Monday, July 31, 2017

The Queen's Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

Gods Forsaken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

We Don't Gato This

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

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

Ah... hubris.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Sixth Element? Maybe the Third, at Best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Beyond the Rainbow

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Robot Roll Call!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lucky 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Go West, Young Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

You Caesar, You Brought Her

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Home is Where the Heart Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Choose Wisely

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017


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

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

I think Labyrinth is both.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 03, 2017

Training Day

A couple years ago, I read the then-popular book, The Girl on the Train. I was lukewarm about it, so I would have had little or no interest in the film adaptation that was made last year. Indeed, I had "little," but not quite "no."

That's thanks to the star, Emily Blunt. She's been great in a whole raft of movies now. Many of those have revolved around men -- The Adjustment Bureau, Looper, and Edge of Tomorrow, to name a few -- yet she's wrested away attention even when her character didn't inherently command it. In short, she's great, and I felt like I had to give a chance to a movie where she was the focus she ought to be.

Unfortunately, the film version of The Girl on the Train is still only as good as the book on which is it based. Maybe not even that good. First, the book does lose something in the translation to another medium. Its big gimmick is to take the familiar trope of the unreliable narrator and multiply it; the book hands off between several narrators, and each is hiding as much as the last. The film rightly unifies the story to just one perspective, Blunt's character of Rachel, and yet excising the gimmick requires the story to stand more on its own -- something it can't quite do.

Second, the story (in any form) relies a great deal on mystery to be entertaining. It's a whodunit, and not an especially convoluted one. I doubt the writing itself would have carried the load had I re-read the book again; this adaptation doesn't make the dialogue sizzle in any particular way that makes up the difference either.

So all that's really left is performance. Emily Blunt is, as expected, great. (She was even nominated for a BAFTA for this fairly lackluster movie.) Justin Theroux and Luke Evans both give good "creepy" as two love interest/suspects. Rebecca Ferguson is solid as a falling-apart housewife uncertain where to place the blame for her misery. Haley Bennett is good as the object of the mystery, standing out particularly in a flashback scene that reveals a horrid chapter of her character's history. Allison Janney, Laura Prepon, and Lisa Kudrow are all good in bit parts -- stooping a bit to appear here, but doing a lot with a little.

In short, I guess I got what I was looking for in watching this movie: the performances are good in general, and Blunt's is great in particular. But that's really just not enough. In both novel and movie form, The Girl on the Train simply rides along in the wake of Gone Girl, a similar but superior type of story. I'd grade this movie a C+. Emily Blunt will no doubt continue being great. You might as well wait for the next opportunity to watch her.