Tuesday, November 21, 2017

This Movie Is Sick

The "rom-com" is a much-maligned movie genre. (Hell, I don't think much of them myself, most of the time.) But sometimes a movie comes along the shakes up the formula and does something different and special -- a movie like The Big Sick.

Starring comedian (and Silicon Valley star) Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick is a story inspired by real life. He and his wife Emily V. Gordon teamed up to write a script based on how they actually met. A short span of dating led to a break-up, and then immediately went into upheaval when Emily became suddenly and mysteriously sick and was placed into a medically induced coma. "Film Kumail" must suddenly interact with the parents of "film Emily," whom he's never met, all the while trying to deal with his own overbearing family.

Rom-coms are a predictable genre, and of course this one is too, despite the radical change-up in narrative. Gordon lived, and she and Nanjiani married, and that's how we get this story. (Also, not too many "coms" would dare to kill the love interest.) But it's not surprise or suspense that makes this movie tick. Instead, it's all about the performances, and about seeing obstacles to a relationship seldom portrayed on film.

The coma would seem to be the biggest one, on paper. But the real emotional spine of the film is the clash of cultures. Nanjiani's parents (the fictional ones, but one can assume the real ones too) are all about maintaining a cultural connection with Pakistan, and that includes trying to arrange a marriage for their son. Nanjiani can't bring himself to stand up to them for what he wants; this leads to the breakup, and the ensuing guilt when tragedy strikes. This strain between heritage and the "melting pot" feels very real and specific, while at the same time quite universal -- almost everyone has a story about hiding a truth from their parents, being unable to stand up.

The cast is really great. Nanjiani plays his own role; anyone who's watched Silicon Valley or his stand-up would have known he could nail the funny, but he's also quite potent in the dramatic moments too, and easy to root for. Zoe Kazan plays Emily, and rises to two interesting challenges in the film -- first, she has only a short time at the beginning to win the audience over to both her and the relationship; second, she has to be sympathetic after the coma when circumstances have changed wildly for everyone else but not for her.

Emily's parents are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Both bring great shades of emotion to surprisingly nuanced roles. These two characters are said not to be too closely based on real life, but they feel just as real as everyone else, thanks to the honest portrayals. The three who play Kumail's family -- Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, and Anupam Kher -- are a lot of fun, and while they don't have to do as much of the "heavy lifting," they do get their own more dramatic moments to shine.

The Big Sick is more than a simple, fluffy rom-com, and yet remains a fundamentally "feel good" movie even as it dares to dig deeper. I enjoyed it a great deal. I give it a B+.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Firestorm

No Star Trek: Discovery this week, but The Orville is still finishing off its first season, and this week served up a spooky episode centered on Alara Kitan.

When Kitan freezes during a crisis, she blames herself for the death of crewman and questions whether she's fit for duty. But soon there's a new problem to face, as a series of bizarre and terrifying events begins to occur aboard the ship.

All episodes of The Orville have a Star Trek vibe, and some feel like they're re-mixing one episode in particular. "Firestorm" feels like more of a cocktail, mixing the scariness of "Schisms," the am-I-going-mad elements of "Remember Me," the self-doubt of "The Loss," and a few other elements as a garnish. It turns out in the end that what's really being played on is a good, old-fashioned "danger on the holodeck" episode.

Up until that final turn, I found the episode pretty good. Alara's self-reproachment was perhaps a bit over the top, but within the bounds of setting up a typical episode of television. All the various scares were well delivered. It was fun to speculate at what sort of fear demon/space monster might be at the heart of it all.

Contributing a lot to the atmosphere was a fantastic musical score by John Debney. He's actually a Star Trek alum, and you got to hear what a big difference it makes when an executive producer (Rick Berman) isn't tamping down any attempt at interesting music. This score was brazen, energetic, and tense. And scattered throughout were a number of phrases that seemed carefully curated to evoke particular movies -- the cargo bay search conjured Alien, the fight with Isaac seemed to mimic Total Recall, and more.

Unfortunately, the idea that everything we saw was all just hologram nonsense really undercut the whole thing. It did actually explain why the fears were so scattered and random -- the scenario was itself stitched together in a manner with internal logic. But the lengthy scene in which everyone gathered to explain what we'd just seen was too long and laden with exposition -- mind wipes, special regulations, who contributed which fear. On and on it went, retroactively sapping more and more of the fun out of what we'd just seen with each line.

One last bit of fun worthy of comment was the cameo appearance of Robert Picardo as Kitan's father. So far, two Star Trek main cast members have been by to direct The Orville (Robert Duncan McNeill and Jonathan Frakes), but none had found their way in front of the camera. It was inevitable that eventually someone would put in an appearance. My money would have been on Patrick Stewart, who voices a regular character on American Dad and would have been an easy phone call for Seth MacFarlane to make. But Robert Picardo got there first.

Though it didn't stick the landing, I liked "Firestorm" overall. I'd give it a B.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Thor Thubject

I was pretty down on the first two Thor movies. I didn't even see them in the theater, in fact. But the new, third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, was said to be different. It was funnier, less self-important. More like Guardians of the Galaxy. And directed with comic sensibilities by Taika Waititi, the man behind What We Do in the Shadows. Okay, then. But fool me three times, shame on me indeed.

Thankfully, I wasn't fooled this time.

I will say there isn't a whole lot of originality on display here. The plot is essentially the same as the first Thor movie: cast out of Asgard, Thor must climb back from the depths to save the day, without the use of his hammer. But this movie is a far better take on that, the movie they should have made in the first place, really.

It is funny, in part because of the script, but in larger part because it's clear that everyone involved with the movie was actually having fun this time. Chris Hemsworth has been slowly revealing himself to be a skilled comic actor, after getting some of the better jokes in the first two Avengers, then stealing the show in Vacation and Ghostbusters. Here, the movie makes use of this, alternately letting Thor command the humorous moments and taking the wind from his sails.

Tom Hiddleston, of course, has been having fun as Loki from day one, and this movie is no exception. And the Loki fun extends to Anthony Hopkins; we saw from the end of the previous Thor film that Loki had disguised himself as Odin, and Hopkins' scenes of Loki-as-Odin are really great. You feel like he's really savoring a kind of acting he almost never gets to do. Mark Ruffalo is getting to branch out in different ways too, spending as much time or more as Hulk in this movie than as Bruce Banner, and infusing a lot of character into his motion capture performance.

The new characters are fun too. Jeff Goldblum is brought in to go full Goldblum, blending all the craziness of his wildest performances (including batty commercial pitchman) into a form of self-parody that's actually quite hilarious. Cate Blanchett seems to revel in getting to play the villain, chewing the scenery so hard in every scene that it's a good thing lots of the scenery is computer generated. She really doesn't get enough screen time for how fun she is in this movie, but I still appreciate what we do get. Then there's Tessa Thompson, who after playing tightly wound and severe on Westworld, here gets to cut loose and kick ass. I love Natalie Portman in general, but sorry, Thompson is a much better fit for this franchise.

The actors making cameo appearances are perhaps having the most fun of all. Benedict Cumberbatch's brief appearance as Doctor Strange is fairly well known, and a hilarious highlight of the first act. There are some other even briefer appearances early in the movie that have also been widely reported -- though if you haven't heard about them, it's better to be surprised. Suffice it to say, all these cameo appearances effectively take Thor (the character and the franchise) down a peg, a recurring theme of the movie that works great.

Third time's a charm, I guess. I give Thor: Ragnarok a B+. It's already been displaced from the biggest movie screens by the arrival of Justice League, but it's probably still worth getting out to the theater for in the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Captive Pursuit

The production schedule of broadcast television is a merciless, inexorable beast. Sometimes, bad episodes get made even when everyone knows it at the time, because something has to get in front of the camera to make the air date. Later on, with perspective, the creative forces behind a show recognize their "less than best" efforts. Not so with Deep Space Nine's "Captive Pursuit."

The first visitor from the Gamma Quadrant arrives through the wormhole, a secretive reptilian alien who calls himself Tosk. (Name? Species? Job? He's secretive about that too.) O'Brien tries to befriend him and draw him out, but things grow more complicated when more Gamma Quadrant visitors arrive, hunting Tosk for sport like an animal.

There are a surprising number of people behind the series who regard "Captive Pursuit" as one of the best episodes of the first season. It's understandable actor Colm Meaney would feel this way, since it focuses on his character, O'Brien. (Though he cited less personal reasons in an interview, noting that the question of whether to interfere with an alien society's patently barbaric practices was a "classic Star Trek story.") Producers and series co-creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller also called this a favorite from year one.

I think perhaps the good feelings stem from the way this show marked a big step forward in establishing the identity of Deep Space Nine as a separate thing from The Next Generation. It's a problem that comes to the station, not a "new life form" the crew "seeks out." And the resolution is more morally ambiguous. For one, O'Brien cheats the straight and narrow rules to help Tosk in the end. Moreover, it's really not lasting help; Tosk goes free only to be surely captured somewhere down the line, and certainly without any change to the society that engages in this bloodsport.

All that is great on paper, at least. The problem is that on screen, it's not very engaging. To my mind, it comes down to problems with pacing and urgency. No one seems particularly bothered that Tosk is withholding information... though you could argue that almost makes sense, given that Tosk doesn't really act like someone being hunted. He should be running for his life, afraid he could be caught any moment, but gives only lip service to the idea that he's in a rush. Perhaps the current depiction of Saru on Star Trek: Discovery casts a shadow here; Saru has learned to live with the feeling of being hunted, yet still comes off more credibly like "prey" than Tosk does here.

The pacing remains lax even when the hunters arrive. There's a fire fight on the promenade that includes plenty of phaser shots and even a loose sense of tactics, but it all feels less kinetic than a laser tag or paintball match, never mind a situation where lives are actually on the line. And the action suffers even more from Rick Berman's edict that the musical scores of his Trek shows never do anything flashy. There's no tension or sense of stakes at all.

It also doesn't help that Tosk plays like a first draft of a later element of Deep Space Nine that here hadn't been thought out fully. So much of Tosk ended up a part of the Jem'Hadar -- existing only to serve a more powerful race, the reptilian appearance, the ability to cloak. Even the actor who plays Tosk, Scott MacDonald, would wind up playing a Jem'Hadar in a later episode.

There are a few decent character moments scattered throughout that do pull the episode back to middling. Because O'Brien doesn't know his new commander well enough yet, he can't confide in Sisko his plan to set Tosk free. (Even though Sisko implicitly approves of it in the end with a sly "I guess that one got by us.") This is the also episode where Odo makes explicit the fact that he never carries a weapon, a detail that actor Rene Auberjonois then dutifully safeguarded going forward any time someone tried to hand him a phaser prop.

However, the one element of the episode that plays worst today is the opening scene, in which a dabo girl comes to Sisko to complain that Quark has been sexually harassing her, and has even made accepting such harassment a condition of her employment. It's quite timely to be watching this scene now, when similar allegations are cropping up daily, and being taken seriously. On the other hand, how dated the scene appears, in that it's played just as a comedic slide whistle, a cold open to start the episode that has no thematic connection to the plot and is never brought up again. Still, it could have been worse. According to episode director Corey Allen, an early draft of this scene actually had Sisko flirting with the vulnerable dabo girl and trying to land a date. Whoever saw fit to cut that, bless you.

Other observation:
  • Just this one, really: how bonkers is it that anyone can just ask the computer where the weapons are stored on the station (whether they're in a "secure" area or not)?
The weakest episode of Deep Space Nine so far, I give "Captive Pursuit" a C. The show had been hitting better to this point than The Next Generation in its early days, but it had to stumble eventually.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

It All Works Out

After our group was humbled the last time we attempted an escape room, we got together again recently to try another room. It was also a new company for us, EscapeWorks Denver, in the heart of downtown.

There were 9 of us, planning to split up into two groups. We got a call from the company an hour before, though, that one of the rooms had a broken element that would make it unplayable. Already being in the area, we decided to combine into a "super group" to take on a Casino Heist: after planning a caper with an absent "partner" who double-crossed us, we had one hour to enter the vault and then escape the trap before the "police" arrived.

This room was meant for a maximum of 8, but they did let us all go in because of the technical difficulties on their end. We did learn, though, that the escape room experience is awfully crowded when you play at the max (much less above it). It's just hard for everyone to find a way to contribute. Any puzzle you look to already has two or three people working it who seem to have it well in hand; leave them to find another puzzle and you'll just find the same thing.

Still, we did manage to avoid stepping on each other's toes too badly, and almost everyone had their moment to shine on one puzzle or another. I was particularly glad that I did, as I also had a "poisoning the well" moment on an earlier puzzle. I'd misinterpreted a particular written clue in a way that was leading me to a wrong answer, and had successfully infected the thinking of several others with my wrong assumptions. It definitely cost us some time and effort.

EscapeWorks has an interesting solution to the problem that plagued us last time we went to an escape room: being too proud to ask for a clue. We swore to ourselves going in that we weren't going to be like that this time, but it turns out that wasn't how clues worked at this place. There was a TV screen inside the room, and clues appeared at the observer's discretion. If they felt you'd been stuck on something too long, a clue would appear on the monitor after a while. Not everyone was a fan of this approach; there were a few cases where some people wished we'd been given more time to figure things out for ourselves before getting even a small nudge. (But no one could quite bring themselves to ignore the monitor altogether.) In any event, it did keep us moving forward.

We were successful in our escape, with just under 12 minutes remaining. As further apology for the problems with the second room, we were given some passes to return, but we almost certainly would have planned to go back anyway. The production values felt much higher than Colorado Escape. The puzzles were varied and clever. And they've got four other rooms available (when working, anyway) for you to take on.

We'll be back for more...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cupid's Dagger

When a TV show builds a major event into a character's back story right from square one, it's inevitable that some episode will delve into it deeper. The Orville is no exception, building an episode around Darulio, the infamous "squirting blue alien" that came between Mercer and Grayson. Less expected, perhaps, was seeing that alien embodied by none other than Rob Lowe. Seth MacFarlane seems to have an exhaustive Contact List, though, and a crazy makeup job wasn't enough to deter Lowe from coming to play.

This was the silliest episode of The Orville by far; all aspects of the plot were handled lightly. That included the ostensibly serious subplot of the alien diplomatic negotiations, and Yaphit's pursuit of Dr. Finn. The actors seemed to be having a lot of fun with it, from Lowe enacting a full charm offensive to MacFarlane being dopey and smitten, to Penny Johnson Jerald going for broke and trusting the CG artists not to leave her hanging. (They didn't.)

I admit, I laughed quite a bit. Then afterward, I had second thoughts. Attitudes about consent and sex are undergoing a titanic shift right now, and this episode is airing in a world radically more aware than even the one in which it was filmed only months ago. This episode was meant to go down light and easy, and at times it did; nevertheless, taking a wider view of it, there are elements that really shouldn't read as so funny.

Darulio knows fully what he does to others while he's "in heat," but has no problem exploiting their compromised ability to give consent. This is probably now the second time he's done it to Grayson -- I'm going to go with yes; she's long been unable to fully articulate why she did what she did with him. He's now done the same to Mercer too (who, thankfully, at least wasn't "horrified" at having had a same-sex encounter). He's broken up a marriage. He's basically a walking rufie, which, when you stop to think about it more than what the episode gives space for, is kind of terrible.

The Yaphit/Finn story shows the dark side of the glamorized Hollywood "keep chasing the girl until you wear her down" trope. Yaphit has always oozed near the border of taste, and it's been just "Yaphit being Yaphit." He can hardly be blamed for what happened here, having no way of knowing that Finn was not voluntarily giving into his "charms" at last. Still, he took advantage of her, and likely would never have been in a position to do so if the prior rebuffing of his constant "background harassment" had been received seriously.

So, yeah, ugh. Hard to like this one. Hard to completely like how I reacted to it, thinking about how hard I laughed at some of it. The Orville is trying to be Star Trek (I mean that in the best way), and Star Trek tries to make you think. So you could say that this episode was a triumph; I am certainly thinking now. But it's abundantly clear that none of these issues were actual authorial intent here. It was supposed to just be a fun romp.

This one's hard to place on the scale, but I think I'm going to call it a C+. Examining the Mercer/Grayson relationship and trying to bring more closure on their past was a good instinct. The cast was game to have fun here. Not all the jokes were inappropriate (though not letting us hear Bortus sing "My Heart Will Go On" was cruel.) But the rest of the episode was simply not okay.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Into the Forest I Go

It's crazy to think that Star Trek: Discovery had ever planned to go on hiatus with last week's episode rather than this week's. This was the tense, dramatic, action-packed note the show needed to go out on, and it certainly has me anticipating the series' return in January.

If you're going to nitpick, there are certainly some details in the episode that don't quite bear scrutiny -- the idea that Tyler would be tasked to board a Klingon ship in the first place (given his history), the character shift that Lorca is suddenly good at pep talks, Burnham lasting for even a moment in hand-to-hand combat with Kol, and of course the you-can-see-trouble-coming-from-light-years-away "one last jump" Stamets decides to take in the final moments. But these lapses in logic felt small to me, and at least in service of good moments for the characters.

Burnham got some closure (or at least, some vengeance) over the death of Georgiou, confronting Kol and reclaiming her captain's badge. There were some aspects of this confrontation that I wish had been set up a long time ago -- the "Hunt for Red October" style treatment of the Klingon language (finally sparing us from reading the worst font ever), and truly positioning Kol as a villain, but the payoff generally led to the right place. Burnham's Vulcan-cultivated exterior cracked, and then crumbled entirely later, in the quiet scene with Tyler. It was a potent journey for the character.

Tyler was brought face-to-face with his torturer, L'Rell, and the experience shattered him. There was some debate in fandom about whether "Star Trek on streaming" properly utilized its lack of language restrictions a few episodes back; I am in any case much more impressed here with how they decided to incorporate nudity -- not to titillate, but to horrify. The images of Tyler's torture and rape were truly disturbing, even as fleeting and scattered as they were. (Or perhaps because of it.) It tore down Tyler's veneer, for an emotional reckoning that's been inevitable since the character's arrival.

You're going to want to skip this paragraph if you're not up on the internet's big theory about Tyler. This episode seemed to confirm it, given L'Rell's behavior toward Tyler once she was captured. Tyler is Voq, rendered human by surgery and inserted as an agent in the Federation. Based on what we saw, Tyler doesn't actually know he's Voq, a development that certainly saves it from being the dumbest plot twist ever. If you assume there was a real Tyler, and that his brain was picked clean by a Klingon mind sifter (original series shout-out!) you can reason how Voq-Tyler was "made." Moreover, by making him being a sleeper, the emotional arc of this story isn't compromised. Tyler's experiences are still valid and not play acting. And now he'll also have to reckon with the differences once he learns the truth -- that his sexual encounters with L'Rell were no doubt consensual and loving, and that his memories of mutilation are no doubt of the surgery that transformed him.

The best character arc of the episode was for Stamets, who chose to risk it all (and/or who got manipulated into it by Lorca) on a dangerous plan to use the spore drive to pierce the Klingon cloaking technology. Prickly to noble in 7 episodes sounds like an awfully compressed character arc, but it did feel like we got to see every important step on that journey. More importantly, we got to see it culminate in one of the most loving romantic moments ever portrayed on Star Trek, which also happened to center on a gay couple. The kiss with Culber was a powerful enough moment, but the exchange "I love yous" -- which sure felt in context like saying goodbye forever -- was wrenching. Stamets may have survived that moment, and we may have even been fairly confident that he was going to, but the moment still felt honest and potent when they played it.

A second online fan theory seemed to get some love too, the one regarding Captain Lorca. But for now, I'll keep vague on this one. Suffice it to say, the evidence in this episode remained somewhat circumstantial, though the correlation felt much stronger.

Between emotional payoffs and post-hiatus teases, this episode felt to me like one of the strongest yet. I give it an A-. See you in January, Discovery.