Friday, April 29, 2016

The Music of the Final Frontier

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, a concert performance of music from Star Trek. It's been touring all over the U.S. and Canada, and as the tour is now winding down, it stopped at the Paramount Theater (appropriately) here in Denver for a night.

The show was fun, getting to see live performances of a wide variety of music from Star Trek series and movies -- both iconic and more obscure samples. Being a fan of composer Jerry Goldsmith, I enjoyed how much of his work was represented in the show: his main title music from The Motion Picture (which became The Next Generation theme), First Contact, Insurrection, Voyager, and themes from within those movies for the Klingons and the Borg. In particular, the emotional theme to First Contact struck me more powerfully than ever before -- a truly beautiful piece of music.

The classic Trek fan in loved to see and hear the famous battle music from "Amok Time," and the climactic music from "The Doomsday Machine." The completist in me enjoyed music from James Horner (The Wrath of Khan), Leonard Rosenman (The Voyage Home), Cliff Eidelman (The Undiscovered Country), and Michael Giacchino (J.J. Abrams' newer films). Even under the umbrella of Star Trek, there was a wide variety to the musical styles, and packing them all into a single concert was a good experience.

But it wasn't a great experience, for a handful of reasons. One was that this touring orchestra was not as talented as the people of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra just down the street. The poor trumpet player twice missed a note in that famous Star Trek opening blast. The mixing was off at times, burying the french horns completely. The bass and cello players seemed to occasionally lag behind the rest of the orchestra.

Then there were instruments that were missing entirely. I don't suppose I expected a touring production to lug around an actual blaster beam (the massive instrument that makes that weird BWONG sound in The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan), but they were missing the instruments that produce the crisp percussion in the Klingon theme, and the lack of harp was conspicuous during several of the movie score samples.

Then there was the video element of the presentation. On a screen behind the orchestra, montages of clips from all 50 years of Star Trek were presented. They were a decidedly mixed bag, often featuring moments that had little to do with the music being played (if they even came from the right series). There was a rather ridiculous amount of repetition in the clips. (700+ hours of footage to work with, and they couldn't come up with two hours of unique material?) And sometimes they'd let too much of the dialogue play, occasionally competing with the orchestra to be heard. (If I wanted to hear people talk over Star Trek music, I could have stayed home and actually watched the show.)

So overall, this Ultimate Voyage was a fun concept with a less than ideal execution. I still love that I had the chance to see some of this music performed live. But I wish that there wasn't something happening every other song to briefly snap me out of that current of joy. I want to say the experience was grade A, but the truth is it was probably more like a B at best.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Final Review

The "self-aware horror movie" has become a new staple in the horror movie diet. One of the most recent is The Final Girls. The teenage protagonist, Max, reluctantly goes to the screening of a classic horror movie with her friends -- a "sweep-away camp" slasher from the mid-1980s that starred her mother. When the group is sucked into the movie, they find themselves struggling against not only a depraved killer, but the dim-witted, shallow, and poorly written characters of the film itself. And the ordeal is even more emotional for Max, who has suddenly come face-to-face with a younger version of her "mother."

The Final Girls is a clever premise helped along by some good casting. Though you'll find no A-list stars, there are plenty of names and faces that fans of genre movies will recognize. Max is played by Taissa Farmiga (from multiple seasons of American Horror Story), while her mother is played by Malin Akerman (from Wanderlust, Watchmen, and more). Farmiga is playing it straight, the horror heroine who comes into her own. Akerman gets to play it campy in the film-within-the-film, but also has some scenes of surprising emotional depth as she bonds with Max. The unexpected spectrum of her role is showcased in two scenes that prominently feature the fantastic-and-cheesy 80s song "Bette Davis Eyes," once played for laughs and once for something else entirely.

The cast also includes Adam DeVine, Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, and more people you'd recognize from solid TV sitcoms, all of whom bring some decent laughs to the film. Still, the movie is at its best when it's using them all for sight gags; the over-the-top deaths are where the big belly laughs come.

And things sometimes slow down a bit too much in between. One of the pitfalls of a clever "I should have thought of that" premise is that once you hear it, your mind starts playing catch-up. How would YOU tell the story, given the concept? And sometimes, you can be more clever with this idea than the movie itself managed to be. Though it runs only 90 minutes total, it can at times feel longer for the dead spaces between the best jokes.

So overall, I'd give The Final Girls a B. Those who enjoy the horror genre will have fun with it, though it isn't the best "take down" of scary movies that I've seen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Singularity

I love the fact that in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. titled "The Singularity," that title refers not to some kind of science fiction Macguffin, but rather is the name Fitz and Simmons themselves used to refer to finally sleeping together. Their story line was the most compelling to me this week, for several reasons more than them crossing this irrevocable line.

Their undercover mission together made for a lot of fun, as they both worked hard to be cool under pressure and out of their element. Their page from Bobbi and Hunter's book, going dark to get personal was a great scene for them, and a nice nod to the lasting impression those missing characters leave on the show. Then, separately, each had a memorable and tense final showdown -- Fitz being threatened by Daisy, and Simmons coming face-to-sort-of-face with Will. And Ward. When that moment came, Simmons was thrown for a loop -- but still put several bullets into Hive.

Another great character scene came when May called out Coulson for making her do his dirty work. Theirs is a relationship that's been essentially unbreakable all along, and so it's perfect for May to point out that the one relationship that Coulson values more is the one he has with Daisy. Daisy gets a full-blown rescue attempt and Lincoln gets a "murder vest?" Point made, May.

Also welcome is that even in an ongoing story line that involves brainwashing, the series still made a point of respecting character. Daisy is under Hive's sway, but that control ends (mostly) at Hive's direct commands. She'll still stand up to him and insist to be called Daisy, not Skye. She still is in search of a family, and a father figure in particular. And she'll stop short of killing one of her friends... this one time only, if we take her at her/Hive's word. I hope this isn't going to lead to a cliche "fight him, Daisy!" moment down the road, but putting this idea in the mix adds dimension to what's happening. It will also, later, make it harder for Daisy to wash her hands of what she did because "it wasn't really her," because that won't be 100% true.

The one big misfire for me this week was the sudden, unearned, and basically off-screen eradication of Hydra. If Hydra is really just gone now, just like that, what a majorly anti-climactic end to a threat (and plot) that's been running on the show for two years. And if they're not actually gone now, what was the point of even wasting episode time on suggesting they are? Are Hive and Hydra so intertwined in the minds of the writers that they think beating one requires beating the other? I really just don't understand why the hell such a major moment (as Coulson even called it in the episode) seemed tacked in as an afterthought.

But overall, the Hive story line continues to develop in interesting ways. I'd call this episode a B+.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Jade Rebellion

Several months back, I wrote about the first book of Naomi Novik's Temeraire saga, a fantasy series that cleverly places dragons into the historical setting of the Napoleonic wars. That first book was an entertaining read, buoyed by the sense of "what might have been," and by the fun personality of the star dragon (and his relationship with his captain, Laurence). So, interspersed with other books, I decided to continue with the series.

Book Two, Throne of Jade, sees the Chinese laying claim to Temeraire. As England does not wish to incite them into support of Napoleon, Captain Laurence is ordered to see the dragon transported to China. The premise hints at a fun expansion of the series' core concept, promising dragons mixed into another historical culture. It also suggests a story of diplomacy and intrigue. Unfortunately, very little of that promise is fulfilled in the actual novel.

In practice, two-thirds of the book is devoted to getting Temeraire to China. The sea voyage is chronicled in excruciating detail, making mountainous chapters out of the minutia of shipboard life. There are occasional sequences of mild adventure, thanks to rough weather and other ocean hazards. But when you get down to it, a months-long journey around the South African Cape is far from the most exhilarating tale one could tell in a saga about war in the early 1800s. And it's outright squandering the uniqueness of involving dragons in that historical setting.

The final act is disappointing too. Without getting too specific about the book's ending, the core conflict in the plot is resolved in a quite lackluster fashion. Seemingly aware of her book's lack of action, Novik contrives a lengthy battle sequence in the final act. But the problem of Temeraire's reclamation by China is resolved in a disappointingly slight number of pages after so much preamble.

The characters of Temeraire and Captain Laurence do remain interesting, both individually and in their unusual friendship with each other. But it's really not enough to save a dull slog of a book that immediately robs all momentum in the series that the first book built up. I feel generous giving Throne of Jade a C-.

At this point, I find myself at a crossroads: whether to cut my losses now before being drawn any further into a nine book saga, or to give one more book a chance in the hopes that it will be more like the first than the second. One thing's for sure, I'll be reading some other things before coming back around to answer that question.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Red Woman

Game on!

Game of Thrones is back with season six, and led off with an episode that keenly displayed that even as the show ventures into territory that George R.R. Martin has yet to write in his books, it won't really be spoiling every detail of those books. For the most part, the plot threads that received the most attention this week are ones that have already departed in large measure from the books.

For example, take the reunion of Sansa and Brienne -- a reunion where the books have yet to even have a union, as neither Sansa or Brienne are anywhere near Winterfell. On that far off day when Martin finally publishes The Winds of Winter, we'll probably know the story's ultimate destination, but not the journey: Theon Greyjoy's only help is Stannis' army, which has already fallen in the show. But I do feel like the gauntlet has been thrown with a scene Martin will find hard to top. Brienne once again offering her oath of service, with Sansa's acceptance (and help from Podrick), was a surprisingly moving scene.

Or take the massacre down in Dorne. Martin has been building up a slow burner of a tale centered on a character that doesn't even exist in the show, a character who has been partly grafted onto Ellaria Sand. Myrcella is still very much alive in the books, and Jaime is off in another part of the world dealing with an entirely different problem. So while readers may now know that Prince Doran's days of passive plotting are numbered, there's no telling exactly when or how we'll get to this moment. But it sure made for a bold scene in this episode; season premieres have typically been all setup, with big moves like this typically a few episodes down the road.

Unlike this review, the show didn't make anyone wait to delve into events up at the Wall. I love how the show wasted no time in showing that Jon Snow is most undeniably dead. (Though that's neither here nor there to the prevailing theory of what's likely to happen next.) Davos has always been the character to seek some measure of nobility amid some seriously ignoble conditions, and it's fun to watch him try to do that again with a handful of loyal men of the Night's Watch. That he would now consider turning to Melisandre for help is a big step for him, given his past rocky relationship with her.

Things with Melisandre certainly got interesting and strange in that final scene. Unless I'm forgetting something, this is the first time that either book or show has unambiguously stated that she actually does possess some real form of magic. (EDIT: Okay, other than the whole demonic assassin shadow baby thing.) The books in particular have been really careful to have it both ways -- she says she wields magic from the Lord of Light, but everything that transpires (such as kingly deaths by magic leeches) could easily have a second, non-supernatural explanation. (EDIT: Again, other than the whole demonic assassin shadow baby thing.) For us to see that indeed, she's not completely full of it, that she at least has a glamour to present a youthful appearance, puts her firmly on one side of the fence. And just in time for what book readers expect will come next.

I'll skip ahead to the other story line with notable movement. In one scene, Dany found herself in major trouble (prisoner of Dothraki), seemed to get herself out of that trouble (securing the Khal's pledge that she would not be violated), and then found herself right back in trouble (she's going to be forcibly relocated to "crone central," to live out her days with other Khaleesis). Whether she can make good her own rescue, or whether Daario and Jorah (or her dragon) can somehow help her remains to be seen.

As for the rest? Many scenes mostly just reminding us where things stand -- though sprinkled with all sorts of interesting character moments. We learned that Roose Bolton does have limits to what he'll tolerate from Ramsay; Ramsay seems to be on thin ice with him. We saw that Cersei has not truly been cowed by her shaming ordeal... but neither is she wholly unscathed, as news of Myrcella's death has put her into a fatalistic acceptance of unavoidable fate. (But she could certainly take a lot of people with her on her way to that fate.) Tyrion and Varys remain a fun pairing, trading constant barbs with one another. Arya and Margaery both find themselves is very different, very precarious situations. (Though because of some shuffling of material, book readers for the moment have one last area of the story where they know what's coming, when it comes to Arya.)

In all, a solid and entertaining start to the season. I give the episode a B+.

Friday, April 22, 2016

TNG Flashback: Masks

"Masks" was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that dared to try something quite unusual... and mostly fell on its face.

In their investigation of a rogue comet, the Enterprise crew uncovers a strange alien archive buried beneath the comet's surface. Soon the archive begins to take over the ship, slowly transforming it into a monument to the alien culture -- and possessing Data with numerous personae from its mythology.

"Masks" was the brainchild of staff writer Joe Menosky, who had worked an unusual deal with the production that allowed him to live in Europe for three years and send in ideas to the show remotely. After writing the brilliant episode "Darmok," one can imagine how he secured such a sweet deal. "Masks" even feels a bit like a spiritual successor to "Darmok," in that both stories feature an alien culture with its own carefully detailed mythology that's largely and purposefully kept hidden from both the main characters and the audience.

But where "Darmok" used its mythology as backdrop for a powerful story about how people communicate and bond with each other, "Masks" seems to have no real message at its core. At least, none that got across even to those working on the show. The episode's director, Robert Wiemer, noted that he couldn't find here the meaningful subtext or morality play that he thought typical of the series, deciding the episode "didn't have any heart." Staff writer Ronald Moore recalled that upon seeing the first draft script, "we all sort of scratched our heads and looked at each other and wondered what he's smoking out there in the Alps."

Though to be fair, that first draft was reportedly even weirder than what ended up on screen. Menosky's approach used pure archetypal forms so difficult to conceptualize that a rewrite was deemed necessary. Staff writer Naren Shankar drew that assignment, and added actual characters from the archive that the audience could relate to. Yet even he acknowledged that "the end result is...it's still kinda confusing." Another staff writer, Brannon Braga explained the episode thusly: "Joe is one of those writers who has a unique vision that no one else understands. Shows need to be nurtured by him and it's very tough to come in on one of his scripts and start rewriting it."

But it's not just the broad strokes that don't quite make sense in this episode. Even the details seem off. Why is Troi so blasé at the thought that someone might have broken into her quarters? Why does the crew assume there's something hiding in the center of the comet in first place? And what's the point, script-wise, of uncovering the alien archive in that way, as opposed to just encountering it in space? When the archive starts hacking the ship's computer and transforming the Enterprise in a way that threatens to expose people to open space, why is it not immediately taken as a dire threat? How does a society advanced enough to create this probe still cling to a mythology in which, as Troi puts it, only the sun OR the moon can be ascendance at any one time. (Imagine the tidal forces on a world where that's literally true!)

What started out rough on the page was further hindered in the performance. It's rare for me to cast aspersions at the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but here Brent Spiner himself beat me to the punch. He has repeatedly talked about the making of this episode (including in the documentary on the seventh season Blu-ray collection). He was just coming off "Thine Own Self," an episode in which he was heavily featured, and which was filming past midnight on its final day. "Masks" was set to start the next morning, and he only read the script for the first time in between late night shots of "Thine Own Self." He was so alarmed by what he read that he called showrunner Jeri Taylor and begged her for an emergency episode shuffle.

Spiner recalls saying, "Give me six months and I think I could give all the characters their due." Taylor remembers him arguing that "Dustin Hoffman had a year to figure out how to do Tootsie and portray a woman." She apparently took it as an actors' not-atypical whining, fluffed up his ego, and assured him he could do it. But suffice it to say, whatever magic goes into, say, Tatiana Maslany's stellar multi-character performance on Orphan Black wasn't there that week for Brent Spiner. I give him credit for making firm choices and committing to them... but they were clearly his first choices, with no time to modulate the results.

And so you get a procession of quirky voices (further modulated in post-production) as Data is inhabited by four different characters (and sprouts a morphing chest piece to further signal the character switches to the audience). Meanwhile, the plot flirts oh-so-closely with an idea that might actually have worked better: having other main characters be possessed too. Picard, for example, ultimately poses as Korgano to resolve the story, while the episode twice tries to make us think that Troi is Masaka (once when Data mistakes her identity, and again when the camera lingers on her strangely in Masaka's temple as she ascends the steps toward the throne).

Brent Spiner's sense of self-confidence wasn't the only casualty of having this episode immediately follow "Thine Own Self," either. With the back-to-back positioning of these two stories, Data winds up with amnesia twice in two weeks. And Troi's first responsibility with her new rank of commander? Teaching sculpture to school children.

And yet, there's some pretty great production value on display here, which sometimes lulls you into thinking maybe the episode isn't as bad as all that. The visual effects of the comet are pretty spectacular (from the same people who created the comet for Deep Space Nine's opening sequence). Masaka's temple is a large and impressive set build on Deep Space Nine's stage (because the "Thine Own Self" village was still standing on The Next Generation's own stage); it was later redressed for use on Deep Space Nine in the episode "Blood Oath." There's also a neat moment at the end when the mask disappears off Picard's face, an effect made possible by Patrick Stewart's ability to hold absolutely motionless as someone removed his mask with the camera rolling. (Those seconds of footage were then removed from the scene.)

Other observations:
  • There are a trio of deleted scenes and/or scene extensions included with the Blu-ray version of this episode. One, set early on in Ten Forward, depicts food and drink transformed by the alien archive, and revisits the old gag of Worf enjoying the taste of something that everyone else finds disgusting. Another scene has the characters speculating as to the purpose of the archive; Worf's thought that it might be a weapon is, as per tradition, shot down.
  • Speaking of Worf, Michael Dorn has at least once stated this was his least favorite episode of the entire series.
Despite the episode's numerous flaws, there is somehow a sense here that no one is phoning it in. I find I can't send it to the cellar with the truly worst episodes of the series. Still, I can't see fit to grade it better than a C-.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Just Be Coup

I've written before about the card game The Resistance, a large group game in the style of "Werewolf." The makers of the game have been busily spinning it off over the years, with expansions, an Arthurian version... and then a different game set in the same universe -- Coup: Rebellion G54.

Besides the same science fiction setting, Coup shares other elements with The Resistance. Both are meant for larger groups of players. Both take only 10-15 minutes to play, with the idea being that you'd play the game multiple times in one sitting. And both revolve around lying convincingly to your friends.

Each round starts with five different character roles known to all players. Some characters accumulate money. Some launch attacks on other players. Some are more subtle and devious. From a deck containing copies of all five roles, each player is dealt two characters, kept secret from the group and representing influence ("health"). On your turn, you simply declare that you are one of the characters, and carry out its associated ability. That may or may not be one of the actual characters you hold in secret, but that doesn't really matter... if you can get away with it. Any opponent can choose to challenge the role you've declared. If they challenge, and you then reveal a character card proving your identity, they lose one point of influence. If they challenge and you were lying about it, you lose the point of influence. When you've lost both of your influence, you're out of the game.

Coup is thus part Resistance, part Bullshit (that card game sometimes known by tamer names). And kinda-sorta, it's part Dominion, in that the game comes with 25 different roles, only 5 of which are actually used in any given play of the game. You can thus refresh and vary the game as often as you like by switching out the roles in the mix.

On the one hand, it's good that a game in which players are knocked out as a matter of course is also a short game -- you never have to wait long after being eliminated. On the other hand, I felt as though the game always concluded before it really got interesting. You have only one chance to be wrong; your second mistake takes you out. So you really don't get to enjoy lying about your role much before someone calls you out. You really don't get to challenge other players much before being proven wrong. Hell, you barely even have time to learn what all the 5 roles in your particular playthrough even do before being eliminated. The game simply ends too fast, before I think it reaches its full inherent potential for fun.

I'm also not sure the game actually has a "sweet spot" number of players, either. When I played with just four, the "it's over too fast" feeling was magnified. When I played with the maximum of six, the mechanisms of the game made it too easy for one player to be ganged up on by the rest and eliminated without any ability to defend himself.

The idea of the game seems fun, but this particularly execution felt quite flawed to me. I couldn't see choosing this game over The Resistance itself. I give it a D+.