Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hold Off

A few years ago, I found my way to the movie Green Room, a tense and compact thriller from a director I did not previously know, Jeremy Saulnier. In that moment, I made a subconscious mental note to check out any future movies he released. One came along in 2018, snatched up by Netflix: Hold the Dark.

Another violent suspense film, Hold the Dark is set in Alaska. Russell Core is a writer with expertise in wolf behavior, invited to a small village by a woman named Medora. Her son has been abducted by wolves. With her husband away on tour in Iraq, the police unhelpful, and the locals with ancestral roots deeply mistrustful of her, she has nowhere else to turn. But the people shunning Medora may be on to something. Core has no idea what he's getting himself into.

There was more here to intrigue me than just director Jeremy Saulnier; Hold the Dark has an interesting cast too. Jeffrey Wright is the lead, serving the story in much the same way as his character on Westworld -- he's a steady anchor who seems unflappable, but you can tell there's a great deal going on beneath the surface. Medora is played with cryptic allure by Riley Keough. Her husband does not remain off-screen in Iraq; he becomes a key figure in the film, and is embodied with icy menace by Alexander Skarsgård. Then there's the local police chief, played by James Badge Dale; he's more accessible and human than anyone else in the movie.

But the performances are strong because they have to be. The script for this movie is very spartan, more interested in evoking a mood than making strict sense. The characters are all ciphers, people whose motivations are often a complete mystery. It's hard to know why anyone does what they do. There is a payoff of sorts in this approach, as there are several gripping moments of surprise and suspense throughout. But "I didn't see that coming" isn't the same as "I couldn't have seen that coming"; the latter isn't really playing fair.

Horror fans might like this. The movie straddles the line between natural and supernatural, and if you work hard enough, you could ascribe either explanation to what unfolds. There's also startling and effective use of extreme violence, which may excite slasher fans (though I wouldn't actually consider this movie a slasher film). But many a horror film has gone wrong when it fails to adhere to the "rules" set out early on; this movie doesn't quite bother to set any at all.

I really wanted to like this movie more. Fortunately, I don't think it has hurt my appreciation of Green Room in the least -- I would still enthusiastically recommend that. But certainly not this. I give Hold the Dark a C. Netflix is full of better viewing options.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Project Daedalus

Star Trek: Discovery is undeniably the most action-oriented of all Star Trek series to date. To some extent, the previous series weren't actiony out of necessity, the budgetary and technological limitations of their times forcing a more dialogue centered approach. Discovery does still try to be Star Trek, mixing in the big ideas and introspection where it can. But sometimes, the blend isn't entirely successful. So it was for me with the newest episode, "Project Daedalus."

Admiral Cornwell arrives aboard the Discovery in secret. Though she isn't immediately ready to believe in Spock's innocence, she's distrusting of Section 31. Their analytical computer, Control, has stopped accepting input from her and other Starfleet admirals, and she wants Discovery to go there and find out why. It's a dangerous journey that leads to an alarming revelation.

There's plenty in this episode that I thought was quite good -- though that material was all rather front-loaded. It's nice to have Cornwell back, and interacting with a very different captain than in season 1. Cornwell is among the more interesting Admiral characters Star Trek has had over the years; she's different because of her medical background, and Discovery's writers continue to use her in a way that highlights this.

The sibling rivalry between Michael and Spock was excellent. Some might say Spock was pushed too far into emotion this episode, but I thought the character was used perfectly. No one knows how to push your buttons quite like a sibling. Michael and Spock were both pushing on each other in a way that felt very personal and very real. It was Ethan Peck's first real chance to do something substantial in the role of Spock. He rose to the occasion, and Sonequa Martin-Green played wonderfully off of him.

But once Discovery arrived at Section 31's base, the well-built machine of this episode began to come apart for me. The series is sometimes so determined to maintain a breathless pace that it doesn't even slow down to drop in a line or two of explanatory dialogue that would patch fairly glaring plot holes. Running the mine field gauntlet was an interesting scenario, but you feel like the crew of any previous Star Trek series would have found another way around the problem -- jamming the mines with interference, masking the ship's passage somehow, something. Hell, you want the action solution? Hang back at a distance and use weapons to detonate the mines. (Pike had clearly expressed his disdain for Section 31 even having the mines, so what's a little destruction of Starfleet property?)

Boarding the base itself was a fun and moody bit of horror, featuring frozen bodies hovering in zero-g and atmospheric lighting. But then came a climactic series of showdowns and revelations that fell completely flat for me. (And it gets extra SPOILERY from here.)

How did a "logic extremist" even rise to such a position of authority in Starfleet in the first place? That feels like something that really needs exploration, but we're not likely ever to get it.

Will the series really be able to do something with the Killer AI trope that hasn't already been done in several past Trek episodes, many sci-fi movies (including the first Star Trek movie), Doctor Who, and hell -- even The Orville?

When "hacked Airiam" rips out Nhan's breathing apparatus, why doesn't Nhan just close the helmet of the spacesuit she's wearing and pump in some atmosphere that's standard for her?

When Michael traps Airiam, why does she not go to check on Nhan?

Why can't Discovery just beam them back? Any of them? Nhan when she gets into trouble, or Airiam once she starts going crazy? Hold her in the pattern buffer, beam her straight into the brig -- something. Anything. (Seriously, I must have missed them explaining this. I cannot imagine they actually overlooked something so basic.)

I know we're all supposed to feel for the death of Airiam, but they waited until this episode to even make much of a character out of her. And the fact that they suddenly hit us with such transparent melancholy as her "weekly memory purge" made it pretty predictable what was going to happen to her by the end of the episode. It felt especially false to wedge in a sudden friendship with Tilly we never saw evidence of before now. Indeed, when Michael first came aboard Discovery in season one, Tilly told her (and us) quite explicitly that she had no other friends on the ship. So it feels as though we really ought to have seen the developing friendship between Tilly and Airiam before the sudden calculation that it was needed for emotional heft.

I was really loving this episode in the first half, and then felt like it completely threw all that away in the second. The result is an installment really hard for me to sum up in one rating. If I think more about what I liked, it feels like a B+ episode. If I think more about the last 15 minutes, it feels like a C+ at best. It may come down to hindsight, and how I feel later about the season as a whole. Right now, after a few mid-season episodes that have left me feeling less charitable to the series, I think I'm going to call this one a B-.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Blood of Patriots

There was no new installment of The Orville this week, making it a little less awkward that it took me a few extra days to get to the most recent episode, "Blood of Patriots."

When an old friend of Malloy's is rescued from the Krill, it sparks a difficult diplomatic situation. The Krill accuse this former prisoner of terrorist attacks on their ships, and demand his extradition. If they don't get what they want, then the peace talks with the Union they've recently agreed to will fall apart.

It's nice for the series to follow up immediately on the events of "Identity" by continuing the story thread of potential peace with the Krill. For the many ways The Orville often strives to be like Star Trek: The Next Generation, serialized storytelling wasn't among that series' greatest strengths -- they'd rarely continue a story line, and even when they did, it would often take years to do so.

Indeed, if you were to say The Orville was inspired by a previous sci-fi show this week, you might well pick Firefly over Star Trek. Malloy's friend Chambers did not just escape from the Krill himself, he brought along a withdrawn and quixotic young woman, Leyna. There are definite Simon and River Tam vibes coming off this relationship, even though her it's a father/daughter bond instead of brother/sister. (Also, there's a late-episode twist hidden here, though that doesn't change how the characters come across for the bulk of the episode.)

It's interesting to put Malloy at the center of this plot. On the one hand, he's been a mostly comic relief character, so it's asking more to have him carry a dramatic character tale like this. On the other, it's an investment worth making; it's wise for no one character to be purely for laughs. Still, the road is tougher to climb for this character than it would have been for any other. It helps that Malloy has a well-established friendship with Mercer, putting him squarely in a "torn between two friends" scenario.

It's a decent episode for the newest character too, security chief Teyali. This hour is essentially a whodunit with a sci-fi twist. (A howdunit?) Teyali spends a lot of time investigating and showing her professional skills. She also gets a little early comedy (the rubber glove moment is patently ridiculous, but come on -- you know you laughed), and a nice-if-short scene with Malloy, drawing out his confession about his friend.

I think a while down the road, this won't be among The Orville's more memorable episodes. They didn't exactly follow up their version of "The Best of Both Worlds" with their version of "Family." But it was a still a decent episode I'd grade a B. This series really knows itself at this point, and rarely stumbles entirely.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Star (Trek) Struck

For some time now, I'd been aware of a trilogy of non-fiction books by author Marc Cushman about the original Star Trek television series. In These Are the Voyages, Cushman chronicled the production of those classic episodes (one book for each of the three seasons), and I'd long wanted to get around to reading them. I hadn't exactly made a high priority of it, as I'd imagined there wasn't much left to be told about the making of Star Trek that I hadn't heard at some point.

It turns out I was wrong. Cushman conducted a number of new interviews for his books, and was granted access to production files and old papers. He dove truly deep, and indeed found plenty of stories to be told that really had not been told before. I've now finished his first volume, dedicated to season one of the original series, and I definitely plan to continue on to the other two books.

Cushman really gets into how the sausage was made. He writes all about the courting of established science fiction writers for the show, the pitch process for ideas, and the writing and re-writing (and re-re-writing) of scripts. There might be occasional exaggeration about the quality of some of the lesser episodes of that season, but there's no varnishing of the conflict behind the scenes in making them. You read about open clashes clashes between Gene Roddenberry and both the writers and the key network executive assigned to the show. You read about more passive-aggressive wars waged in memos and in open letters to trade publications. There are noble moments where praise and credit are given where they're due, but there's certainly no suggestion that creating utopia on the screen was anything like a utopia behind the scenes.

Cushman's research is so deep that he does at times get bogged down in minute details. He provides the exact completion date of every single draft of every single script of the season. He tells you the exact end time of each day of filming on every episode, whether something interesting happened that day or not. He lists the money spent on each episode, to the dollar. This sort of detail can be a bit much, as can the thorough historical context he provides for each episode's production. (Yes, it's interesting to think that The Monkees were the pinnacle of pop culture at the time the first season was being filmed. It's not so interesting to be told for the 12th time that "I'm a Believer" was the number one song on the charts as filming began on an episode.)

Still, microscopic detail and all, I found myself sucked into this book in a big way. Knowing that it was going to be broken in separate chapters for each of the 29 first season episodes produced (not to mention additional chapters covering the selling of the show, major shifts in production, and more), I assumed it would be something I'd read intermittently. When I didn't feel like committing to a long chapter of a novel one night, I'd read an easy chapter about the making of Star Trek instead. But Cushman's account swallowed me whole -- I read it without any interjections along the way.

Things got less rosy for Star Trek after the first season. The troubled third season is particularly notorious for the drop in quality and the marginalization of Gene Roddenberry after one too many fights with the network. I'll be curious to read Cushman's other two books on seasons two and three, to learn what more there is to know than I do now. If this first book is any indication, it'll be quite a bit.

You'd have to be a major Star Trek fan to want to read this, but you'll love it if you are and do. I give These Are the Voyages: TOS Season One an A-.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

So Wrong, So Right

This past weekend, I went to see the touring production of last season's hit Broadway comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. It was, as the saying goes, side-splittingly funny.

In the proud British farce tradition, The Play That Goes Wrong is a fast-paced comedy loosely parodying a murder mystery like Agatha Christie's Mousetrap. But the conceit here is that you're watching a production put on by a very unskilled college theater. Actors don't make their entrances and exits on time, don't know their lines (one literally doesn't know how to pronounce some of them), don't stay in character, and stumble around the stage (sometimes literally). Props aren't where they're supposed to be. Lighting and sound cues are mistimed. And the set is falling apart.

This is very similar in tone to a wonderful play by Michael Frayn called Noises Off. (It was made into a movie that's admittedly less wonderful, but has just about the most amazing cast of comedy actors you could assemble in the early 1990s.) Because of the similarities, it took me a little while to warm to The Play That Goes Wrong. But there's really no reason there can't be two (or more) funny plays built upon the fun premise of disastrously bad theater.

It's an extremely clever script. Written by a team (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields), The Play That Goes Wrong is especially clever for how precisely the play within the play is crafted. Unlike Noises Off (where you see the action repeated multiple times), this show follows a single performance of "The Murder at Haversham Manor" straight through. The dialogue of the fake play is hilariously indicative of what's supposed to be happening on stage, so that whenever someone speaks, you immediately know exactly what's "going wrong" with the titular play.

The physical comedy is excellent throughout. It ranges from broad to minute, and the latter was especially impressive to me. The Buell Theater in Denver (and really, any venue that would host a touring Broadway show) isn't exactly an intimate space. Humor depending on small moves or subtle facial expressions aren't necessarily going to work. But everything was very carefully thought through in the staging to make sure that each and every joke could play from the front row to the back.

The set itself nearly steals the show. It's a booby-trapped nightmare, with elements all over carefully constructed (in reality) to malfunction at just the wrong time (fictitiously). One can step through it all and imagine how all the tricks were done, but it's quite easy (and more fun) to just get swept up in the moments as they come and watch decorations break, pieces fall off, and so forth. Again... it's all extremely clever comedy.

The cast is great, each embodying an archetype you'd expect to see whether you've actually participated in bad theater or are just imagining it. It was hard to pick a favorite; they were all funny, and everyone had their own particularly showy moment to go for a huge laugh from the audience.

After a couple of shows in this year's touring season that I thought were lackluster, The Play That Goes Wrong is a wonderful change. I give it an A-. It's here in Denver until Sunday, before moving on to other cities. If you have the chance to see it, I'd highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

If Memory Serves

I have no idea how the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery played to someone unfamiliar with the original Star Trek series. (And that may well be most of the audience.) But for me, it was a nostalgic ride back to the beginning.

Michael Burnham arrives on Talos IV with her brother Spock, hoping the Talosians will use their mental abilities to restore his fractured mind. But the aliens demand a price from her that will come at great personal cost. Meanwhile, Discovery must find a way to track their missing crew member without alerting Section 31.

I wasn't expecting this episode to kick off with a "Previous on" package of clips taken exclusively from Star Trek's original pilot episode, "The Cage." And what a package it was -- besides explaining the key points of that story, you got to see a smiling Spock and a charisma-free Jeffrey Hunter in the role of Pike, smash-cutting directly to Anson Mount. (For what it's worth, I don't think Hunter and Mount look like the same person, though it feels like they could credibly be brothers, or father and son or something.)

The episode was full of callbacks to that original episode. The singing plants, which Georgiou even had a snide comment about. The return of Vina, this time played by Melissa George. New Talosian aliens, veins throbbing in CG instead of by the efforts of a stagehand pumping an air bladder. (And in a non-Star Trek shout-out, everyone has now agreed that the movie Interstellar has decided for us what a black hole looks like.)

There was a lot to like here besides the nostalgia factor. The flashbacks to Michael and Spock's childhoods delivered a nice emotional payoff to what the series has been building up since it began. No, it wasn't entirely "surprising," and it was good that it wasn't. Because they prioritized something honest over something shocking, the revelation of how the emotional rift formed between the siblings delivered on the drama.

The moments between Pike and Vina were also quite strong... though perhaps this depended more on a knowledge of the events of both "The Cage" and the original series two-part episode "The Menagerie." This filled in the middle act of a love story in a melancholy way, while staying true to the lighter payoff it has (if you watch those early episodes). Anson Mount got his most personal material of the series so far, a scene more demanding than "looking captain-ly," and he was great.

But speaking of a love story in its middle act: Stamets and Culber. Man, am I torn about this. On the one hand, I recognize that happiness and contentedness is the enemy of drama. Happily married characters on a TV series are a magnet for writers to tear apart to generate story. However, on the other hand, we've now traded one ugly TV cliche about gay people for another. Because if TV writers aren't killing off their gay characters in metaphorical punishment for their orientation, they're demonstrating how its impossible for them to maintain a healthy and stable relationship like straight people can.

Like I said, I'm torn on this. It's not like there are any stable straight relationships on Star Trek: Discovery the writers are intentionally or unintentionally contrasting with. And I like that they're engaging with the trauma that would surely result from being brought back from the dead (or even, less metaphysically, rescue after a long period of torture). But goddammit, Star Trek writers, do you not understand that having waited 50+ years to give us a recurring gay couple, having fallen behind other television in inclusiveness when your franchise was once a forerunner, you need to do better than serve the same cliches? Especially cliches that carry an undercurrent of anti-LGBT attitudes?

And while I'm on what's not-so-good about Discovery in general, I'm officially sick of the camera work. It was distracting enough when they were one-upping the J.J. Abrams penchant for lens flare. But the constantly moving and rotating cameras need to stop. It's not underscoring emotion in the script particularly well, and it's certainly not organic to the storytelling.

The resolution of this episode threw an intriguing lifeline to viewers who might still be hung up on the continuity between all we're seeing and original Star Trek. Spock made it clear that the interventions of the time-traveling Red Angel led to him save Michael's life as a child. Perhaps this did not take place in the "Prime universe" of past Star Trek series? Maybe to that timeline, and the movies' "Kelvin timeline," we've now added a third Star Trek timeline?

Despite a couple of missteps, I did mostly like this episode. Still, I'll feel a lot better if they'd just wrap up the storyline of Culber's trauma and move on. I give this episode a B+.

Monday, March 11, 2019

You Look Marvelous

Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been laden with extra pop culture weight for a while now. See it fast before the spoilers catch up with you. See it or fall behind the pop culture times. But the latest MCU film, Captain Marvel, comes laden with extra weight: it's their first to focus on a female superhero. Sadly, social media has made this into some sort of litmus test. Fortunately, the movie itself doesn't collapse under the extra weight; it just delivers a fun time.

We're somewhere close to a dozen "origin stories" into the MCU at this point, and the template for that has been rather rigidly defined. So I was relieved and a little surprised for Captain Marvel to upend expectations in this regard. Not radically, not entirely -- but in a welcome and fitting way. For those who haven't yet seen the movie, it spoils only the first two minutes to say this: the protagonist herself doesn't know who she is. Stricken with amnesia, her discovery of herself in the film mirrors the discovery by the audience. Her past comes at us jumbled and out of order, fragmented and sporadic. This results in some refreshing disruptions to the first two acts of the normal superhero three-act structure.

Also strong here is the union of character and actor. Brie Larson is really great in this movie. There's no way to say this without slamming the way other MCU heroes have been written and performed, so I'll just say it: Larson (and her character) are better than most. Yes, a lot of solid actors play Marvel heroes. Yes, a lot of those characters have become quite interesting over the course of multiple films. But Captain Marvel emerges more well rounded and fully formed than nearly all of those others were at first. She's better written, better performed. Most significantly, she's allowed to have multiple gears. She gets to kick ass without being annoyingly serious all the time. She gets to be funny without being an irreverent wise-cracker all the time. She has trauma in her past without being consumed by it. She's more balanced, which in turn makes her more realistic, which in turn makes her more compelling.

The good casting in this movie may start with Brie Larson, but it certainly doesn't end there. Jude Law and Ben Mendelsohn are particularly well-placed in their roles, both of them used quite cleverly. Then there's Annette Bening, who seems like one of the less likely "gets" for a Marvel film, but brings a nice gravitas. And basically stealing the movie from all of them is Lashana Lynch, excellent as Maria Rambeau. Her character arrives later in the film, but she's vital in grounding the superhero antics and making things feel more real and personal.

Of course, I've skipped over the big co-star of the film: Samuel L. Jackson. I hadn't totally understood just how much I'd missed him and Nick Fury in the essentially entire "phase" of Marvel movies that have been made without him (almost two). Simply put, it's great to have Jackson and Fury back. This Captain Marvel film is also functioning as an "origin story" for Nick Fury, and it's fun to see a less-jaded, less-badass (but still badass) version of the character here. Plus, thankfully, the visual effects used to "de-age" him in this 1995-set film weren't distracting. This gimmick has appeared in previous Marvel films, but always in short scenes and often with mixed results. It's an almost unqualified success here with Jackson (though less effective on Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson), allowing you to just sit back and enjoy.

As the movie careens toward its climax, the story gets a little less novel. Things devolve a bit into the required CG pyrotechnics of explosions and punching things. This is basically an expected part of the bargain in a movie like this, but it is unfortunate that in this case, the personal stakes fade very far into the background. As Captain Marvel comes into her own, everyone and everything that was troubling her falls instantly beneath her. It's arguably the right choice for a character meant to be as powerful as she is. Certainly, it sends a message of empowerment that resonates beyond the movie. But I found it less compelling as a dramatic resolution to the story itself. All the issues that mattered for two hours.... just... suddenly... don't.

Nevertheless, Captain Marvel was still a very fun ride, and I think one of the more successful MCU movies. I'd put it in the top third of the franchise, with a B+.