Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Porn Drub

It wasn't as though I'd exhausted the archives of my favorite podcasts, but I recently decided to look for a couple of new ones all the same. I collated recommendations from a few different places, and one podcast kept coming up that caught my eye: My Dad Wrote a Porno.

This podcast is the brainchild of Jamie Morton, whose 60-year-old father self-published an erotic novel under the ridiculous pen name of Rocky Flintstone. Where most people might crawl under a rock in shame, Jamie instead invited two quippy friends, James Cooper and Alice Levine, to come riff on the book. In each episode of the podcast, Jamie reads a chapter, and the trio mercilessly shreds it with razor wit.

My Dad Wrote a Porno is consistently hilarious, making me literally laugh out loud whenever I listen to it. There are so many things that go into its comedy alchemy. First, the novel itself, Belinda Blinked, is perfectly awful. It's like The Room of erotic literature, fascinatingly inept on innumerable levels. Even without the running commentary, Jamie's reading of the book would be funny. The fact that he's reading the work of his actual father makes it just that much better (or, depending on your perspective, cringe-inducingly awful).

James and Alice then bring a Mystery Science Theater 3000 element to the mix. No tortured turn of phrase, no awkward simile, no appalling scene premise escapes their notice -- and Belinda Blinked is awash in them. Knowing that Jamie had friends this clever and quick, he had to do a podcast like this. It's obvious.

For me, another key element in the mix is that the trio is British. There's nothing like British sensibilities and a British accent for delivering a withering comedic takedown. My Dad Wrote a Porno would be funny anyway, but there's something here that taps into the heritage of things like Monty Python or The Office that just takes it to the next level.

A second season of the podcast came when "Rocky Flintstone" published a Belinda Blinked sequel. Nevertheless, I've been rationing out episodes, not wanting to burn up my enjoyment of this sublime hilarity too fast. I really can't recommend it highly enough. (Though I hope it's obvious that the content is quite explicit. Atrociously written, and explicit.)

My Dad Wrote a Porno gets an A. It's all that I heard in the recommendations and more.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Meet Coot

Zombies have to be close to max saturation in pop culture. But there might still be a few nooks and crannies of the zombie premise left to play with, as demonstrated by the horror-comedy movie Cooties.

Cooties is set in an elementary school, where a substitute teacher is filling in on the worst day possible. Tainted chicken nuggets in the subpar cafeteria food have sent the kids into a rabid frenzy, and their vicious bites are infecting all the entire student body with frightening speed, turning them into mindless cannibal killers.

This movie's comedic intentions are proclaimed in its casting. While there are some performers who have straddled comedy and drama, like Elijah Wood and The Newsroom's Alison Pill, there's also Rainn Wilson and Jack McBrayer (of The Office and 30 Rock, respectively). Lost's Jorge Garcia plays a running stoner joke for the entire movie. Leigh Whannell, who you might think was put here for serious horror cred (because of his history with Saw and Insidious, among others) actually plays the most ridiculous character of all -- a so-earnest-it's-funny performance that would be right at home in a classic Zucker Brothers film.

Then there's the horror side of the film. It definitely honors the "revulsion" side of the genre more than the "scary." There's plenty of over-the-top violence throughout the film, nearly all involving children. This will either make you cringe or, if you're the right kind of twisted, make you laugh. Either reaction is typical for the genre.

But I do wish the movie changed gears more effectively, or hit either of its elements more strongly. It is good for a few laughs, but it's not outright hilarious. It is good for a few "ewwws," but it's not truly horrific. The movie lands in this space where I think only genre fans could really like it... and yet those very fans probably won't love it because, despite the different premise, it really isn't anything they haven't seen before.

I think I'd have to give Cooties a B. It lands squarely in "if you like movies like this, you'll like this movie" territory. I wish it had done more, but in a genre that often falls short, I suppose it does enough.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

All Work and All Play

Hi all!

You'll have to get by a couple of days without the blog. I'm heading down to PAX South to show off games from my company, Dire Wolf Digital. I'll be back next week with the regular review, snark, or what-not.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wake Up

Until last night's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you may have been trying to see things from Radcliffe's point of view. You might have imagined that there was a kernel of misguided good intentions in him, trying to do good. All that is pretty much out the window as he was revealed to be in league with Senator Nadeer. And revealed to be a robot.

This episode took several elements that had been boiling beneath the surface and spilled them over. The latent romance between Coulson and May? Totally going to be a thing now, it seems -- albeit with the dark twist that May is an LMD. It's a pretty good recipe for sabotaging any relationship down the road between the real May and Coulson, as you'll then have two people not really starting on the same page in the relationship. Poor May. She really never can get a moment of happiness.

It was relationship drama all around, actually. Mack and Yo-Yo got the one subplot of decidedly real world tone, deepening their relationship when he revealed to her the tragic past of his lost daughter. Meanwhile, Fitz and Simmons continued to dance around not telling each other the truth. Fitz's strange behavior of last week did gain some context; it seems he was on to Radcliffe, but cared enough about him to want to confirm the suspicion before permanently destroying his reputation with everyone else.

A couple of other scenes stood out in this busy tangle of story. Mace's heart-to-heart with Daisy before the hearing showed a nice side of Mace behind the veneer, and reminded us of just how far Daisy has come as a character over the run of the show. Fitz's anguish (and actions) upon realizing the true nature of the Radcliffe LMD were quite raw and affecting. And the coda showing May stuck back in her "Calvary" moment, the worst of her life, carried great poignancy for any longtime fan of the show.

Some of the moves this week purely serviced narrative, and felt a bit rushed. Still, it may all smooth out down the road if, say, we get more explanation of how Radcliffe and Nadeer wound up together. I give this week a B+.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Life Stories (and Others)

A while back, I blogged about the short story "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang, which was the basis of the movie Arrival (now Oscar nominated). I found that story in a science fiction collection of Chiang's work titled Stories of Your Life and Others, and I decided to go on and read the whole thing -- eight tales in all.

Ted Chiang is not an especially prolific writer. Although he's been writing for over 25 years, this collection represents fully half of his entire output. He's never pursued a full-length novel, staying with the shorter form and publishing mostly in magazines. Stories of Your Life and Others is the only collection to date of his work.

But what Chiang lacks in quantity, he makes up in quality -- in particular, the quality of his ideas. At the core of each of his stories is a Twilight Zone-like "in a world" concept. Sometimes he's imagining an entirely different Earth with fundamentally different technology or history; other times he's positing a major scientific breakthrough in our own world. In almost every case, he's unafraid to venture deep into the weeds, allowing sophisticated theories of mathematics or physics to play a major role in the story. His writing remains engaging, because the idea itself is so captivating.

Here's a quick summary/take on the stories in this collection:

Tower of Babylon. In ancient Babylonia, builders are creating a massive tower literally miles tall -- so big it takes months to climb. The goal: to reach heaven itself and reveal the true nature of the world. We follow one worker in particular as he makes a shocking discovery. I'm not entirely sure the payoff is as thrilling as the journey, but the story overall is a great way of settling in with Chiang's style. Grade: B

Understand. You've no doubt seen versions of the "person who gains super-intelligence" trope. This is Chiang's take, built around a character who discovers linkages in the world no one else can see, in pursuit of a grand unifying meaning to existence. Unlike movies about super-intelligence, the written form presents a great challenge in letting you inside the thoughts of growing genius. Chiang handles it capably. Grade: B+

Division by Zero. A couple's relationship begins to unravel after one of them uncovers a verifiable proof that mathematics aren't internally consistent. I'm not sure the science and the emotion merge effectively here (as, say, in Arrival / Story of Your Life), but the juxtaposition of these two things itself is quite clever. So is the intriguing narrative structure Chiang uses. Grade: B

Story of Your Life. As I noted earlier, this is the basis for the movie Arrival. You can read my spoiler thoughts here. Grade: B+

Seventy-Two Letters. This tale takes place in a world where golem animation exists, facilitated by slipping papers with 72 written characters into a would-be automaton. A global crisis also figures in the tale, driving the main character into an effort to crack the DNA-like code to humanity itself. This is perhaps the longest story in the collection, yet still feels cut short to me. It reaches a conclusion of sorts, yet I feel there was still more to mine from Chiang's fascinating premise. Grade: A-

The Evolution of Science. "Short story" scarcely fits -- this is "micro fiction." In a scant few paragraphs, Chiang examines how technology can divide society into have and have-nots, by examining a future tech that would divide more than anything else imaginable. I wish there was more of a narrative here, but the idea is once again tantalizing. Grade: B-

Hell Is the Absence of God. This time, the "in a world" world is one where God is known to be real, and His angels make regular visitations to Earth that bestow miracles and wreak horrible collateral damage. The protagonist of the story is a man whose wife was killed and sent to Heaven, a man who can't find it in himself to "love God" for taking his wife away. But if he can't find a way, he'll ultimately be sent to Hell and be separated from her forever. It's the darkest tale of the collection, but still compelling. Grade: B+

Liking What You See: A Documentary. Written as though it were a transcript of a documentary film, this story explores the controversy "in a world" where technology exists that eliminates the ability to perceive a person's appearance as "beautiful" or "ugly." For some, it represents the leveling of the playing field, removing the ability to get by on looks. For others, the costs of this tech are too great to overcome the purported benefits. Ted Chiang was later said to be disappointed by this story, having rushed it for inclusion in this book. But I do think he does a good job of exploring all the way around his central premise in surprising ways. Grade: A-.

Taken altogether, I'd give Stories of Your Life and Others a B+. If you're a science fiction fan who likes it extra science-y and "what if"fy, you should give the collection a try.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Not So Magnificent

One of the "blind spots" in my movie viewing is the classic film The Magnificent Seven. (I also haven't seen its original inspiration, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.) Unfortunately, my desire to ever attend to this oversight has probably shrunk now that I've watched the recent 2016 remake of the Western -- and been thoroughly underwhelmed by it.

This remake had some respected names behind the scenes that generated a lot of buzz: Antoine Fuqua was the director, while the script was written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. I should have focused more on my reaction to the past work of those people. I didn't like Fuqua's Training Day nearly as much as most, and my reaction to Pizzolatto's HBO series True Detective was as negative about the first season as most people felt about the second.

Even with my frame of mind adjusted accordingly, I still might have given the movie a shot because of its terrific cast. Among the titular "seven" are Denzel Washington (cool and intimidating), Chris Pratt (irreverent and quippy), Ethan Hawke (stoic but haunted), and Vincent D'Onofrio (vanishing as usual into a different character, this time a religious tracker). Peter Sarsgaard is there to chew scenery as the despicable villain. The ingredients for a great stew are here.

Yet nothing simmers. Each of the characters in this film are tissue thin and painfully cliche. The actors I mention above (and some lesser-known names like Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Haley Bennett) are all clearly having fun with their roles. But only at times does their fun translate well to the audience. The story's beats are all too familiar, and quite slowly paced at nearly two hours and 15 minutes.

The movie isn't "bad" by any means. It's more that it just feels inessential. You've seen this story before, even if you haven't seen many Westerns. You've seen these actors do their thing more effectively in other films. And at a pure action level, a straightforward Western just isn't built to deliver the high octane thrills of the average blockbuster.

I give the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven a C-. Really, that shouldn't have any bearing on whether I eventually see the original. But it'll probably be a while.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Gladwell Done

I've recently been listening to the podcast Revisionist History, following a strong recommendation from a close friend. If anything, he didn't speak of it highly enough.

Revisionist History comes from Malcolm Gladwell, and if you're familiar with his work, that may be all you need to know to go check it out. If you're unfamiliar with Gladwell's clever and insightful writing on human nature -- his study-backed examinations of sociology and psychology -- let me try to sell you.

This podcast, in the words of its host, is about things "overlooked and misunderstood." The title suggests a look back into the past, but that's only part of the story here. Gladwell is clearly interested in the here and now; the episodes that dig into history typically do so as analogy for the present day. This is a podcast that educates in an attempt to break that old adage that "history repeats itself." The 10-episode first season was completed months ago, and I'm still working my way through them. But so far, each episode has been as fascinating as the last.

Right out of the gate, episode one takes on the glass ceiling, telling the story of a breakout artist in the 19th century who became one of the first women to be taken seriously in the British art world. Gladwell explains how "moral licensing" kept other women from following in her footsteps, and even brought her career to a premature end. (He also draws parallels to women in modern politics, material that plays much differently today than when the episode was first released in June.)

Subsequent episodes delve just as deeply into a variety of fields. A look at spies and information gathering from the Vietnam war gives context for why "intelligence failures" happen. A look at professional basketball exposes how the best way of doing something doesn't necessarily rise to the top of the heap. Education in America is the focus of a three-part run of episodes in the middle of the season.

Each episode is enlightening, engaging, end entertaining. The only thing that has kept me from devouring them is the knowledge that then I won't have any more until a second season rolls around. But it's definitely a new favorite for me, a show I heartily recommend. Revisionist History is a top-notch, grade A piece of work.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Plane Spoken

The Oscar nominations still haven't been announced, but enough of the precursor awards have made their nominations that the likely landscape is taking shape. One movie that now seems to be on the margins is Sully, the tale of airline pilot "Sully" Sullenberger and his emergency landing on the Hudson River. It was a headline so omnipresent that everyone knows the story, and that presents an interesting challenge for this film adaptation.

There's little point in spending a whole movie on pre-emergency Sully leading up to the crash. Nor would it work to start with the Hudson River landing and then let all of the tension out of the film in the hour to follow. So scriptwriter Todd Komarnicki made the decision to tell the story out of order. Post-crash investigations are shuffled together with fragments of the event itself, which is gradually unfolded from different perspectives. Brief flashbacks to a much younger Sully are also stitched into the patchwork. The results do work, to some extent. It is remarkable how events you know well (and have even seen earlier in the movie) can play out with taut suspense. Credit the skillful directing and tight cutting of Clint Eastwood.

But Komarnicki's script and Eastwood's directing have some flaws as well. Like Eastwood's last movie, American Sniper, it seems not to be enough to show someone displaying heroism in the course of "just doing their job." They have to be persecuted too; the movie is almost aiming at deification. Much of Sully's scant 90-minute run time is devoted to a witch hunt looking to railroad Sully for his ostensibly bad judgment. It does work as a story point, but it's hit on awfully hard for not really being the emotional core of the tale.

That core is how seriously Sully takes his role safeguarding the lives of his passengers. And unfortunately, the shuffling around of the narrative delays any real examination of this until quite deep in the film. The "big moment," if you will, comes when Sully learns whether there were any casualties in his emergency landing, and that comes more than 2/3rds of the way into the movie. This might not be as noticeable as it is were it not for the phenomenal acting of Tom Hanks. In many ways, the scene echoes Hanks' amazing work at the end of Captain Phillips, perhaps being even more impressive in being more subtle and straitjacketed. In any case, the scene gives the movie a shot of emotional adrenaline that propels it into a moving final act. But by that point, the audience has had a bit too long to drift into a place of wondering "what's the point of all this?"

The movie otherwise balances elements on opposite sides of the scale. There's a deep cast of great actors including Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, and more... but outside of Aaron Eckhart, no one but Hanks really has much to do. The visual effects are quite convincing, but the music is a bit over the top. And so on, pluses and minuses.

All told, I'd say it works out to around a B-. Tom Hanks again proves how great an actor he is, but I can otherwise understand if the film gets left out of the Oscar hunt.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Patriot

I don't know that I was needing an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to fill in Director Mace's back story and reveal a secret he's been hiding, but that's just what we got this week. Fortunately, it turned out to be a decent installment that gave some of the main cast opportunities for interesting scenes.

First, that big reveal: Mace isn't actually an Inhuman, but a photogenic tool of Talbot's, given super-strength in small bursts thanks to a drug. In particular, Mace doesn't even seem to have a particularly distinguished military career aside from being lucky in one place at one time. All this explains his ineffectual and convoluted "motivational poster" style leadership throughout the season, and gives new context to his keeping everyone at a professional distance (lest they get close enough to learn his secret).

We also learned, though, that Mace is well meaning at the bottom of it all -- actually a team player, and with one honed skill: smiling wide and lying through his teeth. Coulson plans to make use of this, while taking back control of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations for himself. This concludes the mini-arc of "Coulson out of power," but I doubt it puts an end to this season's trend of "Coulson in the field." After all, there doesn't really seem to have been a resolution of that mini-arc for Coulson, no particular lesson he learned during his time out of the director's chair. So I assume they'll keep going with what has worked so far, showing us a Coulson that's more of a man of action.

The LMD May remained in play this week, parallel with the story line of May as Radcliffe's prisoner. Here, the writers fleshed out the details of what's going on a bit more, revealing that LMD May had no knowledge of her real identity, thinking herself the genuine article and acting accordingly. At least, until the episode's tag. This seems to tee up a great episode for actress Ming-Na Wen. Thus far, she's had no reason to play the LMD any differently than she usually plays May, but now the decoy is in on her own secret. It will be interesting to see how this shades the performance.

Fitz and Simmons were the other major subjects of the episode, both individually and as a couple. Simmons-with-a-backbone is just the norm now, so much so that it's almost hard to remember how less self-assured a character she was back in season one. Her scenes standing up to Talbot and conning the Watchdog prisoner were both fun.

Fitz was a bit harder to appreciate this week, or at least to understand. I look forward to future episodes that hopefully reveal his thinking more. Yes, he's always been an "egghead" enticed by cool new science things, but it's hard to imagine what he's thinking in pursuing research on beheaded Aida. He's previously lied to Simmons about Aida, gotten in a bit of hot water, but then been forgiven. To then repeat the pattern undermines the sort of devotion to Simmons that we've seen before -- say, in rescuing her from an alien planet during season three, to name but one example. This feels like a plot convenience more than legit character behavior; I'm hoping that the writers reveal a greater justification down the road, beyond just "he likes tech." (Or "he is also an LMD.")

At this point, the pace of the overall LMD story line seems to be faster than the Ghost Rider arc earlier in the season. And while I think it hasn't yet produced an outstanding episode, it has kept up a compelling level of interest. I give "The Patriot" a B.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Final Problem

"The Final Problem" was the last episode of Sherlock's fourth series (and possibly the last episode of the show, period). While many of the elements were on display that have made Sherlock so enjoyable over the years, I nevertheless found it a disappointing episode -- an unfortunate note to go out on, if indeed it is the final one.

SPOILERS, people! The nature of this episode is simply too tricky to talk about without them.

This story revolved around the lost Holmes sister, Eurus, and her Moriarty-like efforts (aided from beyond the grave by Moriarty himself) to force her brothers into a series of sadistic games. Along the way, Sherlock uncovers long-buried memories about the sibling he didn't know he had.

First, let's start with what worked. As always, such a list begins with the performances of the main actors. Sadly, Martin Freeman was given little of import to do in this episode, but Benedict Cumberbatch was stellar as always with his machine gun delivery. This episode in particular provided many moments running counter to the notion that Sherlock is a purely uncaring sociopath. Cumberbatch did a good job integrating these glimpses of humanity (more than ever before) in a way that blended naturally with the character we've known all along.

Sian Brooke, the actress who played Eurus, was also excellent. She was called upon her to play everything from black-hearted villain to emotionally hollowed-out child, and she nailed all these moments. Also a pure delight was the return of Andrew Scott as Moriarty. He was a garnish this time rather than the main course, but his every moment was an answer to the show's playful question: "Miss me?" Yes!

Yet the story itself was a rickety tower of implausible conceits. Any one of them could have been overlooked in a reasonable suspension of disbelief, but the overwhelming whole of them was simply too much to swallow. Sherlock and John decide that the best way to confront Mycroft about the secret Holmes sibling is to stage a waking nightmare? How exhaustive are the "in the event of my death" recordings left behind by Moriarty and Mary Watson?

Then there was the ever-expanding ridiculousness of Eurus. She has a Kilgrave-adjacent power to instantly enslave any "normal" she speaks with? And this is the best she can dream up to do? She can leave her captivity any time she chooses (and indeed does slip out to London for occasional fun), yet decides to go back to prison afterward? She orchestrated all of this over a period of years just because she really wanted a hug? I did compliment Sian Brooke's performance a moment ago, but she really shouldn't have had to play such an inconsistent hodgepodge of scenes in the first place.

I was also disappointed in the scenes of great import that were subsequently ignored or undone. 221B Baker Street was destroyed in an explosion... but rebuilt in a quick montage. Sherlock was forced to say "I love you" to Molly Hooper... but we saw none of the consequences of that. The writing seemed to want to make big moves for the future, but had to hedge its bets on there never being a future, should Cumberbatch and Freeman elect not to return for more episodes.

Within any given scene were fun moments to remind you that even "bad Sherlock" is better than most television: John and Sherlock's advice to each other to approach their situation as soldiers; Mrs. Hudson taking pleasure in Mycroft's role as a regular client; replacing the graffiti and bullet holes on the wall of the restored Baker Street flat. Yet I was still left not completely satisfied.

I'd grade "The Final Problem" a B-. On the one hand, I want there to be more Sherlock so they can leave things on a higher note. On the other, they knew there was a chance this could be end forever, and this was the best they could muster; maybe best now just to leave it alone.

Monday, January 16, 2017

One Christmas Night

I haven't done so well the past few years with watching Christmas-themed movies around Christmas time. But I did get in one this season (from the previous Christmas). The Night Before follows three childhood friends, all now living different adult lives, in their quest to spend one last party-hard Christmas Eve together.

This isn't quite a stoner movie, but it is stoner adjacent. (Well, alright -- one of the characters is on drugs for basically the entire film.) This is one of those movies about the comedic premises of the scenes more than the plot. It's about finding where the line is, then boldly diving over it. It works (or doesn't) on the interplay between the characters (and their actors).

The trio in this case is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie. And while they do have a decent rapport with one another, it's everyone else in the movie that really gets the laughs. Lizzy Caplan displays dry wit as Diana, the ex-girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Ethan. Jillian Bell is great as the wildly understanding wife of Seth Rogen's Isaac (and she absolutely kills it during a particularly great dream sequence). Lorraine Toussaint is hilarious as the alternately clueless and clued-in mother of Anthony Mackie's Chris. Then there's the parade of more expected comedy performers: Mindy Kaling, Jason Mantzoukas, Jason Jones, and James Franco all score decent laughs.

But the funniest moments in the film come from two people you wouldn't expect. Miley Cyrus does a great send-up of herself in a cameo appearance. And then there's Michael Shannon, best known for ultra-serious dramatic performances. Here he channels his intimidating intensity into a role as a guru/marijuana dealer, and he steals every scene he's in.

Of course, the flip side of a movie in which the funniest stuff comes from where you don't expect is that the rest of the movie isn't really as funny as it should be. Though it does have good moments, The Night Before isn't really as outrageous, as irreverent, as wild as it would like to be. Perhaps some level of sentimentality is just part of the Christmas movie formula, but it's a part I think could have been jettisoned more in this case.

I'd give The Night Before a B-. It would have been good enough to be one of a few Christmas movies to watch in December. I did it wrong by having it be the only Christmas movie I watched. Next time around, I'll have to do better.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Fun for the Whole Family.... Er, We Mean, Your Rowdy Drinking Buddies!

I was recently introduced to a game that's a real textbook example of the power of branding.

Wonky is a Jenga-esque game in which players are each trying to play out their hand of cards first. Each card (with varying degrees of specificity) instructs a player to take one of nine cubes (of different sizes and colors) and stack it atop a growing communal tower. The cubes are imperfectly shaped on purpose to add to the challenge. If you knock the blocks over, you draw multiple cards to bloat your hand, and the tower begins anew.

Thanks to BoardGameGeek, I learned that Wonky was originally released in 2015 as a family game --  complete with an over-excited nuclear family grinning on the back of the box. But the version I played, rebranded and released in 2016, was Wonky: The Unstable Adult Party Game. A tissue-thin fiction had been draped over it all (something about being scientists working with unstable elements).

More significantly, the entire thing had been turned into a drinking game. Knock over the tower, and you take a drink. Also, you flip over a "new rule" card affecting the entire group -- no using your dominant hand, everyone has to talk in a silly accent, and so forth. As a maximum of three such rules accumulate, the game can get increasingly goofy.

Wonky isn't much of a game, to be sure. But if you're simply measuring it as a "drinking game," the evaluation is rather different. The simplicity becomes a feature. The stupidity leads to drinking, which leads to laughs. The only problem really becomes that if you all get too sloppy drunk, the game could conceivably never end. That is, assuming you even care about "ending" it "by the rules" at that point.

Maybe even as a drinking game, it's not tops. I think I'd rather have Happy Salmon with my shots, for example. But Wonky made for a reasonable diversion on New Year's Eve night. I'd call it maybe a B-. Probably, most people either fit in the category of "don't need a game as an excuse to drink and have fun" or "gaming is the fun, not the accessory to drinking." But there's a certain Venn diagram in there somewhere that might enjoy Wonky on its own (redefined since original release) terms.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bored of the Apes

Certain kinds of summer blockbuster movies demand that you lower your expectations before watching them. I tried to do that with the recent The Legend of Tarzan, and still managed to be disappointed.

One creative decision the movie made correctly is to spare us an unnecessary origin story. For the two people unaware that Tarzan is a wild man raised in the jungle by apes, the movie injects a few short flashbacks. Otherwise, it's a new story that picks up after Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, has repatriated to England to live a normal life. But the King of Belgium has his eye on the diamonds of the Congo, and Tarzan decides to return there in the hopes of exposing a massive slave operation.

Pretty much nothing about this movie works. There's tons of plot, reasonable (if simple) character motivations, and several set piece action sequences. None of it is even slightly engaging, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, a lot of the actors here seem to be slumming it. Christoph Waltz has built a career on conniving and charismatic villains, and here is tapped to play the despicable Captain Rom. But Rom is a cartoonish figure that tries to combine mastermind and henchman all in one silly package -- he's both Goldfinger and Oddjob, depending on the scene, and compelling as neither. Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to pulpy movies, and seems to be intended here as comic relief. But the name of his character, George Washington Williams, is about as funny as he ever gets. Jim Broadbent for some reason plays the British Prime Minister, though I can see nothing in the role that should have enticed him to take it.

Then there's the problem of how unreal everything seems. Unconvincing CG is piled high in this film; environments look like paintings, animals seem disconnected from their surroundings, and nothing moves with the right sense of weight. In sharp contrast, the animals of Disney's The Jungle Book were shown speaking English, yet still seemed more realistic than anything here.

Even if you're just watching to ogle good-looking stars Alexander Skarsgård and/or Margot Robbie, you're likely to be disappointed. Skarsgård doesn't go "full Tarzan" until more than halfway through the film, Robbie is playing a no-verve version of Karen Allen's Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the two together as a couple have zero chemistry.

The Legend of Tarzan is the sort of movie that makes you wish for dumb. "So bad it might be good" would be a vast improvement over this incredible tedium. I give the movie a D-.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Broken Promises

With the Ghost Rider arc now concluded, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kicked off its second big story arc of the season, built around Life Model Decoys.

The writers did two clever things with this episode, both addressing the potential plot similarities between this story and Age of Ultron. Marvel has done the evil robot story before, of course, and with a much bigger budget and array of stars than this TV show can bring to bear. So they're going to have to differentiate themselves in some way.

Working backward, the climax of the episode actually took evil robots off the table entirely. It was made expressly clear that Aida was only following orders and simulating emotion the entire time. The real villain in all this was Radcliffe. That alone changes the nature of what will follow; though it's perhaps a stretch that Radcliffe has so completely earned the gang's trust at this point (considering his track record) to escape suspicion, or at least punishment for his lack of judgment.

The other writing strategy was to make one long running joke of the story, peppering the episode with references to "killer robot movies." It was the gift that kept on giving, peaking perhaps in the quip that Radcliffe should be forced to watch all the Terminator movies, "even Salvation."

Yet the writers seemed unwilling to engage head-on by having any of the characters talk much about Ultron or the Sokovia Accords. And that seemed a bit conspicuous in an episode that otherwise engaged so heavily on the backstory of the MCU in general and this TV series in particular. Different moments -- both dramatic and humorous -- were built around Coulson and May's history, Simmons' record of being abducted (but only twice on Earth), and the big alien invasion at the end of the first Avengers.

Mentions of that last bit of history were there in service of the plot surrounding Senator Nadeer and her Inhuman-ized brother. That story line had some good, softer moments in it, yet ended up in a place I found a little hard to swallow. Certainly, it all served to show just what a stone cold personality, a true believer, we have in the senator. And yet, it feels to me like if she's that against Inhumans, enough to kill her "not-her-brother-anymore" in cold blood, why would she not order her Watchdog allies to kill Director Mace and Daisy when she had them there in her house? (Surely a little Simmons collateral damage isn't reason enough.)

That said, the episode's end credits scene implied we haven't seen the last of the senator's brother. Ba-bum-BUM!

Still, a couple omissions overall weren't enough to bring down an otherwise solid setup for the story arc to come. Add in the great character moments and humor throughout, and I'd grade this episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a B.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pottering Around at the Symphony

On multiple occasions, I've written about the special movie screenings at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, where a film is presented with the score played live by the orchestra. John Williams is the composer most often highlighted in these screenings (as most recently, with Raiders of the Lost Ark). That continued this past weekend with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The first Harry Potter film is now 15 years old, and plays quite differently today. This isn't to say it aged badly, though. On the contrary, most of the visuals outside of the troll attack hold up remarkably well. I think this is in part because such a distinct look and feel was established right from the beginning, and then faithfully maintained throughout the seven subsequent films. Having recently visited Universal Studios Orlando, for example, I can attest that things like Diagon Alley, Gringotts Bank, and the Hogwarts Express look in this movie exactly like what you can go see for yourself at the theme park.

No, the movie just plays differently in retrospect. We now know just how much the filmmakers caught lightning in a bottle casting all these young children for these roles. There was no telling how perfect Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint would prove to be for the main characters (along with all the other young performers filling out the rest of the parts). There was no knowing how moving the character of Snape would be, as we didn't know the end of his story back in 2001. (Plus now there's extra poignancy, in the death of Alan Rickman.) What seems like an inevitable success today could hardly have been guaranteed at the time. (Compare to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which still paved the way financially for a series, but was a far less creatively effective movie than The Sorcerer's Stone.)

One element that almost certainly was a guaranteed success at the time, though, was the score by John Williams. He may have hit a creative peak in the late 70s and early 80s, but was still producing iconic work long after. Harry Potter came just a couple years before he scaled back his workload; after Sorcerer's Stone and the next two Harry Potter films, he stopped working for anyone not making a Star Wars movie or named Steven Spielberg.

The Harry Potter theme (officially, "Hedwig's Theme") is as memorable and perfectly suited to its film as anything Williams ever wrote. A wondrous, child-like melody for celeste, it instantly evokes the sense of magic the movies demands. Watching a huge orchestra give way to a solo performer for this theme added a compelling visual component to the moving audio. And the theme proves emotionally flexible when it's transferred to other instruments throughout the score. The Harry Potter music is a bit more reliant on two or three major melodies than some of Williams' work, but he gets maximum mileage out of these themes by exploring how different sections of the orchestra alter the emotional perception of the music.

The Sorcerer's Stone score is at once so quintessentially John Williams that you'd never mistake it, and a bit of a departure for the composer. For anyone who ever paid attention to the music of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Superman, or Indiana Jones, I surely don't need to describe the similarities. The differences, though, are more subtle. Trumpets and trombones are far less active in this score than in most of Williams' work; French horns carry a great deal of the score. Traditional brass is instead used in an apparent strategy to make things seem "extra magical" in a world where everything is magical to some extent. Whenever an extra sense of wonder (or jeopardy) is required, there come the louder, brighter horns.

The violins are also working at a much more frenetic pace than Williams typically employs. While strings always play a major role in any of his scores, the violins of Harry Potter are often whirling up and down the scales like a dervish. When listening to the score, it sounds effortless and fluid. But when actually watching the performers, you see fingers furiously dancing along the fingerboards.

The score for The Sorcerer's Stone also makes extensive enough (and prominent enough) use of choir to justify having one for this Colorado Symphony Orchestra performance. Where choir has sometimes been pre-recorded (or absent) from some of the film score performances I've previously attended, this performance included an all-female choir of some 40 voices. More than once throughout the movie, their presence was that last element that really boosted the emotion in performances from young actors who had not yet mastered their craft.

Ordinarily, I conclude these reviews of CSO film concerts by urging readers to look for more of them in the future. In this case, if you're a Harry Potter fan, I can be more specific in my recommendation. It appears the Colorado Symphony Orchestra intends to work their way through the entire series in the years to come -- or at least, through the John Williams scored movies. The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban are already on the schedule for mid-2017 and early 2018, respectively. (The latter movie in particular contains some fantastic music.)

Mischief managed.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Lying Detective

This week's installment of Sherlock was a step up from the fourth series premiere, though still perhaps shy of the greatness the show reached in the beginning. (A fact cheekily acknowledged in the episode itself, when a "blog reader" commented that Sherlock's adventures aren't as good as they used to be.)

The Lying Detective took its primary inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," in which Holmes pretends to be at death's door to bait a villain into coming after him. Here, the main component of the modernization was to focus on Holmes' drug addiction as a proxy for the old story's infirmity. The effects were a bit mixed.

Benedict Cumberbatch gave an excellent performance, dialing up Holmes' mania to previously unseen heights, and convincingly showing us a man that felt close to the edge of a total break. The directing helped as well, full of jarring edits and distorting lenses to suggest Sherlock's mind set to the audience. (Though perhaps those techniques would have been more effective had they not also been used to convey the memory loss effects of the villain's drug.) On the other hand, the script itself was too fanciful about drug addiction in moments, particularly in just how functional Sherlock remained even in the grip of the drugs. There were moments that played a bit too uncomfortably for "fun" when the subject was anything but.

The other main update in the adaptation was the continued fallout of (ahem, SPOILERS here -- more explicit than anything I've mentioned thus far) the death of Mary. The device of a ghostly Mary "haunting" John played mostly to good effect, particularly when Mary represented part of John's self arguing against the rest. I'm glad that John's guilt over his brush with infidelity in the premiere was addressed -- though admittedly, bringing it up after Mary's death meant her "ghost" was able to forgive him rather easily. Of course, Martin Freeman excelled in Watson's second major emotional breakdown in two episodes.

We got some fun moments as Mrs. Hudson took a larger role in the story. Toby Jones gave us a particularly oily performance as the villain of the episode. Plus, of course, there will be more here to unpack retroactively after next week's finale, after the full exploration of the "long-lost Holmes sister" invites us to go back and watch this episode (and the one before) to see the slow trap she laid.

I grade The Lying Detective a B+. A solid adventure, though it left me wishing for an even stronger one in places.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Neverland Branch

On the last day of 2016, I headed downtown to the Buell Theater to see the touring production of Finding Neverland. The 2004 film (which I loved) was adapted into a Broadway musical, and has just begun making the rounds in different U.S. cities.

Even if you're unfamiliar with the movie, you can likely guess the subject matter from the title. Both film and musical center on playwright J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. His primary inspiration comes from a widow raising four young boys, one in particular who is rushing to "grow up" after the loss of his father. Sentiment ensues.

Much of what transforms in the adaptation from screen to stage is to be expected. Film can present more subtle and nuanced acting; the musical is written to go large. Musicals are often upbeat and happy; this one does preserve the sadder elements of the movie, but also injects many lighter moments into its source material.

A lot of the fun definitely works in the musical's favor. It brazenly defies the adage not to work with children and animals. The young boys of Finding Neverland are front-and-center in several musical numbers, including one they have all to themselves. And an actual dog -- quite well-trained -- is used in a number of scenes. The musical also goes a step farther in personifying Barrie's imagination, turning Captain Hook into an actual character that taunts the author. (Though I wish they'd leaned further into this device; Hook is featured in just two scenes at the end of Act One and early in Act Two.)

But the real star of the show is the stagecraft. Though there's fine acting, and some good songs throughout, what really arrests the senses are literally the amazing set pieces of the show. Free-standing doors are turned into a carousel. The stage is transformed into a pirate ship right before your eyes. An elaborate dance number in a pub has the company rearranging, throwing, and standing on every piece of furniture imaginable. Then there are the crisp lighting effects, a memorable center stage wind vortex, and loads of projection. (Maybe even too much projection.) Visually, this production works overtime to give you your money's worth.

And perhaps this is a conscious effort to compensate for the heavier dramatic moments, which to me come up just a bit short. It may be that I loved the original movie so much. It may be that great child performances are easier to capture on film than live on stage. But for whatever reason, the production didn't move me as much as the 2004 movie.

Still, it's a great spectacle, fun and entertaining. If you have any experience in theater at any level -- from school to amateur to professional -- it's a show to see and be amazed at what was pulled off. I'd give Finding Neverland a B. It's worth catching if it tours in your city (or, if you're in Denver like me, if it should come back around at some future date).

Thursday, January 05, 2017

2016 in Review -- Games

After an alarming low of board games played in 2015, things ticked back up a bit in 2016 -- I played 85 games throughout the year. (Alright, so my gaming habits are sort of still on life support, but at least the vital signs are trending in the right direction.)

Here's how it all broke down:

1    Above and Below
1    Adventure Time Love Letter
3    Beyond Baker Street
1    Boss Monster
1    Bruges
1    Can't Stop
1    The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game
6    Codenames
2    Codenames: Deep Undercover
2    Codenames: Pictures
1    Coup: Rebellion G54
1    Disney Apples to Apples
1    Dixit
4    Dr. Eureka
1    Eight Minute Empire
1    Evolution
1    A Feast for Odin
1    Firefly Fluxx
1    Five Tribes
1    The Game of Life - Twists and Turns
1    Glass Road
1    Gravwell
2    Gruselrunde zur Geisterstunde
4    Happy Salmon
1    Harbour
2    Imhotep
1    Isle of Skye
1    Istanbul
1    La Isla
2    Las Vegas
2    Lotus
1    Machi Koro
4    Medieval Academy
1    Metro
1    No Thanks
1    North Wind
1    Orleans
2    Perudo
1    Quadropolis
1    Race for the Galaxy
4    Sanssouci
1    Sea of Clouds
2    Sheriff of Nottingham
2    Snorta
1    Star Wars Pictopia
2    Telestrations
3    Telestrations After Dark
1    Ticket to Ride
1    Vikings on Board
1    Viticulture
4    Wonky

The top slot (most plays) went to Codenames this year (and by an even wider margin if you lump the Pictures and Undercover spin-offs in with it). It's easy to understand why -- the game supports pretty much any number of players, it's easy to teach even to people at a party not as deeply into board games, and you can just play it for as long as you want. It does help that's it's also really good, almost certainly the best of the clue-giving games. I feel like if daytime game shows were still as big today as they used to be, someone would have snatched this up to adapt for TV.

Actually, the real top slot of the year went to Clank!, the deck building game released by my company, Dire Wolf Digital. But arbitrarily, I've never counted games I play if I play them in the course of work. If I did, the development of Clank! would have put that game atop the heap by a mile. Hilariously, it's not on the official list above at all; I have yet to play the completed version of the game outside of work. But that's definitely on my to-do list for 2017 -- I'm proud of how it turned out, and would be happy to play it "just for fun."

I've continued to note which games I've played in app form on my iPhone, though I've also continued in failing to keep an accurate count of how many times I've played them. The apps I played last year included:

Disc Drivin' (essentially, Pitch Car for phone)
Evil Apples (essentially, Cards Against Humanity for phone)
Glass Road
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival
Stone Age
Ticket to Ride: Europe
Ticket to Ride: Switzerland

Lanterns (in app form) is another game from my company, Dire Wolf Digital. Unlike our physical release, Clank!, I've had plenty of opportunity to play the game outside of work. [plug] If you like the board game, you'll love the app! [/endplug]

I gave up Agricola fairly early in the year. The game seemed so great when I played it infrequently, but the more I played it, the more it seemed to come down to luck of the draw on Improvement and Occupation cards.

I gave up Glass Road almost immediately after installing it. It might be the worst board game adaptation app ever made. Every aesthetic decision made by its creators is terrible, from the micro-font to the ugly layout. Its multiplayer is practically non-functional, and supports only two players even when you can get it to work. Do. Not. Buy.

Splendor had an intriguing solo player, puzzle-gamey kind of mode. But it lacked multiplayer entirely until just recently, and even the multiplayer it supports now is not the simple, asynchronous play any app of this type should include.

Here's hoping for an uptick in gaming for 2017. There are just so many great ones out there, and so little time. Though, as a good friend of mine says, any time spent gaming is Time Well Spent.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Six Thatchers

The BBC's Sherlock returned this past weekend after a long hiatus (longer still if the one-off special a year ago didn't completely scratch the itch for you). This fourth (and possibly last, according to some rumors) series of episodes kicked off with The Six Thatchers.

(Some SPOILERS follow, folks.) The episode felt very much split into two halves. The point was clearly to contrast a light, consequence-free world in which Sherlock could literally get away with murder against a dark and serious world where consequence painfully asserted itself. Thematically, I get it. But I still felt as though the two halves didn't quite gel.

For me, the first half was the more effective. This was probably because I've been waiting so eagerly for the return of the show, and the episode immediately served up some fluffy fun to satisfy me. (This was the "give the people what they want" element mocked within the episode itself.) The jokes flew one on top of another, and nearly all of them worked thanks to great performances from the entire cast -- particularly (and not surprisingly) Benedict Cumberbatch.

Or perhaps I was deriving a bit too much satisfaction from knowing where the story was going throughout the first half? As much as (or more than) most Sherlock episodes are inspired by a particular story by Arthur Conan Doyle story, this one was playing out "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons." And I was also appreciating the additions and tweaks here; the entry by way of the victim burned alive in his car was a fun diversion, and the twist that the busts were holding information on Mary's dark past was a great reveal.

Why the second half didn't work as well for me feels harder to pin down. I think part of it was difficulty in my suspension of disbelief over Mary's assassin past. I know that was revealed to us in the previous season (and I found it hard to swallow then too), but somehow seeing it portrayed on screen made it even less believable. Amanda Abbington is a fine actress; she's just not the one I'd cast first as a super-spy.

Or perhaps it was that the whole thing felt engineered to lead to the ending we got. (Alright, big SPOILERS here, folks!) Mary sacrificed herself in a way that didn't make sense to me for her character. Instead, it felt like a necessary plot device to get at some angst between Sherlock and John that the show wants to explore in its next episodes. Depending on how that plays out, I could later be more forgiving of the manipulation here. But for now, it feels very much like a manipulation. I will say, though, that Martin Freeman gave a chilling and raw performance in the scene.

It's hard, when we get only three of these at a go, to admit that one is less than "absolutely everything I want it to be." Fortunately, there was enough good in the episode that I don't have to come to grips with it actually being "bad." I'd give The Six Thatchers a B. But I do hope we get more from the next two installments.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2016 in Review -- Movies

Time to keep up an annual tradition here on the blog: a look back at the movies of the previous year.

My viewing was up a bit in 2016 -- I watched 88 movies last year (up from 71 in 2015). Well, that's 88 with an asterisk; one of those was Everybody Wants Some!!, one of the truly rare movies I disliked so much I couldn't even finish it.

In 2016, my Top 10 List could easily have been extended to a Top 12-or-So List. There were several solid movies I enjoyed that didn't quite make the cut. And, as always, the list might be updated down the road as I catch up on a few 2016 films that slipped through the cracks.

1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
2. 13th
3. Green Room
4. Sing Street
5. Rogue One
6. Captain America: Civil War
7. Eye in the Sky
8. Arrival
9. Sausage Party
10. Deadpool

The Oscar nominations won't be announced for a few weeks, but judging by the critics and the precursor award shows, there are three "sure things" for Best Picture, one of which is all but certain to take the prize. I've seen all of those already, and none of them made my list: La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea. Depending on how the rest of the nominees list looks when it's announced, this could mark a real break for me. I'm not sure my favorite movie of a year has ever been the Oscar winner, but usually two or three nominees make my Top 10.

Here's looking ahead to 2017.

Updated 3/1/2017:

1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
2. 13th
3. Green Room
4. Sing Street
5. Lion
6. Rogue One
7. Hidden Figures
8. Captain America: Civil War
9. Eye in the Sky
10. Arrival

Monday, January 02, 2017


Ordinarily, I'd be opening up a new year with a list of my favorite movies from the year before. This time around, though, I only just watched one of the movies that made my list on December 30th. So first, I need to play catch up and share a few thoughts on that.

13th is a documentary from Ava DuVernay, the director of the Oscar-nominated Selma. It presents a case that the early American culture surrounding slavery continues to this day, transformed into modern practices of mass incarceration. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, makes an exception for punishment of a crime. The documentary argues -- quite convincingly -- that this loophole informs a systemically racist depiction of African Americans as criminals.

13th adheres to well-established documentary conventions: talking head interviews, archival news footage, on-screen graphics. But it works to the movie's advantage that its form is familiar, as this leaves nothing between the audience and the case being made.

The documentary carefully illustrates how the policies of Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr, and Clinton most magnified and/or exploited the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, it also paints a bleak picture of what lies ahead with more current footage -- a grim parade of excessive police force. And a montage that juxtaposes a Donald Trump speech with images of Jim Crow era abuse is downright chilling.

There's really just one short section in the middle of the film that I found even slightly less than compelling. It's a sequence that vilifies ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. While this material is as supported by the same "show your work" ethos as the rest of the film, it feels like something of a side trip -- after an initial focus on the for-profit prison system, it becomes more of an argument against the lobbying powers of unchecked capitalism. (Another valid argument, but lacking the tight focus of the rest of the film.)

The film feels particularly dispiriting to watch here in Colorado, given an issue that was on the ballot in the 2016 election. Colorado had an proposal to strike from the state constitution identical language to the U.S. Constitution's 13th amendment: an exception allowing slavery as punishment for a crime. Though hardly even a modest remedy for institutional racism, such an amendment at least felt like an acknowledgement of the problem. Colorado voters failed to pass it.

In short, 13th is not an easy watch. Nor does it offer much in the way of a call to action that would help one feel productive after being rightly enraged. But that makes it no less vital or convincing. I'd rate the documentary an A-, and I strongly recommend watching it. With Netflix having picked it up as one of their original films, all that many of my readers would need to do is make the time.