Friday, October 17, 2014

Detention: A Horror Movie (or maybe Sci Fi or Comedy or Teen Romance) Review

It's getting closer to Halloween, and that means a lot of cut-rate horror films are being watched by people everywhere. No one has facilitated this quite like Netflix has, where both high-concept major releases and low-budget dated garbage compete for the same eyeballs come All Hallow's Eve.

Somewhere in the middle is the comedy-horror film Detention, which was released in 2012.

Starring Shanley Caswell (The Conjuring) and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), the plot involves...well, nominally, it's about a serial killer who is terrorizing the students of a high school in Grizzly Lake. The killer takes up the costume and persona of Cinderhella, an (in-universe) popular movie character. The two protagonists, Riley and Clapton, start off as bitter rivals (mostly over a love triangle involving Ione) but when Ione's ex Billy Nolan challenges Clapton to a fight over her, alliances shift. All the while, the killer is killing off popular kids one by one. The ever-suffering principal (played surprisingly effectively by Dane Cook) tries to control the situation, with varying degrees of success.

Well, hold up. Let's back up a bit, because one of the charms of Detention is the fact that the above, while it sounds like a trite teen slasher movie, actually has very little to do with the plot. The actual plot is that each of the characters is basically a star of their own horror movie. The angry jock? He's actually injected with fly DNA. The creepy loner in the detention hall? He's stuck in a time loop (see: Donnie Darko). Ione is actually acting out Freaky Friday with her mom. And so on.The thing is, none of these are the main plot. They're treated as sort of mini-episodes, no longer than a few minutes each, to explain why the characters act the way they do.

If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. Kind of. It all sort of makes sense in context, but not really.

Eventually, the plot resolves itself via a time machine, where Riley and Clapton have to go back to prevent a disgruntled student from blowing up the school and everyone in it, preventing the entire sequence of events from happening in the first place. (Just trust me on this.) The entire time this is playing out, it's toying with the very cliches that you're expecting. Ione and her mom are perfectly happy with their new bodies. The fly-jock acts like he's juiced up on steroids, but he's really just trying to channel the DNA. Weird things in the beginning of the movie make a lot more sense once they go back in time. And so on.

Here's the problem, though; while it's a refreshing chance of pace, the style and execution of it isn't optimal.

First things first: this movie was directed by Joseph Kahn, who got his start in music videos, and it shows. In some ways, the fast-paced, quick-shot format overlaid with poppy music covers works perfectly, but at other times it just gums up the works with unnecessary flash. The movie is also over-saturated with 80s and 90s pop culture references. It actually makes sense in context (Ione talks like it's 1992 because that's when she's from; of course we don't know it until much later in the film) but some things (like the Swayze vs Segal discussion) just seem like a sop to nostalgia porn fanatics. Some of it also feels lazy; given the time-travel nature of the film, there's a lot of weird plot holes that they just seem to handwave away with a new song and some catchy font effects. I'd also say there's too many characters. Some of them--Mimi and Mr. Kendall in particular--just seem to be there to fill some sort of cultural reference slot, but with such weak effort it never delivers.

As with most efforts like this, a lot of the negatives can be chalked up to "missed opportunities." The entire concept of "each character is in their own movie" is fantastic, but it doesn't quite get there with this script. It only applies to a handful of characters, and isn't always done properly. (What on earth was with the TV hand? Do bandages not exist in the 1990s?) It just tries too hard, and it shows.

And yet, there's something charming about the entire enterprise. It's certainly enjoyable (and a reasonably trim 93 minutes that seems half that) if you don't mind that it's not exactly the most airtight premise. It doesn't take long to realize it's just a breezy coast through a half-baked horror/sci-fi plot. To be blunt, it's a mess, but it somehow still feels satisfying.

I suspect the market for this movie is fairly narrow. Unless you have a fetish for 90's references, a lot of the dialogue in this movie is either going to be nonsensical or cringeworthy. And it seesaws between being a teen comedy, a satire, a straight-up horror flick, and a sci-fi movie without ever really settling on any of them. (The trailers make this out to be a horror film with some mild comedic moments, and that's far from what it is.) But if you hit that demographic, it's certainly worth watching.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Witnesses to And Four To Go

This is the sixth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project.

Today, we're looking at Three Witnesses, Might As Well Be Dead, Three For The Chair, If Death Ever Slept, and And Four To Go.

Sorry for the delay for this installment. I actually lost one of these books while reading it (it was hiding under some blankets); plus, I have one of the books (If Death Ever Slept) only in a compendium, which is huge (and why it's not shown above). So I didn't have as many opportunities to read as I would have liked.

Three Witnesses includes three short stories: The Next Witness, When A Man Murders..., and Die Like A Dog.

 In The Next Witness, Wolfe is compelled to tesitfy in court about a case he turned down, and so the story begins with Wolfe sitting (uncomfortably, as always) in a courtroom awaiting his turn on the stand. During the testimony, he realizes that the accused is probably innocent--plus a woman wearing hideous perfume is next to him. Both factors compel him to leave and investigate; since both he and Archie are under subpoena, this means risking arrest. While Wolfe travels everywhere except his beloved brownstone, he slowly pieces together the clues to the crime and, once he arrives in the courthouse the next day (under duress of arrest), he provides testimony to free the accused and point the finger at the rightful murderer.

A standard mystery is made exceptional given the circumstances; any story with Wolfe out of his element is almost always worth it, and this is no exception.

When A Man Murders involves a presumed widow whose husband was killed in the Korean War--only to turn up alive and well after she remarried. When the widow hires Wolfe to negotiate a divorce, the former husband is found dead, and the new husband charged with the murder. Of course, additional motives are injected once the will is sussed out, and Saul has to comb the east coast for a witness. A decent, if ultimately forgettable, story.

Die Like A Dog has a dog! When a client shows up to hire Wolfe, and Wolfe turns him down, he leaves in a huff and takes the wrong coat. Archie then walks to take the coat back, only to find the prospect murdered. At the scene, however, a black lab is found and follows Archie home. Archie, thinking this is a good way to needle Wolfe some, bring in the dog--only to find that Wolfe likes dogs. Wolfe then takes on the case after it is revealed that the dog may be a crucial piece of evidence.

This is one of the best short stories I've read so far--and not because it has a dog. (Well, not only because.) The mystery is an actual, find-a-physical-clue variety, which is always fun; the characters all play their parts wonderfully, and the entire concept of Wolfe accepting the dog almost immediately is not only funny but a little touching.

Might As Well Be Dead involves a father from Nebraska looking for his son. They had a falling out over what ended up being a wrongful accusation, and the parent wants to make amends, but can't find where his son is. As it turns out, his son (now living under an assumed name) just got convicted of murder, complicated by the fact that opening up information to clear him would identify him (among other embarrassments). Wolfe, looking for a way to increase his fee, works to clear the son's name of a murder charge while keeping him in the dark.

It's one of the few Wolfe stories with a shocking event--I won't go into it--but it directly affects the Wolfe mythos, much like Black Mountain did, although with much, much less impact. (It involves a recurring but minor character). A solid book.

Three For The Chair includes A Window For Death, Immune To Murder, and Too Many Detectives.

In A Window For Death, the death of a wealthy industrialist is ruled pneumonia in circumstances similar to his father's death. Since two doctors certified it as pneumonia, there's no reason for cops to be involved, but due to the situation (his estate is worth a significant amount, and there was bad blood between the business partner and the family) they all agree to go to Wolfe to see if there's enough evidence to present to the police. A good, solid mystery involving red herrings and actual evidence, it's one of the better short stories.

In Immune To Murder, another story that takes Wolfe out of his element, he goes to Washington as a favor to an ambassador. The ambassador requests Wolfe to prepare freshly-caught trout for him (along with a group of guests who--surprise!--hate each other), and Wolfe agrees...only to find that the Assistant Secretary has been killed while fishing. An interesting tale, and one of the better Wolfe-away-from-home ones.

In Too Many Detectives, Wolfe is called to Albany. New York State is doing a review of wiretapping laws, and is calling on all licensed private detectives to give testimony about any wiretaps they have done. Wolfe and Archie share the waiting room with about five other detectives, where they size each other up (and introduces Dol Bonner, one of Rex Stout's other detective series, into the world of Wolfe and Archie). Wolfe goes in first, and the testimony centers around a bungled wiretap job he had done a few months prior, only to be told that the subject is there with them that day--but when he's called to the office, he's found strangled. Wolfe and Archie are both then arrested as material witnesses. Outraged, Wolfe called all the other detectives called in that day and they arrange a meeting to try and determine who killed the victim--only to find that each and every one of them had had bad dealings with the victim at some point.

This collection of short stories is also really, really good; it's a nice balance between the using-logic-and-evidence school of mystery writing, as well as Wolfe's standard psychological games. I previously stated that I didn't care for the short story collections, but I'm finding that Stout really improved his abilities.

In If Death Ever Slept, Archie takes on the role of the secretary of a very rich man who wants to get some dirt on his daughter-in-law; he is convinced she is passing on vital business secrets to another party and has already cost him a million dollar deal. Archie takes on an assumed name and tries to get in everyone's confidence, but of course a gun is stolen and soon the former secretary is dead. Cue a bit of a farce as Archie tries to remain secretary without dealing directly with the police, who would blow his cover, and Wolfe internally debating whether to tell the police what they've found out before he gets his fee.

It's actually not a bad mystery, but I don't care for this one since the premise (Archie and Wolfe are on each others' nerves and so Archie goes undercover) was already used in another story, Too Many Women. While the story quickly diverges from that premise, it still seems recycled.

And Four To Go is the only Wolfe collection to have four, instead of three, stories. In addition, three of the four are holiday-based, another first. Most of them are significantly shorter than normal, even for novellas.

In Christmas Party, Wolfe demands Archie take him to meet a famous horticulturalist, but Archie had already made arrangements (a date, of course) and cleared it with Wolfe beforehand. And to get on his nerves, he produces a filled-out marriage license as to why it's so important. The date is to a company Christmas Party where, of course, the head of the business is poisoned. A man in a Santa Claus suit--whom no one recognized--leaves immediately upon the murder, and it's up to Wolfe to solve the mystery lest a major secret gets let out.

This is a fun story; there's not much time to get much of a mystery moving, but it's a great read. I can't say too much without spoiling the major reveal, so we'll just leave it at that.

Easter Parade involves Wolfe engaging in a little petty larceny. A prominent citizen who also deals with orchids has created a hybrid that Wolfe has been trying to perfect for years, and has Archie hire someone to steal it from the lapel of the citizen's wife at the Easter parade. Of course, once the hired hand reaches the wife she dies, and Wolfe has to find out why to deflect suspicion of off why a random person would steal a flower from her the moment she died.

Again, this one is a fun read--here's Wolfe, at his basest level and gets in the maximum amount of trouble for it, and he has to pay for his pride and vanity.

In Fourth of July Picnic, Wolfe is invited to speak at a union worker's picnic, only to have one of the speakers die before going on. Unfortunately, circumstances and evidence mean that someone who was on the speaker's list was the murderer, and to avoid being held as a witness Wolfe has to solve the mystery before being compelled to notify the police (and thus be under suspicion).

I wasn't as impressed with this story; it's not very interesting, which is a shame since a lot of usually the episodes where Wolfe is out of his element are the best. In addition, the trick at the end that reveals the murderer is the same trick he's pulled dozens of times before, except without anything interesting to add to it.

Murder Is No Joke has a nice premise but is otherwise forgettable. A woman comes to Wolfe to try and get rid of a suspected blackmailer at the company she works for; when Wolfe calls the suspect to arrange for her to come, she is presumably killed while on the phone. Wolfe, upset that he was made a fool of, brings the suspects in to solve the murder. Eh.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Selfie: A Review

I hadn't planned on watching the new television series, Selfie. But it happened. So I figured I'd do a review of the pilot, because why not?

Bow ties aren't always cool.

First things first: the only reason I even heard of this new TV show was because of two reasons: that horrifying title that had nearly everyone immediately dismiss it; and the fact that it stars Karen Gillan from Doctor Who. (If you don't know her from Doctor Who, you might from Guardians of the Galaxy or the well-received horror film Oculus.) American audiences might be more familiar with the other main star, John Cho, who was Harold from the Harold and Kumar series as well as about a hundred other things.

There are so many new shows each fall (or, increasingly, all year round) that it's difficult to pick out what to give a chance. I was going to give this show a pass because the premise didn't really interest me, and it felt like it was going to be one of those horrible, thrown-together projects trying to coast on the talent of the stars.

To be honest, the only reason I watched it in the first place was because I was setting the DVR to record Gracepoint (another show with Doctor Who connections, and is a retelling of the otherwise fantastic Broadchurch) and it just happened to be starting. It was a complete fluke; I had no intention of ever watching this. But I did.

Selfie wasn't the worst TV show I've ever seen. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it has potential. Sadly, it still has a lot of problems. But we'll get to that.

The premise isn't particularly original or notable: Gillan, playing an extreme exaggeration of a narcissistic millennial named Eliza, realizes she is shallow, unliked, and has no real friends--her entire life is online. She convinces Henry, one of the successful salespeople at her company, to "rebrand" her. (Shades of Pygmalion, and the obligatory My Fair Lady after mentioning Pygmalion.)

The pilot kickstarts Eliza's transformation. In the first few minutes, we establish that she's "famous" online and that her success is tied primarily to her sex appeal. She's then publicly humiliated--she finds out, while on a plane ride, the man she's involved with is married. (Other, grosser stuff happens as well.) An entire plane of her coworkers, sick of her nonsense, take great pleasure in disseminating the disaster that's unfolding before them.

This prompts her to talk with Henry to change her "marketing." Henry walks her through her life--she needs to stop spending so much time on her phone and more time taking an active interest in others. As a project, he tells her to accompany him on a date to a wedding, where she has to act professional, not be online, and dress modestly. Unaware of how to do so, she calls her book-club-having neighbor--in true sitcom fashion, they are polar opposites and dislike each other--to help her dress appropriately.

In the end, Harold and Eliza realize that they need each other--he's too stiff and formal, she's too shallow and vapid. Hilarity ensues.

Here are some of the things I liked:
  • Gillan and Cho. The two stars actually have pretty good chemistry together, and both know how to handle the situations they are in and scripts they are given. They actually managed to save some of the dialogue that otherwise would have come across as eye-rollingly trite. Gillan, in particular, has a way of reacting to situations with a simple facial expression that says a lot more than words.
  • The show has everything set up right. We've established her workplace and its various dynamics; we've established her proximity to a bunch of girls who could develop and be her friends; we've established reputations and histories for the main characters; and we've established the Henry-Eliza relationship.
  • There is a lot of clever writing. The entire scene with Charmonique is hilarious (each actor in that scene plays off one another excellently), and the closing scene (where Eliza and Henry have a heartfelt conversation with one another) is genuinely both charming and funny. While a lot of the writing was sloppy, there was a lot of good stuff, too. There's usually something that salvages most scenes.
  • So far, the pilot has done a good job at balancing comedy with plot development. Hopefully it will be more the former than the latter once they get things established, but right now it was reasonably good pacing.
Let's look at the things that didn't work so well:
  • First off: That title has to go. It's horrible. Sitcoms have survived name changes before. This is a good candidate to try. I suppose we should all just be grateful it wasn't called #Selfie.
  • The first five minutes of the show were almost unbearable. The flashy and unnecessary social media references, the painfully obvious exposition, the vomit...if they were trying to hook new viewers, this was the clumsiest way to do so.
  • They're trying too hard to cram social media in everything, including within the show itself and the jokes. ("All my friends' names start with an at symbol!") We get it. it's barely been halfway through the first episode, and it's already old. Move on.
  • Karen Gillan is hot. Yeah, yeah, sex sells, blah blah blah. But in the first five minutes we get Karen Gillan completely naked (strategically and briefly, of course) and then another long pan of her in her underwear (justified, but still). The latter scene, in particular, could have been played up for much more comedic value instead of simply presenting a chance to ogle her, but they decided to go the purile route instead. Far be it for me to insist on less scantily clothed Karen Gillan, but she's an amazing talent and her abilities are wasted when her body is used as a crutch when comedy should be the focus.
  • The script needs some work. While there was some legitimately clever writing, the rest of the other writing was clumsy and heavy-handed. during the closing, they actually say (this is a direct quote):
Henry: You shouldn't feel compelled to make everything so sexual.
Eliza: And you shouldn't be so uptight.

Really? Maybe there wasn't a frying pan nearby they could have beat us over the head with so they had to go with that. There's actually a lot of dialogue like this. Some of it, perhaps, can be forgiven--this is the pilot, after all, and they have to cram a lot of information in a small amount of time. It just seems like it could be handled better.
  • There's a lot of weird stuff that happens. The friends that help out with Eliza's makeover? They suddenly start singing Lady Gaga. Also, one girl carries a ukelele. Why? Who knows? Henry--who heretofore didn't seem like the type--suddenly starts talking in rhyme. Why? Who knows? There's a few other scenes that just made no sense. While some of them were funny, they just seem more awkward than anything else.
  • A lot of people were upset about the "sexual politics" of the show. While I get some of the criticism, most of it's clearly there to establish characterization and draw stark lines between people. If they keep it up I can see it being a problem, but right now I think it's just lazy writing and over-sensitive critics.
On the face of it, it seems like there's more bad than good. But not really. A lot of the bad can be chalked up to this being the pilot; they had to establish the premise and introduce characters. Other shows do it more skillfully, but it's not the worst thing in the world for a pilot to

Is the show worth watching? Honestly, I don't know. If they had a less talented cast, I'd just chalk this up to another forgettable sitcom that tried to pander to a specific demographic that wasn't me. But the abilities of both Gillan and Cho are amazing, and they carried this subpar script along to where I didn't want to stop watching. And yet one gets the feeling that the writers and creators are hung up on the "social media" gimmick, which is going to get real old real fast.

Will I continue to watch Selfie? I honestly don't know, but I doubt it. At the end of the show I didn't really care what happened to any of the characters. But I'm more than willing to watch again if I hear that things improve, and the good news is that while a lot of the writing was awkward and misfired too often, it did have a fairly decent foundation. So we shall see.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Death Of Saturday Morning Cartoons

It seems as if today is the sad death of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. The CW, the last remaining broadcast network to show cartoons, ended its run this morning, with no other network having plans to continue.

Now, I haven't watched much television lately on Saturday mornings, but even when I was a kid the trend was moving away from cartoons. One of the stations--NBC, I believe, had transitioned away from cartoons to news programs. But still, the concept of the Saturday Morning Cartoon had existed for decades and has been entrenched in our cultural landscape. Most of the cartoons we all watched as kids (by "we all" I mean those of us over 30) originated, in some form, from Saturday mornings.

Learning about the new schedule every year was like a third Christmas (First Christmas being actual Christmas and Second Christmas being when a new series of Garbage Pail Kids unexpectedly showed up at the store). We eagerly anticipated if our favorite toy or comic book or theme was represented in the new block, and we'd map out the schedule amongst the three networks ("OK, at 8:30 we can watch the Gummi Bears, then we can watch the Smurfs, but if it's a rerun we switch over to Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters. Then after that's done at 10:30 we have to decide whether we want to switch over to Alf or Garfield and Friends.")

Even back then, though, as a wise and precocious kid I knew that some stuff was garbage. Anything noted as "The New" or "...and Son" was probably going to be bad--no new Popeyes or Richie Riches or Archies, thank you very much. The things that make those shows charming and enjoyable are the fact that they are a product of their times and clever writing, not because you introduce a young, hip character who rides a skateboard.

In fact, that said, let's just codify a few Saturday morning cartoon rules for posterity:
  • There's always one character in any group that's dumb as dirt that's necessarily to create that show's main problem to be solved. And yet that person won't be in jail.
  • Any superhero will somehow manage to defeat the bad guys not through the awesome, world-changing power they have, but through the power of kindness or sharing or some other communist BS.
  • There was always that morning when you overslept and you missed an episode of your favorite show and all your friends would call you later to tell you that it was the single greatest episode in the history of visual media. 
  • And your one sketchy friend would insist that it was the episode where Smurfette had her dress fall off and you missed it but he totally saw it happen.
  • After the first season: introduce kids! Or kid-versions of whatever creature you're watching.
  • Don't like writing logical scripts? It's magic!
  • If there's a modestly successful live-action prime time television show that has even a small children's demographic, expect a cartoon of it, and expect it to suck. Along with the addition of some sort of magical creature that makes no sense. I mean, the Dukes of Hazzard and Laverne and Shirley? Come on!
  • There's always going to be a Scrappy, whether you like it or not. He or she will come as different names and different forms, but it will happen. Just prepare yourself ahead of time.
  • When in doubt, start a band. If the resolution of the plot isn't forthcoming, play a song with your band and all will be OK.
  • Everyone is always solving a mystery all the time.
The decline of the cartoon is for many different reasons. The main one is simply that there's a lot more competition out there: at first it was post-school afternoon blocks of high-quality cartoons that garnered greater viewership. Then it was the rise of cable and all-cartoon networks like Nickelodeon. (Well, mostly cartoon, at least at first.) Then Disney and other animation studios started cranking out high-quality feature films after decades of producing modestly-performing garbage. All of these trends started to make Saturday Morning cartoons look like amateur hour, with their cliched plots and subpar writing. Live-action shows also started and were modestly successful (and, of course, cheaper.)

Of course, one can't point to the demise of a cultural institution without pointing a crooked, accusing finger at the government. After voters parents complained, politicians got involved. No more could Saturday Morning Cartoons show commercials to sell kids stuff--so things like cereals, tie-in merchandising, and fast food commercials either were reduced or outright banned, choking off a huge portion of revenue for the expensive-to-produce cartoons. The true death knell, though, was the requirement of the stations that they show a certain amount of E/I programming--that is, educational or informational shows. It quickly became apparent that the best way to fulfill this requirement was to burn them off on Saturday mornings; the increasingly less-profitable cartoons could be chucked in favor of cheap documentaries.

There are other reasons, too--the changing conglomerate nature of the stations meant that they would rather produce in-house shows with their already-existing properties instead of buying them from independent animation houses is a big one--but I suppose that in today's world it can't be too unexpected.

but really, we're really just clinging to a specific time and specific product that was never going to be replicated in the first place. There are more cartoons being shown and made today than ever; who cares when they are airing? And we'll never have another Scooby-Doo or Muppet Babies because those things could only come during the era they were made in--but we'll have new stuff that's just as good.

Still, it's a shame that such a long history of vibrant, creative product is going to be replaced by the likes of a talking head news show and the farm report. Brainy Smurf, I believe, would agree.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Prisoner's Base to Before Midnight

This is the fifth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, as I review each of the books in the series as they were published.

In this post, we're going to look at Prisoner's Base, The Golden Spiders, Three Men Out, The Black Mountain, and Before Midnight.

Prisoner's Base: When a young woman offers Archie money to stay at the brownstone for a week, but refuses to give a name or reason, he shows her to a room but advises it's contingent on Wolfe's approval. In the meantime, someone else comes to hire Wolfe to find someone--and that someone is the person they have upstairs. Wolfe, disinclined to take either job out of principal, offers the woman the room for the same amount of the fee he'd lose to the other person; she declines, whereupon Wolfe advises he will take the other job and gives her a half-day's head start. When she ends up dead before the job can be taken, Wolfe dismisses the case since he can no longer earn a fee by either party. Archie, however, feels guiltily responsible, and takes up the case pro bono--which ends up meaning that he is Wolfe's client. As such starts a mystery involving control of a large company, mysterious secret weddings, and old rivalries.

Prisoner's Base is refreshingly complex--not too terribly complex, of course, but a nice change after the much more simplistic short stories. Again, going into the plot will give away too much, but it's a nice, detailed trip through some uncharted territory.

The Golden Spiders: When a child walks into Wolfe's office to report an incident--where a woman wearing earrings shaped like golden spiders told him to get a cop--he instead goes to Wolfe, whom he trusts more than the police. The next day, the kid winds up dead. He had sent his meager allowance to Wolfe to solve his murder, and to not be a jerk about it Archie takes out an ad, using the funds without committing to it. Thus starts a complicated mystery that ends up with two more dead bodies, the discovery of a horrifying blackmailing scheme, and a violent confrontation with all of Wolfe's regular detecting staff.

This story was the first one to be adapted in the A&E version of this show, and for good reason: it's got a lot of action, a lot of vibrant and decent clues, and it showcases nearly all of the regulars in prominent roles: Fritz, Orrie, Saul, Fred, Cramer, Stebbins, and Rowcliffe all get turns; even Lily Rowan gets a mention (although sadly doesn't appear). Only poor Theodore is missing, as usual. While I wouldn't call this the best novel, it's certainly a good way to introduce someone to the series.

Three Men Out includes three stories: Invitation to Murder, The Zero Clue, and This Won't Kill You.

In Invitation to Murder, Archie is hired by a wayward heir to find out if any of the household help has the eye of the rich invalid. The client wants to get in good graces before the rich man's impending death. Of course, the client soon ends up dead, and Archie tricks Wolfe into showing up to solve the murder. A mediocre story.

The Zero Clue is one of the few Nero Wolfe mysteries with an actual riddle--as in, pencils-arranged-in-a-pattern-on-the-dying-man's-desk riddle. A rival detective, whose shtick involves using statistics to solve problems, is found dead. After locating the cryptic clue, it's up to Wolfe to find out which of the statistician's clients killed him. The introduction of the riddle, while it ends up being a little ineffectual, makes this story stand out, and for the better.

In This Won't Kill You--a title, I'd like to add, that is insufficient for the story--involves a World Series game where several players are drugged (and thus unwittingly threw the game) and the star player killed. The highlight of this story is Wolfe actually going to a baseball game, and Stout milks it for all it's worth (to good effect). The mystery itself is pretty standard, but the writing and situation make it a good story.

The Black Mountain is a very unique Nero Wolfe novel. It's not actually a mystery at all, but more like an action thriller. When a few old friends of Wolfe's are murdered (I'll leave out who), Wolfe is sufficiently enraged enough to travel to Montenegro to solve the murder. Wolfe is still Wolfe, but the story ribbons out into Wolfe's personal history, a beautiful description of the area, a lot of flavorful international intrigue (Yugoslavia, at the time, was a battlefield between the communist Tito, the Soviet Union who opposed Tito, and the freedom fighters) and the usual eccentricities of Wolfe transplanted to his homeland make one of the best novels yet. In addition, the role reversal--because Archie doesn't know the language, Wolfe has to report to him instead of the other way around--shifts the dynamic enough to be interesting. While the resolution isn't particularly impressive, it also doesn't matter--the flow and content of the novel is more than able to stand on its own.

Before Midnight details the decidedly non-murderous task of identifying an element in a national million-dollar advertising contest. The contest--where riddles about historical figures are posted, and the contestants slowly winnow down until there are only about five left--is written, with great secrecy, by one individual, who keeps the answers in a safe deposit box. When the finalists are invited to New York, the writer (presumably jokingly) reveals that he has the answers with him--a clear violation of the spirit of the rules. When he turns up dead (and the papers missing), the advertising firm hires Wolfe to find out what happened to the papers.

It's an interesting story, mostly because even though the job is for the contest, not the murder, they clearly intersect--and Cramer and Wolfe have plenty of amicable discussions about it, since their interests cross but aren't the same. It's certainly a differently paced book, and adds enough variation to the formula to be different. It's also uncharacteristic in that Wolfe admits defeat almost entirely throughout the book, even to the point of simply lying down after an eventful meeting and just about giving up. So far, this is probably the closest we've seen Wolfe as admitting defeat, and it's simultaneously humanizing and sad.

This book also has the return of Bill gore, for all of about two lines, his first appearance in...probably 15 books or so. Johnny Keems gets a mention, too, but he never actually shows up.

At this point, the only criticism I have is the relationship between Cramer and Wolfe. For a while it seemed like both men had a decent relationship--Wolfe conceding that the police are better than him in 9 out of 10 cases, and Cramer understanding that Wolfe needs a lot of leeway to solve the murder. And yet at this point every single novel has Cramer and Wolfe butting heads. If this was done for comedic effect, or to grow the characters, I wouldn't mind so much, but it mostly involved them being unreasonable and both forgetting the history of their relationship every time. You see glimmers of recognition--in Before Midnight, when Wolfe is specifically not solving a murder, both men agree to help each other with only some minor friction later in the book--and yet one feels that it will all be forgotten soon. It's a small criticism, but it can get a little old.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence Day, Scottish Style

So Scotland officially has said no to independence. It's not really a surprise, given the polling, but it's still a little fascinating how the process worked out.

Back when I had the time and resources for such a luxury, I used to subscribe to The Economist, a well-regarded current affairs publication that is based out of the UK. (It's also painfully expensive, even for print media.) It's nice to get a refreshing perspective from professionals who aren't based within the US, and yet aren't so globally blind as to become its unwavering critic. Anyway, while it offered plenty of US news, by default it focused a lot into European and especially UK/Commonwealth news, and the battle for Scottish Independence has been going on for a while.

Personally, I don't have any skin in the game, so the vote result itself didn't matter too much to be. From a broad historical perspective, I generally think regions should stick together. There's power in being part of a larger coalition, and a confederation (much like the Unites States and the European Union, or, more abstractly and inaccurately, the Commonwealth Nations in general) seems to be the best of both worlds. The big-picture stuff, like defense and treaties and broad economic policies, are handled on the federal level, while the details, such as tax policies, local issues, government structures and the like are handled closer to the ground. Obviously it's not as clear-cut as that (the North Sea Oil issue for the Scots is a testament to that) and there's a lot of stuff that gets warped in the process, but it seems as if the mood of the world is slowly swinigng this way.

Of course, who knows how that will change? The advent of technology and direct democracy becomes closer to reality. The case against direct voting on issues has been the logistical nightmare it posed, and that particular burden is effectively gone. You could literally wake up each day and vote on a few issues before your coffee. That may not necessarily be the best idea, for a variety of reasons, but the big objection of feasibility is closer to being eliminated. This may spark a philosophical discussion about the nature of democracy, but will probably boil down to petty arguments over broadband access.

That said--outside of the theoretical ramblings of anarcho-capitalists--it's still not very feasible if the world slowly breaks down into a series of microstates. Even today, there's probably a few dozen, even a hundred, different regions who wouldn't mind exploring a breakaway. While some may make sense, even more would find themselves doomed to mediocrity (and--to be a realist--a tempting target for conquerors) and the lure of self-governance may not be as strong as, say, the gains from collective defense.

Still, the fact that we've progressed to the point where breakaway nations are handling this through voting and not through violence is certainly a good sign, and the fact that a lot of the major questions (namely, Quebec and Scotland) have ended in defeat without much by way of repercussions is promising. Still, the poli sci major in me wants to play around with the world like a multicolor chess game. Perhaps that's a bit imperialistic for me, but I am alarmingly OK with that.

The Grandmaster

About a week or so ago, something amazing apparently happened in St. Louis, where the 2014 Sinquefield Cup was held. This is, of course, one of the title matches for chess.

Chess has always been a little weird to me. On one hand, it's an ancient game whose rules are reasonably simple but the board and situations open up multitudes of possibilities. On the other hand...well, it's been used from everything from a barometer of nerd martyrdom to an awkward Cold War proxy.

Oddly, for someone who is a board game hobbyist like myself, I was never really all that good at chess. Well, basically I had a plateau: I was a decent enough player up to a point. After that, though, it was either intellectual limitations or simply boredom where I really just couldn't master anything. Thinking two or even three moves ahead makes sense, but to somehow get seven or eight ahead just seems like a waste of time. And memorizing different openings and moves wasn't something I really enjoyed, so studying it like a science just seemed like a chore.

I've always found it weird that chess somehow got tagged as an "intellectual" game. I suppose it makes sense, since you have to conceptualize a lot of abstract movements in your head. But it always seemed like that kid in class who memorized all the facts in the book but couldn't order lunch without jacking it all up; on paper, he (or she) was smart, but actually applying that skill to anything in the real world revealed exactly how much of a disaster that person was. And just like similar games (like Scrabble), a lot of it is less about situational awareness and more memorizing stuff.

OK, maybe that's a little harsh. Every game plays out differently, and I'll admit that watching two skilled players play against each other is fascinating. (Well, watching edited footage of two players. I ain't watching that live because I am a normal human being.)

Add to that the very, very weird modern history of the sport--Bobby Fischer turned into a reclusive  batshit crazy anti-Semite; the current head of FIDE (arguably the most powerful international chess organization, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, insists that he was taken on a joyride with aliens that unlocked the mysteries of chess to him (or something like that, and, no, I'm not making that up); the rise of computer chess players and how that's a thing; and all the weird Cold War shenanigans that basically everyone went through for a few decades. It's just strange that we've taken this honored ancient game and turned it into some odd weirdness sink. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Netflix Series Review: BoJack Horseman

Netflix recently released yet another original series, a cartoon called BoJack Horseman.

Netflix has done a pretty good job of producing original content. I'm not sure if the business model works out--I don't know if having new exclusive shows like this is gaining or retaining many new subscribers after a certain point--but as consumers we certainly can't complain. While I haven't watched all of their material, I've watched most of it, and with the exception of Hemlock Grove they've all been high quality.

Anyway, BoJack Horseman is a series about a washed-up former sitcom star (who also happens to be a horse) and how he handles that life. BoJack was the lead in Horsin' Around, a clear parody of Full House, and has gotten immensely rich from it. (Unlike other stories of former celebrities, he appears to be managing his money well; we see him spend lots of it wastefully with little consequence.) The driving force behind the 12-episode arc is BoJack's memoirs--in order to get him back into the spotlight, he agrees to have a ghostwriter work with him to talk about his past. It's a clever framing device that not only lets us legitimately delve into his past, but also to contrast it with his current life.

And his current life is a mess. The main cast, besides Bojack, involves his roommate Todd, a complete burnout who just sort of hangs around; Princess Caroline, a cat who acts as his agent and occasional girlfriend; Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever who, as another former sitcom star, is a friendly rival to BoJack; and finally Diane, BoJack's ghostwriter. There's also plenty of recurring characters as well, including Sarah Lynn, the now-grown-up co-star of Horsin' Around, and poor Pinky Penguin, the contact at the brink-of-failing book publisher.

I suppose I should point out, if it hasn't been obvious yet, that the world of BoJack Horseman is...well, different. Half of the characters are human, while half of them are anthropomorphic animals of some sort (retaining some sort of human elements). As you can see in the picture above, BoJack is clearly a horse, although he had hands and feet like a human. The same goes for a lot of other characters, both main, secondary, and background.

While the show is clearly a comedy, it deals with some startlingly heavy topics, such as depression. Everyone's life in the rich and fabulous world of Hollywoo is empty and angry.* While this certainly isn't a new insight into the world of celebrities, it does manage to handle it uniquely and with a surprising amount of sensitivity. This isn't Simpsons or Family Guy, full of non-sequiturs and cutaway gags, and there's little by way of shock humor. It plays out probably more like King of the Hill, where dialogue and character development are emphasized more than having a gag a minute. It also has a lot of the "callback" structure of other shows (notably Arrested Development)--there's rarely a reference that doesn't get brought back, to good effect, in a later episode.

The premise seems, well, different enough, but does it hold it together? For the most part, it does, but it's not perfect.

First off, let's look at what is good about it.

*The show manages to balance the writing, the subject matter, and the voice talent pretty well. It's refreshing that the show isn't just about getting away with as much profanity as possible and it's just a series of absurd quick cuts to a bunch of unrelated topics. While obviously it's a show about talking animals, it sometimes feels more real than, say, Family Guy or South Park. That's a little weird, and to its credit.
*While the whole "anthropomorphic animal" gimmick would seem like it would get old or be used as a crutch, the writers manage to get a lot of mileage out of it. Some of them are just throwaway visual gags (a beaver cutting wood like a circular saw with his teeth; Princess Caroline using a scratching post as part of her "workout"); some are a lot more subtle and clever. It takes an episode or two to realize that Mr. Peanutbutter isn't just a nice guy, he's kind of dim, likes everybody, and has a low attention span...just like a golden retriever.** When someone is about to get arrested by the cops, one of the cops is an electric eel--and you suddenly realize that someone's about to get tased. Neal McBeal is a seal, and it turns out he's in the armed forces as a (wait for it)--Navy SEAL. These all seem obvious, but when you watch (especially the background and secondary characters) you realize how much thought was put into each one.
*Some of the writing is just damn clever. A lot of it is well-crafted dialogue, but some of it is just some old-fashioned sketch humor that manages to pull it off. The scene with Dr. Hu and the confusion while shooting the movie (BoJack plays Mr. Peanutbutter and Wallace Shawn plays BoJack and...well, just watch it) are highlights. And even though it's just a stupid joke, I loved it any time Vincent Adultman showed up.
*A point should be made about the voice casting: it's fantastic. You already have Will Arnett as BoJack, who manages to convey the lonely despair with a heaping dose of feigned (and quite real) arrogance. But you also have Aaron Paul (from Breaking Bad) basically playing the same sort of character in Todd; Princess Caroline is voiced by the great Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy and various rabbit-related things); Alison Brie (Community and Mad Men) is cast as Diane; and Paul F. Tomkins (every cartoon ever) does Mr. Peanutbutter. Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, J.K. Simmons, and Kristen Shaal also have fairly large parts, and there's also a few cameos from celebrities.

So far we're good. But there are some negative parts to it:

*The show can seem uneven at times. Even though above I said it was balanced, there's quite a few episodes where it's not. For example, the character of Charlotte (a romantic what-if scenario with BoJack) seems interesting, but it doesn't really go anywhere, and it's not particularly dramatic and the laughs come to a screeching halt when she shows up. Other times, the writing simply goes from amusing and whimsical to show-stoppingly awkward, and not in a good way.
*Some of the plot points don't seem to go anywhere, even though it seems clear that they should. Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd's creative adventures together seem like it's going to build up to something, but it really never gets resolved by the end of the series. The character of Wayne looked like it was going to cause some sexual tension with Diane, but it kind of just fizzled out into nothing.
*Speaking of, the character of Diane just seems to be...flat. And it's strange, because the writers go out of their way several times to delve into her background and her personal issues, but it's not written well enough for anyone to care. Her role seemed to matter so little that her biggest impact was creating tension between Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter. Even when (spoiler alert, I suppose) BoJack looks to her for validation towards the end of the series, one has to wonder why any of us, or even BoJack, would care what she thought?

So, in the end, is BoJack Horseman worth it? I say yes. It can take a little while to get into the swing of things. But the animal-as-human concept was executed surprisingly well, and for an animated series it's very refreshing. However, it does get heavy-handed at times, and I know a lot of people watch a few episodes and just can't get into it, which I can understand. Still, I think it's worth giving it a shot, and at twelve half-hour episodes there isn't much to lose.

*No, that's not a typo.
**And Dave Coulier.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Doors to Death to Triple Jeopardy

This is the fourth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

Let's take a look at Three Doors to Death, In The Best Families, Curtains For Three, Murder By The Book, and Triple Jeopardy.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, we're slowly moving into the time frame where Rex Stout is writing more short stories than novels; in this case, Three Doors to Death, Curtains For Three, and Triple Jeopardy are all compilations. (The "three" theme will continue for the remainder of the series, for better or worse.)

Three Doors To Death includes Man Alive, Omit Flowers, and Door To Death.

In Man Alive, A wealthy fashion designer suspects that her uncle--long assumed to have committed suicide--is still alive, and so she hires Wolfe to prove it if possible. When the uncle turns up dead, Wolfe gains a client. A decent mystery with a little bit too much repetition.

Omit Flowers involves Wolfe's old friend, Marko Vukcic, in clearing his chef of charges as a favor. Again, a solid mystery although ultimately forgettable; aside from the unusual setup (no fee involved), I had to look it up to get the plot.

In Door To Death, Theodore has to leave to stay with an ill relative, and in the meantime Wolfe is on the hunt for a replacement. Of course, the moment he shows up to get the new gardener, the gardener is accused of murdering his fiance, and Wolfe has to solve the case to get his replacement. As opposed to the other two mysteries in this collection, this one is fun and memorable, if for no other reason than it's enjoyable to have Wolfe occasionally out of his element.

This collection is notable in three respects. The foreword notes that Wolfe took no fee for two of the three, and Archie goes through pains to note how unusual this is. (Of course, Wolfe was doing a favor for Vukcic in one, getting some good meals in the process, and in the other he's getting a gardener, so it's not like he's altruistic all the way.) Two: In each of these cases, Wolfe at some point pulls the same tactic: he falsifies evidence to draw the murderer out. It's an effective and often enjoyable mechanic, but one feels that if it's done too often (especially in the short stories, since it's a quick and easy way to reach a resolution) it might get stale. And, finally, even though this book was published in 1950, the stories actually predate The Second Confession, so if you are reading these in order (as I am) you actually want to read these stories first. (It doesn't really matter, although some references in The Second Confession don't make much sense otherwise.)

In The Best Families: The third (and final) book of the Zeck Trilogy, this novel starts out normally enough: a mother wants Wolfe to investigate the source of income from her daughter's husband, who has no job yet still lives lavishly. The source, of course, is soon discovered--Zeck sends a warning to Wolfe to back off the investigation. Wolfe, of course, refuses, sending Archie to the estate to do some investigating. Upon his return, Wolfe is gone--he's relieved Fritz and Theodore of their duties, and gives explicit instructions not to be found. After waiting a while, Archie sets up shop on his own, until events resolve themselves.

By far one of the more interesting stories--this is one of the few novels that delves into the personal lives of Archie and Wolfe, and the "formula" is knocked on its head halfway through the book. Equal parts sad and amazing--Archie, Fritz, and Theodore standing outside the brownstone lamenting the turn of events reads very clinically and yet one can tell is emotionally draining on all of them. I would have preferred this book happened later in the series, if for no other reason than to have the impact a little more, but the novel as a standalone is fairly amazing. While there are nitpicks about the resolution (I won't go into it) overall it's one of the top books so far.

Curtains For Three has The Gun With Wings, Bullet For One, and Disguise For Murder.

In The Gun With Wings, a complicated suicide-turned-murder of an opera singer merits investigation by Wolfe. The victim, who had been punched maliciously in the throat by a rival singer, also managed to irritate a whole host of suspects. An interesting double-reverse whammy of a plot--the gun keeps "moving" due to the motives of various suspects.

In Bullet For One, an industrialist is shot while on horseback, and yet all the suspects have solid alibis. A decent, if overly simple, mystery.

In Disguise For Murder, Wolfe hosts a flower show...only to have one of the garden club members killed in Wolfe's own office. The victim, who had confessed to being a confidence woman but swore to go straight, advised that she had seen a previous "client" at the show and he had recognized her, but before Archie could get the details she was killed. Wolfe's office was thus sealed as a crime scene--in what Wolfe could only surmise was a deliberate act of malice against him by the police department, and solving the murder would be the best way to not only get his office back but also embarrass the cops.

All are good mysteries; The Gun With Wings has an interesting premise, although it sort of peters out at the end; Bullet For One is actually pretty entertaining even if the mystery is incredibly simple; and Digsuise for Murder has a lackluster mystery but is absolutely hilarious.

Murder By The Book: It seems like everyone who has come in contact with a specific book--Put Not Your Trust--meets an untimely end. It's up to Wolfe to link the murders together and find out why the manuscript is so deadly.

OK, that's a short description, but it's actually a very good novel--it's just easy to give too much away. (The whole notion that it's the manuscript connecting a bunch of seemingly random murders takes up the first half of the book.) The highlight of this novel is Archie's entertaining of a roomful of women, including getting them drunk enough to start spilling secrets.

Triple Jeopardy includes Home To Roost, Cop-Killer, and The Squirt And The Monkey. It also has what has to be the single ugliest cover of any book ever.

In Home To Roost, a man claiming to be an FBI informant in the Communist Party is poisoned at a dinner, and all those present there are suspects. Neither the FBI or the local cops are opening up as to whether he was a commie or an FBI agent, and it's up to Wolfe to crack that first.

In Cop-Killer, Archie admits two foreigners--one of which works at his barber shop--to help them evade deportation. He hides them in the brownstone while he investigates (and against Wolfe's initial objections). Unbeknownst to him, a murder--of a cop, no less!--has happened at the stop. Turns out the cop was investigating a murder, not deportation, but now that the foreigners have fled they are the prime suspect. Knowing that they are innocent but unable to tell the cops without revealing how he knows, both Wolfe and Archie hole up at the barbershop to solve the crime.

In The Squirt And The Monkey, Archie is unwittingly framed by a famous cartoonist for murder--well, someone framed him, anyway. This is a monkey mystery, but thankfully the monkey plays only a bit part. (Oh, spoiler alert: the monkey didn't do it.)

None of these short stories are memorable. They certainly aren't bad and have their share of amusement, but none of them are particularly well-crafted.

One thing that has become abundently clear at this point is Archie's status as a ladies' man.At this point, every mystery involves Wolfe stating to Archie, in effect, that since Archie is so good with women he should use his (um) abilities to persuade them to part with information. The aforementioned meal in Murder By The Book is a prime example: Archie literally woos about a half dozen women to the office with orchids, has Fritz feed them and get them drunk, and then takes them each out dancing, one at a time over the next few weeks, until enough information is dropped. It's fantastically funny, but it can get a little tedious, as if Archie's sexiness is enough to melt half the population into confession. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pay It Forward: Free Coffee Edition

In case you haven't heard yet, there's a heartwarming tale of a chain of "pay it forward" customers as a Florida Starbucks late last week.

In summary, in case you don't know (or don't even know what "pay it forward" means): Paying it forward generally means doing a kind favor to someone else for no reason other than kindness; ideally, if someone has done an act of kindness to you, you do the same to a different person. Often, this is done by paying for the person's meal behind you at a place like, say, Starbucks. There are plenty of other ways of doing so, but this is the easiest and most common.*

As such, last week there was a 450+ chain of customers, all of whom "paid it forward." For over two days, anyone going to that particular line got their order paid for, and then they in turn paid for the next person in line--a long, unbroken succession of kindness and charity.  It was finally and abruptly stopped when one customer went there with the deliberate act of stopping this chain, refusing to pay for the next person's order.

Most of the stories you'll read about this incident, like the one I linked above, are focusing on the man who broke the chain--referring to him (indirectly, of course, because this is an unbiased news source) as a Grinch and a curmudgeon. And--horror of horrors--a crank.

The thing is--he's not wrong.

The entire point of the concept of "paying it forward" is to do a kind thing for someone else. Sure, maybe some day in the future it will come back to you, but maybe not. Getting rewarded is not the point or the main reason one should be doing this in the first place--it should simply be an inherent kindness, a reflection of one's good character.

Participating in one of these chains, of course, eliminates the entire point of the thing. If 1) you are socially pressured to pay it forward, rather than doing it from your own sense of kindness (supposedly, the Starbucks baristas were proactively asking people if they wanted to "pay it forward", and 2) you know you're going to be immediately rewarded, it's not an act of kindness or charity at all. Every single person who showed up at that Starbucks last week knew that their drink was going to be paid for, even if they did then pay for someone else's drink. That's not how it is supposed to work. Everyone involved paid for their order, and got their order paid for, roughly making a net gain or loss of not very much. It's a completely empty gesture that accomplishes nothing except free advertising for Starbucks and a feeling of self-satisfaction by the participants. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but the one thing it's not is kindness.

So, you say, what's the harm in participating in such things? While there's nothing directly wrong with it, empty acts like this crowd out actual, necessary acts of charity and kindness. How many people went to sleep that night feeling good about themselves, even though they did absolutely nothing of value? Did they feel as if they did their "good deed" for the day and didn't do anything else? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a good chance that at least some of the people in that line didn't do something else because they figured they had done their due diligence for the day.

I'm passionate about many things, but I'm also reasonably open-minded about most stuff. But one thing I can't stand is the empty gesture. A lot of people do a lot of meaningless things in this world, then use said things as "proof" that they are good and kind people. That's not how it should work--your actions should speak for themselves. There's also nothing wrong with doing things to make yourself feel better--everyone needs a self-esteem boost now and then, so long as it doesn't become your dominant personality trait. But if you're doing such things, do something meaningful and worthwhile. Sure, go ahead and dump ice on your head, but make sure you can still sign the check afterwards.

The Pledge: We're not living in a better world because you did something that made you feel good about yourself. This world is already full of empty gestures and meaningless actions all in the name of self-gratification. Don't just be kind; do something meaningfully kind.

*Of course, the biggest "pay it forward" charity decision of all time is calling this a "good movie."