Thursday, May 24, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Cardassians

With the three-part opener of Deep Space Nine season two focusing on the Bajorans, it seems appropriate that another early episode would dig into the series' other major race, the Cardassians.

When Garak approaches a Cardassian boy on the Promenade only to be bitten on the hand, the questions begin. Who are the Bajoran parents that have been raising this boy? Have they been teaching him to hate his own people? Have they been abusing him? Who are the boy's biological parents? Do they know he's still alive after the Occupation, and might they want him back? It's an uncertain moral mine field, with an espionage component that Garak is happy to lead Bashir through.

There are some very sophisticated issues at play in this episode, and it grapples with some more effectively than others. An intriguing contradiction is introduced to the Cardassian race. The importance they place on family has been mentioned before (on The Next Generation), but here we see how little regard they have for orphaned children, learning there's "no place" for orphans in Cardassian society. You can observe in the real world plenty of people who claim to have the interests of children at heart, but whose practical outlook rarely extends beyond their own children (or unborn children). Helping kids who face poverty, starvation, violence? Their parents should be the ones stepping up, not us. No, it's not hard to believe this anti-orphan streak in Cardassian society at all.

There's an intriguing allegory here for interracial adoption. (Well, I suppose it's not even allegorical. Cardassian children being taken in by Bajoran parents is literally interracial adoption.) People in society at large have conflicting views about what values and traditions a child like that should be taught. "The child was born of this heritage, and should be exposed to it." "We took the child into our family, and we're going to raise them as we see fit." Both sides have a point, from which it's hard to find common ground.

No surprise, then, that the episode can't resolve it satisfactorily in 42 minutes. But it is a bit disappointing that it doesn't keep focus there. The more the episode unfolds, the less it is about the struggle between young Rugal's adoptive Bajoran father and his Cardassian birth father, and the more it becomes a mystery about what political game Gul Dukat played. That angle is interesting to a point, but far less sophisticated. And at the end of the episode, Rugal is shipped off to live with a father he barely knows in a society he's come to despise -- with no real examination at all of what this means!

This marks the first time since the pilot that Dukat appears in person (not just on "FaceTime"), and reveals him as a manipulator so forward thinking that he can enact an eight-year, slow burn plan to humiliate a political rival. The episode does even more to flesh out "plain, simple Garak," in the character's second appearance. Actor Andrew Robinson had been told by many on set during his first episode how much they were enjoying his work and how they'd like to have him back, but was too wily an industry veteran to trust it. He said he knew they truly meant it when he got this offer, and he was "thrilled" to return.

Robinson felt that Garak really developed in this episode, noting that Bashir's humanist tendencies rub off over the course of the hour. I'm intrigued that Robinson saw it that way -- and of course, it's the actor's job to look for deeper facets within his character. I just don't see it myself. Robinson has given interviews on this episode, and talked about Garak slowly coming around and helping Bashir with this orphaned Cardassian. To me, the motivation seems more vengeful. The deeper into the mystery they dig, the more it appears that unraveling it will hurt Dukat politically. That's more than enough for Garak, with no altruism required. Perhaps I latch onto this angle more because it fits with other details in the episode -- Garak's continued insistence that he isn't a spy, his ability to break into Bashir's quarters undetected, and the way he taunts the head of Bajoran orphanage with twisted glee. It is, I admit, a less nuanced reading of the character.

Even though recurring characters figure heavily into this story, many of the regulars are well utilized throughout. Sisko shows his diplomatic skills as he calmly defuses anger between Rugal's warring parents. And Avery Brooks makes a great moment of glaring at Bashir's interruption of a conversation with Dukat to play detective. (I don't know what's more delicious: the dressing down that follows, or the "better you than me" reaction Kira gives Bashir as it happens.)

Of course, it's a big Bashir episode, as Garak draws him into a web of mystery and espionage. But a very effective runner makes this a good O'Brien episode too. The writers dare to depict him in a bad light, being unabashedly racist toward Cardassians when he finds out his daughter has been playing with one. Keiko shuts down this ugliness immediately, in the strongest moment written so far for that character on this show or The Next Generation. And ultimately, Miles reaches a minor milestone in understanding that this young Cardassian isn't bad -- they share a mutual hatred of Cardassians (culture, food, generally).

The only down side of this compelling story arc for O'Brien is that making room for it in the episode means there's no time for Jake Sisko to appear. It would have been interesting to see to see Rugal interact with someone his own age. Then again, Rugal's "own age" isn't particularly well defined -- he feels a bit old to be biting people, even when they creepily approach him and touch him without asking.

Other observations:
  • Some particularly distracting aliens are placed in the background of the opening scene. Costume Designer Robert Blackman says these weird hatbox aliens (my term, not his) were the beginning of an experiment to use more hats on the show. Said experiment ended before the season did, which Blackman chalked up to producers and directors (generally, not just on Star Trek) saying one thing but wanting another. From one interview: "You draw them up, they like it, you do it, and then it's 'I hate it. Take that thing off. I can't see the face.'"
  • The accusation that Rugal is being abused by his Bajoran parents doesn't get much exploration. The alien who mentions it doesn't seem a particularly credible source, and vanishes before any follow-up questions can be asked.
  • This episode establishes the prior name of Deep Space Nine while it was under Cardassian control: Terok Nor.
This is another episode that hints at the eventual quality and sophistication Deep Space Nine would regularly achieve. Of course, the few aspects of the plot that don't quite deliver on their promise show that there was still a little work needed to get there. I give "Cardassians" a B+.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

My Struggle IV

I approached the finale of the recent season of The X-Files with great hesitation. The season premiere had been quite possibly the worst episode of the series ever. Chris Carter seems like the kind of person to keep digging after hitting rock bottom. Gillian Anderson had been widely candid in the press that she was done with the series at this point; was it out of frustration with more total stupidity?

With expectations like that, I suppose there was nowhere to go up. So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that they actually did. The finale gathered up the ridiculous loose strands in a passible bundle, rocketed toward a real conclusion that gave rather definitive endings for all characters, and ended on a cheeky ellipsis more than on an actual cliffhanger. That'll do.

And now, anyone who ever loved The X-Files should hope that Gillian Anderson holds firm on not ever coming back for more. Chris Carter has said he won't do more without her. And there should never be any more. No movie, no episodes. Nothing.

Mind you, this wasn't an amazing ending. It wasn't on a level with the series finale that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just delivered (that turned out not to be a series finale). But it was roughly as good as the original 2002 finale of The X-Files was. And given that the 16 episodes of the two revival seasons was only good for about 2 truly great episodes, maybe 2 pretty good ones, and a bunch of "filler at best, garbage at worst," I'll happily take "we got back to where we started" and go cash out at the window.

This "series finale 2.0" was more propulsive than the original. Instead of a wordy trial meant to walk us through an incomprehensible conspiracy, we got a simple mission: find William, Scully and Mulder*'s son. The clarity made for a swift hour, and in moments an appropriately emotional one.

* Not actually Mulder's son. Why again was this twist necessary?

On the other hand, the hour was often too swift. Blink and you'd miss the unceremonious killing off of Reyes and Skinner. Sure, the story isn't exactly about them... and yet both were "in the opening credits" cast members for part of the series' run. Don't they deserve better?

Back in the "plus" column, this felt like a much more compelling end for the Cigarette Smoking Man than his "first death" in the original finale. It was personal, in the form of a bullet from Mulder's gun. And it was swift payback for just moments earlier, when CSM thought the roles were reversed and he was killing Mulder. The setup also read like William was trying to sacrifice his life for a noble purpose -- I wasn't necessarily convinced that he knew he'd survive the gunshot. (And for the record, and did like the button at the end revealing that he had.)

But back in the "minus column," did we really need a repeat appearance from the wacko TV conspiracy theorist played by Joel McHale? Or yet another dressing down of Skinner from the permanently dour Assistant Director Kersh? Or the what-could-be 19th "closing down of the X-Files" by the Powers That Be?

I feel like the scales of good and bad here are almost close to balanced. Maybe a little in favor of good. Add to that that the show actually did give us closure, something that was by no means certain, and I'm inclined to be a bit generous to in grading the episode. B? Well, okay, not that generous. B-.

But more than feeling generous, I'm feeling done. So long, X-Files.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Everyone Back in the Pool

After the surprising success of the original Deadpool (surprising, that is, to everyone who had somehow forgotten the success of The Hangover, Beverly Hills Cop, Ted, 300, Gladiator, The Matrix, There's Something About Mary, etc. etc. etc.), this past weekend brought us a sequel, Deadpool 2. Overall, I think it entertained me about as much as the original... though I think this new installment was a much more uneven movie.

In particular, I found the first act of this new movie very lacking. The pacing is quite slow. It meanders about, almost testing the waters of two or three potential storylines before finally landing on the one that's going to carry the rest of the movie. It also starts off in a very cliche and disappointing direction. (SPOILERS for the rest of this paragraph.) Can we please get over motivating the hero by killing off the love interest? Or at least play with the gender roles more? And if the answer to that is somehow "no," then can we at least not motivate both the protagonist (Deadpool) and antagonist (Cable) of the same freaking movie with the same tired cliche?

Once the movie does actually bring Deadpool and Cable into conflict, though, it finally figures out what it wants to be. It also starts being consistently very funny. The fourth wall breaking humor becomes more biting; perhaps because the movie's own choices become stronger, it's no longer afraid to wink at them. The movie also begins to regularly reference its own predecessor, repeating and one-upping gags like "what Deadpool's face looks like" and "the awkwardness of regrowing severed limbs."

The second act also introduces the movie's best prolonged gag, the new X-Force team Deadpool recruits. In particular, we get the fun and fantastic character of Domino. Opposite a personality as large as Deadpool's, it really isn't possible to steal the movie away. But Domino, as portrayed by Zazie Beetz, comes as close as possible. Her quirky combination of detached cool and self-assuredness is great.

As the movie presses into Act 3, anything can and will go, and the frenetic pace of the jokes and the action totally work. Even composer Tyler Bates gets in on the action with his musical score, in a particular cue that made me laugh the hardest of any joke in the entire movie. (And it totally makes me want to buy the soundtrack album.) Plus, when they promise the best "end credits scene" of any movie ever, they may be wrong only in the sense that it's technically a mid-credits scene.

The peaks are higher, and the valleys lower, than the original Deadpool. But all in all, Deadpool 2 entertains. I'd give it a B+. You may be similarly frustrated with it in moments, but if you liked the first one, you're likely to enjoy the second.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The End

Well, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went and did it.

Wait... okay, hang on a minute. SPOILERS (for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., obviously, but also Avengers: Infinity War.)

Alright now. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went and did it. No, not picking up on what happens after Thanos snaps his fingers. They pointedly (and rightly) did not do that. (And I'll pick up on that a bit later.) What they did do is write what felt quite definitively like a series finale. Faced with uncertainty about their renewal, given the choice to do a conventional cliffhanger anyway, or a more open-ended conclusion, the writers did right by their fans, and gave us actual ending. To everything. I'm in the weird position now of being a bit sad that the series actually was renewed for another season.

First, they wrapped up the Talbot storyline. A bit neatly and quickly perhaps, but they had a bigger agenda to get to with the characters. Daisy took a power-up booster shot and Quaked the bad guy so hard he was launched into space. Neat and quick, maybe... but also pretty damn satisfying and entertaining.

Far more important was how they gave all the main characters a compelling ending. Mack was recognized for his unwavering moral compass and put in charge of the entire team. Daisy made the right choice for the group here, but also very much the right choice for her -- keeping herself in the field as fully as possible. She also faced the loss of her biggest father figure straight on, doing what Coulson asked and using his one shot (literally) at recovery on herself, to save the world.

Yo-Yo had, appropriately, an up and down ride of emotions. She started at rock bottom, a Cassandra figure unable to convince anyone they were about to destroy the world. She got some consolation from Coulson, who told her he agreed with her. But she was still there at what could have been Coulson's final moment, to save his life for just a bit longer.

Fitz's story was the part that hit hardest. He'd been barreling down a dark course all season, and sure enough, there was a big consequence for that. He heroically tried doing the right thing at the end, but heroism got him killed. And for me, this loss strongly contrasted with the ending of Infinity War in terms of effectiveness -- though I'm sure some would argue it's fundamentally no different.

To me, it was. They sat in the moment of Fitz's death, very honestly, and made it believable. Only then did they let us off the hook, and then only by reminding us of a "loophole" already established -- somewhere floating in space is an earlier Fitz, in hibernation, trying to get to a future that now no longer exists. Even this "out" to save Fitz hardly undoes everything. If they ever find him (well, "when," since we now know the show will have another season), he'll have missed out on a great deal, not the least of which is his own wedding. He'll also still be full of the demons of his behavior in the Framework, without having had a way to purge them -- he'll be a ticking clock that needs to make different choices than the ones we've seen his doppelganger make.

What I especially love in this is that we only got the briefest taste of any anguish from Simmons. Just a few seconds of silent slow motion when she received the news of Fitz's death. She is, of course, a woman of science, and has always been the bright optimist. The moment she realized that a version of Fitz was still alive out there somewhere, she was not mournful, but hopeful. That hope is all they really showed us.

The most fitting ending of all, of course, was reserved for Coulson and May. It's impossible to imagine any better send-off for Coulson than finally, actually going to Tahiti to relax for the rest of his days. Well, other than for him to do that with someone who loves him dearly -- and he got that too. Sure, there's melancholy in the fact that they only have a few weeks together at most, but for two characters who've been in constant emotional torment all their lives (often self-inflicted), a few weeks is still a paradise. I frankly don't want them to find some last minute way to keep Coulson on the show for another season, as much as I love Clark Gregg's performance, because I feel like it could only undermine this perfect ending.

Hell, even Deke got a great ending. We never actually see him "wink out of existence." Fitz was proven wrong about the nature of time, so who's to say whether he got this part right? Did Deke disappear? Or is he out there in the open air, living a real life for the first time? Either ending works, and you're free to choose the one that works best for you.

So, the one thing we didn't get was that final connection to Infinity War. It turns out that all the talk of Thanos was not building to a particular reckoning in the finale, it was just motivation for Talbot's descent into darkness. And deciding not to show us any version of "half" the characters winking out of existence was absolutely the right choice for this, if it's a series finale. We got an end to this story, and it's left to us to imagine (if we want to) what happens to them in a post-Thanos universe. (But it being a show run by Whedons, that's not terribly hard to imagine. Either Coulson or May vanishes -- May would be the more wrenching choice. Simmons probably goes, to make it extra painful when they do find Fitz and revive him. Take Mack, since we've all just agreed he's the new core of the gang. Leave Yo-Yo and Daisy alive to work through their differences.)

I've really come to understand why I was so curious about what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would do post-Thanos, and it has nothing to do with the show itself. I was looking for them to save Infinity War for me. Among many complaints I have about that movie, the biggest was that I felt no weight to any of the deaths. I want to see people forced to live with real consequences of events. Yet it shouldn't be on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to provide that for me. They had nothing to do with that movie and no say in what happened there. Why should they clean up the mess? The first part of season one, remember, was a rocky treading of water until Captain America: Winter Soldier was released, killing off S.H.I.E.L.D. as an official organization, sending the TV characters underground, and essentially starting the "real" show. That wasn't great, so why wish something like it on them again?

It's been announced that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. won't be returning until next summer. By then Avengers 4 will have already wrapped up everything, leaving it to the series to decide to acknowledge what happened (or not) as they see fit. I still wish I could see some real, believable consequences from the events of Infinity War, but even more than that, I want Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be its own thing. They already have their hands full anyway, needing to come up with a way to continue the show that doesn't undermine the integrity of the perfect series finale they just gave us.

Of course, I'll be there anyway when the show does come back. Quite nervously, though. But at least I've got more than a year to enjoy this grade A "conclusion."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Skating Your Case

After the Oscars briefly experimented with 10 Best Picture nominees each year, they switched to their current system, which can produce anywhere from 5 to 10 nominees. Since its introduction, this method has always resulted in 8 or 9 nominees, spurring some discussion of what the 1 or 2 other likely contenders would have been. In this most recent award season, the "10th film" is considered in most circles to be I, Tonya.

The movie is the story of Tonya Harding, focusing (of course) on the scandal of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. The film has a mockumentary framing device, despite being based on true events, as the absolute truth is hard to know here. You get things shaded one way by Harding herself, another slant from her husband Jeff Gillooly, and still another view from her mother LaVona Golden. Whenever the story seems to become too fantastical to be true, up pops one or more of the trio to remind you that, in fact, maybe it isn't, quite.

It's a funny movie, much more so than Oscar typically considers. If it was in the hunt, I think it's because it really does make a sympathetic character out of Tonya Harding. Anyone old enough to remember the original events will know that's as hard a feat as landing Harding's signature triple lutz, as she was thoroughly vilified in the media at the time. (Deservedly so? That's what the movie is asking.) The overall message here isn't obscured: everyone has their own side of the story. There's more to a person than the caricature you might perceive them to be.

The problem is that as the film spoon feeds you that message with one hand, it contradicts itself with the other. Every other character in the film feels as much a caricature as the on-screen Harding protests being reduced to. Everyone is a hapless idiot or a monstrous tyrant... or both, in turn -- everyone except Harding, the only person given a well-rounded treatment by the film. (And that's why it's called "I, Tonya," I suppose.) This construction certainly works to generate laughs and to achieve the primary mission of making her sympathetic, but it very much undermines the core message that there's always a story behind the story.

For me, that's why the movie itself didn't actually warrant Best Picture consideration. But it did receive three other nominations, and each one seems well deserved. First, Tatiana S. Riegel was nominated for Best Film Editing. The editing here is spectacular, from wry cuts to "interviews" for comedic effect to outstanding work putting together the film's many skating scenes. There's great camera placement and visual effects trickery at play too, but the alchemy of it really puts you on the ice for these make-or-break competition moments.

Margot Robbie was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as Harding. Certainly, the script gives her the gift of playing the most realistic character in the film, which helps her stand out. That's not to say she doesn't bring plenty to it, though. She has to play Harding at various ages, has to pop in and out of scenes to directly address the camera, and of course nail all that physicality in bringing the skating to life. It's a very solid performance.

Then there's Allison Janney, who won the Oscar she was nominated for, Best Supporting Actress. Part of me feels like the work she does here is nothing spectacular for her. But she is, without question, one of the most talented actresses working today. I can't in any way begrudge her a win for any particular performance, and certainly not this one. She is great, and since she works primarily on television (prior to this win, anyway), she doesn't have a lot of opportunities to even be up for an Oscar. Sure, give her the statue. She's every bit as funny and hateable here as the movie wants her character to be.

If you watch this movie, I think you'll be watching it for these performances. (And also that of Sebastian Stan, who really sheds his Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier image here as Harding's husband.) But I still wouldn't say you're missing out on a lot if you choose to skip it entirely. I give I, Tonya a B-.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tales from Decrypto

Decrypto is a new game I've seen a few people online describe as a "Codenames killer." That seems a bit over the top to me; I don't anticipate this more complex word game taking off to that degree. But I personally did enjoy it a great deal. Indeed, in my group of friends, it may well kick Codenames off the particular perch it inhabits.

Players split into two teams. Each team is given four words, placed in a reader that assigns a number (from 1 to 4) to each word. Everyone in the team can see the words and their corresponding numbers. Each team is given a sheet of paper to track everything that's about to go down.

The first round is straightforward. One member of a team draws a clue card with three different digits on it in a random order. They then give three clues to three of their four words that, in order, point to that code. Looking right at the words in the reader, the team comes to a consensus on the code.

Once the game enters round 2, things get more interesting. Again, one designated clue giver must give clues to the three-digit code they've drawn. But they can't repeat any clue that's been given previously in the game. And then, before their own team gets to guess the code, the opposing team gets a shot at it. Only if they fail to "intercept" can your own partners guess the code.

The core challenge of the game is this: you must give clues opaque enough to slip them by the opposing team, but clear enough to be grasped by your own team. The first team to intercept two opposing codes wins the game. But if your own team fails to guess a code, they receive a "failure to communicate" token. Two of those, and you lose the game.

As rounds progress, the game gets more and more challenging. As a clue giver, you have to try to come at a word from a new angle to keep things from becoming obvious. As an opposing team, you have to look at all the clues that have been given for a specific word over the course of several rounds and see if you can identify a commonality. If you're getting deeper into things, and your opponents messed up on one of their own clues, then you can try to factor in how it was their wrong guess might have been misconstrued as a clue for something else.

Like Codenames, this is a "Password"-style word game that rewards you for thinking outside the box and considering multiple meanings and associations for words. Improving on Codenames (in my view) is that the role of clue giver passes multiple times during a round, picking up the pace a bit and giving more players a chance to experience all aspects of the gameplay.

It's not that I wouldn't want to play Codenames again, but I'd surely prefer Decrypto whenever it too is on hand. I can see it becoming a staple of large-group game nights with my friends. It's a bit harder to wrap your head around than Codenames, and I do suspect for that reason it may not become the same massive hit. But it seems great for my group. I give Decrypto an enthusiastic A.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Nothing Lasts Forever

The best episode of the recent revival season of The X-Files was an all-out comedy in the mold of classics like "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" and "Bad Blood" -- some of the most highly-regarded episodes of the series. But there's another very different episode that also routinely ends up on "best of" lists: the gory and profoundly disturbing "Home." That's not a personal favorite of mine, though I can understand why they'd want to try revisiting that well one more time. I imagine that's how we got "Nothing Lasts Forever."

Mulder and Scully investigate the gruesome and ritualistic murders of a pair of organ harvesters, and soon find themselves hot on the trail of.... vampires? A cult? Both! Sort of. A charismatic couple, an actress and an unethical doctor, have built a group of followers literally willing to die so that the two might prolong their lives and remain forever young. But the sister of one of these wayward followers is also in pursuit, with vengeance on her mind.

This episode seems to exist mainly just as a vehicle to gross out the audience with body part smoothies, graphic impalings, gruesome operations to stitch people together, and whatever else they can think of. There's a loosely woven plot around prolonged life apparently making you crazy, but it appears to subscribe to the notion that "crazy people don't make sense," and so neither does this plot need to.

There's a tiny sprinkling of meta commentary throughout, about aging in general, and the aging of our two heores in particular. It's definitely the episode's strongest element. We see Mulder struggling with vanity and embarrassment as he has to resort to progressive lens eyeglasses (not bifocals!) in order to read. Scully the doctor tries to tell him that it's a natural stage of life, to which Mulder gets a dig in on how she's not just leaving her appearance to nature either. This is just one of a few nice moments with the characters, though none are as effective and simple as the show's opening credits -- which still, after all these years, show our baby-faced, season 1 protagonists crashing through a door, circa 1993.

I'm not sure anything on television (certainly not network television) could be as shocking today as "Home" was in its time, so I feel like this episode was chasing something that could never be caught. Add that to the fact that I never thought much of that original episode, and I found this a rather lackluster installment of the show. I give "Nothing Lasts Forever" a C-. As I'm finally winding down the season, I'm ready for it to be done.