Friday, May 27, 2016

Dinner in the Twilight Zone

I recently watched a fascinating and clever, and borderline unwatchable movie. I've been thinking about it more than I expected since watching it... and I can't truly recommend it. That's because a brilliant idea was squandered in a terrible execution.

The movie is Coherence. Four couples take part in a suburban dinner party, on the night that a comet happens to be passing close to the Earth. Everything is proceeding normally until a power outage, which spurs two people in the group to seek help from a single house two blocks up the road that mysteriously still has its power. But the two return with reality-shattering news. The mysterious house is the same house. In it, an identical set of eight people seem to be having an almost identical dinner party in an alternative universe. The group comes to suspect that only one house will survive when the comet passes and this strange phenomenon ends, and they enter a game of brinksmanship against their other selves. But there's even more to their situation than they realize.

Coherence is the brainchild of James Ward Byrkit, the writer behind Rango and a few other films. He wanted to direct for the first time, and wanted to work outside the big Hollywood engine that would make a first time director compromise his vision. So he spent a year hammering out a story that could be filmed in his own house, using a handful of actors he personally knew. He landed on his science fiction, parallel universe premise as a way of making a single house seem like a much larger tableau.

The story itself is instantly fascinating. And it's layered with several clever plot points that would play extraordinarily well on repeat viewings, after you've become aware of information the characters themselves don't yet have as the story unfolds. The lack of a big budget doesn't hurt the story itself in any way; it's the sort of thing you'd wish you'd been clever enough to concoct and film in your own house.

The problem is just about everything else. Let's start with the script, or rather, the fact that there wasn't one. Byrkit wanted a naturalistic feel to his movie, with characters talking over one another and reacting with genuine surprise as the film unfolded. So at the start of each night of filming, he'd give his actors note cards, detailing the information he wanted each character to reveal next. The rest was up to the actors to improvise.

The result doesn't feel natural to me at all. As people talk over one another, it doesn't feel like an actual dinner party, it feels like actors jockeying for more screen time. When plot revelations arrive, they don't come naturally, they drop in with a metaphorical crash because an actor was instructed to shoehorn them in somewhere. This ad hoc approach worked for The Blair Witch Project (though some would argue it didn't) because that story featured only three characters, and in a very simple situation -- lost in the woods. I found it didn't work at all here for more than twice as many characters (and that's just the one house) in a complex plot that involves quantum theory and parallel universes. I mean, imagine a Star Trek episode left to the actors to improvise.

The lack of an actual script also hurts the movie because of its tight shooting schedule. It was filmed in just five nights, meaning each night needed to produce 15-20 minutes of the finished movie. So a lot of the movie feels like it's "the first take, we got it, we gotta keep moving." It's not that the performances are bad, it's that the actor's particular improv for getting in his or her "scripted" information is a bit awkward. Given more time, you'd imagine the actors could have arrived at things more smoothly.

You'll probably recognize many in the cast from "somewhere," though they're all quite far from the A-list. Nicholas Brendon played Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Elizabeth Gracen was Amanda on Highlander: The Series, and Maury Sterling has appeared in multiple seasons of Homeland. Others in the cast are writers and directors in their own right. But the whiplash turns they often make in this movie feel not like the natural choices of a character, but like the tyranny of the notecards and the need to get certain information on the screen in any form possible.

Coherence has developed a cult following, to a degree that James Ward Byrkit has received some offers to remake his movie with bigger stars and a bigger budget. He's rebuffed them all, which to me is a shame. I want to see the version of this movie (from a parallel universe, let's say!) that actually has scripted dialogue as carefully thought out as the plot itself. The obvious shot here would be to call the movie incoherent. If only it were that, I could forget about. Instead, I keep thinking about the wonderful idea rendered almost unwatchable in the implementation. I give Coherence a D+.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Page of Enlightenment

When I finished reading The Enlightened, the third book of Dima Zales' Mind Dimensions series, I felt I may have just experienced the epitome of a guilty pleasure. The book was bad on a lot of levels, but I'd still enjoyed the ride and was seriously considering the next volume.

I've written here before about books one and two, The Thought Readers and The Thought Pushers. They center on Darren, a young man with the ability to stop time by retreating into a mental state he calls "the Quiet." Over the course of the first two books, he learns that this ability is just the first step to unlocking even more mental powers. Book three finds one of Darren's mothers in an assassin's crosshairs, and he himself the target of a powerful group with mental abilities of their own -- a group that seeks to use Darren for their own purposes.

So here's the guilty part of these books: this is some serious Mary Sue fiction (albeit with a male protagonist). The main character of Darren is the writer's proxy, and he leads a perfectly charmed life. He has money, loving parents, a hot girlfriend, and psychic powers. And in a world that he learns is actually brimming with people who have similar powers, his are just better -- he's far stronger and can last longer. (Giggity.) In each of the three books, when events seem to be going against him, he resolves his problems by unlocking another powerful ability he didn't know he had, and kicking psychic ass.

And yet... there is some ineffable quality here that makes this lack of any real suspense or obstacle a bit of a page turner. It helps that the books are all very short. Plus, of course, sometimes you just get a thrill from an invincible hero. Comic book movies (or even comic books themselves) wouldn't be such a big thing if that weren't true. Actually, this is exactly the same thing: Darren has what boil down to superpowers.

Now, the good comic books (and comic book movies) aren't content with simple escapism and wish fulfillment, and set out to tell a deeper story. The Mind Dimensions series is certainly not that. Yet the books do manage to be fun in the end. I certainly hope the next book I read does a bit more to make me think. But after that, I'll probably pick up Mind Dimensions book four. As for this installment, The Enlightened -- I give it a B-.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Nice Night at the Movies

This past weekend, I went to see the latest movie from Shane Black, The Nice Guys. He's known for writing the first two Lethal Weapons, and for both writing and directing Iron Man 3. I was interested because he's also behind a movie I've praised a few times on the blog, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The elevator pitch for this movie seemed to be "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang set in the late 1970s." So count me in!

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are this movie's odd couple pairing. The former is Jackson Healy, an "enforcer" hired to beat people up; the latter is Holland March, a hard-drinking private detective trying to raise his teenage daughter alone. When the two team up to find a missing political-activist-turned-porn-star, hijinks ensue.

Movies like this always hinge on the casting, and the casting here works. I've never been a particular fan of Russell Crowe, but his stern tough guy act is here cut with just the right dash of comedic resignation: "I can't believe I'm in this story with this other guy." And Ryan Gosling is brilliant, perfectly pompous and sly in alternating measure, and playing tons of hilarious physical comedy throughout the movie.

What's particularly fun here is that the movie isn't quite an odd couple pairing so much as an odd trio. March's daughter Holly frequently finds herself (or inserts herself) into the action, and young Angourie Rice is perfect in the role. She has a great comedic instinct that keeps the kid-in-danger conceit from turning horrifying, and plays wonderfully opposite both Crowe and Gosling.

The film is also peppered with plenty of other minor characters that each give some hard-working actor a chance to do something fun and memorable. You'll know Matt Bomer and Kim Basinger (and they are both good), but I'm talking about a procession of actors you won't know by name, and might not even recognize. It's one of those movies where even a character with just one short scene can get several funny lines.

But enjoyable though it is, it doesn't quite stack up to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The tangled plot is considerably more opaque. Sometimes the laughs are more sparse. Several scenes are gimmicky in a way that, while getting the laugh, feel a bit less than satisfying upon reflection. "We know you love this schtick," the movie says, as it tries to do it again just as well, yet not quite reaching the mark.

To be clear, I did have a lot of fun with The Nice Guys, and would recommend it -- but maybe not in the theater, maybe not for everyone. I give it a B+. If you're looking for something not superheroic to sandwich between Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, this is probably your ticket. If movies are a less frequent thing for you, consider a Redbox or Netflix night a bit down the road.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Door

This week's Game of Thrones contracted the number of story threads in play in order to spend more time on the remaining few. It made for an even more emotional hour than usual.

Things began up north with a confrontation between Sansa and Littlefinger that continued the former's "spine-ification." I have to wonder how much of the dialogue was culled from internet reviews of last season's episode which saw Sansa wedded to (and raped by) Ramsay Bolton. Much of what Sansa hurled at Littlefinger was exactly what fans hurled at the writers last year. Still there was tremendous satisfaction in watching her say it, and in watching Brienne threaten Littlefinger into responding. The one criticism I have is the laser accurate criticism of Littlefinger: "If you didn't know, you're an idiot. If you did know, you're my enemy." It's not very like Littlefinger to be caught unawares, so I suppose for now, we have to assume the latter.

Toward the end of the episode, Sansa and Jon set off to gather forces, leaving Dolorous Edd as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. They seem to have forgone an election there in favor of an appointment, but it's all for a good joke for the audience. Meanwhile, Sansa has dispatched Brienne to Riverrun on a separate mission, which might just spark a small group of book readers to hope that the show might pick up the Lady Stoneheart plot line it jettisoned a while back. (I myself bet against it.)

Over in Braavos, Arya (after yet another beating at the hands of the Waif) received a new assassination assignment, a final chance to prove herself. She's to kill the actress playing Cersei Lannister in the local production of "Game of Thrones, Season One." On the one hand, I disliked that so much screen time was spent showing us that play; we got very quickly that the entire scenario was a twist of the knife in Arya's emotions, but the scene kept going and going. On the other hand, it was a really fun scene, with the writers taking a big risk in lampooning themselves so thoroughly. And the presentation of "medieval theater" felt quite authentic.

But I'm unsure of just what the endgame is in Arya's latest adventure. Yes, we did get the scene in which Arya seemed to empathize with Actress Cersei and gently push for her to be spared. So on one level, this would be a test of Arya's dispassionate mercilessness. And yet, did Jaqen H'ghar really know Arya would be tempted by kindness in this way? I mean, wouldn't the more natural expectation be that Arya might enjoy (too much) a chance to kill a proxy of Cersei Lannister? And where's the test in that, unless someone is watching Arya and judging her level of enjoyment in her task? I suppose we'll find out in a future episode.

In the Iron Islands, the Kingsmoot took place, with Yara making a fair showing (aided by Theon's speech) until Euron swooped in to seize the day and the throne. Euron's plan to build a fleet and sail for Daenerys and Meereen tracks with the books (and the melding of two book characters into one show character). But the wild card here is that Yara and Theon stole ships of their own and are now on the run. Bound for where, and to do what, who can say? (Side note: I wonder how many past kings of the Iron Islands have died during their coronations? I'm sure the Ironborn would say that if that happened, then the deceased wasn't worthy of the throne anyway. Still, the show quite vividly and uncompromisingly depicted a harsh idea from the books.)

After seizing her new army last week, Daenerys didn't do much this week but face down the situation with Jorah. I wonder if we're going to be seeing any more of him. His quest to cure himself hardly seems of narrative importance at this point, with so much else in play. On the other hand, making this Dany's only scene this week certainly seems to ascribe a lot of importance to the idea that Jorah might just be able to find a cure. Unless this was all just meant to be a poetic goodbye... in which case, this particular poetic end paled in comparison to what would come later in the episode.

Politics continue in Meereen, where Tyrion attempted to reach out to a local Red Priestess. Plot wise, this felt like the most stalled of this week's narratives, yet it did give us more fantastic "reaction acting" from actor Conleth Hill. He showed us Varys' emotional barriers stripped away as the Priestess revealed knowledge of his past she shouldn't possibly have.

Lastly, we had the (mis)adventures of Bran beyond the Wall, the tragic culmination of a story we didn't even really know was tragic until now. First, we learned that the Children of the Forest are responsible for the creation of the White Walkers -- and while the origin of the Walkers doesn't do much to alter the threat they pose, it does add an element of tragedy to learn that even their own creators are now threatened by them. Tragedy continued when Bran's own actions caused his training with the Three-Eyed Raven to be cut short. Curious to go poking around in visions, he found the Night King and his army, bringing them right to his door.

Or should I say, The Door. The final tragedy was the simultaneous revelation and sacrifice of Hodor. In a round of interviews that dropped as soon as the episode aired, the showrunners were quick to credit George R.R. Martin himself for this plot twist: Bran's own meddling in time is what turned Hodor into a simpleton. Whatever nobility there was in Hodor having a purpose in life and finally fulfilling it was undercut by the fact that the sacrifice of his life was one that ended up lasting almost his entire life. Hodor was an object of derision for decades, all because of Bran's lack of responsibility.

It's interesting to me that of all the new material so far this season, the showrunners made a point of saying that this one is from books yet to be published. Perhaps they're sharing credit because I suspect the show's handling of this reveal will be better than whatever Martin will published. (Some day. Maybe.) The juxtaposition of the attacking wights in the present with Hodor's collapse in the past, thorough tense back and forth cutting, was presented in a way that can't possibly be so tight in written narrative. And more so because of Martin's writing technique in this series, to restrict his narrative to certain character's points of view. I suppose one day, we'll see. (Maybe.)

We'll also see whose loss the fans will be mourning more today, Hodor's or Summer's. We're losing Dire Wolves at an alarming rate this season. (A creative decision, or a budgetary one?)

Though not every story line this week packed the punch of Bran's, it was still an excellent episode overall. I give it an A-.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Scottish Play's the Thing

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Macbeth, so of course I had to check out the recent film adaptation, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Stage productions of Shakespeare often transpose the story into different times and settings, but the movies often play it straight as written. For the most part, that's true of this film. It's actually filmed in Scotland (and partly in England), and is accurate to the story's period. But it also cribs a bit from "comic book hyper realism," that style of movies like 300 and Sin City, where "real" is more than real.

Because of that choice, the film is a visual triumph. The fog in this Macbeth is tangibly thick, and is often backlit with bloody crimson light that transforms the world into a hellscape. The world feels dirty, primitive, and deadly. Shots are framed with extreme attention to detail, and you can't help but notice how beautiful it all is.

But part of why I couldn't help but notice is that I wasn't entirely engaged by the story itself. Early on, I may have been a bit distracted by looking for excisions from the original text. Knowing that the movie had a run time under two hours (from a play that usually runs at least 30 minutes more than that), there had to be cuts somewhere. But the cuts were handled deftly enough that I never truly missed them, and soon stopped hunting for them.

No, in the long run -- and much to my disappointment -- it was the performances that put me at arm's distance from the action. This is the most low key presentation of dramatic Shakespeare I think I've ever seen. Certainly, some allowances should be made for the fact that the bombastic acting style of the stage is not appropriate to the close-up, intimate possibilities of a movie. Still, I felt there were very few scenes where any of the characters let any real emotion show.

Fassbender was shockingly stony as Macbeth, barely getting worked up for murder, ghost sightings, or anything else. Cotillard matched his lack of energy as Lady Macbeth, displaying little of the fiery indignation that seems required to me by the text. It's odd, because those two were widely praised by critics among a cast that was praised too. But where others apparently saw compelling nuance, I saw disengaging lethargy.

To be sure, Macbeth could be done far, far worse than this. But I've personally seen it done far better. I give this incarnation a C-.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

TNG Flashback: Eye of the Beholder

It's a story I've told before... a long 26-episode season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was barreling along without reprieve. The writers, strapped for ideas, had to get something in front of the cameras. The result this time was the weak "Eye of the Beholder."

When crew member Daniel Kwan commits suicide by hurling himself into the plasma stream inside one of the Enterprise's engine nacelles, Captain Picard wants an explanation to send back to his family. Counselor Troi undertakes an investigation, and soon experiences potent telepathic images suggesting that a violent murder took place in nacelle control room years ago, when the ship was being built. By the time that it has become apparent that Kwan was driven to suicide by having seen these same "empathic echoes," Troi herself is under their spell -- and may become the next victim.

As show runner Jeri Taylor later recalled, this episode was culled from a year-old pitch from staff writer Brannon Braga about a "haunted room" on the Enterprise. The whole staff rushed to flesh out the idea, then gave the rough notes to staffer Rene Echevarria to draft the script. The result falls short on virtually every level.

For starters, the episode lands in a sort of uncanny valley of emotion. Because it wants to honor the late Gene Roddenberry's notions of future perfection, it can't fully embrace a story that makes sense. No one reacts to Daniel Kwan's suicide in a plausible way. Either suicide is so unthinkable in Starfleet in the 24th century that everyone should be utterly aghast and immediately suspicious of an outside influence, or they shouldn't spend so much time talking about how they can't understand why anyone would do such a thing. The closest you get to genuine emotion, ironically, comes when Data likens suicidal thoughts to a period from his "childhood," when he was developing new neural pathways... yet it still feels like a pretty strained analogy.

The suicide itself isn't a very compelling scene. First of all, it's asking too much of a "day player." Actor Tim Lounibos, playing Daniel Kwan, is called on to make the audience care about this character we've never seen before. He has to do it with over-the-top, soap operatic dialogue. And he has to do it wearing one of the more goofy forehead makeups the show ever served up. The staging is awkward too; Riker is standing right there next to him, yet makes no attempt at even a desperate lunge (though Kwan gives him ample warning). I doubt even an actor of, say, Patrick Stewart's caliber could have spun gold out of this straw.

But poor guest star Lounibos is hardly the only one giving a shaky performance here. Mark Rolston plays the murderer Pierce, and either by script, directorial advice, or personal choice, is hitting every cliche of "TV murderous sociopath." And one of the victims, Marla Finn, is played by Marina Sirtis' longtime stand-in, Nora Leonhardt. She gets just a line or two, one of them repeatedly shrieking "NO!" at the top her lungs before a comical scream. (And I hear a bit of a Texan accent slipping in there, which is quite incongruous for a Starfleet officer, absent any actual character development to set that up.)

Not that the main actors are doing their finest work here, either. It turns out that most of this episode is happening inside of Counselor Troi's head, and much of the cast took that as a cue to behave more broadly than usual. And because some of them were confused by the slapdash script, they didn't confine their broadness to "dream sequence" scenes. According to Rene Echevarria, Jonathan Frakes believed that the scene where Worf awkwardly approaches Riker about his emerging relationship with Troi was part of the hallucination. There was brief talk of reshooting the resulting strange performance.

The few scenes that work are the ones that seem like they could have been lifted from this episode and dropped into any other. Troi's story about sense memories, and Worf's response of likening it to his fire vision quests, is a nice bonding moment between the characters. I'm not sure it paves the way to a believable romantic relationship between them later in the episode, but I chalk that up more to the surrounding soap opera than the absence of rapport between the characters.

Perhaps knowing that he had ground to make up on a deficient script, director Cliff Bole really pulls out the stops in his camera work. There's an unusually large amount of conspicuous handheld camera here for a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And there are several odd setups, from the rack focus/pan off the red alert signal that opens the episode to the cockeyed glimpses of murderous Pierce's memories. These visual tricks hardly save the episode, but they do generate a modicum of interest along the way.

Other observations:
  • What is the logic of having a one-way force field in the nacelle control tube? I would think you wouldn't want anything getting in any more than you'd want anything getting out.
  • Troi should know immediately that her vision shows the killer looking at his own reflection; the communicator on the wrong side of the chest is an instant giveaway.
This scattershot mess of an episode has one or two moments to raise it above the series' all-time worst efforts. But it's still an unfortunate misfire. I give "Eye of the Beholder" a D.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Absolution / Ascension

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wrapped up its third season last night, but it didn't exactly punch out strong. Though there were plenty of good moments throughout, there were nearly as many elements that just didn't work for me.

Let's start with the Shell Game of Death that was watching that cross necklace and jacket get passed around from character to character. It was supposed to be a tension-ratcheting device, as we all knew from Daisy's vision that the person with those things was the one who was going to end up dead. But it had basically the opposite effect for me. Knowing we had a two-hour episode ahead of us, every time someone would lay hands on the "mark of death," I'd mentally cross them off my list rather than fear for their safety. Plenty of episode left; you know the hot potato is going to move again. And after they tried to play with me several times, I got tired of the whole thing.

And it was a lot of build up for little real payoff, because the character killed was (um... SPOILER...) Lincoln. He's a character that has never really clicked on the show in his (relatively to the other characters) short run, so it hardly feels like a sacrifice to lose him. Indeed, before the threat/promise of "someone's going to die" was ever placed on the table, I probably would have guessed at the start of season three that Ward and Lincoln weren't going to last until the start of next season.

Worse, Lincoln's death doesn't really land within the universe either; the one person truly affected by it is Daisy, whereas everyone would have had a reaction to losing, say, May, or Fitz, or Simmons. Instead of ripples directly touching multiple characters, we'll get ripples touching just one character. And we already got a taste of how those ripples will play out in the "six months later" flash forward to cap the episode. It seemed to take us into a narrative space we just left: Daisy's on the run, doing bad things, and our heroes our trying to bring her in. Sure, last time she was under Hive's sway, but in terms of the beats of likely stories that would play out in this scenario, that's a distinction without much of a difference.

In the long run, if feels like "Ward's" death will be a much bigger deal for the show. You knew they were going to defeat Hive by the end of the season. Still, the reality of that is that actor Brett Dalton, who has had more reinventions on this show than anyone, is finally done with the series. (Well, barring some implausible thing involving the Life Model Decoys teased in the final scene.) Don't get me wrong, I think they'd played out everything his character had and then some. Still, it's going to be a different show without him on it.

What did work? For one, the bond between Mack and Yo-Yo. (I believed that relationship a lot more than the Daisy/Lincoln romance they were trying to sell me.) Her near-sacrifice to protect him resonated well for me. For another -- in small doses -- Dr. Radcliffe. His schtick would wear thin for me at times, but he'd always manage to make me laugh a bit later with some tossed-off one-liner. Actually, the comedy throughout the two-parter played well, culminating for me in Coulson's "help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" hologram. And, as is so often the case on the show, the fight sequences were a cut above for television. May vs. the primitives and Daisy vs. Hive were two great scenes.

Still, I hope the writers take the summer to recalibrate a bit, to make certain that this new direction they're setting out in for season four truly is new and not a redux of things just covered in this last half season. I give the finale a B-.