Friday, March 16, 2018

A Sauvage Review

Those of you who have never read the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman, are really missing out on something great. (Though if your decision not to read them was informed by the movie The Golden Compass, I can sort of understand. That film didn't really capture the best of the book.) If you have read the series, then Philip Pullman has something exciting for you: a new trilogy set in the same world!

The new trilogy is dubbed The Book of Dust, and begins with a prequel novel called La Belle Sauvage. (It's said that not all of the series is to be set before the events of the original trilogy, but the first book, at least, is a prequel.) Set a decade before His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage centers on a young boy named Malcolm, who helps at his parents' inn and owns the trusty canoe the book is named for. He spends time helping the nuns at the nearby priory, and takes an interest in a baby girl named Lyra who has been left there. When government schemers, a crazed psychopath, and even a natural disaster all seem to conspire against the baby, Malcolm decides it's up to him to save the day.

Ultimately, La Belle Sauvage is a book about how the protagonist of the original trilogy winds up where she does at the start of the book. Fortunately, though, this is a rather tangential thread of the new story. This book is really a self-contained adventure starring this new character of Malcolm. Moreover, it's a revisiting of the wonderful fantasy world Pullman created years ago.

The world of His Dark Materials (and now the Book of Dust) is deeply fascinating to me. It proceeds from the simple premise that in a world otherwise exactly like ours, every person's "soul" is manifested as a physical animal familiar that lives outside them. One of the best parts of the original series is how Pullman explored so many facets of that idea, creating conflict that could only exist in his world, while using it as effective allegory for our own. Though the new book doesn't have too much new cleverness to add on this front, its social commentary on authoritarian religion is as sharp as ever. In any case, I'm happy just to spend more time in one of the more fascinating fantasy settings I've ever come across.

I'm also fascinated just to read more of Pullman's writing. That's the real star here. Philip Pullman has an incredibly compelling manner of telling a story. Without seeming too fussed over, his way of putting a sentence together always seems perfect to me. He's also excellent at writing for a child protagonist. The child or teenage protagonist is a staple of fantasy literature, but inevitably the reader has to overlook that these characters usually aren't written quite right -- "children" are wise beyond their years, pouty lodestones on the plot, or otherwise "off." I feel like Pullman gets them just right, capturing their sense of wonder and desire for adventure, while tempering it with the emotional and physical limitations that come with immaturity.

The plot itself? Well, that might be the weakest part this time around. Not to say that I thought the story was bad -- it's more that the first half of the book really layers in a lot of compelling suspense and detail that isn't totally paid off in the back half. (It reads much like a stand-alone novel, though I suppose this is really material to be picked up later in the trilogy?) The back half of the book is essentially a long chase that strangely isn't quite as engaging as the slower paced, more thoughtful material that came before. (It also takes a strange turn into supernatural territory for a chapter or two that doesn't quite feel of a piece with the rest.)

Still, I'm enthused to have the book even with its flaws. Pullman's writing style and overall creation make up for any shortcomings. I'd grade La Belle Sauvage a B+. If you've read the first series, you should definitely pick this one up (even if you're worried about starting a new, unfinished trilogy. As I said, this one really plays like it stands alone, leading up to the original trilogy.) If you've never read the original series, go grab a copy of The Golden Compass (or, as it's known outside the U.S., Northern Lights) and get started!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Dramatis Personae

Among the more dedicated Star Trek fans, writer Joe Menosky is known for his "big concept" episodes -- the most successful and well-received being The Next Generation's "Darmok." He also contributed a handful of episodes to Deep Space Nine, the first of which was "Dramatis Personae."

A Klingon ship returns from the Gamma Quadrant and almost immediately explodes! Though the Deep Space Nine is able to rescue one crew member and his personal log entries, the former quickly dies, while the latter is damaged and must be recompiled. It gradually emerges that a mutinous struggle for power broke out aboard the ship, and it appears to have been viral in nature, beginning after the Klingons explored a particular planet. That virus is now affecting the senior staff, with people acting unlike themselves and choosing sides against each other. A bored and aristocratic Sisko is being protected by a concigliere-like O'Brien, while an extra-fiesty Kira seeks to persuade a reverie-obsessed Dax to overthrow him. It's up to Odo, unaffected by the virus, to save them all.

This episode is quintessential Joe Menosky. He's developed an entire alien mythos here, in detail apparently greater than the episode actually requires, to lend a sense of authenticity to his story. This background is revealed by context, but there's never a big dump of exposition to fully acclimate the audience. It's similar to the myths that underpin the Tamarian language of "Darmok." It's even more like the premise of the Next Generation episode he'd write a year later, "Masks." Both episodes see main characters embodying personalities from an alien culture to act out a power struggle no one fully understands.  Neither "Masks" nor "Dramatis Personae" seems fully cooked. Both lack any meaningful subtext or moral that seems to make the story worth telling. "Dramatis Personae" at least has two things going for it.

First, Deep Space Nine is a series where the characters already have some natural conflict with one another. This lets the mystery sneak in gradually, grafting itself onto a minor actual conflict between Kira and Sisko at the start of the episode. From there, the episode is essentially posing an intriguing "what if" question: what if the friction between those two, between the Federation and Bajor, was dialed all the way up?

Second, and more importantly, the episode gives more people the chance to play. Most of the fun in a story like this is in watching the main cast act out of the ordinary. On The Next Generation, "Masks" gave only Brent Spiner this opportunity; here, the virus affects five main characters. But then, the down side here is that we're less than 20 episodes in. The actors know these characters far better than the audience at this point, and so it often seems like this story is more fun for them than it is for us. (Nana Visitor sort of confirmed as much when speaking of this episode in an interview, saying she so enjoyed it that she "came and watched scenes I wasn't involved with just to see what was going on.")

There is some entertainment value here, to be sure. It's amusing to watch everyone hold paranoid conversations about whose "side" people are on. Terry Farrell is fun, going broad with a version of Dax that's forgetful in the moment and permanently lost in her own reminiscing. Avery Brooks had not yet found the right balance for Sisko between buttoned-up Starfleet and his own quirky personality, and so he turns his acting up to 11 when given this chance to do something else. (Exhibit A: the way he tells us he's building "a CClocKK!") Rene Auberjonois finds joy in Odo sly efforts to play along with the rest of them.

But it just doesn't amount to much in the end. As the episode title implies, it feels like everyone is just play-acting here and that there's never any real jeopardy. The conclusion, that seems to involve flushing disembodied brain waves out into space, seems a bit trite and silly -- even by trite, silly Star Trek standards. It feels like the only meaningful scene we get is when Odo collapses and Quark quickly runs for help, demonstrating that there really is a friendship beneath their rivalry.

Other observations:
  • Quark has a great line about Klingons equating pain with pleasure, and conceding "in small doses, perhaps" that's correct.
  • Director Cliff Bole gets in on the fun here too, filling the episode with a number of closeups far more extreme than you usually see on Star Trek.
  • If you're looking to build your own Bajoran uniform costume, you get a great look at Kira's boots in this episode, when she puts her feet up on Odo's desk.
  • The filling of Sisko's office continues. Just as he picked up the baseball a few episodes back, the Saltah'na clock he builds here would remain part of the set dressing for the rest of the series.
Entertaining performances add to a premise that isn't as inherently interesting as you'd think, but this episode still remains on the lackluster side. I give "Dramatis Personae" a C+.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Another Score to Settle

So, part two of the "film score double-header" post I promised yesterday is a movie I recently watched, Score: A Film Music Documentary. It comes from Matt Schrader, an investigative journalist who here has turned his camera "behind the camera" to look at the composing of modern film music. Score is a tight 90 minutes, though a junkie like me could have welcomed twice as much material. Still, Schrader manages to cover a lot of material.

The documentary opens briefly on the important role of scores in the silent film era. Quickly though, its interviews transition from film historians to modern composers, getting them to talk about their heroes from earlier generations. Much deserved praise is given to Bernard Herrmann (the reason Alfred Hitchcock's movies pack the punch they do), Jerry Goldsmith (in particular, his unprecedented score for Planet of the Apes), and Alex North (who with his first score, for A Streetcar Named Desire, began a jazz-infused age of film music that would dominate for decades).

20 solid minutes in the heart of the movie are dedicated to the most revered film composer of them all, John Williams. (It's well deserved attention; though unfortunately, all footage of the man himself is archival.) The documentary visits most of his greatest achievements -- Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park. There are interviews with modern composers who gush about his abilities, with a scientist who tries to explain the physiological effects the music has on the brain and body, with film historians who credit Williams with reviving a lost era, and more.

From there, the documentary dances through the decades, looking at composers who ushered in new eras of their own -- Danny Elfman (whose pop synth background reconstituted as a dark signature sound), Thomas Newman (with his quirky approach and mastery of the contemplative solo piano), Hans Zimmer (who began the age of the boisterous and brazen BWWWWAAAAAAA), and Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor (among the latest of many rock artists to cross over into film, bringing a haunting, untethered sound all their own).

Nearly every working film composer today that you could think to name shows up in the documentary at one point or another. (It's noticeably short on women and people of color, though those demographics are notably underrepresented in the field.) The composers talk about all aspects of the process -- the raw exploration phase, finding obscure instruments and inventing new ones, orchestration, the recording process (and conducting), and even the post-production mixing. Brian Tyler, composer of Avengers: Age of Ultron, even takes the process one step farther, going to a theater to watch an audience react to his work in the hopes that it will give him guidance on his next effort.

Though there is plenty here to like, the fact that the movie takes such a wide view does mean a lot is left out. I'd prefer a deeper dive, as my gushing review of the Settling the Score podcast surely made clear. Perhaps a multi-part mini-series, aired on some streaming service, would have scratched the itch this documentary leaves me feeling. It's good -- at least for people into film scores -- but falls short of "great."

I'd give a B to Score: A Film Music Documentary. I'm glad I made the time for it. I just wish I'd had to make more.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Running Up the Score

Long time readers of the blog (and/or those who know me well) will know of my love for film scores. This post is the first part of a double header about that.

I'm starting with the thing I want to recommend more enthusiastically: a podcast called Settling the Score. It's a relatively new show that's only about a dozen episodes in, but it has already become essential for me, the podcast that will shove everything else backward in the queue whenever a new episode drops. Hosted by "Jon and Andy" (Jonathan Dinerstein and Andy Boroson), each episode is a deep dive into the score of one particular film.

To kick off their show, the hosts have chosen to countdown through the AFI Top 25 Movie Scores. As with all of the American Film Institute's lists, some of the picks seem inevitable and correct, while other seem baffling and moronic. Both categories of selection have provided excellent material for the podcast. Episodes so far have focused on head scratchers ("How the West Was Won"), unassailable masterpieces ("E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"), and movies that probably just made the list for one memorable tune/scene ("The Pink Panther").

What quickly became apparent to me in just one or two episodes is how well these hosts know their stuff. They are clearly passionate experts on the subject of film music. They do in-depth research for each episode, getting their hands on actual printed sheet music from the scores where they can. They talk in great detail about how the music is constructed, both technically and emotionally. They explain unfamiliar musical concepts in approachable detail. And each episode is slickly edited to play exactly the passages of the music they refer to during their hour-long discussion.

I've been enthralled by episodes even when I didn't know the music beforehand. Their deep dive on "A Streetcar Named Desire" (which I've seen only as a stage production) really digs into how composer Alex North revolutionized film music with his score, making me appreciate the music both on its own and in historical context. Their examination of "Sunset Boulevard" (which I had seen, without taking particular note of its music) illuminated how Franz Waxman served up a score from a dying era of film to perfectly complement the movie's themes.

Even when I know the score being discussed quite well, Jon and Andy's discussion exposes new layers for me. The "Planet of the Apes" episode revealed the secret order governing Jerry Goldsmith's apparently chaotic score, teaching me about "twelve-tone technique" and actually identifying many of the things making those noises that I'd found unidentifiable. Their most recent episode, on "E.T.", was a real eye opener. I've always liked that score, enough even to have gone to see a symphony perform it live. I think the podcast made me love that score, stripping it apart to reveal how the magic was done in a manner that in no way compromised the thrill of the magic itself.

My only complaint about the podcast is its frequency. After launching with a few episodes and a weekly schedule, Jon and Andy fell into an every-other-week schedule. Then they did a special episode about the 2018 Oscar nominated scores that (understandably) took longer to produce, and that seems now to have led them to a once-every-three-weeks schedule. Quality like this takes time, I suppose, and I was perhaps too greedy to have devoured the available episodes too quickly. Maybe I'll listen to them again while I'm waiting for new ones to drop.

I imagine a podcast this niche might not be for everyone. But that's sort of the joy of podcasts -- with so many of them out there, there is The Perfect Podcast for everyone. I believe I've found mine. If you love movies, I think you should check it out. If you love movie scores, even half as much as I do, do not delay -- this was made for you as surely as it was made for me. Settling the Score is top notch, grade A. (A+, if I had a history of giving them out.) I wish my own signal were larger so I could boost theirs to the degree it deserves.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Real Deal

The most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the series' 100th, and they marked the occasion with a premise that let them pull the "greatest hits" of their run into the episode. Many of the individual elements worked, but things were perhaps too crowded for most of them to breathe fully.

Take the team's realization that Coulson is dying. The ensemble gave it their all to make the emotional weight of this punch land... and yet I wasn't completely sold on it. Maybe it's that we found out about it from Future Yo-Yo a few episodes ago, blunting the sudden shock. Maybe so much time passed between when this "sickness" was discovered and Coulson got it (we learn it was when he made the deal with Ghost Rider) that it lacked immediacy. Maybe it's that the entire show's survival is questionable when this season is done, making me unsure whether I should be mourning the whole thing rather than just Coulson, as it's trying to convince me to do.

But I do know that the scene in which Daisy's tough exterior crumbled completely worked. I do know that the conversation between May and Coulson, where she put him in his place for deciding how to handle her heart for her, was one of the more effective scenes with May in a long time -- even though it was restrained and deliberately not written to boil over.

Take the procession of baddies spilling out of the "fear dimension." It was fun to see Lash again, and Deathlok, and an L.M.D. (this time of Simmons), and Hive. But some of these moments whizzed by so fast it almost felt like commentary on how effective those particular elements had been as long-running story lines in the series. And I honestly could not decide how I felt about the fake Deathlok's attempt to mess with Coulson's head. The "you've been dreaming the entire TV show" trope is so done that I don't think there are any compelling angles left on it. On the other hand, the fact that Coulson actually started the show having died in the Avengers at least gave the gimmick a grounding that made sense. (And Clark Gregg acted it wonderfully, in his signature style where you see the gears work without him sailing over the top to show you.)

One element of the episode that I appreciated without reservation, though, was the wedding of Fitz and Simmons (finally). The show definitely had its fun with throwing obstacles in their way to keep them apart -- and got great stories out of it. But now it was finally time to pay things off. This isn't Moonlighting, where the show will be changed irrevocably by putting them together. (Indeed, I don't imagine it will change much at all.) And something celebratory to commemorate 100 episodes was in order.

The marriage came with the revelation that Deke is their grandson from the future. I'm not sure I needed his irreverent quips to Deathlok intruding on the moment, but the big reveal itself was nice. It's a good way to bring Deke more into the fold (even if only for the audience). It's also a nice promise, in a way, that whatever else may happen to FitzSimmons, they can and will overcome it. (Though I suppose that's no more inevitable than the complete destruction of Earth, which our heroes will surely prevent.)

The pressure of the "100th Episode" is tough to live up to, so I can't be too disappointed if the episode fell flat in a few ways. Still, I'd say most of this season has been better than this installment. I give "The Real Deal" a B.

Friday, March 09, 2018

DS9 Flashback: If Wishes Were Horses

"If Wishes Were Horses" is not quite the worst episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's first season, but if my memory is correct, it's the last truly bad one.

The imaginations of the crew are running wild! Different things are coming to life, ripped from the imaginations of the people on the station: Jake and Ben Sisko's favorite baseball player, a doppleganger of Dax ready to succumb to Dr. Bashir's advances, a child-stealing Rumplestiltskin from the bedtime story O'Brien read to his daughter, and more. What begins as a whimsical diversion soon becomes deadly as more and more things manifest.

"If Wishes Were Horses" might represent the moment where Deep Space Nine reached peak "this feels like a Next Generation episode." Even setting aside the fact that the Enterprise crew was briefly threatened by imagination in a subplot of an early episode, this is ultimately an episode about "seeking out new life" and making first contact with it -- it's just that the life happens to come to the station instead of being "sought out."

It would have been even more of a Next Generation episode if they'd stuck to the story originally pitched by outside writers Nell McCue Crawford and William L. Crawford. They came in with a "holodeck malfunction" story in which characters were emerging into the real world. Because The Next Generation was almost at the same time mounting a "return of Moriarty" episode, the staff shunted the holodeck aspect to a small red herring (Buck Bokai following Jake home from the holosuite) and leaned into a new ending -- aliens were studying our heroes by embodying their imagination.

The loose collection of what's imagined works better for some characters than others. Bashir's creepy obsession with Dax is thrown back in his face to great effect -- first by the real Dax (who notes that he's chasing plenty of other women while claiming to have eyes only for her), and then by the demeaning "sex kitten" version that everyone gets to see. (Though Dax is perhaps a bit too magnanimous in saying she feels like Julian's privacy is the one more invaded.)

Sisko's relationship with his son is explored a bit more through their shared interest in baseball. It's interesting to hear baseball referred as a dying game at the time their favorite player was a star, because it casts both of them as fans of the underdog. (Or it makes them both hipsters, if you're less charitable.) It also says something interesting about Kira that her imagination doesn't conjure anything nice -- she only encounters a deadly fireball in a hallway.

But the rest of the characters don't really benefit from the episode premise. We already know Quark is sleazy and can't think long term, so it's hardly illuminating to see his conjured arm candy and his failure to anticipate the consequences of his costumers all winning non-stop. Odo gets a brief moment of joy in imagining a captured Quark, but spends most of the episode chasing a "Gunji jackdaw" around the promenade.

Perhaps most awkward is Rumplestiltskin, inflicted on O'Brien. Genre actor Michael John Anderson gives a game performance of what's on the page, but the character doesn't really pick enough at the core fear of losing one's family. Yet it could have been worse. In the original script draft, O'Brien was tormented by a leprechaun. Colm Meaney objected strongly to trodding out an Irish stereotype, and all but refused to do the script. (This shows the value of diverse viewpoints in a writers' room -- I can't say I would have realized myself how deeply offensive the stereotype might be taken.) At the last minute, a rewrite was done to substitute a fairy tale character, but I don't think the change was really baked in deep enough to resonate.

The ideas here may be scattershot and shallow, but it also seems like most of the actors had fun. Armin Shimerman acknowledged in interviews the thrill of having two beautiful women on his arms. Terry Farrell had fun playing the imagined Dax, so much so that Siddig el Fadil reportedly ruined a dozen takes with his laughter.

On the other hand, you know the Hollywood cliche: don't work with kids or animals. This episode had both. The emu playing the "Gunji jackdaw" wouldn't perform, so they costumed its trainer as a Bajoran to prod it around on camera. (Even then, Rene Auberjonois has to pretty much just stare at it in one scene.) Meanwhile, young Hana Hatae (playing Molly O'Brien) was reportedly sick and had to be bribed with toys from the set to perform. (Later, as an adult, Hatae said she was terrified of Rumplestiltskin when making this episode, thinking he'd actually steal her.)

Other observations:
  • Odo says here that he has no sense of smell. I wonder if that detail will ever be contradicted.
  • The episode takes advantage of the old 4:3 television ratio it was broadcast in to cheat on visual effects. It was prohibitively expensive at the time to do "split screen" (duplicating an actor) without locking down the camera so it couldn't move. Some of the shots of two Daxes are achieved by filming the scene in a wide aspect ratio, then pan-and-scanning across the static shot to create the illusion of motion.
  • There's an avalanche of technobabble near the end of this episode as the crew struggles to close a mysterious rift in space (before realizing that it too is imagined). Kira's take on the technobabble is fantastic: "Perimeter sensors are picking up a subspace oscillation. What the hell does that mean?"
  • The baseball that would remain on Sisko's desk for the rest of the series arrives here -- it's apparently the one imagined thing that remains permanently real, a gift from "Buck Bokai."
There are some fun moments scattered throughout this episode, but it's frankly a mess overall. I give "If Wishes Were Horses" a C-.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


I'm still chipping away at the episodes of The X-Files that aired before their February break. Next up for me was "Kitten," an episode that had a compelling premise, but which ultimately came up a bit short.

When Skinner goes missing, Mulder and Scully undertake a search. The trail leads to a rural Kentucky town where Skinner has gone to reunite with someone from his old Vietnam unit. But soon it seems that Skinner has been lured there for vengeance by his friend's crazed son.

I've gone on plenty about disliking the mythology episodes of The X-Files, which I think is really a shame since they're the ones that get most personal with the characters of Mulder and Scully. But there are other characters on The X-Files, ones who haven't had their personal lives spoiled by entanglement with the series' nonsensical continuing story arcs. Focusing an episode on Skinner's back story is a good way, in theory, to have your cake and eat it too. You get a stand-alone story, but one with significant personal stakes for the characters.

Indeed, the Skinner parts of the episode are generally pretty solid. Overall, the story demonstrates that he does right by his friends and always has, and that he does count Mulder and Scully among those friends. As far as this impacts the ongoing story line, it suggests he has pure motives in his associations with the Cigarette Smoking Man. But more simply, and more compelling within this hour, it shows us a moral compass, a guiding light, that makes Skinner more relateable than he's been until now.

But the adversary that leads us to these revelations is frankly a complete failure. It starts with bad writing. Davy, the son of Skinner's war buddy, is completely untrained and a transparently terrible liar, and yet still manages to easily get the drop on Skinner. He's quirky and borderline crazy for undefined reasons -- are we meant to take it that he's experiencing hereditary effects from his father's war experiences; that the government gassing he's railing against has leeched his mental faculties (whereas for everyone else, it's just causing tooth loss); or is it something else entirely? The fact that he dresses up in a weird monster suit is a meaningless red herring never given any context; it's just there to goose the audience.

And the whole thing is undermined further by the stunt casting of Haley Joel Osment in the role. Even if his current physical appearance comported with that of a credible soldier (which it does not), he still looks so similar to his childhood self that it can be hard to see him and not think of The Sixth Sense. This isn't to say that he shouldn't be getting work. It's just that you shouldn't cast him in something that at any point is trying to be scary (as The X-Files is here) unless you want the audience to think: "I see dead people."

The result is a mediocre hour that squanders the intriguing premise of giving us "a Skinner episode." I give "Kitten" a C.