Friday, April 17, 2015

TNG Flashback: A Fistful of Datas

For quite some time, Star Trek: The Next Generation had steered clear of the "dangerous holodeck malfunction" cliché that seemed to recur so much in its early seasons. But then along came an idea to make them revisit it: "A Fistful of Datas."

When a rendezvous with a supply ship is delayed for 48 hours, the Enterprise crew suddenly find themselves with free time to kill. Worf's son Alexander takes him to the holodeck to play sheriff and deputy in the "Ancient West" town of Deadwood -- joined by Counselor Troi. But the game turns deadly when an experiment by LaForge and Data unknowingly infects their scenario. The holodeck safeties are disengaged, the controls are locked, and the characters are replaced one by one with facsimiles of Data -- complete with the android's physical abilities.

The pitch for this episode came from an outside writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The idea was so well received that it earned him a staff writer position on the new Deep Space Nine series. Still, every outside script gets a polish from an in-house writer, and Brannon Braga did the honors here. He reportedly lobbied to swap scripts with Ronald Moore (giving Moore "Relics") to work on this. I've heard two conflicting versions of the tale -- that Braga was a lifelong Western fan itching to work on this; and that he knew little or nothing of Westerns, but still thought this sounded like fun.

The original plot would have pitted "Sheriff Worf" against some sort of robber land baron, but Ira Steven Behr over on Deep Space Nine heard about this episode coming up on The Next Generation and suggested a more specific Western homage, to the film Rio Bravo. It was a win all around, letting the episode feature more fun Western conventions -- complete with the Enterprise riding off into the sunset at the episode's end. It also gave a welcome upgrade to Counselor Troi's originally envisioned role as a saloon dancing girl; the cross-type, gender-blind placement of her as "the mysterious stranger" is a vast improvement.

The "Spaghetti Westerns" which this episode lovingly references were, of course, directed primarily by Italian filmmakers. So, fittingly enough, there wasn't an American directing this episode either. Patrick Stewart drew this assignment, and reportedly watched one or two Westerns every night in the run-up to filming it. From his "studies," he incorporated several shots that were specific homages to films like Rio Bravo and Shane.

The episode actually filmed on location for a single day, on the "Western street" backlot at a rival studio. Stewart made the most of that day. There are lots of wonderful, wide angle shots that show off the dusty streets of Deadwood and evoke still more classic films.

The episode gives a lot of actors a chance to shine. Michael Dorn again proves himself a skilled comedian throughout the episode, from lines like "I'm beginning to see the appeal of this program!" to the wicked grin that accompanies his finger-gun in the final scene. Marina Sirtis really sinks her teeth into her unexpected role here, adopting a fun drawl and getting several laughs of her own. (In a scene where she attempted to blow smoke rings, Dorn reportedly joked that she needed to stop being so funny in "his" episode.)

There are even good moments for the characters that don't get to join in on the holodeck fun. Patrick Stewart bristles with irritation in an opening scene that hints to us why Picard never studied an instrument before his experience in "The Inner Light" -- he gets no uninterrupted free time. Jonathan Frakes bullies his way through Riker's loud rehearsal as Beverly Crusher's newest actor (complete with a callback to Data's fantastic poetry).

Of course, its Brent Spiner who really gets to cut loose this episode. This isn't simply Data imitating human behavior to varying effectiveness; this is Spiner getting to play multiple other characters. They're mostly a great success (even if his take on Eli Hollander doesn't really match much with the guest star who plays the character before the holodeck glitch). Spiner is perhaps a bit over the top outside the holodeck -- for example, when he walks bowlegged over to the plant and spits in it. But his menace as Frank Hollander is fantastic.

Joining in on the fun is composer Jay Chattaway, who underscores the episode with plenty of authentic Hollywood Western style music. In fact, to record this score, he hired Tommy Morgan to play harmonica -- the same performer who played on most of those classic Western soundtracks.

Other observations:
  • This episode was first meant to be called "The Good, the Bad, and the Klingon" before the far better title "A Fistful of Datas" was dreamed up. The new title was so well-liked that for the rest of the series' run, the writers would joke about doing a follow-up episode called "For a Few Datas More."
  • This was another episode where the series won a technical Emmy; it won for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Drama Series.
  • I love Picard's demure "I'm not much of an actor," for the sheer irony of it coming from Patrick Stewart's mouth.
  • Having the characters refer to this time period as the "Ancient West" seems like a fun detail... but when you really think about it, would we today call the 1400s "ancient?"
  • Can you imagine how big a cowboy hat has to be to fit a Klingon?
  • No holodeck episode would be complete without a reference to Reginald Barclay; Worf's disapproval of the prostitute in the program is quite funny.
  • Brent Spiner has spoken often of how difficult it was to work with the various "cat actors" who played Spot over the years. Given that, I have to wonder how long it took to get the footage in this episode, where the cat actually does exactly what it's supposed to in two rather long, unbroken takes.
  • When Frank Hollander comes to visit his son Eli in jail, then proceeds to threaten Worf, Eli appears to be "played" by a very fake looking mannequin posed behind Brent Spiner.
  • Worf has some serious heretofore unknown engineering skills; rigging up that communicator-powered force field seems like no small feat. (Still, the writers had to do a sci-fi take on the classic "steel plate bullet-proof vest" gag.)
  • There's an unfortunate touch of homophobia in the final act, when Worf is unable to conceal his alarm and disgust at seeing Data-as-Annie. Worf just survived a shootout, and it's receiving a quite chaste hug from a man that he can't face?
This episode is fun enough overall to forgive going back to the malfunctioning holodeck well again. I give it a B+.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Double Digits

Today marks a mind-boggling milestone for this blog: its 10th anniversary.

When I started up Heimlich Maneuvers 10 years ago today (and nearly 3500 posts ago), a lot of my friends were into the blogging thing. A lot of us had recently been laid off from Decipher, and we were maybe looking for a way to keep in touch with each other as we departed Virginia in every direction imaginable. (Facebook wasn't yet the widely known phenomenon that could have served that purpose.)

Gradually, the blog morphed into what it is today: a place where I mostly review pop culture -- movies, TV shows, books, board games, music -- occasionally interrupted by vacation stories. I probably would have given it up a long time ago, but to my surprise, I have a tiny handful of readers who seem to enjoy it. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you still get what you're looking for.

I make no promises to still be at this in another 10 years. (Especially if I ever actually redirect my writing efforts into my take on the Great American Novel or something.) But for now, I'll keep my opinions coming. I have plenty of them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Melinda

This week's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a curious mix of moving things forward while tap dancing in place a bit at the same time.

On the one hand, things did happen. May actually began to doubt Coulson. Jiaying revealed herself as Skye's mother, a secret you might well have expected her to hang onto for a few episodes. Skye made big strides in mastering her new powers, while we the audience finally learned what power Raina got. (With great spikes come great auspex ability. Or something like that.) This is all a lot more forward momentum than the show had in its early season one days.

But then, from another perspective, everyone pretty well ended the episode where they began. Skye is still at the Inhuman mountain hideaway. May is still being wined and dine by "the real S.H.I.E.L.D." Coulson and Hunter are still on the run, and no closer to contacting Ward as they'd planned to do last week. So really, you could be forgiven for feeling like this episode didn't amount to much.

What it ultimately comes down to is whether you enjoyed finally getting to see May's backstory, the origin of "the Cavalry." I happened to like it quite a bit. As more hints had been dropped about Bahrain, it seemed more and more like nothing would reasonably explain the end result. What made May give up on field work, turn her back on Coulson, and let her marriage crumble? Well, I can believe that being forced to kill a little girl might just do it. (Even if you could justify it by arguing that she'd was an irredeemably evil little girl.)

What I enjoyed about May's backstory, though, was not just how it explained the person she became, but how it actually revealed in her another layer of emotional strength and character. She'd had about as miserable an experience with a super-powered individual as you could imagine, but she had still found it in herself to try to help and protect Skye after her transformation. And, for that matter, she'd allowed herself to get close to Skye before that, in the role of her S.O., a role that was in at least some ways rather maternal. It was a great episode for May's character, and Ming-Na Wen did a great job with it -- in particular, in showing how different May was at two very different times in her life.

So even though the series may have pumped the brakes a bit with this episode, I was still mostly entertained. I give the episode a B. (Though that said, I do hope the pace picks back up a bit next week.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hollow Music

Many weeks ago, I went to a special concert by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. They presented two hours of music composed by Danny Elfman, all from the films of Tim Burton. Over a dozen movies were covered, spanning their decades-long collaboration. Much of the music presented came from soundtrack albums that have been a much-loved part of my collection for some time. But some of it, though taken from movies I have seen, was music with which I'm far less familiar.

An example from this latter category was a suite of the score to Sleepy Hollow. I don't remember thinking too much of the movie when I saw it in the theater back in 1999. It had undeniable style, as all Tim Burton films do, but I seem to remember thinking it a bit silly and lackluster. Not terrible, but quite forgettable. And among what I'd forgotten was Danny Elfman's score. But hearing it presented in concert made me immediately set about tracking down a copy of the album online. Whatever deficiencies there were in the film did not extend to the music.

Danny Elfman's work for Sleepy Hollow is a perfect display of the twisted dichotomy he brings to a score. The music is flowing and beautiful on its surface, while simultaneously having creepy, fresh-crawling qualities lingering just beneath the surface. Nowhere is this exemplified more than in the movie's main title track, featuring a single boy soprano "aaaaah-ing" out a crystal clear melody. It feels as though it should bring a tear to the corner of your eye, but in actuality it makes you recoil minutely with the feeling that something simply isn't right.

This same melody -- and similar techniques -- permeate the score. "Sweet Dreams" don't sound as advertised, and "More Dreams" are even darker. Confrontations are personified with power in "The Church Battle," "The Windmill," "The Chase," and "The Final Confrontation." (Fun Elfman trivia: all of his scores have a cue titled "The Final Confrontation," unless the story of the film simply won't accommodate it.) The best tracks of all are "The Tree of Death," a cue which pulls the tension tauter and tauter over nine exhilarating minutes, and "End Credits," which swings the other way by condensing all of the film's clever musical ideas into a loaded three minutes.

For a fan of scores in general, and of Danny Elfman in particular, it's a shame this album wasn't in my collection before. But I can thank the Colorado Symphony Orchestra concert (which was amazing,by the way) for leading me to correct this oversight. Because of films where I think Elfman's work was even stronger, I'd probably give this album a B+. Still, a used copy of Sleepy Hollow wasn't at all hard for me to track down, and I'd certainly recommend fans of the genre do the same.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Wars to Come

Game of Thrones returned last night for season 5, with a good enough episode. It was perhaps hamstrung a bit by the need to reintroduce characters (and their current circumstances) that many viewers haven't checked in on in a year. Consequently, things got a bit exposition-laden in spots. Still, there were plenty of great scenes all the same.

An interesting change for me going into this season is in how recently I've read the books on which the show is based. During the four prior seasons, it had been years since I'd read George R.R. Martin's original books. This time, it's been only months since my stitched-together reading of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. I'm already finding that interesting, as the show begins to drift a bit farther from the source material.

It turns out that one key decision made last season by the showrunners has cast a shadow of doubt over everything this season. It spoils nothing for TV-only fans to say that I'm referring to the way Lady Stoneheart did not appear in the season finale as expected. Since then, the showrunners have gone on record saying this was no delay; they claim to be cutting that subplot entirely. And while, granted, it hasn't led very far in the books yet, it was such a jaw dropper there, and felt like surely it will lead to something important. So the question for book readers is, what will the show do to patch the hole Lady Stoneheart leaves behind?

More importantly, the fact that they changed that on the show means book readers are now more in suspense than they've ever been watching the show. And it's wonderful! In some storylines, we're completely in the dark. What are Brienne and Podrick going to be doing this season? Clearly something, since the premiere checked back in on them. Where are Littlefinger and Sansa headed? No idea, but I'm loving that TV Sansa seems to be a good deal more shrewd than her book counterpart.

Even when things unfolded closely to the book, there were questions. For example, the episode kicked off with a flashback, showing us the prophecy Cersei received as a teenager. This dominated her storyline in book four, doled out one tiny nugget each chapter until the whole finally took shape near the end of the book. Here, it was revealed all at once. (And quite effectively, in a very creepy sequence.) But very notably, the show left out the "valonqar" piece of the prophecy, predicting Cersei's own death. So, what to make of that? In the book, Cersei fears one particular person because of this. Clever readers have an alternative suspect in mind. But on the show, none of that seems to be in play.

Or take things up at the Wall. The execution of Mance Rayder does happen in the books. But given some book events that had happened to Jon before this moment, can we be sure that some of the aftermath of this execution will still happen? And how much more awful was it to watch someone being burned alive on screen?

The show actually added several very powerful touches like that, throughout the episode. The stones on the eyes of the dead had been shown before, but that made it no less creepy to see them on Tywin early in this episode. The craftiness of Margaery Tyrell was a welcome addition too. We don't really know that she isn't that crafty in the books, as she isn't a point-of-view character. Still, she certainly seems more naive than the far more compelling TV version.

With so many characters and plots to spin back up, some people made no appearance this week. The showrunners have said Bran will be taking the year off, so no surprise there. Theon was also missing this week -- though his captors the Boltons got a mention. But perhaps the most surprising omission this week was Arya. Since literally the last shot of the last season was of her, it's a bit surprising not to check back in with her now.

Still, the show did a pretty solid job of getting most of the balls juggled back into the air. I'd give this season premiere a B+.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Uncovering the Skeletons

Writer-director-producer-actor pair Jay and Mark Duplass have been slowly building up indie cred with a string of critically well-regarded movies. I gave them a lot of rope after thoroughly enjoying Jeff, Who Lives at Home. They hanged themselves with that rope with the abysmal Your Sister's Sister. (And landed somewhere between the extremes on Safety Not Guaranteed.) Now I've watched the latest produced by Mark Duplass, and I've decided I probably just don't like these brothers' taste in movies.

The Skeleton Twins is the type of film that comes along every so often. One or two actors generally known for broad comedy take on a more serious story (sometimes with comedic elements) and plays it straight. Critics swarm. I'm often drawn in right along with them, because I've found that skilled comedians typically play drama more effectively than dramatic actors can play comedy.

This time around, the comedians in question are two deserving ones, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. They star as fraternal twins Maggie and Milo, replete with emotional issues -- Maggie is serially cheating on her husband, Milo is trying to rekindle a fling with his old high school teacher. Both resent their absent father and their flighty mother. The movie begins with Maggie's own suicide attempt interrupted by the news that her brother has attempted suicide. Yes, it all sounds depressingly serious. But Maggie and Milo both have a weirdly twisted view of everything, a sort of gallows humor about life in general that only they share. The movie isn't relentlessly dark.

The performances are very good. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader make a likeable and believable pair. They're more than capable of handling the movie's more serious scenes, and they're experts at drawing little laughs in the middle of heavier moments. One particular scene, a lip-synched pseudo-karaoke song in the middle of the movie, plays out for virtually the entire length of the song -- for far longer than it should be effective, yet it ends up being one of the best scenes in the movie, the one sequence of unbridled joy. Luke Wilson provides a fun counter-vibe as Maggie's perpetually upbeat husband, while Ty Burrell (another skilled comedian showing us he can play drama) plays Milo's complicated high school teacher.

However, the movie doesn't really have much to say. In the way that people battling depression sometimes zombiewalk through life with a thousand-year stare, aimlessly looking for something to kindle interest, the movie fumbles around with no aspirations at being more than a simple "slice of life" tale. It has no desire to comment on the reality it's presenting; it only wants to present it.

My attention was wandering long before the final credits rolled; not even the good performances were enough to really hold me. I think the movie will score with an audience who recognizes themselves in it -- people particularly close with a brother or sister, or people who have themselves battled depression. But it doesn't do enough to let the outsiders in. I give it a C-.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Sound of the Whip

I've been enjoying the hell out of the soundtrack to the movie Whiplash. I mention this only in part to recommend the soundtrack itself; mostly, I'm looking for an excuse to once again declare how brilliant the movie is, and to encourage everyone to see it. But the soundtrack stands well on its own, an assemblage of a rather wide variety of music.

Jazz obviously plays an important part in the movie, and the soundtrack includes all the major songs. There are classics like John Wasson's "Caravan" -- specifically the 9-minute version that figures so prominently in the last act of the film. There's also "Intoit," as originally recorded by Stan Getz. There are new jazz compositions from Tim Simonec, including "Upswingin'," a masterfully balanced jumble of different time signatures. And of course, there's the track from which the movie takes its name, Hank Levy's 7/4 rock-jazz fusion "Whiplash."

If you're just looking to relive the movie, there are a few brief tracks of dialogue featuring J.K. Simmons in the role that won him an Oscar. (Including, naturally, the monologue in which his character articulates the philosophy behind his draconian behavior.)

And then there's the film score itself, composed by Justin Hurwitz. The album's liner notes discuss the challenge of finding the right underscore for the film. Just "more jazz" would have simply been too much, and Hurwitz wisely provides only one such track, a rabbit-paced "Overture" to open the film. There was brief consideration of using an electronic score, but that was almost immediately dismissed as inappropriate.

But Hurwitz found the answer in blending those two approaches -- he created an electronic-style score using conventional jazz band instruments. Recording samples of trumpets, trombones, drums, upright bass, and piano, he built up an underscore note by note, an unsettling soundscape of drones and rhythms that ratchet up the film's already considerable tension. Stylistically, it feels very much like an organic version of the music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (And as the former film's music won that duo an Oscar, Hurwitz has placed himself in good company.)

With music to suit just about any mood, the Whiplash soundtrack has been in heavy rotation for me since I picked it up. A couple of dud tracks bring it down to an A-, but I still highly recommend it. (And, once again, the movie itself.)