Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I Spy

Party games tend to go over well in my circle of friends, because even though we catch games here and there throughout the month, the last Saturday of each month is marked for everyone to gather. Sometimes the group will divide into separate games on those occasions, but often we'll go with old standbys we know can accommodate that many people. Or, in the case of Spyfall, a new party game discovery.

Spyfall has actually been around a while, being popular enough to spawn some expansions and spin-offs. It was still new to our group. The game is played with stacks of cards illustrating various locations (and full of minor details): the beach, a circus, a costume party...dozens of locations in all. To play a round, each player receives an identical illustration card, except for one player who is instead randomly dealt a card marking them as a spy. They don't get to see the picture everyone else does.

A timer is started, and questions begin to ping-pong around the table. Players are trying to ascertain who the spy is; the spy is trying to bluff their way through their lack of information and figure out where they are before time expires. The first player picks somebody and directs a question to them. ("It's kind of noisy here, don't you think?") That player must respond somehow... ("Maybe, but it's all part of the fun!") and then direct a new question to someone else ("Why are you dressed so odd?"). So on and so on, until either time expires, or one player proposes to the group the identity of the spy and gets a majority of the players to agree. OR until the spy, who can see in the center of the table an array of the possible locations, can deduce where they are and announce it to the group.

It's a neat concept, but I felt the game didn't live up to it in execution. There are simply a lot of rough patches and vague fuzziness in the construction, requiring the players to smooth things over for themselves. Just how much is everyone supposed to look at the common array of locations? Isn't it obvious you're the spy when you look at them? Are you suppose to make copies for each player to keep with them? What kinds of questions are we supposed to ask? What if someone doesn't quite get that there's a role-playing aspect to this and asks "what item do you see in the top left corner of your card?"

We played several rounds of Spyfall on that night it was introduced to us, but it never quite felt like it "worked." Unlike say, Resistance, the parameters of the bluffing seemed too ill-defined. "Are you a good guy or a bad guy?" is an easy matter to explain quickly to new players and have them understand. You just get to enjoy the game. There's no awkward period of "are we doing this right?" -- a period that even after several rounds, we never really pulled out of.

Despite good illustrations and production values, Spyfall felt to me like a game that's passed around like an oral tradition. "Oh, someone showed me how to play Spyfall one time. Here, let's all try!" And then they don't quite explain it right, or remember it right. Or in explaining it differently, they introduce a weird corruption in the game that then gets passed around to the next group.

I could believe there's some fun in Spyfall somewhere. It certainly seems popular enough over on BoardGameGeek. But it left me (and I think most of my group) feeling that there are other bluffing party games we prefer a great deal more. I give Spyfall a C.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Book of Momentous Import

When reading books, I like to change things up. Recently, I swung over into non-fiction to check out a biography by author Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. It's there in the subtitle -- it's an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, centered on his famous "first 100 days."

In actuality, the chronicle of the first 100 days makes up the last third-to-half of the book. The lead-up to that is a background on both Roosevelt himself and on the state of the country at the time of his election. On virtually every page, images are conjured that make for sobering comparisons to today -- sometimes over how far things have come, but just as often how cyclical the wheel of history really is.

Most of the differences surround FDR's polio, which left him confined to a wheelchair and able to "walk" only as a carefully choreographed bit of assisted theatricality. Alter's book explains that contrary to what most people today think, FDR's condition was widely known when he was elected. But he worked hard to project strength in a way that made the people see past it. The press actually assisted in covering for him, collectively agreeing not to photograph him in moments that compromised the illusion and highlighted the truth. It's both an impossible-to-conceive contrast to today (where you know any moment of perceived weakness by a president would be trumpeted far and wide) and somehow familiar (in that the current president broadcasts his own mental and moral deficiencies far and wide every day, and it never undermines him with his supporters).

Alter does an excellent job on conveying the scope of the Great Depression, making the reader understand just how massive it was in a way I at least hadn't fully appreciated. Fully one-quarter of the U.S. population was unemployed, with some cities spiking near twice that rate. Many who were counted as technically employed were in part-time positions that could not pay the bills, or were working unproductive farms in danger of repossession by banks. Failing banks. Banks were going under at such a rate (and wiping out people's life savings as they fell) that 3/4 of the states had closed all banks entirely by the time Roosevelt took his oath of office. This book was a sobering illustration that for all the horrors of our time, there are other kinds of hardships that we today have never known.

In focusing on the initiatives of Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, you might expect the book to be a lionizing love fest for the 32nd president of the United States. On the contrary, Alter makes clear what a callous and political operator he could be. The book spends time on the period between FDR's election and inauguration (which at the time took place in March, not January, leaving a three-month gap after the election). The book explains how President Herbert Hoover tried many times to reach out to FDR for his support in enacting relief for the Depression, and being rebuffed. Hoover didn't want to be seen acting unilaterally in his "lame duck" period, and FDR didn't want to do anything that might actually work and be forced to share credit with Hoover. You could draw parallels to modern politics in several ways -- the pre-election posturing surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, the current president's propensity for self-aggrandizement, take your pick.

But even though Alter takes a "warts and all" approach to FDR, he still manages to deliver what feels like an incomplete book. That's the price of focusing on just the famous First 100 Days. It may be one of the most interesting periods of Roosevelt's presidency, but it amounts to less than 3% of his record time in office. The book's epilogue spends a little time on Social Security, a few paragraphs mention monumental pieces of history like the rise of Hitler and the attempt to pack the Supreme Court. World War II is barely mentioned. And even though the scope of this book means these are deliberate omissions (presumably to distinguish it from the many other biographies of Roosevelt), they feel wrong.

The Defining Moment is a good and informative read, but it comes off like a beautiful table with one of the legs removed. This book covers what may be the defining period of FDR's presidency, but it doesn't feel like the defining biography of the man. I give it a B-.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Profit and Loss

Of all the characters on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you might not expect Quark to have a lot of love interests. But his second of season two came in "Profit and Loss."

Natima Lang, a Cardassian professor of political ethics, comes aboard Deep Space Nine. She's attempting to lead two of her students, prominent dissidents, to safety. But the Central Command is hot on their heels, sending a Gul to bring them in and even enlisting the exiled Garak. The dissidents' only hope is Quark. Natima hopes he'll help because of the romantic relationship they had long ago; he hopes to rekindle that relationship.

This episode is among the less successful of season two, and the creative team acknowledged it. Show runner Michael Piller called it a "disappointment." Ira Steven Behr went into more detail, in part blaming last-minute rewrites. Apparently, the original conception of the story hewed so close to the movie Casablanca (even being titled "Here's Lookin' at You...") that there was real concern about legal action being taken. Behr thought the rewrites, even if necessary, gutted the most worthwhile parts of the episode. He also felt that Quark was made to be too heroic, "another tough, sexy, swashbuckling character on the show" when he ought to have been "Beauty and the Beast, or Woody Allen and every woman he's ever been with in the films."

I certainly don't find Quark to be as heroic here as Behr thinks. Though Quark is more genuinely in love here than he was earlier in the season (in "Rules of Acquisition"), it's a creepy, stalkery kind of love. He strong-arms Natima into staying, ransoming the freedom of her students against her "love," all the while remaining mystified why Natima is less than enthusiastic about rekindling their romance.

At least Natima is a strong character who stands up to Quark for most of the episode. (Her one weak moment comes when she shoots him, then immediately crumbles. I say she doesn't really seem in the wrong for doing it.) Actress Mary Crosby does a lot to emote through the heavy makeup and make the character more charismatic than I think she was on the page.

I think Natima would be a better character still if we had a better sense of what she was fighting for -- specifically, if the two students she was fighting to protect, Hogue and Rekelen, were as compelling as she is. We get a vague idea of the Cardassian political landscape, but we're only told about the potential power of these young students. It seems like we're supposed to regard them like Cardassian versions of people like David Hogg and Emma González, but we see no evidence of it. Hogue and Rekelen remain rather free of any personality at all.

The episode isn't without its moments, though -- mostly because Garak is in it. From his opening scene (verbally sparring with Bashir over Cardassian literary style) to his closing scene (doing the "right thing" maybe for love of country, but probably for hatred of having been double-crossed), we get a parade of great Garak moments. We also get new uses for the character, pairing him with people other than Bashir. He has a great joust with Quark in which "radical fashion" becomes code for radical politics, and another great scene with Sisko in which Garak must threaten by insinuation. If Andrew Robinson hadn't already cemented Garak as a necessary presence on the show, this episode certainly does it.

There are also some fun scenes involving Odo. Though he starts off in a utilitarian role (giving us early exposition about a cloaking device that will be important later), he later actually listens to Quark's honest and emotional plea for help. And he ends up breaking the law to save the dissidents because he feels the law is unjust in this case. Odo is even a fun "presence" in a scene he isn't actually in, when Quark goes banging around in case the shapeshifter might be eavesdropping.

Other observations:
  • We see in this episode that Cardassian neck ridges are apparently as erogenous as Ferengi ears.
  • A fairly significant earthquake hit southern California on an early morning during the production of this episode. Actors in half-finished alien makeup were said to have rushed away from the studio to check on loved ones. The shoot was closed down for two days as all the sets were inspected for damage, and aftershocks continued to affect filming even once it resumed. Perhaps some of the episode's shortcomings can be chalked up to these disruptions?
The considerable charms of Garak (and Andrew Robinson) do a lot to redeem an otherwise lackluster episode. Still, the sum total is rather forgettable. I give "Profit and Loss" a B-.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Confounded Contraption

One situation to be wary of in board games is the "rich get richer" problem: success breeds more success for the player who leaps out ahead, and the trailing players can have a hard time catching up. So it was with some trepidation that I tried out a game that seemed built on this principle: Gizmos.

In Gizmos, each player is trying to build their own "engine" of cards. An array of pieces (each one a card) is placed in the center of the table. Each player works to increase their own pool of energy marbles, in four different colors, which are used to buy from that center pool. On your turn, you either buy a card or take one of the six randomly available energy for your pool.

The game has a strict timing structure, breaking your turn into several phases. It's all meant to foster card combos, not unlike the way deck-building games do. But where it's luck of the draw in a deck builder that determines whether your combo goes off, in Gizmos, all your cards are face up in front of you as you add them to your engine. You're building the most ruthless, repeatable card combo you can manage.

By about halfway into the game, a player who's doing well will often take an elaborate turn. "I'll draft this one red energy from the pool. This card says that when I draft red energy, I get to take a random energy also... and this OTHER card I have says every time I spend red energy, it counts double. Ooo! My random energy was black, and THIS card says that when I get black energy, I get to draft a second energy marble, so now I'll take yellow. Ooo, and by the way, THIS card lets me spend yellow as blue, so man, I'm going to have a REALLY good turn next time."

Oh, NEXT time?

To be certain, there is something deeply satisfying about this game. Strategizing your own engine and finding new cards that slot perfectly into it makes you feel damn clever. Taking a turn where 5 of your cards all work in tandem is pretty fun. And since combos are what the game is all about, everyone is going to reach a point where they've got some pretty fantastic stuff going on.

But it's also hard not to get combo jealousy of other players. The randomness of available energy and available new cards do mean that, strictly speaking, the rich may not inevitably get richer in this game. The engine you've built may not interact particularly well with what's available when your turn comes around. One could be debate whether this is solving one problem by introducing another. If you're the sort of person who thinks Puerto Rico has too much randomness (because plantation tiles are drawn randomly), you're going to have a hard time accepting this.

It's entirely possible -- likely even -- that this game is never going to feel "fair" to a lot of people. But at the same time, it's true that the act of building a huge card combo and watching it go off at least every other turn is pretty good for the endorphins. So I'm very much of a mixed mind on this game. I think it's not one I'd seek out again. But it's also fairly short, so I think I'd be up for playing it again if it were suggested.

For me, I think I'd call it maybe a B-. I could see other gamers reacting quite differently to it -- both more favorably and more negatively. Hopefully, I've given you enough to know if Gizmos is right for you.

Monday, October 22, 2018

It's Right There in the TItle

This weekend, I thought I'd have a fun romp with a stylish looking new movie, Bad Times at the El Royale. It's the brain child of Drew Goddard, a man with a long list of TV and movie credits -- most compellingly (for me) as the co-writer and director of The Cabin in the Woods. It seemed like I could be in for a treat.

Set in 1970, the movie takes place at a rundown hotel on the border of California and Nevada, where a group of strangers happen to arrive on the same night for a twisty tale of shadiness and trouble. I didn't want to scratch any deeper on that, as the mystery seemed like part of the appeal. The cast was also incentive enough, an ensemble including Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Chris Hemsworth, and some skillful lesser-knowns.

Unfortunately, what I felt like a Quentin Tarantino cover band -- and they weren't even playing the hits.

That's not entirely accurate. Bad Times at the El Royale feels a lot like Pulp Fiction, which most would argue is Tarantino's greatest hit. This movie steals all the key gimmicks: long and unbroken takes on dialogue-heavy scenes, characters slowly revealed as the narrative bobs around to focus on them, playing with overlapping time, a Macguffin at the heart of the story that's never fully explained, sudden violence to release tension. This movie is at least two-parts Pulp Fiction. The rest is The Hateful Eight (strangers happen to gather in the wrong place at the wrong time), to a degree that I'd have thought Jeff Bridges would have read the script and thought, "I've done this before."

By "not playing the hits," I mean this Tarantino pastiche learns the wrong lessons from Tarantino. Scenes all go on a bit too long. The opening act is too languid as it shambles vaguely in the direction of a plot that doesn't seem to start until too far into the movie. Nobody is who they say they are, which ultimately makes you lose interest in finding out the full truth to any of them.

Visually, at least, the movie does capture that Tarantino crackle. Memorable images abound, from a hotel lobby divided in half along the state border, to characters getting soaked in a torrential downpour, to the creepy effect of the masks worn by a trio of characters in a key flashback. Some of the visuals are probably a bit too on the nose, but they make for arresting pictures nonetheless.

The actors all seem to be having fun too. Jeff Bridges blends his prickly old coot and kindly mentor schticks in one character (maybe that opportunity was the appeal). Jon Hamm has fun embracing and subverting his Mad Men persona over the course of the film. Chris Hemsworth struts around playfully, abs on display for every quite possibly frame of the film he's in. Tony winner Cynthia Erivo gets to deploy her considerable singing talents to great effect. Lewis Pullman brings heft to perhaps the most interesting of the "characters with a secret back story."

But more than anything, this film will test your patience. If you have it, you might find a fair amount to like about it -- particularly if you just can't get enough of Quentin Tarantino's eight films (and you dread the thought that he'll really retire after ten, as he's announced). For the rest of us, it's definitely rental at best, so you can watch at home and bail more easily if your patience runs out. I give Bad Time at the El Royale a C.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Trick or Treat?

Of all the classic horror movies I've seen, Halloween is my favorite. It generates legitimate tension without being hokey like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. Not to mention that it came first, with Michael Myers inspiring that entire subgenre of supernatural stalker-killers. I'm not a fan of the franchise as such; I think I've seen maybe half of the 10 Halloween movies released before this year. But that original 1978 film still works for me.

As such, I was keenly interested in this new 2018 incarnation also titled Halloween, for its connection to the original. It brings back Jamie Lee Curtis in the role that made her famous. It also whisks away all the history of every intervening Halloween film (good or bad) to position itself as the one and only sequel in "true continuity" with the original.

The result is something of a mixed bag. For a fan of the original film like me, the 2018 film is a treasure trove of sly references and connections to the first. If you don't know the original very well, you'd be well-rewarded to watch it before seeing this one. It's not that the plot is complicated to follow (ha!), but you'll notice how much of the new film deliberately echoes the first. Camera compositions are routinely built to evoke the 1978 movie. Certain sequences are written in ways that revisit ideas from the first film (while sometimes switching the character types around in their positions). This new movie really comes off as a love letter written by people who really cared for the first Halloween.

There's also some fun updating for 2018. In interviews, Jamie Lee Curtis has said this Halloween is a movie for the #MeToo era, and she's right. You wouldn't need her to tell you that, either. The film's female characters are all drawn more interestingly and sympathetically than the men. They avoid stupid decisions to falsely endanger themselves. They stand up for themselves and get things done. (Well, "mostly," to those last two. Gotta let the killer get his licks in sometimes.)

All that said, I don't want to give the impression that this film is a revelation. Some of the set pieces are quite silly. It's languidly paced for the first half hour -- much like the original, but not in a way that slowly allows the tension to build.

I'm pretty sure, in fact, that some of the Halloween sequels this new movie informally winks out of existence were actually better overall. The original Halloween II cleverly connected boogeyman Michael Myers with Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode, and also had the fun conceit of picking up exactly where the first movie left off. The 20th anniversary sequel, Halloween H20, was more thrilling in how it matched Strode and Myers for the showdown they'd each been waiting for all their lives.

Indeed, it might just be that the parts of this new movie that I liked best were actually, for the most part, just trading currency on things I liked in the original. So, reining the enthusiasm in, I'd have to say that this new Halloween merits about a B-. Fans of scary movies that really need a new one at this time of year will probably want to check it out. If you're not a fan of the franchise (or at least the original Halloween), I can't imagine this movie winning you over.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Keep This in Mind

Rare is the game that's as much fun to watch as it is to play, but one has come along recently in The Mind. The title is bland and forgettable, but that may be one of the only strikes against it. It's easy to explain, quick to play, fun for all, and inexpensive too!

The Mind falls under the Hanabi umbrella of cooperative games that restricts communication between the players. In this case, a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 100 is shuffled for each round. In round 1, every player is dealt a single card. In round 2, you get two cards. So on up to the required number of rounds you must play for your number of players (for example: 8 rounds and eight cards each in a 4-player game).

The goal is simple: whatever cards you've been dealt collectively for that round, you must play in numerical order face up on the table. The restriction: no one is allowed to speak. Players have to take turns adding their own cards to the face up pile when it seems like the time is right. You have only two tools: a certain number of "lives" (times you can mess up), and a certain number of shurikens you can agree as a group to deploy by all raising a hand simultaneously. When you use a shuriken, each player discards the lowest valued card in their hand, potentially getting you out of a sticky situation with many numbers in close proximity. You can gain new lives and shurikens for completing rounds, but you'll still likely be losing resources faster than they replenish.

That's it. The level of communication allowed can be dialed up or down according to the whims of the group. The rules prescribe essentially no communication at all -- no attempting to signal with facial expressions, or with the manner and speed you move to play a card to the stack. In practice, every group I've seen uses these cheats. Not to worry, though, the game is plenty challenging. I've played nearly 20 times now (with four players) and have yet to ever actually complete eight rounds (though I've reached that final round a couple of times).

It's so simple, but that makes the thrills simple and visceral too. Few games I've played in the last year have given me the intense rush this game does -- that moment of successfully playing two consecutive numbers to the pile in the right order without messing up. And, being a cooperative game, every one of your successes is a success shared. It's a feel-good game. (Okay, mess up and you might invite some ribbing from the other players -- but it's easy and fast to turn around and play again.)

The game is meant to take four, but it works great even on a night where you have more players. It takes mere minutes to play, and mere seconds to explain. Players can easily swap in and out between games, or even rounds if you wish. Meanwhile, as I noted, watching it can be nearly as fun as playing, rooting for your friends to succeed (or perhaps mocking them when they don't do as well as you did).

One day, I vow, I will win a game of The Mind. My enthusiasm for playing it hasn't dulled in the least waiting for that day to come. Of course, there are more involved games, games that better engage the tactical brain. But this is like an intensely flavored sauce reduced over low heat -- it packs a big punch for what it is. And for this triumph of simplicity, I have to give The Mind an A. I'd play it anywhere, any time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Falling Down

Last week, in discussing a book I read recently, I mentioned that I've been on the hunt for fiction with a compelling, uncloseted gay protagonist. I got a couple of recommendations I plan on looking into. Meanwhile, though, another promising title had come up in my own searches: London Falling, by Paul Cornell.

I found this book on a list marked "LGBT," but it was the synopsis that drew me in. A team of London detectives is reaching the end of a longtime sting on a drug kingpin when things go horribly wrong. The suspect is apparently murdered in custody, impossibly and spontaneously. And then the small team of four begins to see visions of a supernatural parallel dimension intermingled with the city of London. Spookiness ensues.

It's the month of Halloween, this sounded like a fun romp. Sign me up! And then pull over right now and let me the hell off.

One problem with the book is probably unfair for me to hold against it. It's written by a British writer, set in a British place, and steeped in British terminology. Usually, I have little problem working past this when, say, I'm watching a British detective show or such. Here, the jargon was positively impenetrable. It was work to follow what was going on. But hey, that's probably on me; if I weren't a boorish American, maybe I'd better pick up on what the author was laying down. Maybe. I maintain that if Paul Cornell were a better writer, he'd have surmounted this issue.

But the evidence of him as a bad writer abounded. The pacing of the plot was off. One event at the end of Chapter Three persuaded me to keep going, but it was really the only plot point of note in the first quarter of the book. The story was built around four characters, and often a chapter would consist of the exact same material being rehashed repetitively from multiple perspectives (in tiny Dan Brown-like chunks).

There might have been merit in that approach had the characters felt different enough to have different perspectives. But the four were all virtually indistinguishable, given forgettable names and superficial quirks. The woman in the group finally got one chapter of intriguing back story around a third of the way into the book, but promptly went back to being her boring, cookie-cutter self soon after.

One of the quartet was gay, which is how the book had originally popped onto my radar. And though he was closeted at work, the book was not remotely about him coming out (one of two requirements I'd been trying to fill). But then, he was decidedly not the main character (failing the other requirement). In any event, he had no more personality or character than anyone else in the slog of a book.

I nearly bailed on it once, but found a raft of Goodreads.com reviews claiming that the book really got going around the 25% mark. I hung in until about 40%, and then simply could not take another word. "Who is this hack?" I wondered. How did he get a book published? Turns out he's a prolific television writer who has worked on everything from Doctor Who to Coronation Street. Seems to me he needs to stick to that medium. He needs actors to imbue his characters with any sense of realism or dimension. Otherwise, they do whatever the opposite is of leaping off the page.

I suppose you don't get a grade when you drop out, but London Falling deserves an F anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Oh, Man

If you were to imagine a movie in a lab, cooked up to cater specifically to my tastes, that movie would probably end up looking a lot like First Man. It's about the 60's space race. It's from Damien Chazelle, the director of one of my favorite new movies of the past decade, Whiplash. It's not necessarily that First Man was ticking all the boxes, but it quite dramatically ticked those big ones.

I was probably going to like a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong to some extent no matter what. It may be that I was also going to be a bit disappointed in it no matter what. Prophecies fulfilled, and now I'll see if I can explain why.

As for what I liked about the movie, I'm not sure space travel has ever been put on screen in a more thrilling fashion. I'd even include in that my personal favorite Apollo 13, which used the famous "Vomit Comet" aircraft to film scenes of actual weightlessness with no visual effects trickery. First Man is more intense than that. It makes going to space feel risky and dangerous. In particular, there's a lot of critical praise for a harrowing aerial test flight at the beginning of the film. And of course, there's the lunar sequences at the end that are pretty much What We're All Here To See -- and they are breathtaking (if brief).

But it's actually three other sequences in the film that stand out for me. Two relate to Neil Armstrong's first orbital flight, aboard Gemini 8. The launch of the craft is presented without the conventional exterior shots of the rocket climbing to the stars; instead, the entire experience is presented to us from inside the violently rumbling craft itself. Later, a mishap during the flight does an amazing job of conveying life-or-death stakes (even when, of course, we know Armstrong made it out just fine). The third sequence centers around the Apollo 1 fire, which has been dramatized multiple times, but never with quite the visceral horror it receives here. (It's worth noting that all of these moments I mention were depicted in the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. And great as that was, I again maintain that the portrayal here is more amazing still.)

Where the movie falters, though, is in trying to present us a portrait of Neil Armstrong, the man. As a public figure, he was rather famously closed off. Other astronauts said often in interviews that the real Neil they knew really wasn't like that, and it feels like the promise of a movie like this is to show us that, to humanize a near-mythic figure. Instead, First Man doubles down on the myth. The movie's Armstrong shows emotion perhaps three times in the entire two-plus hours, always briefly and compactly. He otherwise seems to remain a cipher to his family, his co-workers, and mostly, the audience. The one Big Moment that counters this is a fabrication departing from actual history. It's a bit of artistic license I'd welcome more if it had been part of a more complete strategy to illuminate Armstrong, rather than a play for resonance at the end.

As good as I've noted the space material is, the Earthbound stuff is often that weak. Damien Chazelle opts for a transparent metaphor here, shooting all the "family drama" with a conspicuously unsteady handheld camera. Armstrong's life lacks solidity, but everything "up there" is stable and assured -- get it, people?! Claire Foy does some powerful acting as Armstrong's wife Janet, but you won't necessarily get to see it -- if you go to this film in IMAX for the moon scenes, you may well get motion sick from the domestic scenes. As for Ryan Gosling? It's getting to be cliche to cast him as one of these emotionally impenetrable stoics. Sometimes less is indeed more. This does not feel like one of those times.

As a side swipe on the way out, I also want to call out the distracting musical score by composer Justin Hurwitz. It's quite repetitive, and features oddly conspicuous instruments that call attention away from the action. Most confoundingly, the score makes judicious use of the Theremin, the instrument that provided the signature whine of many a black-and-white science fiction movie. Is this intentionally trying to make this film seem hokey and outdated? What on Earth (or the moon) for?

Objectively speaking, I should probably be grading this movie a C+. But the fact is, I loved the space travel sequences too much. To me, they were that impactful, that immediate, that tense, enough that the movie lands at a B in my book. But, as I said in the beginning, that's the book of someone who has always been a fan of the early age of space flight. If that's your thing too, you'll probably find enough here to be glad you went. Everyone else might want to proceed with caution.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Summer Lovin'

I've been on a reading hunt recently. Well... more of a side quest, really. I've been trying to find a good book with a gay main character that isn't the story of a closeted man coming out. I've found it a surprisingly difficult pair of boxes to check. As soon as you move a novel's "token gay character" off the periphery and into the spotlight, the plot inevitably seems to be about a slow journey to self acceptance. I want a book in which the protagonist simply is gay as a matter of course, just as every other book doesn't spend pages on having the main character "coming to accept" being straight. I peruse Goodreads.com, read synopses, and try to find likely candidates.

Imagine my thrill when I cracked open Something Like Summer, by Jay Bell, and was greeted with this opening sentence to Chapter One: "This is not a coming-out story."

Let me say first that I did enjoy this book overall. But that said, this opening line is not entirely truthful. The story unfolds over a seven year period, following protagonist Ben Bentley from age 17. The novel is strictly limited to his point of view, and he is (as promised in that opening line) already out at the start of the story. (A rather remarkable notion for a teenager in Texas in the year 1996, the time and place the story begins.) So no, this story is not about Ben coming out.

But it is a story about Ben's interactions with two "great loves" of his life, and one of them - the one who appears in more of the book -- is very deeply closeted. As a result, much of the tapestry of this story is woven with the patterns of a coming-out tale. It is, at times, not really what I was looking for.

At other times, though, it's very much what I was looking for. The other man in Ben's life is every bit as self-actualized as he is -- and actually comes across more likeable than Ben himself. This may be because the novel, coming from Ben's point of view, let's us in on every noble and ignoble thought in his head. That leaves his love interest more closed off to the reader, and seen only through Ben's adoring lens. Of course he's going to be likeable.

With the bulk of the story set in Ben's teens, the book does often have a distinct "Young Adult Fiction" vibe. There's nothing wrong with that; I've read plenty from that category before. But it made me aware that maybe what I was originally looking for was part "not a coming-out tale" and part "not about 'kids.'" (This, of course, made me feel old.)

Still, the book was written well enough, and pulled me along at a brisk pace. The author has more in a series of these, and I've made a mental note to circle back around to one (probably after I've found the book I'm really after). I'd give Something Like Summer a B+.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Playing God

Next up on Deep Space Nine, a rather "Next Generation"-style "ship in jeopardy" story, mixed with a mediocre Dax character plot: "Playing God."

Jadzia Dax is evaluating whether a young Trill initiate is fit to be joined with a symbiont, and the process is not going well. Her charge Arjen is somehow rigid and uncertain at the same time, unready for joining in ways that recall Jadzia's own past rejection by Curzon, the previous host of her very symbiont. But Arjen may yet be able to prove himself when a crisis befalls the station: an emerging microuniverse that threatens our own with its growth. Meanwhile, efforts by our heroes to solve the problem are stymied by an infestation of Cardassian voles.

This is a bit of a schizophrenic episode that doesn't quite come together. For the second episode in a row, three different plots are presented (though they're interwoven a bit this time). The problem, apparently, was that there wasn't really agreement on what was the primary story here. Outside writer Jim Trombetta was taken with the "protouniverse" aspect, and the ethical dilemma of whether to destroy it to save our own. Showrunner Michael Piller felt that wasn't where the meat of the story was, and did a last minute rewrite attempting to elevate the Dax plot line.

Piller was at least right in this: there's little tension in the protouniverse story, because every Star Trek viewer is going to know that high-minded Starfleet ideals won't allow our heroes to destroy other life to save their own. Transparent though the conceit is, it does at least provide the opportunity to explore how the non-Starfleet characters feel here. (Ever pragmatic Kira notes that it's "us or them," and not a hard call. Odo speaks from personal experience when he says you can't destroy life just because you don't understand it.)

Still, the episode misses other opportunities that might have been fruitful: having life inside the protouniverse reach out and solve the problem, for instance. And the finale is quite unsatisfying; our heroes unheroically dump the problem on the other side of the wormhole where one can only assume it will one day become someone else's problem.

Piller was also right that, in theory, a deeper dive into one of the main characters is a stronger place to focus an episode. But neither of the two basic conflicts involving Dax are especially compelling. The internal one is an inauthentic arc, as Jadzia has long since joined with Dax and thus should already have reached some kind of acceptance with Curzon's behavior toward her. That, or if Jadzia really has unresolved issues there, show us a story that engages more directly with her past host. (A late season three episode would do exactly that.)

The external conflict is even less satisfying, because it's all about Arjen, who isn't a particularly interesting or consistent character. Or at least, you have to read a lot into him to make him one. Over the course of the episode, we learn that he's only really after joining under pressure from his family. Still, he really wants it, so unless he's self-sabotaging, he should be too smart to fall for any of Jadzia's tricks. Clearly, she comes on extra loose and playful with Arjen to get a rise out of him, to get him to drop his guard and see if he's really mature enough to be a host. You would think after a lifetime of delicately saying whatever his parents want to hear, he'd be able to go a day or two telling his "field docent" Dax whatever she wants to hear. Or at least without blowing his stack on her.

It's a Dax episode overall, but another character it's surprisingly good for is Quark. Armin Shimerman gets great physical comedy both small (giving us that fun Ferengi "pleading gesture") and large (his massive reaction when O'Brien accidentally hits him with the sonic generator). He's also hilarious in the scene where he tries to give bartenderly advice to Arjen, a blunt "sometimes you only get one shot, and you blew yours."

Other observations:
  • I mentioned earlier that the episode has a third subplot. But I'm not so sure the "vole eradication" thread is really a full-fledged storyline or just the Macguffin to facilitate jeopardy from the protouniverse.
  • The operatic owner of the Klingon restaurant makes his final appearance on the series here. The notion that Dax taught him a song was clearly an inspiring tidbit for the writers, who would quickly lean into Dax's connections with Klingons.
  • Less a subplot and more a one-off scene, we learn that Jake is in love with a dabo girl and his dad isn't ready to handle it yet. This too is an idea the writers would explore, early in season three.
  • Actor Richard Poe makes his first Star Trek appearance in this episode. Here, his Cardassian is unnamed, but later he would become Gul Evek, and appear not only in more Deep Space Nine episodes, but on two Next Generations and one Voyager too.
Dax may be an inherently fascinating character, but thus far the episodes about her haven't lived up to that promise. I give "Playing God" a C+.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Bullet Train (of Thought)

Some time ago, I jumped in and read book 7 of an open-ended thriller series because I was intrigued by its "perfect murder in Yellowstone National Park" premise. Now I've gone and read book 8... of a completely different ongoing series, for similar reasons.

A good friend recommended to me The Third Bullet, from the Bob Lee Swagger books by author Stephen Hunter. The recommendation came with the assurance that I wouldn't need to check out any of the preceding seven books, and so I didn't. I didn't even know until I was well into the book that the main character actually could have been knowable to me: Mark Wahlberg played him in the 2007 movie Shooter, while Ryan Phillipe portrayed him in the just-cancelled three-season TV series of the same name. (I haven't seen any of that, but there's a chance I could have.)

Swagger is a retired Marine sniper who gets into adventures that center around guns and marksmanship. But The Third Bullet wasn't recommended to me with the expectation that I'd be drawn to any of that. It was for the intriguing premise of this particular story, built around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This was no mad Grassy Knoll fever dream built around a "magic bullet"; this was a more considered fiction woven by a man steeped in ballistics and marksmanship, who actually ruminated for two decades about having his fictional hero "solve the JFK assassination."

The plotting is actually extremely clever. Hunter isn't really spinning a 100%-new conspiracy; by this point, it would be hard to pitch something credible that countless others hadn't already considered. Still, if you're going to ride for a theory of the case other than the official Warren Commission answer, this is a good one that seems plausible, at least as Hunter writes it. (Without spoiling details, the theory is alluded to in the title -- that the third bullet, the final shot and not the second "magic" bullet, is the most illuminating of the truth.)

I found Hunter's premise considerably better than his writing, however. I found the book to be too drawn out and slow paced, and it isn't until a third of the way in that it becomes really engaging. That's because he changes up his writing technique one-third of the way in. After following Swagger in a conventional third person style for many meandering chapters (including a pointless trip to Russia), out of nowhere comes a chapter written in first person, a memoir from the man who orchestrated JFK's assassination. From there on, the book alternates chapters: third person of Swagger on the hunt with first person memoir excerpts from the "true killer." The Swagger stuff isn't terrible, but it certainly comes off that way alongside the more compelling confession.

I suppose you have to take my opinion with a healthy dose of salt. (A proverbial "grain" probably isn't enough.) I didn't read any of the previous seven Bob Lee Swagger books. I had no investment in that character, and hence that part of the book. Stephen Hunter, rightly perhaps, spends little time "developing" an already amply-developed character. So this may not be a fair criticism: but I'd much rather the book be stand-alone. Indeed, I think you could almost read it that way. I believe if you read only the "memoir" chapters, you'd not only get the best parts of the book, it would hold together quite coherently until it catches up to "present day" near the very end.

Indeed, that's probably what I'd recommend -- because I found The Third Bullet to be an A-grade book shuffled together with a D-grade one. I wouldn't quite average them in the middle, either, given the hefty total page count, and how long it takes before the best part begins. Overall, I'd give The Third Bullet a C+. If you're a fan of JFK conspiracies, you might check it out. (Most of it, anyway.) If you're a fan of Bob Lee Swagger (or Stephen Hunter), I'd be curious to know how it comes off to you. Everyone else, though, should probably steer clear.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Dearly Beloved

Today's post is on the short side. That's because I'm talking again about Dear Evan Hansen, about which I've already said a fair amount. I can now add to that, though, that if you live in the Denver area, you now have a chance to see it without traveling all the way to New York. The touring version of the production began its run right here, and closes out this coming weekend. You have a few nights left to make it. And you totally should.

Dear Evan Hansen remains a great show, worthy of the accolades it received in its original run. Unlike Matilda, which was so diminished in the incarnation of its U.S. Tour that I apparently never even blogged about seeing it the second time, this cast follows well in the original's footsteps. Ben Platt won a Tony originating the title role, and while it's true and expected that no one following could match his intensity, the star of this production, Ben Levi Ross, definitely works. His vocal strength is obvious, and his more gangly and awkward appearance actually feels more authentic to the role of an outcast and weird teenager.

I love this show. I loved it the first time, transfixed by a pair of rare and amazing performances. I loved it the second, more able to recognize and appreciate the arcs of other characters in the story. It's great. See it. That's about all I can say.

Monday, October 08, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Shadowplay

Deep Space Nine was still experimenting to find its own format during season two. Sometimes, this took the form of following a single storyline for an entire episode (where The Next Generation would more often mix an "A plot" with a "B plot"). But in the episode "Shadowplay," the experiment went the other way -- the episode tries to juggle three separate storylines that never intersect with one another.

Exploring the Gamma Quadrant, Dax and Odo come upon a village where inhabitants have been disappearing without a trace. Meanwhile, Kira grows closer to Vedek Bareil during one of his visits to the station, and Jake Sisko begins an apprenticeship with Chief O'Brien, all the while struggling with how to tell his father that he doesn't want to join Starfleet.

If you squint through a rather pretentious lens, you can imagine that the three disparate storylines of this episode can be united under one theme. (In one interview, episode writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe did just that, claiming they're all about the "unreality of appearances.") But really, this episode is just three stories built around character pairings that seem interesting on the surface, but which mostly lack the depth to dig much below that.

Dax and Odo haven't really been paired in an episode before this, and in the teaser it seems like this could be a fruitful combination. Dax wants to gossip about Odo's love life, while the shapeshifter remains characteristically closed off. Ultimately, though, the storyline that follows isn't interested in these two; it's far more concerned with the pairing of Odo and a young child from the alien village, Taya.

This works to some extent. We've seen how Odo's own childlike nature plays off children before, both generally with Jake and Nog, and specifically with the daughter of the criminal Croden in "Vortex." They even got a good child actress here to play Taya; Noley Thorton was already a Star Trek veteran at this young age, the faults of her terrible Next Generation episode ("Imaginary Friend") not being hers. Still, neither this relationship nor the overall mystery of the disappearing villagers is as intriguing as the tantalizing mentions of "changelings" and "the Dominion" peppered into the plot.

Perhaps this part of the episode doesn't fully gel because it wasn't the original intent. Wolfe's first pitch was the put Dax and O'Brien together in an alien holographic prison. They'd escape from it once, only to later discover they were in fact still in the prison and would need to escape again. The whole episode would conclude on an ambiguous ending noting that there would be no way to ever truly know whether you'd escaped or not. Showrunner Michael Piller steered the staff away from this idea, in part because of similarities to the Next Generation episode "Ship in a Bottle" and in part because he imagined an intriguing story in the premise of a real person forming a close relationship with a hologram. (Still, the "mind prison" idea would resurface more than once later in the series.)

The Kira/Bareil storyline also shows potential and flaws. I think here, the problem is that Philip Anglim is rather lacking in charisma. Nana Visitor is a powerful actress; Anglim either isn't capable of working at her level, or has made a bad character choice in making Bareil more stoic than compelling. There are sparks between Bareil and Kira on the page -- he's progressive and she's orthodox (as shown in her original support of Vedek Winn). There are also commonalities to them -- they both spent time in Cardassian prison camps, and neither is particularly keen to talk about the experience. It's just that on the screen, I feel little of either the friction or bond between them. Still, the idea is fun at least, that Quark's attempt to distract Kira with a romance both fails (she isn't distracted) and succeeds (this becomes a long-term relationship).

I actually find the Jake storyline to be the most compelling of the episode, though it's the one that gets the least screen time. There's something easily relatable in a teenager struggling to tell a parent something they know won't go over well. It's harder still for Jake in this case, because it's not as though he knows yet what he does want to do with his life -- he just knows he doesn't want to join Starfleet.

Following up on what was setup in the last episode, Jake does try an apprenticeship with O'Brien, but what he really ends up learning is that he needs to be true to himself. (O'Brien's story about his father hoping he'd become a cello player is not only on point, it calls back to when we actually saw him play the instrument on The Next Generation). The final scene of the subplot, when Jake comes clean to his father, continues the great work done so far on their relationship.

Other observations:
  • This episode both spends money by filming on location (in Star Trek staple Bronson Canyon), and saves money by shooting most of the alien village on a set that was built for The Next Generation (and reused several times).
  • Bashir gets a fun little moment when he explains that Garak has been lecturing him on surveillance. Garak has reached the level of being an important presence on the show even in episodes where he doesn't appear.
I really can't point to one fundamental flaw with the episode -- though perhaps that's because of its inherently fractured nature. I just feel like the whole isn't particularly engaging. On the strength of the Jake plot, I nudge "Shadowplay" up (just barely) to a B-, but I'd still call it forgettable installment.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Forgotten Island

When I last visited Orlando (about two years ago), Universal Studios had opened a new ride tied to their then-upcoming movie, Kong: Skull Island. I rode the ride, but never saw the movie... until recently. Set in the 1970s, Skull Island follows an expedition on its journey to a strange island shrouded in storms. Giant monsters ensue.

I'd like to think I didn't have high hopes for this film. Certainly, it made no pretense of what it was going to be, and I tried to meet it at that place. Whatever expectations I had, this movie slid under them like a limbo champ.

Let's start with the visual effects and the action, because that's what we're all here to see. If those were solid, much could be forgiven with the rest. But the action is pretty stupid and mindless throughout, with characters behaving in steadfastly idiotic ways to foment jeopardy. And the CG is decidedly mixed. Some of it is quite good. Other times, beasts move around with little sense of actual weight, through an environment that rings manifestly false.

Plot-wise, the film is even more of a mess. It tries to be a Vietnam war allegory, set in the 1970s and populated with brazen military characters who have no idea the shit they're about to get into. Just in case you somehow missed the message, every cliche song you've ever heard in a Vietnam war movie is part of the soundtrack -- from Jefferson Airplane to Black Sabbath, and of course Creedence Clearwater Revival (more than once!). It's quite self-defeating, when the movie is trying to show you amazing and breathtaking wonders, to foster a backdrop that screams "you've seen this dozens of times before."

The biggest disasters of all are the characters. Tom Hiddleston plays a decidedly passive hero, who doesn't actually do anything especially heroic until 90 minutes into a two hour movie. John Goodman is wasted in a one-note "god, what have I done?" scientist role. Brie Larson is forgettable (though her big blockbuster moment is hopefully yet to come, in Captain Marvel).

There are only two people here who make any impression at all. Samuel L. Jackson has fun in a Captain Ahab role, only because this is not his first time at the Bad Movie Rodeo, and he knows how to have fun no matter what the script looks like. Then there's scene stealer John C. Reilly, whose comic relief is the only character with much of anything actually written for them on the page.

I might be able to extract 10-15 decent minutes of material from the film, and as such I suppose I wouldn't rate it at the very bottom of the barrel. Still, to be quite clear, no one should waste their time on this. I give Kong: Skull Island a D+.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Gotta Hand It to You

A Game of Thrones: Hand of the King may be a ponderously titled game, but it's quite small in almost every other respect. It comes in a box barely more than palm sized, containing just a handful of tokens and around 50 cards of two sizes. It plays in about 20 minutes or less, taking 2-4 players.

A 6x6 grid of character cards are dealt onto the table. One is Varys, one of the two key puppet master characters in George R. R. Martin's epic series. The other 35 characters are unevenly divided into six different houses from the tale. The rules are simple. On your turn, you move the Varys card orthagonally as far you like, stopping on top of a different character. You claim that character card, removing it from the grid and putting it in front of you. You also claim any other characters from the same house that Varys passed over in reaching that new destination.

If you claim the final character of a house, you get a bonus: you choose from one of 6 smaller "unaffiliated" character cards. Each of these has game text, and you use it immediately before discarding it. (There are more than the 6 characters you need for a game, so replays afford different strategic options.)

Players take turns around the table, moving Varys, skipping over any empty holes left by prior moves, and claiming house characters. So long as you have the most characters from a house, that house is under your control and is worth 1 point. When Varys is out of legal moves (with no House characters orthagonally in line with him), the game ends, and the player with the most points wins.

It's a super breezy game that's easy to learn and fast to play. It was taught to me in about two minutes at this past GenCon, and we went on to play it several times each night of the con, as part of unwinding for the night. For what it aspires to, in the amount of time it takes, it's a super tight and fun little bit of design. Also worth noting, the illustration style is pretty great. These character likenesses are based on the book descriptions, not the HBO series, so they may not be quite what you're used to. But as many good caricature pieces do, they pack a great deal of personality into stripped down line work.

My one reservation about the game struck me on the last night we played at the con. It occurred to me that in every four player game we'd played, the player who went first won. Each player didn't get enough turns, with that many opponents, to make up for the strategic advantage of making the first move. At least, I think. I really thought about, trying to remember for sure if what I remembered was true. It had been for the two or three games we played that night, but I really couldn't say for sure on the nights prior.

If true, that's obviously a big black mark against this game -- basically telling you either not to take it seriously at all, or to never play with 4 players if you want it to be fair. Between this, and the fact that no one in my local circle of friends owns a copy, I haven't played it since GenCon. The game did stick with me though, and the game is cheap enough that buying a copy to test the hypothesis isn't unreasonable.

Provisionally, I'd give Hand of the King a B+, ignoring my reservations about the imbalance. My group is always moving onto new games, so I don't know if we'll ever move to this one (or stay there long). But perhaps if we do, I'll have an update down the road.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Putting Up a Good Front

Do you know Harry Dresden? It seems like almost everyone I know does. A lot of people in my circle of friends are fans of author Jim Butcher's mystery/fantasy series, The Dresden Files. Over the years, I've heard them gushing with each other over the new books, and I'd tucked it in the back of my mind as something to get around to reading. I felt like my friends were never really giving me the hard sell, so I'd never exactly made it a top priority.

In any event, it finally did bubble up to the top of my reading stack, and I read the first book of the series, Storm Front. It wasn't quite what I expected, but thinking about it, it's probably exactly what I should have expected.

I expected the book to be somewhat more "fantasy" than it was. I know that's sort of an odd thing to say when basically every chapter includes magic of some kind, and almost every page reminds you that Harry Dresden is a wizard. But more than all that, the book is a private detective novel set in Chicago, with all the hard-boiled, film noir stylings that entails. Butcher's bucking of convention (and it is significant) is to add the magic elements to that; having done that, he's going to check every box on the list of classic detective fiction tropes.

One of those conventions, in my view, is that no character is remotely as interesting as the detective himself. And while I'll certainly take an interesting main character over not, the lack of compelling side characters did stand out a bit in a book that paints a world (magic in underbelly Chicago) so vividly. I'm sure that if I do go on and read the 15-or-so existing Dresden Files books, characters will recur and develop. But right now, as of one book, it feels like maybe only two characters besides Dresden are built to last -- and one of those is a spirit living inside a skull that gets little more than a chapter.

But I also acknowledge that few authors of long-running series nail everything perfectly right out of the gate. Indeed, it seems like the writers with the best "book ones" go on to struggle in writing later volumes -- think George R.R. Martin, Scott Lynch, or Patrick Rothfuss. The question is whether I see in Storm Front the seeds of what could become as great as my friends seem to think it is, and the answer to that is yes, I think so. This book alone doesn't have me raving, but the world building the main character are intriguing enough. The writing style is pretty fun too: fantasy conceits of the sort you usually find in a long-winded door stop epic, dropped into a blunt and direct page turner.

I'm going to cycle around to some other reading first, but I've already made plans to come back to book two of this series and work my way forward. If the writing at least stays at the current level, I imagine I will make it to the "book four or five" that people tell me is when things really start getting great. Storm Front itself, I give a B.

Monday, October 01, 2018

The Klux of the Matter

Oscar contending movies tend to come out a little later in the year than this, but that hasn't stopped Spike Lee's newest film, BlacKkKlansman from receiving buzz. It's the based-on-true-events story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective to work for the Colorado Springs police department. It follows Stallworth's 1970s sting on the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, infiltrating their operation on the phone as a white partner poses as him for in-person meetings.

The movie is generally entertaining. It treats a serious subject seriously, yet manages to be somehow light at times. It does this by exposing the idiot underbelly of the Klan, showcasing their members as largely inept and laughable figures... and in doing so, showing their cause to be every bit as foolish. The KKK can be both dangerous and stupid at the same time.

Above all of this, this movie set in the 1970s offers sharp commentary on 2018. It's arguably subtle at first (and just as arguably not), with carefully crafted lines of dialogue that speak to what the future (our present) could be like. But any veneer of subtlety drops away as the film unspools. The script makes a very compelling case than then is now in America, in terms of race relations. And it punctuates it all right before the end credits roll by including real footage of former KKK leader David Duke, Donald Trump, the events of Charlottesville, and more. Man, I hope by the end of the movie that no viewer needed it to be spelled out this directly for them... though the gut punch of seeing it is undeniable nonetheless.

But the movie does drag a bit at times. Several scenes simply feel too conventional for it. There's a lot of early time spent on the hazing of Stallworth as a rookie detective -- general cop genre stuff that doesn't always speak as directly to the issue of race at the core of the film. There's also quite a lot of time given to a romantic subplot, and while the love interest Patrice is used well when articulating a different philosophy on how to achieve equality, things drag when the character is sometimes forced into a generic girlfriend box.

Star John David Washington is a compelling lead (something of a chip off the ol' block of his father, Denzel). Adam Driver is also good as his partner, Flip Zimmerman, a soft and sympathetic character who has to adopt a hard shell to go undercover. The central conceit, however, that both these characters are pretending to be the same person, is pretty laughable. Neither actor makes much of an effort to sound like the other in scenes where it would matter (despite a scene that's all about practicing this). Perhaps this is deliberate, another joke on the stupidity of the movie's racist characters, that they're fooled even though the two sound nothing alike?

Despite the few shortcomings I wish could be shored up, I did enjoy the film overall. I give BlacKkKlansman a B. We'll see in a few months if the Oscar talk actually pans out.