Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Atomic Job

I do love a heist story. So naturally, this week's installment of Agent Carter was right up my alley. Between the attempt to steal a dead body, a key, and two atomic bombs, we had heists galore!

I also thoroughly enjoyed the light touch of this episode too. There were lots of moments of uncharacteristically broad comedy, but I felt that they worked within the format: Peggy zapping Ray Wise again and again with the memory erasure device, the classic "slo-mo team walk" moment for the unlikely spy quintet, or the simple fun of Chadwick unable to sleep next to a lethal and mumbling Whitney Frost.

There were also a lot of good character moments this week. Peggy pulled off arguably her most convincing alias yet, at first almost unrecognizable as an airhead office girl. Sousa had the delightfully derailed proposal to Violet (and the unfortunate heartbreak later in the episode). Jarvis came through under pressure as he defused an atomic warhead. (Two. Two warheads. Nothing like making a soufflé.)

Then there was the addition of Rose and Samberly on the infiltration team. Their odd flirtation may have gone a bit over the top at times, but each individually was a lot of fun. (Particularly overeager but quite capable Rose.) It felt like both characters were speaking for all the nobodies on all the TV shows that have ever been, standing up and demanding their moment. It brought a smile to my face.

I'm less sure about this new villain Manfredi. I'm a fan of Ken Marino, and hopeful I'll enjoy him as much here as I have in other television series. But he basically came off as a more cartoonish version of Daredevil's Kingpin in this episode. (And for the record, I never really sparked to Kingpin like so many did, perhaps the main reason why I liked but did not love the first season of that series like so many did.)

Still, I felt like I was grinning almost the whole way through this episode. It was definitely my favorite of the second season so far. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Home Again

No, last night's episode of The X-Files was not a sequel to the fan favorite "Home." (Unpopular side note: I never really cared for that one.) Instead, it was a fresh idea blending a monster-of-the-week installment with a personal drama for Scully.

The Scully plot line was for me the most successful part of the episode. Most episodes of The X-Files don't really give Mulder and Scully much to do but play CSI by way of The Twilight Zone. They react, but they don't necessarily get to emote. Either because this new mini-season is so short, or because the writers knew they might need to tempt back David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson with meatier material, this episode really gave the characters something significant on a personal level.

The thread of William, the son they gave up, seems to be woven as a continuing element of this season, and I like what that's done for the episodes and the characters. This episode showed us that Scully's regrets about that decision are profound, even more than the recent episode let on. The episode also put her through the wringer dealing with her mother's death. It stirred up memories of early X-Files -- not just in the coma flashbacks actually inserted into the episode (how young they looked!), but in the first season "Beyond the Sea," where Scully faced the death of her father. I'm not sure Gillian Anderson ever had as much drama in an X-Files episode as she had here, and she handled it quite well.

The monster of the week, the Trashman, was fun overall, if a little bit inconsistent and scattershot at times. The core idea of a monster wished to life as an avenging force was clever, and the look of the creature itself was cool. I also thought the shocking violence worked, surely right up to the razor edge of what could be allowed on network TV. But I don't know that we needed the little bait and switch about who "made" it. When the monster went after someone trying to help the homeless, I'm not sure Mulder's previous dialogue about her self-serving nature was sufficient justification for me. And I think the creature's apparent teleportation ability actually undermined its scariness a bit.

Also a bit forced for me was the way the script tried to stitch these two disparate elements together. Gillian Anderson sold the hell out of the final "I hope we didn't treat him like trash" monologue, enough to make me buy it overall, but I still think it's a bit of a mental hike from "loss in the family" to "trash monster." Perhaps I've been spoiled by years of Supernatural, which through many peaks and valleys in its long run has always done well in metaphorically mirroring a one-off monster to Sam and Dean's current personal relationship.

But overall, this was a pretty good episode. I give "Home Again" a solid B.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Smoke and Mirrors

Over the weekend, I caught back up with last week's episode of Agent Carter. Personally, I felt a bit underwhelmed.

I mean, I get what they were going for. This episode was basically the "origin story" for Peggy Carter (and her current adversary, Whitney Frost). And given that gender equality is the message underpinning the entire series, it makes sense that we would get this superhero origin story just as we've previously seen them for Captain America, Iron Man, and so forth. But the thing is, most superhero origin stories don't strike me as terribly interesting. They're often too conventional and predictable. And even when they're not, they don't necessarily provide much insight into the superhero and his or her... uh... superheroics.

I felt all of this in modest measures as I watched Peggy's flashbacks. She's motivated by the death of a loved one -- major comic trope. She didn't always possess the confidence she exudes today -- but I never would have assumed she did. It wasn't "boring" exactly, but it certainly didn't feel like information I needed to understand Carter, certainly not after spending eleven episodes and multiple movies with her.

Whitney Frost's origins were even less essential. I think the season had already done enough to show us her frustrations with her expected role in this time and place, as well as her quiet rebellion against that. Adding a creepy stepfather figure in her past didn't really up the ante... though at least they didn't go for the full cliche in his level of abuse.

Take away the flashbacks, and there wasn't all that much to the rest of the episode. Indeed, things may even have regressed: we're no closer to curing Wilkes' ghostly condition, and a different nuisance has sat down in the musical chair to impede Carter's investigation (just as Thompson was leaving it).

Nothing about the episode struck me as being done poorly. It simply felt inessential to me. And in a season that consists of just eight hours, I'd hope to get by without an inessential episode. I give "Smoke and Mirrors" a C+.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Lilt from the Ground Up

Netflix is generally on the mark with suggestions it thinks I'll like, but occasionally it misses the mark. So it did with the drama Lilting.

Lilting is the story of Junn, an old Cambodian Chinese woman in an assisted living facility in London. Unable to speak English, she is suddenly cut off from the world by the death of her son, Kai. Unexpectedly, Kai's roommate Richard reaches out to her, hiring an interpreter to help both of them communicate and share their grief. Junn doesn't know that her son was gay, and in a long term relationship with this "roommate."

There's a lot of raw emotion on display in the film. Junn's loss is conveyed through lingering camera shots, bittersweet flashbacks, and introspective dream sequences. Richard's loss is conveyed through more showy means: flowing tears and intense monologues delivered powerfully by Ben Whishaw, the one actor in this film you'd most likely recognize. (He starred in Perfume, and plays Q in Daniel Craig's James Bond films.) Nothing about what these characters are going through feels artificial or maudlin.

But the simple fact is, there just isn't much going on in this story. Richard has a secret; Junn doesn't know it; when he finally tells her, that will be it. The movie is only 90 minutes long, and it often feels strained and stretched just to fill that little time. A subplot involving Junn and an amorous senior in her home meanders before ending abruptly. Even the core scenes sometimes feel too long, as characters wait on translation between languages. (It certainly conveys the lack of communication and the sense of isolation, but it also certainly makes for a painfully slow pace.)

I'd like to say more, but the movie simply doesn't give me much to work with. Perhaps you could argue that makes it a good metaphor for the coming out process for many gays and lesbians? (In that until you do it, it seems like it's going to be a much bigger deal than it turns out to be.)

In any case, Lilting has good performances, in service of a truthful story. It's just not a very deep or engrossing story. I'd give the movie a C-.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

TNG Flashback: Homeward

Throughout the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the writers made a concerted effort at giving each character one last, showcase episode. In "Homeward," they seemingly gave a last showcase for a concept, Star Trek's signature non-interference philosophy, the Prime Directive.

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from Nikolai Rozhenko, Worf's adoptive brother. A brilliant but willful anthropologist, Nikolai hopes the Enterprise will help him save the people he's been observing on a doomed planet, Boraal II. When Picard flatly refuses, citing the Prime Directive, Nikolai takes matters into his own hands and secretly beams a group of villagers into a holodeck. Disguised as Boraalans, Nikolai and Worf must now enter the holodeck and foster the fiction that the villagers are migrating to a new home.

There's a certain "been there, done that" quality to "Homeward." The story of the doomed planet that the Prime Directive says we can't save was done in "Pen Pals." The story of the primitive society corrupted by contact with our heroes was done in "Who Watches the Watchers." Both of those episodes are actually alluded to here, when Crusher explains that she can't erase the memory of a Boraalan (an easy out used in the former episode and attempted in the latter).

"Homeward" also has a lot in common with the formula of many bad first season episodes, in that the conflict is created by (and centers around) a guest star character who is given far more to do in the story than the purely reactive main characters. No doubt aware of the flaws in building an episode this way, here the writers try to rope in one of the regulars by making the guest star a family member. In theory, Worf has some skin in the game because his brother Nikolai is at the heart of this storm. But to me, it comes off as irrelevant window dressing. Nikolai never really seems to be at much risk, so Worf doesn't really need to do much to help him.

In truth, it's quite murky to me whether Nikolai has actually done anything wrong. He's a civilian, remember, not a Starfleet officer. (We're specifically told he dropped out of Starfleet Academy.) The Prime Directive is one of Starfleet's directives, so it seems to me that Nikolai can't be prosecuted for violating it any more than I could be charged by the U.S. Army with insubordination. At worst, they could arrest him for using the Enterprise transporter and holodeck without permission -- but they don't even do that at the end of the episode. No, they actually leave him to continue tampering with Boraalan culture by living (and breeding) with them on a permanent basis!

There is an interesting Prime Directive discussion to be had here, even if I feel like the episode doesn't fully articulate it. On the one hand, you can see why the responsible thing would be an absolutist policy not to interfere with less advanced civilizations. If you're smart enough to recognize that interfering is bad, you also know you're not smart enough to be able to pick and choose rationalizations for sometimes violating that policy. On the other hand, this is a classic example of law without compassion. The result is order, but not justice. If Star Trek really aims to show us our own utopian future, surely we can do better than sit by idly and watch an entire species die when we could stop it.

The episode does sort of flirt with these issues through the character of Vorin. Nikolai tries to do "the right thing" by saving the village, but when one of its people is accidentally exposed to the truth, he's unable to handle it and ultimately commits suicide. This is the most resonant note in the episode, thanks in large part to a solid performance as Vorin from guest actor Brian Markinson. The producers clearly noticed him; he would show up in additional roles on the later Star Trek series. So too would guest star Penny Johnson, who appears here prior to her recurring role of Kasidy Yates on Deep Space Nine. (Though this isn't much of a part for her; she plays a doe-eyed damsel-in-distress type.) Veteran actor Paul Sorvino also does solid work here in the role of Nikolai.

Other observations:
  • Another aspect that really gives this episode a "first season" vibe is that a holodeck malfunction figures prominently in the plot. (Though at least here, it's not done to create jeopardy, but to put a ticking clock on the crisis.)
  • It always helps the sense of reality when the show films in an actual location. Here, they return to the ever-popular Bronson Canyon for a few scenes.
  • On the other hand, the purse strings were drawn tight when it came to casting background actors. The supposed "village" of Boraalans seems to consist of about a dozen people. That doesn't leave me hopeful for the survival of their species, even after their relocation.
  • In an act of mind-boggling weirdness to conclude the episode, Nikolai gives Worf the Boraalans' village chronicle as a souvenir. It's the only tie these people have to their old home, and it's not Nikolai's in the first place, but he just gives it away. And Worf, in what could possibly be construed as a Prime Directive violation, just takes it.
This episode's heart was in the right place, but the results are still rather lackluster. I give "Homeward" a C+.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

But Which "Best Picture" is the BEST Picture?

For the second year in a row, I've managed to see all of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar before the ceremony itself. Last year, I used that to blog about which "horse" you should back, depending on your movie tastes. This year, since I managed to see them all with weeks to spare (rather than days), my version of the post can help you actually see the movie that's right for you.

Here's a list of the eight Best Picture nominees, in the order I personally prefer them. Included are links to my original reviews.

#1) The Martian. I have a reputation with many people as a film snob, but among this year's Best Picture nominations, my pick would be one of the big-budget, stalwartly mass market options. (Even my true favorite movie of the year -- not nominated for Best Picture -- is the widely seen Inside Out.) This big crowd-pleaser is still smart. While that can also be said of Mad Max: Fury Road (we'll get to that), I found The Martian's thrills to be more emotional than visceral, and I'm a sucker for emotion in film. That's what put it on top for me. That, plus the real and entertaining performances from Matt Damon and the all-star cast. And I simply found The Martian to be the most fun of this year's slate.

#2) Room. As I just said, I want a movie to stir emotion. And in a weird way, Room stirs the same feelings of triumph as The Martian. But man, does it put you through the wringer first. If you're not afraid of some truly dark subject matter, and want the full spectrum of laughter, tears, tension, shock, horror, and more, Room is for you. It also boasts (in young Jacob Tremblay) a child performance of a caliber that only comes along once in a decade.

#3) Spotlight. If "based on a true story" appeals to you, Spotlight is the movie for you. It's one of two films in this year's slate meant to inspire outrage over true events. It's the more "conventional" of the two, but that's not a bad thing in this case. It's raw and powerful as it takes you through heartbreak into outrage, and it's loaded with wisely muted performances from a brilliant ensemble cast. The story is the star, perfect for a movie about reporters.

#4) The Big Short. The other big "angertainment" movie among this year's nominees, The Big Short is more fun in its approach and execution. It's almost satirical in its playfulness, but still finds room for some strong performances. Compared to Spotlight, this one won't leave you drained and hollow, but some would say that makes it more approachable. In that way, The Big Short breaks from the "Oscar formula" without really breaking away from the Oscar formula. It's probably folly to hope for a real departure like The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road winning, so this might be the more realistic option.

#5) Bridge of Spies. Compared to the movies I've listed so far, the subject matter here is easier and the morals far less ambiguous. It sounds superficial, but this is your movie if you like Steven Spielberg and/or Tom Hanks. It's a fine movie, a good story of an unlikely hero stepping up in a time of need and winning in the end. But it's not the best work from either of Spielberg or Hanks.

#6) Mad Max: Fury Road. If you read my blog, and you're the sort of person who would like this movie, you've already seen this movie. I suspect I don't need to describe its appeal as much as I need to explain why it's so far down my list. I can only point back to my preference for emotional thrills over visceral ones; this movie offers more of the latter. Even then, I felt it had my eyes popping more than it had my blood pumping. Your post-apocalyptic mileage may vary.

#7) Brooklyn. Here's your tried-and-true, patented "Oscar movie." Girl meets world, girl becomes a woman. Tribulations, and triumph. This is also your movie if you're a fan of expert scene and costume design bringing the past to life. Not too long ago, this movie might have been the favorite for Best Picture. This year, it's the long shot.

#8) The Revenant. It's hard to know who to recommend this movie to, and not just because I disliked it. I mean, the main thing it has going for its carefully staged, painterly visuals. But if you like that, I think you should be backing George Miller. The visuals of Mad Max: Fury Road are just as thought out and lavishly realized as anything Alejandro González Iñárritu presents in The Revenant; Miller just doesn't need to be as conspicuous about it with difficult, long takes. I guess The Revenant is your movie if you love revenge stories, and nothing else I described above sounds good to you. Otherwise, I got nothin'.

What am I hoping for on Oscar night? That Best Picture goes to The Martian, Room, or Spotlight. But since The Martian and Room don't actually look to have a chance, I suppose I'm rooting for Spotlight. I'll still be content if The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, or Mad Max: Fury Road takes top honors. If Brooklyn (no chance) or The Revenant steals the Oscar? Blech.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster

"I forgot how much fun these cases could be." So said Scully during this week's new episode of The X-Files, perfectly summing up the complete turnaround from the two forgettable episodes thus far.

X-Files veteran Darin Morgan wrote this week's "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster," tapping back into the comic zaniness of his original series masterpieces "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" and "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose." But it wasn't just that he seemed to have a great time with this script; this felt like the first episode of this revival where David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson seemed to genuinely enjoy being back (for more than a paycheck).

So much about this episode just plain worked. (From here on, there be SPOILERS!) There was the casting of Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby as the hilariously named Guy Mann (and humorously leveraging his role as a werewolf in What We Do in the Shadows). There was the wonderful reversal of format early on, with Mulder having a "losing the faith" crisis of skepticism as Scully tried to encourage him to be the zany Mulder she (and we) loved. There was the acknowledgement of how the very idea of The X-Files plays in this age of smartphones -- and a series of great resulting sight gags. And of course, the very idea of reversing the were-creature myth.

Almost any given scene in this episode would alone make the whole revival venture worthwhile -- Mann's ridiculous flashback of Scully coming on to him, Mulder's close encounter with a creepy motel owner, the visit with the self-medicating psychiatrist... I could go on and on, basically just recapping the entire episode.

I may have a soft spot for this tonal shift, as some of the comedic episodes of classic X-Files were my favorites, but this episode really did it for me. I give it an A. It would be too much of a good thing, I'm sure, for there to be another wacky installment like this among this tiny batch of six episodes, but I'm very glad we got this one.