Friday, January 30, 2015

The Blitzkrieg Button

Well, I'm still generally finding Agent Carter to be fun. But I'm also starting to get tired of the formulaic way each episode is constructed. It's not unusual for new TV shows to essentially restate their "thesis" with every episode, in case new viewers are sampling -- but the truly great shows do it more skillfully. And in any case, Agent Carter's short run is now half over, which makes me feel like we should be past that point.

Every episode seems to have a checklist of scenes that must be included. The scene where Carter sneaks around at work, trying not to get caught. The scene where she interacts with someone in her personal life, lying about what she really does for a living. The scene where Carter faces sexism at work. The scene where Sousa shows us that discrimination in the 40s was hardly limited to women. The scene where Thompson interrogates a suspect using a method you hope isn't still used today. (At least this week, that scene didn't involve him beating up the suspect again.)

Because each episode so studiously checks all these boxes, very little comes as a surprise. But because Hayley Atwell remains a compelling lead actress, and because the characters are all rather well drawn, the show does still remain watchable overall. This week's episode was helped a lot by the presence of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, with a swaggering energy not regularly on the show. And I'm hoping that next week's episode will be helped by ways this week's plot might have jolted the ongoing story out of the formulaic rut. (Carter says she's not going to help Stark anymore. We'll see.)

But I'm starting to drift to the place where I want Agent Carter either to get better or get out, making way for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to return. I give this episode a B-.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I'm Okay, You're Takei

I recently wrote about Life Itself, the documentary that explored the life of Roger Ebert, with full access to him (in his final days) and those close to him. Not long after I watched it, I caught a similar documentary, another chronicle of a man's life, made with full access to him and those close to him: To Be Takei.

As you can surmise from the title, this documentary focuses on George Takei -- who until a few years ago surely would have been best known as Sulu from Star Trek, though may well now be better known as Facebook's most popular personality. The documentary covers both these aspects of his life, his involvement with the Howard Stern show, and the two great causes for which he advocates.

First is his lineage as a Japanese American, who as a boy was unjustly held in an internment camp by presidential decree during World War II. It's an ugly chapter of American history that not nearly enough people are aware of. Takei has booked many public appearances where he's spoken of his time in a camp, and the documentary covers his latest means of telling his story -- through the creation of an original musical titled Allegiance.

Second is his push for LGBT equality, a cause he threw himself behind when he was among the first actors of reasonable fame to come out as gay. In the documentary, he speaks of the fear for his career that kept him closeted for most of his life, even after he'd long been in a relationship with the man who would eventually become his husband.

The documentary is also subtly revealing of the man behind the causes. George Takei comes off as a born performer always playing to the crowd, happy to laugh and be the butt of a joke so long as others are laughing too. One gets the sense that above everything else Takei is, he's an actor, and would have had to be an actor to find true happiness in his life. You also get snippets of insight from his friends (including fellow Star Trek cast members) and family (including his husband Brad).

Seeing this documentary so soon after Life Itself made me inevitably want to compare the two films, even though Ebert and Takei lived very different lives -- and Takei seems vibrant enough to have a good amount still to live. On the one hand, To Be Takei feels to me like a slightly more substantial film -- though it's quite likely I identify with it more, as a Star Trek fan and gay man. On the other hand, anyone who follows Takei on Facebook (and if you're not, you're doing the internet wrong) will likely know almost everything this documentary has to tell. So all told, I'd average it out to about the same grade, a B-.

I suspect you don't need me to tell you if you're the right audience for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

TNG Flashback: I Borg

After the epic third/fourth season two-parter, "The Best of Both Worlds," Star Trek: The Next Generation fans spent years clamoring for the return of the Borg. It finally happened, though in a form few expected, near the end of season five.

The Enterprise finds a crashed Borg scout vessel with a single survivor. When Dr. Crusher insists on saving the Borg's life, it is brought aboard the ship. But her samaritan gesture is soon undermined when Picard realizes an opportunity: this Borg could be infected with a virus to be transmitted into the entire Borg collective when a ship comes to retrieve him. It's a plan Guinan wholly supports... until she discovers what Geordi and others have found. Since being separated from the collective, this Borg has begun to develop a sense of individuality. Now Guinan and Picard are forced to confront their prejudice for the monolithic race that wronged them.

On the one hand, this episode feels like a bit of a cheat, a Borg episode that isn't exactly a Borg episode. It's certainly not the "next big showdown" that fans were surely hoping for. But then, an episode like that is exactly what the writers were never going to deliver. Although they were never opposed to more Borg in general, they didn't see a way to deliver another satisfying confrontation with them. If they're supposed to be so menacing that our heroes barely escaped with their lives the first time, what would you do for an encore? Indeed, Star Trek: Voyager would later prove that point, defanging the Borg bit by bit with every implausible escape by the intrepid ship (ha, Trek pun) over the course of the last four seasons.

So along came this different approach, from René Echevarria. He had already contributed the superb episode "The Offspring," and other episodes since, but was still an outside freelancer when he pitched this new script. His idea to bring the Borg back by going small and personal proved to be the key. With the series Deep Space Nine now in the planning stages, the Trek production offices knew they'd need to double their pool of writers, and so this was the script that finally got Echevarria a job offer. He'd become part of the Next Generation staff beginning next season.

What makes the episode so strong is the way it provides so many strong scenes for so many characters. It begins with Beverly Crusher, who is so fierce in her commitment to save a single life that she steamrolls everyone else opposed to her -- including Captain Picard -- and sets to work on this Borg, Third of Five. In short order, she's sharing the story spotlight with Geordi, who as Data's closest friend is probably the most logical character to befriend a Borg. The scene where Geordi and Beverly name him Hugh does feel a bit forced, like they're having way too much fun with their pet cobra, but beyond that, LeVar Burton does an excellent job showing us Geordi's growing discomfort with the idea of using an individual as a weapon of mass destruction.

Of course, stronger material still goes to Picard and Guinan. In probably Whoopi Goldberg's best performance on the entire series, we see the normally calm and unshakable Guinan rattled to her very core. First, it's by the notion that everyone around her is foolishly being taken in by the "poor, helpless little Borg." The fencing scene, in which she lies and cheats to make a point ("You felt sorry for me. Look what it got you.") is shocking in Guinan's genuine hatred. Later, Geordi is throwing in her face what a good "listener" she's supposed to be, challenging her to meet this Borg. And when Guinan does so, she's rattled again. Hugh is everything he's said to be, and her core convictions are proven wrong.

It cannot be overstated how big an emotional journey Guinan then has to go on to change her mind. But she does. And then tries to convince Picard to come with her, in another shockingly raw scene. In what other scenario could you ever imagine Picard shouting, "it's not a person, dammit!"? This then paves the way for the most chilling scene of all, in which Picard confronts his darkest memories and masquerades as Locutus to probe Hugh's true thinking. And it's no casual interrogation, either. Picard forcefully goes after the Borg, physically backing him into a corner, until Hugh's shocking assertion of individuality breaks through even all the walls Picard has put up.

Guest star Jonathan Del Arco has a tough role to play here, but he rises to the occasion. He manages carefully restrained emotion within an arc that traverses both the "collective" Third of Five and the individual Hugh. I'm not sure why the writers felt the need to make this Borg a teenager (beyond their normal attraction to "cute kids"), but they found the right actor for the job. Del Arco was a longtime fan of the original Star Trek who had auditioned for the part of Wesley Crusher. He was so disappointed to lose the role to Wil Wheaton that he refused to watch the series until he got this opportunity to guest star. A friend warned him that if he took the role, he'd be talking about it for the rest of his life. The friend was right, of course, but that was hardly a negative for a Star Trek fan. I mean, come on, he got an action figure and everything!

"I Borg" was the only episode of the entire season helmed by a first-time director. Robert Lederman was an editor for the series who, like actors Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart before him, went through the internal "director school" to get this big shot. He did great work here with the actors, and got extra help from the production team. With the episode otherwise being easy on the budget, the producers allocated extra money to build the crash site set. The result was a snow-covered rocky waste that's a good deal more convincing than the series' average planet surface set.

If there's one problem with the episode, it has to do with the ending -- though in a way that really should be held against the follow-up, "Descent," and not this installment. In the end, the crew decides that individuality may be the greatest virus the Borg could encounter, and Hugh voluntarily returns to the collective with his identity intact. But if Jean-Luc Picard, fighting with all his strength against his Locutus identity, didn't have what it takes to break through and introduce individuality to the Borg, it's hard to imagine this random drone would.

Next time, it's made to seem that all Borg have indeed become aimless individuals, so in need of leadership that they turn to Lore. But then comes the film First Contact, and the ultimate Borg retconning. Not only does the film not acknowledge any of this, it suddenly makes the Borg about assimilating people instead of cultures (which is specifically disavowed in "I Borg"). The film puts the Borg back in a collective under a heretofore unknown Queen (whose presence must have been what kept Picard from infecting the Borg with individuality; sure, let's go with that).

Other observations:
  • Showrunner Michael Piller dubbed this his favorite episode of the season, "everything I want Star Trek to be."
  • The 30-second preview created for this episode ("Next time, on Star Trek: The Next Generation...") uses Ron Jones' iconic score for "The Best of Both Worlds," rather than the standard music used in all the series' other trailers. It just goes to show you how stupid Rick Berman was to get rid of Jones. Even the people cutting the trailer were all, "everyone knows this is what the Borg sound like."
  • The Blu-ray edition of this episode comes with a commentary track by Michael and Denise Okuda, and writer René Echevarria. Echevarria tells a great story about something that bothers him to this day, a mistake introduced in someone else's polish rewrite on his script. Early on in the episode, Third of Five asks, "do I have a name?" Not WE, but I, in direct contradiction with the episode's pivotal scene in which Hugh finally refers to himself as "I." Like the Okudas in the commentary, I must confess I never noticed this slip up, though I can definitely see how it would bother Echevarria.
For cleverly finding a way to tell a personal story about the very impersonal Borg, I give rate this episode an A-.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Catch of the Day

The movie Foxcatcher is not in the hunt for a Best Picture Oscar this year, but the evidence suggests that if the Academy's odd new system -- which produces anywhere from 5 to 10 Best Picture Nominees -- had bubbled up 9 nominees this year instead of 8, Foxcatcher would have been the 9th film. It did receive 5 nominations in other categories, including for two of its three main stars. Most tellingly, it picked up a Best Director nomination for Bennett Miller, making him the first director to be nominated without his Picture since the Academy went to more than 5 film nominees. But now that I've seen Foxcatcher for myself, I think the Academy probably got this one right.

The movie is the based on the true story of Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, who are approached by eccentric multimillionaire John du Pont to fund their training for the 1988 games. The brothers splinter over attitudes toward du Pont, one eager to receive his funding, the other suspicious of his motives.

Foxcatcher is indeed a movie with amazing, Oscar-worthy performances. Since Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell has increasingly appeared in more serious roles inside of comedic movies. (See The Way, Way Back. Except don't. Don't see The Way, Way Back.) He throws the switch entirely in the dramatic direction here, and earned himself a Best Actor nomination. At the time the movie was filmed, the brilliant Robin Williams was alive and well. But now that Williams is gone, this movie seems to be Steve Carell's audition as his heir apparent. Carell displays that same intensity in this role, playing on the audience's knowledge of all the manic energy that's being held tightly in check. Plus, in this movie, he's just damn creepy.

Then there's Mark Ruffalo, who had a hell of a 2014. He was excellent in The Normal Heart, and now he's excellent in a completely different role here. Ruffalo is a very deserving nominee for Best Supporting Actor, as he seems utterly transformed here. The way he carries himself is altered, his speech patterns are altered, his facial expressions are altered. He is every inch the battered wrestler who has burned his candle at both ends... but also a protective older brother who loves his younger brother fiercely.

But as strong as Carell and Ruffalo are, it's (perhaps shockingly) Channing Tatum that people should be talking about, that should have been looked at for a Best Actor nomination. There's no trace of the pretty boy heartthrob in his performance; he carries himself like a meathead Cro-Magnon. And even as he is so physically guarded, he's emotionally vulnerable. It's a powerful performance that changes what audiences should expect of him.

Oscar nominated director Bennett Miller guides all three actors in these brilliant performances, and proves himself smart with the camera is well. Scenes are carefully staged, lens carefully chosen, to layer the film with all kinds of allusions and subtext. The Oscar nominated makeup artists quietly support the film by transforming the appearance of all three actors; Carell's prominent teeth and hooked nose have gotten all the attention, but the cauliflower ears of Tatum's character and receding hairline of Ruffalo's are just as effective.

Foxcatcher's one Oscar nomination I don't agree with is the reason why I think it is rightly left out of the Best Picture hunt -- its nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The script for Foxcatcher feels overly long, and often focuses on the wrong things. There are numerous scenes that self-indulgently portray Carell's du Pont as a strange weirdo, many more than are necessary to get the point across. At the same time, other scenes that would have been vital connective tissue in the narrative are missing. Tatum's character of Mark Schultz goes through two significant changes in behavior and allegiance throughout the film -- a journey into du Pont's cult of personality and back. Neither change is accurately explained. Nor do the motivations behind the climax of the film make much sense... that is, if you're looking for anything deeper than "well, that du Pont is just a creepy dude."

If Foxcatcher bolsters the careers of those involved in making it, that will be a fine legacy for it. As for the film itself, I'd call it a slow-paced B-.

Monday, January 26, 2015

First Blush... or Red, or White

Some time back, I wrote of Vinhos, a board game about wine making. At the time, I graded it a "provisional B." Since then, I regret to say, the game has sunk lower in my esteem. Despite the interesting subject matter and a number of clever mechanics, the game takes considerably longer to play than promised on the box. Plus, that number of clever mechanics don't really mesh well together, creating an overly complicated game that's rather difficult to play. I wanted the game to be better, I wanted to like it, but it's sadly just a bit much.

To the rescue comes Viticulture, by designers Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone. It's also about wine making, and tries to capture many of the same ideas: planting fields, harvesting and crushing grapes, aging wine before selling it, and more. But the ideas are presented in a considerably more compact and unified manner, with gameplay considerably more fast-paced than Vinhos.

Each round is divided into the four seasons of the year. Turn order in each season is decided in the spring, with different benefits granted for choosing to go later than your opponents. Later on, fall gives every player a bonus card to work with, from either of two decks loaded with powerful cheats around the game's standard rules. That leaves the bulk of the action for summer and winter, between which players must split their worker pieces as they choose from a limited number of action spaces. With limited chances to plant, harvest, fill orders, and more (and with bonuses for being the first player to do a certain thing!), competition is high. The sort of "indirect interaction" that's a hallmark of so many Euro games -- that constricting of opponents' abilities to do things -- is on full display here.

It took me a few plays to warm up to Viticulture. I at least liked it from the beginning, as a much more elegant take on the wine making theme. But it seemed initially that one particular strategic approach might be the clear "way to go," a suspicion somewhat underscored by a second playthrough. But after game three, when a completely different approach won decisively, it appears that there's a really solid game here. The power in those decks of cheating cards is perhaps a touch too swingy, with fair potential to draw something otherwise strong at the wrong time, but the overall result is pretty satisfying. It's also rather easy to explain for a worker placement game, and a bit quicker than most too. (Depending on the players, you could definitely finish in an hour or less.)

So where Vinhos has sat on my game shelf for many months now, Viticulture has popped up several times of late. I'd say it's at least a B+, and trending upward.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Best on the Beat

Last night, I went to see one of this year's nominees for the Best Picture Oscar, Whiplash. Not only did I find my favorite film of 2014, I found a new addition to my Top 100 list.

Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman, a young drummer in a prestigious conservatory of music. He attracts the notice of the most revered teacher in the school, Terence Fletcher, and is invited to join the advanced jazz performance group. But Fletcher is also the most feared teacher at the school: a task-driving, abusive tyrant with absolutely no tolerance for anything less than perfection. A battle of wills ensues, as Andrew fights to prove how badly he "wants it," and Fletcher fights to wear him raw, both physically and emotionally.

There have been some quality action films released in the last year. There have also been some above average suspense films. With Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle has created a visceral, physical movie more tense than all of them. It puts a knot in your stomach just minutes in, and then keeps ratcheting up the anxiety over the next hour and a half. In the small theater where I watched it, there was just me, three friends, and maybe half a dozen other people. We were under no obligation to respond to the movie as a "crowd." Yet everyone was gasping audibly, in unison, with each new torment visited upon the film's protagonist. I left the movie with a bit of a stomach ache. "Whiplash" is a perfectly chosen title, because the movie really does feel like the roller coaster that too many films are unthinkingly compared to -- it inflicts a palpable sense of nausea.

No film has so powerfully presented the drive for success among the most exacting people in a creative field. You feel how badly Andrew craves success, to the point where he compromises his social life, throws away everything else he has of lesser importance, and becomes a bit of a prize asshole himself. He's hardly a role model, but you want him to come out on top because you understand how desperately he wants it. You understand how literally nothing else in his life means anything to him.

All that raw emotion comes through in the excellent performance by young actor Miles Teller. And that's not even taking into account the insane technical accomplishment that was playing this role. Everyone associated with the film has said that Teller did 99% of his own drumming on screen. Of course, he got plenty of help from the film's editor, who assembled days of filming into single performances. Still, if Teller had only done half of his own playing in the movie, it would have been astounding. As it is, it's robbery that he wasn't ever seriously thought to be in the hunt for a Best Actor nomination. (At least he's young; he'll get another chance if he continues to work at this level.)

But then, part of why Oscar voters may have overlooked Miles Teller is that they were gobsmacked by J.K. Simmons. As tyrannical maestro Fletcher, he's one of the most terrifying villains ever put on film. You cringe when he rages. You tense even more when he softens, because you fear he's just baiting a trap of emotional manipulation. Every single scene he's in, the audience is on edge. And the capper of it all is that Simmons understands "Villain 101" -- Fletcher doesn't see himself as a villain. Indeed, one of the movie's most powerful scenes reveals exactly what makes this monster tick. It may not make him sympathetic, as horrible as he is, but it does make him recognizable as a plausible human being. His like certainly does exist in the world somewhere. (Shiver.) J.K. Simmons quite deservedly won a Golden Globe for this role, and if there's any justice, he'll come away with the Oscar too.

You get so wound up watching the movie that you really can't actually enjoy the music. But that's a shame, as we're talking about one of the most joyful types of music there is, jazz. Jazz is the vital backdrop of the film, and the movie includes a number of amazing songs -- some famous standards (most critically, "Caravan"), but mostly a number of electric new originals. I can surely see myself picking up the movie's soundtrack album to more purely enjoy these songs... assuming that the film hasn't built up so powerful an association with them that even listening to them in isolation becomes tense too.

I really was impressed by Boyhood this past year, and I can hardly begrudge it the Best Picture Oscar it will very likely win. But now I've seen Whiplash, which is said to be squarely in the "it's an honor just to be nominated" camp. And now I'm sad that the true Best Picture of 2014 isn't going to be recognized as such. Whiplash is an unqualified A, and takes the top slot on Top 10 List from last year.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What the Future Holds

One of the first movies released in 2015 isn't playing in many movie theaters... thanks to its simultaneous release in a number of home pay-per-view formats. It's called Predestination, and it comes with a rather distinguished pedigree.

First, it's based off a short story by Robert Heinlein entitled "All You Zombies." Second, it comes writer-director team the Spierig Brothers, among the very few people to pull off a respectably good original movie released in January -- the intriguingly different vampire film Daybreakers. Third, the Spierigs re-teamed with their star from that movie, Ethan Hawke, who has thoroughly demonstrated a taste for unusual but high-quality movies.

It's frankly hard to say much about Predestination without starting to give away elements of the plot. As minimally as I can state it: it's a science fiction story about time travel. An agent jumps around in time on the trail of the "Fizzle Bomber," a seemingly anarchic terrorist who has defied all efforts to be caught. But after a major setback, the agent embarks on a mission to recruit someone new, a man with an amazing history of his own.

More than virtually any adaptation of a famous science fiction author's work, Predestination adheres quite closely to its source material. An additional subplot is grafted onto the film, but the core of the short story is retained beat for beat, which immediately makes the film unusual among, say, the raft of Philip K. Dick-inspired movies. That's even more unusual when you consider that the plot of the story is bizarre enough that you might have easily thought no one would have dared to film it.

That the movie works at all is a credit to the two main performances. Ethan Hawke nails the film noir hero type, narrating (in a way) through a series of audio recordings as he presents the dry portrait of a man who has seen at all and is surprised by nothing. Sarah Snook seems destined for greater fame, lending amazing credibility to an incredibly demanding role at the core of the plot. She presents a tough exterior while making visible the hurt beneath, and is sympathetic throughout.

But at a certain point, it does start to feel as though the film's primary raison d'être is to surprise the audience with its ever-twisting plot. For the first twist (or perhaps two), the effect is pretty remarkable. Yet then, like a wary funhouse patron, you begin to look in every shadow, behind every curtain, trying to anticipate from where the next surprise will come. And with the central theme being time travel (and the film's title being a major clue), it's not particularly hard to guess. I watched the film as part of a small audience of five at my house, and all of us had figured out how the movie was going to end well ahead of actually getting there.

Predictable though it might be in the end, it certainly doesn't start out that way. Indeed, not enough hard sci-fi movies like this are being made -- definitely not this entertaining and featuring performances this compelling. Simply put, this ride is fun. I'd give Predestination a B+. If you're a fan of thoughtful science fiction, you should absolutely check it out.