Category Archives: Television

Blogging the Hugos: The Mountain and the Viper (Game of Thrones)

Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper”
Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, directed by Alex Graves
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

got_season_4As longtime Arcane Gazebo readers know, I’m a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. I didn’t even last long in my resolve not to read A Dance With Dragons (which, due to my blogging hiatus, is still declared embarrassingly recently in the post history). But I quit the TV series midway through the second season. I felt like all the subtlety of the books was dropped, and they treated the viewers like idiots who needed to be hand-held through the complex plot. When they did make changes from the story itself, it rarely seemed to be for the better.

Thus it was that I originally planned to watch this episode in isolation for my Hugo review. I’ve read Storm of Swords—I know how the titular fight ends! But my girlfriend, who has been following the show (and will be joining me at Worldcon) convinced me to catch up on the episodes I’d missed. Coming back with lowered expectations, I found the show more enjoyable. Although it’s not the ideal adaptation that exists only in my head, it’s still amazing that a fantasy show of this caliber exists at all, and even more amazing that it’s become such a huge crossover hit. So by the time I got to this episode, I’d mostly made my peace with the flaws of the series. (Mostly—I still have a tendency to shout “Lies!” at the screen when they deviate from the books.)

We are here to review this episode and not the whole series (which has plenty of Hugos under its belt already), so I won’t get too hung up on the big picture. On the other hand, I don’t have much to say about some portions of this episode: as part of a serialized drama, it checks in with all the ongoing storylines, but some of them are less significant than others. There are some scenes at the Wall that continue to build the tension leading up to the battle there; there’s a scene with Arya and the Hound in which their quest to reunite Arya with her family is stymied yet again. There’s a creepy scene between Sansa and Littlefinger after she backs up his account of Lysa’s death. Jorah’s spying for Robert Baratheon is revealed, and Daenerys exiles him in response. I had to remind myself that these things happened in this episode, and not one of the other ones I watched leading up to it; they don’t seem thematically connected to each other or to the main event.

Some of the other minor scenes were more memorable. I thought Theon’s struggle to hold himself together as he played the role of his own past self was well-acted and not overdone. And the relationship between Missandei and Grey Worm is a really interesting addition by the show—it wasn’t in the books at all, and I’m very curious to see how it will develop. (I haven’t watched past this episode yet, to keep my Hugo rating… unsullied.)

It’s Tyrion’s storyline and the trial by combat, though, that’s the focus of the episode, and where it really shines. First there’s the conversation with Jaime in the dungeons before the fight, where Tyrion relates a story from his childhood about his cousin’s mindless killing of beetles. This makes a pretty effective metaphor for the grim outlook of the series, but applies to the immediate situation as well: the justification for a trial by combat is that the gods will favor the side whose claim is just, but in this world the gods seem to be more like Tyrion’s cousin, killing without rhyme or reason. Tyrion certainly has no illusions about justice going into the trial—he’s hoping chance and his champion’s skill will save him once again.

As for the fight itself, that pretty much was the ideal adaptation I had in my head. Tense, well-staged, and true to the books down to the gory ending. I have my complaints about the show as a whole, but this was a solid episode. (The best adaptation, however, is still the board game.)

A Feast of Crow

Previously, on Arcane Gazebo… Almost two years ago, I took a strong position against buying George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons until the entire series is complete. Then, I inadvertently made my commitment even stronger by leaving the post at the top of this blog since then.
Last week, the book finally came out. The reviews are reporting that it’s terrific, and (importantly) gets the story going again after the narrative sprawl of A Feast for Crows. And so I find myself wanting to read it after all! But how can I repudiate my earlier position without looking like a Romney-esque unprincipled flip-flopper?
The answer will be revealed… below the fold:

Continue reading

New York City in fiction

federal hall
I’m off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I’d like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that’s a bonus. In any case the city shouldn’t just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

  • Film: King Kong, Escape from New York, Cloverfield

  • Television: Seinfeld, Sex and the City
  • Literature: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Video games: Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven’t seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.

Buffy Night at the Speakeasy

The Speakeasy is a theater in Oakland (there’s also one in El Cerrito) that recently started doing monthly Joss Whedon nights, alternating between Buffy and Firefly on the big screen. Last night was a Buffy night with a decent selection of episodes, so I went to check it out. Some observations:

  • The musical episode “Once More With Feeling” is shown at every Buffy night. The audience is encouraged to sing along, and the subtitles are turned on to facilitate this.

  • However, people don’t seem to be really comfortable singing along: at the start of each song some people would be singing enthusiastically, but this would fade away to a murmur after a few verses.
  • Someone brought stuffed bunnies to throw in the air at the appropriate moment.
  • The other two episodes are usually selected according to a theme; last night’s was a “double feature” double feature: “Dopplegangland” (twin Willows) and “The Replacement” (twin Xanders). The former is one of my favorites, but I’m not a huge fan of the latter and would have preferred (in the spirit of the theme) the late-season-5 episode “Intervention”.
  • Character preferences were clear and fairly uniform: there was widespread cheering at the first appearance of Spike, while Dawn drew boos and hisses, and Riley’s extended bout of lameness at the end of “The Replacement” was drowned out by jeers.
  • Next Buffy night is Halloween; the El Cerrito theater is showing “Fear, Itself” and “All the Way”, although I would prefer to see the second-season “Halloween” (Ethan Rayne!) in place of “All the Way”. The Parkway hasn’t announced its lineup yet (they’ve said it won’t necessarily be Halloween-themed). Anyway, I might be doing something else on Halloween but Buffy night at the Speakeasy was a lot of fun, and definitely worth doing again.

Simpsons reviews analyzed

So, the Simpsons movie is out this weekend. Most critics are saying it’s good, but some dissent. Who to believe? Luckily, some reviewers are naming their favorite episodes in their reviews, from which we can get a sense of where their tastes lie. I’ve seen a number of different episodes mentioned, but two in particular were named multiple times. I am going to claim (based on very little evidence) that we can use this to weed out the inaccurate reviews. Consider the two episodes in question:
“Lisa the Vegetarian”
Cited by: A.O. Scott (NYTimes), Jake Coyle (Associated Press)
Reviewers’ opinions of the movie: Mixed. Scott is generally positive but says “‘The Simpsons,’ for all its mischief and iconoclasm, has become an institution, and that status has kept this film from taking too many chances,” and declares it only as good as an average episode. Coyle is somewhat harsher, calling it “too much a caricature of itself” and giving it an overall score of 2.5 stars.
Analysis: Appearing in season 7, just after the show’s golden age, this uneven and heavy-handed episode is a strange choice. The episode showcases Lisa at her most irritatingly preachy, and the jokes too often seem smug or self-righteous. There are some great moments in this episode, but its flaws keep it from reaching the top tier. Clearly, any critic who prefers “Lisa the Vegetarian” is not to be trusted.
“Marge vs. the Monorail”
Cited by: Kyle Smith (NY Post), Chris Vognar (Dallas Morning News) [this review now seems to have been edited for print, with the monorail reference trimmed out, but it was in the version originally posted online]
Reviewers’ opinions of the movie: Positive. Smith awards it three stars and Vognar gives it a B+. Neither critic puts at it at the level of the best Simpsons episodes, but they seem to have enjoyed it.
Analysis: Any true fan of The Simpsons will immediately break into song at the very mention of the word “monorail”. (I recall one Fark thread in which the news article had something to do with a monorail, and the first twenty comments consisted of various commenters reciting lines to the song, in order.) This Conan O’Brien-penned spoof of The Music Man is a classic episode from the peak of the series, with the right mix of absurdity, subtle commentary, and pop-culture synthesis. Plus, Leonard Nimoy! These critics have made a solid choice, indicating they can be relied upon to review the movie from an appropriate perspective.
Conclusion: The Simpsons Movie, as per the trustworthy reviews, will be highly entertaining but won’t rise to the brilliance of the TV show at its height. (Wait, I think I knew that already.)
Weekend discussion thread: What is the best Simpsons episode ever? (Hint: it’s “Treehouse of Horror IV”.)

Gazebo. Arcane Gazebo. [Open Thread]

I meant to post this, like, a week ago. This may be the first December where my posting frequency goes up when I go on vacation. Anyway, I’m going to overuse the 4 rating again in this set of reviews.
Happy Feet: There is no truth whatsoever to the vicious rumor that I saw Happy Feet.
Casino Royale: By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard reports that this new start for the Bond franchise is really good. And I agree—not just a great Bond movie, but a great spy movie in general. It’s gritty and a big step away from the excesses of the Pierce Brosnan films. Casino Royale is a sort of Bond origin-story, which begins with his earning the 007 rank, and shows how he developed into the character we’re familiar with. Daniel Craig does a great job playing this unpolished Bond—later we were debating in lab the merits of the various Bond actors, and were only arguing over the #3 slot after an easy consensus on Connery and Craig as the two best. (The sentence “I like Timothy Dalton” was uttered without being intended as a Buffy reference.) Anyway, this is the best Bond film in years. My only complaint is that it is a bit too long, at nearly two and a half hours, but for most of this time it’s pretty gripping. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Three: On the other hand, my only complaint about this is that it’s too short, because Fox canceled the show halfway through the season. This prompts the writers to step up the self-referential humor another notch, with embedded pleas to viewers and other networks to save the series, as well as digs at their competition (Desperate Housewives). Once again there are a few revelations that are foreshadowed in ways that make a second viewing rewarding. Although the second season is the show’s peak, it ends on a very strong note. Rating: 4/5
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife: This could be the Decemberists’ best album, at least the equal of Picaresque and maybe a little better. Although it doesn’t have standout tracks on the level of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, it’s much more coherent and has a more professional sound (maybe the result of their move to a major label). There are a couple of epic tracks: “The Island”, which has some really excellent sections during its 12 minute extent, and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2″, which is fairly good all the way through. I find that I prefer some of the shorter tracks, though: “O Valencia!” is especially good, as well as the final track “Sons and Daughters” which is a little brighter than the others. A stream of the former track, along with “Summersong”, is available on their website. Rating: 4/5

Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

Here’s an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I’ve been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I’m prioritizing items I’ve really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh’s head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn’t a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it’s even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don’t know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I’ve played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It’s a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I’ve played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it’s quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it’s no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It’s excellent, just a notch below last year’s Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with “Stuck Between Stations”; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with “You Can Make Him Like You” and a surprise acoustic turn on “Citrus”. (“Chips Ahoy!”, which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad “First Night” fell a bit flat, however, and I’m not wild about “Chillout Tent”. Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5

Uniformly good [Open Thread]

In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu’s Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife’s Silent Shout (in this post) for example.
The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that’s what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we’ve all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it’s not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn’t just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn’t really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season’s worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It’s the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria’s mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS’s touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5
The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday’s post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from “Heartbeats”, it’s a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to “Like A Pen” and “Silent Shout” at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5
Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica’s suggestion that I post an entry titled “I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls”, but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez’s opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn’t be played; “In the Waiting Line”, which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can’t complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7’s catalog. It would have been nice to hear “Speed Dial No. 2″, though. Rating: 3.5/5

Grad students in popular culture

The above was the title of a slide in Jorge Cham’s talk yesterday (discussed below). The slide cited four films: The Seniors (1978), Real Genius (1985) [this one prompted cheering from the audience], A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Hulk (2003). This is a pretty good list already, but I suspect there are more, and it seems like a good topic for a Friday thread. Make suggestions in the comments. No need to stick to film, either: it was at least implied that Fred was previously a physics grad student in Angel, and there are probably plenty of novels with grad student characters (some of them not written by Neal Stephenson).
For that matter, there are lots of mad scientists but rarely do you see their grad students. It’s hard to imagine they’re doing all that mad science themselves. Sure, Dr. Frankenstein had Igor, but Igor seems like more of a postdoc. And Frankenstein operates the apparatus himself—what kind of PI does that? A more realistic portrayal would be something like:
[Dr. Frankenstein’s group meeting. Igor, exhausted from taking data all night, presents a graph.]
Igor: So the data clearly indicate increased mobility of the subject.
Frankenstein: IT’S ALIVE! [pause] Start writing it up, I want to submit this to Physical Reanimation Letters by next week.