clever system for scoring victory points that injects tremendous variety and replayability into the experience.

The game lasts just six rounds. At the start of each, every player draws three tiles from a bag and places them face up in full view of all players. Then, simultaneously and in secret, players set the prices for their three tiles. One tile is removed from auction entirely, while the player prices the other two by assigning money to them from his own gold on hand. Once everyone has locked in their decisions, players go around the table in turn order -- with the option to pass on purchasing for the rest of the round, or to buy one tile from an opponent for the price that opponent set. If someone buys a tile from you, you take back the gold you used to set that price, and you take that amount from the purchaser. If no one else buys one of your tiles, you have to buy it, spending all the gold you used to set the price.

It's hard to overstate the amount of nuance going on in this system. Do you set a high price in the hopes that no one will buy your tile and you'll get to keep it for yourself? Do you set a price hoping to get money from a rival to boost your own bank? How high can you go? Pricing your tiles high takes up your money on hand, and if no one buys from you before your turn comes in the auction, you won't have funds to buy something desirable an opponent is offering. But if someone buys from you right away, does that mean you lowballed yourself and gave someone a great deal?

Then there's that twist that one of the three tiles in front of each opponent won't even make it to the actual auction. Which tile is an opponent likely to "kill?" As you're setting the price for your tiles, can you assume that another similar tile in front of your opponent will stay in the mix? Or might he choose that as his throwaway, leaving you with a one-of-a-kind commodity?

This auction mechanic alone would be enough for Isle of Skye to earn distinction in my mind. But then it also has a great system for keeping score. There are 16 different score tiles, each with a condition for rewarding different features on land tiles (or different configurations of those tiles). But only 4 of the 16 score tiles are used in any given game. The randomly chosen 4 are arrayed in slots marked A, B, C, and D, and then different score tiles are checked at the end of each round of the game -- each condition at three different points across the six rounds.

In any given auction, you have to weigh the value of tiles against how many more times they'll score during the game, and when they'll score. Can you get a good deal by ignoring the things about to score in favor of something that will score later? How expensive can you price a tile that works toward two or more different scoring conditions? And that's all just within the context of a single game. The next time you play, some or all of the scoring conditions could be completely different. Or a condition that scored mostly in the late game last time might score very early on this time. "No two games play the same" is a popular cliche, but here the vast number of possible combinations really makes that feel true.

My one concern here is that a significant skill gap could develop between more and less experienced players. Even though different things are more valuable from one playthrough to the next, the veteran's ability to size up those difference feels like it could easily grow to eclipse those of a less experienced player. Still, this is the "Gamers' Game of the Year," so I think that's something to be expected. This isn't the game you pull out on "let me introduce you to German board games" night.

Isle of Skye has been on my mind quite regularly since I got to try it, and I can't wait to play it again. I suppose my grade is a bit provisional until I get to play it more, but it feels like an A to me, and certainly a worthy award winner.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Sky High

Eye in the Sky was a movie I wanted to catch earlier this year, but it breezed in and out of movie theaters before I had the chance. Now that I have seen it, I'm sorry to have missed it before.

The film is a British political thriller that covers (in essentially real time) the effort to authorize a drone strike on a terrorist target. The action ping-pongs from the embedded agent trying to gather information in the field, the war hawk colonel bending the rules in favor of the attack, the parliamentary committee eager to pass the decision up the chain, and the American drone pilot wrestling with the ethics of the murky situation.

Eye in the Sky works on a number of levels. It's a palpably tense thriller. The focus on a single drone strike gives the story intense focus despite the four separate settings. Indeed, the separated locations actually increases the tension, as no one person can simply force their will physically on the others. Modern technology is used to put a new spin on time-honored thriller traditions: the sense of a ticking clock, the curse of incomplete information, and the onset of complications.

On a deeper level, the film is a powerful political parable. You watch and hope that in real life, a military strike decision is carried out with this level of methodical consideration -- the second guessing, the moral introspection, the analysis of risks and rewards. And these feelings are put quite at odds (and quite effectively) against the audience's normal demands of an action movie: Kill them! Blow stuff up! Do it! The movie really does make you ask the question: what would you do in this situation -- or, at the very least, who do you think was right? And I didn't have an easy answer after the credits rolled.

Pushing the movie to these effective heights is the outstanding casting of the four major roles. None of them share a scene together except by phone; the actors never even met one another during the making of the film. But each contributes perfectly to the whole as in a tight one-act stage play. Helen Mirren is cast wonderfully against type as the war hawk colonel; the story is turned quite on its ear by having a woman (and one this regal and forceful) as the most bloodthirsty character. Barkhad Abdi is the agent on site, a role that makes perfect use of his ability to convey desperation behind a mask of strength (as in his debut role in Captain Phillips). Aaron Paul plays the drone pilot; no one who has seen Breaking Bad will be surprised at how effective he is playing a young man tortured at the prospect of compromising his morals.

As the general in the room with the politicians, the movie enlists Alan Rickman -- in his final on-camera role before his death. He gives a masterful performance, the likes of which we rarely see (and now, sadly, will see less). He buries withering sarcasm in obsequious respect. He drives the talking heads back on course. And he does it all without once raising his voice, where other actors would shout and rave in vain pursuit of Oscar. Rickman also gets the one real "monologue" in the film, the speech that summarizes the movie's message (to the degree it isn't left intentionally open to interpretation). Needless to say, he knocks that scene out of the park.

When I'm assembling my top 10 list at the end of 2016, I'm certain Eye in the Sky will be on it. I give it an A-, and a strong recommendation.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Perfect 10

When 10 Cloverfield Lane snuck into theaters earlier this year (with little warning), I didn't make time to see it. Was it supposed to be a sequel to Cloverfield, which I only kinda-sorta liked? Was this something I wanted to make time for? I wish someone had been there to fill me in, specifically on the following:

First: no, 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel. The best comparison I could make is that it establishes "Cloverfield" as a genre brand name, along the lines of The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, or (I hear) Black Mirror (which I keep meaning to get to). But this story stands on its own, involves no characters from Cloverfield, and is not a "found footage" movie. Cloverfield is an action monster movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a psychological thriller.

Second: this movie's script, originally by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, received a rewrite by Damien Chazelle -- the writer-director of Whiplash. I can't speak highly enough (or often enough) of Whiplash; I would have rushed to see 10 Cloverfield Lane if I'd known of the connection. But if I can't convince you how unexpectedly tense and suspenseful that movie is, let me say that 10 Cloverfield Lane generates the same tension and suspense, in a more expected thriller package. (Chazelle was actually set to direct his own rewrite here, but when his funding came through for Whiplash -- his dream project -- he gave up the director's chair to Dan Trachtenberg).

Third: the filmmakers weren't being cagey about the film's content out of a desire to con their audience. The movie really does have a lot of twists and turns that are best not spoiled. Here is as much as I want to reveal of the plot... and I'm really only covering the first few minutes:

A woman named Michelle is in a terrible car accident and wakes up in an underground bunker. Creepy conspiracy theorist Howard says he has saved her life by bringing her there. But she cannot leave: the apocalypse has come in the form of deadly chemical attack -- by terrorists, a foreign government, or even Martians, he can't say. Michelle doesn't want to believe Howard, but there's another, more trustworthy survivor in the bunker, Emmett, who confirms the whole story. What is the truth, and who knows it? Is Michelle in more danger if she stays than if she leaves? Again and again throughout the movie, new revelations upset everything you think you know.

The script is clever, but what really drives the movie are its three performers. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who has been in everything from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to Death Proof to the more recent incarnation of The Thing) shines as Michelle. You fear for her and cheer for her in equal measure. John Gallagher, Jr. (who starred in many Broadway musicals before landing on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom) is great as Emmett, Michelle's only lifeline in this tale. He's warm and reassuring, but with just enough of an "off" undercurrent to make you wonder if he's hiding secrets too. John Goodman commands every scene as Howard, giving an absolutely consistent performance that can nevertheless be read differently from scene to scene. Is he a tortured father figure or a psychotic torturer? Goodman conveys both with equal effectiveness.

To say any more about why I loved 10 Cloverfield Lane would be to give too much away. I worry I may have given away too much already. The bottom line: if you like psychological thrillers, you need to see this one. The movie gets an A. So far, it's my movie to beat in 2016.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Things to Talk About

I'm rarely at the cutting edge of Netflix binge watching. For example, I'm less than halfway through season 2 of Daredevil, and I haven't even started the newest season of House of Cards. But the drumbeat of people telling me I had to watch Stranger Things was relentless. So here I am, only a few weeks after its release, having finished its 8-episode first season.

It seems unlikely that you'd be reading this and not have at least a vague idea of what Stranger Things is about. But just to make sure we're all on the same page here: the series is a horror/sci-fi/drama mashup following the disappearance of a 12-year boy, and the probably-not-coincidental appearance of a young girl with powerful mental abilities.

The series is set in 1983, and I'd say that's probably the biggest reason for its success. The show is a loving pastiche of 80s pop culture that has targeted a particular age group with razor precision. Plot elements are evocative of Stephen King books, The Goonies, and Stand By Me. Specific scenes and the camera angles used to shoot them channel E.T., A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and more. Then there are the myriad explicit references to dozens of pop music hits, the Star Wars trilogy, John Carpenter's The Thing... more shout-outs than I could possibly list. This potpourri made for a show that a certain audience was destined to love regardless of the actual content or quality.

It is more than a gimmick, though. There's a tone to this story that fits hand-in-glove with this time setting. The series creators, The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), clearly understood this, and demanded a level of fidelity that few "period pieces" get right. The real trick to evoking a specific year is to not have everything on screen come from that year; that's just not how real life works. People drive older cars (particularly if they're not well off), have older clothes they love too much to throw out, listen to both current and older music, and so forth. Stranger Things shows us not just the world of the early 80s, but a world that the 70s haven't yet let go of. And right down to the grainy opening credits and the synth score (by Survive, providing music very much in the mode of Tron or It Follows), this show bullseyes what it's aiming at.

Another big feather in the cap of Stranger Things is the outstanding cast. Winona Ryder stars as the mother who has lost her son, and is basically at maximum hysteria from almost the first scene. It's an amped-up, committed performance. David Harbour is excellent as the local chief of police, a man who tries to project an unflappable demeanor even though life has dealt him some serious blows.

But the real heroes of the cast are much younger. Much like Freaks and Geeks (another TV series that looked back lovingly on the 80s), Stranger Things follows a group of geeky preteen friends and a second high school clique of cool kids (that the older sister of one of the geeks is trying to get into). Much like Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things -- through exhaustive searching, dumb luck, or both -- found not just one or two great young actors to fill these roles, but more than half a dozen. The story focuses most on three of them -- Finn Wolfhard as Mike, Natalia Dyer as Nancy, and Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven -- but each of the young performers in this show fits their character to a T and delivers many great moments.

All that said, I think I'm a bit more reserved in my overall response to Stranger Things than many of the people who hounded me to watch it. The show is quite enjoyable, but not without its flaws. Even at just eight episodes, I felt that the first half of the season was becoming a bit repetitive before mysteries started to unravel. (There was a limit to how many times I could watch Winona Ryder's hysterical panic being rebuffed by a skeptic.) And the mysteries of the story only remain mysterious because of one character. Someone here literally has all the answers, and also literally has no compelling reason not to spill them by around the end of episode two. Comedy loves it when characters don't talk to each other; it's harder to pull off in drama without rock-solid reasons for secrecy.

I also found the ending to be a bit of a mixed bag. Though I felt the story as a whole reached a satisfying conclusion (and/or jumping off point for future seasons), I didn't think the last episode did right by all of its characters. In my view, more than half the cast was short-changed or made insignificant in the final hour.

Still, I can see why so many of my friends got swept up in Stranger Things. It's a fun ride overall. Plus, though I'm not normally a "form over content" sort of viewer, I'd have to say that here, the presentation alone probably makes it worth a watch. I'd give Stranger Things (or, shall I say, season one -- a renewal seems inevitable) a B+.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Bears Repeating

I'm really not sure how well I remember Seth MacFarlane's comedy Ted. I say that because the whole time I was watching Ted 2, I was thinking "this is alright, but not as good as the first one"... only to place the sequel not far behind the original when I added it to my Flickchart.

Where I remember the first Ted as chasing laughs almost exclusively, Ted 2 feels in some ways like MacFarlane's attempt to write a Star Trek episode. Though jokes are still king, there's an attempt at making a socio-political point by way of story metaphor: this movie embroils the talking teddy bear in the U.S. legal system, as he seeks to secure equal rights as a person. I'm pretty sure that message is too lofty to actually make any kind of impact whatsoever in such slapstick surroundings, but it is there.

One area in which I'm probably misremembering the first Ted is in how much more Ted 2 feels to me like a live action Family Guy episode. Ted 2 is loaded with "cutaway gags." They don't literally interrupt scenes as they do on the cartoon, but there are numerous scenes that operate solely as improv-style sketches, not furthering the plot in any way. Still other scenes conclude with tacked-on dialogue to set up more sketch scenes to follow. (One scene is even about literally crashing an improv troupe's performance.) That's not to say these flights of fancy aren't sometimes funny. Liam Neeson bringing his full "Taken" schtick to a conversation about breakfast cereal is somehow hilarious. An extended riff on legal terms follows the classic joke model of beating a dead horse so long that it's not funny... and then continuing until it becomes funny again.

Still, Ted 2 is a very uneven movie. A lengthy campfire singalong scene grinds the proceedings to a halt. The avalanche of jokes that appear when the plot takes the characters to New York Comic Con is a riot. The small role for Mad Men's John Slattery is a waste. A similarly tiny role for Morgan Freeman is pretty great. There's probably a tight, hysterical 90 minute movie in here somewhere... but the actual run time is just shy of two hours.

I'd give Ted 2 a B-. It's no masterpiece, but then, neither was the original. If you enjoyed the first, you'll probably feel the same way about the second.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who Made You Sheriff?

Since its release two years ago, the game Sheriff of Nottingham has shot up into the top 150 at BoardGameGeek. I recently got a chance to experience what all the fuss is about... and while I did think it was decent, I feel like maybe I'm missing something.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game. Players take turns being the sheriff, standing guard at the city gates. Every other player is a merchant trying to bring their goods inside to sell. The goods (represented on cards) come in several varieties, both legal and illegal. When you play the merchant role, you take any number of cards from your hand and "declare" them to the sheriff as a set of one type of good (apples, cheese, bread, and so forth). If the sheriff lets you through, you set aside your haul for end game scoring. If the sheriff chooses to inspect you, then what happens next depends on your honesty. If you were 100% truthful, you keep your goods and the sheriff must pay you gold equal to their total value. If you lied at all, the goods you lied about are confiscated, and you pay the sheriff gold for them instead.

Besides the bluffing, the game has a big lobbying and bribery component as well. When the sheriff is deciding whether or not to inspect an opponent's goods, players may make offers to tip the scales. There are essentially no limits on this; you can pay the sheriff to escape inspection, or pay the sheriff to inspect a rival. You can offer the sheriff a good from your cart if he lets you through (which you only then owe him if the good type you promised is actually there). You can trade a free pass now for the promise not to inspect when you are the sheriff on a later turn  (though promises on future turns aren't binding).

I liked the idea of this game quite a bit. I think bluffing games are great fun, and I love toying with an opponent's image of you. But I didn't feel like there was much room to play within the system set up in this game. The game enables a wide variety of ways you can bluff, which is great. But the specifics ultimately don't matter, since you're never actually asked to guess how an opponent has bluffed you. The only question, which you're repeatedly made to answer, is whether an opponent is bluffing: yes or no. So what seemed at first like a game of many possibilities wound up feeling nearly binary to me as it unfolded.

The game supports 3 to 5 players, and I will at least say that "more is better" here. When I played with three, I felt like you didn't get enough turns not being the sheriff. (After all, bluffing is the fun part here, and you want as many opportunities to do that as possible.) When I played with five players, I still wished for more nuance to the sheriff's role, but there were at least more interactions between players, encouraging the sheriff's watchful eye to drift elsewhere. More players also allowed for more competition over end game scoring (which rewards having the most goods of each different type).

I would probably try Sheriff of Nottingham again with a full complement of five. Short of that, though, I probably won't seek to play it again. I'd give the game a B-. Maybe a B if you're playing with the sort of friends who lean into the story, role play it a bit, and make it more fun.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Bourne Mediocrity

When Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass stated years ago that they were probably done making Jason Bourne movies (leading to a Bourne-less Bourne movie), they spoke with the caveat that they'd always consider coming back if they thought they had a story worth telling. That story is now here with the new movie, Jason Bourne. And I'm hard pressed to identify what about it pulled them back.

Ordinarily, this might be the part where I give the capsule summary of the film -- but that's part of the problem. There's very little new here. Bourne is once again on the run, from high-ranking CIA personnel looking to protect their secret conspiracy from being exposed.

If the dance is the same, the faces are at least a bit different. Matt Damon and Julia Stiles both make return appearances from the original Bourne trilogy, but the cast is otherwise new. Tommy Lee Jones plays the ruthless director of the CIA, a character that basically calls on Jones' schtick from previous movies -- he's reprising Men in Black without the dry humor, or The Fugitive without the sense of morality. Vincent Kassel plays a deadly agent in the field that's after Bourne. Alicia Vikander gets the most interesting of the new roles, a CIA expert in cyber ops who finds her loyalties tested as she too tracks the title character.

We're starting to come full circle here: in the wake of the original Bourne trilogy, the James Bond franchise dropped its playful and unrealistic elements to copy this new series' hard-hitting grittiness. Now, the Bourne movies are beginning to feel a bit like classic Bond films to me, at least in the sense that the bad guys all have the same plan, and are cartoonishly evil in their pursuit of it.

Even the action here is far more implausible than anything the Bourne films has done before, with both people and cars taking a ridiculous amount of punishment without being taken out. That's not to say that it isn't fun at times, but the impulse to up the ante has come at the expense of the Bourne franchise's (quasi-)realism.

This new movie isn't so bad that I'd warn you to stay away. But it is a plot you've seen before, in an iteration less effective than the ones you've seen before. I give Jason Bourne a C. Save it for home video, if you bother at all.