Friday, February 08, 2019

Block Party

I've sometimes wondered if "cult hit" movies can happen as much in this day and age as they used to. The old model for it was a movie that didn't do well in theaters, but then ran endlessly on some cable channel, allowing more people to see it. There's just not a lot of cable channel surfing these days.

Perhaps the most likely scenario for a cult hit today would be a movie unknown at the time that later becomes famous after many of its stars do. That might be the model for Attack the Block, a little-known (at the time) British action-horror-comedy about an alien invasion in a London tower block. Pretty much the only star an American audience could have known when it was released in 2011 was Nick Frost -- and he's in a small role here. But stocks have soared for the two lead performers in the movie.

John Boyega stars as Moses, a teenage gang leader. You know him now from the current Star Wars trilogy. He was just 18 when he made this (and his character is even younger), but he's oozing star charisma all over this movie. This is a far more demanding role than Finn the reformed stormtrooper, calling for pathos, swagger, vulnerability, and menace. And Boyega is excellent.

The other lead character is Samantha, a woman who, after being mugged by a gang, must then ally with them once the aliens invade. She's played by Jodie Whitaker, who went on to Black Mirror and Broadchurch before becoming the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who. This movie is like an audition for all her later work; Whitaker skillfully navigates being snippy and tender, strong and soft, sarcastic and earnest.

Despite these two excellent performances (and some solid supporting ones), this is fairly standard alien invasion material. The setting does help refresh the tropes a bit; "unlikely allies" don't come much unlikelier than this. But all the beats are familiar, right down to the "figure out what the aliens really want" revelation near the end. And the laughs are a bit thinner than I would have hoped for in a comedy action film. Maybe it's just that I expected more from Nick Frost, and instead found the supporting kids to be serving up the better jokes.

It's not an expensive movie, but it does have its share of effective visuals. The design of the creatures is especially neat. Taking to heart the idea that seeing a creature renders it less scary, these aliens are a light-swallowing mass of black fur, highlighted with a glow-in-the-dark set of sharpened fangs. You can't see much of them, but what you do see is scary.

Attack the Block isn't going to become a beloved cult classic for me. But it's a fun enough movie (and quick, at under 90 minutes) to be worth checking out if you haven't seen it. I give it a B.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Escape Artist

The final installment of Short Treks (for now, at least) was "The Escape Artist," a mini-episode centered around the roguish Harry Mudd.

Harry Mudd has been captured and delivered to a Tellarite looking to collect on the Federation's bounty. As Mudd tries different angles to persuade the Tellarite to be merciful, we flash back to moments from his past where he's been in similarly hot water.

This episode may not have been truly exceptional, but I do feel it was the best example of the four Short Treks as to what a Short Trek can be. Harry Mudd isn't a main character of Star Trek: Discovery, so an episode never could or should be centered on him. But he is an established element of the Trek universe, and a mini-episode -- especially one that doesn't require the presence of any main characters -- is a perfect venue to give us another story about him.

A Harry Mudd mini-episode is also a great chance for Star Trek to lighten up a bit. I don't mind that Discovery as a series has opted for a darker tone than other Trek series, but it is almost unrelentingly dark. Humor comes rarely, and the idea of a purely comedic episode -- a "The Trouble With Tribbles," "Take Me Out to the Holosuite," or a "Bride of Chaotica" -- is unthinkable. Short Treks to the rescue, to give us an installment that aspires simply for laughs.

This agenda was declared from the opening title, as the orchestra gave way to a jaunty disco tune. (Get it? Disco?) Each flashback was sillier than the last, populated with characters both playfully fun and delightfully stupid. Some of the scenarios were almost too fleshed out, teasing stories I'd want to see more fully, in addition to the framing Tellarite story. But they always played light, and Rainn Wilson seemed to be having tons of fun playing Mudd again (which he's now done as much as the original actor, Roger C. Carmel).

There was tons of uncommented-upon fan service. We got to see a Tellarite and some Orions, plus a bounty hunter that may have been a Breen (from Deep Space Nine). The ultimate revelation of Mudd's scheme here has fun parallels with his original series episode "I, Mudd" (set later in the timeline than this story). They even included a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Mudd's costume from that episode to drive the connection home.

We'll see if Short Treks continue to be a thing after the current season of Discovery. Perhaps they'll expand to include tales from the other Star Trek series coming to CBS All Access. But if the experiment ends here, it ends with one of the better efforts. I give "The Escape Artist" a B.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Vice's Loose Grip

At the pace I'm keeping now, I won't be fitting in all of this year's Best Picture nominees before the Oscar ceremony on February 24th. Still, I'm chipping away. Most recently, that brought me to Vice, the combination biopic/hit piece on former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Vice comes from writer director Adam McKay, and in many ways feels like a sequel (well... prequel, chronologically speaking) to his acclaimed film The Big Short. It comes similarly charged with righteous anger over people in power screwing people over. It uses similar fourth-wall-breaking narrative gimmicks to leaven a serious subject with humor. It even features some of the same actors. But Vice is a far less skillful effort than The Big Short.

It feels like Adam McKay might lack the strength of his convictions this time around. It feels like he wants to make a movie that completely demonizes Dick Cheney. Count me among the audience that has no problem with that whatsoever. But as though fearing criticism from those that don't share that view (criticism from people who could never be mollified in this instance), McKay spends a fair amount of screen time trying to humanize Cheney. This might be a worthwhile allocation of time if the film was planning to go full biopic. But McKay doesn't truly want you to understand where Cheney comes from, and certainly doesn't want you to sympathize with him. Like I said, I'm fine with that... but then why waste the time at all in a decidedly half-hearted effort at "balance?"

There are some laughs peppered throughout the movie, but most are generated in the same way as the laughs from The Big Short. The few that aren't are more in the style of Family Guy, odd "cutaway gags" spliced into the narrative for a quick jolt. They're fun at times, but not as clever overall as (sorry to keep making this comparison) The Big Short.

If you trust the betting markets, Vice has virtually no chance of actually winning the Best Picture Oscar. But its getting more attention in the acting categories, where it has several other nominations. Sam Rockwell is up for Best Supporting Actor for his impersonation of George Bush. Actually, it's more of an impersonation of Will Ferrell impersonating George Bush, and is of such marginal screen time that I find myself scratching my head over that nomination. (I like Rockwell, but in his category, I'd sooner pick Steve Carell from this film, for his role as a callously wicked Donald Rumsfeld.)

Amy Adams is up for Best Supporting Actress as Lynne Cheney. Again, I don't get it. I see the love for Amy Adams generally, of course, and it's a shame she hasn't won for some of her previous deserving work. This movie and this role simply doesn't ask much of her -- the script offers a simplistic character with little emotional variety.

In any case, the real talk revolves around the extreme method acting of Christian Bale, who this time gained 40 pounds to play Dick Cheney. Bale does transform completely, and it is a matter of performance skill and not just makeup. But again, the script itself really doesn't make many demands  beyond an impersonation. This version of Cheney is not nuanced. We're kept at emotional distance from the few reckonings he experiences in the film. If it's okay for the Oscars to sometimes reward a skillful impersonation, then I guess Bale is deserving. But this is among the least of his performances in terms of taking the audience with him on a profound journey.

If you hated the Bush administration as much as I did, you may find some cleansing value in watching Vice. But it's a rather scattershot piece of entertainment. I give it a C.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Point of Light

The latest installment of season two of Star Trek: Discovery was a rather disjointed episode comprised of multiple plot threads. The whole didn't feel very connected thematically or narratively.

Michael's mother Amanda comes aboard to explore Spock's strange connection to the mysterious red lights and the Red Angel. At the same time, Tilly is questioning her own sanity as her visions of a dead former classmate grow more intense. Meanwhile, on the Klingon homeworld, L'Rell struggles to remain in the role of High Chancellor. Rivals challenge her insistence to keep the human Ash Tyler as her Torchbearer, and she's harboring a secret that could give them even more leverage against her.

There might be a case here that the sum of these storylines is more than the value of the parts, particularly in a season long arc we have yet to see. But I found each of the parts flawed in its own way. Each felt like a long, slow walk to a destination that I didn't find especially compelling.

The Klingon story had the most complex agenda. It needed to introduce enough concerns surrounding Ash Tyler and L'Rell (and, to an extent, Georgiou) to justify bringing them back to the show. Perhaps, for people more generally into Klingon subplots than I tend to be, it accomplished that. But I felt like it did it rather poor job at depicting how L'Rell has stayed in power as long as she has. She didn't come across as having much political savvy. Voq/Ash Tyler's advice never seemed especially brilliant. She kicked some ass (in an especially video game-style fight), but not as much ass as Goergious would swoop in and kick to close the scene. There were a few visceral thrills, but overall the story was kind of a shrug.

Speaking of Georgiou, I'm all about this new spinoff show they've announced that will feature her nefarious scheming. But I'm not sure how much Discovery really needs to set that up any more than it already has. And I'm pretty sure it doesn't need to spend so much of its time weaving elaborate continuity fixes for its most critical "fans" -- why Klingons had hair then didn't now do again, and how L'Rell could be a female chancellor when other Treks told us there had never been one.

Still more "continuity-splaining" was going on in the Michael Burnham plot this week, which seemed less concerned with telling a story than with telling us why Spock has never mentioned his sister before. I found the rapport between Michael and Amanda to be a bit lacking, in large part I think because the age difference between Mia Kirshner and Sonequa Martin-Green makes it hard to buy them as mother and daughter. All of it was just stretching time for another episode before we'll eventually see Spock himself.

The Tilly storyline did the best job of generating emotion, particularly between her and Burnham. Yet it all relied on typical sitcom plot construction. Star Trek is generally above "one person keeps a secret because we wouldn't have an episode if they just came out and told the truth." Beverly Crusher announces that people are disappearing and that everyone else in the universe is crazy, and it's "well, let's drop everything and investigate that." But in contrast, Star Trek: Discovery evinces a curiously retrograde attitude on mental health, and accordingly makes Tilly act ashamed to facilitate a story. It's especially unfortunate that it's two episodes in a row now for this sort of behavior (though at least last week, Burnham revealed a partial truth and then came out with the rest of it in short order).

As if to compensate for less effective story beats, episode director Olatunde Osunsanmi piled on conspicuous camera work. The split-set conversation between Burnham and Tyler I found intriguing, but the repeated technique of opening scenes with a camera slowly spinning off its side was just distracting and didn't seem to have a point.

I didn't feel the episode was "bad" as such while I was watching it. Yet thinking it over and collecting these thoughts, I find it very easy to point to things I didn't like and very hard to point to things I did. So I'm going to give "Point of Light" a C. I thought it was a low point for Star Trek: Discovery so far. I hope the things it sets up for the season will be worth it.

Monday, February 04, 2019

A Happy Refrain

It seems like my thoughts on new episodes of The Orville always revolve around how it differed from when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a similar thing. But it's really hard to avoid that with the latest installment, "A Happy Refrain." The Orville was both working very close to a particular Trek episode, and doing it with some fairly significant departures.

Dr. Finn is realizing that she's come to develop romantic feelings for Isaac. Though the robot is incapable of returning the feelings, she still wants to give the relationship a shot. And Isaac is interested in the endeavor for the data on humans in will provide.

This story is essentially The Next Generation's episode "In Theory," where Data pursued a romantic relationship. But when dealing with a character-driven story like this, any differences in the characters (even minor ones) can make for a big difference in the story. And in fact, that was The Orville's first departure from its likely inspiration -- this episode was entirely character-driven. "In Theory" diluted the plot (as pretty much all Next Gen episodes did) with a "science jeopardy of the week" story that played alongside Data's exploration of romance. The Orville kept focus the entire time on the budding relationship.

The Orville also did not pursue this story as a one-and-done installment of episodic television. For starters, we're dealing with two main characters on the series here. When Data decided to give love a go, it was with a lieutenant we never saw before and would never see again. It still made for a great episode of the series (one of better ones of that season), but it wasn't an episode with lasting consequences or prior context.

But on The Orville, they've been building to this for sometime, peppering many earlier episodes with material that set this up. Claire has been spending more time with Isaac, and the show has been depicting this. There have even been moments where it seemed like her children might start to express jealousy over the divided focus from their mother. This development was, simply, "earned." And furthermore (SPOILERS here), it's a development they did not discard at the end of the hour; Isaac and Claire are positioned to be a continuing thing in future episodes.

Yet the biggest differences, and the ones that made this story worth (re)telling, have to do with who these characters are. The Orville has made a genuine effort at depicting Claire as a single working parent. There are more stakes than just her feelings when she embarks on a relationship. She's also a fun mix of responsibility/thoughtfulness (as Grayson pointed out in the episode) with laid back/fun loving -- Star Trek characters take many seasons to become as relaxed as someone like Claire.

Then there's Isaac. For all he's used as the series' proxy for Data, he's a good deal less "human" than Data. He's more callous, unaware, and cold -- even dismissive without meaning to be. He's like Data would have been several years before the start of Next Gen (or, at least, in the more clunkily written moments of season one). And he's all wrapped in a decidedly less human package; we don't see Isaac's face, his voice is processed, his movements are deliberately stiff. (All of which made the -- more SPOILERS -- fun reveal of actor Mark Jackson an especially effective moment in this story.)

And though it wasn't as central to things, there's one other difference about The Orville I felt compelled to mention: the sequence in which a full orchestra came to perform for the crew. I've often noted how The Orville really puts its money on the screen. Both it and Star Trek: Discovery are, of course, decades beyond what earlier Star Treks could depict on television. But this moment with the orchestra was an especially "only The Orville would do this" moment. Sure, we saw classical concerts on The Next Generation -- usually 10 or 12 people in a room watching a string quartet. This was a hundred uniformed extras watching a full orchestra -- many of both groups in alien makeup. This was not a cheap scene, and it seemed an explicit and defiant declaration: just remember, we're just about the only show on television that still uses real musicians instead of synthesizers to provide our soundtrack. And we're gonna show you. It was a vanity moment for Seth MacFarlane that wasn't actually about his personal vanity. It made a big impact.

I thought this was one of the better episodes of The Orville. It was risky in many ways, and the risks paid off. I still didn't like it quite as much as "In Theory," but maybe if The Orville runs seven seasons and I look back on it in two decades, I'll have more attachment. For now, anyway, I give it a B+.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Reform Put in Place

In the run-up to the Oscar nominations, one movie that was showing up on a lot of critics' "best of the year" lists was First Reformed. None of the prognosticators expected it to make the Best Picture cut, but it was widely assumed that star Ethan Hawke was a shoo-in for a Best Actor nod. I've always enjoyed Hawke (and the movies he chooses to be in), so this was a film I put in my queue, and watched the weekend just before the nominations were released.

First Reformed is the story of Reverend Toller, a priest at a small, old New England church. It's a "tourist" church, kept open for its history and the visitors who come to see it more than for its meager congregation. It's the perfect assignment for Toller, as his troubled past has shaken his faith and left him a half-hearted minister at best. But now one of his few parishioners is in crisis. The rising threat of climate change has driven Michael Mensana into deep despair. His wife Mary is pregnant, and it seems unconscionable to him to bring a child into a doomed world. Mary hopes that Toller can counsel him. But despair, it turns out, is infectious...

Ethan Hawke did not, in fact, receive an Oscar nomination for this role -- an omission many critics have said was the biggest "snub" of this year's Awards. But the screenplay did pick up the first career nomination for writer-director Paul Schrader, whose work with Martin Scorsese (on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ) had somehow not managed to do so. (After Spike Lee's directing nomination for BlacKkKlansman, this was the other big "Finally!" nomination of the year.)

It's a shame Hawke was overlooked, though, because this movie either sinks or swims by the efforts of the actor playing Reverend Toller. This story is a real trial for this character, a repeated beating down of his faith to see how long he can maintain a veneer of spiritual strength. It makes for an unexpectedly tense story in places; you wouldn't necessarily expect a quiet internal struggle to be the stuff of suspense, but the final act is one long, drawn out tease: "What's he going to do?"

If only either the performance or the script was going to get Oscar recognition, then I'd say they got it backwards. Hawke does plenty to let you see inside the mind of his character, more than Schrader's script seemed to expect an actor could reveal without "help." I found the script a bit on the nose at times, overly explicit. It seems to underline, highlight, and circle every key moment just in case we might not track where Toller is at in his gradual descent. We get it.

I'm also not too enamored of the ending. The final act is really building to a binary decision, then tries to get clever with a third option. It's far less provocative than at least one of the two obvious choices would have been -- obvious in this case would not have been bad. The third way is an artsy ending, an ending that seems like it might be "open to interpretation" -- but a moment's consideration is all you need to realize that there's really only one interpretation that makes any sense.

I wasn't the biggest fan of Schrader's directing either -- or, at least, his decision to film the movie in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is the size of television "back in the day," and feels like exactly the wrong choice for the subject matter here. This is a story in which climate change and the impending global disaster it threatens is a key element. This formatting of the image makes the movie look decades old, like an old relic to be regarded at an intellectual distance.

But the movie did carry me along for most of the journey. It kept me engaged despite the constant visual remove and the ending I questioned. So overall, I did enjoy it and would recommend it. I give First Reformed a B. If you're the sort of person who likes catching up on Oscar movies, you should put this one on your list, even though it did miss the race for the top prize.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Brightest Star

The third installment of Short Treks was a substantial improvement over the previous two, focusing on Saru and his back story.

Saru is an outsider in Kelpian society, not content to wait for a sacrificial death like the rest of his people. His sister tries to understand him, but his father -- the village elder who conducts the sacrificial ceremonies -- doesn't sympathize at all. When Saru gets his hand on advanced alien technology, it becomes a lifeline to communicate with another world (in every sense).

There is, of course, plenty that's familiar about this simple little story. The daydreaming villager who just doesn't fit into their backwater town is a well-worn trope of fiction. This setup in particular is not so far from the Next Generation episode "Pen Pals," though its told from the alien side of the illicit communication and not the Starfleet side. Yet I think it may be to the advantage of these Short Treks to tell a familiar story: there's just not enough time to do justice to a more original one.

After a season of Saru describing his homeworld in bits and pieces, we get a full treatment of it here. Yet again, no expense is spared in making these mini-episodes, as we get filming on location and a dozen people all made up like Kelpians. (Their relative lack of expression compared to Doug Jones shows you what a freaking genius that man is at emoting through complicated makeup.)

There is new information here, though. I feel like we were never explicitly told before that Kelpians were a pre-warp society. (We were certainly never told that they willingly offer themselves in sacrifice to some unknown alien race.) Saru is hardly the first "only one of his kind in Starfleet" character we've had on Star Trek, but there is something about this particular context that really tells us a lot about him. He had to be more clever and inquisitive that every other member of his species to make it to the stars, and he had to permanently say goodbye to his family and everything he knew to do it. The specificity of this speaks volumes about his character that was only whispered in the hints we knew before. And it shows us how unique his perspective on life must be, while making me hope we see more of it in future episodes.

We also got a fun little twist at the end of the episode, as Saru was picked up in a shuttle by none other than Georgiou. I feel like this moment actually gives us a lot of background about her too, even if it's more by inference and less explicit that what we learn about Saru this episode. She's a lieutenant here, but her shuttle's markings are still from the Shenzhou. She'd "grow up" to be captain of the same ship she'd served on for years. It seems probable she requested command of that ship in particular, even though it was an old junker by then... possibly so that it would give her authority to be more selective about her crew (specifically, Saru and Burnham). It suggests that Georgiou is someone with fierce loyalty, and who forms lifelong attachments. It also paints Burnham's betrayal of her at the start of the series in much stronger terms.

By putting Discovery's characters into this familiar old story type, "The Brightest Star" was the first truly successful Short Treks episode for me. I give it a B+.