Friday, September 29, 2017

The Great (Pretty Good, At Least) Escape

Last weekend, my friends hosted a gaming/dinner party where only one type of game was on the agenda: escape room games. I've written before on a couple of occasions about escape rooms we've enjoyed. It seems they're enough of a phenomenon that a number of board game manufacturers have tried to package the same kind of experience in a product you can play in your own home.

We got to try a couple different ones at this party, but I'm going to focus on one particular brand in this post -- Exit: The Game. It has the most notoriety at the moment, fresh off a 2017 win of the Kennerspiel des Jahres award (the "expert game of the year" honor given out in the German game industry).

Exit is a game in a rather tiny box, containing just cards, a booklet, and a "decoder wheel." It sells for around $15, and is made to be played just once -- not only will you "solve" the room, you will destroy some of the game components in the course of doing so. Given the notable number of games my group has paid three or four times that amount for and then only played once, this is not a huge ask -- particularly compared to the cost of actually going to an escape room. If the "ticket" is fun enough, it could easily be worth $15.

There are three Exit games so far, each with a different story and setting. (Three more are due to be released soon.) I played two different ones on the night of this dinner party: The Abandoned Cabin (a classic "cabin in the woods" trope) and The Secret Lab (where you must experiment with the chemicals in a laboratory to find escape).

Exit: The Game (in any version) does a great job of recreating just about everything that's key to the escape room experience. There are puzzles to solve of various difficulties, pulling on different kinds of skills. Some are observational, requiring you to notice details in the artwork of cards, while others are the sorts of intuitive and associative leaps that are escape rooms' bread and butter. One of the two games had a fourth-wall breaking puzzle that compromised the flavor of the game and wasn't worth that sacrifice even for the cleverness, in my opinion. Still, the experience of both games was fun overall.

The Secret Lab seemed the far harder of the two to me (and I've heard the third Exit game, an Egyptian themed adventure, is hardest of all). The game does include a card-based hint system if you get stuck, but there's only so effective this can be if the game designers haven't anticipated why and how the players might actually get stuck (which is a tall order). This key interactive element, plus the production values of being inside a constructed environment, are enough that these sorts of games aren't going to replace escape rooms -- not for me at least. But these games were quite a lot of fun, and I look forward to trying the others in the series.

I'd give these Exit: The Game products a B+ (with my specific recommendation being for the Abandoned Cabin installment, if you're going to try just one). If you've enjoyed an escape room before, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't enjoy this.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Watch Out

Early this year, the movie Baywatch seemed like it might be a bit of dopey fun. But then the critics savaged it, and no one went to see it -- including everyone I know. When it limped out on Blu-ray, though, I began to hear from different friends in different settings: "yeah I just saw that; it was actually kind of funny, better than I expected." So I decided to give the movie a try.

Baywatch is, of course, the film adaptation of the cheesy TV series about lifeguards saving lives and fighting crime in ever-sunny California. Like the 21 Jump Street film adaptation, Baywatch acknowledges the inherent silliness of the premise, leans into it all the way, and plays that for comedy. Also like 21 Jump Street, it embraces an R rating, with all the lewdness that enables. I liked 21 Jump Street, so I certainly think it's a formula that can work. But Baywatch simply isn't as funny.

Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron actually make a fairly decent comic team. Both have a background that likely prepared them for this sort of utterly deadpan comedy. Johnson learned to deliver preposterous dialogue with utter sincerity in the wrestling ring, making him the ultimate straight man; Efron learned similarly to commit to over-the-top singing and dancing for kids in High School Musical. Baywatch is at its best when their two characters soldier through the outlandish without acknowledging it as such (a strain of humor mostly given to Johnson). I feel like Baywatch would have been a decidedly better movie if they'd just gone full "Airplane!" with it.

There's frankly too much plot in the movie, in the form of a central villain with a scheme to devalue land and buy it for a big real estate development. It's not that it's an overly complicated story, but that it takes up too much space because it's too cliche. Though the villain's identity is meant to be a bit of a secret at first (and the primary henchman certainly is), both these revelations can be guessed the first time the characters appear on screen. This wouldn't be a problem if the movie was using these cliches like all the others, as something to poke fun at, but it's instead drawn out for all the drama it's worth. (Which isn't as much as the writers think.)

If I'd never allowed my expectations to get boosted back up after bottoming out, I might have found the movie less of a chore. As originally expected, it's just a bit of dopey fun. Just a bit. There's worse, but there's also much better. I give Baywatch a C-.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

About a Girl

Sunday night was Star Trek night at my house, in a big way. The group that gathered not only watched both hours of the Star Trek: Discovery debut, we also caught up with the previous week's episode of The Orville. The timing was something, because if Discovery hadn't arrived to officially claim the Star Trek mantle, The Orville would most certainly have claimed it with the episode it delivered.

Bortus, the ship's Moclan second officer, welcomes a baby with his mate Klyden. But the happy occasion quickly becomes a moral quandary. Though Moclans are an ostensibly single-gender species, the baby has been born female, an extremely rare genetic "defect" that Bortus and Klyden want corrected with surgery. When Dr. Finn refuses, they reach out to their homeworld, soon bringing about a diplomatic and legal battle.

Seriously, a story doesn't get more quintessentially Star Trek than this. Dressing up a conflict in a sci-fi veneer, the more modern the better, is what almost all the most lauded episodes of every Trek series did. The fans rightly elevated the ones that did so more subtly ("The Measure of a Man," for instance), but the blunt episodes of the original series are just as famous (the racial allegory of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," to name one).

"About a Girl" hews more to the latter category than the former; no one is going to miss the transgender parallel being drawn here. Still, the arguments are shuffled up just a bit. In the real world, transgender people (and those who support them) argue to be taken at their word on their own sexual identities (with or without surgery). In this episode of The Orville, the people arguing for a surgery are the ones denying a gender identity.

The premise is squeezed of all its metaphorical juice as the episode also touches on feminism along the way. The Moclans' objection to the female child isn't just about her rarity, it's about their viewing women as inferior, teeing up another Star Trek hallmark: a court battle in which the crew members are pressed into service as attorneys. Here, because The Orville has one foot planted in the world of comedy, the characters are able to comment on how ludicrous an idea this is on its face. And then, impressively, they're actually able to provide a better justification for it than perhaps any Star Trek episode ever offered: Commander Grayson must argue on the baby's behalf because no Moclan wants the job.

Not only has The Orville done its best job yet of delivery a sci-fi morality tale, its humor was dialed in at its best yet as well. The episode got full mileage out of letting its characters "be regular humans" in this episode -- characters talk of penises and vaginas (hardly dirty words, but nothing you would ever imagine a Star Trek character saying), and helmsman Malloy is allowed to look flat-out stupid when questioned in the trial.

Then came the episode's finest touch: they lose in the end. The trial reaches the most realistic verdict to expect from a monolithic, indoctrinated society, and forces the gender reassignment surgery on the baby girl. There are a handful episodes of Star Trek where the characters "lose" (and some of these are the most beloved; see "The City on the Edge of Forever" -- seriously, see it), but that is decidedly the exception to the rule. In opting for this ending, The Orville declared that it not only will claim Star Trek's allegorical mantle, and not only will try to be funny, it will be a more modern show that tries to allow for more realistic storytelling.

Pretty impressive in all, if you ask me. (And you did. You're reading this.) I of course wish the episode were more subtle and nuanced. And I also think this story would land better if it could somehow be told in a world where we knew the main characters better, having lived with them for, say, a full season or two. But it's undeniably The Orville's best episode to date, and indicative of the direction I hope they continue in. It's also notably better than The Next Generation's "transgender episode," "The Outcast." I give "About a Girl" a B+. As I said in my Discovery review, I think that show might have entertained me more this week, but The Orville felt more like "Star Trek."

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Vulcan Hello / Battle at the Binary Stars

Let's talk about Star Trek: Discovery.

This is going to be an unusually ordered review, as I'm going to attempt to serve three masters here. First, you'll get my spoiler-free thoughts, for those who haven't watched any of the show. Then, I'll gather my thoughts on only the first episode, for those who watched the debut on television. Lastly, I'll go through the second hour, available through CBS All Access.

Perhaps first, we should talk about expectations. I know a lot of people who were looking forward to this with impossible-to-fulfill expectations. This was going to be the first new Star Trek series in more than a decade! People scoured every frame of every trailer, weighing in on the merits of overhauling the look of the Klingons, having a new uniform design that was not consistent with the original series (or even Captain Pike's Enterprise), and seemingly developed a pre-hostility. "I want this to be good," many seemed to profess, "but it's not going to be."

For my part, I went in as I try to do any time I've already decided to "buy a ticket." It was Star Trek; I knew I was going to watch it; so don't tell me anything else. It was impossible to avoid all information about it, of course, but I went in relatively blind.

Perhaps it's best/easiest to contrast this premiere with the third episode of The Orville that ran last Thursday. (I haven't reviewed that yet, but that's coming.) Overall, I believe Discovery entertained me more. But that episode of The Orville felt more like "Star Trek" to me.

Discovery is fully committed to serialized storytelling, in a way that even Deep Space Nine never dared approach. It's a show written for its medium: a streaming service. Much like Stranger Things or Daredevil or your Netflix show of choice, the first episode wasn't a complete story in any sense of the term, and ended on a cliffhanger designed to make you immediately want to watch the next episode. So did the second episode, which is an odd choice, as CBS All Access doesn't actually drop a whole season at once like Netflix; they spit out one episode a week.

Cliffhangers aside, though, the two episodes together did at least feel like a complete story. And when you consider that every Star Trek series since The Next Generation began with a two-hour premiere episode, this makes sense. It's too bad that commerce/marketing/scheming conspired to break it in half and leave people who watched on television, not sold on just one hour, in the lurch.

The production values of this show are sky high. With elaborate, real sets (not green-screened), location filming, fantastic visual effects, and great makeup, this thing looks like a movie. In fact, some creative decisions were made that make it too much like a movie -- specifically the three reboot (or "Kelvin timeline") movies. There were jarring lens flares and Dutch angles all over these episodes. I suspect this is meant to look "cinematic," but it really distracted the group I watched with.

There was a Star Trek sensibility to it all, though. I'll get into the specifics later, once I'm done with the "spoiler-free" section, but there absolutely seemed to be a real-world allegory woven into this tale, more subtly than many Trek episodes. There was also solid development of the main character, Michael Burnham.

To go farther, I think I need to get into specifics. So if you didn't watch either episode, consider this your jumping off point. I'll leave you with my verdict: I collectively give the two episodes a B, and I await the next episode with cautious optimism.

If you're still here now, I assume you at least watched the first hour, "The Vulcan Hello."

A number of creative risks were taken in the creation of the first episode. I felt more of them worked out than didn't, so I appreciate the attempt. But I have no doubt the mileage will vary among viewers.

First of all, it's remarkable that we didn't even get introduced to the titular ship, the Discovery, in the premiere of the show. This is what I meant by the show going all in on serialization. This was fascinating, as we joined a crew that's been together already for 7 years before we get to see them. It's like starting a series with the series finale of The Next Generation or something. The characters already know each other, give each other slack and work in a relaxed manner with each other, and generally do feel like they've been starring in a show we just didn't get to see.

Because of this choice, you don't get to have those typical Trek pilot moments of characters' first meetings, so we have to be shown who everyone is, not told. That's great, though it also meant that a lot more time needed to be spent on character development and not plot. Put more baldly, you could walk away from hour one with the sense that "nothing happened," because a lot of time was spent establishing the relationship between Burnham and Captain Georgiou, and showing us in rather striking detail just who Burnham is in the big lead-up to her moment of mutiny. And I thought it was great that they did this, because it made that moment when Burnham gave Georgiou the next pinch truly impactful.

Woven into all this, we also got a good sense of who Saru is. It's intriguing to have a character on a Star Trek show who is, at core, a coward. He's the "us" in all this, the one having the most "human" reactions to encountering the unknown. He's the Spock, the Data, the Seven of Nine, the "other" who is trying to fit in with everyone else. But it does feel to me like he's coming from a different angle than the characters in his Trek ancestry; I'm intrigued to see how that fits in the mix.

There were moments in the first hour that definitely didn't work so well. I'm generally against the decision to have so much subtitled Klingon. I understand the impulse to set the Klingons apart and have them (logically) speaking to each other in their own language. But the language is so guttural and stilted and weird that none of the actors could fit it compellingly in their mouths. It didn't sound like real language, it sounded like grunts and strains. The actors couldn't convey any emotions. A good subtitled scene still gets across the emotional throughline even without the subtitles. (For comparison, watch any scene in Dothraki in Game of Thrones.) Here, without the subtitles, you'd be completely lost.

The opening desert scene was ridiculous. The banter between Burham and Georgiou was fun, the first piece in establishing their relationship. But the idea of leaving tracks in the sand, in a storm, as if they wouldn't immediately be erased, was just stupid. It felt spiritually connected to the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness, where they worked backward from a visual they wanted (there, the Enterprise rising up out of the water; here, the Trek chevron in an overhead shot) and failed to effectively reach it.

Moving on to hour two then.... (duck out here if you didn't stream the last part)...

As I mentioned above, you really needed to see the two episodes together to get the "full story" out of them. Together, you got the fall of Michael Burnham and the rise of the Klingon T'Kuvma. In fact, this was at least as compelling a Trek movie as the one we got most recently, Star Trek Beyond.

In the full context of both hours, we see what allegory has been inserted here. This group of Klingons are the nationalists, railing against the onset of a "globalism" that threatens their beliefs, their way of life. They're on the cusp of being absorbed into the Federation, and they hate it. And their last gasp, their railing against the inevitable, is going to be violent and scary. In short, this is what's playing out in the United States right freaking now, every day. I can only hope that in reality, it doesn't take seven decades to play out as it does in the established Star Trek timeline.

If you watched this whole "two-hour premiere," you'll know that the Discovery still hasn't been introduced. Neither has more than half of the main cast. This is extraordinary, something you could only do on a streaming show with a full season commitment. And while I may wonder later if these two episodes shouldn't have been "aired" as a full flashback somewhere in the middle of the season instead, for now it does at least put the focus squarely on the main character.

It totally works to base a Star Trek series around a character who isn't the captain. At least, so far I'm willing to say that it does. Sonequa Martin-Green is engaging as Burnham, and this story gives her plenty of chance to shine. I'm less sure about the Vulcan background they've given the character at this point (though she's not a Spock clone; she hasn't chosen to maintain steadfast Vulcan emotionlessness). Maybe it's just my fanness recoiling against the retcon of giving Sarek an adoptive father.

Well, I've shuffled around for quite enough for one post, I think. Like I said a while back, taken together, I'd give these first two hours a B. I am interested in seeing more, and meeting more of the characters this new series has cooked up.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Making Me Sick

There are a lot more board games out there that take 2 to 4 players than those that will work for up to 5. Adding that fifth player can be a tricky thing that doesn't always "just work." Just adding too much down time between turns can be bad enough; sometimes that one extra person can upset the entire balance of the game system.

Viral is a new game that says "2-5 players" on the box, but should have known better and capped it at 4. Each player controls a virus strain that has infected a human host. The board represents six different sections of the body, each with one to three organs, where players battle against each other for control. At the end of each round, your virus must have the highest numbers in a section to score points, but must also be present in all organs in that section to do so.

You have a series of cards that cover your possible moves, and a separate set of cards to target those moves in a particular section of the body. Cards let you reproduce new viruses, migrate them across organs (and through the blood stream to other sections of the body), attack rival viruses, and shield your viruses from attack. The cards you use in one round are excluded from use during the next round, but you can also pick up new cards with new combinations of abilities throughout the game.

I played Viral with 5 players, and I never want to play it again -- not with that number again, at least, though the experience was negative enough to sour me on the game entirely. First, five players is sheer chaos. Each player plays just two cards per round, but each card has multiple actions on it that affect the board state so wildly that planning is essentially impossible. Go early in the turn order, and there's no way for you to account for what will happen after you and before scoring. Go late in the turn order, and there's no way for you to account for everything that's changed since you all simultaneously chose the cards you were playing that turn -- what you wanted to do may now simply be irrelevant.

Setup for 5 players is, quite simply, unbalanced and unfair. There are 12 organs on the board, a number that divides equally for 2, 3, or 4, players. Do you leave two of them empty for the 5-player set-up? Nope, the last two players get them. The player in third position gets squeezed, behind in numbers, and with players causing unpredictable chaos on turn 1 both before and after him.

The game has a bit of a "rich get richer" problem. There's a built-in mechanism that tries to address this: when an organ fills up with too many viruses, the body react and wipes them all out at the end of the turn, which theoretically hurts the players with more board presence more extremely. But there's another mechanism that favors the leaders. At regular intervals on the scoring track are places where, when reached, you get to draft a new ability card for your hand (any of three face up options, or a blind choice from the deck). These are super-powerful compared to the starting cards, so the first player to reach a point plateau and nab one gets more power to turn around and immediately use on the next turn to ascend to still greater heights and earn still more powers. With a limited number of rounds in the game, earning a power early means you get to use yours more often than the late bloomers use theirs, an imbalance with no real counterweight.

There's still more chaos in the game, in the form of a deck of event cards that are shuffled and revealed round by round throughout the game, putting different benefits or penalties on different organs in the body. It's very difficult to instantly get to any particular place you need to go in the body, as movement is rather restricted. It's not like every player can instantly go vie for control of what's important in a given round, or abandon an area that's become dangerous. So essentially, these event cards can randomly give further help to players who don't need it, or further keep trailing players under the thumb of the game's chaos engine.

Even though I somehow managed to finish just one point behind the two players who tied for first (those being the fourth and fifth players that started the game with the extra virus; just saying), I felt completely out of control the entire time, and could point to nothing but dumb luck and opportunity on the final turn of the game that made it that close. That close finish did nothing to salvage the experience as a whole, one I don't care to repeat ever again.

I suppose I might consider giving the game another shot with fewer players some time, but that sort of feels like opting for a left-footed kick to the crotch rather than a right-footed one. I've had a great run of trying decent-to-excellent new board games for some time now, but that ends here with Viral. Solid theme, pretty board... terrible play experience. I give it a D.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

My Kingdom for a Domino

Ever since the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award was split in 2011 to add a Kennerspiel des Jahres ("Expert" Game of the Year), the original award has gone to more straightforward games. It now feels like the eligibility barriers include that the game can't take more than half an hour to play, or more than 2 or 3 minutes to learn the rules. Despite this, there have been some very satisfying winners, such as Codenames. But I'm not so sure about this year's winner, Kingdomino.

Starting with a single square shaped tile, players much each build a kingdom that fits within a 5x5 grid. They do this by drafting "domino" shaped tiles, each featuring one or two terrain types (from about half a dozen that exist in the game). When placing a new tile in the domain, at least one of the two sides must be placed adjacent to matching terrain type (or to the starting square, which can touch anything). Tiles are numbered, with more powerful ones numbered higher. The order of power taken in one round determines the order of drafting in the following round -- if you get a weaker tile, you'll choose sooner from next round's options. Some tiles have crown symbols in one of the two terrain squares. This is how scoring works. At the end of the game, you score points in each of your terrain zones -- the number of squares in the zone multiplied by the number of crowns in the zone.

And that's it.

I will say in praise of Kingdomino that it feels like one of the more effective bridges into "hobby gaming" that has come along in a while. I can easily imagine explaining it to non-gamers, and it is certainly more satisfying to play by far than the games "most people have heard of." It probably displaces Carcassonne as the easiest tile game to bridge people into the larger world of games; there's no need to explain wacky farm scoring, no pain points in deploying all your workers too fast.

That said, I just wasn't all that thrilled by it. Some of this may have to do with trying it pretty quickly on the heels of Between Two Cities, which I found to be a far more satisfying "simple tile laying game." But it's also a good deal less compelling than other recent Spiel des Jahres winners, such as Hanabi or Camel Up. It's so easy to see the best move every time that your decision making is trivial, and you can easily tell when someone else is doing well enough that you won't win. Even when a game runs only 20 minutes or so, it's a bit rough to feel certainty by minute 5 that you're going to lose.

I wouldn't refuse to play Kingdomino again; it wasn't that unsatisfying. But that's mainly because I know that playing a game of it would still leave plenty of time for other games during an all-night get-together. (Even then, I'd try to steer toward Between Two Cities instead.) I give Kingdomino a B-. There's a nice simplicity to it, but it's just a little too simple for my tastes.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Command Performance

The Emmys were last night, and while I often use the day after an awards show to share snarky comments my friends and I lobbed at the screen, the truth is that show just wasn't our priority this year. We watched some of it (get ready for hundreds of Sean Spicer think pieces, why is the announcer always YELLING AT ME?, Jeremy Piven looks like he showed up at a Halloween party in a Jeremy Piven costume), but we spent the bulk of the night watching last Monday's season finale of Preacher, the new Rick and Morty, and the new episode of The Orville.

The Orville did inch along slightly from the pilot in finding the right formula: it was a little bit more consistent with the humor this week, and leaned a little more into the "everyone talks and acts like a normal human" conceit. And, of course, it remained a loving clone of Star Trek: The Next Generation, scooping up plot threads from at least three episodes of that series (the captain is abducted by aliens, a junior officer has to command for the first time, an alien crew member has a baby), and putting them through the blender.

The Orville was trying to weave in a new element this week, a dash of Star Trek's high-and-mighty moralizing. It came in the form of speechifying about how future humans have moved past zoos and imprisoning animals for entertainment. That was pure Star Trek right there (and about as bluntly delivered as in any Trek episode that actually articulated its moral in dialogue). I prefer to let the viewer read between the lines on their own, though I will admit that it changes the lens a bit to hear futuristic morality speechified by people who use words like "sucks" and make marijuana edibles with their replicator.

The budget, though still substantial, seemed far more realistic for a weekly series this time around. We got a few digital sets for the zoo, a lot of replicator visual effects, and a healthy number of background extras, but overall this seemed more like the level of execution we can expect in a regular episode... and it still made the whole thing pleasing to the eye.

I appreciated the focus on character -- Mercer and Grayson revisiting everything good and bad about their relationship, Kitan's command dilemma and Dr. Finn's "Obi-Wan"-like advice. Still, as the show learns to deploy more weapons from the arsenal, I do hope they learn to do so with more subtlety. This was a small step in the right direction, but only if you're staring right at the needle looking for it to move. I'd give this episode a B.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Batty

As we approach the final quarter of the year, a lot of the movies I missed earlier in the year are starting to make their way to Blu-ray, streaming, HBO, and the like. I get to catch up a bit. Recently, that meant watching The Lego Batman Movie. (I know, it's supposed to be LEGO. I'm not doing that all through this post; I don't want it to look like I'm screaming at everybody.)

Taking Will Arnett's rendition of Batman from the original Lego Movie and pushing him center stage, this movie does a pretty good job of fulfilling both the promises in its title -- it's both a credible Batman movie and a credible Lego movie. On the Batman side, we get a story about Bruce Wayne (slowly) finding room in his heart for a new family after building his entire life around the loss of his parents (which, thankfully, this movie doesn't dramatize for the umpteenth time). The story is a direct reaction to (and sometimes parody of) the increasingly broody portrayals of Batman in film, putting him through a story in which he learns to feel some emotion other than rage.

As a Lego movie, it's once again a gonzo buffet of anything and everything you might plausibly (or implausibly) stuff into a movie fueled by a child's imagination. You get more Batman characters than you've ever heard of (and you're encouraged to look them up) and a rogue's gallery of baddies from every other property Warned Brothers studios controls. There are also (as in the original movie) key moments in the plot that hinge on the fact that these are in fact Legos we're talking about. It's a lot of fun.

The movie comes at you with off the charts intensity. The dialogue is fast and loaded with joke after joke. There are visual gags everywhere you look. I'm not sure if this is all intended for a kid with a short attention span, or an adult who will see every part of this film dozens of times while their kids have it on. Either way, if one moment doesn't work for you, you don't have to wait long for the next. And if a joke does work for you, rest assured that you'll probably get a callback to it later in the film, whether it's about Robin's costume choices, guns that go "pew pew pew" when fired, or Batman's admiration of his own abs.

It's kind of crazy how deep the casting bench goes, and how even many of the casting choices could be regarded as jokes in and of themselves. There's an Arrested Development reunion placing Michael Cera as Robin opposite Will Arnett's Batman. After Rosario Dawson has become a ubiquitous presence in the Marvel Universe, she now moves over to DC as Barbara Gordon. Siri is the voice of the "'puter" (no credit to Susan Bennett). Zach Galifianakis takes a spin as the Joker. Voldemort is actually in the movie, voiced by Eddie Izzard -- even though Ralph Fiennes is also in the movie (as Alfred).

There's Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome -- both parts of Garfunkel and Oates. Billy Dee Williams is the voice of Two Face, a promise fulfilled after almost 30 years since he played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's Batman. Conan O'Brien, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Mariah Carey, Chris Hardwick... if seems like if a working actor (or non-actor!) didn't record a line for The Lego Batman Movie, they must not have wanted to.

In fact, the movie does buckle a bit under all the weight at times. But it's consistently fun, and does a good job of not just being for the kids. I give it a B. It carries the baton well for the emerging Lego film franchise.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Tale Between Two Cities

It's rare to find a game that accommodates a large number of players without it being a "party game." But my group has recently come across one in Between Two Cities, a tile-laying, city-building game designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O'Malley.

The game is played over three rounds, at the end of which each player will have taken part in building two cities: each in a 4x4 grid, one shared with the player on their left, and one shared with the player on their right. In round one, you begin with 7 square tiles, from which you draft two and pass the remainder. You (and your adjacent partners) then decide which of your two selections goes in which of your two cities (and where) -- you place one tile in each. Repeating the draft twice puts 6 tiles into each city, three that you drafted, and three drafted by your partner in that city.

Round two repeats the process, but with a twist. The tiles in this round are like dominos, with two squares positioned attached to one another. You're dealt 3 of these, and must choose one for each of your two cities. Round three wraps up the game by returning to the round one system (single tiles, though passing in the opposite direction), completing each 4x4 city.

Scoring then takes place for each city. There are six different categories (colors) of tiles, each one scoring by a different means -- some want a certain geography, some want the presence of other types of tiles, others compare against the other cities built during the game. Once scoring of the cities is complete, each player's score is whichever of their two cities is worth fewer points. So you want to try to push your two city's developments in equal measure, and truly work with your two partners to make each one be the best it can.

The game takes up to 7 players, and I have no reason to think there's much difference playing with anywhere from 3 on up -- the only difference is how many opponents aren't also your partners; the game won't take appreciably longer to play, as all decision-making is done simultaneously throughout. (Having not looked at the rulebook myself, I don't know how a 1- or 2-player game would operate exactly, but the game is supposed to work for those numbers too.)

The decisions you make here are pretty satisfying. There aren't so many negotiations with partners as to turn this into mini-Diplomacy. Usually, it's pretty clear which of your two drafted tiles is best for which city, as is the decision where to place a tile. Keeping the cities to a slim 4x4 grid helps that. It also helps the length of the game, which can easily be played in under 30 minutes -- even with slower players, and distractions or conversations interrupting the game. (The box actually touts a 20 minute run time, which seems totally plausible to me.)

Satisfying but short, good for a large group while still being strategic and not a party game? That's a pretty rare game indeed. (I hope past reviews have made clear that I have nothing against a good party game -- and there are some that are quite good. But that's not always the itch you want to scratch on game night.) I'd probably give the actual gameplay of Between Two Cities a B+ grade. But as a nod to the achievement and the design, hitting this niche and making it so that there is such a game that my group can play, I think I'll nudge it up to an A-

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

It's On

Enough people went to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King's It this weekend to break a few box office records. So at this point, my take on the movie might be be redundant. But in case you weren't with the crowds (or in case you care what I thought), here goes:

It towers among Stephen King's doorstop novels as one of the "doorstopiest" -- it's this and The Stand, pretty much. A group of seven kids, self-declared Losers, must come together to fight an ancient evil that nests in their tiny Maine town. Nostalgia has made famous the 1990 TV mini-series adaptation (which I watched at the time), praised widely and correctly for Tim Curry's great performance, pilloried widely and correctly for how the scariness/violence/profanity/etc. had to be toned down too much for broadcast television... and for a lame ending. (That said, this is one of the handful of King books I've read, and I found the author's ending lacking too.) This new It is a worthy effort that rights those wrongs.

A smart but simple decision was made in the adaptation. Where almost every other "franchise" starter seems to bungle things by failing to make one good movie as it chases the dream of sequels, It excises half the book entirely (the return to fight the monster as adults) leaving us with a complete and contained tale of tormented kids banding together to face down evil. This movie's story works whether a sequel follows or not... though you'd better believe we will get one after the box office success it has had.

There's a bit of a "throw everything at the wall" quality to all the ways the movie tries to scare, to a degree where you might argue that it has a numbing effect at some point. That said, each scare is realized with loving care, and the sheer saturation of them means you're going to find at least some scenes in the film effective. (You could even counter that the numbing effect, if you feel one, appropriately tracks the journey of the kids as they learn to stand up to their fears.)

Most effective is that the scares are not all of one type. There are moments of prolonged suspense, like the opening sequence at the sewer grate that you know isn't going to end well for poor Georgie. There are scenes that successfully leverage visual effects, like a nightmarish vision of a creepy emaciated painting come to life. There are scenes that hit you with jump scares, like a belching torrent of blood that gives The Shining a run for its money. There are even subtle scares inserted in ways the film is willing to let go unnoticed. (When Ben does his library research early in the movie, watch the librarian in the background!) Perhaps most effective of all are the scares that aren't strictly supernatural; "It" is only one source of terror for the kids of this film, with the sociopathic bullies and neglectful (or outright abusive) parents being even more relatable horrors.

The cast is wonderful. It's rare and hard to find a good child actor to carry a movie, and this film must do it many times over. I found Sophia Lillis the real standout as Beverly, the lone female among the Losers, though it's just as easy to praise Jaeden Lieberher as Bill or Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben. It's also great fun to see Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things as the foul-mouthed Ritchie.

Then, of course, there's Bill SkarsgÄrd as the favorite face of "It," Pennywise the Dancing Clown. With the unenviable task of following Tim Curry, the one thing everyone liked about the mini-series, he carves out an altogether different performance that's just as memorable -- a more monstrous and feral take that's equally valid.

While I do wish that everyone who sees It would also/instead see the simply phenomenal Get Out, I can't begrudge It the success. It's a solid horror movie, and a good deal of fun. I give it a B+. If you're a fan of the genre and missed the opening weekend stampede, take the time in the weekends ahead to catch up.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Old Wounds

It's been more than a decade since a Star Trek series was on television. This month, we'll suddenly have one or two (or still none), all depending on how you count. We're two weeks away from Star Trek: Discovery, the Trek series that isn't quite on television because you have to buy CBS' streaming service to watch it. But this week, we got the premiere of The Orville, the Star Trek series that isn't quite a Star Trek series.

The Orville comes from Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy and American Dad fame. He's a lifelong Star Trek fan himself (he even pulled strings to land a cameo in an episode of Enterprise), and his solution to "no Star Trek show on the air" was to make one of his own. It's the adventures of a low-level ship with a less-than-top-shelf crew, exploring the galaxy.

Some people were expecting Galaxy Quest: The TV Series here, but The Orville definitely isn't that. This show isn't a parody or satire of Star Trek -- the closest it comes to that is actually putting seat belts in their space vehicles. The jokes don't come a mile a minute; they're actually rather sparse for a Seth MacFarlane production. Instead, The Orville is pretty straightforward Star Trek (and in particular, Star Trek: The Next Generation), in which the characters aren't the ultra-enlightened future citizens of Gene Roddenberry's imagination. They basically talk like regular 21st-century people, have normal reactions to outrageous things, and are "just like you and me."

There's been a fair amount of negative critical response to the show, much along the lines of "it's not funny" and/or "the normal people angle isn't enough of a twist to provide fuel for an entire series." Depending on your expectations, those are fair criticisms. But when I watched the first episode, I watched it for what I think Seth MacFarlane intended: to have his own Star Trek series. By those standards, The Orville does a bit better.

The production values of the show are sky high. Ridiculous, really... as in, "they can't possibly afford to make the show look this good and have this many special effects every week, can they?" good. It has a bombastic and entertaining orchestral musical score. It has its share of fun Trek-ish sci-fi gimmicks -- the first episode, for example, features technology that can accelerate time within a bubble universe (and pays off with a rather clever way of using said technology).

There are some good cast members in the mix. Beside MacFarlane (who of course must star in his own dream project), there's actual Star Trek veteran Penny Johnson Jerald (who should be on TV whenever she wants to be; she's great) and Adrianne Palicki (who was great on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before they chose to spin her off onto a series that didn't actually happen).

But there's a lot about the pilot episode that isn't "there" yet. The exposition is super-clunky, particularly in a scene which serves as rapid-fire introductions to the main characters, and becomes the only intel we get about some of them. (One character is set up as a "racist" cyborg, but no further evidence of that elitism is shown in the episode. Another character is said to come from a single-gendered species, but this too is treated like a comedic set-up for which a punchline never comes.)

All that said, it's important when thinking of this as a kinda-sorta Star Trek series to remember that most of the Star Trek series weren't great out of the gate either. The Next Generation in particular, which this most resembles, was far from great in its first episode -- or hell, for pretty much its entire first season. No, I'm not ready to declare undying love and allegiance for The Orville, but I do feel like there is some potential here.

Certainly, I want the show to get better, and fast. This is not 1987, so the quality bar is higher, and shows don't get entire 26 episode seasons and easy renewal guarantees in which to find themselves. The Orville will need to get better within two or three installments, or it's likely to get lost in the crush when more fall TV premieres. But I'd give the first episode a B- or so, just enough on the right side of the line for me to give it another shot.

In a few weeks, we'll see if actual Star Trek can start off on a stronger foot.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Freeze Your Mind

Denver has gotten to be a big enough theater town that most touring Broadway productions make a lengthy stop here, and a few even begin here -- the national tour for The Book of Mormon originated here, as will Dear Evan Hansen next year. But right now, Denver's actually the try-out city for a show before it heads to New York -- the brand new production of Disney's Frozen.

Continuing the tradition of adapting its biggest animated hits into stage musicals, Frozen is the now omnipresent story of magical sister Elsa and adventurous sister Anna. (Any guesses how long we have before the live-action movie version?) It's a solid choice for adaptation among Disney's many solid films this decade, already featuring a number of great songs (including, of course, the ubiquitous "Let It Go"). Less work is needed to flesh Frozen out to a two-act show than, say, if they'd attempted a Big Hero 6 musical.


I noted of the original movie (which I loved) that it was a bit front-loaded with music. The song team from the film, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, are back to address that, creating a number of new numbers for the stage production -- most of them for Act Two. There might still be a little bit of work to do here. The Act Two opener, the slapstick "Hygge," was a huge crowd-pleaser, and a late new solo for Anna, "True Love," was a moving scene. But in between, the pace of Act Two did feel a bit slow -- even though its running time was less than an hour. That said, part of the challenge here is reaching the high bar set by existing songs (all of which return here).

One element that's definitely firing on all cylinders is the stagecraft. The production values of this show are sky high, pulling out all the stops to realize Elsa's icy magic. There's video projection, extensive use of trap doors and turntables, and even some wire work. All that's on top of a barrage of elaborate sets; even the ones used only for a single scene would be the envy of any regional theater (and would blow their budget for a whole season of productions, too). There's an elaborate costume for the reindeer Sven that makes the human inside all but vanish, a surprisingly expressive rod puppet for the snowman Olaf, and a procession of luxurious costumes. I can say unequivocally that I've never seen a theater production as visually compelling as this.

The show is also well cast. Elsa and Anna are played by Caissie Levy and Patti Murin, two veterans of different productions of Wicked. Frozen took rather clear inspiration from that musical (to the point of even casting its original star Idina Menzel), and as the snake eats its tail and the story heads to the stage, these two talented performers understand perfectly how to make it more theatrical. Perhaps even more compelling were the two children cast to play Young Elsa and Young Anna in the opening 10 minutes of the show -- these players rotate every night as children in Broadway musicals always do, but the girls at our performance (particularly the unstoppable Young Anna) really made an impact.

They're still said to be tweaking the show; the song list wasn't even printed in the program, but rather on an insert tucked between its pages. But even if the production just went to Broadway exactly as is, it would no doubt enjoy a long and successful run. Of course, when making a "copy," you do lose a little bit of the vividness of the original, and that does feel the case to me here. Still, the musical version of Frozen is a great experience I'm glad I had. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Here's the Thing

The blog has been out of commission for a week now as I've been in the process of moving. But now, amid the piles of boxes that are slowly coalescing into home, things have settled enough to try to get back to business as usual here.

I'll start with some very brief thoughts on a silly little party game I played on Labor Day -- The Game of Things...

(cue dramatic opening Game of Thrones music)

This is one of those "spark thought and conversation" sort of games, where a card each round provides a topic for the players ("things you enjoy but don't do often enough, "things you would find torturous," etc.). Everyone writes an answer, and then people try to guess who wrote what.

This would probably be a forgettable game, except for the novel element of how it's scored. Once all the answers have been submitted and the round's designated "reader" has read them all, players take turns one at a time trying to pair up one answer with the person who wrote it. If you guess right, you score a point, and that person is eliminated from guessing for the rest of the round. You continue around the circle until every answer has been paired up. Thus, the extra wrinkle is that you have incentive for your answer not to be guessed.

What ensued was hardly the best party game I've played, but it was a format into which we could inject a little bit of deduction and strategy. You want to write something that doesn't quite seem like the answer you'd actually give. Maybe something that sounds like someone else would have written it. Then can you find the clues that reveal one of your friends even when they were trying to obscure their normal way of thinking?

Even with the twist, the game is only going to be as good as your friends are witty, and fortunately I have a good group for that. We had a lot of laughs (including the biggest laugh I think we've ever had playing a party game -- tears streaming down faces in full "you had to be there" mode). Still, there are other games far more likely to make game night, even when we're all in a party game mood.

I'd give The Game of Things a B-. It's right about on that line of "would play if suggested, wouldn't suggest it myself."