Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Games Have Ended

This past weekend, The Hunger Games film franchise wrapped up with Mockingjay, Part 2. As I noted in my review of last year's Part 1, I don't object in this case  to the trendy decision to split a saga's concluding book into two movies. I feel that in this case, it allows the films (in principal) to give more narrative weight to the revolution that at times felt like an afterthought in the books (surely not author Suzanne Collins' intent).

That said, I'm not sure the movies really used that opportunity well. Like Part 1, Mockingjay Part 2 feels stretched thin at times, with a few dry and unengaging sections. Worse, the chance to expand on some potentially interesting aspects of the story is overlooked. Why cast Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie to play a supposedly powerful military leader when she's only going to have two or three lines in a single scene? Why again squander Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks by barely doing a thing with them?

Mockingjay, Part 2 isn't a bad conclusion to the series. And from what I remember -- which is admittedly spotty -- it's a quite faithful adaptation of the decent concluding book. But it is pretty workmanlike. It checks all the boxes and pushes all the buttons in a deliberate and obvious way. Enough of the sequences do work to make the whole endeavor worthwhile (for example: the subterranean mutt attack is a solid sequence, in moments evoking the feel of Aliens), but many other sequences are a bit old hat by now (Snow's taunting television broadcasts, Gale's self-pity over being second best).

If you've come this far, there's no reason not to complete the ride. But in the long run, I don't think these movies will be remembered for going out on a particularly high note. I give Mockingjay, Part 2 a B-.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Music for Another World

Last month, I praised the film adaptation of Andy Weir's sci-fi novel, The Martian. For me, the movie has lingered over the past several weeks, in the form of its score. I picked up the soundtrack album, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and I've had it in fairly heavy rotation. At the most general level, the score for The Martian takes a fairly typical approach to music for a science fiction film: it blends synthesizer elements with a full orchestra. But how Gregson-Williams chose to do this is a perfect match for this particular story.

The synth elements of The Marian's music are almost always rapid fire ostinato accents -- fast eighth and sixteen note patterns that feel artificial and inhuman at times for their speed and repetition. This technique is often showcased when the story is in full on "science" mode, when a character is working a problem and essentially rising above in a display of ingenuity.

Meanwhile, the orchestra represents the more grounded, emotional elements of the story. Usually playing quarter notes or slower, this component of the music creeps along, often four times slower than the frenetic synth. This anchors the film. The Martian works as a movie because you care for the characters and not just the science, and the traditional orchestra is the part of the music that speaks to this.

There are several highlights in the score. It starts strong right out of the gate with "Mars," a track that at first might be just as right for a horror movie as for this. It opens with an ominous chord to rattle the subwoofers, punctuated by occasional eerie sprays of synth notes in the treble. It then establishes the slow melody that will represent the Red Planet itself throughout the movie -- sparsely placed pairs and trios of mournful notes.

"Sprouting Potatoes" is one of the most purely uplifting tracks on the album, and is particularly interesting in that it opens with a solo cello -- an instrument so much more often used for somber music. "Hexadecimals" is almost exclusively synthesizer, with intriguing staccato patterns that ever so slightly evokes Vangelis' work on the original Cosmos mini-series.

Gregson-Williams establishes his approach to this score so consistently that the few moments where he breaks formula really stand out. Human vocals are showcased in just two cues. The first, "Crops Are Dead," uses a solo vocalist to really emphasize one of the lowest emotional points of the movie. The final track, "Fly Like Iron Man," uses a full choir to stress one of the highest. And the synth element gradually recedes in the final section of the movie, dropping out almost completely by the finale.

I've found the music from "The Martian" to be great background for different parts of my day. I'd give the album a B+. It's not a "must own" soundtrack for people who aren't normally enthusiastic about them. But it is a good addition to the collection for fans of movie music.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Many Heads, One Tale

Well, the plot thread revolving around Ward remains the least interesting aspect of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But the good news? It's no longer dangling out there on its own. This week's new episode tied him -- and all the other parallel story lines -- into a single, overarching narrative.

I will acknowledge of the Ward story that actor Brett Dalton does kick some serious ass in the role. Sometimes, as in the final scene of this episode, it's figurative. He just dove right into the mustache twirling premise of tormenting Andrew, and made it work. Of course, he's also good at the more literal ass-kicking too, as in the opening fight where four Hydra goons tried to take him out. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has better fight choreography than many movies, and this was a good example.

Of course, the show has multiple performers who can sell these great fight sequences, and we got another example of it in the Bobbi fight near the end of the episode (even if we cut away from some of the fight). "Boomerang" fighting sticks was just plain fun, and it capped a just plain fun thread of her and Hunter infiltrating the A.T.C.U. together. Sending in hunt-and-peck typist Hunter instead of Fitz makes no sense, of course, but Fitz had other work to do this week.

Speaking of which -- I continue to love-love-love the Fitz-Simmons storyline, and I say that as someone who doesn't usually get caught up in "will they/won't they" TV romances. As fantastical as this situation is, it actually feels like a legitimate love triangle where the pivot character has realistic feelings for both of the other characters. It's wonderful that Fitz isn't made to be the heel here, and even more wonderful that a scene actually acknowledged how that fact only makes things harder for Simmons. And said scene ended with a kiss seasons in the making, so there's that.

I suppose it undermines Rosalind's intelligence a bit that she didn't know she was working for the enemy, but it's so much better than she's not the enemy herself. That would have been too cliche an angle for the show to play. Another cliche avoided: Coulson didn't trust her pretty much from minute one. It was nice to see him reveal a master plan here... though I also hope we get to see a little emotional fallout for him down the road. It turns out he could have had a genuine relationship here, and he blew it. Lonely is the head that wears the crown and all that, and I hope the series plays that up in episodes to come.

Now that everything is woven together, the stage seems set for a handful of big episodes leading up to a mid-season cliffhanger finale. I'm interested in that direction, and give this episode a B+.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Big Cheese

Chances are, you haven't heard of comedian Mark Jonathan Davis -- though perhaps you do know his alter ego, Richard Cheese. For the past 15 years, he's been releasing albums featuring swankified lounge singer versions of popular music. (Think Bill Murray's classic Saturday Night Live character... but decidedly R-rated.) If you saw the remake of Dawn of the Dead, you've heard his cover of "Down With the Sickness."

Back in April, I went to see Richard Cheese and his band, Lounge Against the Machine, performing at the Boulder Theater. I didn't make a blog post of it at the time, I suppose because there wasn't much point in me "recommending" it to my readers. It was a one-night only show, and part of an extremely limited tour. (Cheese has done only a handful of shows in the last few years, and has said he plans to stop touring altogether in the near future.)

So why bring it up now? Because he actually recorded a concert album at the very show I attended, and that album has just been released in the last few weeks. Bakin' at the Boulder (available at the Richard Cheese website) is an hour-plus of highlights from the two-hour show, and I've been listening to it almost constantly since I picked it up. I suppose my opinion is colored by having been there to see it in person, but I'm still laughing at the jokes and enjoying it immensely.

Richard Cheese gives a loose, unpolished show. Occasionally, this results in mistakes and forgotten lyrics (as in "Smoke Two Joints" and "Girls, Girls, Girls"), but more often it makes for hilarious banter with the audience (as in "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Chop Suey," and "My Neck, My Back," among others). Definitely there are parts of this album with a "had to be there" vibe. You won't get how hilarious the "Denver Airport Song" is if you've never traveled there. And you can't see the audience member who basically performed a stripper routine during "Baby Got Back." But the liner notes PDF does include a picture of the Boulder Theater ceiling mentioned in "Theater Notes" to bring you up to speed there. (The x-rays referred to in "To Lounge Another Day?" I got one!)

Still, if a few parts of the album play better for me that they might for most, the bulk of it should still work. There's a fun duet of "Love Shack" with the B-52s' Fred Schneider, a handful of songs not available on any other Richard Cheese album (such as Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off"), and plenty of jokes throughout. The real cherry on the sundae is the running gag that starts in "Brass Monkey," involving a couple who actually brought their one-year-old daughter to the concert, wearing headphones duct-taped to her head. (The PDF also provides her picture, and lists the baby in the credits.)

Basically, this is a heads-up to people aware of Richard Cheese. He's got a new live album, and it's hilarious. Correcting for my bias of being there, it probably merits a B+. But personally, I can't get enough of it right now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Dark Page

I remembered "Dark Page" being a particularly bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Re-watching it, though I certainly didn't think it a series high mark, I did find it considerably better than I remembered.

Counselor Troi's mother Lwaxana has been establishing diplomatic relations with the Cairn, a species which until now communicated only telepathically. Teaching them spoken language has been a demanding assignment, but the extreme fatigue Lwaxana feels has a deeper cause. When she suddenly falls into a coma due to a repressed memory deep in her telepathic psyche, Deanna must venture inside her mind to unlock the secret and save her life.

Episode writer Hilary J. Bader had been pitching the same general idea for years -- that of a telepathic rescue mission. And while the writing staff and producers had always been on board with that core concept, numerous attempts to implement it had fallen apart. Reportedly, there were multiple early versions of the idea involving Dr. Crusher (both with a female guest star and Counselor Troi) and LaForge. Even the first draft using Lwaxana had the roles reversed, with Deanna in the coma and her mother going into after her.

Because this core idea was always what was being chased, the finished product minimizes some other interesting ideas that probably deserved more exploration. The idea of a species with no verbal communication is a really intriguing one, but the episode gives only the barest hints of their culture. And Deanna's encounter with her father (inside her mother's mind) feels like it should have been much more monumental. Getting a chance to reunite with the father you lost at age seven and having to turn your back on it? That's a powerful idea -- but it makes for only a short scene in this episode.

I'm actually not even sure the core idea feels entirely like Star Trek to me. There's something about telepathy that strikes me more as "magic" than science fiction, and there are other series that I think could have presented this idea better. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example. And Supernatural in fact did have an episode featuring a "psychic rescue.")

But something about the episode won me over all the same this time, and it's the part that reportedly took the most effort on the part of the writers. According to staff writer René Echevarria (who did an uncredited polish on the final script), the story's real challenge was figuring out what Lwaxana's secret was. It had to be dark enough to justify the repression (and thus, the entire story), yet not something that would paint the character in too unsympathetic a light.

The loss of a child certainly meets those requirements. It's just a chilling, horrible idea, so powerful that even in the mere concept overcomes some shortcomings in the actual execution. For example, it's ridiculous that all the scenes in Lwaxana's mind would take place somewhere on the Enterprise -- but that's the reality of a television budget for you. And can you really believe that a child would die of drowning with the medical capabilities we've seen in this future? But ultimately, the idea that a mother would have hidden for decades the secret of a dead daughter hits you on a deep emotional level.

There are some interesting guest stars in this episode. Of course, Majel Barrett returns for her final Next Generation appearance as Lwaxana Troi (but without loyal valet Mr. Homn, due to the unavailability of actor Carel Struycken). Kirsten Dunst plays Hedril, appearing here less than a year before the movie Interview with the Vampire would launch her to fame. Amick Byram plays Troi's father Ian, and unfortunately does not make any effort to adopt an accent. (Thus, the question of where Deanna acquired hers is quite a mystery; she sounds nothing like her mother or father.)

The most unusual guest star of the episode was the wolf brought on set for some of the scenes inside Lwaxana's mind. The wolf was "trained" in theory, yet still thought dangerous enough that no actors were allowed on set with it. (Any appearance to the contrary was achieved with split screen photography.) Unfortunately, there are very few closeups of the animal (again, due to the danger), which actually serves to make it seem not very dangerous. It actually lopes around a lot like a dog.

Other observations:
  • It's pure coincidence, of course, but the revelation of Deanna's sister Kestra makes the fact that Lwaxana has always called her "Little One" quite interesting.
  • Show runner Jeri Taylor noted that everyone was reluctant to do this episode back to back with "Phantasms," another episode largely set inside a character's mind. But with no other story ready to go, they had no real choice in the matter.
  • A few deleted portions of scenes can be found on the Blu-ray collection of this season. Mostly, it excises some rather poor, soap opera caliber acting, but there is also an added layer revealed to Lwaxana's repression -- she forced her husband to go along with hiding the secret.
"Dark Page" could have been a better episode. But the core revelation hits at a deep emotional level that doesn't get bogged down in the technobabbly trappings of the script. I'd say the episode just edges into a B grade.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Napoleon, Blown Apart

I'm not taking on many unfinished fantasy series at the moment. My memory isn't what it used to be, and not up to the task of keeping straight all the particulars of the stories George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch have in motion. The more "next book"s I'm waiting on, the less likely I'm going to remember where I am in any one given series.

So you can probably understand why I responded with reluctance to my friend's recommendation: the first volume of the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. But there were points in its favor (besides the obvious, that a friend had recommended it). The series is projected to be nine books long, and eight of them are already published. That meant I'd be unlikely to catch up with the author before her saga was done.

Then there was the intriguing premise of the story itself. Part "alternate history," part fantasy, the Temeraire series is set in the early 1800s and chronicles the Napoleonic Wars from the point of view of a British captain. A captain of the air force. An air force that consists of dragons, in a world where dozens of breeds have been domesticated by many different countries. I have to admit, just the idea was enough to make me shrug any bit of "dragon fatigue" pop culture might have given me.

The first book, His Majesty's Dragon (published as Temeraire in the UK), sets the stage of this intriguing world. A naval captain, William Laurence, captures a French transport with a dragon egg among the cargo. When the dragon hatches and "bonds" to him, he must abandon the world he has known to join the royal air force. The book doesn't cover much beyond Laurence and the dragon's pairing and training, yet it doesn't really seem slow paced. It doesn't feel like Novik is parceling out details to make them last for nine books; instead, it's a rather effective tease for what might come. A solid "pilot episode" of a television series, if you will.

It also helps that the book manages to sidestep some obvious cliches and thwart a few others. This could have been a familiar "boy and his dragon" tale (well -- man, in this case), but the dragon Temeraire departs nicely from the expected. He is a deeply intelligent and articulate (yes, he talks) creature, with a personality that cleverly blends childlike innocence with philosophical introspection. This could have been a familiar "reluctant hero" story, but Laurence is determined to excel in his new role and not dwell on his lost naval career. He's already a man with a deep sense of duty, and that means any thoughts of giving up or taking an easy way out never enter his head.

The fantastical elements of the story help pull the book away from sometimes-dry historical fiction. But the real world elements ground the story, and also save time most fantasy epics must spend on "world building." I was pleasantly surprised by the concoction Naomi Novik brewed, and I plan to keep going with the series. This first volume, I'd grade a B+.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Backing Music

Saturday night, I had an outstanding evening at the symphony. And an outstanding night at the movies. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra put on a special screening of the movie Back to the Future. Like their Psycho screening from just a few weeks ago, they presented a special print of the movie with the orchestral soundtrack removed; the symphony then performed live all the music for the film.

I've previously gone on at length about how Back to the Future is my favorite film, and won't reiterate the many reasons why here. In the past couple of months, it's been made clear that many people share my affection. With the 30th anniversary of the original, and the celebration of October 21, 2015 (the future date to which they traveled in Back to the Future Part II), people all over have been cheering this great movie.

This symphony screening of Back to the Future is actually part of that anniversary celebration. Symphonies all over the world have been performing to this newly commissioned print all year long. The composer of the score, Alan Silvestri, worked personally on this project, adding an additional 15 minutes of music to be performed. This new material plays mostly over the opening portion of the film, which in the original didn't have a single note from the symphony until the reveal of the DeLorean in the mall parking lot. (A choice which gave a lot of extra punch once the music finally arrived.) With this added material, Silvestri also took the opportunity to weave in brief samples of the themes he created for Back to the Future Part III, just to give audiences a bit more for their experience.

But it was a thrill for me in any case. My favorite movie, one of my favorite movie scores, presented in this unique manner. Seeing the score instead of just hearing it made me appreciate it on even more levels. It made me realize what a real showcase this music is for the woodwinds section, which is seldom the star of modern movie scores; a great deal of Back to the Future's melodies are carried on flute, oboe, and clarinet.

Even the more commonly featured instruments aren't used commonly. The big brass fanfare, which most composers would always place on the trumpets, involves the french horns just as much. And as for those trumpet players, they're popping mutes in and out of their instruments every minute or two (the trombone players too), as Silvestri really toys with how a subtle change can twist an emotion a certain way. There are even a few odd accents in the score I'd never identified before, such as a percussionist playing a cymbal's edge using a violin bow.

These film-and-orchestra shows have been a real treat, and I can't recommend them highly enough if you're here in Denver (or if the local symphony in your city is doing them too). Back to the Future may have been a high water mark for me, but I still plan on attending more when the right movie comes along.