Friday, October 31, 2014

Cold War

Want to shatter your sense of calm and work up a serious outrage? Have I got the documentary film for you!

Admittedly, telling you that something is guaranteed to make you angry is probably not the best way to go about recommending it. Still, it's probably the best way to explain the power of HBO's "Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia." The documentary reveals the shocking extent of the persecution against the LGBT community in Russia. During the Sochi Olympics, their so-called "anti-propaganda law" got a some attention -- a law prohibiting any positive depiction of gays in any venue where someone under 18 years of age could be exposed to it. But that's only the beginning.

In Hunted, a film crew follows a vigilante group that cons gay men into what they believe will be private encounters. Instead, the groups then accost and humiliate their victims -- and would clearly torture or beat them, were the documentary crew not there to forestall worse abuse. Yet these vigilantes go much farther than you might think, and show no hesitation in doing so. This is because their activities are essentially sanctioned by Russian police, who do nothing to prosecute such cases -- they believe just as much as the attackers in the righteousness of the "cause."

The documentary runs less than an hour, but the picture it paints is horrifyingly clear. Any condemnation that Russian authorities have received to date is hardly enough, exposing only the tip of a dangerous and large iceberg. Indeed, the scope of the problem is such that the film leaves its audience feeling rather helpless. What could you possibly do, where could you possibly begin, in helping to bring about change? Your heart goes out to the few Russians in the film who -- against all odds -- are trying to do just that.

It's hard to "grade" Hunted, really. If the job of a documentary is to inform and educate, then this would get top marks. But if it's meant to be a call to activism, it's frankly too bleak to be inspirational. Yet either way, I do think it deserves to be seen. If you have HBO (or a friend's HBO Go login), take the hour to watch it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Masterpiece Society

Perched right at the halfway point of season five, "The Masterpiece Society" was one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's most forgettable episodes.

Tracking a stellar core fragment as it drifts through space, the Enterprise discovers an isolated colony of humans on an otherwise uninhabited planet. Menaced by the fragment, the colony is in great danger. But an equally great danger may come from the ship contacting them at all -- the colony represents the end result of two centuries of genetic breeding, a closed society meant to have no contact with the universe outside. As colonists work side by side with the Enterprise crew to stop the core fragment, they become disillusioned with their limited, predestined existence... and Troi strikes up a ill-advised romantic relationship with the colony's leader.

Like many episodes of the fifth season, "The Masterpiece Society" had been conceived of long before. It had been through a year-and-a-half of development, and five different writers, before show runner Michael Piller took a run at it himself. I gather it was a pet favorite of his, as he spoke highly of the story in subsequent interviews. He felt that rescuing this concept and making it work was "the beginning of me feeling better about the season." He also liked the classic tragedy structure of the plot, a series of events where everyone had the best of intentions, but still end up making a ruin of everything.

But Piller was alone among the staff in these feelings. Producer Rick Berman thought the episode was "slow and talky." Jeri Taylor hated the concept from the beginning, and thought the result one of the weakest episodes of the season. Director Winrich Kolbe felt the the inherent premise of "perfection" made for bad drama, resulting in low energy and a flat episode. And Ronald D. Moore was perhaps least charitable of all, saying: "We sort of show up at a genetically perfect colony – which in and of itself is starting to bore me – and when we get there, it's 'Gee, Troi falls in love with one of the people.' You can't wait to get up and get a beer."

But the problems run much deeper than that. In a nutshell, this "perfect colony" isn't something worth fighting for. Eugenics has nothing but a dark history in Star Trek, putting this world of selective breeders on the wrong foot from square one. And none of the main characters are about to defend such a way of life. Picard thinks their society saps people of free will. Geordi thinks they're morally reprehensible, preventing disabled people like himself from ever being born. And one of the colonists herself, scientist Hannah Bates, points out how their supposedly advanced colony is in fact quite technologically backward compared to the Enterprise. It feels like this story is supposed to be the loss of the "New World" to 15th and 16th century Europeans, but no one in this episode is really making the case for wondrous purity of what's being lost. Troi and Picard suffer moral whiplash at the end of the episode when they give it a try, but their efforts are truly half-hearted.

Rick Berman, Winrich Kolbe, and even Michael Piller all alluded to "casting problems" with this episode, though none were specific about what they meant. Certainly, none of these guest stars look like the Adonis-like products of 200 years of selective breeding. But to truly embrace that concept, they could not have used the multi-racial cast they did -- and having a colony full of Hitler youth would hardly have made them more sympathetic. Were Berman, Kolbe, Piller alluding to that conundrum? Or did they have problems with the actors who played the main roles of Aaron Connor, Hannah Bates, and Martin Benbeck? That seems unlikely, as John Snyder had previously played the Romulan Bochra in "The Enemy," while Dey Young and Ron Canada would appear again in later Star Trek series. I mean, there's no denying that all three come off rather wooden in this episode, but I lay blame more on the script than on the actors.

And yet another problem with this episode: it managed to step in a controversy it didn't even intend. When Geordi talks about how he would never even have been born in a colony like this, his choice of words leads you to draw an analogy between this situation and the issue of abortion. Rick Berman insisted that such a reading of the scene was "nonsense," noting that "there are very few people on our writing staff who would be involved with something that would be a non-choice outlook." That may be true, but such a lack of awareness in the writing would be just one more example of where it fell flat, wouldn't it?

Other observations:
  • Actually, I don't have any this time. There's just not much more to say about this episode.
"The Masterpiece Society" is perhaps not as actively bad as some early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But at least those stick in your mind. This episode is flat and forgettable, neither a highlight nor "lowlight" for the series. It's just a "no-light." I give it a D+.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Fractured House

Another week, another solid episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While I know that Joss Whedon himself has not actually been deeply involved with this series since he directed the pilot episode, it felt like his stamp was on the show more strongly than it's been for quite some time.

First there was the Bobbi Morse / Hunter banter. Borderline unprofessional at times, yes, but pure Whedon goodness. It was a fun runner to watch them snipe at each other throughout the episode (without actually getting into it in a serious way), with perhaps the highlight being when they casually and simultaneously shot the same baddie. (Side note: We saw the benefits of being a media megaconglomerate in Bobbi's off-duty fashion choice, a Star Wars T-shirt.)

Ward finally getting out of his cage felt like classic Buffy. We saw the normally unflappable Ward finally... flapped... in a big way when his brother came into the equation. Suddenly, he was working any angle he thought he could even more desperately. Seems like getting Ward out in the wild and getting an obviously potent new villain in his brother is a win-win.

A win-win-win, actually, because actor Tim DeKay is playing Christian Ward. I've never watched a single episode of White Collar. (It's somewhere on the long to-do list.) But I do remember Tim DeKay from the brief HBO series Carnivale before that. And moreover, before that, he was a resident stage actor at the Denver Center Theater Company, where I saw him in at least half a dozen plays. He was excellent in all of them. What I don't recall ever seeing him play was an outright villain, and a conniving, false-faced politician seems like a particularly fun flavor to give him. I can't wait for more.

I loved the subplot between Fitz and Simmons. We've seen Fitz's heartbreak over their separation for the last several weeks. Now we saw what it has cost Simmons. Her watching someone else step in and be part of a new dynamic duo with Fitz, the way she used to be, was a sad twist of the knife.

My one disappointment in the episode would be how quickly (and, I think, implausibly) Talbot suddenly turned around after being so opposed to S.H.I.E.L.D. and our heroes for so long. It was hard to swallow.

Still, it was a fun and thrilling episode overall. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TNG Flashback: Violations

"Violations" was outstanding idea for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that wound up rather lackluster in the execution.

The Enterprise is transporting a trio of Ulians, telepathic aliens with the ability to recover other peoples' buried memories. But one of them is secretly a vile criminal, invading people's minds against their will. With the victims left in comas for days, and unable to recall the assaults even after regaining consciousness, the crew must determine what is happening in their midst.

The raw idea for this episode was pitched by the same outside writer who sold "Night Terrors"; both were bought at the same time. But I'm honestly not quite sure what the original idea really entailed, because the key element that makes the story worth telling came from staff writer Jeri Taylor and one of the production interns: the idea that these would be telepathic rather than physical assaults. Unfortunately, after making that one very smart decision, the writers made several poor ones.

First, there's the challenge of presenting these assaults on screen. The metaphor isn't subtle here; this is meant to be a science fiction take on rape, which one of the characters states directly at the end of the episode. When you really stop and think about it, mind invasion is a horrible violation. But you kind of do have to stop and think about it. And it would help the audience do that if the memories being invaded were of a sufficiently horrific nature that comport with the horror of the crime. We don't really get that.

I'll skip the first memory for a moment, because there are some other puzzling facets of Troi's assault. Riker's memory is of a time he gave an order that led to a crewmember's death. Not to make light of a death, but this must surely be one of many such occasions in Riker's past as a command officer. Nothing we see in this memory suggests anything particularly significant on this occasion to make it worse than any other weekly death of a Star Trek red shirt.

Crusher's memory does only marginally better. It revolves around the death of her husband Jack, which surely must be one of the worst events from her past. Yet the memory isn't about the moment she learned of his death, or the moment she had to tell Wesley his father was gone; it's actually about the moment where she arguably began to come to grips with and accept Jack's death. Maybe if actually seeing the body had rendered her an emotional wreck, if seeing Jack in fact did not provide Beverly the closure she'd expected, that would have been something. Instead, the memory is oddly cold and antiseptic, keeping the audience at a distance. (A distance from which we can't do much but think about how goofy Picard's hairpiece looks.)

So, back to Troi's memory. It's about a post-poker game flirtation with Riker, a moment where she firmly declared that they could not be a couple while serving together aboard the Enterprise. Where it gets weird is that Riker then forces the issue, and apparently begins to physically rape her. Clearly, this isn't the actual truth of what happened. This is further confirmed by the fact that the villain Jev later makes Troi misremember her attacker as his father Tarmin, so clearly he has the ability to alter the memories he invades (as opposed to merely assuming roles within them). But the Riker and Crusher memories seem to represent pretty much the literal truth of what happened (albeit, in a sort of dreamscape presentation). So I find myself having to ask, just how far did things go with Riker? And any discomfort I find in the answer is surely not the discomfort the writers intended.

Not only do all the memories range from awkward to ineffective, but I'm not even sure the right characters are experiencing the assault. The writers reportedly crafted a memory for every character before selecting the victims -- even including Ensign Ro, who ultimately didn't even appear in the episode. Imagine those roads not taken for a moment. In the episode, when Tarmin suggests that Picard might try memory retrieval, his recoil is subtle but clearly visceral. We saw in "Family" the emotional toll of the captain's violation at the hands of the Borg; what if he were forced to relive it again here? Or how about Worf? He gives us a good laugh when he says "Klingons do not allow themselves to be... probed," but how would a character with such a tough exterior cope with such a profoundly internal violation?

I think another big flaw in the episode is how it puts the audience so far ahead of the characters. This story could have been staged as a mystery: which of the Ulians is attacking our heroes? Instead, we know right from the start. Indeed, before Jev even commits his first assault, there's sinister music and conspicuous blocking that tells us he's the villain of the piece. But not only do the main characters not know who is responsible for the attacks, they don't even know they are attacks. So we the audience are made to sit impatiently through scene after scene where the characters investigate avenues we know will prove fruitless. Riker questions an immediately defensive Jev, without ever taking note of the other's odd behavior. Geordi spends an entire scene searching the computer for coma-inducing chemicals that have nothing to do with what's really happening. It's not that this behavior doesn't make sense from their point of view, but when we the audience aren't in the dark along with them, we can't help but look down on them.

But there are a few things that work well. Director Robert Wiemer used some unusual cameras and lenses to stage the memory sequences, achieving wonderful discomfort where the script itself fell short. And guest star Ben Lemon is fantastically creepy as Jev. While his odd behavior does add to the frustration at the other characters' ignorance, it excellently sells the episode's central metaphor: Jev comes off exactly like a sexual predator.

Other observations:
  • Keiko O'Brien is used at the start of this episode to illustrate the good side of memory retrieval. This is the only episode in all of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine where she appears but Miles doesn't.
  • You sort of have to get it from inference, but these Ulians seem to be telepaths of almost exactly opposite abilities to Counselor Troi. They only probe memories, it seems. If they had any awareness at all of a person's current mental state, then Tarmin would not push people to be probed who clearly have no interest (like Picard). Or, for that matter, a monster like Jev could surely never have developed right under his father's nose.
  • There's a nice character scene in which Riker comes to talk at Troi's bedside as she lies comatose. But it contains a very gutsy reference to a previous episode. I think if I'd been a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I'd have avoided mentioning "Shades of Gray" at any cost.
  • Actor Doug Wert, who played Jack Crusher in the holographic recording for Wesley back in "Family," makes the briefest imaginable return appearance in this episode. In Beverly's memory, that's really him on the slab in the morgue -- for less than a second, before he's replaced by Jev.
  • I've often commented that when the show needs to demonstrate how strong an alien is, they have him beat up Worf. Paradoxically, this makes Worf come off as a bit of a weakling. But not in this episode, when he lays out Jev with one unintentionally hilarious blow.
  • The final scene of this episode feels like a throwback to the original Star Trek series, as Picard delivers a rather Kirk-esque, moralistic summation of the lesson we've all learned here today.
  • For all the flaws this episode may have had, it still handled the idea of telepathic rape better than the terrible Star Trek: Nemesis. That final film with the Next Generation cast included in its patchwork, overstuffed script a needless subplot in which Shinzon's unnamed Reman Viceroy helps him telepathically violate Troi. (Because otherwise Marina Sirtis really didn't have anything to do in the movie.)
"Violations" is a solid idea, well cast, and well directed. But most of that is lost in an unfortunately subpar script. I give it a C+.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Four Walls and a Roof

This week's episode of The Walking Dead picked up right where the last left off, with poor Bob in the hands (and mouths) of the Termites. The writers flirted with a problem that plagued the bad seasons of the show, but managed to steer clear without problem.

The Walking Dead is, of course, based on a long running (and still running) comic series -- one which several people I know speak of quite highly. The writers of the show have chosen something akin to the True Blood method of adaptation for television, using the source material for inspiration, and often certain plot points, without slavishly following it. But in the long doldrums after season one, particularly during the material with the Governor in seasons three and four, they got cute with it. They'd go to silly lengths to twist things up in their storytelling, just to surprise comic readers with how things worked out differently. In doing so, I felt they often lost sight of the primary goal: telling a story on their show that was still entertaining and made sense.

From my friends the comic readers, I knew that this cannibal storyline came from the books, and one of its most memorable moments came in the death of Dale (a character who on the TV series was lost back in season two). He'd been bitten, and took perverse glee as the cannibals chowed down on his "tainted meat." The TV writers transferred this moment to Bob. But if they took anything more from the comics than this one beat, they did it effectively and seemlessly. I detected none of the awkwardness that marked season three's clumsy reengineering of the source material.

Instead, the Termites used this as a jumping off point to really go after Our Heroes. They weren't certain if eating Partially Zombified Meat was going to do them in or not (understandably, they didn't get the CDC memo -- everyone's a carrier), but they were pissed off enough about the whole thing to want to go on a killing spree. They were also pissed off enough to go about it with a rather insufficient plan. Dropping Bob off at the church to provide misinformation sounds good, but appropriately, Rick and the Gang were bright enough to see through that obvious trap.

The slaughter that ensued was shocking. You really can't argue with Rick's point -- even if you could possibly believe a promise from these people to leave you alone (and how could you?), leaving them alive would just put them out there to torment and consume someone else. There might be a debate about capital punishment to be had in there somewhere, if the stakes of the apocalypse didn't quite thoroughly put a thumb on the scales. But even if you agree with Rick in principle, it's still quite another thing to watch him brutally machete someone (as his friends bludgeon several other people) to death inside a church. Gabriel's stunned declaration, that this was a house of God, was only one-upped by Maggie's cold counter that gave the episode its title.

The one false note for me came in the sudden urgency to get Eugene to DC that somehow didn't exist for half a season before now, an urgency that somehow (in)conveniently split up the team again. Don't get me wrong, it will probably be a good thing from a writing standpoint to have the team split. One of the strengths of the back half of season four was in the way that different characters took the spotlight as the narrative traded around from group to group, and now we have two groups to track. (Not to mention going back to see what happened to Carol and Daryl as the events of this week's episode were going down.) But I felt the writers' machinations in setting up this situation.

Still, I think the show is clearly back on high ground. It's certainly back in my good graces. I give this episode an A-.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Hen in the Wolf House

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was another strong episode, but it did bring with it a little bit of disappointment. I felt we may have been cheated a bit out of some great things we didn't get to see.

First on the list was "more of Simmons in Hydra." It was such a wonderful and tense situation to put that character in, having her undercover with people who we know had a brainwashing machine. So it seems a shame to me to pull her out after basically giving us just two episodes of that situation. I'm not suggesting Simmons should have stayed put for half the season, but I do feel like they hadn't even come close to tearing all the meat off that particular bone. And now the opportunity is permanently lost.

The other things I felt a bit cheated out of can at least be fodder for future episodes. The brief taste of Fitz and Simmons' reunion hardly scratched the surface of what I want to know. Did Raina find a way out before Whitehall's 48 hours expired? These things at least will be dealt with down the road, though I would have thought them appropriate for this episode.

Those complaints lodged, what we did get was quite good. The introduction of Bobbi Morse seemed just about perfect. Marvel fans (I gather) got to squeal over her fighting all badass with (what I understand is) her signature weapon; fans of just the show got to enjoy her fighting with her ex-husband, a wonderful payoff to the stories Hunter has been telling us. (That character got instantly more interesting, by the way.) And I do have to wonder if having Morse's first big action scene culminate in her jumping onto an invisible jet was a deliberate tweak at the people who utterly failed to make a Wonder Woman TV series work starring that actress, Adrianne Palicki.

Skye's storyline was also quite good. This season having now well established the new, awesome Skye, this episode helped reconcile that version of the character with the first season's more fragile model. It also seemed to me that it laid a really big brick in the foundation of getting Ward out of his cage at some point, as he volunteered information about Skye's father that proved totally true. (There at least is a situation that the writers seem content to let play until they've milked it for everything. And "caged Ward" I think has a lot shorter shelf life than "undercover Simmons" anyway.)

I'd say this episode earns a B+. I'm yet again looking forward to next week's episode -- which, regrettably, probably now won't get a ratings spike from people tuning in to see what now won't be the premiere of the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. (Sad face.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Fight for the Right Not to Fight

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot over the last few weeks for the rather large number of unexplained decisions they've handed down, in cases with far-reaching consequences from marriage equality to voter ID laws to abortion. Against this backdrop, I recently watched an HBO film that dramatized a significant Supreme Court case from four decades ago: Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.

Based on a book of the same title, the movie covers the 1971 case in which Ali sued to prevent his incarceration for refusing induction to fight in Vietnam. He claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of his Islamic beliefs, though his foreign religion seemed unlikely to earn him any sympathy among a court dominated by white Christian males.

It seemed to me that the movie also adapted in large measure material from Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's book, The Brethren. (Though it may be that I've read that book and thus know its contents, while I've not read the Ali book.) Lots of little snippets of "daily Court life" and "Justice behavior" seemed to come from The Brethren, though it was often presented so briefly and casually that I found myself wondering if anyone who hadn't "done the homework" as I had would even understand what was breezing by.

The case itself feels almost similarly superficial in its presentation. Ali himself is not played by an actor in this film, the "character" appearing only in archival news footage. I imagine the filmmakers were trying to avoid a distracting impersonation -- either of the man himself, or of Will Smith's well-known take on him in a recent biopic. But by putting Ali at a remove like that, I feel the film abstracts him and his struggle. The eight men deciding his fate (Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case) seem like real people with real thoughts and motivations, but the man whose fate is being decided unfortunately does not. It's not so much "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" as it is Justice Harlan's Clerk's Greatest Fight."

There are some interesting faces throughout the cast, including Danny Glover and Ed Begley Jr. But the two actors that really get enough material to work with are Frank Langella as Chief Justice Burger and Christopher Plummer as Justice Harlan. And both do good work. Langella perfectly captures the political paper- and agenda-pusher that nearly all sources agree Burger to have been, while Plummer gets to play the role of the more noble (on this occasion, at least) Justice who is actually swayed by the arguments presented to him. Neither is giving a career-defining performance, to be sure, but if you're going to watch this film, you'll be watching it to be entertained by them.

But overall, I regret to say you should probably not watch this film. It's a great bit of history to learn, but this movie isn't fully successful in making it live. I'd instead recommend The Brethren (as I did months ago). This movie gets a C-.