Friday, October 28, 2016

A Matter of Supreme Importance

I rarely get into politics here on the blog. But it seems like every time a U.S. presidential election comes around, my resolve finally erodes at some point and I allow myself one political post. Well, this is it. And here's the twist: I'm not here to advocate for my preferred candidate. Instead, I'm asking you to consider a particular factor in your voting.

Polls show that most Americans are unaware of what goes on at the Supreme Court. Most can't name even one of the Justices. The composition of the Court barely rates as a factor in voting. This boggles my mind.

The judiciary, of course, is supposed to be fair and impartial. But it's ridiculous to pretend the Supreme Court can be. The cases that make it all the way up through the legal process to the Supreme Court, by definition, can't be decided by clear, existing law. Cases land at the Supreme Court because this law says one thing and that law says another. They land there because a judge in Texas said one thing and a judge in California said the opposite. They land there because the actions of a Congress or a President have trampled over the rights of a minority, and the Supreme Court is the only place that can hold them accountable. A Supreme Court case is almost always going to require a values judgment, so it's important to think about the values of the Court's justices.

This election's impact on the Supreme Court is not hypothetical. There is a vacant seat. It matters who fills it, because about one out of every five cases the Court hears is decided by a 5-4 vote. In most of those cases, the current eight justices split along predictable ideological lines: Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan routinely support liberal arguments, while Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy routinely support conservative arguments. The person who takes that ninth seat is going to break ties in the most politically charged cases of all. That person will be either a conservative-leaning choice (nominated by Donald Trump) or a liberal-leaning choice (nominated by Hillary Clinton; or Obama's very-slightly-left-of-center selection of Merrick Garland).

Say what you will about voting third party on other issues... for deeply felt principle, as a simple show of frustration, or as a stand for the future. But on this issue, right now, in this election, a third party vote is a vote that completely ignores the Supreme Court. Neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein (nor anyone else) will be nominating the next Supreme Court justice. The election of either Clinton or Trump will decide the next direction of the Supreme Court. If you're not voting for one of them, then the Supreme Court isn't a priority for you. Of course, that's your prerogative. But consider this:

When the Supreme Court makes a decision, it's built to last. When it upheld segregation as legal, it took 58 years to reverse the decision. You're almost certainly aware of your Miranda rights, for which you can thank a 50-year-old Supreme Court decision that to this day regulates many ways in which the police can question a suspect. The right to abortion exists -- somewhat abridged, but still largely there after decades of legal challenges -- because of what 7 men decided in 1973. This is the power that a Supreme Court justice wields. And in my lifetime, the average length of time they wield it has risen to 26 years, more than 3 times as long as the term limit on the president who appointed them. The possibility of change at the Supreme Court comes around infrequently, only in the event of retirement or (as in this moment) death.

Now consider some of the major cases from recent years, cases that were decided by just a one justice margin. Imagine the alternative outcomes with just a single changed vote.
  • Citizens United v. FEC: A conservative decision lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations, stating that such limitations violated free speech rights. The liberal dissent argued that corporations should not have the same free speech rights as individuals.
  • Shelby County v. Holder: A conservative decision eliminated federal supervision of voting laws, declaring it a 40-year-old policy no longer appropriate in the present day. The liberal dissent argued that federal oversight should have continued in states with a history of racially biased policies.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges: A conservative dissent would have left it up to public vote to determine whether same-sex marriage would be allowed. The liberal decision declared that the Constitution's guarantee of equal rights included the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.
  • DC v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago: Two conservative rulings declared that bans on classifications of firearms are forbidden by the Second Amendment. The liberal dissents argued that the right to bear arms had previously been defined in the context of militia activity, and that certain limitations on individual gun ownership aren't inherently forbidden by the Constitution.
  • National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius: A conservative dissent would have voided the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), arguing that the government can't force you to purchase something you don't want (in this case, health insurance). The liberal ruling construed the penalty for not having health insurance as a tax, not a forced purchase.
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: A conservative ruling allowed the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom to be invoked by a corporation, letting it opt out of laws by voicing a religious objection. The liberal dissent argued that this curtailed the religious freedoms of the individual, whose own religious wishes should not be subservient to those of an employer.
This is just a small taste of the highly charged 5-4 cases of recent years. And that's not even getting into the 5-4 issues likely to reach the court in the years to come: the extent to which freedom of religion can exempt people from laws, further conflicts involving election integrity vs. voter suppression, LGBT rights against discrimination, and more.

You may not always side with the conservative view or the liberal view in all these examples. But almost certainly, one or more of these issues is particularly important to you, and you have a very strong opinion on how the Supreme Court should rule. You should seriously consider voting with that in mind.

Take a moment to consider how some of these issues might tip at a Supreme Court with a new conservative Trump justice, or a new liberal Clinton justice. Consider how many more decisions such a justice might make over a decades-long career. Think about how those decisions might still control American lives 40, 50, 60 years from now. Your choice for president (and for the senator who will vote to confirm a Supreme Court nomination) is the only chance you'll get to influence this in any way.

Be sure you're happy with how you use (or choose not to use) that chance.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Perfect Murder?

I can't imagine many situations in which I'd jump into book seven of an open-ended series, without reading any of the preceding volumes or having any intention to read the ones to follow. But Free Fire, by C.J. Box, is an odd book. Well, it's built on an odd premise, anyway: the "Yellowstone Zone of Death."

In 2004, MSU law professor Brian Kalt published an article suggesting there might be a legal no-man's land in Yellowstone National Park where someone could get away with murder. Follow me here into the legal weeds:

Like all national parks, Yellowstone is federal land. The Act of Congress that created Yellowstone assigned that land exclusively to Wyoming's federal district, though in actuality, there are tiny slivers of the park that fall in the states of Idaho and Montana. The Constitution requires that in a federal criminal trial involving a jury, the jurors reside in the state and district where the crime was committed.

So say someone commits a murder in the 50-square mile slice of Yellowstone that's in Idaho. The murderer is entitled to a jury trial, with jurors who live in the state of Idaho and the district of Wyoming. In other words, jurors from that exact 50-square mile slice of Yellowstone National Park. That completely uninhabited slice. No residents, no jury. No jury, no conviction.

Professor Kalt's article almost could have been written for author C.J. Box. Box already had a running mystery-thriller series built around a character named Joe Pickett -- a Wyoming game warden. The "Yellowstone Zone of Death" was the perfect inspiration for the next Joe Pickett adventure.

Free Fire is an unusual whodunnit, as there's no question at all as to whodunnit -- the culprit confesses mere pages into the book. Instead, this is a whydunnit, a search for a motive for the crime, one that hopefully demonstrates premeditation that took place outside of Yellowstone (and thus punishable under conspiracy charges). It's a fun deviation from the mystery norm. But, as you'd probably expect of a novel inspired by a legal thought exercise, the premise is the most intriguing thing about the book.

I was less than enchanted with the book itself for a variety of reasons. First, there was the cartoonishly boorish murderer, and the contrived and cryptic way in which Box tries lets you inside his head without prematurely giving the plot away. Then there was the slight undercurrent of "white male bigot paradise" permeating the book and many of its characters -- particularly irksome to me in the very state where Matthew Shepard was a chilling example of what that world can be like for everyone else. Plus there was the considerable connective tissue reaching back to earlier Joe Pickett books, material that had no resonance for me. (To some extent, it's my fault for jumping in mid-stream. But some measure of blame should be assigned to the writer for not filling in new readers sufficiently; most authors of this sort of open-ended series go to greater effort in making each volume stand alone.)

Yet despite the flaws, there was one aspect of the book that really saved the experience for me. Box writes some very specific and vivid descriptions of the park itself. His loving descriptions of nature took me right back to my vacation to Yellowstone a few years ago. Descriptions of the places I'd been brought pleasant personal memories rushing back. Descriptions of places I hadn't been (some perhaps that don't really exist) were equally evocative, creating a crystal clear sense of place more sharp (and succinct) than any high fantasy writer who digresses for pages to describe an imagined land.

In short, I came for the tantalizing legal conceit and was entertained by the imaginary return to Yellowstone National Park. That said, there's enough subpar and even off-putting material here that if you've never visited Yellowstone and you're not a legal wonk, I can't imagine you'd enjoy it. I'd give Free Fire a B-. To date, Box has written ten more Joe Pickett novels after this, but this one will certainly be my last.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


So, I know that all this season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been serving us ghosts and a flaming-skulled anti-hero who thinks he's been cursed literally by the devil. I also know the adage that "any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic." I know that the big Marvel magic movie is just around the corner. And yet I couldn't help but feel this week as though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has suddenly lurched into strange territory, away from its more traditionally sci-fi elements and into something that aspires to be more like Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something.

I'm not totally put off by this magic book Macguffin now front-and-center in the ongoing plot. But I think it was a little harder for me to take it all in stride when it felt like just one of many things happening this week that didn't quite sync up with what I know about this show. A lot of the characters this week were behaving in ways that just didn't quite track for me.

For example, we know Daisy has had this lone wolf thing going since Lincoln's death. But it manifested this week in a far more extreme death wish when, for no apparently justifiable reason, she decided to lock May and Coulson behind a door so she could go down swinging against 20 enemies. And yet her death wish wasn't severe enough to just use her powers, which we were told at this point might cripple or kill her, and be done with it.

Granted, we don't know much about Director Mace yet, but it seemed odd for him to pull Simmons in for interview coaching only do almost immediately go off book anyway. He doesn't seem that impulsive. And if his move was calculated, what was the point of bringing in Simmons to witness it?

Simmons resorting to blackmailing Mace in the end was a reach for me too. If I'm reading the chain of events right, she saw Mace react during the interview in a way that told her he was lying. But she doesn't know what the lie is, and it seems fairly certain that Mace must know she doesn't know any of the particulars either. So where's the leverage here? Was there no vetting of Mace before he was put in this position? Is his position really so precarious?

All that said, I wasn't disliking this episode so much as I was just a bit distracted from fully enjoying it. The prison infiltration sequences served up plenty of fun action and pithy quips. (It's really great to have Coulson out in the field on a regular basis this season and not riding a desk as director.) May had some great moments this week, both in the "Coulson wants to talk to her about death" runner and the "you don't get to choose who cares about you" confrontation with Daisy at the end. And even though the Simmons subplot had some holes for me, I love seeing her continue to toughen up. (She's really been through the mill over the years.)

I'd grade this episode a B. Not exceptional, but good enough to keep the momentum of this season going.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Who You Gonna Re-Call?

There are many movies that, in retrospect, turned out to be of major significance. But few movies said to be "important" in advance can live up to expectations. And the 2016 version of Ghostbusters was saddled with some impossible "important" baggage -- what started out as yet another 80s remake somehow transformed into a litmus test for feminism.

In that I only just got around to seeing the movie, you might say I failed that test. My defense would be simply that I never bought into the notion of it being a test. This movie's stars -- Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones -- have all been hilarious in other places; this movie didn't need to prove me that they (or certainly, women in general) are funny. Still, funny people can team up to make an unfunny movie, and my read of the critics and the trailers suggested this should be a "wait for home video" movie for me.

That turned out to be exactly the right call. There was enough good here to make the movie worth seeing, and enough bad that I'm glad I didn't pay theater prices for it. This split breaks down almost straight down the middle of the movie, in fact. The first half of the film serves up a number of laughs (and still more grins). But then the tension between comedy and big budget visuals breaks in the other direction. The final act is a nonstop procession of mindless blockbuster action; there's plenty of eye-popping visuals, but it's all wanton destruction justified by technobabble slathered on thicker than a bad Star Trek episode.

Leslie Jones nearly steals the show with several laugh out loud line readings. Kate McKinnon leans as far as she can into the bizarre character she's been given, squeezing out more humor than exists on the page. But Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren't given chances to shine at all. Saddled with the worst of the plot track-laying, they fall well short of their performances in Bridesmaids (to say nothing of their separate work). They have to do all the heavy lifting for this story, rarely getting a chance to riff.

In a cruel irony, because the men don't further the plot much in this feminist movie, they're often free to just be funny. Chris Hemsworth is given most of the movie's best material as the Ghostbusters' "him-bo" receptionist. Zach Woods (of The Office and Silicon Valley) has a tiny role in the first few minutes of the film, but somehow finds many of the biggest laughs in that span. Even Charles Dance gets to shade his stern Tywin Lannister schtick toward comedy in a brief role.

One bonus in waiting to see this on video was that I got to experience some interesting formatting they did for the Blu-ray. The bulk of the movie was presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (For those not up on the numbers, that means that even on today's standard widescreen TVs, there are black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.) But during key moments -- involving ghost slime, lightning arcs, proton pack shots, and the like -- the visual effects actually broke the frame and extended through the bars to the edge of the screen, creating a sort of no-special-equipment-needed 3D effect. In addition, a short, key sequence at the end of the movie was presented full screen (16:9), omitting the black bars entirely. It's interesting to me that a movie which hadn't been a runaway box office success nevertheless had still more money spent on it to create new effects for home video.

A movie worthy of these stars could have been an A. The same movie that at least didn't descend into mindless destruction for the finale could have been maybe a B+. As it is, though, I think Ghostbusters lands at a B-. It's just in the "watchable" zone for those predisposed to want to, but there's almost certainly not enough here to convert anyone already set against it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Re-Negan on the Deal

There are no specific spoilers in this post.

I wasn't going to write a post about The Walking Dead season premiere. You may have noticed that I haven't been doing weekly posts about the show's new episodes for quite some time. That's because I'd basically decided to stop watching it.

The last truly great episode that stuck with me for any length of time was Carol's soul-crushing late season 4 "look at the flowers" moment. The show has been losing steam for me since then, quite slowly at first, and then with out-of-control freight train force throughout both halves of last season.

First, the show had drifted away from what it did best -- believably putting its characters into horrible situations, forced to make impossible choices. People were skating through the apocalypse with few consequences that felt significant to me, and when there were big character changes, they felt swift and unearned, as though the writers had a narrative destination in mind without any sense of the journey. (Carol's conversion to pacifism last season would be my Exhibit A.)

Second, being unable to effectively provoke emotion in its audience through actual storytelling, the show had decided to go meta, manipulating audience emotion through how it chose to tell stories. 90 minute installments that could have easily been the standard 60. Ploys to generate buzz with what they didn't put on screen -- the month long "Glenn is totally dead" gag, or the moment that got us here: not showing us the victim of Negan's violence at the close of last season.

I'd long since come to feel that the only reason I was still watching The Walking Dead is that people come over to my house on Sunday night to watch TV shows, and that was one of them in the rotation. I was going to watch this season premiere, figuring I'd rather see how they resolved this Negan thing and not just read about it online, and then I'd likely jump ship.

And then a funny thing happened. The show actually served up a solid episode, to me undeniably the best since that "look at the flowers" hour. They did it by getting back to basics. Characters were put in horrible situations with impossible choices and important consequences. Any sudden changes in character behavior from this point forward will be earned, brought about by sudden and extreme events.

As an added bonus, Negan is totally working for me. I guess since one of the problems I'd been having going into the premiere was a lack of belief in all the characters, bringing in a new character is an obvious way to address that. I was poised to dislike Negan, because I feared how nerfed he would be for television. I haven't read any of The Walking Dead comics, but I'm aware of his foul-mouthed, not-for-television nature. For the 10-minute scene that closed season 6, the production had filmed two versions of the sequence, putting an expletive-laden alternative on the DVD/Blu-ray release that couldn't be aired on AMC. If I'm not even getting uncut Negan, I figured, that's one more reason to give up on the show; if I was ever going to watch it at all, I should wait and watch the unfiltered version when it arrives a year later.

But Negan proved the adage that actions speak louder than words. Again and again throughout the season premiere, he grew more vicious, more villainous. And more delicious, thanks to a scenery chewing performance by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I have no idea whether all of this can be sustained for any length of time, but I find myself wanting to find out.

This could just be another peak, with a valley to follow. At the time "look at the flowers" happened (or really, the back half of season 4 in general), I was also tired of the show and ready to quit. And then things picked up and generated enough interest and goodwill in me to keep me going another two-and-a-half years. I'm not sure if the half life will be as high this time around; if the show continues to pull more fourth-wall breaking cliffhangers that exist solely for the audience and not the characters, I'm going to be looking for the exit. But for the moment, I find myself actually engaged again.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

I found a lot to like in this week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which managed to nudge forward every ongoing story line while still carving out a lot of time for character.

My favorite thread of the hour was the pairing of Daisy and Simmons. Not only did it demonstrate what the show has been missing this season by forcing Daisy out on her own, it was a real showcase for how great Simmons has become over the run of the show. The interplay between the two was constantly great: Daisy "threatening" Simmons for her assistance, Simmons undercutting Daisy's elaborate heist plan with a simple and effective alternative, and the two both ready to stand together and go down swinging at the end. I don't recall past episodes pairing these two characters, but this made me want more of that.

Coulson and Mack were a fun pair too this week, in large part because Coulson cranked his wry humor dial up to 11. Constant quips, clever investigative work, and an actual car chase of reasonable length made their story breezy fun. And it seems that through their adventures, they've now brought Ghost Rider onto the team in some measure, taking some of the "sub" out of the "subplot" in a way I welcome.

The introduction of a Macguffin (Darkhold) into the "ghosts" storyline did nothing for me, but there will be plenty of time to make that feel important. This episode was more about exploring the Watchdogs. Bringing back a past Inhuman to be the betrayer was a nice development, and I appreciated that it was James, a character who was already a jerk. No hand-wringing over "how could you betray us?!" Just straight to "you've been had."

Compared to all that activity, the thread about May, and whether she'd discover that Ada was a robot, was on low heat. Still, I loved where that story ended this week, with Simmons instantly recognizing Ada for what she was. And through some combination of professional curiosity, protective instinct toward Fitz, and a full day of other secrets she'd have to keep, she was also just as instantly committed to keeping this a secret from the new director. More demonstration of how far she's come as a character.

In truth, this episode was still very much setup for things to come. But it felt like one of the stronger setup episodes the series has had. I grade it a B+.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tests Back from the Lab

A short while back, I wrote about the podcast More Perfect, a spin-off of Radiolab. I've since had the chance to listen more to the "mothership," as it were, and I've found it every bit as enjoyable.

Radiolab is very much like other podcasts I've already become enthralled by -- not just More Perfect, but also the excellent Criminal. The only major difference is topic, in that Radiolab doesn't quite seem to have one. This could have potentially been an issue, except that it's clear after listening to just a few episodes that the eclectic sensibilities of the hosts and reporters suit my own just fine.

So far, I've listened to installments about a woman in legal limbo because her off-the-grid parents never secured her a birth certificate, an unsettling dive into how military spy technology is making its way to the U.S. in law enforcement, a revealing look at how science is beginning to push both the medical and legal boundaries of embryonic research, and the topical tale of a small town so divided politically that it turned to dissolving the town itself as a way of sticking it to the man.

I'd level the same small criticism against Radiolab that I had against the spinoff: they use an editing style that somewhat jarringly injects narration right into the middle of an interview subject's sentences. It's Arrested Development, minus the dry wit. But after a few episodes, I'm starting to get used to it -- and it's not much of a knock on their slick production in any case.

The lack of a distinct niche really makes this show more NPR than podcast, but it's doing things right regardless. I give Radiolab an A-. It's now a regular part of my rotation.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Useless Tool

Swiss Army Man is among the most peculiar movies I've ever seen. To some extent, it's Cast Away with a dead body substituting for Wilson the volleyball. But if you've heard of it, it was probably as "the farting corpse movie."

Hank is marooned on a desert island and in the process of trying to kill himself when a dead body washes ashore. Desperate for any companionship, Hank soon imagines the corpse is able to talk. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. His new friend, Manny, is the Swiss Army Man of the title, useful for all sorts of tasks that might just help Hank survive the ordeal.

There are plenty of movies that have the same commitment to strangeness as this one. Being John Malkovich is a classic; more recently, I've written about The Lobster. Swiss Army Man is as deeply weird as those, yet lacks the thoughtful message that makes the weirdness worthwhile.

The filmmakers did put gags along the way, but ultimately even those aren't enough. Without question, watching a man ride a flatulence-powered corpse like a jet ski is one of the more insane visuals ever committed to film. But the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, making tons of jokes about farting and masturbation while at the same time pretending to be profound. Its ending doesn't come anywhere near profound. It's among the longer 95 minutes you'll ever see, and the journey isn't worth it.

The two stars do give go-for-broke performances. Paul Dano is a suitably mopey Hank, and Daniel Radcliffe wrings out a few extra laughs as Manny apart from the sight gags. But they're still essentially fighting to balloon an idea for a 10-minute short film to almost 10 times that length. I just wasn't having it.

Tantalizing premise, lackluster execution. I give Swiss Army Man a D-. Best to avoid this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


I found this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. intriguing in how it managed to simultaneously maintain a rapid pace while effectively pumping the brakes on a lot of plot threads that may have been moving too quickly this season.

I mean, you can hardly call it a "slow" episode when it featured multiple ticking clocks -- the race to save May's life, the threat of the Watchdogs in general, and the particular threat posed to Yo-Yo. Plus, the episode concluded with Director Mace announcing the return of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the world. There was plenty of momentum here.

But on the other hand (and all to the good, I think) Robbie's brother Gabe threw a wrench in the Ghost Rider/Quake team-up plot thread (that was needing more time for me anyway). No progress at all was made in tracking the "ghosts" that made May insane -- there was no time for that with her life on the line and another global crisis in play. And when it seemed likely that Radcliffe would bring out his "Life Model Decoy" in the final act to save May's life (rapidly accelerating that plot line in the process by revealing his invention to Simmons), he instead brought out just the battery that powers it, leaving bigger revelations for another day.

I was definitely entertained most by the Watchdogs story line, even acknowledging the raft of cliches it incorporated. Blackouts are an old standard from the book of TV tropes, only slightly behind villains with convenient identifying tattoos. Then there's the particular comic book trope of the evil senator with a hatred of super-powered people -- though it's a welcome and meaningful twist for that character to not be a white male.

Familiar though it all may have been, the show managed to serve it up into a satisfying way. Coulson, Fitz, and Mac were a fun field team, and the little character details mattered -- Coulson's hand locked on the steering wheel, Fitz going "old school" to solve the EMP problem, Mack waiting until the crisis was actually over to pursue his grievance with Yo-Yo. Plus the Inhuman "coming out" metaphor, portrayed when Yo-Yo's friend rejected her once her powers were revealed, hit its message just right.

I'd call this week's episode a B+. It pulled me back on board for what's to come.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Child of the Theater

I may be behind the times compared to many of you, but I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

On the off chance there are a few of you even further behind the times than me, I'll briefly note what this recently published book is and is not. It is an official continuation of the Harry Potter story line, picking up 20 years after The Deathly Hallows. It is not an actual novel, but is instead the rehearsal script of the new two-part play now on an open-ended run in the West End. It is not written by J.K. Rowling; the script is by Jack Thorne (though the story is credited to Thorne, Rowling, and director John Tiffany).

In as minimally spoilery a way as possible, the story is as follows. (But skip this paragraph if you're at all concerned about learning something you'd rather not.) Picking up exactly where epilogue of The Deathly Hallows leaves off, the play focuses on the son of Harry and Ginny, Albus Severus Potter. Resentful and rebellious, Albus has a strained relationship with his famous father. The more Albus learns of his father's past, the lower his opinion sinks. And soon it leads the boy to rash action to right a perceived injustice, action that will threaten the wizarding world as nothing since the defeat of Voldemort.

There are some interesting aspects to this story that make it a worthwhile extension of the Harry Potter universe. While the story of Albus and his closest friend could be seen as "Potter: The Next Generation," a redux of the saga we already know, that's not the only element in play here. The Harry Potter stories have always focused on the young characters, with adults moved to some extent to the margins. Here, Harry is an adult (along with other returning characters), and has as many scenes to play as his son. Thus, this story gets into new (or barely touched) material: the challenges of parenting, dealing with survivor's guilt over the long haul, changing relationships with childhood friends (and enemies), and more.

The catch is, this is a stage script, so we don't get to be inside any character's head. We don't have an actor's performance to shade the dialogue either. In short, if the themes above aren't expressly explored in the text, then the reader has to do all the heavy lifting. And frankly, the script distracts the reader in other ways, making it hard to focus on such things. In short, you spend less time combing for subtext than you do wondering how what is described in the text would actually work.

I can't imagine, 20 to 30 years from now, your local rep company or your kid's high school tackling a production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There are too many wild stage directions that casually describe wizards flinging bolts of magic at each other, the stage transforming wildly in an instant, set components being flung about, cast members being levitated or transformed, and so much more. Every other scene includes a moment where you wonder how it would be achieved on anything less than the exorbitant budgets of the West End or Broadway. It reads more like a magic show with a plot than a stage play.

Actually; scratch that. What it reads like is a movie script. Each act of the play approaches 20 distinct scenes, and most of these rarely run more than two or three pages. It has the swift pacing and sweeping array of locations that feel tailor-made for the screen, and very much at odds with the unities of time, place, and action that typically govern a theatrical production.

None of this is to say that I thought the story itself was bad. I just didn't think an unadorned script was the proper format for it. Stage may not be either, but I'd reserve judgment on that for the possible day I might actually get to see this performed. As it stands, though, I'd grade this experience -- reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- a B-.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Taking the Day Off

Among the many hallmarks of a John Hughes movie was a clever use of music. The writer-director packed each of his movies with a carefully curated selection of pop hits and deep cuts from up-and-coming artists. He'd even direct scenes to fit pre-selected tunes.

Of course, Hughes was at the height of his career in the 1980s. This was a time where, if a movie had a soundtrack album at all, it was inevitably a collection of the songs played in the film (not the orchestral score composed for it). So it's no surprise that there was an album for almost every John Hughes film. But for one of his biggest movies of all, there was not.

The story goes that John Hughes thought the music from Ferris Bueller's Day Off was too eclectic for an album release. What person would want a collection of New Wave tunes alongside Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen?" And possibly souring Hughes' enthusiasm for such an album was the fact that he'd offended Paul McCartney with the treatment of The Beatles' "Twist and Shout" during the movie's parade sequence. (Hughes felt that with a brass band prominently featured on screen, "we needed to hear the instruments." McCartney complained that if the song had "needed brass, we'd have stuck it on ourselves!") So for 30 years, Ferris Bueller's Day Off was arguably the 80s movie most conspicuously lacking a soundtrack album.

One of my favorite specialty soundtrack labels, La-La Land Records, has now corrected that oversight. Here, in all its eclectic glory, is nearly all of the movie's great music. Fans have been assembling bootlegs over the years, with many tracks like Yello's "Oh Yeah" and the aforementioned "Danke Schoen" readily available. But this official release includes more obscure material too, like the "Ultraviolence Mix" of "Love Missile F1-11" that includes all the strange variations heard on-screen, as well as the versions of "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" and "I'm Afraid" without the vocals that the movie used.

Of course, any fan of the movie is more likely to think of this music as "the driving into Chicago song," "the pulling into the parking garage song," "the museum montage song," "the hottub song," and so forth. But the point is, here it is! Unfortunately, licensing issues prevented three songs from being included -- the two most significant being "Twist and Shout" (The Beatles aren't cheap) and "March of the Swivelheads" (when Ferris runs home at the end of the movie) -- but this album is still complete enough to satisfy. (And the missing tracks can easily be downloaded elsewhere.)

Filling out the experience for soundtrack junkies like me is composer Ira Newborn's score for the film. It's a fun, playful score that covers a lot of musical ground in a short time. There are completely serious cues (the earnest "Ferris in Bed" and uplifting "Cameron Takes the Heat"), ridiculously over-the-top cues (the suspenseful "Ferris on Line 2" and jazzy "Rooney on Patrol"), and even cartoon-like campy cues ("Save It, Ferris" and "Rooney Sneaks Around"). There's purely orchestral material ("Jeannie Turns Ugly"), synthesizer driven material ("Cameron in Bed / Ferris Goes Hawaiian"), and odd one-offs (the doo-wop "Oh Shauna Jeannie," or the Naked Gun-esque "Bueller, Ferris Bueller").

And if a few songs had to be left out because of licensing, La-La Land Records was determined to fill the space with anything else anyone might conceivably want. There are a few orchestral cues that were wisely cut from the completed movie ("I'll Go" and "Going to Take a Stand"), plus some alternate versions of final cues (the alternates of "Ferris on Line 2" and "Cameron Takes the Heat" are truly and completely different from what appeared in the movie). There's also every bit of source music, including ball park organ music, the classical music from the "snooty" restaurant, the answering machine music for the "Coughlin Bros. Mortuary", and even the music that brought the wrath of McCartney -- the "Twist and Shout (Marching Band Overlay)."

Ferris Bueller's Day Off is among my favorite movies, and I'm glad to now have a soundtrack to add to my collection. It's a grade A release (even with the handful of missing tunes).

Friday, October 07, 2016

TNG Flashback: Nemesis

Now it's really time to close down the Star Trek: The Next Generation reviews, with the cast's final feature film -- Star Trek: Nemesis.

While heading to Betazed for one of two wedding ceremonies for Riker and Troi, the Enterprise detects the presence of an android on a nearby planet. There they find B-4, a less advanced precursor of Data built by Dr. Soong. But before they can delve into this discovery, the ship is dispatched on a mission to Romulus. A group of Remans has taken over the government in a violent coup, and is now making a peace overture to the Federation. Yet nothing about the situation is as it seems. The peace offering is a pretext to set up an attack on Earth, and the new Praetor isn't Reman at all -- but a young clone of Jean-Luc Picard.

This is the movie that destroyed the Star Trek film franchise for the better part of a decade. It's hard to overstate how big a bomb it was. It was the first Star Trek movie not to debut at #1 at the box office. Its revenue then fell 76% in week two, the biggest drop ever for major studio film -- until Gigli came along. (That's how bad we're talking.) And while you could argue that the movie never had a chance against the competition of late 2002 (a James Bond film, a Harry Potter film, and The Two Towers), there can be no doubt that bad word of mouth was a factor.

After the lukewarm reception to Star Trek: Insurrection, the Powers That Be seemed to conclude that outside blood was needed to reinvigorate Star Trek. To write the script, they hired John Logan, who was fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Gladiator. To direct, they recruited Stuart Baird, a director of two prior action movies who boasted a lengthy resume as an editor. Nearly everyone involved in the resulting movie blames Baird for its shortcomings (and oh, I'll get to him), but I believe this movie was a disaster on the page that no director could have saved.

First, the story is little more than a pastiche of past Star Trek films. John Logan seems to be following a recipe. You need a villain with a personal hatred toward the captain (Star Trek II). You need a peace overture from a longtime enemy (Star Trek VI). You need a powerful ship that can fire while its cloaked (VI again). You need the logical character to conclude it's worth sacrificing himself to save the rest of the ship and crew (II again), and you need a framework for that character to be resurrected (Star Trek III). And just for garnish, let's recycle pieces of a few episodes -- telepathic rape ("Violations"), Data meeting a previously unknown brother who is secretly a threat ("Datalore"), and Picard forced to think about how his life would be different given different circumstances ("Tapestry").

Of course, a long-running franchise can recycle old elements and still produce something worthwhile. (The Force Awakens.) For me, the bigger problem here is how this movie handles the characters. John Logan was praised by many involved with this movie as a life-long Star Trek fan. Yet this supposed fan has Worf, after a lifetime of hating Romulans, beaming that they "fought with honor" after one battle. He has Wesley returning to Starfleet after most definitively walking away from it. He's awkwardly referencing Picard's family wine after the whole vineyard burned to the ground. Data's character development from the films has been erased; the android clearly no longer possesses emotions (or even a Season 7 level of understanding of social graces).

Not that Logan's inept writing of character is limited to the Star Trek regulars. The espionage-minded Romulans seem to have no security at their Senate chamber. They want mass-scale destruction one moment, and then change their mind without cause when they're on the verge of getting it. It's unclear whether Remans in general have telepathic powers, or if these are abilities only the Viceroy has. It's even less clear why the Remans are willing to be led by a human.

And that human! Shinzon is a total mess. He hates Romulans for oppressing him, but he's lashing out at people who have never done him harm. He has a weapon he could use to kill every person on Romulus, but he's going to use it on Earth instead. He needs Picard's DNA and concocts an elaborate ruse to get it, but then gives up and chooses to die in a childish fit of anger. And that's just the internal inconsistencies. Try to apply external logic to him and he gets even worse.

After a lifetime as a slave in a mine, how does Shinzon possess any skills as a tactician, or the ability to design a ship with advanced technology? Why is he dying now, after 20-some years? Why would the Romulans have sought to clone Jean-Luc Picard 20-some years ago, before he was captain of the Enterprise? How did Shinzon manage to locate a Soong prototype android that no one else knew existed?

So no, I don't buy into the notion that John Logan wrote a great script that was botched by bad directing. But to be clear, Stuart Baird's directing is horrible. It starts with his total lack of respect for the universe he was stepping into. Multiple sources confirm that he refused to watch even one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in preparation for this job. He called LeVar Burton "Laverne" on set, and thought his character Geordi was an alien. He demanded redesigns of several established props and sets. He pitched Worf's voice down in post-production, as if we all don't know exactly what he sounds like after 11 seasons of television and 3 movies. He used anachronistic camera and lighting techniques that felt completely out of place in a Star Trek film (the washed-out color scheme of the planet where B-4 is found; the hokey light shining in Troi's eyes during the final telepathic sequence).

After running roughshod over Star Trek during the filming of the movie, Stuart Baird did so all over again in editing his footage. Over 45 minutes of material was cut from the original assemblage, most of it character moments that stripped any sense of why the audience should care about anything that transpires. The DVD edition of the film features two sparse audio commentaries -- one of Baird crowing about how tightly he'd cut the film to keep it moving, the other of producer Rick Berman often disagreeing with Baird's creative decisions. In an interview Patrick Stewart gave years later, he suggested that of all the Star Trek he'd done, Nemesis was most in need of an extended edition -- and he specified: "It wouldn't be a Director's Cut of the film. That may have been even shorter. But maybe an Actors' Cut.”

Even the handful of good things about Nemesis are hard to think about without entangling more bad things. The design of Shinzon's ship, the Scimitar, is fantastic. (But the fact that it has this lengthy transformer sequence to fire its Death Star weapon is a stupid plot contrivance.) The Reman makeup design is appropriately creepy. (But the fact that the Romulans couldn't really be the main bad guys in their own movie is disappointing.) Riker and Troi finally getting married is a nice inclusion for the fans. (Though there's the sense that it was done mainly to raise the stakes grotesquely on Troi's mind rape, and to position Riker to "ride to the rescue" by defeating the Viceroy in the end.) Tom Hardy gives a dedicated performance as Shinzon, despite the shaky material. (But one wonders if the poor reception of this film actually set his career back a few years.) Jerry Goldsmith's heavily synth-driven score is arguably his best contribution to Star Trek since he started with The Motion Picture. (Yet it would also be one of his last movies; he died a short while later.)

Other observations (or really, a "this makes no sense" lightning round):
  • When finding a disassembled android that looks like Data, wouldn't the first thought be that it's Lore?
  • Geordi says that B-4's computer intrusion stole no vital or classified information. Aren't the positions of Starfleet ships vital or classified? And if not, why is Shinzon going to such lengths to get them?
  • Shinzon's clever maneuver during the final battle is to drop the cloak on part of his ship and then brake hard to fire weapons when an enemy flies by. How is that an improvement over invisibly positioning your ship beneath the target?
  • The moment the Enterprise shields go down, shouldn't they just beam over Picard (or everyone on the bridge), rather than beam a Reman boarding party on?
  • When two ships are locked together in space, how does one ship reversing engines separate them? There's nothing to be pulling against.
  • How does Picard rip a steel bar off the wall with his bare hands (to stab Shinzon)?
This has been a long one, yet I feel like I've really only scratched the surface of how bad, how disappointing, Star Trek: Nemesis was. I guess because I'd rather watch bad Star Trek than bad "other movies" (and because this is still better than a couple of the other Trek films), I won't give it a rock bottom grade. But I feel generous in calling it a D+. As I indicated in my "All Good Things..." review, I'd willingly trade away all the Next Generation movies to avoid having this be the final voyage for these characters.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Amicus Brief

Not long ago, I blogged about the podcast More Perfect, a great look at past cases that have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court. Now I want to talk about another podcast, more focused on the Court's present.

Amicus is hosted by Dahlia Lithwick, the main journalist for covering the Supreme Court. Just as the Court itself runs from October to June, so has this podcast (since 2014). For those disinclined to read long legal briefs and opinions, Amicus is the perfect way to keep abreast of what's going on at the nation's highest court.

Different episodes focus on different facets of the process. You'll get previews of big cases to come, analysis of oral arguments soon after they occur, and summaries of the final rulings once they're issued. Everything is broken down in clear language so you don't have to be a constitutional scholar to grasp the important points.

Each episode also features at least one interview, and here is where Amicus really shines. Lithwick is able to land a lot of great guests for the podcast. Arguments in a case are often explained by the very lawyers who presented them at the Supreme Court. She's interviewed lower court judges who have considered the same issues before they wound up in front of the Supreme Court, judges who articulately explain their rulings. She's interviewed other court reporters from other web sites, painting the picture of one tight-knit group of legal wonks who want nothing more than to inform the public.

The only down side of the podcast, which Lithwick herself has pointed out, is that right now, the Supreme Court isn't a particularly interesting beat to cover. Eager to avoid more 4-4 ties while they're missing a member, the Justices have avoided taking any huge, controversial cases going into this term. Where the first two years of this podcast had plenty of blockbuster cases to dig into, there's little going on at the moment that would excite the average listener not already invested in the Supreme Court. But I'm not yet so cynical to think that the stonewalling of a new Supreme Court appointee will last forever. At some point in the months to come, the Court will get a new ninth member, and will soon be ruling on important issues that everyone should be following.

Even covering a neutered Court, Amicus is a vital and informative podcast. I grade it an A. (And if you try it out and find it's not your thing, I suggest coming back down the road, when the Court is back up to full strength.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

A Monstrous Opportunity

I blog a fair amount about German board games, but the one I'm writing about today is quite literally German: Gruselrunde zur Geisterstunde (or, as Google tells me it translates in English, Horror Round the Witching Hour).

This is a memory game with a light horror theme. 10 cartoon-rendered monsters (a vampire, mummy, werewolf, and so forth) are arranged in an order in a castle hallway, five on each side. Each player gets a few seconds to look at the arrangement before play begins and everything is hidden. On your turn, you get to exert limited control on selecting three monsters, which you then must locate correctly the hall. If your guesses are right, you score 2 points (and everyone else who wagered you'd be right gets 1 point). If you're wrong, only you get to see what was really hidden in your chosen locations, but you must tell all opponents how many monsters you guessed correctly. (At the same time, everyone who wagered you'd be wrong gets a point.) The first player to 10 points wins.

The thing that really sells this experience is how the monsters are hidden. The box bottom itself (and the tray sitting inside it) is a series of tracks in which the monsters are stood up and hidden behind cardboard partitions. And still more thick cardboard panels are used to build a mansion -- four walls and a roof that completely enclose the hallway and the monsters. When you take your turn, you push levers that slide your selected three monsters into view, and then peek through a small peephole in the box to view the hallway... which is spookily lit by a tiny green LED you activate. It's quite entertaining.

The problem is, it's not much of a game. It only takes a round or two for someone to net 10 points. And there will almost inevitably be a tie as two or more players reach 10 at the same time -- because they have stronger memories, or because everyone playing has equally weak(ish) memories. If you're going to play this with children, it's worlds more interesting than a face down matching game like Memory or Concentration. For adults though, it seems to be lacking.

You can tell that the makers knew they had great production value and a weak game, as there are multiple rules variants -- designed to simplify it for children, or turn it into some kind of bluffing game for adults. But none of it seems to me to address what's really missing here. Perhaps 15 monsters to fill 10 slots might have helped, so you couldn't always count on knowing what's in the box somewhere if your memory slips? Perhaps players need to have even less control over which three monsters they must identify on their turns -- maybe it should have been determined by the opponents, or completely at random? Or maybe there shouldn't be that initial peek into the box at the start of the game, forcing everybody to discover where things are hidden in the box over time (and amping the deduction aspect of what your opponents are reporting on their turns).

In short, this is a great gimmick that is rife with potential for house rules. I don't know that I'll ever play it again "as published," but I certainly hope my friends and I can come up with something that breathes some life into it. Because it just plain looks cool. Let's call it maybe a B- as a baseline. How high it goes from there depends on the inventiveness of your gaming group.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Supreme Disappointment

With the U.S. Supreme Court currently down to eight justices, and with Republicans in the Senate pledged to keep it that way until the presidential election, the Court is a hotter topic than usual these days. (And I think it should be hotter still; though that's probably a topic for another time.) The time was right for me to read another book on the subject, and I found a good one in "Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted."

Injustices is very similar in premise to a book I've previously read, The Case Against the Supreme Court. Both books take a dim view of the rulings made by the Supreme Court for the vast majority of U.S. history, and seek to walk you through the parade of horrors in detail. But this book differs in enough ways to make both a worthwhile read.

In the world of politics, there are some figures good at problem solving, and others good at inspiring the masses. Erwin Chemerinsky's book (The Case Against the Supreme Court) is more an example of the former. It concludes with a chapter suggesting ways the institution could be transformed and improved. The writer of Injustices, Ian Millhiser, seeks to be more of the latter. This is a rabble-rousing book designed to get you passionate and enraged about the wrongs inflicted on the country by the Supreme Court.

It does so excellently. The book is divided into three sections. The first is a whirlwind tour of the Supreme Court's worst rulings up through the 1950s. It focuses in particular around the "Lochner Era," named for one particular case that epitomized the pro-business, anti-citizen rulings that ran up to and through the Great Depression. This was a time where the Supreme Court declared child labor restrictions unconstitutional, struck down minimum wages and limits on weekly work hours, and made it impossible for companies to be held accountable for negligence leading to injuries and deaths.

The second section is centered on a period from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s (essentially, the years of the Warren Court) where the Supreme Court consistently got things right. As the book's own dedication to three specific Supreme Court justices says, this was the period that showed that "it didn't have to be this way" -- the way of the rest of U.S. history. This was the brief period where the Court ended segregation, championed the rights of individuals over organizations, and reversed many wrongs from earlier decades.

The third section looks at the Supreme Court in the years since, drawing many apt comparisons to the injustices of the Lochner Era. Millhiser points out that things aren't Lochner bad -- not yet -- but he paints a very clear picture of how the Supreme Court's path has been leading right back to the kind of thinking that gave us unjust rulings that today seem unimaginable.

Millhiser presents no prescriptions for how the Court should be remade to right the wrongs he identifies. But his presentation is nevertheless so simple to understand, so visceral, that this book feels absolutely essential to me. People unconvinced of the importance and power of the Supreme Court should absolutely read it. I grade it an A-.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Road Rage

For years, I'd been hearing (quite occasionally) about a British movie called The Trip. It edged a little more into my view after I saw one of its stars, Steve Coogan, in the wonderful film Philomena.

The Trip is a movie assembled from pieces of a six-episode TV series of the same name. Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictional versions of themselves, stuck together on a tour through northern England to review fine restaurants. Over amazing meals, they harangue each other with impressions, observational humor, and droll insults.

...and that's all there is to it. There's the barest underpinning of a plot here, involving Coogan's trial separation from a girlfriend and a career-changing job offer he's weighing, but these elements don't manifest frequently enough to become compelling. Really, it's all just window dressing to facilitate two comedians doing standup for each other.

Whether that entertains depends on whether you like the comedians in question, of course. And having seen a little of Steve Coogan here and there, I thought there would be a chance. (Rob Brydon, I didn't know at all.) The problem is, the movie plays much more like comedians testing material on each other, with the vast majority of it not ready for an audience. It's one of those improvisational movies, where the performers toy around in take after take... without ever truly striking comic gold.

It's possible that I'm not British enough to appreciate what was going on here. There were definitely a lot of references to British shows, celebrities, and so forth that sailed over my head to some extent. But there were also scenes I felt totally "in the know" on, yet still fell flat for me -- like a riff on how to do a Michael Caine impersonation that seemed to go on interminably. The movie itself winds up feeling like the events it's portraying: being stuck on a long road trip with someone who never shuts up.

As dull as this was as a movie, I can only imagine it would have been excruciating as a television series. The same set-ups and jokes were repeated again and again, suggesting a series in which every episode would have been exactly the same. But then, maybe watching them for only a half hour at a stretch wouldn't have generated the prolonged tedium of this two-hour slog.

Aside from one or two moments very early on that got a smile out of me, there was just nothing here to reward my time. I give The Trip a D-. It's one trip I wish I hadn't taken.