Review: Game of Thrones Ep. 06 “A Golden Crown”


So, we’re passed the halfway point now in the first season of Game of Thrones.  After spending the first half of the season setting up the show’s many characters, it’s obvious that the first season is now moving towards its inetivable conclusion.  Not having read the book that this season is based on, I have no idea what that conclusion might be, though I suspect it’s going to be a violent one that’s going to leave a lot of the characters I’ve just gotten to know dead.  To a certain extent, I’m happy that I don’t know what’s coming up.  It allows me the thrill of discovery, if nothing else.

So, in tonight’s episode, there were two major events.  One of those events was kinda cool and fun and contained everything that you would both expect and want to see from a show like this.  The other event came at the end of this episode and was horrific, disturbing, excessive, and yet undeniably effective and watchable.  (And it was topped off by one of the best lines ever uttered on television.)  This event also gave this episode its name.

Let’s go in chronological order.  The cool, fun event involved — no surprise — Tyrion.  To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to or have much respect for the Emmy awards but seriously, if Peter Dinklage doesn’t get an Emmy for his work on this series then there is no justice.   Accused of trying to kill Bran and facing the judgment of the wonderfully insane court of Lysa Arryn, Tyrion spends most of this episode cheating death and Dinklage brought exactly the right combination of arrogance and desperation to his performance tonight.  Hopefully, if Dinklage gets his deserved Emmy nomination, they’ll show a clip of his “confession” from this episode.  (Though I have to say that I am continually astounded and amazed by the sheer number of ways that boys have come up with to avoid saying “masturbate.”)

Tyrion demanded a trial by combat which led to a fight between one of Lysa’s painfully noble knights and Tyrion’s “champion,” Bronn.  And, unlike most television (and move) sword fights, this fight actually felt real.  Watching the two warriors, you felt as if they were actually fighting.  It reminded me of the that episode of The Sopranos where you literally saw James Gandolfini beat Joe Pantoliano to death.  It felt real and, for me, the sight of all that blood pouring out over that formerly pristine armor  is one that I won’t get out of my head any time soon.

After the fight, Lysa accuses Bronn of fighting without honor, to which Bronn perfectly replied (while staring down at the corpse of his opponent), “No.  He did.”  And you know what?  On the basis of that line alone, Bronn is now my fourth favorite character.

(By the way, I was reading another blogger who joked that Lysa’s legal system made more sense than the “ones they’ve got in Alabama or Texas.”  And to that, I say “Fuck you, you goddamn elitist wanna-be Canadian Yankee asshole.”)

My favorite character — Daenrys — got to deliver a pretty great line herself and I’m not going to repeat it because, with my ADD-addled mind, I’ll probably end up misquoting her.  However, anyone who saw tonight’s episode, knows what line I’m talking about.  For me, Dany remains the most intriguing character on this show and the one who consistently manages to surprise me every episode.  Tonight, her surprise was calmly watching as her annoying weakling of a brother Viserys get killed in such a grotesque and horrific fashion that you couldn’t help but feel a little sympathy for him.

That’s right, Viserys got his crown.  Or, more to the point, Drogo pours molten gold on top of Viserys head and Viserys dies.  And even though I was suspecting that Viserys would die, the brutality of it caught me off guard.  To continue with my Sopranos comparison, the sight of Viserys afterward was just as shocking, to me, as the sight of Joe Pantoliano’s dead eyes staring up at the man who just literally beat the life out of him.  Seriously, I couldn’t stand Viserys and all but now I’m kinda scared of accidentally getting trapped underneath a gigantic — but cracked — cauldron of molten gold.

Among the other memorable moments from tonight’s episode, Bran’s encounter in the woods nicely reminded us — as did this whole episode, really — that the world of Game of Thrones isn’t necessarily a pleasant one.  I also continue to cringe whenever that creepy little Joffrey shows up.  Seriously, I keep expecting him to start trying to drag people off to the cornfield or something.

I do have to say that I’m still waiting for Ned to really step up and impress me as a character.  So far, he’s been a sympathetic but vaguely dull character.  You watch him and you never doubt his good intentions but you do doubt his ability to actually accomplish anything.  Sean Bean is a far more capable actor than he’s been allowed to show in the series so far and I’m betting (and hoping) that by the end of the season, Bean will get a chance to shine.

That said, I did enjoy the small subplot of Ned running the kingdom because (along with Lysa’s court), it further highlighted one of the reasons why I love this show.  Every episode so far has featured various characters plotting and scheming and, in every episode so far, those plots and schemes have proven to be no match for the random whims of fate.  If nothing else, Game of Thrones is turning out to be a great portrait of a society that has fooled itself into thinking that the randomness of life can somehow be regulated by tradition, ritual, and law.  And who, out here in the real world, can’t relate to that?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a newcomer to Game of Thrones.  I have not read the George R. R. Martin novel that the series is based on (though I have read countless Wikipedia entries about every man, woman, and child to appear in the series) and therefore, I can’t judge how the TV series compares to the book.  All I can say is that, having seen the first 6 episodes. Game of Thrones has so far managed to not only capture my interest but to hold on to it as well.  I do have to admit that, during every episode. there’s been the occasional moments where I’ve had to think to myself, “Wait, who is that again and how is he or she related to everyone else?”  But that’s hardly a criticism.  Game of Thrones is a complex series and one of the few that will definitely benefit from multiple viewings once the first season is released on DVD.  In the future, we may very well remember Game of Thrones as being The Wire of fantasy television.

Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

This post is going to end with some spoilers, which will have warnings behind it. Just so you know.

Confession: I fell asleep during Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides. It was only for a few minutes during the jungle sequences, but nothing special was happening, so I figured I could get away with it. I can see, though why Gore Verbinski saddled up with Rango instead of this one. As Lisa Marie mentioned via Twitter, she zoned out about 10 minutes in and really only followed it for the awesomeness that is Johnny Depp. He, Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane are the only real reasons to see this, but know that the film is muddled with a bit of lazy writing covered in explosions and chases. This is one Jack Sparrow story you can really wait for on DVD. It’s literally the Pirates of the Caribbean Edition of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

Every writer goes though a bad time now and then. Even though Paul Haggis won an Oscar for Crash, he was also responsible for Quantum of Solace, which could have been a tighter story than what it was. I have to remind myself that even though Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot gave us a cool character in Captain Jack Sparrow (which was made more concrete through Johnny Depp’s performance), they were also responsible for Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla some years back. It happens. Of course, they could both write me under the table while blindfolded, this I get, and they have my respect.

That said, I didn’t outright hate Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It was a fun popcorn ride in some areas, with as much flair as the Disney / Bruckheimer collaborations can offer, but it also felt like it was a production just made for the money, like The Wolfman. The only ones who seemed to really enjoy themselves here were Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, and to both their credits they carried the film for me. Johnny Depp was great as always (he has moment where he clearly shines), but I get the feeling like he’s almost tired of the character. Again, that’s just my viewpoint here.

What about the Kids?

Well, being a film under the Disney banner, the easiest rule of thumb to use here is this: If you’ve taken your kids to any of the other Pirates movies, this is pretty much more of the same. Granted, people die and there may be a nearly naked mermaid, but it’s done well.  It should be okay for teens and pre-teens, but that’s up to families to decide.

Previously on Pirates, we found Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, great as always) in the possession of the map from At World’s End, who is in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack finds that there is someone impersonating him who also happens to be looking for the same thing, and seeks out the imposter. This eventually leads him to the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who also seeks the Fountain to block a prophecy that will lead to his death. So, it’s something of a race to see who will get there first. Even his old friend/enemy Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is part of the adventure, but doesn’t quite have the same presence here as he did the other films.

Depp on his own does justice to Sparrow and he still manages to bring some fun to the character.  That’s really not a surprise, but after 3 of these films, I had the feeling that part of his performance was just repetition of what he did before. I imagine him wishing for Verbinski or sighing after every take. Well, every take that didn’t involve Penelope Cruz, I guess.

I felt Penelope’s Angelica really matched well against Depp’s Sparrow, and it opened up a lot of doors for characterization between the two. Depp and Cruz’s scenes together really worked for me and were definitely a highlight as their chemistry is amazing. Between she and McShane – who quite frankly hasn’t had a bad role since Deadwood – really help to carry the movie. Blackbeard’s ruthlessness is clearly conveyed through McShane’s acting and  if there’s one thing he knows how to do, it’s to play the villain well. There are also some notable cameos near the start of the film, which was nice to see.

One other major plus is the music. Even though Hans Zimmer uses some of the themes from the other films, he’s had some great help in guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. If you’ve never heard these two before, open up another tab on your browser and look them up online. This post will be waiting for you when you get back.

Done? Good. Didn’t I say they were cool? The duo adds a lot of flavor to the music of the movie, which really does help things (as much as they can).

Rob Marshall’s direction of the film isn’t terrible as some might say. It actually feels a lot like Gore Verbinski’s (to me, anyway), and if you weren’t told who was making the film, there’s a slight possibility you wouldn’t recognize it wasn’t Verbinski. He does capture the action scenes well and truthfully, there was something cool with the lighting in the Sparrow sword fights that occurs early on. I’m under the impression that this is due to the Bruckheimer touch on things.

The writing on this film felt lazy. Here’s what I mean, and the following might be spoilers:

*** Here lie Spoilers, Ladies and Gents, be warned! ***

*** Here lie Spoilers, Ladies and Gents, be warned! ***

*** Here lie Spoilers, Ladies and Gents, be warned! ***

There is a part in the film where Barbossa explains his stake in the chase for the Fountain of Youth. In a few lines, Geoffrey Rush nails it like an old man telling stories by a campfire. The only problem is that you’ve been told what happened in a visual medium. One of the first rules of writing is to show, and not tell. With a budget of over $400 million, I find it shocking that they couldn’t have just taken a few minutes to visually give us that explanation. It’s possible that Rossio and Elliot wanted to avoid reusing some of the same Pirates elements from the earlier films, but sometimes Pirate life does have a few struggles on the water. Why not show how he lost the Black Pearl?

Another example of the writing problem is the quasi-love story between the ship’s cleric (who’s name I can’t even recall) and the mermaid they encounter. It felt forced to me, and I’m convinced that when the Cleric finally tells the Mermaid he wants her to save his life, she pulled him down into deep waters only to feed upon him like those other poor pirate souls. And you know why? Because Marshall and the writers never bothered to show the audience a hint of what became of them. I doubt they cared about them any more than the audience could have. I even stayed after the credits, figuring that the final shot would maybe show me something of their fate, but no. Nothing of the sort.

*** Spoilers are done, you can keep reading now. ***

*** Spoilers are done, you can keep reading now. ***

*** Spoilers are done, you can keep reading now. ***

Oh, and there’s nothing to read after this, because I’m writing like Rossio and Elliot. Feel that sense of emptiness? That gap, like there should be something here? That’s what this Pirates may do to you.

What I Played Today: Majesty 2 and MLB 2K11

MLB 2K11

I bought MLB 2K11 on the first day of its release… and, having played hours upon hours of it, I’ve been dying to review it ever since. The core problem, however, is that there’s really not that much to say about a sports game. Especially a baseball game. Especially a baseball game that doesn’t really boast any new features over its predecessor from the year before. It’s the tightest baseball simulation with the best graphics that I’ve seen. You know, since last year. It still uses the one-touch control system that basically lets you play the entire game with only single presses (or maneuvers of the thumbsticks. Whatever.) to take any action. I would say the ease with which the game can be played is its best feature by far…

And it’s hard to criticize the game, since they’ve culled the irritating features over the years, until the tight baseball simulation is basically all that remains.

It’s worth noting that unlike other sports offerings (Madden, I’m looking at you!) MLB 2k11 does a fantastic job of keeping up with the big league rosters if you’re playing in an online format, or if you just hop straight in and want to play a game of baseball.

As you would expect, the game has all of the modern game modes. Many of the big achievements revolve around the My Player mode, which is also one of the most fulfilling modes… depending on the position you prefer. I would say, tentatively, that I’ve spent more time in My Player than in Franchise or Play Ball this year. It really is kind of fun to work your way up from AA ball into the big leagues, and then to carve a name out for yourself from there. I like this mode in MLB far better than I ever have in Madden, and I really can’t recommend it any more strongly.

Oh, and it’s worth noting… out of all of the 2K Sports offerings for baseball, this one is easily the best. It runs mostly alike to the 2K10 effort, but as you would expect, it’s a little tighter, and a touch better looking… and, really, with not much else to improve on that’s the story of the game. If you like baseball, or you have some hankering to play it, this game is definitely for you. If you’re looking to gain 1000 GS then this game will disappoint you with the amount of time required to earn some of the achievements. If you’re *that sort*, I wouldn’t bother with this title.

Majesty 2

The self-described fantasy sim game, Majesty 2, makes its triumphant return on Steam. I bought the gold collection when it became available partially out of nostalgia, and partially because I desperately wanted a strategy game to play that I hadn’t worn out. I could always return to StarCraft II, but for some reason Majesty 2 caught hold of my imagination, and drew me back in.

The outstanding feature of Majesty 2 as opposed to your generic RTS game is that much of the action is not under your direct control. Your armed forces consist of guards, who will defend your town and your palace in a very automated, very uninspired, way… and heroes, who do their own thing, unless they’re being paid. You can throw out contracts of various types (examples include ‘destroy target’, or ‘explore region’) in the form of flags, for which you announce a bounty you’re willing to pay. In an ideal world, your heroes will help you out, and dash to the rescue. Of course, the interest level of your heroes and their personal gumption depends both on their hero type and their hero level. For example, the Rogues from the Thieves Guild are a bit on the cowardly side and flee at the first sign of real trouble, while the Rangers Guild and its heroes are particularly excited about exploring the wilderness and battling beasts.

You personally control the construction of town structures and fortifications, and choose the path through the single player campaign; a rich experience which takes its decent share of time. This experience can actually get a little repetitive; you’ll want the missions to end a bit quicker, at the very least, no later than halfway through the campaign. No doubt if you’re better at the game than me, this will never become a problem.

L.A. Noire

Strictly as a tease… I’ve been playing a great deal of this game lately. A full review from me is forthcoming.

The Winners At Cannes

The winners of this year’s Cannes Film Festival have been announced and it’s good news for Kirsten Dunst and Terrence Malick, the director of Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life..  I’ve seen the Tree of Life trailer about a thousand times at the Plano Angelika and to be honest, I haven’t been very enthused about it.  On the one hand, Terrence Malick is a legendary director and the film looks visually quite stunning.  On the other hand, the trailer also features a kid with a heavy country accent (and I’m not hating here, I’ve got quite a twang myself) going “Mother, Father, always you fight within me,” and when I hear dialogue like that, I’m just kinda like, “Uh-oh.”  The trailer itself features a lot of quite interesting and tense family scenes mixed in with a lot of scenes that seem rather New Agey.  I’d go into my feelings about new agey films but I don’t want to upset our readers in Vermont.

Kirsten Dunst (who may be on the verge of a comeback of sorts and good for her) won for a film directed by Lars Von Trier and I wonder if the award was, in any way, meant to protest Von Trier being previously declared a “non-person” at Cannes because of a press conference where he may or may not (I haven’t been following the story closely enough to take a side) have said he was a Nazi.  (While I can’t say whether or not Von Trier is a Nazi, I can say that I loved Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and Zentropa and I hated Dogville and I’m scared to see AntiChrist.)

Anyway, here’s the winners:

  • Palme d’Or: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  • Grand Prix(a tie): Le Gaumin au Velo (Dardennes brothers) & Once Upon a Time in Anataolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Best Director: Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive)
  • Best Actor: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
  • Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
  • Prix du Jury: Polisse (Maïwenn)
  • Prix du scènario / Best Screenplay: Hearat Shulayim (Joseph Cedar)
  • Camera d’Or (Best First Film): Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli)
  • Un Certain Regard : Prix Spécial du Jury / Special Jury Prize : Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  • Best Short Film: Cross Country

Just a heads up, Arleigh — next year, I’m going to get down on my knees and crawl all the way over to California just so I can beg you to send me to Cannes. 🙂

Review: The Midnight Meat Train (dir. by Kitamura Ryuhei)

There’s a certain number of books when I was much younger that I thought would’ve made for some great horror films. They were the early works by Clive Barker. Short stories collected into several volumes aptly dubbed his Books of Blood. While several short stories from these volumes were adapted to film in the intervening years most were not worth the time to watch them. So, lo and behold that when I finally saw the latest short story adapted from these collections I was genuinely surprised at how well-made and entertaining it turned out to be. The Midnight Meat Train by Japanese filmmaker Kitamura Ryuhei was a fine piece of horror filmmaking that dripped in atmosphere and a growing sense of existential dread right up to it’s very surprising end.

The Midnight Meat Train is quite a simple story when one really breaks it down to it’s component parts. It’s a crime thriller wrapped in the bloody layers of an extreme horror film. There’s a certain noirish quality to it’s storytelling as we see the film’s protagonist in Leon (Bradley Cooper). He’s a photographer struggling to find the inspiration for his next set of photographs and decides to wander the train stations at midnight to find that inspiration. It’s during one visit at night that he begins to suspect that he might’ve come across one of the latest missing persons who might’ve become a victim of the so-called “Subway Butcher”. The film shows his growing obsession in finding out if the urban legend of this so-called serial killer is actually true.

His mental state only deteriorates as the reality about the “Subway Butcher” (Vinnie Jones in one of his best roles to date) catches up to the truth on one midnight ride on the subway train. His witnessing of the killer at work brings him into a hidden world the rest of the city seems unaware or incapable of acknowledging despite the hundreds of people who go missing year in and year out for almost a hundred years. His girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) and best friend Jurgis (Roger Bart) soon become drawn into Leon’s nightmarish situation and must confront the very boogeyman who has begun to haunt Leon’s waking life.

The film is Kitamura Ryuhei’s first Hollywood film and it doesn’t diminish the talent for some creative visuals he earned while directing horror and genre films in his native Japan. He makes great use of the nighttime setting and the stark environs of the subway trains at midnight to give The Midnight Meat Train an almost black and white look punctuated by vivid splashes of visceral red during the many inventive killings by Vinnie Jones’ mute Mahogany character. Kitamura showed that he was able to squeeze as much as was possible from a script that was average at best. Especially considering that the script had to adapt one of Barker’s shorter tales.

The performances by the ensemble group led by Bradley Cooper ranged from good to excellent with the aforementioned Vinnie Jones leading the pack. Even Bradley Cooper as the tormented protagonist Leon handled the role well. I’ve never warmed to Cooper as an actor as he always came across as a smirking douchebag in almost every role he played prior to this one. He quickly shed some of that reputation for me with his performance in this film and continues to do so with every one since this film. The smirk is still there but he has managed to drop the douchebag aspect of it. I also must point out a nice turn by veteran genre actor Tony Curran as the train conductor who exuded a sense of the otherworldly and a character who held the answers to the questions brought up by the film.

Since this is a horror film one must mention it’s horrofic aspects and this film fills it’s quota of horror. The scenes where Jones’ Mahogany dispatches the unwary last riders of the train at midnight were shot extremely well and with some visual flairs Kitamura has gained a reputation for. There’s nothing cartoony about these kills unlike other slasher films of it’s type. The kills are done in a brutal fashion as meat tenderizers smash into skulls and backs. Then there are the dressing of the kills which gives meaning to the film’s title. The only part of this film which seemed so out of place, but was necessary in the film’s overall narrative was the make-up effects in the end of the dead-end tunnel where Leon finally sees the truth of why Mahogany has been killing passengers on the subway train. It’s here that the film’s budget shows. At least Kitamura was smart enough to film these scenes in very low light to hide some of the zippers and laces on the costuming.

Overall, The Midnight Meat Train was one horror film in 2008 that deserved to have been seen by more people. It’s a shame that the handling of this film’s distribution by Lionsgate bordered on the criminal as it failed to be screened  by many theaters which led to it’s failure in the box-office. This was a horror film that delivered on the goods without pandering to the torture porn crowd who had begun to dominate the scene due to the popularity of the Saw franchise. Kitamura’s first work in America showed that he brings a fresh new voice to Western horror. The film also ends up becoming the best of all the Books of Blood short story adaptations and shows that Barker’s earlier grand guignol writing phase could be adapted well to the bigscreen.

Here’s to hoping that the failure of this film in the box-office (Again, I say fuck you Lionsgate) doesn’t keep other up-and-coming horror filmmakers from tapping into Barker’s volumes of short stories for their projects. There’s horror gold to be found there and Kitamura’s The Midnight Meat Train was one gleaming example of it.