Monday, April 30, 2018

Contemplating Infinity

Yes, this is the post where I'm going to talk about Avengers: Infinity War. For those of you who don't want any spoilers, but are still curious what I think, here's the short version:

Meh. Lower your expectations considerably. I would slot this as the lowest ranked movie in the "middle tier" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I give it a C+.

I don't see any way to explain why I think this without getting into SPOILERS -- so if you haven't seen it (and plan to), you should leave now.

Seriously.

Let me start with what's good. The movie is quite funny throughout, particularly in the first half as characters meet up with other characters they've never seen before. The script does an excellent job of retaining each hero's voice as established in the previous movies. Two aspects of this stood out in particular to me. First, there's a great oil-and-water quality to Doctor Strange and the rest of the characters he meets. Second, the Guardians of the Galaxy material retains those characters' quirky and irreverent vibe, just as surely as if James Gunn (writer and director of those two films) had overseen it.

Another impressive aspect is that nearly all of the characters get at least one important moment somewhere. That goes not just for the scads of "heroes," but even for many of the secondary characters who make more limited appearances -- people like Wong from Doctor Strange, Ned from Spider-Man, and Okoye and Shuri from Black Panther. This stuff most certainly had to be engineered backward in the writing, and the fact that the resulting story doesn't really show too many signs of this engineering is no mean feat.

Beyond that, I see a lot of flaws. Some are not too hard to overlook. The plot is awfully repetitive: Thanos threatens somebody's life to force someone else to give up information/a Stone/the Gauntlet. It's a bit of a waste to pair Iron Man with Spider-Man when we've already had a whole movie of that. Why leave out Hawkeye, one of the original six Avengers (according to the films, anyway)?

Then the flaws start to feel more serious to me. Despite all the engineering, they didn't engineer some of the dramatic character moments that seemed most desperately needed:
  • Coming out of Captain America: Civil War, a reckoning between Tony and Steve seems like the single most emotionally resonant bit of character drama pending in the MCU. But they never see or say one word to each other in the entire movie.
  • The last time Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanova were together, she'd finally opened her heart to someone after a lifetime of pushing people away, and he turned around and broke it. This is addressed with little more than a head nod, a "hey, s'up," and a cheap "awkwarrrrrd" joke from Falcon. (It's not awkward, actually, because they never confront the situation.)
  • The last time this crew was all in one place, Captain America's actions indirectly led to War Machine being critically injured. Rhodey has a quick line or two to tell us he's made peace with that, but it feels wrong that someone with a conscience the size of Steve Rogers' wouldn't comment on it. And is there no part of Rhodey even a little reluctant to help Vision, given his role in what happened?
Speaking of Vision, his role in the story is another big flaw for me. On multiple occasions, he's expressly willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Captain America turns him down flat, saying that "we don't trade lives" like that. Except that apparently they do, in the form of thousands upon thousands of Wakandan lives traded to protect Vision. Black Lives Matter, Cap.

But my biggest issue with the story is that it's impossible to take all its "shocking deaths" seriously. When Loki and Heimdall both die in the opening, there's definitely a rush of "wow, we're really doing this." Thanos even says, "no resurrections this time." The stakes really are going to be larger than ever. But then, halfway through the movie, this sentiment starts to ring false.

It happened for me at the moment Gamora is killed. Part of the problem is that I thought she was totally right. Even with the flashback to Gamora's childhood earlier in the movie, I don't believe we've seen Thanos love anyone or anything enough to truly "sacrifice" it in a meaningful way. So the whole Soul Stone premise rang false to me. And once the skeptical mind is jump-started, it gets a lot to feast on in this movie. We know Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is on the way. Are we really to believe that would happen without Gamora and Zoe Saldana?

This was just the appetizer for the main course to come once Thanos snaps his fingers. First, Bucky collapses in a heap of ash. Surprising to some, probably not to others -- but okay, one can imagine the MCU without him. And losing Bucky is certainly a gut punch for Captain America, who has spent a considerable amount of screen time trying to save his life. But then T'Challa dies? Bullshit. All the Guardians but Rocket? Bullshit. Spider-Man? Bull. Shit.

I acknowledge that you don't set up a Chekhov's Gun of a plot device like the Infinity Gauntlet and not expect Thanos to wipe out half the universe. But can we at least pretend like it might stick? They  could even kill off important characters -- with no already-announced movies in the pipeline. We don't know, maybe for dramatic weight, they would kill Hulk or Thor (or even Iron Man or Captain America, if their outstanding business had been addressed). When it's all framed inside the narrative, as a few surviving heroes desperate to undo what's happened? That's heroic. When it's the corporate behemoth of Disney/Marvel, outside the narrative, making sure not to kill the cash cow? It's all a stupid gimmick.

In other words: no, Black Panther fans. They did not just kill the highest domestic grossing superhero of all time.

I suppose comic book fans are used to this death/rebirth stuff. But in this particular context, I think it renders the entire film devoid of meaning. If you're planning to roll back the clock, is there any logical place to draw the line? Did Gamora really die? Did Loki or Heimdall? How about any of the deaths in the MCU before this movie? Does any of it matter? Can any threat ever be taken seriously if even the most massive scale of annihilation imaginable isn't something anyone will have to live with?

Like Thanos himself, I'd round up half this movie and kill it to save the other half. The first chunk of Avengers: Infinity War is a fun thrill ride peppered with great jokes, skillfully mingling one of the largest cast of A-list actors ever assembled. The last half is muddled, noisy, empty, and deceptive.

So there you go... that's how I arrive at C+. Skimming social media, I suspect I am very much in the minority in this opinion. But it seems appropriate that this movie slots into my MCU list right under the original Iron Man. We really have come full circle, bookending 10 years of Marvel with two movies that most people seemed to like a whole lot more than I did.

P.S. -- I really wanted to call this blog post "Oh, Snap!" But that seemed like too big a spoiler.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Marvelous List

What feels like a huge chunk of my Facebook feed has been filled lately with friends re-watching (and/or ranking) Marvel movies in anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War. I certainly did not re-watch them all -- hats off to those of you who made time for that. Nonetheless, with virtually no reconsidering, here's my ordered list:

Unranked

--) The Incredible Hulk. This is the one MCU movie I have yet to see. I really haven't made the time, because basically everyone tells me I shouldn't really bother. Well, okay then. Some day, maybe.

Lower Tier
(Not to be watched again, unless you're watching them all in order.)

17) Thor. Very pretty. Rather dumb. Not very fun. Apply all those comments to both the movie and the title character.

16) Iron Man 2. For every good element (Scarlett Johansson, RDJ chewing the scenery), there's an equal and opposite terrible element (poor juggling of all the characters, an uninteresting villain).

15) Thor: The Dark World. More Loki, which is great. Also more of everything else that wasn't great about the first Thor, so boo.

Middle Tier
(I'd watch any of these again. But I'm pretty sure The Avengers is the only one I actually have.)

14) Iron Man. I know fans will rage that I've put this all the way down here. But the movie's villain comes on late, like an afterthought. (This is the main reason I wanted to organize these movies into "tiers," too -- I think there's an enormous jump in quality between Thor: The Dark World and this.)

13) Captain America: The First Avenger. I really liked this movie and there's amazing casting all around. That said, the director here also made The Rocketeer, and it feels like he's re-using a lot of his same tricks here.

12) Iron Man 3. Fans will also rage that I put this so high. "Not enough Iron Man," some say -- but it's Tony Stark who's actually interesting. (Any way, you get all the Iron Mans -- Men? -- you could ask for in the finale.) "They screwed up the Mandarin!" Maybe; I never read the comic. I love the reunion of Robert Downey Jr. and writer/director Shane Black. There are currents of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang here that play great.

11) Avengers: Age of Ultron. You can tell they were messing with Joss Whedon more than he was prepared to cope with. His trademark wit is there, but sometimes feels forced. Plot points feel shoved in to set up future movies at the expense of this one being great. The most emotionally resonant moments are often the most slowly paced. Still, lots of great interactions between the characters.

10) Doctor Strange. Fun, but my opinion of it has tarnished a little since I first saw it. Marvel already did "pompous ass brought low to then rise up again on the side of right" with Iron Man. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch can play this kind of pompous ass in his sleep.

9) Ant-Man. Also cribbing the Iron Man formula, this time in how the villain is business, and his motivations financial. But there's a subtle shift in the character arc here, in that the lead doesn't start out high before sinking low. There are enough ways that "reluctant criminal" reads to me as different from "egotistical jerk." And Paul Rudd is clearly having fun, which to me makes the movie more fun.

8) The Avengers. Love me some Joss. It says a lot about the quality of recent Marvel movies that this is his triumph in the franchise, and I rank it this far down the list.

7) Black Panther. Solid movie, but for me, the main character gets overshadowed by all the other great characters in the film. But hey, high-class problem to have so many interesting people in one movie.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. A more emotionally deep story than the original film, which is a plus. But it splits the team up for most of the movie, denying us of all the different possible character interactions that made the first one so great.

5) Thor: Ragnarok. They finally figured out that Chris Hemsworth is funny, and paired him with a funny writer-director. Suddenly, Loki isn't the only good thing about a Thor movie.

4) Guardians of the Galaxy. The formula here often reads like "The Avengers in Space." But sorry, Joss, I think this "Avengers" is put together a little better.

Upper Tier
(To me, these are the "grade A" -- or A- -- movies in the MCU.)

3) Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tom Holland is the best Spider-man in my book, not mopey like Tobey Maguire, and more authentic than Andrew Garfield. The movie has maybe the best Marvel villain -- well, okay, maybe not better than Loki, but certainly more relatable. The interconnectedness of the MCU movies is leveraged for good storytelling instead of cross-promotion.

2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hero on the lam is a great subgenre in the action genre, and this movie does it wonderfully. Great use of Black Widow and Nick Fury. Tension that actually works.

1) Captain America: Civil War. This could be recency bias talking, as this is the one Marvel movie I've recently re-watched. But the tightrope act of using so many characters effectively is so difficult, and so well done here, I give it the top spot. It's also great that characters have to take moral stands, and that each choice actually makes sense for the given character. The movie sparks actual thought, too; I've heard fans debate whether Tony or Cap is right here, and it feels meaningful and interesting.

There you go. Now let the Infinity War begin.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Siege

With "The Siege," Deep Space Nine's grand experiment of a three-part episode came to a conclusion.

Sisko has been ordered by both Starfleet and the new Bajoran government to withdraw from Deep Space Nine. But with proof in hand that the Bajoran revolution has been armed in secret by the Cardassians, he's not going away without a fight. As Kira and Dax struggle to take the evidence to Bajor, Sisko leads his officers in a guerrilla operation through the guts of the station to harass and delay the Bajoran occupying force.

Continuing the trend of this trilogy, this final installment isn't bad, but isn't as good as what came before. It does have a few undeniably entertaining elements. Kira and Dax's team-up to fly an old jalopy of a fighter to Bajor is great fun. We see the normally unflappable Dax out of her element, fearful of insects (though, admittedly, enormous ones), frustrated by outdated technology, and skeptical of improvisation. And the very idea of showing Star Trek's version of dog-fighting in small "planes" is a wonderful change of pace -- though I do wish it hadn't taxed the budget and VFX limitations of the time just to show us this much, because it definitely leaves you wanting even more.

Some of the dramatic moments play well too. Sisko opens the episode with a rousing speech about the bonds between Starfleet personnel and the Bajorans, and closes the episode with a heartfelt compliment to Kira ("There are heroes all over Bajor. I'm sitting with one."). On the opposite end of the nobility spectrum, we see just how cutthroat a political animal Winn is, when she turns on Jaro the instant it looks like his plan has been foiled.

But a lot of this episode is a mixed bag. Take the use of Jake. The writers give him a nice moment with Nog, calling back Nog's underdeveloped language skills (when he can't pronounce "coup d'├ętat" and calls it a "stupid French thing"). But then they don't really explore what it would mean for Jake to lose his father after having lost his mother. Take the scene in which O'Brien says goodbye to his wife and daughter -- it's dramatically resonant, yet having it calls out how preposterous it is for him to choose duty them. Take the subplot of Quark selling seats in the station evacuation. It shades his character back toward darkness in a fun way, yet he doesn't actually get into any legal trouble for it. His only comeuppance comes in getting double-crossed by Rom... and then we don't get to see the fallout when brothers reunite after the crisis.

The writing of this trilogy's guest characters falters most here in this final installment. Jaro and Winn are barely featured, squandering actors Frank Langella and Louise Fletcher. Li Nalas remains a flat presence (as in the previous episode) until the moment he all but commits suicide to return everything to normal. This death was apparently a bit of a controversy among the writing staff. Peter Allan Fields felt that killing Li off to reset everything was too pat, that he might as well have never been around. Ira Steven Behr felt that the character's moment of sacrifice would be heroic (and was concerned that actor Richard Beymer would be unavailable and/or too expensive for future episodes). Showrunner Michael Piller, who wrote this script, broke the tie.

Weirder still is the character of General Krim, who leads the occupation of Deep Space Nine. He rightly concludes that Sisko hasn't abandoned the station, but does absolutely nothing about it. His lackey Colonel Day may be wrong about all the xenophobia, but he's certainly right that his commanding officer is lazy and derelict in his duty. (Side note: Day is an oddly one-note character to get a recognizable actor like Steven Weber to come in and play, but I guess he was a Star Trek fan who didn't want to miss the opportunity.)

Then there are all the missed opportunities in this final act of the story. Though it's solid logic to have Kira take the evidence of Cardassian meddling to Bajor, the far more intriguing dramatic angle would have been to have her, an experienced guerrilla warrior herself, hiding out on the station to strike against her own people. And where is Garak in all this? (Well, besides being until this point only a one-off character.) Where would an exiled Cardassian flee to in Federation space? Or what would it have been like to have him with the group that stayed behind on the station?

Other observations:
  • Again, they weren't afraid to spend money on this trilogy. Besides those spaceship battle scenes, this episode has a noticeably large number of background actors, costumed in Starfleet or Bajoran military uniforms. All the main characters get civilian clothes too.
  • As he would later in a far more effective story arc, Sisko leaves his baseball on his desk to signal that he's not really abandoning the station for good.
  • "The Circle is broken." Clever line. I wonder if they worked backward from it to name the Bajoran nationalist group?
I'd grade "The Siege" a B-. It's possible I'm being a little generous there, since I think the trilogy as a whole probably earns a B, and "B-" is the mark that makes that average work. In any case, this episode is a taste of things to come, but only a taste.

Monday, April 23, 2018

All Roads Lead...

The title of the latest Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to be a nod to Fitz's theory on the inevitability of the future. Even if the group manages to do things "differently," events will still lead to the apocalypse they saw.

The end of the episode spoke directly to this. Yo-Yo saw the chance to save the world by killing Ruby, and took it with no real hesitation. This may have had the effect of driving Hale directly into the arms of her alien allies, though, who may now come and do the job of destroying the Earth (or trying to). It's possible that this is "the way things happened" all along, save that it makes Future Yo-Yo's advice to herself even more obtuse than it seemed in the beginning. We've come a long way and we're still really no closer to seeing how "letting Coulson die" would be the key to avoiding disaster. But perhaps the real advice should have been "don't kill Ruby." Maybe? I guess we have to see how this all shakes out in the season's last few episodes.

Speaking of Ruby, actress Dove Cameron sure was entrusted with a lot of challenging material this week. The bulk of the episode, where she taunted and threatened FitzSimmons -- that was pretty rote for the character. But the total meltdown after partial infusion with the gravitonium was tough stuff: pained, terrified, desperate, and unhinged all in the span of just a few minutes. It was a strong way for the character to go out, and a fun thwarting of expectations that there was no big knockdown fight between her and one of the main characters to settle things.

Meanwhile, back at base, Coulson, Mack, and Deke had to deal with a brainwashed Talbot as he took Robin hostage and threatened to kill both her and himself. I liked that they were in fact able to talk him down (well, enough to ice him, anyway), because I hadn't yet really been sold on the transformation of Talbot from antagonist to hero. For certain, he deserves sympathy for everything he's been through in the last season or so, but he spent a lot of time being a thorn in the side of our heroes (and not much time on screen since then). It's hard for me to totally flip the switch yet.

I suppose one big question mark now is whether the show is going to be acknowledging Infinity War in any specific way in the next few weeks. The show used to tie-in to every Marvel movie that came along (to varying degrees of effectiveness), but hasn't done so for a while now. Also, the unexpected move of the movie's release date to a week earlier might mean that whatever plans the show made are now mistimed anyway.

In any case, I found this a largely satisfying episode. I give it a B+.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Magic Missive

Cooperative board games can be a lot of fun, though there is a particular risk if you don't have the right mix of players. Sometimes, one or two people can dominate the strategic planning and overwhelm the participation of the rest of the group. Well, here's a game with an unusual mechanism that can actually address this: Magic Maze.

A group of fantasy adventurers have appeared at the center of a shopping mall. Their job is to run around and grab the item each one needs to embark on an adventure, and then find their way to the exit. It's a quirky theme, to be sure, but it does largely feel appropriate to the quirky gameplay.

Magic Maze is a tile laying game with a timer. Each tile is a 4x4 grid -- though not every square may be an actual, walkable path. For sure, there will be some number of exits off of that tile into... whatever tile is revealed next and placed alongside it. The game is a race to explore the "mall," turning over new tiles and revealing items and exits.

There are always four adventurers on the board, regardless of the number of players. Each one is looking for a particular item (think the four characters of the video game Gauntlet, and you're in the ballpark). Once the tile with their item is found and their piece is taken to exactly that spot, they must then find and move to the one exit space of their exact color.

Now here's were things start to get interesting. Each player in the game is assigned a card defining the one action (or two, depending on number of players) that they are allowed to take. For example: only one player can reveal a new tile and place it on the map; another player might be the only one allowed to move any piece south on the map, and another the only one who can move pieces up and down escalators. So players are forced to take turns and work together. Anyone can jump in at any time and do their thing, to any one of the four adventurer pieces on the ever-growing board.

But the big catch: no one is allowed to speak.

Once the timer begins, players are forbidden to talk to each other. They just have to reach in and move a piece if they think it's the right time and place to do so. They're allowed to glare intently at another player to "ask" them to do something. They're also allowed to grab one wooden pawn sitting on the table and smack it forcefully in front of somebody to get their attention. Otherwise, you're trying to work together as best you can under the extreme limitations.

You are allowed to stop the clock once or twice a round by moving one of the adventurers to a "pause" space on the board (once you've uncovered one). During the pause, players can speak, and plan what they hope to do next. But once the timer is restarted, it's back to silence.

The gameplay is pretty simple and the strategic implications minimal, obviously. Some people might even consider this more of a "puzzle" than a "game." But it is a fair amount of fun. The combination of the time pressure and the no-speaking rule make this very much the antithesis of most cooperative games. There aren't drawn-out discussions about what to do -- you just act on instinct, and if you make a mistake, you stare intently at the player with the power to undo it.

The game seemed very good for 4 players, with each participant having enough to do to be satisfied. I've also played with 5 and 6 players, and while that spread jobs enough that some people would sometimes have a little down time, it didn't seem to hurt the experience too much overall. The game does say it takes up to 8, though, and that many I'd be less sure about.

There is escalating difficulty, with more and more wrinkles thrown in on each playthrough as the players learn to negotiate the obstacles of the scenario before. We gotten a couple of layers deep the few times I've played, but I know there's more to it that we haven't yet tried, and I'd be curious to see just what that involves.

Super-short cooperative game that accommodates a wide range of players is a pretty narrow niche. This game has done it, and in a way that sets it well apart from other games. I was entertained. Because it's a bit shallow, I wouldn't say it became an instant favorite. Still, it's a game I can appreciate and recommend. I give Magic Maze a B+.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Circle

Deep Space Nine's three-part season two opener continues with "The Circle."

After Kira's rescue of Bajoran hero Li Nalas, the ambitious politician Jaro Essa installs Li in Kira's job aboard Deep Space Nine. Suddenly stripped of purpose, Kira is invited to the Bajoran monastery by Vedek Bareil for spiritual exploration. But her stay is cut short when she's abducted by operatives of the nationalist terrorists known as the Circle. Her friends on the station must stage a rescue against a ticking clock -- the provisional government is coming under the sway of Jaro and his philosophy, and the Federation may soon be expelled from Bajoran space.

The middle part of this Deep Space Nine trilogy was scripted by staff writer Peter Allan Fields. His primary responsibility was to amp up the conflict of the story and develop the main adversary, Jaro Essa. Here, actor Frank Langella gets to sink his teeth into something fun. The episode isn't too interested in red herrings. Jaro is rather villainous right out of the gate, and the revelation that he's the leader of the Circle hardly feels like it's meant to surprise. Because there's no bait-and-switch, Langella gets more opportunities to mug for the camera, first in a great "explain my evil plot" scene with Kira, and later in a delicious one-on-one with Vedek Winn (a scene in which two great award winning actors get to twirl their figurative evil mustaches).

Louise Fletcher is back as Winn, firmly establishing her (and Bareil, and Bajoran politics) as a regular fixture on the show. Once again, Fletcher is the master at delivering a "chocolate covered cobra," smiling pleasantly as she cuts with her words. The shots she takes at both Kira and Bareil are both hilarious and infuriating. She is the perfect holier-than-thou clergy member.

It's not just the guest stars who get to have fun and show off their skills. In an early scene in Kira's quarters, nearly the entire main cast of characters comes to wish her goodbye. The scene was written by Fields as a deliberate farcical homage to the Marx Brothers. Episode director Corey Allen chose to film it in a single, uninterrupted take, knowing the core of mostly theater-trained actors would be up for the challenge. Unfortunately, this was a few years before TV audiences were given credit for being ready for the idea of a "one-er," and Allen was forced by producers to shoot close-ups to also edit into the scene. Even if the end result isn't quite Allen's vision, the comedy totally plays -- as does the dramatic punctuation on the scene, when Kira introduces Bareil to the people she realizes in that moment are her friends.

Fields takes another chance, writing a more dream-like and impressionist "orb experience" for Kira than the quite literal flashback Sisko had in the series pilot. The sequence plays well, as do a handful of other good character moments for the commander. In the opening scene with Jaro, Sisko conveys the force of his anger without ever raising his voice, saying a lot about his character. Later, Sisko's honorable nature is underscored when he approaches a Bajoran military leader for a favor without trying to strong-arm it out of him.

But there are also less successful aspects of the episode. Kira's departure from the station is something of a mixed bag. Her goodbye is given appropriate time and weight, including a nice scene with Sisko and a farewell to Ops itself (which includes a neat upward angle showing off the multi-story set). Yet despite all this, it never for a moment seems real to the audience that Kira will actually be leaving the station for long. Her captivity is similarly short; she's rescued mere minutes after she's captured.

The character of Vedek Bareil doesn't work very well for me either -- though I'd chalk this up more to performance than writing. Actor Philip Anglim's take on serene wisdom comes off to me more like dispassionate detachment. The suggestion that he might now or in the future be a love interest for Kira feels rather far-fetched as of this episode (though I suppose you could argue that's the point).

In the outright failure column, I'd put Li Nalas. After the previous episode set up an intriguing character, this one doesn't really know how to use him. Fields himself acknowledged this shortcoming, noting that the character barely had an arc in the three-parter overall: "He was an okay guy in part 1, part 2, and part 3." The core idea seems to be one of a coward who ultimately stands up. It doesn't really play, as Li really isn't "cowardly" enough (nor really, much of anything) here in this middle chapter.

The episode also falters in conveying the state of Bajoran society and politics overall. The serene monastery and the sterile and spartan war room do little to demonstrate that the government is truly on the brink of collapse. The episode's conclusion, an ultimatum to the Federation to leave Bajoran space, feels like a plot contrivance more than an inevitable development.

Other observations:
  • Odo has a weird pop-up screen built into his desk, which is never seen again after this episode. That's a good call, as what's projected on this screen winds up looking a bit like a baseball card photo.
  • Speaking of Odo, this episode recalls his trick from the pilot of sneaking aboard a docked ship to do reconnaissance. Sometimes it feels like Odo's obvious "stealth capabilities" aren't used nearly as much as would be logical.
  • The series continues to spend money to make this three-parter special. There's more shooting on location, this time to portray the Bajoran monastery.
I wouldn't really call this episode "weak" as such, nor does it feel to me like it has "middle part of a trilogy" problems with pacing. Still, it falls a bit short of the promise of the first part. I'd grade "The Circle" a B.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Signal Degradation

More than a year ago, I stumbled on a list somewhere that was something to the effect of "fun science fiction movies you've never heard of." It's from this list that I learned about the fascinating-though-not-ultimately-good Coherence,  and the far more entertaining Time Lapse. I threw everything from that list into some streaming queue or another, and every now and then I fire one up. Most recently, it was a movie called The Signal.

Three college friends are on a road trip to confront a hacker whose location they've traced. But when they reach the source, they don't find a dangerous computer genius. They experience (no need to be coy about this part) alien abduction! Next thing they know, they wake up separated from one another and in government custody. Secretive agents want to know exactly what happened to them, and it turns out to be more than even they realize.

This movie starts out well enough. The writing is rather sophisticated early on, not spoon-feeding the exposition to you and forcing you to connect the dots about who these people are and what their relationship is to each other. The movie draws you in as it makes you work to understand it.

You then have to work even harder when the weirdness begins. The deeper into the story you get, the more unexplainable details are laced into the narrative. Whether you're the sort of person who tries to "figure out the end of a movie" or not, this movie will start you doing that. You're constantly having to reevaluate your assumptions about what's really going on here, as each new piece of information given seems to contradict whatever theory you've crafted so far.

Unfortunately, the longer it goes, the less the movie comes across as actually clever, and the more it's like it's trying to seem clever. The puzzle box of this movie has more levers and gizmos than feel strictly necessary. Extraneous bits seem grafted on in an effort just to obscure the truth. Though I don't want to spoil the ending, I think it's not giving too much away to say that everything resolves like a subpar episode of The Twilight Zone -- but without the allegorical commentary. It's an M. Night Shyamalan twist "because there's supposed to be a twist," and not necessarily because it adds to the experience.

Still, the cast is interesting enough at times to save this from being a total bummer. Brenton Thwaites stars. You may recognize him from the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, among other places, but he gives reasonably good "what the hell is going on?" -- enough to keep a current of empathy underpinning most of the strangeness. Olivia Cooke is here too, though her role is far less significant than in the recent Ready Player One (and you could argue she's a marginal character there).

The real draw to try to bring in an audience is Laurence Fishburne, cast here as one of the shadowy government types questioning the hero. He's totally here to play Morpheus, minus the kung fu. He speaks in the same slow and soothing way, and I honestly can't say if it helps or hurts the movie. It's fun as hell at times. At other times, it also feels like self-parody you're supposed to laugh at. But I guess it does keep you engaged in one way or another.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend The Signal. I think at best, I'd give it a C-. Which I guess means that list I found is batting .3333 right now. Not bad for baseball. Not great for movies. Perhaps I should cull the others out of the queue.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Homecoming

When Deep Space Nine's second season was spinning up, show runner Michael Piller took his cues from the two best episodes they'd made so far -- the ones that concluded the first season. They were all about the Bajorans, with political angles that really wouldn't play well over on The Next Generation. Season two would open with the same way, he decided. And with Star Trek's first three-part episode.

When Kira learns that a Bajoran war hero long thought dead is in fact being held in a Cardassian prison camp, she's mounts a daring rescue. With Bajor's government cratering to the influence of a nativist faction, she hopes this hero, Li Nalas, can unite the people. But Li is reluctant to be the figurehead the Bajorans need, as he's not really the hero any of them thinks.

Though this three-part episode is clearly a Deep Space Nine kind of story, it began as an idea from Jeri Taylor, head writer of The Next Generation -- which she originally intended for that show. Deep Space Nine head writer Michael Piller (and Taylor's former boss on Next Gen) appropriated the idea for the newer series, sensing how good a fit it would be. The story was expanded to three episodes, with a different writer taking each part. Ira Steven Behr developed this first chapter, and put his stamp on it by changing the nature of the legendary Bajoran at the heart of the tale. While Li Nalas had originally been conceived of as a reluctant hero, Behr felt it would be more compelling to make him a mistaken one, whose initial act of bravery had been totally misconstrued and blown out of proportion.

Behr and the rest of the writing staff also infused this story with a lot of political and social commentary. All incarnations of Star Trek have produced their share of thought-provoking and topical episodes. But even just this far into re-watching Deep Space Nine, I'm struck that this series may have the most staying power. This Bajor story line feels so "ripped from today's headlines" that it could just as easily have been part of Star Trek: Discovery. The government is losing stability after the departure of a key leader, and we're told that many Bajorans now feel that politicians can't get things done. In the Circle, there's a small but riled group stoking racist and nativist inclinations. They wear masks instead of white polo shirts and wield spray paint rather than tiki torches, but the parallels are pretty damn strong.

Because this story is unfolding over three episodes, there's a lot of time spent on fun world-building too. We see Kira pray, learning that the Bajoran prayer stance (appropriately) is arms-up like some sort of endurance test. We see how Li Nalas' earring comes into Quark's possession, giving us a taste of the criminal underworld in the Star Trek universe.

Fun though all that is, script writer Ira Steven Behr uses the time to dig into the message as well. A subplot about Jake's date with a Bajoran girl ends in a sober conversation between him and Benjamin. The girl's father breaks the date because Jake isn't Bajoran, leading to a meaningful talk about racism. It's not white actors in sci-fi makeup wringing their hands and wracking their brains over how this could be; it's between two people of color, a resonant talk between a father and son.

There's also plenty of time spent developing this story arc's great guest characters. Li Nalas is built up not only by Kira's praise, but by the fact that both Sisko and Bashir have already heard of him. Late in the episode, Li gets a lengthy and poignant monologue revealing how his heroism is a legend blown out of proportion. (It's filmed smartly, too, with Li staying in foreground focus the entire time as Sisko offers out-of-focus counsel in the background.) To embody Li Nalas and deliver this monologue? The show was able to nab Richard Beymer, Tony from West Side Story himself.

Beymer was arguably not even the "biggest get" of the episode, though. Frank Langella appears as Bajoran politician Jaro Essa. It's an uncredited appearance; Langella reportedly took this role for his kids, refusing a big paycheck and prominent billing. As his role is more significant in the subsequent chapters of the story, though, I'll dive into that more then. Rounding out the guest cast, we get Marc Alaimo's return as Gul Dukat. I feel like it's somewhere right around this episode where the series stopped calling up Alaimo because they'd already developed makeup for his face and starting calling him up because they wanted to do things specifically with his character.

Despite the time spent establishing significant guest characters, the episode finds plenty of great moments for the regulars. Odo and Quark spar in their fun and characteristic way. Dax serves as an effective intermediary between her two friends, Sisko and Kira -- after a great verbal exchange where Dax's advice is to "give Kira the runabout," we get a great non-verbal exchange in which the permission is given and graciously accepted. Kira learns not everything involving a Starfleet officer will necessarily be a fight; when she tells O'Brien that they will "come back with Li Nalas or [not] come back," his solemn acceptance catches her visibly by surprise.

The production also clearly chooses to blow out the budget on this three-parter, planning to tighten the purse strings later to make up for it. There's filming on location for the Cardassian prison camp, and an extensive (and effective) action sequence shot there.

Other observations:
  • Late last season, Sisko's trademark baseball was added his desk. I believe this is the first time we see him playing with it as he tries to think.
  • When the Circle steps up their attacks to physical assault, Quark is their first target. The meta reason for this might simply be to give Armin Shimerman more to do in the episode. In-universe, it's interesting that they go after a Ferengi and not one of Bajor's "Starfleet interlopers." Is it that the Ferengi are more obnoxious? An easier mark? Is the Circle not quite ready to poke the Federation straight in the eye?
  • Though Deep Space Nine would later get into even more serialized storytelling than this, those episodes wouldn't generally end with a "To Be Continued." Indeed, Star Trek as a whole would not again attempt a three-part episode like this until late in the run of Enterprise.
While I like a lot about this episode, it is obviously an incomplete story. With lots of setup and little payoff, I feel I can only rate it as high as a B+. Still, I applaud the ambition here. This is clearly a foundational moment in defining the type of show Deep Space Nine would become.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Honeymoon

Ever since Ruby was introduced to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and revealed to be a moody teenager, it was only a matter of time before she'd turn against her mother, General Hale. The particulars may have been up for grabs (could Ruby turn good? would she out-evil her mother?), but the fuse was definitely lit. Sure enough, that plot twist blew up in Hale's face this week, and in the process felt like a big piece of this story arc's conclusion.

Elsewhere, love was in the air. FitzSimmons made a "honeymoon" of their raid with Yo-Yo. There was a lot of fun to be had in this story line, from Fitz's acknowledgement of how far he's come since season one (with regards to jumping from airplanes), to the pair's initial certainty of their invulnerability wavering in the face of overwhelming odds. The one contrived beat in the story was that Yo-Yo had never tried using her powers before this moment. Even accepting the conflict between Inhuman abilities and robotic arms as a worthy plot point, the discovering of it in these conditions felt like a cheap writers' trick. I think suspense would have worked just as well as surprise here -- having Yo-Yo discover this problem earlier, then having to go on this raid knowing her speed wasn't available to her.

Love also served as the peak moment in the "rescue" story line this week. Coulson and Talbot were brought back into the fold, setting up a showdown between May and Coulson about his reckless behavior. That May "shut him up" by declaring her love for him was the perfect punctuation on the scene. I remain unconvinced that the show is actually working toward killing off Coulson as they've repeatedly telegraphed (or that an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. without Coulson could carry on without having lost something vital), but I do at least like the way the May/Coulson relationship is playing out as they pursue this story arc.

During Coulson's rescue, Deke got shot, ultimately leading to the third thread of love in the story, Deke's drugged-up post-operation confession of feelings for Daisy. Totally cliche, but if you're going to do a cliche, best to reveal it in a broad comedic moment like this. Actor Jeff Ward certainly had fun with the scene.


The tag on the episode was the reveal of Talbot as a good old-fashioned "Hail HYDRA" sleeper agent, which should provide fun tension for an episode or two on our way to the finish line. That, along with FitzSimmons' capture, could serve to make next week a less action-y, more suspense-filled affair.

As for this episode? I'd give it a B.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

DS9 Flashback: In the Hands of the Prophets

Coming off their strongest episode yet, the season one finale of Deep Space Nine kept the momentum going with a tale of Bajoran politics, and a clash of religious and secular viewpoints.

Trouble follows when Vedek Winn, figurehead of an orthodox faction in the Bajoran clergy, visits Deep Space Nine. She takes issue with Keiko O'Brien's secular teachings about the wormhole, driving a wedge between Starfleet personnel and the Bajorans they've been working with for months. But Winn is sowing discord for a deeper purpose, hoping to lure a political rival to the station where he can be assassinated.

I couldn't find out if, at the time this episode was being written, the staff knew whether Deep Space Nine was getting a season two. It feels like the fate of the series was uncertain, as this episode not only doesn't end on a cliffhanger, it has a strong "leave it all on the field" vibe about it. The story seems to come full circle to the pilot, demonstrating that the Federation really has gained ground in its relationship with Bajor. "Series finale" or no, the echo was deliberate by series runner Michael Piller, after executive producer Rick Berman nixed the original idea to conclude the season with a Next Generation crossover centered on an all-out Cardassian invasion.

There are sophisticated ideas throughout this episode, and the real-world comparisons are quite direct, with little or no sci-fi veneer. Church walks right into school and demands that "intelligent design" be taught as part of the curriculum. A shop owner refuses to sell to someone on religious grounds. Children are put at potential risk when a school is targeted for violence. A suicidal attacker is promised salvation in heaven for her actions. It all feels ripped from the headlines, in 2018 as much as (if not more so than) 1993, when it originally aired.

Not only are these issues raised, but characters are given different perspectives on them. Kira is initially supportive of Winn and the idea that Bajoran religion should be taught in school, arguing that Bajoran and Federation interests aren't always the same. When Jake spouts off about the foolishness of religion, his father is quick to point out how faith helped the Bajorans survive occupation; Benjamin also notes that since the Wormhole Aliens can see outside linear time, they're hardly the craziest thing one might regard as godly.

Some great character development is put into Vedeks Winn and Bareil. Decades before we'd know who Pope Benedict and Pope Francis were, Deep Space Nine dramatized a reasonable proxy for both, struggling for the soul of a fictitious church. On the one hand, a strict authoritarian who sees the interests of herself, her people, and her religion as one and the same -- a character for whom the ends absolutely justifies the means. On the other hand, a progressive hippie type looking to pierce the pompous rituals of the establishment, appealing but perhaps naive.

How these two roles were cast is another display of that "leave it all on the field" mentality I mentioned. Philip Anglim was a noted Broadway actor who originated the role of the Elephant Man. Louise Fletcher was a bona fide Oscar winner who found a science fiction role meaty enough to keep coming back to play again and again. What's more, Fletcher was cast to play basically the very archetype she won for -- a smiling villain, mannered but vicious.

It isn't just the guest stars who get great character moments to play. Sisko goes out on a limb with the belief that the relationships forged with Bajorans over the past few months are strong enough to trump hate. Kira has a particularly great arc in the episode: first she identifies with (and envies) Winn's strong faith, then she's tested in her support of Sisko, and finally she instantly surmises Winn's role in the assassination attempt. (With her history in the resistance, she'd be one to recognize guerilla tactics.)

There are a few missteps in the episode, or at least they seem so on the heels of an episode as exceptional as "Duet." One is the transparent twist that O'Brien's new assistant Neela is the assassin. The writers had reportedly planned to hide this reveal by featuring her in multiple episodes leading up, but the original performer cast "didn't work out," and so Neela only appeared (briefly) in one episode before this. Another disappointing note to me is the banter between Keiko and Miles; her chiding him for his relationship with his female assistant doesn't feel as playful to me as probably intended.

Other observations:
  • When Odo is told by a Bajoran radical to "seek the Prophets," his retort to "seek them yourself" is just perfect. There are a lot of people in this episode claiming virtue without demonstrating it.
  • Even while on duty, Dax calls Sisko "Benjamin."
  • Why does password breaking on television always look like it does here -- like an electronic game of Mastermind where correctly-guessed digits are helpfully confirmed by the computer being hacked?
  • The Bajoran treat known behind the scenes as "glop-on-a-stick" receives the official name "jumja."
There were some shaky steps along the way, but season one of Deep Space Nine went out on a strong note. I give "In the Hands of the Prophets" an A-.

As I noted in a recent episode review, Deep Space Nine may not have been as good in this first season as The Next Generation was at the time, but it was miles better than Next Gen's own first season. My picks for the Top 5 episodes of year one: "Duet," "In the Hands of the Prophets," "The Nagus," "Emissary," and "Battle Lines."

On to season two!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Sense of Place

This past weekend, I went to see the buzzed-about new horror movie A Quiet Place. Perhaps buoyed by the unlikelihood of such a film being directed by, co-written by, and co-starring the normally comedic John Krasinski, the movie arrived to critical praise. Having missed the chance to see the last rapturously received horror film in theaters (Get Out), I was determined not to fall behind the curve this time.

For those who've missed the trailer, A Quiet Place is set in the near future, in a post-apocalyptic world where monstrous creatures have overrun the planet. Unspeakably brutal, but also completely blind, the creatures hunt purely by sound. To live in this world is to live in silence. Make one noise, and a violent death will come swiftly. The movie follows one couple trying to keep their children safe.

Some critics have proclaimed this the next Get Out, vastly overstating matters. Others have likened it to Don't Breathe, closer to the mark, but perhaps understating things. All of these people seem to be seizing on the fact that A Quiet Place is the latest horror film to feature characters not normally given the spotlight in horror -- in this case, the deaf girl who is oldest child in this movie's family. (That said, this isn't entirely novel; Hush also features a deaf protagonist, but it isn't as scary and feels far more exploitative.)

The truth is, the movie this most reminds me of is Signs -- the M. Night Shyamalan film that depending on who you ask either began the rapid decline of his career or was his last decent effort before that. Both films follow a family dealing with loss in the midst of the horror, and are very much about trying to carry on after tragedy. There are more specific similarities that I can't point to without giving away key moments. Suffice it to say that if you're a fan of Signs, you likely won't think this movie is as good, while if you're a detractor, you'll probably find A Quiet Place much more to your liking.

For certain, A Quiet Place is much more a horror film, full of tension and scares to satisfy that genre's typical audience. The gimmick of silence plays quite well on the big screen, serving to amplify what few noises the crowd might dare make. You get jump scares, drawn out scenes of tension, and clever set pieces built around the central premise -- and all generally without the characters being unrealistically stupid to facilitate the narrative.

It's certainly an odd film, performance-wise, one with virtually no dialogue, and with so many of the usual tools for conveying emotion stripped away. Emily Blunt anchors the piece, playing opposite her real-life husband John Krasinski. Though both are great, the key to whole thing working at all are the solid performances from the child actors, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. (Simmonds is actually deaf, one bit of realism the movie doesn't have to try to manufacture.)

The movie surprises in some moments, but not over the long haul -- and that is my main reservation about it. The thrills along the ride were often great, but that ride came to exactly the end I expected. It entertained me, but didn't blow me away.

I'd give A Quiet Place a solid B. If it seems like your thing, I'd certainly recommend going to see it while it's in theaters -- you may never have another experience at the movies where you're so aware of any noise around you (and find that this actually adds to the experience). Even so, I'd be surprised if this ended up on my Top 10 List by the end of the year.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Inside Voices

So, just when I was saying that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had made me feel like an insider with all its HYDRA callbacks last week, the newest episode had a subplot all about something that happened way back in season one.

One of the episode's three distinct story lines focused on events in the HYDRA base. Hale (sporting new hair and civilian clothes) stepped up her efforts with gravitonium by exposing Creel to it. When the "Absorbing Man" touched the metal that itself had absorbed a person, Creel absorbed part of that man's memories. (Or part of the man himself? I suppose interpretations could vary here.) And while it didn't quite drive him crazy, it did drive him to Coulson's side. After springing Talbot, and after another death and revival (Coulson dies more than anyone we know), two-thirds of the group escaped to a snowy landscape. Out of the frying pan into a very cold fire. I'm not sure I really believed Creel's change of heart here, but the odd and unrelatable circumstances made it hard to judge.

Flying around the world with Robin the seer made up the second plot thread of the episode. Though there was very little narrative momentum here (eventually, they got one clue), the main value of these scenes was in May being forced to confront her role as future mother to Robin. This is a great arc for May. She's far from an emotionless character, but she is someone who has been punished for caring at almost every turn in the past. This story has her reckoning both with her feelings for Coulson and the prospect of motherhood, and she really isn't equipped to process it. I like how this is all testing her. And while Robin's mother Polly hasn't been much of a character, I liked the little moment we got where she acknowledged her fate. I almost expected another little knife twist on her, that Robin's final call to sit with "Mommy" would be for May and not her. Still, a nice thread for the side character.

For me, the strongest material of the episode dealt with Simmons, Fitz, and Yo-Yo as the "Invincible Three." Fitz's darkness (or pragmatism, if you're entertaining your own growing psychopath) seemed to rub off on them all, with Simmons in particular going quite extreme. The "poison shell game" was the pivotal scene of the episode, not because there was actually any tension about Simmons dying, but for the ramifications all around the scene. Not telling Fitz about her plan was one cruel beat; actually testing her invincibility theory for real was another. I do wonder just how outsized Simmons' sense of invulnerability will become before she's taken down a peg. She may indeed be right that she can be as reckless with her life as she wants, but surely this could have consequences for someone else at some point?

But don't touch that dial! We got a quite unexpected "post-credits" style scene that again took us back to season one, this time for a scene between Raina (!) and Ian Hall (!). It really hadn't struck me that Creel was hearing two different voices in his head, but here we got the reason for that. The scene was more notable to me, though, just for having actress Ruth Negga back on the show again for a moment. Since she played a major recurring character of seasons one and two, Negga has gone on to the series Preacher, and received an Oscar nomination for her work in Loving. She's had a good couple of years since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

With its dark moments and (as always) great jokes, this episode worked much better for me than the last. I give it a B+.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Whoa, "Be Gone"

I've written before about my interest in the true crime genre. Though I've talked mainly about podcasts, the same interest extends to books as well. And a particular one has been causing quite a stir lately: I'll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara.

The book chronicles a serial rapist and murderer that McNamara dubbed the Golden State Killer. Active from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, one criminal committed 50 rapes and a dozen murders. He operated in first northern and then southern California, and it was only with the later advent of DNA evidence that the two clusters were even linked as being the work of the same man. With particularly terrifying tactics and an alarming escalation of violence, he might well be the most heinous uncaptured criminal in the U.S. And few have ever heard of him.

McNamara's book on the subject vaulted to the top of the bestsellers upon its recent release, in part because of the thirst of true crime fans to learn about this largely unknown tale. It also no doubt got a signal boost from her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, who pushed it on his social media feeds and toured extensively in support of the book. It also, sadly, may have gained prestige from the untimely (though natural) death of McNamara two years ago, before she could actually finish the book herself.

One thing is certain: Michelle McNamara was an extremely expressive writer. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is a chilling read. The mere facts of the GSK himself would be enough to raise goosebumps, but that's not to undermine McNamara's brilliant writing in recounting his attacks. Not that the book is all morbid thrills. McNamara tracks her own amateur obsession with the case, and writes extensively about the detectives who worked it. She makes intriguing "characters" of everyone, conveying personality and place with great effect. Where some true crime writing can seem clinical and detached, this book is taut and engaging.

But it's also a little disjointed. Though each episode McNamara writes about is perfectly drawn, at times they feel like perfectly realized islands unto themselves. They don't seem to be arranged chronologically, nor in any particular pattern I could recognize. At the conclusion of the book, I felt a bit as though I'd watched a season of a television series in a jumbled up order; I could recall everything with crystal clarity, but it didn't quite cohere as one tale. This I have to chalk up to the book's unfinished nature. Certain chapters are culled from McNamara's blog, or previously published magazine articles, while the very end of the book is finished by two other people who knew and worked with her before her death. It's hard to imagine that the book's intended "narrative" would have been so fragmented and hard to follow when she had such a facility with details. It's more likely McNamara just didn't get to finish it the right way.

The result is a true crime book that's just as much about the author as the criminal. This was the plan, even before McNamara's death, as you can tell from the middle section that's clearly all about her pursuit of the Golden State Killer. Not only is that an interesting approach in and of itself, but McNamara's writing makes you appreciate the human toll of the killer more than most books of this type do. The loss feels real.

I give I'll Be Gone in the Dark a B+. I feel certain if it could have been finished properly, it would have been an A. Nevertheless, it's a great read for anyone else intrigued by this dark genre.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Dreamy

There will always be new "clue giving" games to try. One that my group recently discovered is When I Dream, which adds the twist that sometimes, you don't want to be giving good clues.

Players takes turns being the Dreamer, either covering their eyes or wearing a quirky little sleep mask that comes with the game. You have 2 minutes as players work through a stack of cards, giving the Dreamer single word clues about things they have to guess. The Dreamer can let the group circle around as much as they want, but they get only one guess -- that guess is either right or wrong (and you don't find out right away which), and then it's on to the next card.

Before each round begins, all the players are given a secret role to card to play during the round. Fairy players are meant to give the Dreamer "good dreams," giving the best clues they can and scoring points for every correct guess. Boogeymen players work against the group; they score a point for every incorrect guess by the Dreamer. A rare but special role card, the Sandman, tasks a player with maintaining balance; they score best if right and wrong guesses are equal, and score nothing at all if they're too unequal.

The mix of roles is a bit different depending on the number of players, but the game can take as many as 10 people, and having those different goals each round really makes the game. There's a surprising amount of strategy in giving bad clues. You don't want your clue to be so bad that it's obviously wrong, because if the Dreamer pegs you as trying to sabotage them, they'll just stop listening to the clues you give. You can sometimes get help in your sabotage from other Boogeymen, but if you've figured out who they are, there's a risk the Dreamer has too.

Scoring for the Dreamer offers a bonus. They score for the number of correct guesses, but they also can pick up a 2 point bonus if (before removing the blindfold) they can recall every guess they made (correct or incorrect) during the round. Basically: can you remember your dream? It's a neat idea, but the scale of the points felt off to my group. You can easily pile up 6 or 7 guesses in a 2-minute round, and it's simply not worth the effort (or time bogging down the game) to try to remember them all.

Everybody gets one chance at being the Dreamer, so the game plays in just 2 minutes per player. It's a fast filler to slip in on a crowded game night. The designery may not have packed the game with enough clues to give it staying power, though. For the sake of flavor, the game comes with an elaborate plastic "four-post bed" that holds the clue cards, and those cards are lavishly illustrated. There's a clue on each end, with the illustration being a quirky, "non-sensical as dreams are" way of combining the two into one picture. They look fantastic, but you get a small stack of them compared to, say, the huge pile of tiny cards you get in Codenames. Basically, if you play When I Dream too much, too frequently, you'll probably remember some of the weirder words in the mix, which I would expect to have an impact on the gameplay.

Still, it's a clever twist in the genre overall, and a good large group game to have on hand. I give When I Dream a B+.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Far From a Hit

One movie from last year that I thought I was super-excited to see was The Hitman's Bodyguard, the teaming up of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in a dark warping of the buddy cop formula. (Jackson is a hitman set to testify against a genocidal dictator; Reynolds is the reluctant bodyguard trying to keep him alive until then.)

I guess I wasn't that excited about the movie. It came out the week I went to GenCon, and by the time the next week came around, the interest wasn't there. I'd heard it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, something more interesting came out at the theater, whatever. But I did finally catch it last week.

Indeed, it wasn't as good as I'd hoped. At least it wasn't defanged by the studio that released it; it earns every bit of its R rating. It's not Robocop-level violent, but neither does it shy away from letting the blood fly. You get Samuel L. Jackson cursing as much as you could ever want him to, and yes, there's a joyful verve to it.

The thing is, it should be a whole lot funnier. It has an overabundance of plot for what it aims to be. 20 minutes of humorless setup at the beginning gives us way more than we need to know about the characters, and frustratingly delays what we're here to see -- the team-up of Reynolds and Jackson. Once we finally get there, the movie does have its moments, just not nearly enough of them. Part of the problem is that Reynolds' comedic skills are squandered in the conventional "straight man" role in the comic pairing. Not that you could have just swapped casting on this, but Jackson doesn't really need the "punch lines" as such to be be funny. The script just isn't tailored well to these two actors.

Speaking of odd casting, the appearance here of Gary Oldman (as the ruthless dictator at the core of the plot) is rather mystifying. It's not a juicy part by any stretch -- it's maybe 10 minutes of screen time, and there are countless working actors who could have played it. Why the man who would win an Oscar with his very next film would choose to do this, I can't imagine. It's not a chance to be funny; it's a 100% sincere and sober villain role. It's not a chance to work with an esteemed director; Patrick Hughes doesn't have that kind of pedigree. It's not a chance to work with a particular actor; virtually none of Oldman's scenes are with the top-billed cast. Sure, Oldman comes in and does great in this nothing part. I just don't get it. Alimony payments to make?

On the other hand, there's Salma Hayek, who I didn't even know was in this, and so on every level became the surprise of the movie for me. She's hilarious, perhaps all the more so for me not generally expecting that from her. Her role is on the small side too, but she digs in with gusto. She's as sarcastic as Reynolds in his best moments, curses with as much glee as Jackson in his best moments, and earns easily more than half the movie's laughs -- which could be seen as a criticism of the rest of the movie, but let me be clear that I mean it as a compliment to her.

There are worse comedies out there, movies that generate no laughs at all. Still, you can (I'm sorry to say) do a lot better than The Hitman's Bodyguard. I'd give it a C-. I mean, A+ to the premise, the people who made the poster, cut the trailer, and so on. But an over-serious script kept it from realizing its full potential.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Rise and Shine

There was a time I was way outside the tent when it came to things Marvel. I'd enjoy (most of) the movies well enough, but roll my eyes at the post-credits scenes, which were clearly intended for another audience. This week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made me realize that at least when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this show in particular, I'm not outside the tent anymore.

I wasn't entirely enthused to get half an episode devoted to the backstory of General Hale. (Hale HYDRA -- a joke my husband anticipated about three commercial breaks ahead of time.) It felt like a lot of time away from our regular characters. But I totally recognized all the shout-outs and callbacks they were doing throughout the extended flashback. Young Sitwell! Daniel Whitehall! Young von Strucker! The killing of a dog -- a callback to how Ward said he was trained. Yeah... the fact that I got even half of that means I'm definitely not an outsider anymore.

Not that the HYDRA flashback wasn't intriguing in its own way. Certainly, it fleshed out Hale and made her a more sympathetic character. This is definitely needed in the story line they're clearly working now -- a story that requires the audience to see her as more than just another head of HYDRA. Very cleverly, the episode established this empathy by playing up the institutional sexism she dealt with. In a wonderfully on-the-nose bit of commentary, she was wanted literally only for her ability to be a mother. Still, as I said, all of this amounted to a lot of time not spent with the main characters.

Fortunately, what we did get in that regard was pretty good. Coulson as a prisoner, still wry under pressure, was great fun -- and further justified the length of the flashback, by painting a contrast between him and Talbot in similar circumstances. We also got the continuation of Fitz as unrepentant villain, and I'm happy to see they plan to dwell on this for at least a little while, rather than reversing the plot development as quickly as it was introduced.

For me, the most intriguing scene was the final one between Fitz and Simmons, in which Simmons reveals to him the "lesson" she's taken from Yo-Yo's glimpse of her future: they're all invincible. I loved the ambiguity of the moment. For Simmons, it seemed intended as a "you and I are going to be okay, because we live to have a daughter" bit of encouragement. But there was some kind of sinister undercurrent to it, with Fitz freshly embracing an identity as a mad scientist. I'm not sure I need the show to go darker before it goes lighter, but I'm intrigued that it feels like a legit possibility.

Overall, I'd give the episode a B. Not the strongest of the season by any stretch, but it kept things intriguingly moving along.