Thursday, September 29, 2016

Seven's Deadly Songs

Until its release was announced a few months back, I didn't realize how much I wanted a soundtrack album of the score from the movie Seven (or Se7en, if you prefer). And until I was listening to my newly acquired copy last week, I didn't realize what a potent addition to my collection it would be.

Today, composer Howard Shore is most widely known for his work on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Se7en was years before all that. Its score features no melodies half as memorable, but Shore's work is an even more masterful evocation of a filmmaker's intended tone.

What has impressed me more than anything, listening to this soundtrack, is how difficult it is to listen passively. On one level, I expected this; this is dark and ominous music for a dark and ominous movie, not the sort of thing to throw on in the background while you clean the house or some such. But I was surprised at just how much the music makes me sit up and take notice here in isolation -- because when paired with the movie, it slinks into the background just the way it's supposed to.

The music of Seven is littered with strange, industrial noises that defy clear identification: you can imagine thick metal cables being strained, steam vents slowly hissing, or grinding gears. Many of these sounds are exactly what Don Davis would employ years later in his score for The Matrix, making it clear that Howard Shore was ahead of his time here in this experimentation. Often, you're not sure which sounds are orchestral and which are synthetic. Until now, you weren't even sure which sounds were part of the music and which were the sound effects of the film itself.

That said, Seven is a predominately orchestral score... just not in any comforting, harmonious way. I'm not sure there's a major chord in the entire thing, just a bleak landscape of dissonance. When melodies appear, they either feel out of key with the rest of the music ("Gluttony"), are quite brief ("Somerset" and "Mrs. Mills"), or are stifled and mocked out of existence by the orchestra ("Linoleum"). Many tracks feature an unyielding pulse on percussion and bass instruments to set the tension, and climax in volume and speed in the final moments.

There's also dry wit on display. "Sloth" is one of the most rhythmic, fast-tempo tracks of the score. "John Doe," marking the arrival of the killer in the narrative, is the first track to truly organize the chaotic soundscape that's come before into an ordered melody that passes around sections of the orchestra. "Envy," the 7-minute long piece that leads up to the climactic final scene, follows a predictable scale progression that just keeps rising and rising -- you know it's going somewhere terrible, and you can't stop it.

And perhaps most intriguingly, the album opens with a cue that was cut from the movie by David Fincher, "The Last Seven Days." It's an oddly light, even uplifting piece with chimes and sweet chords in the string section. It feels carried in from another movie entirely (kicking and screaming, one imagines). I love the track all the more for it being so jarringly different from everything that follows.

I've long appreciated Howard Shore's work, but I feel like I've rediscovered him with this album. I have to be in just the right (wrong?) mood to listen to it, but that's only a small drawback to truly excellent music. I give this new score album for Seven an A-.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Meet the New Boss

In last week's season premiere, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suggested an interesting direction for the story to come. This week, they disappointed me a bit with where they started driving.

Ghost Rider made a big splash on arrival, but this week I'm not sure if the writers are being unrealistically mysterious about him or are mistakenly assuming the audience has some knowledge of him we don't necessarily have. I give them time and space to explain his connection with the angry Ghost-Not-Ghosts. But Daisy seems tolerant of an implausible degree of ambiguity as to the nature of his powers (demonic possession?) and degree of control over them (sometimes it's implied he's like The Hulk, sometimes not).

I guess what I'm really saying is that while Daisy messing with/interviewing him throughout the hour seemed like a Daisy thing to do, her just jumping in the car with him at the end seemed wholly unearned. Unless you totally buy into the notion that she's just out to commit suicide-by-supervillain at this point, which is another plot thread I don't think has been earned.

Meanwhile, the story back at HQ felt like a few minutes of content uncomfortably stretched to fill half an episode. May's decay into mad hallucinations was not as gradual as I'd been expecting... which is fine, except that it was so rapid that it really seems like it shouldn't have taken so long for the other characters to notice.

And then the rest of the HQ plot felt like so much tap dancing to stall until the big reveal: the new director is an Inhuman. That itself does feel like an interesting development, but one with a short shelf life. Coulson's logic for voluntarily stepping down seems like it tracks, but the idea of wasting someone like that in management, in a desk job, seems silly. I mean, they say in the episode that they would have wanted Captain America for the job, had he not vanished off the grid. Think about that for a moment, Captain America riding a desk and demanding TPS reports from his minions all day. Nope.

As for the most tantalizing (to me) thread from the premiere -- the robots and Fitz's pledge to keep them secret from Simmons -- we got nothing at all this week.

The pithy dialogue that the show is known for was still there in small doses to sustain me, but I was otherwise much less engaged by this hour than the previous one. I give it a B-.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tanks a Lot

I've found that it's a bit of a weird experience to listen to a podcast when you know the people making it. I've learned this listening to Rocky Mountain Geek Tank, hosted by Guy S. Davis and C. Troy Fluhr.

I've known Guy for -- oh my -- approaching three decades here, and his podcast unspools like countless conversations I've had with him over those years. It's just that this time, I'm not actually part of the conversation. Which is particularly odd, as one-sided conversations are definitely not what my friend (or this podcast) does.

In each episode of Rocky Mountain Geek Tank, Guy and Troy (sometimes with a guest) ping-pong about a different subject with some geeky slant. It's never an adversarial dialogue; Guy and Troy don't generally seek to persuade their audience (or each other) of a particular viewpoint. More generally, they try to explore all around a subject -- as thoroughly as they can in 40-ish minutes. But just because the show isn't adversarial doesn't mean it can't be provocative. The best episodes are, in fact -- delving into more spiky subjects like misogyny in media, "fan entitlement," or tone deaf convention panels.

I'm also learning that even weirder than listening to a podcast featuring people I know is reviewing something here on the blog made by people I know. That's because this is normally the part of my review where I start ticking off good things and not-so-good things about whatever it is I'm reviewing. It's odd in this case because I could actually say to my friend, "I really love this!" or "Have you ever considered changing this?" You know, privately, in a discussion, rather than starting another one-sided "conversation." But then, this is a longtime friend I enjoy talking to, and the podcast is like eavesdropping on a conversation with him. In short, there's not much here I don't enjoy.

In fact, my only complaints really just have to do with wanting to hear more of those conversations. First, the fact that the podcast is recorded in public settings means that ambient noise can sometimes muddle what people are saying. Second, accessing the podcast's back catalog could be easier. Most of it is available only through the Geek Tank's web site, and can't be downloaded or accessed with my podcast app. And lastly, that catalog only goes back so far in any case, because while RMGT started out as a "weekly" podcast, its release schedule has become more irregular and sparse since. (Not that I'm unsympathetic about producing free content on a schedule for a tiny but thirsty audience....)

If you're into geeky things (and I know you are if you're at this blog), then I'd encourage you to check out this podcast. Don't get tripped up on the "Rocky Mountain" part of Rocky Mountain Geek Tank if you aren't a Colorado local; geekiness comes in many flavors, and certainly isn't bound by geography.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Good Gods

For years, I'd been intending to read something by Neil Gaiman, but it was only recently that I finally got around to it. The selection was his novel American Gods, a choice spurred on by the forthcoming TV adaptation (co-created by Bryan Fuller), and the rave reviews the book received from my husband.

American Gods is the story of ex-convict Shadow, whose life is upended when he comes into contact with actual gods. These beings exist and have power because humans believe in them. But the power of older, traditional gods -- brought to America by immigrants -- is waning as new idols of technology are on the rise. Shadow finds himself in the employ of one god in particular, and caught in the middle of a power struggle between old and new.

Even as my husband praised this book, he predicted I wouldn't like it very much. He was right in that I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as him, and it took me quite a while to get through it. Nevertheless, there were things here that did appeal to me.

Gaiman definitely has a way with words. His writing is endlessly clever, from the turns of phrase he conjures to the fun conceits of many of his scenes. He's also top notch at characterization, whether letting you inside the head of his principle character, or painting a vivid supporting character in a single chapter. These two strengths work together time and time again throughout this novel, and a pantheon of gods is the perfect showcase.

Just when you think you've read the best scene (or you've met the best character) of the book, along will come another. There are Slavic gods, Norse gods, Egyptian gods, figures from American folklore, each with their own well-thought-out perspective on the world. There's the temptress goddess media, reaching out to Shadow as television characters. There's the god who immediately fades from human memory, and the slick writing Gaiman uses to portray this. There's the wily Mr. Wednesday, so vivid on the page that you can only imagine exactly the actor they wound up casting to play him, Ian McShane.

Yes, as a string of "episodes," if you will, American Gods is quite simply brilliant. (And one hopes that means it will make a brilliant television series.) As an overall story? Well, this is indeed where I didn't like the book very much. The notion of a conflict between old and new gods is an unabashed Macguffin, a Christmas tree to be decorated with shiny ornaments. Whole chapters go by without advancing the story at all; it's just Shadow in some self-contained situation involving some other god. Things move glacially toward a resolution that's rather anticlimactic. And it's surely not helped by the fact that the version of the book now most readily available is the revised edition, in which Gaiman restored 12,000 words his editor made him cut from the original.

I come out of American Gods with a healthy respect for Neil Gaiman as a writer, but a skeptical view of him as a storyteller. Usually, when the scales are balanced like that, my overall opinion of a book is negative. In this case, though, the writing itself is so smart that I'd have to grade the book a B. I will probably give Gaiman another chance at some point down the line. But it probably won't be until the right recommendation comes along.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Music from the Beyond

With Star Trek Beyond, many of the key figures behind the previous two films stepped aside -- J.J. Abrams handed off directing duties to Justin Lin, while Simon Pegg and Doug Jung took over writing the script from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. But one key off-screen piece of the reboot franchise remained in place: composer Michael Giacchino.

Although the Star Trek Beyond score is peppered with themes Giacchino created for the two prior Star Trek films, it's also a very different score in many subtle ways. In particular, I wonder if the experience of scoring Jurassic World (and there utilizing the melodies written by John Williams for the original film) rubbed off a little. Of course, Williams has always been an influence for Giacchino. (How could he not be?) But the connections feel more explicit to me in the Star Trek Beyond score than ever before.

Mind you, Michael Giacchino is still his own man. His track titles are still pun-tastic. Tracks like "Krall-y Krall-y Oxen Free" and "Shutdown Happens" feature phrases of his signature style from the TV series Lost -- frightened strings, descending brass groans, and thunderous timpani. He continues to write moving concertos that showcase his emotional melodies, as in "Thank Your Lucky Star Date" and "A Lesson in Vulcan Mineralogy."

But throughout this score are little bursts that sound like pure John Williams. "A Swarm Reception" has an inexorable two-note pulse on low strings that briefly evokes Jaws. The use of trumpet in "Thank Your Lucky Star Date" might make you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The whirling flutes of "Crash Decisions," and the woodwind sections in "Par-tay for the Course," are reminiscent of Star Wars.

It's this last connection that's particularly interesting for a movie score enthusiast like myself. The upcoming stand alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One, is going to be the first of the franchise not to have a John Williams score. And though it had been originally announced that Alexandre Desplat would be the man behind the music, he recently had to step aside. His replacement? None other than Michael Giacchino. So perhaps Star Trek Beyond gives us a little taste of what might be in store.

Until then, I can enjoy the many highlights from this score. "The Dance of the Nebula" is an uneasy, bell-like melody on top of sinister orchestral accompaniment. The theme for the new character Jaylah is driven by a primitive sounding percussion that's sometimes a wild frenzy ("Jaylah Damage") and other times a controlled fury ("Mocking Jaylah"). There are all-out action cues (the staccato xylophones of "Hitting the Saucer a Little Hard" and blasting horns of "MotorCycles of Relief"). There are more contemplative tracks (the classic Star Trek use of solo soprano on "In Artifacts as in Life", or the sense of invention in the free time "Franklin, My Dear").

I'd say that overall, this isn't quite as strong a score as Giacchino's two previous Star Trek efforts. Nevertheless, there's plenty to like here, and more than enough to make it a good addition to my collection. I give the Star Trek Beyond soundtrack a B+.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Foot Notes

The saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction. Documentary films often set out to demonstrate this, but rarely find a subject that proves the point better than Finders Keepers.

Finders Keepers is the story of a custody battle over a human leg. The saga begins when John Wood is in a serious plane crash that kills his father and results in his own leg being amputated at the knee. Through a turn of events best left for the film to detail, he keeps his own severed limb... but stashes it in a storage unit and subsequently fails to pay the bill. When Shannon Whisnant buys the contents at auction, he acquires the foot, and is determined to ride it to his 15 minutes of fame. A legal battle over the severed limb ensues.

This is ultimately a movie about people with a serious void in their lives needing to be filled. For Wood, it's the loss of his father -- a void he initially tries to fill with alcohol. For Whisnant, it's the need to be somebody, to have the world see him as the brilliant entrepreneur he sees himself when looking in the mirror. So the documentary is in some ways a meditation on all these serious matters -- alcoholism, grief, inferiority complexes, longing.

But you really have to read a lot of this into the film yourself, between the lines. You have to open yourself to the possibility of feeling sorry for these people. And neither the situation nor the way the film presents it make it easy to feel that way. It's far easier to point and laugh at the Carolina rednecks, and feel superior from the comfort of your couch.

Yes, the documentary features lots of interviews with the families of Wood and Whisnant, and tries to show how these men are tearing things apart through their actions. But it spends just as much time showing footage of snickering newscasters covering the story, talk show hosts seizing at the chance to fill an episode's time, and generally presenting the sideshow aspect of the tale.

It's an intriguing story, but perhaps no more so in a deep dive than it is just to hear in summary. I give Finders Keepers a C. It's a sometimes fun diversion, but also a bit of a missed opportunity to say something more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Ghost

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off its new season last night with a tightly packed hour setting the stage for stories to come. It put a lot of intriguing elements into play.

All the marketing has been focused on the arrival of Ghost Rider, something that meant little and less to me going into the episode. I've never read a Ghost Rider comic, nor have I seen the Nicholas Cage film incarnations. (In the latter case, at least, I'm pretty sure that's a good thing.) About all I knew was that he was a character with a flaming head and a motorcycle... and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway, half of that information turned out to be wrong.

Interestingly, Ghost Rider felt to me like the least essential element of the episode, story-wise. Not that he wasn't interesting (because he mostly was), and not that there isn't plenty they could do with him (because there definitely is). But the story involving him felt like it came to a partial close -- as in, Daisy seemed to come to a decision about him in the end, and so it felt like we could easily go several episodes without seeing him again.

Tonally, however, Ghost Rider was the episode -- a transforming power on the series itself. The vibe I got from him was that he'd be more at home on a Netflix Marvel series than on ABC; he's a dark and disturbed character whose world is filled with violence and death. And it felt like he pulled the needle in that direction for the whole show. I can't recall a scene of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. more gory than the opening, nor a visual effect more crafted to be legitimately scary than his flaming skull.

But then, the other stories involving our familiar characters were equally dark. I was concerned with the tease at the end of season three that the show was (even more than usual) setting up to be the Daisy Hour, but we saw plenty of everyone else, having settled into a rather unhappy, certainly uncomfortable new norm at their jobs. The specter of the new agency director hung over everything -- and we cleverly didn't even get to meet him this week.

I like how the characters were all fractured and separated from each other. The tighter the pairing, the more intriguing it is. So having Fitz and Simmons still as a couple, but putting her in a position of authority over him on the job is a big deal. Then, sailing into that storm, is Radcliffe, whose android experiments now force Fitz to hide something from Simmons. Instantly, you have for me the most interesting ongoing story line of the new season.

But the fracturing of Coulson and May is nearly as intriguing to me. It started as merely physical separation, as the two people who trust each other most are split apart -- one in the field, and one relegated to training other agents. That didn't stop them from working together... but May becoming infected by whatever the Crazy Vision Making Ghost Woman Thing is is surely going to. May's a great choice for this plot development, as she's the character most able to "keep it together." I feel like for almost anyone else, it would be hard to justify the character not instantly going crazy like the villainous redshirts of this first episode. May might be able to hold out for a while, generating some tension along the way.

Pretty much the one thing I wasn't drawn in by in this first episode was some of the over-the-top GoPro-style photography peppered throughout (May's sparring session, Ghost Rider's trunk closing). Flashy, too big a break in style, not justified by any narrative or emotional throughline... it was just "look, a new toy!"

Overall? Season 4, color me intrigued. I give the premiere episode a B+.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bloody Vikings

There are some board games that only grow in my esteem the more I think about them. Then there are games that go the other way. Vikings on Board is an unfortunate case of the latter.

In Vikings on Board, players vie for control of a series of departing ships. Each ship begins the game as a bow and three segments, and will sail at the end of the round in which a stern is attached. The three segments each provide control pips to one of the players: 1, 2, or 3 pips for the player color. Control of the ship goes to the player with the most total pips (with ties being broken in favor of who is frontmost). That control pays off as good tiles are added to the ships throughout the game. The controller of a sailing ship gets to pick the good tile he wants to acquire, with second place getting second choice of the remainder, and so on. There are three types of goods in the game, and players can push which ones they want to be most valuable. The highest total score of goods on hand at the end of the game is the winner.

All of this is achieved through a worker placement system. There are a series of action spots available -- just one spot for each type of action. You can raise the value of a good, manipulate ship sections (within one ship, or from ship-to-ship), choose which ship will gain its stern this round, or bet points on which player you think will control a ship when it departs. Each of these actions is arrayed in an order that also determines worker placement order for the next round. More valuable actions will leave you placing late next round.

I had a lot of problems with this game... and found more the more I thought about it. My experience playing it was a sensation of uncontrollable chaos. I played a 4-player game, which gives everyone only two actions each round (of 11 available, one of which is only to pick first next round). Your opponents were out-actioning you 3-to-1, and it seemed impossible to me to engineer any situation that could help yourself that wouldn't be completely undone by everyone else. It was a game of screw your neighbor; the proudest moments of the game were when you did something that made an opponent's planned action worthless. As a 2-player game (or possibly even a 3-player game), the chaos might be manageable; with 4 players, all you could do was ensure that one player in particular would lose. You couldn't plan your own victory.

Shortly after the game, a friend compared it to Imhotep. It seemed like a fair comparison, and instantly lowered my opinion Vikings on Board another notch. Both games are playing in a space where you can't directly set up your own scoring potential at the same time you can actually cause scoring to happen. But Imhotep didn't have me feeling helpless as this game did. It feels to me like you get more opportunity to act in Imhotep, an easier visualization of how an opponents' choice could change things, and more of an opportunity to "get in on a little of everything" so as not to get shut out of anything.

Later still, I got to thinking about this game's theme, and my opinion dropped further still. I'm usually not one to care deeply about the theme of a game (sure, we're farmers/developers/whatever), but this is a case where the theme feels comically mismatched to the gameplay. The conventional image of Vikings is one of violence: pillaging and conquest. This is a game about loading ships on a dock and trying to control them when they leave port -- it's a game about colonial commerce, political intrigue, or some such. Vikings, it most certainly is not.

...except in one way, ultimately the one great element of the game. It has fantastic components, made of thick punch board pieces that assemble into hefty, fancy looking ship segments complete with dragon heads on the bow. You also get heavy duty coaster-like discs for holding your goods as you accumulate them throughout the game. The game looks great.

I'd consider trying Vikings on Board again just one-on-one. But considering how rarely I play 2-player games, that's tantamount to admitting I'll never play it again. Which would suit me fine. I give the game a D+.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been..."

For several years now, the Academy has nominated more than just five Best Picture contenders at each year's Oscars. But even in an expanded category, there will always be movies that wind up being thought of as the "almost made it"s. According to some critics, one of those from last year was Trumbo.

Trumbo is a film about the infamous 1950s "black list" of writers banned from working in Hollywood for their perceived communist sympathies. It centers in particular on Dalton Trumbo, portraying major events from his life throughout that decade: going to prison for contempt of Congress, finding a way to continue writing in secret, and fighting to end the political discrimination against him and his peers.

The film does a good job of taking history that could be made light of ("poor Hollywood writer couldn't win an Oscar with his name on it") and painting a broader picture for the audience ("actually, family man struggled to keep money coming in"). There's a vital, topical message here, as America never seems to tire of demonizing people with unpopular politics(/religious affiliations/general "otherness").

That said, while the film is solidly made, it does at times feel like it's ticking all the expected biopic boxes in rather workmanlike fashion. You can definitely recognize a few liberties taken with the story to fit the Hollywood script mold, and the emotions stirred sometimes feel manufactured. The facts themselves here are sometimes more powerful than this telling of them... at least on paper.

But elevating that script are several excellent performances. Bryan Cranston stars as Trumbo, and received an Oscar nomination for his work. I appreciate the naturalness of the performance; he delivers the chest-thumping message moments without it feeling like he's reaching out to the Academy voters with an open hand. (Though maybe if he had, he could have won?) There's also wry, thoughtful work here from Diane Lane, Louis C.K., and Alan Tudyk.

Then there are the actors clearly enjoying themselves. Popping up in smaller (but fun) roles are John Goodman, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Root, and Roger Bart. Doing great celebrity impressions are David James Elliott as John Wayne and Dean O'Gorman as Kirk Douglas. And Helen Mirren throws herself completely into playing one of the heels of the piece.

I can see how this was an "almost miss" for Best Picture, because even though I enjoyed it, I'd grade it about a B+. Still, that's plenty good enough for me to recommend it if you have any interest in the history, or simply in watching a great cast do its thing.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Whose Fault?

On a night when I was especially tired and in no mood for mentally taxing entertainment, I decided to watch last year's disaster film, San Andreas. Starring Dwayne Johnson (and, incongruously, Paul Giamatti -- though the two are never on screen together), this is straightforward destruct-otainment.

I'd like to think my expectations were pretty well calibrated going in. I knew the narrative was going to be implausible and threadbare. (It was.) I knew the dialogue would be hokey and terrible. (It was.) I knew they'd fall out of the figurative tree, hitting every cliche branch on the way down. (They did.) So I don't think I'm going to spend time detailing the ways in which the movie disappointed on all those counts.

Where I do think the movie deserves criticism is in failing to do the things it should have done well. The visual effects, by and large, are surprisingly terrible. Buildings don't fall convincingly, floods don't rage believably, and actors don't look like they're actually in the space of their surroundings. This is the meat-and-potatoes of this kind of film, and it all looks much cheaper than it surely cost to produce. It's also cut in a confusing manner, often making it hard to follow what's going on and who it's happening to.

It didn't have to be this way, as evidenced by the handful of moments in this very film that were filmed practically. Vehicles shake on gimbals, tossing their occupants about in harrowing ways. An extended underwater sequence in the climax is legitimately impressive. And of course, there's the biggest practical effect of all: actors who are really going for it. It's not Shakespeare, but there is a skill to selling this stuff. Dwayne Johnson, Paul Giamatti, Carlo Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and Art Parkinson ply it well enough.

Still, the movie ultimate falls in a valley somewhere between "actually good" and "so bad it's good." There's little inspiration behind the wanton destruction here; it's exactly what you'd expect, and maybe even a bit less. With better options even in the "mindless disaster" subgenre, I can only give San Andreas a D.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Perfect Podcast

I'm rather a Supreme Court junkie, as longtime readers might know from some book reviews I've posted over the years. I've recently taken that interest to another media, discovering the podcast More Perfect.

More Perfect is actually a spin-off of another podcast, Radiolab (which I have yet to check out). It's currently running what's billed as a seven episode "season one," so for now I think of it just as a mini-series (and I'm squirreling away the episodes to enjoy slowly). Still, it's a compelling series, each episode a rather deep dive into a case or issue handled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I imagine it must be quite a trick to balance the storytelling here. They have to make dense legal cases digestible for a wider audience. But they surely don't want to dumb things down too much for their legal-loving core listeners. They have to educate on a wide variety of topics as they move from case to case. More Perfect deftly juggles all these sometimes competing interests.

I will admit that the editing style sometimes jars me just a bit. The narrator interjects a bit too much for my tastes; in the setting up of a story, he often jumps in with needless shoe leather any time an interview subject pauses for a breath. Still, once the figurative table is set, the reporting itself is excellent, covering every aspect of each case.

Thus far, I've listened to episodes tackling the death penalty, the case that Chief Justice Earl Warren called the most important of his tenure (Baker v. Carr, an expansion of judicial ability to intercede in historically legislative matters), and the surprising legal quagmire behind the unusually titled "Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl." I actually had at least passing familiarity with all three of these before listening to the podcast, but came out of each episode knowing a lot more than I did before.

I give More Perfect an A-. I certainly hope it develops into a regular series, or at least doesn't break long before coming back for a "season two." It's great for those interested in the Supreme Court, and a good way for U.S. voters who maybe don't think it's so important to challenge that thinking.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Horrific Act

The Act of Killing is perhaps not a widely known documentary. Among critics who have seen it, though, it has a sterling reputation (and an Oscar nomination and BAFTA win to go with it). I was curious to see what all the fuss was about... and found myself challenged by the results.

The documentary is a look back on mass killings perpetrated by a gangster/paramilitary group in 1960s Indonesia. Imagine if members of Hitler's inner circle -- Himmler, Göring, or Hess -- were alive half a century later to tell their story on film. That is The Act of Killing. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer focuses mainly on one man, Anwar Congo, who is thought to have personally killed over 1000 people. Oppenheimer gets Anwar to talk extensively about his experiences, and even to play director himself. The bulk of the documentary tracks Anwar as he films reenactments of his own deeds, portraying himself as a glamorous Hollywood gangster.

I'd like to think of myself as someone really willing to be confronted by a thoughtful piece of entertainment. Give me substance, not just cheap thrills. Well, there could hardly be a more Important Film than this... and I couldn't watch it.

Here was my reaction as I watched the movie. I found it repetitive, like a short subject stretched out endlessly to feature length. The same beat kept playing out over and over again: exposing this man Anwar as a horrifically callous individual. (And wouldn't you have to be?) My attention started to wander, until I ultimately fast-forwarded to the much talked about ending. (In which -- SPOILER -- Anwar actually begins to grow a conscience, breaking down and vomiting in horror as a tiny bit of what he has done finally begins to sink in.)

Afterward, I felt guilty about my reaction. How could I possibly view this documentary as a piece of "entertainment," and fault it for not engrossing me by some set of narrative rules? Isn't it enough that the movie's existence made me aware of historical atrocities of which I had little or no knowledge? That it now exists as an act of historical preservation, or to memorialize the victims? Isn't it enough that it made a true monster of a man begin to realize his monstrosity?

And yet, I couldn't watch all of this documentary that many have proclaimed as a modern masterpiece.

I think I'm going to forego giving a conventional grade on this one. But I do feel compelled to make more people aware of this movie's existence... and so here it is. The Act of Killing is horrific and incredible. Unbearable and necessary. I think I'm glad it exists, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. You'll have to decide for yourselves.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

TNG Flashback: Insurrection

Star Trek: Insurrection was a deliberate effort, on the heels of First Contact, at a lighter film. Unintentionally, it also ended up being a lesser film.

Data has malfunctioned while on assignment, and his friends on the Enterprise are determined to get to the bottom of it. They take the ship into a dangerous area of space known as the Briar Patch, where a Starfleet Admiral has been working with an alien species, the Son'a, to observe and relocate a small native population, the Ba'ku. When it's revealed that the Ba'ku planet is actually a "Fountain of Youth," Captain Picard leads his crew in open revolt of the Federation, who would violate its own sacred principles to exploit the discovery.

Of the four Next Generation feature films, Insurrection feels most to me like "just another episode." It doesn't quite feel like a movie, as it lacks the flashy Kirk crossover of Generations, the high stakes of First Contact, and the Frankensteined-from-other-Trek-movies plot of Nemesis. (But we'll get to that last one another time.) Many scenes are shot on Star Trek: Voyager's sets. It's also the shortest of all Star Trek movies to date, lending to it coming off like a two-part episode of the series itself.

Script writer Michael Piller had previously turned down the chance to write a script for Generations, as he disapproved of the "competition" with fellow writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga. Here, the decision was made not to separate Moore and Braga from their work on Deep Space Nine and Voyager (respectively), so Piller was made the sole offer here, and this time accepted.

I've blogged previously about Piller's book Fade In, in which he documented the creation of this story in fine detail. Thus, I'll focus more on the results here. And frankly, the opening seconds of the film encapsulate the biggest thing wrong with the movie. We start in "the Shire," for all intents and purposes, with kids playing in haystacks and citizens plying Renaissance Fair trades. I could question starting an "action" film with total inaction, or the incredibly small scale of the stakes relative to the previous two films. But I think the problem is much deeper: this feels anti-Star Trek to me.

These Ba'ku have utopia (well, their version of it), but they've rejected technology to get there, like Amish or Mennonites. Here in the 21st century, I think it's already a weird notion that a few centuries ago, humanity reached the perfect level of technology (no more, no less) to achieve happiness. It's all the more peculiar in the 24th century. And this isn't a matter of pacifism either, as the Federation held on to its technology, yet devoted itself to cooperation and culture all the same. Insurrection seems to espouse that a rejection of technology is the only path to true happiness, and Picard and company seem to lap it up, slapping the core of Star Trek in the face as they do it. Or maybe I just don't like camping enough to identify with all this?

Much of the story feels lifted from other sources. The Son'a might have been imagined after watching the movie Brazil. The duck blind cultural observation idea came from the episode "Who Watches the Watchers," while the relocation-by-holodeck plan came from "Homeward." The climax involves Picard racing to get to a console before the villain, exactly as in Generations. We get the overused "kid heading back into danger to get his pet" trope. And Picard's little mambo is literally from another movie -- it was composed by Alan Silvestri for Soapdish.

There's also a tremendous amount of inconsistency in the movie. The Fountain of Youth properties are said to be concentrated on the planet (so much so that it's why the Son'a have to destroy it to get what they want), yet the Enterprise crew starts being affected the moment they enter the Briar Patch. There doesn't seem to be much reason why Ru'afo wouldn't just attack the planet whether there are people on it or not -- and indeed that's what he ends up doing. Anij teaches Picard to slow down time and draw one moment out, which somehow non-sensically helps him save her life when she's dying of real-time internal injuries.

Then there's all the inconsistencies surrounding the character of Data. To grease the plot, his initial malfunction is quite selective in scope. He's such a threat that the Son'a call the Enterprise for help, but so "not a threat" at the end of the movie that Ru'afo dismisses him and falls for the holodeck trap. Data is now able to remove his emotion chip -- backtracking two movies in his emotional development and understanding of social graces -- just to facilitate a minor subplot with a local child and a handful of lame jokes.

On the other hand, the cast does mostly make a lot of what they're handed. While most of the Data jokes bomb (through no fault of Brent Spiner's), the Worf humor is pretty great (his refusal to sing, his second puberty, and more). LeVar Burton gets his best scene of the films as Geordi tearfully watches his first sunrise. Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes make so much of the flirtation between Riker and Troi that the next movie finally decided to just marry them already. (Frakes also directs well, making the most of extensive shooting on location -- and beautiful locations, at that.)

There are some nice moments with the guest cast. As Admiral Doughtery, Anthony Zerbe sells "disgust" with Ru'afo repeatedly, to great effect. Donna Murphy is a worthy love interest for Picard. (I particularly liked the moment where she gently shut down his "mansplaining" of holographic technology.) F. Murray Abraham chews the scenery with gusto as Ru'afo, and reportedly enjoyed it so much that he said in interviews that he could happily do nothing but Star Trek movies for the rest of his career.

Other observations:
  • This was the first Star Trek movie not to include a single scene on Earth. (And it remained the only one until Star Trek Beyond.)
  • Alright, silly question lightning round:
    • If the joystick (manual steering column) is so much easier to use for steering the ship, why isn't that the regular method for doing it?
    • Why does the Son'a face stretching machine have a "murder" setting?
    • Why is the Son'a captain's chair a love seat when there's no "co-captain" situation going on there?
    • Why does the big plan at the end only involve beaming the Son'a bridge crew off their ship and not every Son'a (or everyone, period) aboard?
    • How does an interstellar ship suddenly run out of air at the most (in)convenient moment?
  • This movie passes the "Bechdel test"... by including a moment in which Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi talk to each other about their boobs. Sigh.
  • In the climactic fight on board the Son'a collector, was the plan to put something on the bluescreen in the background and the money just ran out? It looks unfinished.
Star Trek: Insurrection has some good visuals, and the cast clearly cuts loose and comes to play. But the movie falters due to a lack of urgency and stakes, a plot that actually kind of craps on Star Trek ideals while claiming to stand up for them, and many weak jokes. I give it a C+

Monday, September 12, 2016


I've reviewed a fair number of board games here on the blog. Friends and longtime readers will know that I tend to prefer the more involved strategy games. I've written about some simpler games, and I often put them in a category of "filler" -- something you play when you don't have enough time for one of the deep thinking games. But occasionally, something fast and fun comes along that doesn't feel to me like a "second choice" on game night.

The latest for me in that category is a dexterity game called Dr. Eureka. Each player gets three plastic test tubes that start half full, each holding two small balls of a matching color -- pink, purple, and green. A deck of cards is shuffled, and then revealed one at a time. Each card is a puzzle, a particular configuration of the six total balls divvied up somehow across the three tubes. Players race to pour their balls from tube to tube, trying to be the first to match the card, shout "Eureka!", and score a point.

A few rules govern this frenzied race. You can never touch a ball directly with your fingers -- you can only pour from tube to tube. If any of your balls spill out onto the table, you're out of the round. If you're looking to up the difficulty (for one player, or all), you can require that you must hold all three of your test tubes simultaneously, only placing them on the table when you're ready to declare "Eureka!"

Each round takes only a few seconds to play. A "first to 5 points" game takes only 5 to 10 minutes. There's definitely no strategic itch being scratched here at all, but I felt that was to the game's advantage. This isn't watered-down Agricola, it's juiced-up Jenga.

I'd give Dr. Eureka a B+. It's the sort of game that you probably wouldn't spend a whole night playing, but that you could squeeze into every game night at some point if you wanted.

Friday, September 09, 2016

A Trip to the Zootopia

Walt Disney and Pixar seem to be linked -- and not just in the obvious way that the former is the parent company of the latter. While Pixar had slipped from its pinnacle of quality with Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, Walt Disney stepped up with the excellent Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. And when Pixar came roaring back with Inside Out, it was apparently Walt Disney's turn to fade a bit with Zootopia.

Well, just a bit.

The "in a world" pitch of Zootopia has civilized animals living together in an advanced society, setting aside traditional "predator" and "prey" roles... mostly. When Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit police officer in Zootopia, she finds herself butting up against prejudice in the system. But she's just the cop to get to the bottom of a string of disappearances in the city, working with an unlikely partner: con artist fox Nick Wilde.

Zootopia is actually a fine movie, lacking only in comparison to those excellent Disney movies that came before it. It's funny, but not quite as funny. It's meaningful, but not quite as powerful. It boasts some great visuals, but not quite as impressive.

One area in which the movie definitely does measure up is in its great voice casting. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman make a solid "buddy cop opposites" pairing as Judy and Nick. Big names have a lot of fun with not-so-big parts, like J.K. Simmons as Zootopia's lion mayor and Idris Elba as its buffalo chief of police. Disney "mascot" Alan Tudyk is here, of course, as are some other well-established voice-over artists like Maurice LaMarche and John DiMaggio.

I also credit the movie for aiming high. Zootopia dares to take on some pretty heady material for a kids' film. In a barely coded, incredibly direct way, the movie presents issues of xenophobia that are very current in the public eye. Through the lens of this "predator vs. prey" analogy, the movie actually portrays institutional racism, trailblazing through the glass ceiling, and cultures clashing in a big city.

I'd say that overall, Zootopia merits a solid B+. A fine showing in lesser company, but lacking that extra special something that Walt Disney has had over the past few years.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Before the Insurrection

With today being the 50th anniversary of Star Trek's original television airing, it seemed necessary to have a Star Trek themed post. As I'm still working my way through the Next Generation feature films, you might expect the post to be about Star Trek: Insurrection.

Not quite. Part of my reviews (first of The Next Generation episodes, and now of the movies) has been digging around for interviews given by the people involved, trying to get insight into what they were thinking, and how they feel the finished product turned out. And as I dug into the next movie, Star Trek: Insurrection, I found a particularly interesting source.

Insurrection was scripted by series show runner Michael Piller (writing a story that he and producer Rick Berman hashed out). Shortly after the film was released, Piller decided to chronicle the process of writing it in a memoir: "Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft, The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection." But reportedly, Paramount stepped in to stop publication of the book. (Perhaps because the film hadn't turned out great, and the studio didn't like the idea of airing the dirty laundry?) That was the end of it...

...until Piller passed away in 2005. He was said to have regarded the book as "his last great gift to the fans and to aspiring writers everywhere." And if it was not to be sold for profit, the fans would see to it that it was distributed for free. Fade In is now easily available on the internet, and I downloaded a copy to get the story behind the story.

First, let me say that I'm not wholly convinced of Fade In's value to writers in general. Piller does have a few insights into the creative process -- separating the creative self from the judging self, adapting to the realities of a production budget, and so forth. But I'm not sure how useful a tool this would be to a prospective screenwriter, for a reason Piller himself acknowledges early on: for this movie, Piller had knowledge that few writers have. He knew that his script would be produced. (This was another case of a movie's release date preceding its actual creation.) Fade In lets you in behind the curtain, but I just don't know if there are many lessons to be brought back from there.

For Star Trek fans, however, the book is considerably more interesting. Piller lays out every step of writing this script, from the moment he first had the "Fountain of Youth" idea to the post-test screening revisions to inject a little more action in the ending. The detail he provides is so incredible that you get a perfect picture of how Insurrection ended up the way it did, exactly how the road (to hell?) was paved (with good intentions?). I'll save my analysis of the end result for my forthcoming movie review post. But in anticipation of that, I can say that this book really highlights how one core idea can slowly be chipped away until it's hopelessly compromised.

According to Piller, they were really looking for a tonal shift after the more intense Generations and First Contact. Specifically, they wanted their own Star Trek IV (aka "the one with the whales"), a light-hearted tale where they didn't even fire weapons. But they compromised even that notion right out of the gate, with Piller noting that of course, there would have to be more conventional action in this movie.

Piller hit on the idea to do a Fountain of Youth story, but Rick Berman was convinced that Patrick Stewart would hate it and refuse to sign on to the movie. Berman assumed that actor vanity would make Stewart recoil, that the story might be read as saying that only by becoming young again could Picard be heroic. So together, Piller and Berman developed an idea they called "Heart of Lightness" -- a take on Joseph Conrad's famous book Heart of Darkness (and origin of the movie Apocalypse Now). They wanted to position a malfunctioning Data as the Colonel Kurtz of the piece, whom Picard would have to hunt down.

All of these ideas were eroded over months of rewriting. Patrick Stewart didn't think Trek fans would stand for not seeing Data for half the movie. Brent Spiner didn't want Data to be malfunctioning/compromised for the third movie in a row. But rather than removing the Kurtz idea entirely, Piller condensed it into a fairly meaningless first act subplot in the finished film.

Patrick Stewart loved the Fountain of Youth concept after all... but he didn't want Picard to be shown as too weary before encountering it. This wasn't vanity, but came out of concern that Picard had been too brooding and tormented in the last two movies, and that here he should be lighter. Without time to come up with a new character arc for Picard, Piller basically gutted the story in response. In the finished film, Picard is hardly changed by his experiences because he didn't have far to go at the outset of the story.

Piller felt that it was really important to play up the family dynamic within the crew. They'd been together so long, and that would really provide emotional context to them all banding together to stand in defiance of the Federation. Patrick Stewart felt that the family elements were more appropriate to the TV series, and that the movie really couldn't afford to get bogged down in all that and still feel like a movie. Which explains why the finished film has several injected action scenes and very few meaningful character moments.

At every step along the way, you can understand the objections raised to the direction of the story. You can see how the lack of time before the cameras would role necessitated a quick answer. You can understand how Piller never had the chance to take a step back and ask, "wait, why are we still doing this Colonel Kurtz thing?" "What's the real arc for the characters here?" "Are there ways to get a few more moments like Geordi and the sunrise in here without slowing the pace?" You come to understand exactly how Insurrection took its finished form -- that form being a disappointing, compromised Star Trek movie.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fade In is that Michael Piller doesn't apologize for any of it, or even defend any of it. He's very aware of the mixed reception of the movie, but the book was written so soon after its release that perhaps he didn't know at the time just how low most Star Trek fans would come to regard it. Fade In is a quite straightforward look at what happened, making it an interesting read for fans. I give it a B. My regard for the book is in fact higher than that of the movie... which I'll be getting to soon enough.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Aw, Hail!

Readers familiar with my tepid-at-best response to most Coen Brothers movies should get the salt shaker ready. You might want a grain or two to accompany my thoughts on their latest effort: Hail, Caesar!

If it had been released in November rather than February, you might expect Hail, Caesar! to be in the Oscar conversation. It is, after all, what Hollywood loves best: a movie about the movies! Set in the early 1950s, the movie follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix as he wrangles stars, buries scandals, and keeps everything running smoothly. His latest challenge comes when a group of communists abducts the star of the studio's new epic and holds him for ransom.

There are a lot of sequences in this movie that really entertain, pure love letters to a style of movie-making long gone. Scarlett Johansson performs an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style aquatic ballet. Channing Tatum gives an extended song and tap routine that would make Gene Kelly proud. Alden Ehrenreich performs preposterous cowboy stunts, and then even more hilariously fumbles through an attempt at serious dramatic acting. There's savvy historical commentary too, as the movie skewers the notion that Hollywood writers, living in fear of being blacklisted, could ever actually be a credible threat on behalf of communism.

Of course, half of Hollywood (or more) would be eager to line up just for a half dozen lines in a Coen Brothers movie. So Hail, Caesar! has a stacked cast, including (besides those I named above) Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Clancy Brown, Robert Picardo, Michael Gambon, and more. That they're all clearly have fun makes the movie's best scenes work.

But in the way of so many Coen Brothers movies (in my eyes), the best parts of the movie aren't what the movie is really about. The fixer is the least compelling character in this tale. The script seems to know it too, as only around half the run time is devoted to his narrative. When the movie follows the plot, it does so half-heartedly, and immediately drags the momentum down. Then the next one-off set piece arrives to breathe new life into the movie, and the cycle repeats.

Hail, Caesar! ultimately feels to me like a series of sketches that work, contained within a story that really doesn't. If you're a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood (or of the Coens), then you're sure to enjoy it. I, as usual, had more of a love-hate reaction to the movie. I'd give it a C- overall.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Carbon Copy Castles

Stefan Feld is one of my favorite board game designers. He has more than 20 games to his name, with a wide range of themes and mechanics. I'd be hard-pressed to pick a "favorite," but one that would certainly be a contender is The Castles of Burgundy. So I was more than willing to try Feld's newest game, an adaptation of that past success -- The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game.

Just as in the progenitor game, players in the CoB: Card Game are developing their estates in the Loire Valley. You must weigh the importance of taking certain actions before your opponents can get to them, prioritize your focus on certain types of development (while minimizing others), and look for ways to mitigate any bad luck that comes your way.

If that all sounds vague, or applicable to any Eurogame, it's because I can't get into a detailed description of this card game that doesn't come off sounding exactly like the original board game. This isn't a Puerto Rico vs. San Juan situation, where similar ideas have been rendered in slightly different ways. Like Caylus and its spin-off card game, the CoB: Card Game is trying its utmost to be a one-for-one conversion of its parent.

It's thus easier to talk about what's different. And while you could probably get into a longer list of minor differences, the major difference boils down to this: the dice of the original are printed on the cards in this adaptation. On each of your turns, you must discard a card for its printed die value (ignoring its other attributes) to turn around and use that "roll" for an action that's incredibly like the original Castles of Burgundy.

I'll just come right to the point: the whole experience really just made me want to play The Castles of Burgundy again. It's been quite some time, and I'd sort of forgotten how much I liked that game. The Card Game was close enough to remind me of that, and yet didn't feel like it scratched the same strategic itch. It was probably faster than the original (slightly), if that's a point in its favor for you. But it's not especially more compact -- you need to spread cards over a wide area to play. The strategy is not especially easier, as the card game has tried to preserve as many of the same decision points as it can. It's substantially the same thing, just on cards.

As a result, what Stefan Feld has done here intrigues me more as a game designer than it satisfies me as a gamer. He's adapted his own work to a new medium, impressively preserving almost everything about it. But I already have this game. And from a designer who has showcased such variety, that's a bit of a disappointment. I'd give the awkwardly titled The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game a B-. If you've never played the original, this might wow you. But then, the original is still available. You should just play it instead.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Having not long ago finished watching and reviewing every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I took interest when I heard about a podcast doing the same thing: The Greatest Generation. From their very first episode, it was abundantly clear that the podcast was seeking to strike a very different tone.

The Greatest Generation is hosted by Adam Pranica and Ben Harrison, who bill themselves as "two guys who are a bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast." It's abundantly clear that they love Star Trek (The Next Generation in particular), but they're not, shall we say, out-and-proud and ready to fly their geek flag. They loved the show as kids and are now mostly watching it for the first time since then, recapping and reviewing one Next Generation episode in each episode of their podcast.

Any embarrassment they feel channels into humor, which gives us all a reason to listen. At first, it seems like it might be humor along the lines of "I'm trying to be too cool for this, so I'm going to poke fun." But then, the first season of the series has a lot of average-at-best episodes in it, as I myself noted when I reviewed them (and any objective fan would agree). The podcast's humor very quickly proves to be coming from a place of "because I love you, I can point out the big booger hanging out of your nose."

And it's laugh out loud hilarious in almost every episode... if you're open to R-rated humor, and willing to come at the show with a little bit of irreverence. Some running gags, like the repeated references to Commander Riker's ponderous holodeck porn collection, don't push too far past the jokes you've probably made yourself. Others, like the ongoing insinuation that Picard is pursuing an untoward relationship with Wesley Crusher, might make you groan (but also maybe smile). But the whole concoction quickly reached a point for me where I was looking forward to each new episode -- the hosts' quips, their sidetracks, their beef with another Star Trek podcast, and their awarding of each episode's "Drunk Shimoda" award (bestowed upon the character who behaves must drunkenly/irrationally/hilariously, named in honor of the assistant chief engineer from "The Naked Now").

Even after I'd decided I was into the podcast, I didn't want to blog about it. As the hosts themselves acknowledged in their own show, it was possible that the humor was only possible when the episodes were less than great. I wanted to get to some quality episodes of The Next Generation and see if they could still bring the funny without clawing apart work that didn't deserve it. It turns out, they were kinder than I was to a handful of first season episodes. And when I listened to their episode about "The Measure of a Man," I knew it was time to talk about them. There were still plenty of great jokes, plus a few good "hey, but what about?" moments -- all while acknowledging this wasn't just great Star Trek, it was great television, period.

So I'm giving an A to The Greatest Generation. Whether you're a casual Star Trek fan or know each episode backward and forward, it's sure to entertain you.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Something Special

Though writer-director Jeff Nichols has released only four movies to date (with a fifth coming soon), there are a number of critics who already heap lavish praise upon him. I'd never seen any of those films until recently, when I caught his latest, Midnight Special.

Midnight Special is the story of Alton Meyer, an unusual 8-year-old boy with powerful mental abilities. His biological father Roy has taken Alton back from the religious cult that made a him a figurehead, and is now rushing to get the boy to a set of geographic coordinates by a specific time, where... something will happen. Assisting Roy is his good friend Lucas and the boy's mother Sarah. But stacked against them all are the pursuing cult members and the US government, all after Alton for reasons of their own.

This is a moody film -- sometimes sullen, sometimes uplifting, but always deep in the weeds of some emotion or another. As a director, Nichols frames shots to heighten this, with stark contrasts of light and darkness, uncomfortable close-ups, and more. There are only intermittent moments of spectacle in the film, but it is nevertheless a very visual film throughout.

The movie does little to explain itself. Exposition is sparse, and the movie begins with the action already past a point of no return: Alton, Roy, and Lucas are all on the run. You must be patient and accept some confusion as the story very slowly explains itself. For the most part, I think this is a decision that serves the movie well. The mystery of "what's going on?" is a compelling one, and you're immediately drawn in, wanting to know the answers.

Where I have reservations about the film is how it's similarly inscrutable when it comes to the characters. It's sort of an answer that Alton is special, and further that his parents want to help him because he's their son. But how did they become embroiled in a cult in the first place? What was the falling out between the parents? You never get an answer to such questions, and so the motivations of the characters are sometimes just as opaque as the narrative.

But helping this is an excellent cast of committed actors. You can never really find a moment where the things people do makes seems wrong, even if you can't quite understand why they're doing them. Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver are all compelling forces in the film. And child actor Jaeden Lieberher is profoundly creepy, strangely adult and measured in a way that totally sells the science-fiction elements of the story.

I wouldn't praise Midnight Special as highly as some critics have. Nevertheless, I'd grade it a B+. Movies like it don't come along too often. (Indeed, the movie most like it -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- is almost 40 years old.) So you may want to check it out now that it's here.