Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Long Night

So, let's talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode. Judging by the way the online community has protected Avengers: Endgame spoilers (like Fort Knox gold or something) vs. Game of Thrones spoilers (spraying them all over like weed control on a suburban lawn), I'm just going to dive right in and talk about it all.

Most of the complaints I've seen about the episode seem to fall into two camps. One is people who had a bad picture, either because their streaming service couldn't handle the load of everyone wanting to watch all at once or because their televisions were calibrated well for the darkness permeating the episode. There's an interesting question in there, about whether the creators should have thought more about how their creation would be delivered, or whether it's better to totally ignore such matters. But it's not a question I feel much like delving into here.

The other criticisms mostly come from people who note that this is all unfolding in a way that surely will be nothing like the books. Yeah, duh. I mean, there's no Night King in the books, for one. But more to the point, there have been enough adjustments and outright departures from George R.R. Martin's narrative over the seasons that of course, we should all assume we're not watching the ending he would have written. But then... he could write that ending any time he likes. That's on him. I truly in my heart don't believe he ever will. I think back to the day a decade ago when I heard HBO had bought the rights to these books. I thought to myself, "I hope the show catches on, because then we'll actually get an ending." Even back then, I was doubtful Martin would ever finish his series on his own. (And that was even before the eight-years-and-counting wait for The Winds of Winter began.) So basically, I'm setting aside the matter of how this season comports with a book that may never be written. I'm judging whether the show is making the right moves for itself, and presenting things well.

Mostly, I think it did. By and large, I thought it did a great job of delivering an extended and complicated battle sequence -- better, in fact, than Avengers: Endgame did with its big battle. I found Endgame to get confusing and too chaotic in moments of the big showdown. But the action in this episode of Game of Thrones (assuming you got to see it properly, anyway) was always clear and specific.

At the script level, this was accomplished by carefully dividing up the battle just as you would any other more dialogue driven story. There were stages of the battle: outside the wall, the storming of the wall, and inside the keep. Characters were given not just little moments to shine, they were given entire story lines within the whole -- stories which allowed the action to ebb and flow. There were loud and brash stories, like Lyanna's confrontation with the giant and Beric Dondarrion's sacrifice. There were quiet and tense stories, like those with the group hiding in the crypt, and Arya's "stealth video game" sequence against dozens of wights.

At the production level, clarity was achieved through the careful directing, photography, and editing. Cutting was only rapid and frenetic when a sense of confusion was intentional. Otherwise, the camera often lingered on action for a long time, allowing us to understand who things were happening to and where they were. (It helps when you have a cast who can handle this kind of fight choreography, that you don't have to edit around rapidly to make look good.)

And yet, while this episode was certainly stronger than 80 minutes of pure action might have been, there were a few aspects of it that didn't completely work for me. One was the odd use of Bran throughout. What exactly was he doing? Was there no useful application for his warging abilities? He wasn't gathering intelligence, since he never "reported back." Perhaps we were meant to interpret that he was gathering footage for historical documentation, in his role as the Three-Eyed Raven... but we were shown pretty explicitly that once the bad weather rolled in, he couldn't actually see a damn thing. 

A bigger issue for me was the low body count, anonymous fodder notwithstanding. Now, I have been thinking of the season, the ending, as a whole: I'll bet not as many people are going to die as many might think. And I suppose I should heed my own advice there. And yet, the White Walkers have been set up from the very first scene of the very first episode as The Threat to End All Threats. Impossible. Terrifying. I feel like the price extracted to finally defeat them, once and for all, should have been higher than it was.

I cannot quibble, though, with how the Night King was ultimately taken down. Giving the kill to Arya, a kill more important than any on her list, seemed the perfect culmination to her long journey throughout the series. (And having Jon pinned down in that moment, in a desperate situation after a half-baked plan didn't go as imagined? Also very on brand.) Nice moments too for Theon (who completed the big redemptive arc), Jorah (who loved Daenerys unconditionally to the bitter end), and Melisandre (who discharged her final duty, sacrificing her own life as willingly as she'd sacrificed many others before). I suppose if the deaths of this episode were to be surprisingly limited, at least the ones depicted were chosen for good effect.

But I actually preferred the two "build-up" episodes before this to the battle itself. Overall, I'd give "The Long Night" a B+. It shouldn't be possible that 80 minutes of action and "huh, that's it?" both seem like accurate ways of describing the episode... yet, there it is. But of course, the deeper struggles of this story have always been between the characters, and we still have some very important beats left to play.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Oh, Snap!

It was a pop culture Bacchanalia this weekend. What to post about first? Avengers: Endgame or the epic episode of Game of Thrones?

The box office returns would suggest that absolutely everyone on the planet has seen Endgame by now, but amazingly enough, I happen to know that isn't true. I actually know of a couple readers of my blog who haven't yet had the chance. So I've decided to write about Avengers both first and last. I'm going to make today's post on the movie completely spoiler-free. Then, after geeking out over Game of Thrones, I'll be back later in the week with some additional, spoiler-filled thoughts on Endgame.

So, then...

Unlike many, I was relatively down on Avengers: Infinity War. From that, you might think I was going into the Endgame expecting not to like it. But truly, I've liked many movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the years. I'm not against the franchise overall, I just felt that Infinity War was among its weakest entries. I'm pleased to say that nearly everything I thought that movie got wrong was something that Endgame got quite right.

My primary complaint with Infinity War is that I felt it failed at establishing believable stakes. There was danger and drama. People fought and died. But very little of it landed with any emotional impact. At the time, I thought this was largely due to the fact that you knew it was all going to be undone somehow in the next movie. But as the first hour of Endgame unfolded, I realized that really wasn't the issue. I think it was more that Infinity War was a package so stuffed with whiz-bang action that only the physical blows had time and space to land, not the dramatic ones.

After all, nothing has fundamentally changed since the last Avengers movie, in terms of all of us knowing that the damage there wasn't built to last, that it's all going to be undone somehow. Yet Endgame acknowledges that damage in a way that Infinity War really didn't. It declares that there will be fallout, and does so powerfully and effectively, in the very first scene that happens even before the Marvel Studios logo appears. And it keeps on doing it through the whole movie, spending a lot of time dwelling on loss, survivor's guilt, regrets, self-recrimination, and grief.

In terms of punching, kicking, and explosions, Endgame might actually be among the least action-oriented of the MCU movies. Perhaps because of this, it also might actually be the most realistic -- or at least, emotionally grounded -- of them all. And I say this despite it featuring a wide range of superpowers, a plot about as far from realism as you could imagine, and several wholly CG characters. (Though, side note: the motion capture performance of Mark Ruffalo seems like it's evolved again by leaps and bounds. It felt this time like the actor was in no way inhibited from giving a full performance.)

It may well be recency bias, but right now, I'm feeling like Avengers: Endgame is actually the best movie of the whole MCU enterprise. The second and third Captain America movies are certainly in the running, and might reclaim the top if I were to watch them again. Also, obviously, this movie could not be as strong as it is if it existed in a vacuum. Fans will debate how many MCU movies (and which ones) are actually essential viewing to build up properly to this one. For certain, though, some large number of them were needed not just to put all the complicated plot elements in place, but to build our attachments to the characters. But regardless of how long it took to get here, this movie still had to stick the landing on its own.

Bottom line: Endgame stuck the landing. It's kind of mind-boggling that a blockbuster franchise could deliver something this great. I do have a couple of quibbles with it, which are really impossible to be cagey about. Since I promised to keep things spoiler-free, I'll simply say that I give Avengers: Endgame an A-. I was entertained and impressed, and I think it's rising in my esteem since I saw it.

Friday, April 26, 2019

A Simple Illusion

Many years back, I wrote about Timeline -- part game, part education tool, part activity. I noted that while it seemed at least moderately fun, it seemed to have an inherently short lifespan. Indeed, I can scarcely remember the last time my group played it.

How do you extend the viability of Timeline as a game? Simple, remove the educational elements!

Illusion is a straightforward card game that you can teach anyone to play in a matter of seconds. You use a deck of cards featuring a wide variety of artistic designs. Each image features 4 colors -- red, yellow, green, and blue -- in a variety of patterns. Each round, you focus on one of those colors in particular and, in turn order, players reveal one card at a time from the deck. When you flip a card, your job is to insert it into a growing line face-up on the table. Exactly how much of the surface area of your card is covered with the color in question? Insert your card into the line in what you think is the proper spot, where all cards to one side of it have LESS of the color and all cards to the other side have MORE.

When you think there's a mistake in the line (whether it just made by the previous player, or it's been there for a while before reaching your turn), you may "challenge," flipping over the cards to the reverse side and revealing the actual color values. If you're wrong (and everything is in the correct order), the player you challenged receives a point. If you're right, you get the point. The first player to 3 points wins.

Because there aren't any historical facts or any especially memorable information here, the game has much higher replayability than Timeline. The deck is large, and the designs are quite varied. Plus, you never know which of the four colors you'll be focused on until you're actually playing a round. You may have seen a particular card before, but you may not have been looking at it before in the way you're looking at it now.

Illusion makes a descent time filler, something you can bring out for just 5 or 10 minutes. It's also good when you've got a wide age range to bridge -- it's easily understood by a very young child, and that child isn't necessarily at too much of a disadvantage to any adults playing with them. Yet, at the same time, it isn't all that compelling. There isn't really any strategy here. It's a guessing game -- one where you can make educated guesses, but a guessing game all the same.

There are other games that I think are just as easily taught, work for younger players almost as effectively, and fit in just as short a time frame as Illusion. The Mind would be a recent hit, while No Thanks would be a personal favorite from farther back. I'd probably grade Illusion only a C+ or so. But on the other hand, I probably wouldn't refuse to play if someone suggested it. It's so lightweight and so fast that it's hardly worth the time to object.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Wick-ipedia

A third John Wick movie is just around the corner. I don't necessarily have plans to see it, but it seemed like it might be time to get around to John Wick: Chapter 2.

My expectations for this sequel were fairly low. I'd found the original to be middling at best. The bare bones plot didn't really bother me, though I felt like there wasn't enough variety in the fight choreography to carry the missing weight of a deeper story.

The creative forces behind this unexpected franchise surely weren't looking to please me -- but the adjustments they made to this follow-up seemed to be aimed squarely at my quibbles with the first movie. First, the plot was a bit more involved. It's still just a framework to hold action sequences, but this time it incorporates assassination, frame jobs, rival agents, and criminal politics. I found it a bit more engaging than the simple vengeance story of the original.

More importantly for fans of the franchise, the action is more amped up in this movie too. The movie serves up a car chase, fist fights, and plenty of gunplay, and does a better job of putting different moves into each sequence. Some of these go on perhaps a bit too long, but I suppose this is what you came here to see, so it's hard to argue with it.

In my view, the biggest step up from the first film is in the visuals. This movie takes a chunk of the action to Italy. This, combined with more ingenuity throughout, gives a much broader range of settings for the action. The cinematography is stronger too, with interesting camera moves and great lighting of the more dramatic environments. There's a lot to look at on screen besides the fighting.

Still, there isn't a lot of meat to sink your teeth into here. None of the characters are on any meaningful character arc. No one learns anything beyond "don't mess with John Wick" (and most who learn that don't get to live with that knowledge). There's pretty good fun. (The Matrix reunion of Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves alone is a cheeky delight.) But there just isn't much substance to go with the style.

As I did like Chapter 2 better than John Wick, I suppose I'd grade the movie a B-. Some might say that for me, and this type of movie, that's a ringing endorsement. But chances are the people who'd most enjoy it saw it long before me. And, no doubt, will beat me to the third chapter too.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Star Trek: Discovery has been toying around with time travel all season long, but over on The Orville, it only just entered the mix for its penultimate episode of the season, "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow."

A glitchy temporal experiment pulls onto the ship a version of Kelly Grayson from seven years in the past. Uncertain whether she can be returned to her original time, this younger Grayson tries to make a life for herself in the future. This puts her increasingly at odds with her own present-day version, especially when she "re-"kindles a romance with Mercer.

The idea at the core of this episode is inherently fascinating. Who hasn't contemplated being able to go back and make a key decision from their past differently? Or imagined being able to sit your younger self down and caution them about moments from your past (their future) that you wish you'd handled some other way? Where The Orville really has fun with this premise is in taking a more honest look at this wishful thinking. Would your younger self actually welcome this sort of meddling? (It's somewhat akin to the Next Generation episode "Second Chances," which posed similar questions without the time travel.)

Star Trek: Discovery could really learn a thing or two from how The Orville set up this premise. Throughout season two, Discovery sidestepped logic to get at the character drama they wanted. The Orville's sidestep here was more deft, giving us permission to not take it all So Damn Seriously. It bundled up all the questions in a tight little package (even getting a comedic scene out of it), got them out of the way, and then moved on with the story it wanted to tell. No, we don't know if time travel forms a closed loop on this show, or if it splits reality into unconnected, parallel paths. Yes, it makes your head hurt if you scrutinize it, but the characters are going to hang a lantern on that and then stop picking at it so that you can do the same.

With that out of the way, room was opened up for a really great performance by Adrianne Palicki. Tasked with playing both Commander Grayson and young Lieutenant Grayson, she truly rose to the occasion. She had a boost from the hair and makeup department (who also did great and subtle work here), but really infused her two performances with subtle nuances and made them two recognizably different people. The past version of the character was full of exuberance that poked through not just in her "party animal" moments. You didn't need the physical changes to know which version you were looking at in any given moment.

Though Grayson was the character who literally meets her past self, she was not the only character who got to explore "the road not taken" in this episode. Mercer had a nice plot arc in the episode too, basically a slow realization that sometimes, you "can't go back again." Though initially enthusiastic about this sci-fi loophole that would let him try again with Kelly as he wanted, he soon realized the awkwardness of it all in a fun and honest way. Don't get me wrong, Adrianne Palicki was blowing Seth MacFarlane off the screen, performance-wise, but it was among the better work MacFarlane has done on the series.

There was a fun little shift at the end, too. It turns out that all that earlier stuff about "what kind of time travel story are we in" wasn't just meant for laughs -- the final moment of the episode paid it off. Actually, I'm not even 100% sure how to read it, which is an unusually sophisticated choice for the series. Armed with knowledge and free will, Young Kelly changed her destiny and made a different choice for her life. I interpreted this as a one-off, a moment with consequences we'll likely never see on the show. We're just left to imagine for ourselves how Grayson's life will unfold differently in the reality where she never marries Mercer. But another way I suppose they could go with this is to permanently tweak some underlying premises of the show; when the next episode comes, we could just be living in that alternate timeline I think we were only meant to imagine.

I think The Orville delivered a solid episode here. I give it a B+. Next, we'll see how big a finale they serve up. (And whether that finale will serve for the season or, sadly, the series.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2

The second season finale of Star Trek: Discovery was the most extravagant, breathlessly action-packed hour of Star Trek ever served up in any incarnation, small screen or big. It was thrilling and exciting. But even as it felt emotionally "right" most of the time, it didn't make a damn lick of sense.

A grand showdown has arrived between Discovery and Control. With help from the Enterprise, our heroes must hold off the killer AI long enough to complete Burnham's Red Angel suit and place the knowledge Control needs forever out of its reach.

Discovery has often had to balance emotional payoffs with logical storytelling, and it has always tipped the scales in favor of the former. It destroyed the scales this week, forgoing everything in the name of what would look cool or feel cool. It chased these highs so doggedly that even while there were some good moments throughout the episode, they were always instantly undermined.

Take the epic space battle delivered in this episode. Star Trek has never given us anything like this. It was expensive, awesome (in the true sense of the word), and immense. But it was also quite hard to follow at times. In showing us so much, it was hard to take in. Where were all these ships in relation to one another? Where was everyone in all this? What happened to Po?

Take Burnham's tearful goodbyes to Spock. (Both of them.) They were both potent scene setups. But as a series, Star Trek: Discovery keeps wanting to have personal moments like this at times when it has amped up the jeopardy to such a degree than anyone taking a personal moment is being foolish and selfish to do so. Get in the damn suit, Michael! Open the damn wormhole, Michael! I totally agree that Sonequa Martin-Green is great, she's great with Ethan Peck as Spock, and so you want to give these two their moment. But they simply cannot realistically have that moment under these conditions.

Take the fun gravity shifting fight pitting Georgiou and Nhan against Leland. Even though we've seen this trick in everything Royal Wedding to Inception, and know exactly how it's accomplished, it was enjoyable. I mean, we've never seen Michelle Yeoh fighting this way, so it was a fun scene that once again showcased her skills. Yet there were still confusing and unusual things about the sequence. The pursuit of Leland began with a Starfleet officer responding to an invitation to torture someone with "Yum yum." What the hell? And the topsy-turvy fight seemed to end with a sudden hole blasting two people who weren't previously in the scene out into space? Or something? I totally lost track, or didn't understand. Where was this fight actually happening and what were the real mechanics of it?

Take the table-setting for season three. It was undeniably tantalizing. The very notion of a setting centuries beyond any previous Star Trek is inherently interesting. All the rules can be rewritten. The shackles of a half-century of continuity will be removed. In short, I'm into it! But... if killing Leland was sufficient to make all the controlled Section 31 ships go inert, how was that not defeating Control? And if Control was defeated, then why did Discovery have to go through with traveling to the future?

So yes, there were plenty of compelling moments throughout the finale episode -- but each was entwined with an element of confusion or awkwardness. And then there was the rest of the episode, which was just stacked from top to bottom with unexplained (and often unexplainable) questions:

When Burnham takes off from Discovery with the express objective of getting as far away from the ships as possible as fast as possible, why does she start with a close flyover of the Enterprise's saucer? (It did look amazing, though -- and that's what I mean: the show goes for what feels right, whether it makes sense or not.)

I thought Discovery was on a skeleton crew -- basically, just the bridge crew, who wanted to stand by Burnham's side and follow her into the future. So who were all those anonymous casualties filling up Sickbay? Did the whole crew decide to go with her? That seems implausible, and something we should have been shown if that was what we were being asked to accept.

Culber had made up his mind to leave Stamets, and then changed it without explanation. What exactly motivated Culber to go back? It wasn't the brush with death; Hugh decided before he knew Paul had been critically injured. They're really just going to jerk the couple (and us) around all season and then wrap it up in one quick scene with no answers?

Weren't there tons of solutions to the problem of the torpedo lodged in the Enterprise's hull other than Cornwell sacrificing herself? Why couldn't those half-R2-D2/half-Eve-from-WALL-E repair robots take care of it? How about the transporter? It was working, since they used it to beam Spock back from the shuttle. (While Enterprise's shields were up, seemingly.) Couldn't they have beamed the detonator out of the weapon, or beamed Admiral Cornwell out of the area after she closed the door? And why isn't the whole ship just made out of that door-and-window that can apparently withstand the blast?

Speaking of Spock and the transporter.... wasn't Tilly somewhere deep in the guts of the ship at that very moment trying to get Discovery's shields working again so it could travel through the time rift? So, if its shields were down, why couldn't Discovery beam Spock aboard so he could go with them like he wanted?

What are the limitations of the time crystal? The setup for all this told us Burnham was on a one-way trip to the future, but then she time-hopped around all throughout the second season to send the five previous "signals." You might assume that jumping across a greater length of time depletes the crystal faster, but then how exactly did the sixth and seventh signals work? Did she travel to the future, then come back once to leave a signal for Discovery to follow, then travel back again to leave the final signal for Spock? So... not a one-way trip after all?

How could it ever make sense to put Ash Tyler in charge of Section 31? Given his history, is it ever possible to completely trust him enough to let him operate without direct supervision?

After Spock comes up with the continuity-preserving idea that no one should ever speak of Discovery or Michael Burnham again, why does he immediately go and make a personal log entry about it? Is it completely impossible for anyone else to listen to his log, under any circumstance?

There were flecks of gold to be panned from this episode. But to me, it was also a lot of style over substance, a complete Bruckheimerfication of Star Trek. Flashy, mostly empty calories. I remain hopeful for next season, but I found this finale bombastic and illogical. I give "Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2" a C.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Game of Thrones served up a more quiet and contemplative episode than I think most viewers were expecting last night. But with basically the biggest battle ever put on film just ahead, it makes sense that the preamble to it would be proportionately large as well.

Where the season 8 premiere focused mainly on reunions and compelling "first meetings" (a theme that did continue to a lesser extent in this hour), this episode was built around a simple question: what would all of these characters we've come to know and love do with their proverbial last night on earth? The reactions weren't always surprising, but they were flawlessly fitting and often quite moving.

Some of the characters, having lived the lives they have, had made their peace with death long ago. There was little special to the "final night" choices of people like The Hound and Beric Dondarrion, nor should there have been. Other characters sought simple companionship -- and drink. Tyrion was right where you expected him to be, but the other characters who congregated with him made it a special scene. (More on that in a moment.)

Daenerys was fascinating in barely acknowledging the magnitude of the moment. Tonight, save the world; tomorrow, take the throne. She was still strategizing how to bring Sansa to heel. And the late revelation of Jon's parentage was pretty much what you'd expect: denial. Obviously, this was all just another scheme to keep her from her rightful place.

Sansa was equally fascinating, and more subtle. You could sense that she wasn't necessarily taking victory and survival as the granteds that Dany was. But if she survives, she's doing exactly what she has learned to do -- planning for the next move, and the next move beyond that.

For a few characters, the last night was all about its redemptive potential. Theon returned to Winterfell, continuing his neverending quest to atone for past decisions. Jaime Lannister began in a more resigned mode -- he wasn't even sure if he'd live to see the battle, depending on how Daenerys and the Starks reacted to his arrival. But he gravitated toward redemption as he asked to serve under Brienne in the battle... and then ultimately found his opportunity to do one final good thing in knighting her.

The knighting of Brienne was a wonderful moment, played beautifully by Gwendoline Christie. With almost no dialogue, she conveyed how much it meant to Brienne, how hard she was trying not to show that, and how impossible it was not to show it as the moment overwhelmed her. The characters with her there in that moment were perfectly chosen too -- Tyrion (who could appreciate achieving something that one would have thought impossible), Davos (who could appreciate rising so far above one's station), Podrick (who has been with her for so long), Tormund (who, though mainly used for comic relief with Brienne, got to earnestly enjoy this one serious moment), and Jaime (finally able to balance the ledger with her). When most people talk highlights of Game of Thrones, they talk about shocking deaths and soul-crushing plot twists. This was not one of those moments, but it was absolutely a highlight.

Arya's chose to spend her "final night" with Gendry. For a character who's chased after nothing but death and vengeance pretty much for as long as we've known her, it was great to have her chase something else. And yet, as she lay awake in bed afterward, you had the sense that she didn't exactly get what she'd been hoping for. It was simply transactional, a different sort of "list" of Arya's that she got to cross something off of. A very interesting and truthful moment for the character.

The episode also got out the war map for us, laying out the "plan" for the battle ahead -- one which we must assume won't unfold quite that way. But by getting that business out of the way now, the next episode can begin with its foot on the accelerator and never let up. It should make for quite an episode.

This was quite an episode too, in its own, different way. I give "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" an A-. I appreciate how carefully it worked to wrap things up with characters -- so many as to introduce some doubt about what will actually happen to some of them in the battle. Clever and essential work.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Moderately Jolly Roger

If there's a weakness to most cooperative board games, it's the way that often, not all players are always able to contribute. "Leaders" can emerge and dominate the experience, shutting out other players from participating fully in the experience. (And I say this as someone who has probably been that overbearing leader more than I should.) One way that some cooperative games try to address this is by making the game play in real time. I recently got to play such a game: A Tale of Pirates.

Players are all trying to crew a pirate ship and navigate it through obstacles. There are different job spaces around the ship: cannons to be loaded and fired, a wheel to steer, a crow's nest from which to observe, and so forth. Each player's piece is a short sand timer. You flip it as you place it into the space with the action you want to take. When the timer runs out, you do the action, then must move your timer to a new space. Players must work together at spotting obstacles, attacking and boarding enemy ships to steal their plunder, and sailing the ship to safety and glory all within a limited amount of time.

An app is the "game master," serving up increasingly more difficult scenarios for you to survive in increasingly tighter time frames. Coordination is key. The sand timers make the order things happen in matter, while the requirement to move to a new action each time means that everybody has the chance to do something important almost every round.

In a purely cosmetic (but also quite fun) touch, the game is played on a 3D pirate ship assembled of thick cardboard parts. You actually place your timer up in the crow's nest, actually spin the ship as it turns, actually raise the sails as you speed up, and so forth. It adds still more tactile thrills to the already potent immediacy of the timers. And it creates a hectic sort of fun.

That said, boil away the bells and whistles, and the game reminded me a lot of FUSE. That's a cooperative game where players frenetically roll dice to disarm bombs aboard their spaceship. Though the components there are less extravagant, the game comes together for me in a far more satisfying way. A Tale of Pirates makes a striking first impression, but the actual experience of playing it just doesn't feel as potent, and it doesn't feel to me like it would have the same long life as FUSE.

If the pirate theme sounds fun to you, A Tale of Pirates isn't bad. I'd grade it a B-. You could do worse in a cooperative game. But with other games around (and FUSE in particular), you could also do better.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

A Happy Surprise

One lazy night a while back, my husband and I were in the mood for a movie -- but not one we'd find especially demanding to watch. We landed on Happy Death Day (barely aware of a sequel that had arrived in theaters).

Happy Death Day is essentially a slasher movie mashed up with Groundhog Day (a connection the movie itself cleverly acknowledges). Spoiled sorority sister Theresa ("Tree") is murdered on her birthday... only to awaken again at the start of the same day. She must find out who's out to kill her and why, then avoid the same fate to break the cycle and stop repeating the same terrifying and painful day.

Perhaps low expectations worked in this movie's favor, but we found ourselves enjoying it more than we expected. I think its because the movie itself wasn't content to be as simplistic as most slasher films; it's not just a "one thing" movie. It's part slasher, part science fiction. It's Groundhog Day, but also a bit Mean Girls. As it serves up the visceral thrills of a horror movie, it's also actually rather funny overall. And it packs all this into a tight 96-minute package that doesn't overstay its welcome.

There are some clever twists in the plot best not spoiled. It serves up a wide variety of entertaining deaths -- as all horror movies must, but which seems especially appropriate here in the "repeating day" scenario. There are just enough red herrings woven in to satisfy; even if you get ahead of some plot developments, there's a fair chance you won't anticipate them all. And I'll say semi-vaguely that the movie does an excellent job of blending the "learn to be a better person" conceit of Groundhog Day with the "one last scare" trope of horror movies.

The cast is made up mostly of unknown actors, from top to bottom. In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is fairly strong, realizing a character arc of growth and change while serving up the required "scream queen" moments. But like the only names you might recognize are behind the scenes here: director Christopher Landon is the writer of the Paranormal Activity sequels, while composer Bear McCreary provides some fun music that brings moments of "teen movie" to the suspense vibe he established in 10 Cloverfield Lane (among others).

While Happy Death Day didn't rocket to the top of any particular movie list I might make, I did like it enough that I'll probably seek out the sequel at some point. It's a solid B movie (which you can take in more than one sense, I suppose). If you're a horror fan, it's well worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Such Sweet Sorrow

The most recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery, the first half of the second season's two-part finale, was either elaborate punking of its audience, or a bold commitment to a radical restructure of the show. And either way, it was an effective installment.

When the attempt to destroy Discovery (and the sphere data it contains) fails, the backup plan to protect the galaxy from Control is a dramatic one. Using a new Red Angel suit, Michael Burnham will guide the ship into the distant future, beyond Control's reach... and without the ability to return to her own time.

It feels like this episode shouldn't work. As promised in the title, "Such Sweet Sorrow," it's nothing but a series of goodbyes. There are really only two ways it can go from here. Either Discovery will find a way to stay in its time after all, meaning all these goodbyes were just an elaborate (but effective) con to make us believe it wouldn't happen... or this was effectively serving as a series finale to this incarnation of Star Trek: Discovery, as the show jettisons its original premise to begin again in a future time frame.

It sure seems like the latter move is the one they're going to make, doesn't it? They've piled nearly all the main and recurring characters on Discovery; they just have to get rid of Spock somehow in part two (and, possibly, add Culber and/or Ash Tyler). A jump into the future would go a long way toward explaining any continuity issues with the series that might still be nagging long-time Trekkers. And while this would be the series' biggest move yet, it's not like it's been adverse to bold moves before -- treating the ship's captain like a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and getting a new one every year, for example.

But we'll know soon enough. For the moment, I'll focus on what we did see rather than what we might see. Once again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record on this point, we saw excellent acting from Sonequa Martin-Green. There was no emotional roller coaster to Burnham's story this week, the needle was pegged the entire time. You'd think Martin-Green would be wrung out, or that we'd grow tired of watching her cry, but we got one goodbye scene after another, and she was excellent in all of them.

The goodbye with Sarek and Amanda depended on the ridiculous conceit that Sarek's meditation was premonition enough to tell them where and when to be to even have this goodbye. But get over this conceit, and you got to enjoy a wonderful scene that was also James Frain's finest work on the show as Sarek.

The goodbye with Ash Tyler shouldn't have meant much to me (as I've long since stopped carrying about the "will they / won't they" of this relationship), and yet Martin-Green really made me believe how painful this was for Burnham. I also liked the detail that Tyler stood there in the big group moment, but then privately admitted, "nope, I can't actually go through with this with you." A brutally honest character moment for him.

There were plenty more goodbyes in which Burnham was not the sole focus. Pike got to give a rousing speech on the bridge, and while his kind words to a few of the secondary characters might have been a bit slight, the scene as a whole was great -- a fine send-off for the character. The montage of goodbye letters was strong. Each character had a unique part in the sequence. Plus, by mixing in the less-developed characters with the major ones, we got an organic fleshing out of them all. (The next time they want to pull an Airiam, they won't have to cram quite so hard in such a short space of time to make the audience care.)

Woven in with the goodbyes this episode were a couple of reunions. Tilly reunited with Po, the alien queen we met in the first installment of Short Treks. That was my least favorite of the Short Treks, despite me liking the character of Tilly. But here the use of both her character and Po were stronger. Now if the series somehow fits in Harry Mudd in this week's finale, every one of the four Short Treks episodes will seemingly become essential companion viewing to season two. (Ha!)

The other big "reunion" was Pike (and the audience) with the bridge of the Enterprise. My own feelings on this were rather mixed. I totally understand that they were never going to give us the Enterprise as it looked in 1966 -- nor should they have. The Next Generation scratched that particular itch when Scotty walked into the holodeck that one time; now was the time to bring a modern budget and sensibilities to the classic Enterprise. You know, just pretend that the old SD cameras of the 1960s weren't capable of photographing the Enterprise bridge as it truly was; pretend it looked like this all along. But I thought that on the continuum of honoring original Trek design elements and modernizing the look, they might have fallen a bit too hard on the latter for my taste. I found the ship a bit too shiny and chrome; it has been out on a five-year mission to distant points in the galaxy, after all. Make it look a bit more lived in. Still, there were classic details honored in the new set that made me smile: the garish red-orange paint, the light-up handles in the turbolift, and so forth.

It might be tough to evaluate this episode without the context of its second half. But you know that's not going to stop me. I give "Such Sweet Sorrow" a B+. It will be quite interesting to see where they go from here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sanctuary

The Orville took a couple of weeks off (I suppose to stay out of the way of March Madness?), but then came roaring back with its best episode to date -- a potent combination of the moral storytelling of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the culmination of ongoing plot threads like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A Moclan couple uses the Orville to secretly transport their infant daughter off their homeworld, which in turn leads the ship to a hidden colony of Moclan females. Fearing discovery, the colony leader is persuaded by Mercer to petition for independent recognition by the Union. But what's just is not politically expedient; the Moclan homeworld threatens to withdraw from Union membership if the colony of their female outcasts is recognized.

The sheer number of Star Trek veterans involved in this episode was staggering. Most obviously, Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi) played a school teacher about the Orville. But guest stars F. Murray Abraham and Tony Todd have also appeared on Star Trek. Then there's the writer of this episode: Joe Menosky, the man behind several memorable Treks including Darmok. And also Commander Riker himself in the director's chair: Jonathan Frakes.

But it wasn't just the Star Trek pedigree that made this episode so effective. It was the way the series drew on its own past. The Orville has been slowly building up the Moclans since early in the first season as allies of suspect morality. Because the writers exercised patience in setting this story up (with compelling chapters along the way), the payoff now was stronger. We've seen the treatment of Moclan females time and time again, enough to easily and instantly root for them. We've seen Klyden's intolerance, enough to cheer Bortus for taking a firm stand against him, and to feel for Topa, caught between two parents with very different values.

The Orville also utilized its two seasons of history by bringing back a number of past guest stars. Rena Owen returned to play Heveena, leader of the Moclan settlement. Pretty much every actor who has ever played an admiral on the series was back here -- but together in one room instead of speaking on a viewscreen. It all added to the sense that this was a major milestone for the series, one that it had been working toward for some time.

Because the show has put in the time to show us that it's actual Star Trek and merely what we suspected in the beginning (Star Trek with fart jokes), they can get away with something like the use of Dolly Parton in this episode. In Deadpool 2, the use of "9 to 5" in an action sequence was pure comedy. Here, after earlier scenes to get the laughs out of the way, it was somehow an earnest, empowering moment. (The feminist shine was dulled just a bit by having the same Moclan women who'd captured the Orville visitors earlier in the hour suddenly cower in their huts until Grayson and Bortus arrived to the fight. Still, it was one of the episodes very few missteps.)

The ending charted its own path that was neither entirely hopeful like a Next Generation episode, nor boldly bleak as Deep Space Nine sometimes dared to be. The female Moclans secured the safety of their colony, but they did not receive Union recognition. The "underground railroad" from their homeworld was shut down too -- though clearly, we were not meant to believe this would truly quell resistance there. It felt like the sort of diplomatic compromise, leaving all sides not truly satisfied, that you'd actually expect in a real situation.

The Orville is about to wrap up its second season, and it seems to be going out on a high note. I've never found it stronger than this. I give "Sanctuary" an A-.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Winterfell

At long last, the wait of nearly two years is over. Last night, Game of Thrones fans eagerly received the beginning of the show's final, six-episode season. (And folks, this post is just straight up going to be SPOILER-filled. If you care about the show, you haven't watched it yet, and you're on the internet today, you are playing with fire.)

Centered in Winterfell (it's in the title), the episode mostly dealt with the arrival of Daenerys and Jon Snow, and the friction it created with Sansa. All the while, the threat of the undead army marched ever closer.

I feel as though some will complain of this episode that the plot progressed only incrementally. I myself was quite happy at the pace. The well-drawn characters have always been the greatest strength of the show (and the books). It's because of that that you care when they experience hardship, or are suddenly killed off, or what have you. Yes, there's a lot of plot ground to cover in the few remaining installments. But if the show doesn't spend a good amount of the time left on the characters, then what's the point?

In that respect, the episode hit every beat you'd want it to. Reunions were key, with characters coming back together who haven't seen each other in years -- or, in some cases, since the very first season. Arya in particular had a lot of the reunions that you knew would be fun to see, and they were: Jon cluelessly asking if she's had a chance to use the sword he gave her, playful taunts with Gendry, and not-so-playful taunts with the Hound.

But while the Arya scenes might have been among the more anticipated in the episode, they were not the most potent. Setting aside the episode's final moment, a powerfully silent reunion between Bran and Jaime (that had been cleverly foreshadowed with earlier Bran creepiness), I'd say the most effective reunion was the one between Sansa and Tyrion. Of all the trials that all the characters have experienced, a compelling case could be made that Sansa has changed most in the last few years. She's certainly not the same as when Tyrion last saw her. She's studied at the University of Littlefinger (and supplanted the teacher), and it was quite the transposition to now see her schooling Tyrion in the true motivations of power players. The scene showed us how smart Sansa is, as did her interactions with Daenerys -- we didn't just have to rely on Arya telling Jon about her savvy in a different scene.

The episode wasn't just about the re-unions, though; several important moments happened between characters meeting for the first time. (We did, after all, get to see pretty much every surviving character but Brienne, Melisandre, and Gilly.) Lyanna Mormont was once again a great element in the episode, serving as the belligerent face of the Stark bannermen, distrusting of the new Queen brought to them by Jon Snow. Qyburn and Bronn had an uncomfortable scene in which the latter was tasked to track down and kill Cersei's brothers. (But does anyone think he'd actually do that? Like, anyone, including Cersei?)

The most potent "first meeting" was that between Sam and Daenerys, a scene that started light but quickly turned dark when Sam learned his father and brother had died at her hands. This felt like a very important milepost in the grand scheme of what's left in the story, a subtle reminder of what I think it's been carefully building toward all along: Dany seems far more likely to me to be a villain than a hero when it's all done.

Of course, just because character was king in this episode doesn't mean some plot moves didn't happen. Theon rescued Yara from Euron. The dead were shown to be on the move toward Winterfell (in a truly creepy scene at Last Hearth). Plus, of course, the biggest scene: Jon Snow no longer knows nothing. Sam dropped the bombshell of his parentage on him. Though an important scene, I think it won't be nearly as impactful as the moment when Daenerys finds this out. Something to look forward to.

All of this, and a surprisingly different opening credits sequence too -- with just a couple of major locations worth showing, the clockwork map took us deeper inside those locations, after making clear the advancing undead army coming through the fallen Wall.

Though no one would likely hold this episode up as one of the best of the series, I found it a good and encouraging start to the final run. I give it a B+.

Friday, April 12, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Jem'Hadar

After teasing the Dominion throughout the second season, Deep Space Nine finally showed what the hype was for in the season finale, "The Jem'Hadar."

Sisko plans to take his son to the Gamma Quadrant for some father-son bonding. The first complication is relatively benign: Jake invites Nog, and Quark in turn invites himself. The next complication is far more serious: a race of shock soldiers for the mysterious Dominion captures Sisko and Quark. When Starfleet mounts a rescue, they get a terrifying lesson in how powerful these Jem'Hadar really are.

According to staff writer Ira Steven Behr, he first pushed for the series to get a new adversary at one of their regular lunches. His pitch? "Okay guys, we're gonna come up with villains, not one but three sets of villains. And we're gonna make them as scary as any villains you can possibly find." When you think about it, an "evil Federation" is such a logical villain for Star Trek that it's a wonder it hadn't been done before this. Across the original series and The Next Generation, the recurring baddies were always monolithic races (often with rather singular agendas). But the Federation is made up of many alien races. Why not pit them against an alien organization set up the same way?

The writers landed on the classic metaphor of the carrot and the stick. Robert Hewitt Wolfe was chiefly responsible for the "stick" side of things, conceiving a suicidally fierce warrior race. As he put it: "The businessmen, the Vorta, were the negotiators, the friendly guys who show up with the carrot. 'Hey, we're your friends. Have some phaser rifles, or space travel, whatever the hell you want. We'll arrange it. All you'll have to do is owe us.' Then, if you don't toe the line, they kick your ass with the Jem'Hadar."

The Jem'Hadar are presented here almost fully formed. They're full of menace, passing right through shields and force fields, slaughtering an entire Bajoran colony, taking down a Galaxy-class starship (suggesting they could beat even the Enterprise), and sacrificing themselves to fulfill their mission. We even see the tubes in their necks that would become the signature of their drug addiction -- though the tubes here are black, not white.

What's not so well defined here are the Vorta. Their deceit and manipulations are in place, but the character of Eris is presented in this episode as possessing telekinetic powers... a misstep Ira Steven Behr acknowledged and swept under the rug as he took over as show runner in season three. (You could claim that everything about the Vorta's mental powers is faked here, just more of the ruse that Quark ultimately uncovers at the end of the episode.) Despite Kira's prediction that we'd all see Eris again, we never do.

As amazing as the Dominion would turn out to be for Deep Space Nine, and as strong as they're presented here, right out of the gate, they are undermined just a bit by other elements of the episode. The fact that Jake and Nog elude the Jem'Hadar and make it back to the runabout definitely argues against their prowess. Indeed, the comedy throughout this episode is laid on just a bit too thick, with various over-the-top sight gags involving Quark, and the general comedy of errors that puts him on a "road trip" with Commander Sisko in the first place.

Still, Quark's presence in the episode is not a total misfire. He gives a very cutting (and somewhat fair) lecture about how humans are really only accepting of aliens who are like them. He further suggests they don't like Ferengi in particular because of the ways they remind humans of how they used to be. After an abbreviated list of historical human barbarism -- including slavery and concentration camps -- Quark solidly makes the point that Ferengi have never been as bad as humans once were. It's a great statement of Star Trek's "brighter future," from the mouth of a character you'd never expect to deliver it. And, as Ira Steven Behr notes, it helped "lay to rest this long-time feeling that the Ferengi were the 'failed villains' of the Star Trek universe." Indeed, they're not. Nor are they just comic relief.

Other observations:
  • One of the few female directors to work on Star Trek at the time, Kim Friedman, returned here after her success with "The Wire." This episode really shows her range; "The Wire" was a character-oriented drama, while this is more of an action thrill ride.
  • Eris claims in this episode that the Founders are just a myth. But this too can be explained as just part of the elaborate con she's trying to run.
  • Nog is wildly enthusiastic about being aboard a Starfleet runabout, foreshadowing his interest in Starfleet beginning next season.
  • The writers are really beginning to play with jokes about Morn never speaking. He's about to in this episode, when Quark quickly abandons him to talk to Odo.
  • In the first draft of the script for this episode, the writers tried to connect the personal cloaking abilities of the Jem'Hadar with that of Tosk in an early first season episode. It wasn't an organic enough connection to survive to the final script, but at least the similarity was on their minds.
The lighter touches of this episode don't quite work for me, but for the most part I'd say the episode is a success. Certainly it sets up great things to come. I give "The Jem'Hadar" a B.

Season two of Deep Space Nine wasn't a huge step up in quality from season one, but it was still a step up. The show began to play with serialization, and developed many characters and ideas that would stay with it until the end of series. My picks for the top episodes of season two: "Necessary Evil," "Blood Oath," "The Collaborator," "The Homecoming," and "Tribunal."

Next up, the brief window of time when Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek show on the air: the beginning of season three!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Wild Fyre

The window was open for a very short time, but there was a week or two there where it seemed like every corner of the internet I turned to, I was hearing about the Fyre Festival. Specifically, I was hearing about two dueling documentaries from Netflix and Hulu. Both seemed to vanish from the zeitgeist as quickly as they arrived, but I did check out one of the films. (The Netflix one, both because I've never actually broken down and subscribed to Hulu, and because I'd heard it was the better of the two.)

One of the first things I learned in watching Fyre is that the festival was an online sensation that had come and gone years earlier without me taking any notice whatsoever. Driven by internet influencers, the Fyre Festival was to have been a massive music festival in a posh tropical location, attracting people with money to burn to a once in a lifetime experience. Instead, it was somewhere between a massive scam and an enterprise doomed to failure -- one the documentary covers in great detail.

What I don't quite get is why this scam, among so many perpetrated in the world, garnered such attention. The documentary doesn't hazard an opinion. I would wager, though, that it's because the broad perception in this case is that it was rich people getting scammed. A little turnabout, a little justice. And it all went down early in 2017, freshly after an election that literally left a voting majority in the U.S. feeling like their voice had not been heard -- like they'd been "scammed." The fascination with the Fyre Festival and its implosion might be pure schadenfreude.

But one of the strongest aspects of the Fyre documentary is how it shows that all kinds of people were affected here. People might debate whether festival attendees looking to be "on trend" or whatever actually deserved any of what happened to them, but it's indisputable that locals on the island of Great Exuma did not. Throughout the documentary (and particularly in its final 15 minutes), we're presented with tales of people whose very livelihood was threatened by the huge sums of money they put up and were never paid back. Tales of people drawn into the orbit of smooth-talking fraud Billy McFarland, who lost their live savings and their dignity along the way.

While these small stories are compelling, I felt that the documentary overall was far less so. The real mystery of the Fyre Festival is how anything this transparently disorganized went so far to begin with. No doubt, some of the answer is that only hindsight allows us to see the problems now. But the only other real answer that anyone seems to have is that "Bill McFarland is charismatic." And this is something that the documentary does not do a particularly good job of depicting.

There's an undercurrent here of high school. Of a certain type of personality being willing to do whatever it takes to be popular and get close to the people who are. But you really have to draw your own conclusions in this -- the documentary doesn't seem to have a theory of the case or point of view.

So after watching Fyre, I was now left knowing what everyone was buzzing about, while feeling like I had little more sense of it than I came in with. I'd grade the documentary of C. Like the Fyre Festival itself, it's a flash in the pan, something likely to be forgotten years from now, remembered only by the people who actually lived it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Through the Valley of Shadows

The latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery was a perfect illustration of both the things the series has done well this season and the things it hasn't. Once again, and I think more than ever before this season, the character beats were excellent, while the narrative that contained them was loose-weave and nonsensical.

A fourth "signal" has appeared in orbit of the Klingon planet Boreth, so the Discovery crew contacts Chancellor L'Rell to arrange a visit. The planet Boreth is significant in more than one way: Ash Tyler reveals that the son he had as Voq is hidden there; and the planet is revealed to be a source of the time crystals needed to thwart Control. Captain Pike beams down to obtain one, but must pay the price in the form of terrible knowledge about his own future. Meanwhile, Spock and Burnham set out on their own to investigate a Section 31 ship that failed to check in on schedule, looking for clues that will lead them to Leland.

This season of Discovery began with one big Macguffin: a "Red Angel" had caused seven signals to appear throughout the galaxy for unknown reasons. Now that we've neared the end of the season, we've been told that the signals and the Red Angel are in fact not connected. And that's about all I think I understand about this plot device at this point.

Didn't the "seven signals" all appear in the season premiere? Like, our heroes knew there were seven, right -- that information didn't come from Spock? And yet now it seems that only four of the signals have manifested to this point, and three more are yet to come like some sort of RPG quest broken up into parts? I mean, I know this is a time travel story, but how can it be simultaneously true that the signals have happened and haven't happened yet? Have I missed something crucial along the way? Maybe the writers didn't explain it well to start with? Maybe the relentless action pace of the show has caused them to speed by crucial explanations for what we're seeing?

What I am clear about is this: after what everyone just saw happen to Leland, it defies reason that Michael and Spock would behave the way they do in this episode. They come upon a Section 31 ship where the entire crew has been killed except for one person, and they never stop to wonder if that person might be compromised? Was making him someone Burnham knew from the Shenzhou supposed to paper over this foolish behavior? Even if it did, it fails to explain Spock's lack of caution.

Also clear: "time crystal" might be about the silliest, most on-the-nose name ever attached to something in Star Trek since the original series called an "ugly" alien race the Medusans. Contrary to what Tilly told us a few weeks back, putting "time" in front of something does not necessarily make it sound cooler. Instead, it invites a snicker or an eye roll every time someone says it -- which in this episode felt like a hundred times. Time crystal. It just sounds so cheesy, so Flash Gordon-y or Ed Wood-sy. It's freighted with an inability to be taken seriously, which is really is shame when so much of the drama surrounding time crystals this week was otherwise so serious (and effectively so).

So, the plot ranged from confounding to implausible to ridiculous. But once again, the way the characters moved within it yielded some phenomenal scenes. Using Jett Reno as the latest sounding board for Dr. Culber was great. Even while, on the one hand, I'd like to see someone show Hugh some comfort and understanding in his situation, on the other, Reno's particular dose of hard truth was appreciated. Her insights into what it takes to be with a person like Stamets were affecting, as was the realization that some of her own cold demeanor may well stem from the loss of her own spouse. (But, ahem, Discovery. Seriously? Giving us another LGBT character and killing off her wife? Do you not see this negative pattern you're in?)

The exploration of L'Rell and Voq's son was an intriguing one. Too intriguing, almost, to be relegated to a minor element of an episode. Uncoupled from time, growing up in isolation, dedicated to a distinctly un-Klingon-like cause, and possibly plagued with constant nightmarish visions? Tenavik didn't have a lot of screen time, but was a quite thought-provoking character.

But of course, the big dramatic centerpiece surrounded Captain Pike. Anson Mount was given his most substantial episode to date -- and a challenging one too, that required more to be conveyed without dialogue than with it. Proving what Admiral Cornwell said of Pike, that he is the best of Starfleet, he now must go through life with full knowledge of the fate that awaits him, bereft of hope, dedicated to duty, waiting for the metaphorical axe to fall on his life. The original series had already done a compelling job of making Pike a tragic character, but Discovery has found an intriguing way to layer in still more tragedy.

There were certainly great elements within this episode. But it felt especially challenging to me to look past the elements that weren't great. I'd call "Through the Valley of Shadows" a B- episode overall.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Perpetual Infinity

Still slightly in the backlog of Star Trek: Discovery, my post today is about the episode almost two weeks ago, "Perpetual Infinity."

Having captured the Red Angel (and learning that she is Michael Burnham's mother -- not in fact dead), the Discovery crew tries to understand her grand plan. But Dr. Burnham isn't interested in help with her time-traveling quest to stop Control from reaching full sentience. And whether she can be convinced to cooperate or not, there's only so long Discovery can hold her in the present time. Meanwhile, Control steps up its efforts to acquire the data from the mysterious sphere, flooding Leland's body with nanites so he can be manipulated as an automaton.

In the previous episode, I praised the phenomenal acting of Sonequa Martin-Green. She deserves fresh praise for her work here, as Michael Burnham goes on quite the emotional roller coaster this episode. Her first scene alone is a tour de force, when Michael awakens in sickbay and learns her mother is alive. But the episode goes on to have her deal with rejection from that mother, gradual and touching acceptance, and then losing her all over again. Martin-Green is undoubtedly the strongest performer Star Trek has had since Patrick Stewart. (Stewart has to come back to play Picard again, lest he abdicate the title.)

Martin-Green has a great scene partner this episode in guest star Sonja Sohn. Sohn has a tough assignment here as Burnham's mother, having to start off stern and cold (and making us understand why her character is that way), then plausibly warm to her daughter, and finally sacrificing herself for the greater good. Not only does she have to play this arc in under an hour, she must do while confined in a small space for every scene (outside of the opening flashback). Sohn is great, and there's no doubt that she and Martin-Green lift each other even higher. I mean, reuniting with someone and then losing them in the span of one episode is pretty much a television trope, but I wasn't bored with it for a moment here.

The Burnhams may get the best scenes of the episode, but there are some other strong moments too. Culber is given a resonant monologue when he argues that, after the experiences Dr. Burnham has gone through, she won't be the same person Michael expects. There's more excellent rapport between Spock and Michael, culminating in him offering her emotional solace in a way that doesn't at all betray his logical nature. And, once again, Michelle Yeoh gets to be part of a top-notch fight scene.

I finally got my wish in that the show has at long last made a credible threat of the character of Leland. But then, they did him by not really having him be Leland anymore, but rather a puppet of Control. I wish that Leland had been more menacing on his own so that this new Control version might seem like a cumulative danger. But at least the abstract baddie that is Control now has a face, like when Picard was made to be the face of the Borg. In fact, the show seems to be strongly telegraphing that Control is some sort of proto-version of the Borg (right down to the "resistance is futile"-like declaration that "struggle is pointless"). For a show that's being extra careful at honoring tiny bits of Star Trek continuity, this would be an odd choice; the film First Contact established that a Borg collective existed centuries before this time frame. We'll see where they're headed with this.

It's becoming noticeable to me how marginalized the characters of Tilly, Saru, and (when he's not having his heart broken) Stamets are right now. The mechanics of the swift-moving plot remain a bit squishy, and the technobabbly dialogue used to half-heartedly explain it is often shunted to this unfortunate trio. But hey, if I were a writer who knew how good Sonequa Martin-Green was, I'd want to write as much material for her as possible too. (She even makes "Hamlet. Hell yeah." seem almost plausible.)

I give "Perpetual Infinity" a B+. Some of the story moments may have been predictable, even trope-tastic, but they were served up with enough acting skill that on the whole, the episode worked well.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Creepy Old Dolly

Remakes can have a certain reputation in film and television, but it's an entirely different matter in the theater. It's not like you can go out and see a classic play or musical any time you want. And the countless stagings and re-stagings around the world all have a different character anyway, given all the different people involved in making them. You can even stage an older piece in a new way deliberately meant to make a new point.

Yet I'm befuddled as to how a national tour of the 1960s Broadway hit Hello, Dolly became a thing.

I mean, I know the time line. The original production made Carol Channing a star and broke the record for longest-running Broadway show. Revivals over the years saw her return to the role, and gave other famous Hollywood women a reason to head to New York. This particular production is touring because in 2017, a Broadway revival was staged with Bette Midler, winning several Tonys and starting the cycle all over again.

What I mean is, I don't understand what about this musical is worth reviving. Hello, Dolly feels like an archaic curiosity, 50 years out of date at least. It has the absolute minimum amount of plot to serve as a framework: a busybody matchmaker has decided to make a match for herself; mixups and minor obstacles befall a series of couples on their way to the expected happily (?) ever after. It's terribly sexist, and while moments in this revival production try to wink and convince the audience it's knowably, lovably this way, the persuasion is rarely effective.

There are a couple of catchy songs in the show, admittedly, though they are all crafted in a very old-timey way. Giant chorus groups. Rigid verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure to be sure the audience picks up the melody. Hold for applause, then exit the stage singing a quick reprise of the number you just finished. It's a formula that was old when this play was new, and it's strictly observed.

There are, admittedly, some pretty crazy sets in this show. With almost each scene change, you're presented a fully realized environment. The cumulative total of it is an engineering and technical feat that leaves you wondering how it was all stored backstage. It and the costumes collaborate in a pastel dreamscape (or nightmare, depending on your tastes) that's constantly showing you where your ticket money was spent. It's loud, brazen... and yes, maybe (occasionally) fun.

But you can get big song-and-dance numbers in just about every touring Broadway musical. Why this one? The jokes land with a thud, the story lacks any kind of resonance with the modern world, most people today haven't seen it (so it's not like they're revisiting it fondly), and at least some of the songs seem oddly interchangeable with Christmas music standards. (At least two different songs both sound strangely like "We Need a Little Christmas" -- which a little Googling tells me comes from a different musical from the same composer.)

The performance I attended drew thunderous applause, so clearly mine is an outlier opinion here. Sure, the elaborate second act restaurant sequence had impressive choreography. Sure, the star performer Jessica Sheridan (filling in for headliner Betty Buckley) did a great job channeling Bette Midler, Ethel Merman, and others in various moments. But overall, it felt like this production gave me little that any other production couldn't give better. I give Hello, Dolly a D+. If it swings into your town, I'd choose something else for a night out at the theater.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Something Different

It seems as though more and more, I'm hearing about established writers revisiting their earlier books to "tell the story from a different character's perspective." Generally, it sounded to me somewhere between a hacky short cut and a glorified writing exercise. But I was never really in a position to give one a try; whenever I'd heard about such a book, it was from a writer I'd never read, revisiting a book I never had interest in.

Then I read Something Like Summer, a novel covering a decade in a young man's life, and two very different men he falls in love with. I found it an enjoyable (and sometimes bittersweet) read. I liked it enough to plan on coming back to its author, Jay Bell, at a later point. As it turns out, Something Like Summer was the first of a series, and the next two volumes of it are exactly what I'd been suspicious but curious about -- a retelling of the same events, each book from the perspective of one of the two different love interests in the first book.

Book two is titled Something Like Winter. It's centered on a young man named Tim Wyman, and the high school romance he falls into with Ben Bentley. Tim is deeply in the closet -- initially to himself just as much as to anyone else -- and this ultimately sabotages their relationship. Only when Tim heads off to college does he learn to accept himself, but by then it's too late. He can only wonder about "the one who got away," as new emotional challenges keep coming.

I did say when I read the previous book in this series that I'd been on the hunt for a book with a gay protagonist that isn't a coming out story. It's not that I'm over that type of story altogether; I just wasn't particularly interested in it at the time. But I knew that Something Like Winter was going to be exactly that, a coming out story. Knowing that from the outset, I went in with my eyes open.

As for the gimmick of the perspective shift? Well, the gimmick actually doesn't feel much like a gimmick. This book doesn't really trade on any reader knowledge from the first; if for some reason you were to read this one first, you wouldn't be lost, or sense anything incomplete or missing. This book stands alone on its own merits.

It achieves this in several different ways. First, the author does a good job of not replaying too many scenes from the first book directly. The majority of the book is new material, both with previously established characters and without, and often entwined carefully with the original story. Jay Bell leans strongly into the perspective of his new main character, and from that comes a logical shift in attitude about what events are significant enough to make it into this story.

Even on the occasions when scenes are repeated, the shift in viewpoint freshens them up. The main character here, Tim, is arguably a villain in the first book. At the very least, he isn't very sympathetic. Jay Bell sets quite the challenge for himself to "redeem" Tim, but it's mostly effective.

Here and there, you will find an awkward turn of phrase that's trying a little too hard. The novel is at its most effective when it simply puts the reader squarely with Tim's fears about coming out, when it's more raw and visceral than considered and polished.

Something Like Winter is not quite as effective a book overall as the previous one, but I still found it to be mostly successful. I'd give it a B. The "exercise" of the perspective shift was effective enough that I'll probably take a shot at book three (told from the perspective of the third character in the "love triangle").

(Hmmm.... has anyone ever tried this "perspective shift" gimmick in a non-romantic context? That I'd be very interested to read.)

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Game-alot

I'm hardly alone in liking board games from designer Stefan Feld. Time and again over many years, he's delivered wonderfully calibrated systems to entertain and challenge. He is, quite simply, one of my favorite game designers. The truth is, though, that he still has some games out there I haven't tried... and that was even before he went on a binge in the last couple of years and released several more. But over the past few months, I've been able to try out several of his more recent offerings.

Merlin is an unusual game that defies easy description. Players each position a marker on a wheel of possible action spaces, along with a single "Merlin" marker. Each round, every player rolls their own set of four dice: three in their color and one the color of Merlin. You then use the resulting rolls to take four actions. The dice of your color move your piece clockwise around the wheel, and you take the action you land on -- thus, the order in which you choose to use your dice affects which actions you take. The one die of the Merlin color can move the Merlin piece clockwise or counterclockwise; again, you do the action of where you land, but since every player can move Merlin once in a round, you don't know if he'll be in the same place the next time you get to choose.

There's a wide array of actions to choose from, and I think trying to explain them would get too far into the weeds to be comprehensible without visual aids. Suffice it to say, the game incorporates area control on more than one axis, a set collection system of sorts, a "disaster avoidance" mechanic you have to juggle, and various other ways of scoring points that reward leaning hard into particular sub-strategies. It's a fairly large matrix of options.

I do think Merlin has a clever degree of "indirect interaction" with your opponents. It feels to me like it has a pretty solid balance between the ability to make plans of your own, and suddenly having to recalibrate in response to what your opponents do. Another plus, your opponents' actions aren't inevitably "disruptive" to your plans. Because players all get to move Merlin once each round, another player's decision to move him can suddenly change what options you have if you move him. This can either thwart you or open up new possibilities, depending on the situation.

But it's also possible that the dice inject a little too much randomness into the game. Merlin plays faster than some Stefan Feld games, but it's still more involved than most dice games. A strategy you attempt to get involved early may fail you not because of bad planning, but because you simply fail to roll the numbers that let you take those actions again. Plenty of popular games are built on dice, and I even enjoy my share of them... but I do feel that generally speaking, when the role of luck increases, the game length probably should decrease. I'm not sure Merlin falls outside the sweet spot -- I'd actually like to play it more -- but I do have some doubts, particularly compared to other Stefan Feld games that hooked me almost immediately.

Merlin is actually not only a Stefan Feld game; for this effort, he teamed with Michael Rieneck. It's not that I'd scapegoat Rieneck for not loving this game as much as some Feld efforts. He was a co-designer on The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (among others), and I quite enjoyed them both. It just might be that this particular collaboration didn't yield top notch results.

But again, my reservations are largely just because the bar is so high when Stefan Feld's name is on the box. I do hope to try Merlin again, though that may be a tall order considering just how many Feld games out there I truly love. For the moment, I'd give Merlin a B+.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Tribunal

Deep Space Nine really began to improve as new episodes increasingly built upon material introduced in previous ones. A strong early example of this was "Tribunal."

The Cardassians arrest Miles O'Brien for a crime he did not commit. But his innocence is of no consequence in their legal system. A guilty verdict is handed down in advance of the trial, a trial that exists only to demonstrate to the Cardassian people the reach and effectiveness of their government.

This entire episode grew from a single line of dialogue that was played for quick comedy in "The Maquis, Part II": Gul Dukat noted that "on Cardassia, the verdict is always known before the trial begins, and it's always the same." From that evocative description emerged an entire authoritarian nightmare: a twisted version of Miranda rights ("You have the right to refuse to answer questions, but such refusal may be construed as a sign of guilt."), a revisiting of the harsh incarceration methods established on The Next Generation, a courtroom in which spectators applaud, a lawyer questioning his own client to establish his criminal predilections, and more. It's a thorough and well-realized funhouse mirror of a legal system.

Other past details incorporated in this episode include the Maquis themselves. O'Brien's alleged crime is said to be on their behalf -- an idea that a Maquis operative eventually shows up to expressly deny. We also get the return of Gul Evek.

The whole thing is set in motion when Miles and Keiko O'Brien attempt to go on a vacation together. There are great moments of realism in this -- Miles unable to leave work without giving his co-workers a million instructions on the way out the door, friends having to remind him to actually have fun while he's away. Better still, Miles and Keiko are actually nice to each other in this episode. I do love Deep Space Nine, but one flaw I'd readily acknowledge (certainly in the first few seasons) is its overall handling of this relationship. A writing staff dominated by young unmarried men results in a spouse character who's often nothing but a shrewish obstacle for her husband. Thankfully, Miles and Keiko are tender to each other and much more in sync this episode (even before the trouble happens).

The writing is partly to thank for this. But also credit the director here; for the first time on the series, it's Avery Brooks calling the shots. There's a lot to praise in his camera placement and staging, but he really seems to excel at communicating with actors. Colm Meaney and Rosalind Chao are great together throughout. Meaney is also strong on his own, adding many little details as O'Brien suffers in this episode (for instance, slurring his words after the Cardassians forcibly extract one of his teeth). Brooks pulls all this off even as his own character of Sisko is featured more heavily in this episode than Trek actors-turned-directors usually are their first time out.

Although O'Brien is the focus here, it's also a strong episode for Odo. His character is said to know the Cardassian justice system well, and thus is able to position himself centrally in the trial. It leads to great moments between Odo and O'Brien, a pairing we don't get often -- which is even acknowledged in the episode itself.

Just as this episode grew from seeds planted in previous episodes, it would plant seeds to be harvested later. This was the first time a Cardassian was surgically altered for the purpose of infiltration. This idea would form the basis of both a strong Kira episode early in season three, and the character of Seska over on Star Trek: Voyager.

Other observations:
  • Having established Cardassian trials as being all for show, the way this one ends is especially fun. The judge has to deal with a "surprise witness" in her courtroom -- one who clearly can't be allowed to testify on global television. Her abrupt face-saving turn is everything you'd expect.
  • In the end, Miles and Keiko get their vacation after all -- but with no preparation and no bags packed. I've done a spontaneous trip before, but I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to do it without any comforts from home with me.
"Tribunal" may not quite be a series-best episode, but it is a strong installment that benefits from strong performances. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Breaking Less Good

There was a period a few years back where Disney animation experienced a new Renaissance, where its movies were as good as Pixar (better than the ones Pixar was making at the time, in fact). In the midst of this period came Wreck-It Ralph, the tale of a lovable video game lunkhead who breaks out of his arcade cabinet. The movie's success made a sequel all but inevitable, and we got it this past holiday season in Ralph Breaks the Internet.

This time, the action moves onto a larger stage, as Ralph and Vanellope use wifi to escape their arcade and search for a replacement part for Vanellope's game. It's a more lightweight story than the original movie, though I'm not necessarily sure it was trying to be. It's just that the story isn't quite as moving in this new installment.

Its heart and mind are in the right place. This time, Vanellope is the focal character. The story is about her dreams and her desire for more than the narrow role defined for her. Wreck-It Ralph is part sidekick and part chaos agent, but he's not what this story is really all about.

Yet the story isn't all that deep this time around. Often, it's just a framework for jokes about search engines, eBay, farming in online games, and so forth. Mind you, the jokes are usually very funny. But the first Wreck-It Ralph was as emotional as it was funny, and that element is notably weaker here.

Among the many great jokes is an extended sequence (spoiled by the trailer, almost in its entirety) involving past Disney princesses. They're all represented here, from the ones who were hand-drawn the first time around to the newer ones who were always computer generated. The real coup here is that every single one of them is voiced in this movie by the same performers who did so originally (where those actresses are still alive, at least). It's cameos on top of cameos, and it's hilarious.

And speaking of voices, I still cannot get over the fact that Sarah Silverman is providing a voice in now two Disney movies. She's excellent, mind you -- it's just that the persona of her standup, television shows, and Twitter feed (you know, her real persona) seems decidedly non-Disney-friendly. Her rapport with John C. Reilly is a highlight of the movie (which is amazing, as standard animation practice is not to record two performers together at the same time). New characters voiced by Gal Gadot and Taraji P. Henson are fun additions to the first film's returning cast.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is perfectly fine movie, really. It's just that Wreck-It Ralph set a much higher standard that it cannot match. I give the sequel a B. It's worth seeing, but if you've got a movie-obsessed kid, you'll maybe hope they get hooked on something else.

Oh.... and a post-script to this blog entry.

My husband and I went to this movie several weeks into its theatrical run. (I lost track of this post for that long, and never got around to actually putting it up.) We both enjoyed the original movie and wanted to see the new one, but we'd hoped by waiting a bit, there might be fewer little kids fidgeting and talking in the theater. No such luck; the Sunday morning screening we saw still had plenty of kids.

There was a fun payoff for it, though. In an action-filled sequence in the middle of the film, Vanellope is buried in an avalanche of falling debris. Complete silence follows, with even the music dropping out. In the quiet, a little girl perhaps three or four years old declared simply: "she's dead." It was hilariously matter-of-fact, without concern -- a simple acknowledgement of what would happen in this situation.

This has become a running gag for us since then, when watching all kinds of movies and TV shows. It's going to endure long after I've forgotten everything else about Ralph Breaks the Internet. "She's dead."

Priceless.