Monday, August 21, 2017

Beyond the Wall

Once again, plenty of amazing things happened in this week's Game of Thrones -- big plot developments, jaw-dropping action sequences, enough to leave a viewer charged when the end credits arrived. But again, as with last week, it came with some odd pacing.

Most of the hour was devoted to the journey north of the Wall, and started off on good footing with plenty of great character-driven conversations between the dead-hunting party. Jon and Jorah talked about the latter's father, and the family sword Longclaw. The Hound and Tormund bonded over insults (both dishing them out and teaching them). Gendry got to confront the men who handed him over for torture. So on through the group, and there were many interesting pairings to explore.

But at the same time, note that many of these conversations piled up right up against each other. In earlier, ten-episode seasons, these scenes undoubtedly would have been separated from one another with cuts to things happening elsewhere in Westeros. That would have given us more space to really take in all the connections and reflect on what they meant. Instead, it felt like the writers were fully aware of all the interesting pairings they had to explore among their band of adventurers... they just also knew they only had 10 or so minutes to cram it all in.

In an earlier season, the battle with the "dead bear" would have been enough for one week; we would have gotten to the big showdown the week after. Even that action scene with the bear came off a bit rushed, too frenetic to quite track exactly what was happening to who. (Did we have a couple of red shirts in the mix here? Somehow I'd thought that everyone leaving on this excursion last week was "someone important.")

Still, any story compression north of the Wall was nothing compared to what was happening at Winterfell. At gazelle pace, Sansa sent Brienne away, and her relationship with Arya came completely unglued. Now mind you, I can ultimately believe these characters would get to that place eventually. Sansa is dealing with a form of PTSD in which any time she pushes for something too hard, horrors are visited upon her. She's also using Cersei a lot as a guide for leadership, and hasn't yet fully learned that there's more to leadership than just claiming you're in charge. Sansa walks on eggshells around her northern allies, and yet thinks herself absolutely safe in Winterfell. It tracks when you think it through... but we're missing a lot of the connective tissue.

In the same way, when you stop to think about it, Arya hasn't really seen Sansa in years. The family bonds between them have had a long time to atrophy, and they weren't really that strong to begin with in their case. Arya of course feels more loyalty to her dead father than to her living sister. I can believe that the crafty Littlefinger could drive a wedge between them. But it has all happened so quickly. And where is Bran in all of this? I really feel like I needed another episode or two of watching things unravel between the Stark sisters to come naturally to this juncture -- Arya essentially threatening to kill Sansa.

Tyrion's conversation with Daenerys felt like the one part of the plot that was given the appropriate amount of space to breathe. Everything we've been getting this season has been part of a nicely slow burn that's telling us Dany may just wind up being a villain by the end of this tale, as monstrous as the Mad King before her. And really, this is not a new development, if you look back at her entire story. Her brother Viserys was an ass, to be sure, but Dany's indifference to watching his execution by boiling gold is chilling. Her decision to oppose slavery is the correct one, but her methods of crucifying hundreds, burning people alive, and eagerly encouraging a cult of personality around her undermine her image as a pure heroine. Tyrion and Daenerys seem to be on a collision course in the final season, and it's been satisfying watching that inevitable crash in "slow motion" over the course of these last few episodes.

But, of course, what everyone will be talking about this morning (well, besides the eclipse -- but we're talking Game of Thrones here) is the dead dragon. And UNdead dragon. Dany's sense of invulnerability took a huge hit when she charged up in an attempted rescue only to lose one of her "children." (I believe it was Viserion, though I don't believe that was stated explicitly in the episode.) Night King's gonna Night King, so -1 dragon for Dany means +1 dragon for the army of the dead.

That showdown itself had an appropriately slow buildup. Too slow, even? I mean, how long did it take Gendry to run to the Wall, and then send a raven to Dragonstone, and then for Dany to fly back north of Eastwatch? Surely a week at least, even at speeds faster than Game of Thrones has operated before this season. That's a long time to be stuck on an ice floe staring at zombies. When the battle came, though, it was intense -- even though the most significant non-winged characters lost in it were Thoros and the back-for-30-seconds Benjen Stark.

Like I said at the beginning, there were plenty of satisfying developments that left me feeling thrilled at the end of the hour. But it came with another acceleration of pacing, despite the hour-plus running time, that made that thrill start to fade more quickly than usual. I'd give this week's episode a B+.

Only one episode to go -- the season finale, and the longest installment of the entire series to date. It seems as though everyone is bound for King's Landing. And it would hardly be the stuff of a season finale if we spent the episode with people talking around a table and coming to a friendly agreement.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Black Requiem

Game of Thrones is always the first item on the blog agenda each Monday, but there was another (less widely viewed) entertainment event on TV this past weekend: the series finale of Orphan Black. I believe the only time I've written about the series here was to talk about its soundtrack album. It's something of an oversight on my part, as I've been there from the beginning for every one of Orphan Black's 50 episodes. Yet it's also something of an "editorial decision" on my part, as I felt like the show was never really as good as it was during its amazing first season.

But first, in case you missed the show entirely, the quick summary: Orphan Black is the story of a group of women who discover they're all subjects of a cloning experiment. Though each of them has the same face, their lives are all wildly different. The sisters (or "sestras," as the fans know them) unite in support of each other, and in a long-running effort to bring down the shadowy organization that seeks to control them.

For me, Orphan Black charted a narrative course much like The X-Files. It captured my imagination almost immediately, pulled me in with tantalizing mysteries, then became impenetrable and convoluted as it increasingly appeared that everything was being made up as they went along. Still, even after my interest in (and comprehension of) the ongoing story waned, I kept tuning in with enthusiasm for the characters.

The series' star, Tatiana Maslany, was nothing short of incredible. Even the Emmys, which seem to overlook every genre show that doesn't involve dragons (and took a while to warm even to them), actually saw fit to give her the Outstanding Lead Actress prize for her work on the show. (And they should have given it to her every single year.) Maslany's work on Orphan Black is the pinnacle against which all other "one actor playing multiple characters" stories should be measured. It is for me, at least, and everyone else comes up short. When the clones take part in their different subplots in an episode, you forget that you're seeing the same actress in scene after scene. When they appear on screen together, you'd still forget if the show didn't go so far out of its way to one up itself with seamless visual effects that make you wonder "how the hell they pulled that off."

While Maslany shouldered most of the weight, there were plenty of other great characters on the show too. Jordan Gavaris was wildly entertaining as the brother of "principle" clone Sarah Manning. Maria Doyle Kennedy was a chilly badass as Siobhan, Sarah's adoptive mother. And Kristian Bruun was hilariously immune to shame as Donnie, husband to overbearing clone Alison, serving up nearly all the show's most memorable comedic moments.

Orphan Black wrapped up with what for me felt like a satisfying series finale. As I said, the show's "mythology/conspiracy" had long stopped being a source of interest for me, so it's possible that viewers still on board with all that may not have gotten what they were looking for. But it was an episode determined to give a resolution to the emotional arcs of all the characters. The back half in particular was devoted to important character scenes involving the "sestras." (One last grand "four clones in one shot" scene, more than just being technically difficult, was also the most touching of the hour.)

I really should have been praising the show here, for the performances if nothing else. Now that it's my last chance, I'd best not let it go by. If you want to see the best acting that's been on television this decade, you should go watch Orphan Black. I suppose going out on a truly high note would have been if they'd managed to keep me engaged in the story the whole time. But they kept me caring about the characters even through story twists I didn't care about at all, which might be an even greater trick. It deserves my recommendation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Eastwatch

After watching a new Game of Thrones episode, I don't usually seek out comments from friends or critics before writing up my own thoughts. This time, though, I happened to catch what a few people were saying. It seems that this was the episode that finally just broke everyone with all the "video game fast travel."

While the show (like the books) has always played fast and loose with exact chronology and the passage of time, this was extreme. Just a few weeks ago, we didn't see Arya for an entire episode because she was walking north to Winterfell. This week, Davos went all the way from Dragonstone to King's Landing and back, then headed up to the Wall. (And all that after Daenerys return from the field of battle to Dragonstone... though, admittedly, dragon has got to be the fastest means of travel there is in Westeros.)

Either because of all the whiplashing about, or coinciding with it, the series served up one of its more uneven episodes that somehow simultaneously felt overcrammed with plot and left you feeling that not much happened. I trust that if anything interesting had happened to the Hound on his way to the Wall, or to Jorah on his way to Dragonstone, or to Theon as he wandered the halls of Dragonstone for... what... probably months?... then we would have seen it dramatized on screen. But this sort of missing material is exactly the sort of thing it feels like we would have gotten back in, say, season two. And it's not unfair to ask, "Really? You only had 13 episodes' worth of stuff left to do going into this season? Are you sure?"

Anyway, enough about what wasn't here this week. Let's talk about what was. First, the aftermath of last week's epic battle. Bronn's heroics (and dry humor) continued as he pulled Jaime to safety. Then Daenerys embraced her Targaryen side, specifically the part about burning enemies alive. That's the end of Randall Tarly and his son Dickon. It was an odd character arc for Randall, who through the way he'd raised Sam showed that he lived his entire life a stern and intractable man. He finally bent just once to support Cersei over the Tyrells, and then utterly recoiled from it. Once was enough; never again. I suppose his narrative purpose overall was to show that Cersei has many ways of getting what she wants, of getting people to do things they otherwise would not. (In this case, I believe it was Jaime that did the convincing.)

Jaime returned to King's Landing with news of both the Lannister army's utter defeat and of the true culprit behind the death of Joffrey. As expected, Cersei didn't want to believe Tyrion's innocence in that murder.

At Dragonstone, Jon Snow revealed his inner dragon whisperer, and Daenerys seemed insufficiently thrown by the ability of someone else to tame one of her "children." The "no, seriously, how in the actual hell did you do that?" scene it feels like we should have gotten was instead interrupted by the return of Jorah Mormont.

Bran did some Three-Eyed Raven-style spying beyond the Wall to remind us that yes, the army of the dead is still coming, and are apparently the only beings in Westeros actually constrained by travel time. And though he had fresh warnings sent out by ravens (the two-eyed kind), nobody wanted to hear of it, including the maesters of Oldtown, who slapped down Samwell with a fresh mountain of books to copy as punishment for talking out of turn. Later in the episode, this would lead to a moment of everyone watching the show screaming at their TV's as Sam and Gilly casually stumble upon evidence of Rheagar actually marrying Lyanna Stark, and dismissing it as irrelevant.

Varys and Tyrion had a heart-to-heart about where the line is crossed when serving tyranny and doing nothing to stop it. In a crowded episode, this would be an easy scene to overlook, and yet it feels like the sort of thing that could end up being a major nod to some event yet to come. It's not like we needed any particular reminder of Varys' past at this stage of the story, making one start to wonder if Tyrion is going to have to turn on Daenerys at some point.

Next, the Craziest Plan in Westeros was hatched, to head north of the wall, capture a wight, and bring it back to show off P.T. Barnum-style to Cersei. The sheer craziness of this plan didn't stop there, as its intermediate steps involved sailing to King's Landing in secret and delivering Tyrion to a clandestine meeting with Jaime. It felt like we didn't get to see nearly enough of that reunion, that just when Tyrion really opened the door on what an ass their father Tywin was, we cut away.

Specifically, we cut away to bring another long-missing face back into the story: Gendry. Davos swung by the smith shop to scoop up Robert Baratheon's bastard son for fresh adventure. I do wonder how important it really is in the grand scheme of things to tie up the Gendry plot thread, but hey, why not? He sure can swing a hammer, which ought to come in handy north of the Wall.

Winterfell hosted a round of Spy vs. Spy, in which Littlefinger showed he didn't need the ability to change his face to come out on top. First, we saw fractures between Arya and Sansa of their own making, with Arya seemingly both frustrated that her sister was hungry for power and yet not claiming it strongly enough. This set the stage for Littlefinger, knowing he was being watched, to forge a note from Sansa to be found by the snooping Arya. I'm sure someone out there has freeze-framed that note, that a transcription is waiting on line somewhere. But I don't need to have the specifics to guess the general shape of it: it's tailored to drive a wedge between the Stark sisters.

Next Jaime and Cersei swapped roles a bit, and it was Cersei's turn to be the one with big news to share. First, she knows all about Jaime's secret meeting with Tyrion, and is warning against further "betrayal." But more significantly, she's pregnant with a fourth child of incest. And this time, she doesn't see any reason to hide that information from anyone. How people (or "the people") are going to react to the news might be up for grabs, but I'll lay odds that we're never actually going to see that baby born before this tale is over.

Our final moments of the episode were up at Eastwatch, as a truly eclectic band of men (no tall woman, sorry Tormund) came together to go White Walker hunting. Not everyone is coming back from this quest, I guarantee. Maybe we should start a pool on who lives and who dies.

So yes, plenty happened this week... even though it feels like this was a rather forgettable episode overall between last week's epic installment and what feels like other mammoth developments teed up for the next two. That rocky pacing of the narrative does make me feel like this was the weakest episode of the season. Not too bad, probably about a B in my book, but a bit of a letdown after the standard that's been set recently.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Fall Begins

Like Charlie Brown running at the football, I've found myself once again reading the latest book by Terry Brooks. Despite disappointment in his last several efforts, I just can't give up this author I loved in my (less cultured) youth. And since all my new favorite fantasy authors don't actually seem to be in the business of publishing new books (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch), I'm inevitably drawn back to Brooks, who releases something every single year, like clockwork.

There was extra incentive this time around: this newest book, The Black Elfstone, kicks off a four-book series (The Fall of Shannara) which Terry Brooks has said will conclude his decades-running Shannara series, once and for all. I'm not exactly sure what an end to the series would look like -- it has consisted of multiple self-contained arcs over the years, and has always struck me as open-ended. But finding out what Brooks thinks is meant to cap it off, along with the actually having it capped off, was a tempting lure.

Obviously, no closure was to be had here in this book, what with three more on the way over the next three years. But many of the elements put into play were intriguing enough. This story involves a mysterious force of magical invaders who come storming into Brooks' Four Lands with seemingly unstoppable might and abilities. Awash in political intrigue, the Druid protectors of the land are ill-equipped to stand against them. Meanwhile (because there's always an Ohmsford descendant in these books), young siblings named Tarsha and Tavo are coming to grips with their emerging magical abilities. The older, Tavo, is unable to control his power, and is heading down a dark path of corruption and evil. His sister, Tarsha, is determined to help him, but must first learn about her own power before she can help him tame his.

There have been so many of these Shannara books that it might not be possible for Brooks to write something he hasn't written in some way before. The idea of a corrupt descendant of Shannara was explored with the Ilse Witch books; a massive invading horde and direct threat to the Druids' castle was part of the original volume, The Sword of Shannara, some four decades ago. But there's an urgency, intensity, and scale here that does make these elements feel different. "Sword" in particular dated from back when Brooks was just 95% aping J.R.R. Tolkien, so the invaders here feel different than an army of mindless orcs.

The writing itself is better than Brooks has managed of late. He continues to wedge in a romantic subplot without being able to compellingly craft it, and he has a tendency to repeat information unnecessarily (in identical ways) in consecutive chapters. But he's also willing to risk more here than he usually does, likely because this is his ending. His heroic Druid, Drisker Arc, does some decidedly unheroic things. There are moments of more intense violence and danger than he typically allows. He also invests in secondary characters more deeply than he has of late, giving it more weight when bad things happen to them.

I'd hardly say that Terry Brooks is at the top of the field, nor even at the top of his game. But this book was a step up for him. I was probably a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to read it, but wasn't mad at myself afterward for having done so. I'd grade it a B.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Dun Deal

Dunkirk is the latest film from writer-director Christopher Nolan. It's a tale from World War II less familiar to self-centric Americans who generally only know about Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and maybe a few other things (if they watched Band of Brothers).

It's also quite a paradox of a film. It's an epic movie of sweeping scope... that's well under two hours. It's in many ways a story of a crushing defeat rather than a grand victory... though it is in many ways uplifting. Its sparse dialogue, and the general way the visuals could have conveyed that story with even less dialogue, makes the whole thing play much like a silent movie... but the way the sound effects scream in your eardrums and rumble your seats make it quite the opposite.

War movies are rarely a solid hit with me, and so by that standard I quite liked the film. But by the standards of Christopher Nolan, who usually amazes me on some level, this movie can't climb to the upper reaches of his filmography. Still, many elements of the movie are quite successful. It follows three distinct plot threads -- land, sea, and air. Each is distinct, adds to the whole, has a different tone, and gets you to invest in different ways.

The land story puts you right on the beach in Dunkirk, right in the thick of being surrounded and bombarded. There are no heroics here; courage manifests in not being paralyzed entirely. This thread is punctuated by some stiff-upper-lip nobility from Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander, but is generally the most conventional aspect of the film.

The air story tells another somewhat typical story of war movies: the carrying-on in the face of impossible odds. A group of pilots are trying to do as much as they can, wherever they can, to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation. This section of the film serves up the most compelling visuals, a reason to see this in the theater if you intend to see it at all, and to consider an IMAX screening if one is convenient for you. (This section also makes the bold choice of again casting Tom Hardy as a character in a mask that muffles his voice. Wicked humor from Christopher Nolan?)

The sea story is to me the most compelling, as it follows a family of civilians who take their own boat out to rescue soldiers. It's a war movie happening to characters who "don't belong" in a war movie. This section also paints a vivid picture of PTSD and how it can utterly unmake a person, in the form of one particular rescued soldier. Stage actor turned film darling Mark Rylance is the star of this narrative, which also features a compelling performance by Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy.

There's one big aspect of the movie I can't decide on: the way its structured. Perhaps this should be considered a minor spoiler, so you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The three different plot threads each take place on their own time scale: the land unfolding over a week, the sea over a day, and the air over an hour. Despite the disparity, each thread is given equal time in the movie, and is shuffled together evenly as though unfolding concurrently. I'm reminded slightly of Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), which similarly juxtaposes subplots that aren't actually concurrent just to make for the most dramatic presentation. It's more in your face here, though, as day and night are sometimes interpolated, and as (eventually, in the third act) events you've already seen get repeated from another perspective. It is a novel and clever approach. Yet being such a cerebral component of an otherwise visceral experience, it does make me question whether it was the right choice for the film.

Overall, I'd give Dunkirk a B+. It's operating at a high enough level that I can say Christopher Nolan's track record remains intact -- he still hasn't made a truly bad movie. But at the same time, I feel that if it were to somehow make my Top 10 List of 2017, it would only be because I didn't see enough movies by the end of the year.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Spoils of War

Since the moment a baby dragon first crawled up onto Daenerys' shoulder, this is the scene we've all been waiting for: Dany riding a grown dragon into a full-scale battle and wrecking shop. Having waited for it so long, though, it shouldn't be hard to wait a little longer, to the end of this post (and its proper place in the episode), to get into that.

Things kicked off with the proper return of Bronn, more than his mere wave to the camera last week. He needled Jamie (though he could not have known how extensively, could never have guessed at what Jamie had just learned), reestablishing his mercenary cred just in time for later heroics in the episode.

Cersei made a brief appearance this week, scheming with the very pleased Braavos banker. I'm frankly surprised that they made an explicit point later on of saying that the gold of Highgarden had successfully made it back to King's Landing. So much has been going right for Cersei lately that even the heavy losses her army would take at the end of the episode doesn't necessarily feel like a big enough shoe to drop for her. But it seems whatever troubles lay ahead of her won't center around angry bankers looking to get their money back. (Fair enough. I suppose late interest payments aren't easily the stuff of compelling drama.)

Creepy Bran's gotta do what Creepy Bran's gotta do. After seasons of adventure with Meera Reed (and the death of her brother), she gets nothing from Bran -- not even a proper thanks. Bran may be able to see everything throughout history, but judging by how he "sees" what's right in front of him at the moment, his power to interpret anything he's seeing is virtually nil. Unceremoniously dumping Meera, exposing Arya's kill list unthinkingly... he's got no social game. As Meera pegged it, Bran died in that cave.

Arya surprised me by showing up at Winterfell this week. I'd been certain that her encounter with Nymeria from two weeks back was a scene meant to tell her "there's no home for you anymore." Maybe it was a scene meant to say that, but it's a message she wasn't quite ready to hear. Fun for the audience, though, as Arya's return led to a number of fun scenes of pure fan service. If the reuniting of almost every living Stark didn't get you, how about Arya finally getting hands on some Valyrian steel? How about her effortlessly getting the drop on those two guards at the gate? Or how about the fantastic sword fight with Brienne? (More training, eh? Can a dash of brute force swordsmanship augment Arya's water dancing, assassin-y combat style?)

In the caves beneath Dragonstone, Jon tried another tactic in forging the alliance he wants with Dany. But both characters remained steadfastly true to their natures: Jon's too stubborn to compromise principle to get what he wants; Dany's too set on ruling everything to let the North go. The "help us / bend the knee" dance continued for another verse. Still, the alliance got a little bit of growth in the form of Jon nudging Dany out of her first thought, to fly straight over to the Red Keep and melting it, Harrenhal-style. He talked her into a more conventional military engagement instead. (And would later talk himself out of killing Theon, letting the rescue of Sansa outweigh all the misery Theon visited on Jon's family.)

And then, the moment we were all waiting for. The final, extended battle sequence was immensely satisfying, and superbly realized on just about every level. The breathtaking vistas of the unmarred countryside set up the environment before it was then consumed in flame. We got thousands of charging Dothraki warriors, strafing run after strafing run of dragon fire, and all the graphic violence you could ever want: sprays of blood, bodies turned to ash, humans and horses horribly maimed. It was the same combination of thrill and horror that the very best war movies deliver.

You couldn't help but cheer as Bronn fought his way to the ballista, even though you never wanted him to actually be successful using it against Daenerys and her dragon. He struck a severe but seemingly non-fatal blow, and then it sure seemed as though he'd his last moment on the show. But Bronn rolled out of harm's way just in time to then return for one last bit of heroics. As Jamie made a futile, foolish charge, attempting to kill Dany, Bronn shoved Jamie out of the path of dragon fire and into the water. How Jamie is going to swim to safety, weighed down by plate armor and a golden hand, is hard to imagine. But I'm convinced we haven't seen the last of him all the same.

For giving us a sequence years in the making, and that scene being everything you could have dreamed of, it's hard to think of this episode as anything but an A. It was, by run time, the shortest episode in the entire run of the series. But short was sweet.

Friday, August 04, 2017

It's Norse Than We Thought

Yggdrasil is a cooperative board game in which the players unite as Norse gods to defend against the mythological monsters marching on the titular world tree. You don't win the game so much as survive it; one card from a deck of enemies is revealed at the start of each player's turn, and you must stave off defeat until the deck is exhausted.

In the way of most co-op games, it's fiendishly difficult. (By which I mean it's challenging, not necessarily complex.) The system is stacked against you, and random chance can make any one playthrough particularly tough. This is sort of expected in a co-op game, and not really a mark against it. But the game does have issues that soured my experience.

First, it does not scale well for the number of players. To be fair, the rulebook does warn you that the game will be harder with more players. This is because an enemy card is revealed at the start of every turn. Each player can cultivate a narrow specialty against a particular kind of enemy, but they only get to apply that specialty when their turn comes around. If you're good at a thing that becomes a pressing concern during some other player's turn, the group may have to wait a while until you can "take care of it" -- and that's time you may not have. Yggdrasil claims it can be played with up to 6 players, but it felt to me like any more than 4 wasn't truly practical.

Second, there might be a bit too much randomness in the system; there certainly is for my taste, anyway. There's the shuffled deck of enemy cards that determines where the players must focus at what time. There are bags of chips (containing "hits" and "misses," loosely) from which the players must draw to accumulate strength for attacks. Then there's a die that's rolled both during combat resolution and to apply some of the game's effects. Any one or two of these sources of randomness feels pretty typical of the co-op genre, but all of them together makes for what feels to me like a too wide a variance in difficulty.

Third -- and most discouraging in my experience -- is the design of the characters each player assumes. Everybody takes a particular Norse god -- Thor, Odin, Freyja, and so forth -- each with its own unique ability. This is the backbone of a good co-op game, in my view: give each player their own way to affect the game as no one else can, and everyone is much more likely to feel they're contributing in some way to the group. Some characters in Yggdrasil have powers that can be disproportionately undermined by negative effects during the game. While some character abilities are applied quite generally, others are tied to specific game actions -- actions that can be turned off or rendered useless during play. Put another way, the game gives each player a "role" to play in the group... and then can proceed to make it impossible to pursue that role. That in turn can make a player feel useless to the group effort, or even a detriment.

The game is dripping with Norse flavor, and adorned with vivid art. But it's not a very good team experience; not, at least, with 6 players. I thought Yggdrasil fell far short of other co-op games of similar complexity, like Ghost Stories, or the many variants of Pandemic. I'd grade it a C.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Sideways Glance

"Things we simply don't have the answers to." That's the subject of the podcast Thinking Sideways. It's a sort of In Search Of / Unsolved Mysteries hybrid, albeit from a more skeptical perspective.

In each weekly episode, the three hosts -- Devin, Joe, and Steve -- gather to talk through a mystery. Their topics range widely on a continuum from gritty to outlandish. Sometimes they examine crimes, like that of serial abductor/rapist Mr. Cruel. Sometimes it's "crime with an unexplained twist," like the "Taman Shud" case involving an unidentified victim with an unsolved cipher in his pocket. They'll also get into "crime? maybe?", like the disappearance of the pilots of a Navy blimp in the 1940s. They'll talk about purely unexplained phenomena, like the powerful aquatic noise dubbed "the Bloop," or the "Dog Suicide Bridge" in Overtoun, Scotland. At times, for fun, they even play with whackadoodle conspiracy material, like the Carnac Stones of France.

This wide-ranging interest in topics kept me trying out the podcast for several episodes. What ultimately pulled me in was their approach to telling these tales. Thinking Sideways isn't out to tell you cheesy ghost stories. Its hosts recognize that the simple facts can be spooky enough themselves.

After catching their listeners up in the initial segment, the bulk of each episode is devoted to discussing theories of the case. Here, they'll cover almost every possible angle, treating each with the appropriate level of consideration. They'll talk outlandish ideas, often just for a laugh. They'll pick through more factually supported theories, pointing out the unaddressed holes along the way.

I'm reminded a lot of another podcast I tried out for a time and quickly dropped: Lore. That's another podcast about the spooky and bizarre, but one that's definitely out for the creepy vibes. It's not about to let facts or reason get in the way of a campfire story, and that's one approach. I've found Thinking Sideways to be more compelling.

I will say, though, that the production on Thinking Sideways is basically at the bare minimum. It's three people talking. There's little sign of editing work; there are no sound effects and only music to bookend each episode. The microphone quality is subpar; some episodes sound like they were recorded on a tin can phone coming from a bathroom. (Lore is superior in all these aspects.) Given the distinctly "lo-fi" quality, it's not a podcast I find I can listen to for multiple episodes at a time.

Still, the content itself I enjoy, even if I wish the presentation were better. I'd give Thinking Sideways a B. If you like true crime and the unknown, I think you'll find it worth a try.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Quad Goals

Quadropolis is a fascinating tile placement game that combines a lot of compelling pieces of other games into one compact experience. Each player is a city planner than must draft tiles to add to their own personal 4x4 city. There are six categories of tiles, each with their own rules for scoring points that leverage their positions relative to other tiles. You must focus on some categories at the expense of others, and maximize your points as best you can.

It's the clever mechanism for drafting tiles that really makes the game. At the start of each round, 25 tiles are laid out in their own 5x5 grid. Each player has four builders valued 1 through 4. When their turn comes, a player must take one of those builders and place them on the end of a row or column of the grid. The value of the number chosen indicates how many tiles into that row or column the player chooses to draft. As the round unfolds, drafting gets trickier and trickier. You can use only the numbered builders you have remaining. You can't place on the ends of a row or column already occupied by another builder. Many spaces now set empty. And you also can't point directly in the direction from which the most recently drafted tile was taken.

Your builders also place a restriction on how your own city takes shape. Your personal 4x4 grid is numbered too. The number of the builder you use to draft a piece is also the same number of the row or column where you must position that piece in your own grid. The piece you want to draft might be there for the taking... but you might not be allowed to put it in the best scoring position in your own city.

The rules are fairly simple, but the strategic implications are considerable. You can do well by focusing on tile types your opponents are ignoring... but you can still thwart an opponent's plans by blocking key spots with your builders. There's enough interconnectedness between the types of tiles that you still keep invested in more tile types than you ignore, so you can still come into conflict with any of your opponents. Then there's an entire "Expert" set of rules that add still more nuances to the game -- a set of rules I have yet to even try.

The icing on the cake here is that even as sophisticated as the gameplay can get, the game is still rather brisk. At just 4 rounds of four drafts each, you essentially make just 16 decisions in the entire game. It's more than enough to make for a satisfying experience... yet that experience takes only 30 to 60 minutes.

I probably don't have enough plays yet to bestow a grade A on the game. But I certainly look forward to playing it more. It's at least an A-, one of the neater board games I've come across in a while.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Queen's Justice

This week, Game of Thrones served up a big serving of "The Queen's Justice." And though it's taking things a bit out of order, that title seems a good place to start: it was a big episode for Cersei.

In another preening bit of showmanship, Euron Greyjoy returned to King's Landing to deliver Ellaria Sand and her one remaining daughter into Cersei's hands, where a coldly devised torture awaited: Cersei would kill Ellaria's daughter in the same way Ellaria killed Myrcella... only Ellaria would be made to watch the ordeal. It was another perfect demonstration of how Cersei's mind works, giving back exactly what she got, magnified several times. As they say, a Lannister pays his (or her) debts.

Staying with the Lannisters (and still taking things quite out of order), it was a big week for Jaime too. He got to be the beneficiary of his sister's new "I don't care who knows we're in a relationship, I'm the queen" policy. It's a narratively intriguing turn of events, as it arguably brings the two closer than they've ever been before, in the same episode that would later rather concretely confirm the theory that the entire saga will end in quite the opposite place.

That confirmation came when Jaime marched his army on the Tyrells (with Bronn making a brief return!). A bait-and-switch, leaving the now strategically useless Casterly Rock vulnerable, provided Jaime the forces to bring down another of Cersei's hated enemies. But Lady Olenna, aka the Queen of Thorns, stung with her barbs one last time before falling to poison. She gleefully confessed that it was her, not Tyrion, who murdered Joffrey. Moreover, she predicted that at some point, Jaime would come to see what a monster Cersei is, and would feel no choice but to do something about it.

In that prediction, I have no doubt that Olenna is right. George R.R. Martin littered book four with foreshadowing that that would come to pass. But the question is, after all that Cersei has done so far, what more could happen now that would be the "final straw" with Jaime? Will it have to do with the showboating Euron? Or perhaps it will involve Tyrion? Jaime has always had a soft spot for his younger brother. Jaime now has outside confirmation of Tyrion's innocence in Joffrey's death, though it seems quite possible that Cersei won't believe it, continuing her lifelong vendetta against the brother she hates.

Vendetta or no, Tyrion is continuing to aid Cersei's enemies. The meeting between Jon Snow and Daenerys finally happened, and would surely have been a disaster without Tyrion there to broker an agreement between them. With both leaders understandably stubborn, yet slightly open, it was left to Tyrion to carve out the middle path of Dany giving Jon the "worthless" dragonglass as a gesture of goodwill. That alliance had better be in the best condition it can be before Bran comes along with the revelation that Dany is not, in fact, the last Targaryen, and that it is Jon with the more proper blood claim to the Iron Throne. Not that his word alone is likely to mean much to anyone else.

Speaking of Bran, he reunited with his sister Sansa at long last... but it was not the reunion she (and by extension, the audience) might have been hoping for. It turns out that becoming the Three-Eyed Raven makes you profoundly creepy. Quite timely, him arriving to claim that he can see everything, just moments after Littlefinger gave exactly that strategic advice to Sansa: act as though you've seen it all, and imagine everything that ever could be. Bran can now truly do that, not that he would use such abilities in the sorts of ways Littlefinger would. (And also, not that Sansa necessarily needs the help. As demonstrated in the episode, she's quite the effective leader, hardened and practical by her many ordeals.)

The rest of the episode was fleshed out with brief appearances, teasing future developments. Melisandre predicted not only her death, but that of Varys. Theon was fished out of the sea, to (not?) fight another day. Jorah was cured of his greyscale, and Sam got an upgrade from chamberpot duty to copying out books. (Hey, time with books. It's grunt work that's right up Sam's alley.) Jorah is now back out in the world, leaving us to wonder what one man can do to help Dany.

Ahead: what will Daenerys do when she learns she's now lost both of her major allies in Westeros? Continue pursuing an alliance with Jon, sure... but she is a dragon, and one imagines some sort of fiery vengeance is in store. Now than Bran has finally reconnected with the other main characters of the story, what role will he play it it?

Come along, as next week takes us across the halfway point of the season. As for this week? The best so far of the season, I think. If for nothing else, Olenna's stoic and defiant death carries it to a grade A in my book.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Gods Forsaken

Arena: For the Gods! is a board game that I'm not sure was played by my play group in the manner that the designer intended it. It's not that we didn't follow the rules (as far as I know), but the tone of our experience didn't seem to match what was laid out in and on the box.

The game sets up a small hex tile arena with a few obstacles. Players each receive 30 health cubes. Before actual battling begins, players go through four rounds of bidding to draft ability cards that will give them powers during the coming duel. Each each bidding round, players simultaneously choose an amount of their health to give up in order to pick first from a face up array of powers; everybody gets one power each round, but the low bidders have to settle for what's left after others pick.

When the duel actually begins, players roll seven dice each turn and apply the symbols on them to either take basic actions or activate the powers they picked up. It's all variations on movement, close range attacks, long range attacks, and protection. Play continues until one player loses all their health; at that point, the person with the most health remaining is the winner. (Health is kept secret, though as this is something you could theoretically track with perfect accuracy, it's one of those situations where some play groups -- not ours -- would argue to keep it visible to everyone.)

The game is meant to be speedy. The box claims a 30 minute run time. Our group took more than twice that to complete it. Some of that was playing for the first time, and allowing for people to get up and freshen drinks and such. But much of it was many of us pouring a lot more strategic thought into a dice-driven combat system than it seemed able to take.

Then there was the constant bargaining. All of us (including myself) were wheeling and dealing with each other like this was a game of Diplomacy. "Hit him! He's got more health than the rest of us." "What are you talking about, no one is picking on me? I just got nailed for 4 points last round!" Probably the game's designer was expecting some of this, but in our group this was almost as big a piece of the experience as the "actual" gameplay.

In the end, the game (for us) sat at a weird intersection of social Darwinism, blind luck, and opportunity. It seemed impossible for you to take steps to position yourself for a win. More to the point, it seemed impossible for you to do anything to stop yourself from being eliminated, should all the other players decide to gang up on you. I was not the victim of that myself, but three players alternately experienced that during the game; they all finished well below the final scores of the other three. And yes, we played with six players. Though the box says this is the maximum, it's really too many. So much can happen to you between your turns that it's just one more source of hopelessness in the chaotic brew.

There's some cleverness in what all those power cards you bid on can do, and fun design in the way they're balanced to the different symbols you can roll on the dice. (They're all six-sided dice, but there are only four different symbols.) There's some nice art in the game too -- although they just straight up copied Warcraft's font for the card titles. There's a bit of a germ of something to this game.

Still, it sure doesn't seem to me like a game for us. Not for so many players at once. Not to be taken so seriously. I give Arena: For the Gods! a C+.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

We Don't Gato This

You might recall earlier this year when, during my stories of Steamboat Springs, I raved about my first experience trying an escape room. I said I was sure to try one again down here in Denver, and this past weekend that's exactly what happened.

This time, we went just north of town to a place called Colorado Escape. We same five from the Steamboat experience brought another five friends, and split into two different groups to attempt two of the four different rooms available. With overconfidence, we Steamboat Five kept our group intact and attempted the hardest room Colorado Escape had to offer, a quest to retrieve a "Golden Gato" that had only a 15% success rate.

Ah... hubris.

Two things (at least) sunk our team on this occasion. First, since we'd successfully navigated the previous escape room without ever asking for a clue, we were extremely reluctant to ask for any this time. We had a definite priority on "doing it with style" over "just doing it, period." If we wanted to get all the way to the end of it, we definitely cost ourselves a good 10 to 15 minutes on the edge of "Should we ask for a clue?" "No, never!" (Eventually, we did. But by then, the "damage" had been done.)

Second, our communications weren't as strong this time around as they'd been on the previous occasion. We were generally quite good about communicating basic inventory, if you will: I found this object, this potential lock code, and so on. We were not good about, essentially, asking for help. Each of us had a tendency to try working at one thing for a while and then, if coming up short, simply walking away from it to try some other aspect of the room. No pulling in a second set of eyes, only spotty communicating to each other what had been tried and failed.

In the end, we were told that we'd made it about 75% of the way through the room when our one hour expired. (But to be honest, it seemed like less than that when we were shown the remaining steps we'd needed to complete.) It was a humbling all around, as our friends in the other escape room also failed to solve it in the allotted hour.

Despite the misfire, I would still absolutely do another escape room again. I will say that the production values of Colorado Escape weren't nearly as strong as those up in Steamboat at Crooked Key. In terms of construction and atmosphere, Crooked Key felt a lot more polished and professional. That said, Colorado Escape was half the price, making it more practical to go back and try all their scenarios. Which we might very well do in the months to come.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Stormborn

Last week's episode of Game of Thrones was solid and entertaining, so it's a mischaracterization to say of this week: "that's more like it." Still, this was more like what I was expecting of each episode in this shortened season -- crammed to bursting with Momentous Stuff. When I say that, I'm not just referring to the high octane action at the end of the hour. Even more momentous, for those of us who have been on this ride for years, was seeing characters begin to interact who have been separated for seasons -- or in many cases, who have never met at all.

The scenes at Dragonstone, for instance, were all planning and dialogue, but they contained a number of important meetings. Varys had to use his silver tongue to explain his shifting loyalties to Daenerys, and acquitted himself (literally) in charming fashion. Then Melisandre made her introduction to Dany (and her return to Dragonstone). Next came a big war council that put all her allies together in a room for the first time, and served us another of wonderful confections that is a scene with Lady Olenna.

Jon Snow and Littlefinger also had their first real conversation. I've heard it said that the real "game of thrones" in this story is a big proxy war between Littlefinger and Varys. If so, it certainly seemed after this scene that Littlefinger is going to come out the loser in that war. Not that Jon came out looking great either. He continues to be easily baited, not only in this scene, but in his insistence on traveling to Dragonstone despite all his advisors telling him not to go. We know that Dany likely doesn't mean him harm... but that all depends on how stubborn Jon ends up being. (And we all know how stubborn he usually is.)

I appreciated that time was found in the midst of everything to give us a long scene between Missandei and Grey Worm. As a character, Daenerys casts a long shadow, and those two have always been hidden in it. On some level, this scene really drove home that Missandei and Grey Worm have been freed of slavery and now have agency of their own. They deserve long scene on screen, just the two of them, that has nothing to do with the queen they both serve.

Lest we think that Cersei is surrounded and screwed at this point, we got a dramatic display of potential dragon-killing tech. I still wouldn't bet on her in the long run, but it's nice to see the sides evened up a bit.

Samwell seems to be the vehicle this season for the most unsettling scenes on the show -- and the most disgusting edits. His greyscale "surgery" on Jorah was appropriately squirm-inducing, and capped off with more visceral editing in the style of last week's montage. Jorah still has a role to play in this story, we're being told. (And if George R.R. Martin ever manages to finish the tale his way in his books, it will potentially be a quite different role, as "show Jorah" has by this point become a fusion of two different book characters.)

Speaking of the books, a few long lost threads from those pages were picked up this week. The prophecy of the "Prince Who Was Promised" has been mentioned without much emphasis in the show. Meanwhile, it has come across in the book as very portentous, with a few competing theories bandied about by the fans. The show brought one of those into play this week, by suggesting that poor translation could mean it's Daenerys. The show may not be called "A Song of Ice and Fire" like the books, but it's hard to imagine it could actually conclude the story without getting into that title and what it means; this week seemed to be a first step in that.

The return of Nymeria also felt to me like something more meaningful for readers than viewers. Arya's direwolf hasn't been seen since season one, but mentions of her crop up in every book. George R.R. Martin has been teasing a link between Arya and Nymeria, suggesting a lesser version of what Bran had with Summer. The show has (wisely, I think) lifted that out and made Bran more special and unique in doing so, but the fact remains that Nymeria is still out there running wild and presumably serving some narrative purpose. Here, it was an important reunion with Arya, serving as an omen to steer her onto the right path. (That reunion came, of course, after an earlier and purely fun reunion with Hot Pie).

The episode concluded in a massive action sequence sure to be a highlight of watercooler discussion: Greyjoy vs. Greyjoy. The thinning of the Sand Snakes from the story. The capture of Ellaria (and presumably, Yara). Burning ships lighting up the night. Huge explosions. And PTSD-addled Theon, unable to deal with any of it, abandoning ship and his sister both. I thought it appropriate for his character that the ounce of courage he found in helping Sansa escape Ramsay Bolton was not long-lasting. And yet, one would expect that somewhere down the road, he'll have a chance to find courage again.

Another great episode. I'd mark it an A-.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Sixth Element? Maybe the Third, at Best.

To be fair, I was unreasonably excited to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A new, over-the-top science fiction movie from Luc Besson, the man who gave us The Fifth Element? Sign me up! But unfortunately, Valerian is no Fifth Element.

Based on the French comics Valérian and Laureline, this new movie is set in the 28th century, principally aboard a giant interstellar station that's home to a variety of humans and aliens. It's a setting that lends itself to more of the gonzo visuals that made The Fifth Element so distinct. It's what Luc Besson might have done then if he'd had modern visual effects technology and a $200 million budget. (And, remarkably, Besson raised this money through crowd sourcing and self-financing. Valerian is the most expensive independent film ever made.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that this movie looks amazing. Frame after frame is a work of art unto itself. There's more to take in than you could possibly appreciate in one viewing. It's dense, loud, colorful, and generally awesome. The action sequences are wonderful -- especially an early one that unfolds in two parallel dimensions simultaneously. Even in the moments where you know that not one thing you're seeing on screen actually exists anywhere outside of a computer hard drive, it's a fun and compelling world in which to tell a story.

That story, or at least the way its told, leaves much to be desired.

Unlike The Fifth Element, which trusts the audience to make sense of and accept what its seeing, Valerian feels the need to explain a lot of what's going on. Most of this exposition is quite inelegantly shoehorned into the script, and a fair amount of it isn't necessary. (A sequence in which a computer explains the geopolitical landscape of the space station's inhabitants to two characters who know it already is especially painful.)

Meanwhile, other aspects of the film really could have used more context. It seems the main characters, Valerian and Laureline, are military officers of some kind. But it's a wholly disorganized military where every operation is lone wolf, there's no respect for rank or command structure, independent criminals are hired to help, and there's zero regard for collateral damage and civilian casualties. The heroes are too sloppy to seem good at their job, and the military in general is too haphazard for them to seem roguishly counter to authority.

And yet, I suspect this movie could have been made with exactly this script, incoherence and flaws and all, and still been quite enjoyable had it just been cast better. There are a few gems way down the call sheet. Ethan Hawke hams it up to great effect as a creepy pimp. Rihanna is well-placed as a shapeshifting dancer. There are fun cameos from Rutger Hauer and John Goodman (voicing a CG character).

But the top line cast sucks. As Valerian, Dane DeHaan comes off smarmy and insufferable when he should be irreverent and charming. As Laureline, Cara Delevingne is mostly wooden and occasionally grating when she should be cunning and witty. And their chemistry with each other is somehow worse than the sum of the parts; the two seem made for each other only in that you'd never wish them on anyone else.

It's impossible to watch the movie and not try to imagine Fifth Element-era Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in the roles. (Along with Gary Oldman replacing the one-note Clive Owen as the station's military commander.) Luc Besson was clearly trying to put the same heroic types here, a pair of unflappable badass rogues. DeHaan and Delevingne pretty much sink the movie (and seem far too young for their characters, to boot). Even not wishing you could cast from other decades, you could come up with plenty of actors that would have worked better here: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Lawrence, Keri Russell, just to name ones that immediately come to mind. I guess they went with cheap stars so they could put the money elsewhere. At least you can see the "elsewhere" on screen.

If you're going to see this movie at all, you should do it now. It's the sort of movie that deserves to be seen in a theater, on as big a screen as possible. But if you let that chance slide (and I couldn't blame you), don't bother to catch up with it later at home. It's just not worth it. Watch The Fifth Element one more time instead. I give Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a C-.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Beyond the Rainbow

I'm just a hair too old to have been squarely in the demographic for Reading Rainbow. Still, I'm well aware there are a lot of people out there who know LeVar Burton not as Geordi from Star Trek, but as the host of a beloved childrens' show. Burton gets interviewed about both in perhaps equal measure, and he has said one of the most common questions he gets is: "when are you going to do a Reading Rainbow for adults?"

Now.

LeVar Burton has launched a new podcast, simply and appropriately titled "LeVar Burton Reads." To you. Short stories. Of his choosing. If you're into audiobooks, it's exactly like that, with each episode typically running 30 to 45 minutes. Each episode is also fully produced like many audiobooks are, complete with sound effects and music.

He's only a half dozen episodes in, but he's already established that he means to hop around to different genres -- this is not "LeVar Burton plays exclusively to his science fiction typecasting." That variety seems like a welcome thing to me; you never know quite what you're going to get from the podcast. Well, aside from an entertaining story performed entertainingly.

I don't know much more I can say. Either that's enough for you to be as enthusiastically on board for this, ahem, enterprise as I was, or it's probably not for you. But given the typical reader of my blog, I have to think for most of you, it will be the former. I suppose it remains to be seen whether the show will hold up over the long haul. And I suppose the occasional episode won't quite satisfy just because the story of the week doesn't. But at the moment, it's hard not to place this among my favorite podcasts.

Take a look! Er, listen. It's in a book! Er, podcast.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Robot Roll Call!

The Paramount Theater in Denver is a fiery inferno, a venue that has seemingly never known the touch of an air conditioner. It takes a special event for me to consider going there. Yet that's exactly what I had last night in Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live.

The classic "riffing on bad movies" series returned to Netflix earlier this year (thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign). I'm savoring those new episodes, I suppose, as I've only watched one so far. But it was as hilarious as the show ever was, and when a friend suggested we go see this live tour, I was all in.

The new cast and series creator Joel Hodgson are taking their shtick on the road across the U.S. summer, putting in their cross hairs one of the best (worst) movies ever covered on MST3K: the 1962 horror(?) nonsense that is Eegah. (A giant caveman in discovered in the California mountains, leading to lots of singing, dune buggy driving, and shaving. Seriously.)

I didn't know the tour would be featuring a movie that the show had already mocked... not that it would have kept me from going. Nor should it have, because they've crafted an entirely new show from top to bottom with all new jokes. Eegah is just so bad that you couldn't possibly say everything about it in one sitting.

MST3K is a show that's usually funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times an episode even when I'm just watching alone at home. So the experience is amped that much more to see it with a big audience. The laughs just kept coming, almost non-stop. New pop culture references (that didn't exist with MST3K first covered the movie), lame puns delivered with a Statler and Waldorf guffaw, running gags, razor-sharp zingers... this live show had it all. I've never laughed as much at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I've laughed at it a lot.

I probably won't be able to savor those new Netflix episodes as carefully now after this; I want to start watching them as fast as possible. If the MST3K Live show is coming to your city, do yourself a favor and get tickets!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lucky 13

A big splash was made in geek circles this past weekend, and the ripples are still kicking about -- the 13th Doctor was revealed for the next season of Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker.

The trolls came out from under their bridges to decry the casting of a woman in the role of the Doctor. This criticism was widely and thoroughly mocked: "oh, a shape-changing alien who travels through time in a phone booth that's larger on the inside makes perfect sense, but that one of those shapes would be female is where you draw the line?" The Trekkers rushed to point out that they had a female star of a TV show more than two decades earlier.

I'm all for the progressive selection here, and I recognize the inherent importance of it. I could veer off into an entirely different post about the value of representation and diversity in pop culture, though I expect that's ground my readers understand quite well. As a casual-at-best Doctor Who viewer, I'm excited mainly for other reasons.

First, having quite possibly told every story one could tell in the 50+ year history of the series, why not open up a new avenue of storytelling in putting a female authority figure at the center of it all? I haven't even watched every episode of the reboot, much less made an effort to track down the still-available originals, and it was honestly feeling a bit stagnant to me. (More on that in a moment.) But the potential for a complete overhaul is inherent in the regeneration concept; this new change makes use of that more effectively than any previous re-casting of the Doctor.

Second, I'm actually excited by this particular casting choice. Jodie Whittaker is quite simply phenomenal on the series Broadchurch. If you've never watched that show, it's enough to know that she can break your heart and hollow you out with the depth of feeling she can convey. I'd probably give a chance to any show she was on; the possibility that she might actually pull me more into Doctor Who is a bonus.

Third, the next season of Doctor Who won't just be the first for Whittaker, it will be the first for a new show runner, Chris Chibnall. That name won't mean anything to most people, but he's actually the creator and show runner of the aforementioned Broadchurch. (So in retrospect, it should have been obvious to bet heavily on Whittaker landing the role of the Doctor.)

To be blunt, I find current Doctor Who rather impenetrable. I've watched none of the most recent season yet (partly for lack of enthusiasm), but having jumped on starting with Matt Smith and watching every episode since, I still feel that most episodes feature back story, continuity, and fan service that makes absolutely no sense to me. And it has been made abundantly clear that that's how they want it. So I cheer for the arrival of Chibnall, who in Broadchurch made the most moving detective drama of the past decade. I want to see him apply the emotional centering he found within the "police procedural" format to a science fiction format. And he'll be able to write for a star he's worked with before, to her considerable abilities and strengths, which he already knows well.

In sum, there's practically the potential for an entirely new show here. So much so that I suppose one could charitably forgive a small handful of the trolls as being legitimately concerned that the thing they love might be going away. A small handful of the trolls. Maybe.

I for one can say that I've never felt more interest in Doctor Who -- ever -- than I do right now.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dragonstone

There was a lot of geek news over the weekend, but of course, everyone's tongues will be wagging this morning over the premiere of season seven of Game of Thrones. As usual with the series' season openers, it was a mostly low-key affair, all about setting up the episodes to come. But it was neither boring nor uneventful.

Things started off by putting the "cold" in "cold open," as we saw Arya polish off her business with the Freys from the end of last season. The placement of this scene right at the top served a few purposes, I imagine. First, it was pure fun, fan service to draw the audience in immediately. Second, by positioning it before the credits, they might have briefly deceived a few viewers into thinking it a flashback to times before Walder's death.

I do wonder if the scene serves a larger role in the plot to come. Before now, the idea that Face Changing allows one to become an actual, known person hasn't come up (HBO marketing campaigns not withstanding). We've seen the power used to assume random, unknown identities. This new wrinkle suggests a path by which Arya might actually accomplish the goal she shared with Ed Sheeran's not-so-merry men: to kill Queen Cersei. (That said, the foreshadowing in the books has been pretty clear on how Cersei will meet her end. Though I suppose the notion of "familiar face changing" throws a wrinkle in that too.)

Up at Winterfell, we got a little political friction between Sansa and Jon, though the conflict for the moment has reached an amicable resolution. We also got the most spectacular telling-off of Littlefinger (saving the writers of actually having to think of another clever line for him), and more of many people's favorite new character in the entire show: Lyanna Mormont. (We also got a brief check-in with Bran farther North still, but nothing more than his arrival at Castle Black.)

In King's Landing, scenes pointedly laid out how vulnerable a position Cersei now finds herself in. She's most dangerous when cornered, though, and her tenuous alliance with Euron Greyjoy could prove interesting. Euron will certainly be a force purely as a character this season, as his one scene this week said more about who he is than anything we've seen so far. (Sorry, but murdering family members just isn't enough on its own to establish an identity in this show.)

The Hound had a few heavy scenes in which he was forced to reckon with his own actions from earlier days. He came upon the farmer and daughter he left for dead after taking their silver (back during the Hound/Arya road trip), to find that death had indeed claimed them. With so many larger stakes in the story now, it was nice that the show found a moment to show that even smaller choices have consequences. Of course, there was also the larger revelation that the Hound is able to perceive quite detailed visions in the flames from the Lord of Light.

We got the most ghastly montage in the history of the show, courtesy of the prop department and the editors. The juxtaposition of brimming bedpans and unappetizing stew was enough to send stock in Campbell's diving for weeks. It also demonstrated that Sam's dream of studying in Oldtown was nothing like what he'd hoped for. But through a little disobedience, he did find one bit of valuable information to send back to Jon -- there's glass in them there hills. Dragonglass, under Dragonstone, to be exact.

But for now, that means it'll be in the hands of Daenerys, who at the conclusion of the episode had arrived at her family home for the first time. It was a quiet sequence (with almost no dialogue), but the deliberate pace of it all was appropriate, given how long this moment has been in the making -- seven years on television, more than 20 in the books: Dany's arrival in Westeros.

Game of Thrones may only be back for 7 episodes this time, but we'll all savor every one. I give this first episode an A-.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Networking

I love board games. I love television. How about putting those two things together?

That's the apparent inspiration behind The Networks, a game in which every player controls a TV network trying to program three time slots over the course of five seasons (rounds). You have to acquire the shows you want to schedule, the ads you'll run during their broadcast, and the stars that will appear on them. You have to balance your expenses and your profits, all while trying to maximize the viewership that is your actual score in the game.

Up front (ha! that's TV executive lingo!) I'll say that the idea of this game is better than the game itself. It's a clever concept, and this game has abstracted the details to just the right level to convey that flavor without getting bogged down in uninteresting minutia. The best part of the flavor is the names of all the program cards, parodies of popular TV series (or of the ideas of the garbage that somehow makes it on the air).

As for the gameplay itself? It's hard to imagine it being that enduring. It does incorporate a lot of the Eurogame staples -- picking from available actions before your opponents can take them, resource management, incentives to focus on certain options and exclude others. It's not mindless. But there's also something about it that just doesn't feel that sophisticated. Or rather, it's more that it doesn't feel like it's putting any of its established mechanisms together in a novel way.

Still, I do feel there's a chance my perceptions are off here. I'm just not sure which way it goes. Does the humor element make me perceive less in this game than is actually there -- would I appreciate it more as the laughs wore off over time? Or is the humor so central to the appeal here that I'd lose interest in the game entirely as the jokes became worn and familiar? I suspect the latter, though I can't completely discount the possibility of the former.

I'll probably never find out. My group doesn't get together to game as often as we once did, and only the true favorites get a lot of replays now. Most new games get a couple plays before some new hotness arrives on the scene. The Networks has been fun enough for a few game nights so far, but it doesn't seem like it will be around for the long haul. I think I'd grade it a B-, maybe a B. You could do worse, but you could certainly do better too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Go West, Young Man

When I blogged about the podcast Song Exploder a few weeks ago, I noted that its host, Hrishikesh Hirway, co-hosts another podcast I've been listening to. That's The West Wing Weekly, which episode by episode is working its way through all seven seasons of the TV series The West Wing.

I don't believe I've ever written about the West Wing here before -- in part because it concluded its run some time ago. But it's certainly a favorite of mine, and I think it writer-creator Aaron Sorkin's best effort on television. (Though Sports Night does make a close contest of that.) The West Wing was an aspirational utopia in which people of conscience and skill run the White House, a TV series centered on politicians who seek to improve the lives of Americans -- and actually achieve some measure of success at it.

I do have to wonder how quaint that all might seem today.

While I haven't actually been watching the old episodes themselves, I have been slowly working my way through the podcast. It's in the middle of the series' third season now, though I'm still early in the second in my listening. There are an awful lot of podcasts out there that focus on just about every television show you could think of, and most of them seem like crap. But a few elements make The West Wing Weekly worth the listening.

First, the other co-host is actor Joshua Malina, currently on the show Scandal, but (more importantly) cast member of The West Wing beginning in its fourth season. Not many podcasts have the involvement of people who actually know anything about the mechanics of making a television series. I can't think of any others that actually have one of the stars of the show itself. I'm particularly keen for the podcast to get to episodes Malina himself appears in, to see him dive into memories of actually making the show.

Second, despite the presence of Malina (or perhaps in part because of it), The West Wing Weekly doesn't just fawn over the TV series indiscriminately. The show was indeed one of the best of its time. Some would even call it one of the Top 100 TV shows ever to air. But not every episode was always perfect, not every moment flawlessly polished. Hirway is more the doting fanboy, but both he and Malina are at times willing to point out when The West Wing misfires a bit (in an episode or just a scene), which lends more credibility when they lavish praise upon it.

Third, and definitely because of the involvement of Malina, the show is regularly able to score interviews with people who were involved in making the show. Different episodes of the podcast have featured other members of the cast, directors, even Aaron Sorkin himself. They'll land interviews with real politicians who offer comparisons between the fiction and the reality. They'll talk to heads of charitable organizations when their real world causes are mentioned in the West Wing episode up for discussion that week. It's a well-rounded podcast with a lot of good insights to offer.

When I'm looking for a podcast that pokes loving fun at a favorite TV show, The Greatest Generation is my choice. On the other, more thoughtful end of the spectrum, I've now got The West Wing Weekly in the rotation. I give it a B+. If you want to get into it, here you go.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

You Caesar, You Brought Her

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival, held every summer at CU Boulder, is now in its 60th year. I haven't made it every season, but I did get to it this time for their staging of Julius Caesar. My sincere hope is that I didn't see the best of their five productions this year, as it left a fair bit to be desired.

Julius Caesar strikes me as one of Shakespeare's more accessible plays for those who think Shakespeare is not for them. It's based on a rather well-known bit of history, one that has been continually reinterpreted. (If you've watched the excellent HBO series Rome, you know the story of Julius Caesar.) The major characters aren't hard to get your head around: Brutus is a conspirator acting of noble intentions to protect government institutions; Cassius is a schemer jealous of Caesar; Mark Antony is the loyal and charismatic man who rallies opposition against the assassins following Caesar's death.

The problem with this production of the play is that none of those three roles is particularly well cast. Each of the three lacks modulation in their performances; they come storming into a scene already at its emotional peak. There's emotion behind everything they say, but it's at such a high and consistent intensity that it somehow becomes monotone. If any is truly connected to the words they're saying, none succeed in conveying that connection to the audience. Brutus does not come off conflicted, Cassius does not come off as devious, and Antony does not come off as charismatic.

That's not to say this production is without merit -- it's just that you have to look deeper into the cast to find it. The performers with less to do are the ones who really shine. Robert Sicular makes an appropriately brash and headstrong Caesar. Anne Penner does wonderfully as Portia, the wife of Brutus. And Casey Andree makes a compelling character of Casca, one of the secondary conspirators, finding the only comic relief in the show.

There's a lot of effective staging from director Anthony Powell. Several key moments occur out among the crowd. The assassination itself takes place atop three steps, so that we can watch the blood trickle down over the following minutes. There's strong lighting design too, once the sun goes down on this outdoor production enough that you can appreciate it. The overall feeling is sullen and moody, with unexpected swatches of color sometimes reflecting on the metal set.

But overall, I think a Shakespeare production in which the three most important roles all miss isn't one worth seeing. I'd give this Julius Caesar a C. I remain fond of the play itself, but I'd encourage those of you thinking about attending the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to look into one of their other offerings this season.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Home is Where the Heart Is

Three years ago, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 demonstrated what can go wrong when an individual film gets too tangled up in the movie franchise its trying to be a part of. Now, Spider-Man: Homecoming has come along to showcase how being part of a mega-franchise can be great.

So much of what works best about this new Spider-Man movie comes directly from how it is positioned in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. The main villain, Vulture, derives directly (and logically) from the events of an earlier film. The young hero's main motivation is simply to prove himself so that he can be an Avenger (funny; given how much Marvel has wished to have him around for the last decade). Cameos of other MCU characters sprinkled throughout the film add to the experience, rather than wrest focus away from it being Spider-Man's tale.

There is a bit of Ant-Man at play here. An unlikely hero clashes with a mentor while learning the full scope of his abilities. The hero fights a villain that's essentially of the mentor's making. But this movie steers mostly clear of being another MCU plot recycle for one major reason: it makes a big difference that this Peter Parker really is just a kid.

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are both solid actors (and the latter an Oscar nominee), but it sure feels like Tom Holland makes for the best Spider-Man. This movie doesn't give him as many opportunities to show us the angst-ridden teenager (as it mercifully skips the well-trodden origin story), but we get plenty of the young sense of wonder, the irreverence for almost everything (but adults in particular), and the boundless energy. It easily makes this the most fun Spider-Man movie to watch -- and that fun extends to how other MCU characters are used when they show up here.

The film also does far better with other characters than the average Marvel film. Peter's friend Ned is a great sidekick, and doesn't rely on being cast with a recognizable actor to hold presence on screen. Other students and teachers at Peter's school make it onto the radar in carefully crafted (if often brief) moments).

The Vulture, Adrian Toomes, turns out to be the most effective villain the MCU has given us in years. He has an understandable point of view and motivation. He has nuance and emotion. And of course, it doesn't hurt that he's played by Michael Keaton, who really grounds the comic book antics in a sense of realism. (Most of the time, anyway; he also cuts loose and has fun with it in the right moments, particularly in a truly chilling confrontation with the hero that's probably the most effective ever featured in a Marvel film -- and, most minor of spoilers, it's not their climactic fight.)

There are one or two minor stumbles along the way, but nothing big enough to drag down the whole. I do wish Aunt May had been given a bit more to do; this incarnation, played by Marisa Tomei, is younger and more relaxed, and clearly supposed to be "the cool aunt," but she comes off as a rather lazy and uncaring guardian because of how little she's around here. The CG of Spidey isn't always great (and never really managed to sell me on why it couldn't just be a guy in a suit all the time). Also -- and this IS a spoilery detail you'll probably want to skip if you haven't seen the movie -- I think the decision to give Spider-Man a talking suit robbed the movie of its distinct identity a bit, pushing it into Iron Man territory too far for my tastes.

Still, this is the best Spider-Man movie in years. The best period, I think, outside of Spider-Man 2. (Though it has been a while since I've seen that.) I give it an A-.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Choose Wisely

I don't recall ever having read a celebrity memoir before, but there was something about Neil Patrick Harris' Choose Your Own Autobiography that made me decide to give it a try. Well, specifically, a couple of somethings I can pretty easily identify.

First, it's Neil Patrick Harris. He's had a rather wide-ranging career that would seem to offer enough anecdotes for an interesting book: he made it past being a child star without losing his career, sanity, or life; he's had two successful television shows; he's won a Tony Award for a high-profile Broadway revival; and he took the journey from closeted gay man to out and proud all in the public eye.

Second, he picked a kitschy gimmick for his autobiography. Everyone of a certain age has read one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, a sort of text-based adventure game rendered in young adult novel form. Harris has aped the format here, dividing up all his anecdotes, writing them in second person ("you" do all the things he describes in the book), and then letting you hop around his life in whatever order you like. He's even dropped in a handful of fictitious "bad endings" just like the ones the old series was known for, that have "you" (NPH) dying in quicksand, working in fast food, dying in the jungle.... a lot of them are about dying, actually.

One of the reasons I've never really bothered to read a celebrity autobiography is that I've never really been all that interested in celebrities themselves. Give me stories about, say, the skill of acting. Give me a book about the recording of a famous album. I'd be all over that -- stories about the work. A series of mostly unrelatable tales of the things you've done in your life? I'm hesitant. And, as expected, that's a fair amount of what you get here.

That said, I made it through easily enough, thanks mainly to two things. First, the CYOA gimmick does actually count for something, and Harris' writing style is fairly breezy and entertaining. There's a lot of wry humor (including footnoted Barney Stinson-style jokes).

Second, the sections in which NPH writes rather candidly about being gay and coming out were quite relatable. That's an experience most people will never have, of course, but he writes about it in a way that I think could help many people understand it better. The coming out experience of every LGBT individual is different in many ways, big and small, but his version, a long period of self-discovery and acceptance by degrees, felt particularly familiar to me.

I'm hardly convinced that autobiographies are a genre I'm now going to seek out more of. Still, this one made for a decent enough read. I'd give it a B.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A-Maze-ing

Some movies are very much of a time. Age doesn't look good on them. If you see them for the first time years after they were new, it's hard to see what was so special about them. Other movies have copied their good ideas (maybe improving on them), visual effects have advanced in ways that make them look silly, the pace of storytelling has changed considerably.... maybe all of the above.

Some movies are very much for an age. If you see them as a kid, they're endeared to you forever. Even when they were new, they had considerable shortcomings, but it just doesn't matter if the movie taps into your young sense of wonder at a suggestable moment in your life when every movie is better because it's a movie.

I think Labyrinth is both.

I never saw Jim Henson's quirky puppet half-musical, starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, back in in the 80s... and I believe that because I didn't, the window on loving it simply closed for me. I realize that I'm going to ruffle some feathers here saying anything bad about it now. I don't want to; I love me some Muppets. But 30 years on, for both the movie and me, Labyrinth simply doesn't cast much of a spell.

There are some things to enjoy here, some of which have probably helped the movie endure. David Bowie is pretty great, a twisted blend of playfulness and menace that's a lot of fun (and probably not too terrifying for a mostly young audience). Frankly, there's not enough Bowie in the movie; it really loses steam when he's not around. He's also responsible for several catchy songs sprinkled throughout the film. The music is definitely another asset that's not being used widely enough, as the movie resists going full musical.

Jennifer Connelly is sort of okay. (The moments where she's painful to watch are not her fault, anyway. Those can be chalked up to awful dialogue and tissue-thin characterization.) It's sad to think that even today, 30 years later, a movie with a young female lead -- with a story that doesn't involve her pining for a boyfriend -- is such a rarity. Still, for this story being a "hero's journey," her character of Sarah doesn't go on much of one; after her five minutes of brattiness at the top of the film, she instantly becomes an entirely different person: noble, intelligent, selfless, and caring.

There's a bit of tonal whiplash. The puppet characters of the labyrinth dart around to whatever motivations and behavior the story requires, too inconsistent and silly to be taken as seriously as they look and sometimes act. That's sort of standard for the Muppets, so it's not too strong a complaint from me -- though I do think the more effective Muppet movies do a better job of blending the serious moments into the wackiness.

My main objection, Your Honor, is how often the movie relies on facts not in evidence. At the start of the tale, Sarah's behavior is motivated only by generic teenage moodiness. The life she finds so unfair seems perfectly fine, and her "evil stepmother" is actually quite gentle and nice. She's reading a book from which the movie's Goblin King lore seems to derive, but we don't hear enough of it to really understand the rules of what's to come; the movie acts as though we ought to know this made-up fairy tale mythology as well as Mother Goose. (And why is she trying to memorize the dialogue? Is she going to be in a play or something? We never find out.)

There certainly were worse movies from the 80s of which to wear out a VHS tape. Still, adult me had a hard time seeing what so many people had spoken of lovingly over the years. I give Labyrinth a C-.

Sorry.