Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Brooklyn and Beer

We began Sunday morning of our New York trip with breakfast at a small cafe. (Putting Nutella in or on things seems to be big in Manhattan. The Nutella-Stuffed French Toast was delicious, but too much all around to finish.)

After that, we took a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was crowded, but not so much that you couldn't enjoy it and the view.

Afterward, it was back on the subway to get to another part of Brooklyn for a little brewery hopping. At the top of our list was Brooklyn Brewery.

This past Christmas, I received this poster of "99 Bottles of Craft Beer on the Wall." Ever since, I've been making my way slowly through them (trying them again "for the poster" even if I'd had them before). Possibly because the poster company itself is based in New York, Brooklyn Brewery is actually represented more than any other place -- it has three different styles of beer on the poster. I've never come across their beer in Denver either. And while I maybe could have hunted it down or worked out a swap with a friend or something, this was an opportunity to go straight to the source.

There was something vaguely carnival-like about the place, in that they sold you tokens at the door which you then cashed in at the bar for whatever you wanted. Odd, but their beer was the best we found on the trip, and they did indeed have all three of the "poster beers" to scratch off. We spent a leisurely hour there trying them (and a tasty Tangerine Wit).

Having come that far, we decided next that it was worth a walk of just a few more blocks to get to a second local brewery, Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. After a taster flight there, we headed back into Manhattan, planning to spend a slow afternoon shopping.

It seems many people think of Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue when they think of New York shopping, so we decided first to go check that out. We walked for a while along both streets, but it quickly became obvious that this was shopping far out of our league. Each store was the kind of place that had three sales people in full suits to watch over like four items in the entire store; they sell one thing, and they've paid the store's rent and their salary for a month. Armani for kids? Seriously?

So we took a different approach and headed to the giant Macy's in Manhattan -- a place so big it devoted the space of a normal-sized department store just to socks and underwear, a place so big that it contained two or three different Starbucks on different floors. We did pick up a couple of things, part practical, part souvenir (I suppose), but it may be that we'll remember this stop for an unexpected item on the Starbucks menu: the Cloud IPA.

This is an IPA (from Brooklyn Brewery, in fact) with the foam from an espresso on top. Drink enough of the beer to make room, and you can pour in more of the espresso to create still more of the foam; drink; repeat. I gotta tell you, I don't much care for IPAs or espresso, but this thing was delicious -- bitters and sweets all perfectly canceling each other out. We'd never heard of this outside of this one Starbucks in New York, but if it makes its way to Denver (with a local IPA, one would assume), it could spell trouble.

We capped off the night with dinner at a local Italian restaurant, with plans for another big day tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The View from the Top

I returned recently from a week in New York City, a vacation planned largely around Broadway shows and museum visits (though we didn't get to either of those things for the first couple of days).

We arrived early Saturday afternoon at LaGuardia (which I mention specifically only to give those of you with strong LaGuardia/JFK/Newark preferences something to chew on). We stayed at a hotel technically in Kips Bay -- and sort of near other New York neighborhoods most non-New Yorkers haven't heard of either: Gramercy Park and Korea Town. It was about 3/4 of a mile from the Empire State Building; let's leave it at that.

Well, actually, let's start there, because that's what we did first. My husband had never been to New York before, and the Empire State Building was one of the few major tourist attractions on his list. So we headed there, got food and drinks from the Heartland Brewery on the ground floor (mostly decent beers all around, without real stand-outs), and then headed up.

The view had changed a little since last time I'd been to the ESB observation deck:

In other ways, it was decidedly unchanged -- my husband said he could tell instantly where Spider-Man lived from the recognizable establishing shot of Queens you always see in the movies.

More beer rounded out the night. We decided to head over to the Alphabet City Beer Company. This took longer than it should have, and was the moment we decided to stick to the subway and skip buses for the rest of the trip. First we watched the bus we wanted drive by as we were looking for the actual location of the stop. Then we found an alternative stop for a different bus line, only to watch that one drive by without actually stopping. (And that time, we knew it wasn't us, as somebody else waiting at the stop gave us a "what the hell just happened?" look.) Anyway, a subway to the nearest station and a longish walk finally brought us to our destination.

Alphabet City Beer Company had few offerings of its own. In fact, unless I missed something, they had just one on tap at the moment. (I tried it, and it was alright.) Instead, they filled out their taps with kegs from other mostly local breweries, and filled a few refrigerators at the front with bottles to go from other mostly non-local breweries. (We didn't fly all that way to get a Crooked Stave, but props to them for having it!)

Having spent much of the day traveling, that was more than enough for us to start with. We called it a night, with plans for a lot more walking the next day.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Git Gone and Lemon Scented You

The blog and I have been off for a week, as I've been vacationing in New York City. Tales of that trip to come, but first I feel compelled to not fall any farther behind on the newest Sunday TV obsession -- American Gods.

The episode from a week ago was an interesting one to delay in watching, since is was an entirely Laura-focused, flashback driven episode that painted in the relationship between her and Shadow. It also showed her entire post-death life, leading back to that moment in the motel on the bed. I was drawn to the pre-death chunk of the episode, as it was largely new material to me and others who have read the book. It could be that some of what we saw came from scattered sentences by Neil Gaiman that were assembled into a single plot, but I felt like I was seeing and learning a lot for the first time.

And all the extrapolations/enhancements/additions were very fitting and clever. Of course Shadow and Laura would meet over a blackjack table, and of course he would be in a situation far out of his depth. But most telling of all was how dead inside Laura was before her actual death, a bored and disaffected ghost of a woman not even really all that committed to the idea of suicide. We really got to see how her new "undeath" is more of a life than she's ever had.

That teed things up well for this week's episode (the third to feature Shadow and Laura's meeting in that motel room). This week did more than anything so far to outline the overall narrative -- what the struggle is, who the key players really are, and where the relative power levels stand. Though the episode was full of great performances, two in particular really made the episode stand out to me.

First was Gillian Anderson, who must be having the time of her life playing Media. This week we got two different personae, a David Bowie version and a Marilyn Monroe version. It's interesting to see a fractional continuity between all the incarnations of Media, a commonality that's there even though the bulk of Anderson's performance is given over to the given impression. This week's two characters were cast wonderfully against type for the content of the scene. David Bowie -- ultra-cool, unflappable, put together -- was there for a dressing down of Technical Boy, while Marilyn Monroe -- playful, sexy, joyous, funny -- was there for a scene of threat and menace. Both were wonderfully fun sequences.

The other great performance was Crispin Glover, finally appearing as Mr. World. If you know anything about Crispin Glover's career at all, it's masterful casting. He's a famously moody actor, temperamental to a degree that only A-listers usually get away with (which is, presumably, why he hasn't worked all that much). Perhaps the most well-known example of this is his psychotic, non-verbal assassin character from Charlie's Angels; in the script, the character actually had plenty of dialogue, but Glover refused to say any of it.

Casting Glover in a role as important to the story as Mr. World feels like a risky high wire act without a net. Is he really going to play ball for the open-ended run of an entire TV series, working in the world of writers who clearly have such a crystalized vision of what they want as Bryan Fuller and Neil Gaiman? It's perfect, because there in the scene, Mr. World is all dangerous and powerful, and then there's this extra meta level of menace behind it -- like not quite literally this, but that Glover could snap and any given scene or episode could be his last. He was an instantly magnetic force in the scene and the show.

Of course, there was great work throughout from the rest of the cast too -- Ian McShane was great showing us a Wednesday not calm and in control, Emily Browning and Pablo Schreiber made great fun of the confrontation between Laura and Mad Sweeney, Bruce Langley gave us more of the deliciously weaselly Technical Boy, and Ricky Whittle anchored everything as stoic-in-the-face-of-the-insane Shadow.

I watched both episode 4 and 5 back to back, so it's a bit hard for me to separate the two and rate them. But collectively, I think they marked the show really ascending to a still another creative high -- a grade A pair. Clearly, American Gods is the show that'll make the extra three months waiting for Game of Thrones bearable.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Broken Covenant

Over the five years since the movie Prometheus was released, the prevailing opinion of it has grown ever more sour. I liked it well enough at the time... but I also find that today, I can't really remember much about it beyond the oft-cited negatives. I suppose I'd still say it wasn't as bad as people claim, though it would be fair to say it's much farther from good than I first thought it to be.

Alien: Covenant was supposed to be the "apology" movie to get the franchise on track. Instead, the overwhelming majority reaction among the group of seven I saw it with last night was: "I'm never paying to see an Alien movie in the theater again." That might be overstating things a bit, but either way, this new movie is obviously, measurably worse than Prometheus.

For the first 75 minutes or so of the film, it actually feels like an unnecessary retread of Prometheus. It's similarly slow in its opening. It again relies on characters making dumb decisions to create jeopardy (a touch more forgivable here, given that this story features civilians and not scientists, but still...). It too methodically paints in information about the origin of the alien xenomorphs, information that you could have more or less sketched out for yourself if you've seen Prometheus. It feels like a movie you've seen, and not a very compelling one; people were constantly getting up to go to the bathroom or the concession stand during my screening, with no regard to what they might miss.

As a reward for making it that far, you do then get a fairly solid 30 or so minutes of an Alien movie near the end. If you've seen the trailer, it's probably not much of a spoiler to say that the actual xenomorph makes an appearance here -- not merely the "not quite the same thing" version of Prometheus, but the genuine article. And when the creature shows up, the movie gets the shot of adrenaline it needs. There are a few good moments of tension, an exhilarating extended action sequence, and a fun finale that's a sort of an homage to both Alien and Aliens (showing off what can be done with better effects and more money).

But it turns out that there's another valley on the other side of that peak. The movie is packing a twist ending, and I have no reservations in saying so because that ending will be transparent to everyone. Despite the painfully obvious nature of the twist, the movie drags out its reveal; you will figure it out a good 15 minutes before the movie finally "shocks" you. And with each passing minute that the movie doesn't pull the trigger, the less sense the twist actually makes.

Michael Fassbender is acting with everything he's got in this movie, having a hell a lot of fun and overcoming some incredibly difficult technical challenges. It does feel like he's elevating the movie; it's also possible it would be unbearable without him.

A bit to my surprise, when I slipped the movie into my Flickchart, it landed among other movies I've rated a C-. I certainly wouldn't have expected to give Alien: Covenant that high a mark. (Or perhaps that one good chunk of the film was enough to muscle it out of the depths?) In any case, I would tell anyone thinking of seeing it that it's not worth it. Wait to watch it at home later (if at all). And if Ridley Scott comes calling again with another Alien movie, greet the news with great skepticism.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Game With Dromedaries

Camel Up is a clever little game from designer Steffen Bogen that combines mechanics loosely flavored around racing and wagering. It's one of the rare games that really takes the 20-30 minutes it says on the box, and one of the still rarer games that offers satisfying strategy in that brief a time.

The game board is a short race track on which five camel meeples of different colors start. They're hefty components, and designed in a way that whenever two or more are on the same space of the track together, they stack up in a "tower" (with the color on top considered to be ahead). There's one six-sided die to go with each camel, with the faces only numbered from 1-3; these are hidden away in another clever component, a fold up cardboard pyramid with a release mechanism in the top to let out just one die at a time. Whenever a die is rolled, you don't know ahead of time which color it will be, and which camel will move. In addition, if any camels are stacked on top of the color that's rolled, all those camels get a "free move" too, riding along in a stack together.

On your turn, you take one of four actions. First, you can roll a die from the pyramid, claiming 1 point for yourself. Once that die leaves the pyramid, it remains out for the rest of the "round," meaning each camel will get to move at least once.

Second, you may place a token on an empty space of the race track. Each player has one and can only place it once per round, "oasis" side up or "mirage" side up. Once placed, any camel (stack) that lands there is instead pushed forward or backward one space on the race track. (You also score points if you catch any camels this way.)

Third, you can make a short term wager on which camel you think will be leading the pack at the time the current round ends. Each color can only be bid on three times in a round -- the first person to do so gets 5 points if their chosen color is in first at the end of the round, the second 3, and the third 2. Anyone who wagered on the camel that winds up in second at the end of the round gets 1 point. Anyone who mistakenly wagers on a camel any lower than that loses 1 point.

Finally, you may make a long term wager for the end of the game, on which camel you think will finish first and which you think will finish last. Each player has one card for each of the five colors, and makes this end game wager by placing it face down on either the "first" or "last" stack. When each stack of cards is flipped over at the end of the game, you lose 1 point for each incorrect bet, but gain points if you were right. (More points come your way the earlier you are to bet correctly.)

It's a quite straightforward set of rules; while you might better understand them better seeing the pieces and playing a turn or two, I think there's no nuance I've left out of the above description. But from those simple rules arise all the classic moments of a good Eurogame. You have to hedge against a touch of randomness... but it's a constrained randomness with a reasonably limited array of outcomes you can actually process. You have to navigate the decisions of wanting to do multiple things in a limited amount of time. You have to respond to the pressure of opponents who will do the things you wanted to do before you get the chance.

It's rather impressive what Steffen Bogen has fit in a tight little design here. It's not necessarily going to be the "main dish" at a gaming night, but it makes for an excellent side course. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

World's End

The Framework story arc of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been the single best stretch of episodes in the show's history, but it didn't quite stick the (superhero) landing.

I worried last week that the writers had left themselves far too much plot to wrap up in the one episode they had left, and indeed they did. While we did get an ending on almost every point, we didn't necessarily get "closure" -- the pace was too rushed for that. Consequences of several major moments weren't really explored (Fitz watching "Simmons" die in front of him, Mack readjusting to the real world, Robbie having to leave his brother again). And many of the scenes in the episode "started late" without any establishing camera shots or dialogue -- very clearly, an episode that had come in several minutes too long had been reduced to its required running time by chopping off the start of multiple scenes.

Nothing seemed more rushed to me than the sudden, artificial ticking clock that kicked off inside the Framework. Aida's decision to shut down the Framework made sense enough for her character, but was clearly a contrivance to add jeopardy to Yo-Yo's rescue of Mack. Adding an element of danger wasn't a bad notion in and of itself, but it set things up in a way that in the end, there wasn't even really a rescue. Mack's daughter Hope just disappeared on her own, leaving Mack no reason to stay in the Framework anyway. Yo-Yo or no, it seems like Mack story would have resolved the same way, with him ready to leave the Framework of his own volition.

There was a clear effort to unite the season under one big Darkhold umbrella and call back elements of all three season four story arcs. But to me, the older elements felt like they didn't belong. The return of Robbie and the Ghost Rider was an almost literal deus ex machina, a god descending (well... devil rising) from nowhere to take care of the big problem for everyone. There was an intriguing tease that the temporary swap of the Ghost Rider from Robbie to Coulson meant something important, but by choosing to play it for future suspense instead of exploring it now, we didn't really get any emotional weight out of it.

The LMD elements felt even more tacked on. In an episode that already had too many things, we got still one more thing in an LMD Daisy shooting Talbot. The government being after the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hey, that's the name of the show!) was already a thing, so this felt like a throwaway moment to remind us that LMDs were a thing this season. We didn't even actually get a sudden death to be shocked by, as they rather inexplicably declared Talbot to be in a coma despite taking a bullet square in the forehead.

For all the extra elements wedged into the episode, one element felt conspicuously left out -- no one else used Aida and Fitz's machine to transfer from the Framework to the real world. I guess the writers truly never had plans for this; they did destroy the machine in a previous episode with no indication of another one coming, and the basis of their story conclusion (having the Ghost Rider taking personal offense to Aida's existence) probably means the Rider would have wanted to kill anyone else in a constructed human body too. Still, it just seems like such a missed opportunity to do something of huge significance to the show: bring back Ward or Triplet, explore whether Radcliffe could ever do anything to earn trust again, or force Mack to reconcile being a father with a long-term commitment he'd made to S.H.I.E.L.D. and his friends there.

While I may have pointed out a lot of negatives above, though, the episode wasn't without its good moments too. If they weren't going to keep Radcliffe alive somehow, they certainly gave him the most poignant end possible: alone and at last reflective and wistful, denied even the chance to finish his final words. (Great camera shots in that sequence too.) Coulson and May agreed to make up for the loss of that all-important bottle by backing up a bit and finding another bottle to open together when the time was right.

On the more horrific side, we saw Fitz's raw emotion as he watched Aida torture Simmons to death right in front of him. (The impact of that for Fitz felt real, even with the reveal that that Simmons was an LMD.) There were also, as always, plenty of great one-liners, particularly from Coulson: sorry he missed the Ghost Rider/Quake team-up, blase about how the extraordinary is quite ordinary in his world (he has a robot hand, he wakes up in space), and playful about the differences between May and Robot May.

Still, I wish for a finale that had been worthy of what came before it. This was a B- finish to a top notch story arc. Top-notch season, actually, because I'd have to say that even though the opening Ghost Rider episodes weren't my favorite, season four overall was probably the best year of the show to date.

Even though the show was on the bubble in the ratings, we are going to get another year of it. So I guess we'll be back in the fall. Until then...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

General Displeasure

I'd never before seen a classic film featuring silent movie-era star Buster Keaton, and recently decided that this was a "blindspot" I needed to address. I picked what most people seem to regard as his best movie, The General.

Set during the American Civil War, The General is the story of train engineer Johnnie Gray, who longs to join the army (to impress Annabelle, the woman he fancies). He's rejected when he tries to enlist, as the military deems him to be more valuable to the war in his current job. They're proven quite right when enemy spies steal a train (with Annabelle aboard), and Johnnie is the only one around to do anything about it. He single-handedly takes his own engine in pursuit.

Oh, and by the way -- Johnnie supports the Confederacy.

It's truly quite awkward watching The General for this reason. I found it impossible to fully forget that the movie's hero is fighting for the wrong side, and that these villainous spies are actually fighting to end slavery. I found it even more awkward when, after I'd finished the movie, I learned that the story was actually based on a real event, the 1862 "Great Locomotive Chase." In the actual history, the Confederates were the train thieves; it was a Northern civilian who led Union volunteers in a rescue.

Buster Keaton, not only star of this movie but co-writer and co-director, flipped the roles around because he didn't believe his audience would accept Confederates as the bad guys. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked that in 1926, some 60 years after the Civil War, there would be such a lack of understanding about which side was the villainous one. After all, we're now 90-plus years further along, and it seems a distressing number of people still don't get it, and don't know the real reason the war was fought. (This movie won't help them; slavery is never depicted on screen.) Nevertheless, this awkward role reversal of good guys in bad guys, particularly in a light comedy that clearly isn't meant to have any moral ambiguity, made it really hard for any of the movie's charms to affect me.

Very occasionally, they did anyway. Keaton was clearly a masterful physical comedian. Sight gags abound (as you'd expect in a silent film), and it's always evident when he's sharing a scene with another actor just how much better he is at it than everyone else. It's also just amazing to be thrown back to this era when you know that everything you're seeing on screen was done real for the camera -- charging trains, hordes of extras, explosions. This movie actually cost a fortune to make at the time, and its failure to recover that investment essentially marked the beginning of the end of Keaton's career. (Only later would this movie come to be regarded as one of his best.)

But oh man, has this not aged well. (And not just in the way all silent films obviously can't.) You can almost certainly forgive the threadbare nature of the plot as being as complicated a premise as a silent film can really contain. You can maybe  overlook the dim-witted damsel-in-distress as not yet a cliche in a country that had only 6 years earlier afforded women the right to vote. But it's hard to find comedy in the Civil War, especially in someone fighting for the wrong side -- and that should have been blatantly obvious even in 1926.

I give The General a C-. Perhaps I chose the wrong Buster Keaton movie, and perhaps some day I'll try another. But for now, I'm giving it a rest.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Head Full of Snow

This week's episode of American Gods was both an example of what I loved most about Neil Gaiman's novel, and the reservations I had about it.

When I say "what I loved most," I actually mean that literally -- this week's episode contained material from my favorite chapter of the book. Wednesday's "bank robbery"/grift is just delicious in its simplicity and brazenness. I smiled a lot while reading it; I may even have laughed out loud once or twice. The performances here added an extra layer of delight to the sequence, with Ian McShane "playing dumb" as Wednesday, and Ricky Whittle showing how Shadow actually came alive and enjoyed himself as he played along.

But the episode was also the most scattered yet, and this was my biggest reservation about the book. While television is truly the perfect medium for adapting a story that's so "episodic" in nature, this week's installment of the show demonstrates how those episodes (narrative parts) sometimes aren't even enough to fill an episode (hour of television).

This week opened on a vignette about Anubis coming to collect a kindly but uncertain old woman after her death. Then we had the conclusion of last week's visit to the Zorya family. Plus, still another "Somewhere in America" vignette involving a jinn in New York. And the aforementioned bank robbery. Plus the plot thread about Mad Sweeney and his soured luck. There's a lot going on here, and aside from a loose overarcing theme having something to do with "belief," they weren't terribly connected.

That's American Gods -- in book or television form. And the thing is, each one of those disparate pieces is so compelling in its own way that it kind of doesn't matter if it comes off a bit disjointed. Zorya Polunochnaya is mysterious and tantalizing; it's a good story in and of itself. As is Mad Sweeney's cursed run-in with Bryan Fuller alumnus (and former Kid in the Hall) Scott Thompson. As were both of the "Somewhere in America" sequences. And my personal favorite, the snowy bank grift.

I may have a small reservation here and there, but I'm also just thrilled to be watching something artistic and freaky that carries on the torch for the brilliant-but-cancelled Hannibal. And hey, it's not like loads of (what at first seem to be) unconnected plots hurt Game of Thrones. This is another A- episode of American Gods for me. And with the news this week that they've already secured a renewal for season two, we all have plenty more to look forward to.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Loving Criticism

The 1967 Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia is one of the more prominent cases in U.S. law. The unanimous verdict struck down anti-miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage, marking another advance for civil rights. (The ruling also figured prominently in the case that struck down same-sex marriage bans decades later.)

The case had previously been chronicled in a documentary, The Loving Story. As much as I appreciated the history, I was lukewarm at best on the film. That left me hopeful for improvement in a new, dramatized take on the tale released last year, a movie simply titled Loving. Unfortunately, I felt like it missed the mark even more than the documentary.

This new movie came from writer-director Jeff Nichols. I found that unexpected and improbable, given the only other movie of his I've seen, the sci-fi tinged family drama Midnight Special. It seemed like quite a change-up. Still, I quite liked that movie, and the way the personal stakes of its story remained front and center throughout. Maybe Nichols was the right person to tell the Loving story.

Richard and Mildred Loving were not a particularly outgoing couple. The fact that they were living together in violation of the law no doubt magnified their already quiet personalities. So if told accurately, this was never going to be a movie in which they gave bombastic, Oscar-baiting speeches. Still, it's so understated that it often feels like nothing is happening.

Interestingly, the movie is so matter of fact about their relationship that it doesn't even get into their legal troubles until 15-20 minutes in. I found myself thinking that someone coming into this film without knowing the story, someone without racial prejudice, might well wonder what the hell it's all about. When the movie does get there, it does enter its strongest section: an impactful display of what it's like to deal with bigotry -- both casual and overt -- on a regular basis.

But when things finally do turn to the court case, I found myself wanting more. Historical fact, combined with the writer's choice of perspective, combined to deny that. The Lovings did not even attend the hearing at the Supreme Court, and the movie makes the decision to remain grounded completely in their perspective. While I appreciate the impulse to keep it their story, it means we never get the triumphant moment where their argument is aired forcefully in public. There's no "yeah, take that haters!" moment in this film, even when the case is won. The Lovings just keep on living their lives.

It's something of a wonder that Ruth Negga received an Oscar nomination here for her performance as Mildred Loving -- not because it's bad work, but because it's so muted and restrained, so not the sort of work that normally garners Oscar attention, that I'm not sure how it broke through. Joel Edgerton has the volume dialed down even more as Richard Loving, giving the most subtle and understated performance of the film and his career.

The actors with the most to do in terms of flash also have very little to do in terms of their actual time in the movie. Nick Kroll, normally known for comedy, plays an ACLU lawyer. Marton Csokas gives us our villain to sneer at as a racist local sheriff. Michael Shannon plays a photographer for LIFE magazine. The three appear collectively in perhaps a quarter of the movie.

So once again, I find myself praising the actual story of the Lovings, hoping that more people knew of it... only to have another movie I can't really recommend to anyone. Loving is just too dry, too soft-spoken, to trumpet their courage in the way it deserves. I give it a D+. Stick with the documentary, or perhaps better still, the actual Supreme Court ruling that bears the Lovings' name.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Difficult Meal

I recently finished reading a true crime book called People Who Eat Darkness. It found its way into my book queue after it was oddly mentioned in close proximity on two different podcasts I listen to. It chronicles the case of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman in her 20s who went to work as a hostess in Tokyo and abruptly vanished.

The book comes from journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, who covered the case as it unfolded, starting in the year 2000. As another foreigner working abroad in Japan, his is perhaps the ideal voice to convey the social landscape of Japan and explain to Westerners the context in which this disappearance -- at the risk of a small spoiler, I'll say "this crime" -- takes place.

People Who Eat Darkness is an exposé in equal parts on a cultural clash and a criminal case. Parry does an excellent job in pulling back the curtain on what could be most easily (but also somewhat pejoratively) called Tokyo's "sex trade." In reality, the job of hostess in the type of Tokyo bar where young Lucie Blackman worked was more about unfulfilled titillation than anything else. The job of hostess is not to be a prostitute, but essentially to be "arm candy," to dote on patrons and squeeze money from them.

At the same time, there is a seediness to it all, as hostesses are expected to do far more than laugh at jokes and pretend to be into guys who visit their clubs. Parry explains the culture of these clubs in deep detail, showing how the hostesses are in a high pressure environment where they must agree to one-on-one "dates" outside of the club to make any real money (or indeed, to even keep their jobs). And while the prevailing tone of Japanese culture is such that even this arrangement is widely regarded as innocent and safe, it creates the space in which a predatory monster can easily operate.

That leads to the criminal side of the book. It's not hard to guess what really happened to Lucie Blackman, but it is nevertheless compelling for Parry to slowly reveal it. Again, the difference in cultures between Japan and the reader's makes for quite a shock. Everything about the criminal justice system in Japan is different, from crime rates to police methods to the trial in court. Parry does a good job of explaining the differences fairly (without pushing the reader hard to indulge in criticism), and it's fascinating.

And of course, there is also the story of the victim herself in all of this, and of her family. A lot of pages are spent on Lucie Blackman and her family. At some risk of seeming cold, I'll say that this is the least engaging part of the book. It's important not to lose sight of the human cost in a story like this, but a fair amount of the Blackmans' story -- despite this horrific event in their lives -- is rather typical post-divorce family drama. Where the rest of the book is painting a culture so different, this element is sadly all too familiar.

But overall, People Who Eat Darkness is an engaging read (if sometimes tough, given the subject matter). I give it a B. Fans of the true crime genre may want to check it out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Return

Man, did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. strike it rich when they found actress Mallory Jansen. In the role of Aida, she's been thrown around from one situation to the next all season long, having to portray a huge range of scenarios. Then, this week, she had to do all of that more than ever before -- all condensed into one episode. She did this so well, it was easy to overlook how much the episode was cramming in that could have easily let this part of the Framework arc spread out at least another episode.

First, there was the Coulson and May thread of the episode. Coulson hilariously caught May up on everything she'd missed since the end of the Ghost Rider arc. They danced around the way the relationship between Coulson and the MayBot progressed in May's absence (with a true reckoning still to come). And of course, they had to deal with an army of killer Russian androids. With only one episode left in the season and Aida more than villain enough to be dealt with, I don't think the episode really needed that particular twist -- though it certainly amped the jeopardy for Coulson and May. (And gave us the great "shield" gag/kill.)

Yo-Yo struggled with Mack's decision to remain behind in the Framework, culminating in a decision to go in herself for a rescue. There's a lot of emotion in that story, and I worry that with all the villain defeating teed up for next week's season finale, the episode won't have enough time to pay that off to the fullest. But Yo-Yo is now the most logical shot at bringing Mack back. (Well... maybe second most? We had Fitz and Aida's "body making machine," that could be used to bring Hope into the real world. The machine was presumably destroyed when the rig exploded; could Fitz build another one without Aida? Is that technology you'd even want hanging around in your universe?)

It's been many episodes now since the end of the LMD storyline (and still more weeks, if you count the show's hiatus), but it was still nice to go back and see the consequences of that in the burned out shell of the base, and the cloud of distrust that now hangs over everyone. The character of Talbot is far from my favorite thing about the show, but I like that the writers found time to touch on the chaos left over from their previous big story arc.

But of course, this episode was all about Simmons, Fitz, and Aida. Again, it's worth praising just how great Mallory Jansen is, whiplashing around from emotion to emotion and convincing us that Aida really was experiencing them all for the first time. The revelation that she's given herself multiple Inhuman abilities is great. Given how ripe an idea that is, and how great Jansen is on the show, I wish they weren't about to wrap that all up in one episode.

Not to be outshone, though, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge once again made the case for the Fitz-Simmons relationship being the best thing about the show. Simmons thought that saving Fitz (and all the others) would be as simple as getting them out of the Framework. Watching the realization come over her that everything that happened in there was utterly real to them ("a life," May called it) was to see an impossible weight crush down on her. And then we saw that weight lifted when she learned that Fitz still loved her, first and foremost. (Too bad dire jeopardy immediately followed. They never can catch a break, those two.)

As for Fitz, I was surprised how effective a moment it was for him to admit he was "just like Ward." It's not only strong there in that context, but seems like a fairly elegant and earned rebuttal to anyone previously skeptical of the idea of Evil Ward. A lot of science fiction has done this story, this notion that "in other circumstances, you'd make bad choices." It's rarely been expressed as powerfully as it was here.

Really, the only weak note for me in the whole episode was that final return of Ghost Rider. I suppose Season 4 does need to be wrapped up in one overarcing bow, but I can't help but feel like the momentum of this amazing tale they've been telling recently is going to be undermined by the return of one of the weakest elements of the season. I guess we'll find out in next week's finale. This episode, I give an A-.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Weiner: Dog

I'd heard great things about last year's documentary Weiner, a chronicle of disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner's attempt to get back into politics by running for New York mayor... only to implode spectacularly in a second sex scandal. It wasn't released widely in theaters, and then by the time it was accessible to watch at home, it didn't exactly seem like fun entertainment. (To the degree that Weiner's sex scandal spilled over in the final weeks of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and drove one more nail into the coffin.) Still, I finally did make time for the movie recently... and basically wished I hadn't.

Weiner is a curious documentary in that it's certainly not the one the filmmakers set out to make. They were surely expecting to tell the tale of a soaring political renaissance. There's a point in the New York mayoral campaign where Weiner is on top of the polls and seems to have all the momentum. It's all coming together. Here's a man with great ambition, and the means to connect with people authentically!

But, as we all know before watching this film, that's not what this is. This is actually the story of a man with a spectacularly combustible personality -- a lack of impulse control and a profound need to fight. When that lack of control is seen to be tearing down political norms, and the need to fight is perceived as being in defense of the little guy, the public couldn't get enough of him. When that lack of control has him repeatedly embroiled in sex scandals and cheating on his wife, and when his need to fight is directed against anyone and everyone in a desperate bid for attention, the public couldn't get rid of him fast enough.

The movie is an all-access pass to Weiner. The problem is, he's not all that complex. And his personality type has become exhausting in a very short space of time. This man is just another raging id in politics. He's all about self-satisfaction, to the point of self-delusion. Near the end of the film, there's a segment where he's completely lost his cool on a TV interview, and he thinks he's come off looking good.

Now go back and read those last two paragraphs with Donald Trump in mind instead of Anthony Weiner. You see my issues with watching this movie. The only differences are the core political beliefs, and that we haven't reached the "public couldn't get rid of him fast enough" point for Trump. It's well past time we stopped pretending that this type of psyche is hard to understand. It's well past time we feed oxygen to the fire.

Weiner (the movie) may be there in the trenches to show us the warts and all of a political campaign. But there's really nothing revolutionary or even novel about Weiner (the man). I think I would have found the movie boring in any case; now, as a sad wing of the "Non-Presidential Library" for Hillary Clinton, it's even less appealing. I give thWe documentary a D+.

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Secret of Spoons

More about the TV series American Gods seems quite clear after the second episode.

For fans of co-creator Bryan Fuller's previous series, Hannibal, it's clear that you've found the closest thing to a replacement here. Fuller has brought in key figures from that series, with the apparent intention of establishing a similar tone. This was the second episode directed by David Slade, a recurring director on Hannibal. And composer Briant Reitzell's music seems very rooted in the same sort of space as his music for the world of a cannibal killer.

The result of these three people working together again is a sort of "artistic horror." Like Hannibal, the show strives to be both beautiful and disturbing. Graphic visuals abound -- not always just violent images, but images carefully groomed for maximum impact. Equally common are images to make you recoil -- and these often are violent, like the split second cuts of Czernobog killing cattle, or even something as simple as Shadow getting too aggressive while scrubbing a tile floor. And whenever such an image comes along, count on music from Reitzell to amp the sense of discomfort just that little bit more.

For fans of Neil Gaiman's book, it's clear that the show is going to be a quite faithful adaptation. There might be a slight reordering of some elements, a slight resetting of location or reconfiguration of details -- but as best as I can remember (and I only read the book a short while ago), everything is unfolding just as it does in the book. In this respect, so far, American Gods is not like Hannibal, which used the source material as a springboard more than a bible.

That all being the case, it would seem that American Gods is going to be a show for watching good actors inhabit fun guest starring roles. Look at all we got this week: Gillian Anderson hamming it up as Media (as Lucy Ricardo), Cloris Leachman as world-weary Zorya, and Peter Stormare all menace as Czernobog (more threatening for not being less bombastic in key moments). My favorite of all this week was Orlando Jones in the opening scene, playing Anansi and delivering a delicious monologue, equal parts funny and bitter.

Episode two of American Gods continued the momentum of the premiere, delivering an A- episode both entertaining and aesthetic.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Groot Salad

I'd hoped to watch the original Guardians of the Galaxy again before heading to the theater last night to catch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -- but just couldn't manage to fit that in. So it's perhaps less-than-definitive (but probably accurate in any case) to say that in some ways, it's better than the original... while being a step down in other ways.

No significant plot details here, since I know few (in the U.S., at least) will have seen it yet. Suffice it to say that it's the story that felt weaker to me than the original movie. It's a bit disjointed, jumbling a few too many ideas together as though it were several episodes of a television show (and a half-hour one at that) stitched together. The majority of the film also splits off the Guardians into separate groups, depriving us of seeing them work (and joke) together.

That said, the separation does help in giving all of the characters both things to do that matter in the narrative, and a meaningful character arc from beginning to end. No easy feat for five very different characters, and even more impressive when you consider that the same thing is done for several characters outside the core Guardians too.

Also, I do feel like this movie tried to give me what I've really been asking for out of Marvel for several movies now: a story line that doesn't instantly feel wholly derivative of one of their earlier films. Don't get me wrong, they didn't shatter the mold here. But neither can you graft another movie's plot points beat for beat onto this one, as you largely could from The Avengers to the first Guardians, or from Iron Man to Ant-Man. It's a shame then that the overall story is the weakest thing about the film. But at least the character moments work.

And so does the humor, which feels like the best thing about this movie. Compared to the first Guardians (or what I'm remembering of it, anyway) the jokes come faster and land harder. I do remember the original Guardians of the Galaxy as being quite "James Gunn-y," but perhaps the post-Deadpool world of comic book movies gave him license to be even more himself here. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, and plenty of moments where that audience laughter kept you from hearing the next line of dialogue. And while Baby Groot will no doubt get all the attention (being the single most marketable/merchandisable thing to have happened in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe), I think that Drax actually gets all the movie's best moments.

The cast is pretty great all around, with all of the actors from the original keeping up their game. Kurt Russell is a great addition to the mix too. The one notable sore thumb in the mix is Sylvester Stallone, who is really here for just one scene in which half of his dialogue is technobabble. He clearly has no understanding of what he's saying, and it comes off charmless and wooden, as though James Gunn was just finally happy to get all the words right in Take 63 and call it a day.

Like its predecessor, I'd give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a B+. Captain America continues to be the standout franchise for me within the larger Marvel franchise, but this film was a lot of fun, and I think most Marvel fans will agree.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Rooting Out a Problem

Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a card game in which you and your opponents each cultivate a tree. It plants (ha!) one foot in fast/casual and the other in sophisticated strategy, and I'm not sure the roots go deep enough in either.

This is a highly visual game. Each card is an illustration of a tree branch, bending gently in one direction or another, sometimes splitting into a fork. "Living" on the branch are two or three spirits, represent by different symbols (there are six different ones in all). Scoring in the game is dependent on these symbols. When you place a card, you score points for each spirit on the card that appears on the previous card in the growing tree branch -- one point for every matched symbol, as far as you can trace it back down to the starting "trunk" card of the tree. Strategy in the game revolves around clustering symbols together on a single branch of the tree. If you are forced to play a card with symbols you haven't been focused on, you'll want to get that card onto a different branch that you might cultivate later.

On the fast/casual side of things, the placement of cards is rather loose. You line up the pictures of the branches, rotating the new card you're placing in any direction you want, so long as it touches only one previously played card. If a gust of wind blows through the room, or someone knocks the table? Well, we're all friends here. Put it back as best you can.

There are some brain-burning aspects to the rules. (They actually got me too. I felt painfully aware of taking "too long" on some of my turns.) First, the rules say that you can score no more than 10 points from placing one card. You don't just ignore the extra points, you have to find a different way to play the card to avoid going over 10. No doubt this rule was meant to provide more catch-up opportunities for trailing players (saving them from the compounding numbers of the leader). Plus, that rule forces you to diversify your symbols more, which is absolutely more interesting than just picking one of the games six spirits and leaning on it. But  it also makes for a lot of drafting a card, rotating it a bunch, trying it here no there no here no actually there, and then putting it back to decide you should have drafted a different card instead.

Second, the game is divided into "seasons," three intervals at the end of which bonus scoring is possible. This is done by dealing four cards to each player at the start of the game, each with a special condition for earning points. (You'll play three of the four of them, one at the end of each season, before the game is over.) Each season also has a special rules card face up throughout that alters the basic rules of the game in some way. All nice for variety, all nice if you've got a solid handle on the strategy. But I found that at least for a newer player, all these cards with conflicting goals lurch your thinking this way then that, adding perhaps too many permutations to your card placement choices.

If there were enough going on here for all these decisions to add up to a 60-90 minute, more advanced Eurogame, that would be one thing. But the looseness of the card playing, and the fact that the box taunts you with the idea that you should be able to do all this in 30 minutes, strongly suggests that this is not supposed to be that game. So it kind of lands in the middle.

There are some interesting mechanical ideas in the mix here, but there are plenty of better short games I think I'd choose over Kodama. I give it a B-.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Farewell, Cruel World!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. served up yet another great episode in the Framework story arc. The world may be fake, but the ramifications for the characters are real.

Radcliffe finally did the decent thing, only pretending to sell out the team so he could get Fitz to the Framework exit portal. This was a great payoff for the father-son tones in their relationship, a parental figure sacrificing for the child, and far more layered than just having Radcliffe turn cloak again.

But the real parental sacrifice, of course, came when Mack chose to stay behind with his daughter, even knowing that she and the rest of the world were a simulation. The love was real, and that was enough for Mack. His choice was a nice twist, particularly given the TV trope of easily abandoning/sidelining a child to make way for adventure. It was a powerful moment for his character, and pays off well whether that's indeed the last we see of him, or he's forcibly removed from the Framework later and we see the fallout of that.

Speaking of forcibly removing him, I did have to question Daisy's behavior in that climactic scene. I wasn't convinced she wouldn't just Quake-knock his ass backwards into the portal. Or that she wouldn't hide the absence of his daughter in the real world until he'd taken the plunge. Or that she wouldn't at least try to lobby harder by telling him explicitly about Yo-Yo and their relationship. That last option would have twisted the knife just a bit more when he still presumably chose his daughter and the Framework, while the other options could have caused an interesting rift between Daisy and Mack in the future. But perhaps this was Mack's time to be written off the show? We'll see if the writers have a rescue for him in the coming episodes.

And as for being written off the show, where was Ward this week? His absence felt significant to me, to a degree where I wondered briefly if I'd forgotten them killing him off last week. (They didn't, but I guess now I know why they were hitting his goodbye with Daisy so hard last episode: he wasn't going to be in this episode.) It feels like a missed opportunity to not kill Ward off for the third time on the show, inside the Framework. Which makes me suspect that the writers have plans to use Aida's new machine to give him a body before all this is done, potentially restoring him to the series on a more permanent basis (if there's a season five, anyway).

Aida's machine is a wild card in the two remaining episodes -- are we going to get a real world Ward? Triplett? But the machine has already done the job of converting Aida into a flesh-and-blood human, complete with emotion. Plus, apparently, either some added Inhuman-style powers, or the ability to perform some Darkhold-inspired trickery, as she teleported away with Fitz at the end of the episode. It certainly seems her love for him was not merely a means to an end, and she'll be trying to continue her relationship with him despite radically altered circumstances.

Poor Fitz. His horror at what he did in the Framework was every bit as strong as you'd imagine, and we'll surely be seeing more of it. The writers were doubly clever (and cruel to Fitz) in how the whole scenario was set up -- Simmons is the one person who might have been able to help ground him in the moment he awoke, but she wasn't there, having plugged in from another place. Then again, maybe having her there in the moment would have only added more anguish, as just one minute earlier, Fitz had shot her in the leg and was about to kill her. And the cherry on the misery sundae? All the feelings from inside the Framework remain very real and quite accessible, as evidenced by Fitz's complicated reaction to seeing Aida -- Ophelia -- walk into the room.

Our heroes may be back in the real world now, but there's plenty of drama (and that little matter of taking out Aida and securing the Darkhold) still to come before the season ends. As for this episode, I give it an A-.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

McLemore and Brian Drew Us

If you got hooked on season one of the podcast Serial (and wherever you land on whether the second was good or a disappointment), you'll probably want to consider the latest "multi-part story podcast" released by them and This American Life: S-Town. Though the podcast was released under that title, host Brian Reed gives the real title in each episode's introduction: Shittown. That's a reference to Shittown, Alabama -- a town rechristened such by the podcast's central figure, John B. McLemore.

The seven-episode podcast does something of a bait and switch. Episode 1 seeks to draw you in under false pretenses. McLemore contacts Reed imploring him to come to Alabama and investigate a murder he says the local police department has covered up. A story of intrigue and corruption, of murder and injustice, is what's promised as that first episode unfolds. That's not what S-Town turns out to be; not in the "true crime" sense, at least.

S-Town is, depending on how you look at it, an examination of life in a rural Southern town, or a deep dive into one enormously tortured psyche. People who have praised the podcast tend to see it more as the latter, but criticism can be leveled at it on both fronts. S-Town has now been available for about a month, so we're now well into the "backlash think pieces" period of its popularity. Many of those essentially slag S-Town as a vehicle for urban liberals to feel as though they've learned something about small towns. I don't know how much I buy into that interpretation, but my enthusiasm for the podcast is a bit muted all the same.

It is fairly entertaining overall, but my criticism of S-Town would be that it's ultimately not nearly as complex as it purports to be. First, there's that bait and switch in which it pretends to be a true crime podcast for two episodes. Then, as it peels the onion on John B. McLemore for the rest of the run, it draws out the process more than seems truly necessary -- because, in the end, he doesn't come across as all that complex a figure. By the final episode, McLemore's despair and disillusionment with his life in "Shittown" is revealed to have very specific reasons and causes. And at the risk of being reductive, seven hours weren't needed to get to the bottom of them.

S-Town does mostly work, though, as Brian Reed is able to draw the story out mostly in ways that don't feel like he's drawing it out (until you look back retroactively). There are a lot of other colorful characters in McLemore's orbit, and a lot of time is spent on them as well. There is a bit of the back-and-forth "he's the 'villain' here; no, she's the 'villain' here" that was the bread and butter of Serial. Still, I can't help but feel that another podcast -- like, say, Criminal -- would have found a way to tell this story much more succinctly and leave me just as satisfied. Maybe more so.

I'd grade S-Town a B-. Fans of Serial may want to check it out in any case. Otherwise, I'd probably recommend it only to those looking for a limited (not open-ended) podcast to binge on for a bit.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Bone Orchard

Last night, STARZ premiered their newest television series, American Gods. It's based on the Neil Gaiman book I finished reading a short while back (and mostly enjoyed). It's also a show co-created and being run by Bryan Fuller, the man behind Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, and others. (And it's the show he picked over the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery when he couldn't maintain both.) In short, real appointment television.

The first episode is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the first few chapters of the book. On the plus side, that means that Gaiman's already vivid characters have been brought into even sharper focus in the translation to screen, and with perfect casting all around.

Ricky Whittle makes for a great Shadow Moon, our protagonist (an anchor on reality) in all the supernatural that's about to unfold. Inner monologue plays a big part in how the book portrays Shadow; he's a character who keeps emotion bottled up tight most of the time. This is the first I've seen of Whittle (though he has some past credits), but he immediately demonstrates the ability to capture all this. He tries not to tip his hand, but you get the sense of everything boiling beneath the surface. (And we've already seen moments where that boils over.)

Ian McShane is, unsurprisingly, the perfect Mr. Wednesday. (As I noted of the book, he's the face I think you'd inevitably conjure for the character from the page.) Calm and controlled, but with a dark streak of menace -- that's Wednesday and McShane.

More of Gaiman's characters made a big impression in this first episode too. Bruce Langley played an annoyingly punchable (but powerful) Technical Boy. Pablo Schreiber brought the fun and the funny as leprechaun Mad Sweeney. And I think few who watched the episode will soon forget the bizarre Bilquis, played by Yetide Badaki. (How were they going to pull off that scene from the book? Answer: very disturbingly.)

What remains to be seen is whether and how the series will open up the book in the episodes ahead. If they don't, then this would seem to be a show that could last only one or two seasons, tops, before running out of book to cover. Is the show going to make recurring use of these indelible characters, or (like the book) are they just stops (some quite brief) on Shadow's wild adventures? A chance for Fuller to call up old friends he's worked with to say, "wanna come do one episode?"

Way too early to answer any of that. But the first episode was well put together and quite entertaining. I give it an A-.