Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes

The Orville tried to keep you guessing in its most recent episode, with a story that kept reconfiguring into something new with almost every act.

Captain Mercer is ready to "go public" with his growing relationship with Janel Tyler. The two decide to do it in a big way, with a vacation together off ship. But when their shuttle is captured by the Krill, Tyler becomes a pressure point for them to extract secrets from Mercer. An opportunity to escape comes when the Krill ship is attacked, but by this point, the situation between Mercer and Tyler has become very different. Meanwhile, aboard the Orville, Malloy expresses interest in pursuing the command track.

It's fun how many turns the plot takes in this episode. What starts out as an apparently light-hearted relationship story abruptly turns into a "captured by the enemy" story. It then becomes an even more direct sequel to the first season episode that introduced the Krill, when we discover (SPOILER!) that Janel Tyler is actually the alien Teleya, returning to seek vengeance on Mercer. And then the episode just as suddenly shifts into a sort of "Enemy Mine" mode, as the two are trapped on a planet together and forced to trust each other.

I do wish the episode could have delved a little deeper into the romantic angle here. It seems significant to me that as early as this season's premiere, Mercer was still trying to get back together with his ex-wife. Tyler was his first relationship after that, and it was no small thing for him to move on. So the truth about Tyler really ought to pack an emotional sucker punch -- an idea I feel only got a bit of lip service without really being explored. I'm not looking for Ed to declare vengeance back on Teleya (the Star Trek homage, of course, is the "show mercy to an enemy" route), but I feel like a greater acknowledgement of what Ed risked and lost was in order.

I thought the Malloy story line, light though it was, did the better job of getting at something deeper and true. The subplot started off as comic relief, with a character who has been used almost exclusively for comic relief in the past. It seemed like this was another joke, a scheme to (as Grayson put it) "pick up chicks." And it exactly the point that it seemed this way. Malloy is tired of being a joke, and was making a play to be taken seriously. The story line was hardly profound, but it was honest -- sometimes people don't want to be "typecast"; sometimes the "clown" gets tired of performing.

The episode was playfully fun in how it kept the audience guessing. I give it a B. It was a nice installment in The Orville's growing continuity, and I hope it's picked up on again down the road.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Brother

The second season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery was a high-intensity thrill ride with movie-caliber visual effects. But it also had many great moments for character throughout -- and it was here that the episode really shined.

Captain Christopher Pike assumes command of the Discovery after his ship, the Enterprise, is critically damaged. He's leading a mission to explore a strange transmission that appeared in space. Discovery finds a powerful gravity vortex and dense asteroid field -- but more importantly, locates a crashed Starfleet ship that has been missing almost a year. The crew must mount a rescue in this seemingly impossible situation.

Though Pike casts a long shadow in Star Trek lore, the truth is we've really never seen that much of him. The Jeffrey Hunter incarnation in Star Trek's original pilot is well over half the meaningful footage of the man; the version from "The Menagerie" had no personality to draw on, while Bruce Greenwood's take in the "Kelvin universe" movies was basically just there to mentor Kirk for two or three scenes. The truth is, large though Pike looms, he's sort of a blank canvas to paint on.

The Discovery writers and actor Anson Mount did just that, serving us up a fun loving and breezy captain, easily among the most laid back we've seen in all of Star Trek. Sure, you've gotta bridge a mental gap to get from the "ready to quit Starfleet" version we saw in "The Cage" to this -- but this is going to be a lot more enjoyable to watch for multiple episodes.

Another engaging new character was Reno, played by Tig Notaro. I already find myself wanting her presence on the show full time. It's great to see someone who is whip-smart and sarcastic without also being disdainful and cruel. Someone who is as dry as a desert without being robotic or inhumanly cold. She seems like the sort of person who'd either get along wonderfully or horribly with Stamets, and I can't wait to see either.

The character highlights weren't just limited to the new characters, though. The moments between Michael Burnham and Sarek played well, particularly the extended conversation in Burnham's quarters. I like how the scene leaned into Vulcan directness, and was a moment of revelation without being a bitter confrontation. Burnham challenges Sarek on having an ulterior motive with Spock when adopting her. Sarek readily admits it, and the two move on without... well, hurt "feelings." Very true to both characters.

As we've come to expect, every moment with Tilly was solid gold. The comic relief with Pike was fun, but the more poignant moments with Stamets were the ones I found more satisfying. I've heard some fans compare Tilly to Barclay from The Next Generation, but I don't find the comparison apt at all. Tilly wears her heart on her sleeve in a way no Star Trek character ever has, and it's great to see the writers use this new tool they have. Tilly and Burnham may have been the key friendship of season one, but it already looks like the focus will be moving to Tilly and Stamets in what we see ahead.

Though the episode cheekily denied showing us much of the inside of the Enterprise, we did get inside Spock's quarters at the very end, chock full of little nods to continuity. We saw meaningful props recreated from the original series, and an update to that ever-present metal grating we saw in all the crew quarters of the original series. Other fun nods to Trek continuity included a glimpse of a character in what looked like a precursory version of Geordi's VISOR, and Pike finding a fortune cookie fortune under Lorca's desk that meaningful nodded to the Star Trek pilot "The Cage." (It also seemed to tease a return of Lorca some day, in his Prime Universe version.)

While I applaud the work of the visual effects team, which delivered an action sequence as high octane and expensive-looking as any Star Trek we've seen on the movie screen (including recently), the nature of the action itself is really where the episode fell flat for me. The sequence in the asteroid field (and all the running and jumping aboard the crashed Federation ship) felt jumbled and unclear. It was action for the sake of action, and the logistics of it just didn't come across very clearly. Adding to that was the sense that it didn't really feel much like Star Trek, particularly with the podracer-style sound design that seemed to be dropped in straight from Episode I.

Had the action been more organic and not a clear indulgence to short attention spans, I think this episode could have contended for the series' best to date. As it was, it was a mark against an otherwise enjoyable hour that tantalizingly set up the season to come. I give "Brother" a B+.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Upgrade Grade

Somewhere between "officially" queuing Upgrade as a movie I wanted to see and actually getting around to seeing it, I managed to forget absolutely everything about the movie. What exactly it was, where I'd heard of it, whether anyone had told me they liked it -- all of that wiped away.

For my readers' sake, here's what to expect. Upgrade is set in a sci-fi near-future. Grey Trace is paralyzed in a violent mugging, left powerless and grief-stricken at the loss of his wife. A wealthy and reclusive inventor comes to him with a proposition. For the price of his silence, Grey can be the test subject for a computer implant named STEM, a device that will act as intermediary between his brain and body and allow him to walk again. The procedure is a success, but with unanticipated consequences. STEM is sentient, and while subservient to Grey's control, its abilities present Grey with dark opportunities for revenge. Soon Grey is hunting his attackers, evading police investigators, and trying to stay one step ahead of the inventor who doesn't want his technology misused.

Upgrade was a pleasant little surprise, an interesting hybrid of different elements. In some ways, it plays out like a superhero origin story (right down to the not-so-compelling "fridging" of a love interest as motivation for the hero). The gradual discovery of special powers may be familiar territory, but it's treated here with enough novelty and cleverness to entertain.

There are also some horror movie elements here. That's not surprising when you consider this movie was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the writer behind the early Saw films and the Insidious franchise. It's even distributed by a subsidiary of Blumhouse Productions, a studio noted for horror films. But Upgrade isn't concocted to make you jump or cringe. There's just something inherently horrific in the notion that your thoughts and actions might not be entirely your own.

There's also obvious horror in the incredibly graphic violence of the film. But the visceral thrills aren't limited to the viscera. Fist fights abound through this film, and each is top notch. The choreography is brilliantly conceived, the execution intense and effective, and the photography an integral part of the style. Indeed, there's great camera work throughout the film, full of strange angles anchored to people instead of the environments they're in, use of both long takes and quick editing in different moments, and a devotion to the effective use of shadow and light.

There are great performances too. Logan Marshall-Green has a perfect physicality as Grey Trace, creating a movement language that's clearly robotic without seeming overworked. Betty Gabriel (an underappreciated highlight of Get Out -- so underappreciated I didn't mention her in my review) gets to engage in noir-esque hard-boiled cop cliches that feel refreshed by putting a woman of color in the role. Simon Maiden is fun and chilling as the voice of STEM.

Fun as the ride often is, though, it's also completely nonsensical. The tone of the ending is great, but the logic is non-existent. Somewhere between five seconds and five minutes after the end credits roll, you'll say to yourself, "but wait... if that.... then this!" And the whole story will completely unravel. Things simply wouldn't have happened the way they do, and while it's possible to overlook that in the moment in favor of the movie's better attributes, it increasingly impossible to do so after the fact.

If you're up for a violent, vengeful thriller with sci-fi overtones, Upgrade is for you. Its heart is in the right place, even if not all its plot threads are. I grade it a B.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Playing Favourite

Even before it was making its presence known on the awards circuit, I'd heard critics saying good things about the movie The Favourite. It was a nasty bit of court intrigue, full of venom and humor, they said -- a Baroque period Mean Girls. I'd heard great things about the cast: Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone vying for the affections of a Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman. Yet I hadn't been in any rush to see it.

That's because of the movie's director, Yorgos Lanthimos. He's the man behind the incredibly odd and rather off-putting The Lobster, a movie I thought started strong but faded fast. On a film podcast I listen to regularly, the hosts seize any opportunity to praise Lanthimos, and whenever they do, it's clear that my reaction to The Lobster is what the director strives for. All of his films challenge you to accept them on his terms. And while I applaud the integrity of the artist, I personally just couldn't get into the art.

But then it seemed that The Favourite was going to be a constant contender in awards season. And, more importantly, I heard a bit of critique that actually turned me around: The Favourite was, apparently, Yorgos Lanthimos' most "accessible" film. This was said almost like a lament by some critics, like a hope that people might discover this more "normal" film and then go crazy for all the director's previous strangeness. I took it as hope that this movie would be more narratively coherent and honest than what I'd seen in The Lobster. And happily, I was not disappointed.

Set in the reign of Queen Anne, The Favourite tracks two women who use every bit of charm, cunning, and craft at their disposal to position themselves prominently in the queen's court. You might think it a stilted period piece, but the interactions feel quite fresh and modern throughout. Part of this may be the unvarnished way in which the story treats the lesbian relationships among the women. Some of it is the language, which mixes equal parts poetry and lowbrow cursing. But much of it is simply that the ambition to be close to power and leech off it is pretty much eternal.

The performances are a highlight of the film. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman are all exceptional. It is the nature of the awards season that we'll be told some of them are leads and some supporting players, but it is in truth a powerful triad of women making this movie what it is. Knock any leg off this stool, and it would surely collapse. Weisz is in turns menacing and sweet, Stone in turns cruel and masked, Colman in turns pitiable and forceful. Also worth mentioning: Nicholas Hoult gives a hilarious comedic performance as an ambitious man also in the queen's orbit. (There's great humor throughout, in fact... though it drops off noticeably in the second half of the film.)

But I do have some reservations about the movie as well. It's divided into "chapters" like a Quentin Tarantino movie, each introduced with an on-screen title. It's hard to say what's worse about this, the obnoxious typesetting or the inflated sense of cleverness on display. For certain, it adds nothing of value to the movie and serves only to kick you out of the flow of things as it screams "look at me!"

The music is even more off-putting. From what I can tell online, it's uncredited, perhaps in part because it largely draws on existing classical composers. But in several scenes, original "music" blares over quiet scenes. It's percussive and conspicuous, pulling focus to itself and away from the action. It's also repetitive, making you long for the moment when the orchestra finally shuts up so you can go back to watching the movie.

I'm also unsure of the ending. It certainly has a point about power and ambition, and what they can lead to. But it makes this point in an oddball, "artsy" way, with multiple superimposed images and unsettling sound effects. Its a presentation style that has little similarity to any previous moment in the film, and so it feels out of place and ineffective even as it's rather succinct and correct, narratively.

Still, the performances of the three lead women, combined with the wit of the dialogue, was more than enough for me to enjoy this movie. I give The Favourite a B. I think plenty of people who normally avoid "Oscar bait" would actually like it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Maquis, Part II

In "The Maquis, Part I," Deep Space Nine managed to do compelling things with its own characters even as it pursued the primary agenda of setting up Star Trek: Voyager. This careful balancing act continued in "The Maquis, Part II."

Sisko's longtime friend Cal Hudson has turned his back on Starfleet to side with a rebel faction against the Cardassian Empire. Torn between duty and friendship, Sisko tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a worsening situation. But his own position is challenged at every step of the way: there's truth to the rebels' accusations against the Cardassians, and rescuing a captured Dukat is hardly something he's eager to be doing.

Many Deep Space Nine staff writers regard this two-part episode as a key moment in the growth of the show. The Next Generation had set up a utopian vision of life on Earth and aboard the Enterprise, but the feeling was that such creature comforts could only realistically extend so far. Writer Ira Steven Behr noted that for years, he'd been waiting to use the line "it's easy to be a saint in paradise" in a Star Trek episode. Here he finally got to do it, as Sisko sympathizes with the struggles of Federation citizens near the Cardassian border. Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe extended the sentiment even more, to this series itself, noting "it's easy to be a saint on the Enterprise, but it's a little bit harder to be a saint on DS9."

To help play up this contrast between the two then-running Star Trek series, the writers brought in a recurring admiral character from The Next Generation, Nechayev, to chastise Sisko for his handling of the situation. She thinks the Maquis can just be made to see reason, as simple as that. She really has no understanding or empathy for what life is really like so far from the heart of the Federation.

All this is a great setup for conflict, but it isn't paid off especially well in this episode. Sisko and Hudson talk past each other a lot. Each is impervious to the other's arguments, never giving an inch, so the entire hour feels like it's just marking time until they have a final clash. And then, they sort of don't. There's a bit of a dogfight between small ships at the end of the episode, but then Sisko just lets Hudson slip away -- and we never see him on the series again. It's not much of a reckoning.

This was apparently not the ending Ira Steven Behr wanted. His plan had been to kill off Hudson at the end of the story, a conclusion that show runner Michael Piller pulled rank on and changed. Reportedly, when Piller saw the finished episode, he decided Behr had been right, but it was too late to do anything. Nor could the writers later take advantage of the choice by continuing the Hudson storyline later; actor Bernie Casey apparently wasn't all that into Star Trek, deciding to take this role because he wanted to work with Avery Brooks. It seems as though once that box had been checked, he had no interest in returning to the show.

The story arc as a whole may be a bit flat, but there are some interesting character moments all the same. Quark, thrown in a holding cell with the Vulcan rebel Sakonna, manages to "out-logic" her on the relative costs of war and peace. (He fares better than Odo, who earlier gets a laugh noting the difficulty of interrogating a Vulcan.) Kira and Sisko each have a good moment when debating whether to mount a rescue for Gul Dukat; she's happy to let him rot, while Sisko notes that the Central Command leaving him for dead is reason enough to want him alive.

The writing of Dukat is a bit hit-and-miss in the episode. It seems arbitrary and silly that he's immune to a Vulcan mindmeld by pure mental discipline. But he lands a valid point when he mocks the Maquis for being too soft and Federation-minded in their reluctance to treat him harshly. On the bad side, seeds of a gross romantic pursuit of Kira are planted here, an ill-advised story line the writers would hang onto for years (and which Nana Visitor resisted as much as she could, saying that to Kira, Dukat will always be Hitler and that would never change). But on the good side, Dukat's explanation of Cardassian justice, casually thrown in here, becomes the basis of an entire episode before the season is done. (The verdict is always guilty. Trials are entertainment for the masses.)

Other observations:
  • Though Dukat was scoring the better verbal jabs on Sisko in the first half of this two-parter, Sisko catches up here. He thoroughly enjoys telling Dukat that he's been left for dead by his superiors. And when Dukat thanks him for the rescue, Sisko replies with a smirk "I'm sure you would have done the same for me."
  • When Odo comes after Quark, the Ferengi flips almost immediately on Sakonna. You would think Quark couldn't do this sort of thing very often before criminals stop coming to him to do business.
  • It's a small part, but Star Trek veteran John Schuck shows up as the Cardassian Legate Parn. (He played the Klingon ambassador in Star Treks IV and VI.)
While there are fun character moments sprinkled throughout this episode, there isn't a lot of tension in the story itself. I give "The Maquis, Part II" a B-. I do think the writers are right: this was a key moment in the emerging identity of the series, a necessary step toward the great things that would come later. But it's something of a tenuous, shaky step.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Runaway

The second season of Star Trek: Discovery begins this week! That meant it was time to reactivate my dormant CBS All Access access, which comes with a couple of side benefits. I'll get to watch the second season of the excellent The Good Fight. And I'll get to go back and watch the four Short Treks that debuted on the service over the last few months.

Short Treks were a transparent gimmick. Each was a 15-minute (or so) installment of Star Trek: Discovery, released at a rate of one a month in the run-up to season two. The hope was Star Trek fans would keep their CBS All Access subscriptions active from month to month to catch these slight bits of content. I didn't bite. But I am a fan enough to pay for the run of the series proper... and go back then to catch up on what I missed.

The first of the four Short Treks episode was centered on the character of Tilly, and was entitled "Runaway." Tilly encounters an alien stowaway that has sneaked aboard the Discovery. Out of empathy, she hides the alien and grows close to it, learning about herself in the process.

One thing I'll say in praise of these Short Treks (if this first one is any indication): they did not skimp on the budget. This short 15-minute episode was as fully produced as any 15 minutes of a full episode. It was loaded with great visual effects, it features an alien with a complicated and effective makeup, and from top to bottom it showed all the great production values you expect of modern sci-fi.

Also great: they chose to focus an episode on Tilly. I like a lot of the characters on Discovery, but Tilly seems to be a favorite with a broad cross-section of fans. There have been Star Trek characters with anxieties and odd personalities before (Reginald Barclay leaps to mind, but there are others), but never a main character we get to see every week. She's an especially human and relatable character that's great to have around, and great to feature in a short story like this.

But otherwise, "Runaway" is a bit of a mess. This mini-episode is a full 50-minute episode of story crammed into 15 minutes, and the result is total confusion about exactly what's happening. (SPOILERS follow... sort of. To the degree I understand the logic of the plot, anyway.) Tilly meets a strange alien with Jem Hadar-like personal cloaking abilities. And she talks! And she's in some sort of symbiotic relationship with her home planet? And she's a queen?! The story whiplashes around as if the sheer speed will stop you from asking questions. But without an anchor to grab onto, questions are all you have.

Why is this alien on the run? Is it because "the powers that be" are trying to oppress her technological discovery? But she's about to become queen, so is there really any threat to her? How close are we to her homeworld that Tilly can just beam her away at the end? How can she do this without alerting anyone to her use of the transporter? Why doesn't she get in trouble for trashing the mess hall? Why does the food dispenser freak out and start hurling dinners? (It's a lot more food than one invisible alien could be ordering and throwing.)

None of it makes any sense. All you really have is that Tilly is on a small personal journey to come to terms with her mother's overbearing expectations. And even that arc gets short shrift, as her mother is kind of a non-entity. We don't even get to see her face; the scene of Tilly's "phone call" home is all shot wide, as though the production is trying to preserve the option of casting a bigger name actor as Tilly's mom in a real episode somewhere down the road.

It feels like maybe there's an interesting story in here somewhere that, if built out (with other regular characters to support it) could have made for a decent episode. But as it stands, it's a confusing and disappointing effort, the worst installment of Star Trek: Discovery there's been.

I give "Runaway" a C-. I'm certainly glad I didn't pay for a month of CBS All Access to watch it. Perhaps the other three Short Treks will be better? In any case, they're not the main attraction I'm here for.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Home

There was something off about the most recent installment of The Orville -- and it wasn't the surprise ending they were working their way toward.

Alara's strength is beginning to fade. She's been away from the intense gravity of her homeworld for too long, and needs to return and reacclimate or lose her strength forever. Returning home means she'll have to deal with her disapproving parents, who never liked that she joined an alien military organization. Still, she does what she has to -- only to find herself in the middle of a mystery back at home.

Pieces of this episode do work. It's great to see Alara's parents back, and not just on a viewscreen this time like during their brief season one appearance. In particular, it's just fun to have Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Picardo back on screen, along with Molly Hagan. They both do a great job with the material, delivering passive-aggressive putdowns to one daughter as the praise the other.

The visual effects were top notch. I just recently read a book about the production of season one of the original Star Trek (blog post coming soon), and a recurring theme of that book is how expensive it was to produce even the cheesy visuals they achieved 50 years ago. Many grander ideas never made it past early script drafts because they just weren't feasible to achieve. This installment of The Orville gave us a gorgeous ringed planet, sprawling technological cityscapes, a wheelchair-hovercraft, gallops down the beach on the back of an alien animal, and more. And it all looked pretty great.

The more horrific elements in the episode worked well too. The scene in which we learn (SPOILER) that the neighbors are the ones to fear is great. John Billingsley (another Trek veteran, this time from Enterprise) gives a chilling performance as he forces Alara's father to torture himself. Kerry O'Malley is just as icy as she wields garden shears in a menacing way.

But these are strong moments amid a story that really doesn't work right. The whole episode is clearly set up as an arc about Alara finding more self-confidence. As she's losing her strength aboard the ship, she's told quite explicitly by Mercer that she's more than her strength, and she can keep her job if she wants it. She then finds herself in the middle of a mystery, where the obvious and logical conclusion would be that she saves the day with her smarts and learns for herself what Mercer was trying to tell her. We don't get that. Instead, Alara suddenly recovers her ability to walk for no stated reason, right at the moment she needs it. She saves the day and defeats the villains with brawn.

The second main arc is about Alara reconciling with her father. This element is bungled too, as logic is tossed aside in dogged pursuit of that outcome. After Alara's father is seriously injured (in that earlier, effective scene), he should be pretty well out for the count. Yet Alara asks him to perform heroics at the end when her mother and sister -- two other perfectly capable, able-bodied, and uninjured people -- are right there. Sure, the needs of the story say it has to be Dad, but then the other characters really needed to have been sidelined to justify that. It wouldn't have been hard; shift the soup scene from Dad to Mom, actually go through (off camera) with the garden shears moment, and you're there. Or lock the two of them in a room somewhere. Something. Anything.

The comedy involving Patrick Warburton was a bit off too. Oh, it was hilarious, to be sure (even if Orville's penchant to turn aliens into dude-bros is starting to wear a little thin). But it felt like a waste of Warburton not to have more of him. And at the same time, it was quite a disruption and distraction from Alara's story to cut away from it as long as the episode did.

Then there's the question of what to make of that ending. (SPOILERS again, of course.) Is that it? Is Alara (and actress Halston Sage) off the show now? Permanently? Temporarily? I do like being surprised and uncertain by this, unlike, say, any previous Star Trek show where I'd heard about all the major exits in advance. But it seemed rather odd to go to all the trouble of finding a technobabbly solution to Alara's problem (an obvious one) only to not use it.

And I wish the goodbyes had resonated a little better. It's hard, given that it's been so long since season one of the show, and we've now only been back a few episodes in season two. Your memory really has to be working for Alara's tearful goodbye to hit as hard as it should have. That final shot, for example, was kind of perfect -- calling back to Mercer always asking Alara to "open this jar of pickles for me." Except that, when I watched with friends, not everyone remembered back to those early episodes with that running gag.

It's definitely the first misfire of season two, featuring too many plot holes to be overlooked. I give Home a grade C. Perhaps, if The Orville runs for many years and this goodbye really is permanent, this episode will have more resonance when revisiting it. But for now, I think it's one of the series' weaker installments so far.