Monday, July 06, 2015

TNG Flashback: Lessons

"Lessons" was the second Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in a row to focus on Jean-Luc Picard. But where "Starship Mine" had been an action-oriented affair, this was a quiet romance.

Captain Picard meets Nella Daren, the new head of the ship's Stellar Cartography department. She's brilliant, assertive, an accomplished pianist and lover of music... and she knows how to coax the reserved captain out of his social shell. A romantic relationship develops between the two, and they carefully negotiate the awkwardness of an "office romance" between a superior and a subordinate. But their "office" often journeys into dangerous situations. And when the Picard orders a rescue of people from a deadly planetary firestorm, putting Daren into harm's way is a greater strain on the relationship than either could have anticipated.

Taken as a piece of episodic television, "Lessons" isn't all that extraordinary. One of the series regulars falls in love, only to play out an entire relationship and then break up before the end credits (all to keep the character available for future episodes). But then, "Lessons" isn't quite a piece of episodic television. It draws heavily on the series' best episode, "The Inner Light," and from it is strengthened tremendously.

The episode was pitched by an outside writing team, Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias. They'd previously sold the ideas for "Imaginary Friend" and "Schisms," but here were actually given the opportunity to write their own script rather than see their premise handed to a member of the writing staff. (Though there was still a minor final draft polish by Rene Echevarria. Brannon Braga was originally to have drawn the assignment, but a switch was made in light of his poor showing in the series' last romantic episode, "Aquiel.")

Nella Daren is really well written as the perfect love interest for Picard. She doesn't back down easily when confronted, but is also able to charm without seeming insincere. Yet the big key to the episode is the way the two characters bond over a love of music.

For a show generally loathe to do sequels, it's a brave thing to so completely embrace the history of "The Inner Light." Picard summarizes the plot of that episode in its entirety (and fittingly, is circumspect about it before finally opening up). And when the actual Ressikan flute melody is reprised, it's hard not to tear up at the connection. Yet this episode is doing more than merely trading on the goodwill of that past one; it's actually raising the stakes on this relationship, knowing how much Picard's last one meant to him.

Actress Wendy Hughes has a fine line to walk here as Nella Daren, but she's equal to the challenge. She's not just likeable, she's likeable even in the face of scenes where Doctor Crusher (who we also like) is essentially positioned against her. (Jean-Luc doesn't want to tell Beverly where he got his new tea blend from, nor does Beverly want to let on to Nella how she and the captain really know each other).

Any hesitancy about this relationship is dispelled in the scene where Daren first encourages Picard to play the flute for her; her advice to "just enjoy it" is as infectious on the audience as it is on the character. I mean, just look at the child-like, enthusiastic grin on Picard's face as he takes her compliment.

I find it interesting how the episode manages to present a convincing relationship despite operating within Gene Roddenberry's restriction of "no conflict between 24th-century humans." Picard and Daren talk through several relationship pitfalls, including the instinct to hide it from the crew, the commitment not to let work intrude, and the question of whether "the captain's woman" is expecting any favors from other superior officers. True, there's little friction in any of this, but that fortunately doesn't mean it's uninteresting.

Actually, if there's any awkwardness in the story, it comes from compressing the relationship into the span of a single hour. It's just the nature of the television beast. You have to accept that the very first time Picard sends Daren on an Away Team mission, her life is put in danger. Then you have to accept that after just this one incident gone bad, the two decide to end their relationship. But at least the break-up makes for a touching scene. When Picard confesses his momentary fear that his music would never again bring him joy if he'd lost her, it feels like a profound loss indeed.

Other observations:
  • This is the first appearance of Stellar Cartography on the show, and it's a modest one. The movie Star Trek: Generations would present a much more grandiose vision of this part of a starship, as would Star Trek: Voyager.
  • There are some great little moments involving Counselor Troi. My favorite is a subtle look Marina Sirtis gives in the background as Picard listens to Nella Daren play at the concert. Troi is picking up on the positive emotions Picard is feeling.
  • Looking at Daren's keyboard, I'm not sure it has enough texture on its surface to be played by touch.
  • In the pivotal scene set in the "acoustically perfect" Jefferies Tube, director Robert Weimer staged a super long, super slow pullback that went to the very edge of the dolly track (and the set). Unfortunately, it had to be trimmed for time.
  • It's interesting that after Jay Chattaway scored three straight episodes of The Next Generation, he didn't get this one. He was the one who composed the Ressikan flute melody from "The Inner Light" that figures so prominently here. Still, Dennis McCarthy does a good job of fleshing out his colleague's beautiful tune with piano accompaniment.
Admittedly, this episode wouldn't be as good without the background of "The Inner Light." But "Lessons" has that background, and the result is a solid B+.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Flying Off the Rails

It might just be that there are more Euro games about trains than any other subject -- and several good ones at that. So I wasn't exactly in the market for another train game. But my good friend, an even bigger board game enthusiast than I am, sold me on checking out German Railways. And he did it by describing the intriguingly different mechanic at the heart of the game.

Like most train games, German Railways features several companies working to connect different cities. Like some train games, companies are not directly controlled by a single player; instead, shares in each company are sold, and then players jockey to try to make the companies they've invested in do well. So far, there's nothing at work here you can't get from, say, Union Pacific. But there are two twists.

First, there's the way in which each rail company must be infused with money. When a player buys a share, that money goes into the company's coffers. And only that money can be spent (by any shareholder) to build track. When the company runs out of money, someone has to buy a new share (using the dividends they've received from ownership of other stocks) to infuse the company anew. It's a fairly clever game system that captures an economy more elaborately than most games attempt to do. And it's surprising how well it works in practice.

The second mechanic is a highly unusual way of determining player turn order each round. There are as many actions up for grabs as there are players in the game. Whichever players is "winning" (measured by having the highest potential dividend payouts among his railway shares) gets one token in a cloth bag. Second place gets two, third place three, and so on. Then tokens are drawn out at random. It's a theoretical catch-up mechanic, where the leader has very little chance of even getting a turn in a round, while other players might even get to act multiple times. In theory, it's a rather clever gimmick.

In practice, random chance is angry and fickle. I played in a four-player game, and I'm sorry to report that it's unlikely any of us will ever play the game again. In the first two rounds of the game, the same player didn't get a single turn. (He was nominally in first, but hardly by any amount that mattered, given that the game had just started.) Then, in four of the last five rounds of the game (all but the final round), I myself didn't get a single turn either. (This despite being in first only one of those missed rounds, and in third for two of them.)

Thus the flaw in leaving up to chance such a vital mechanic as getting to actually play the game. My friend sat there doing nothing for the first 10 minutes of play, all of us learning the ropes as he sat out. Then I did nothing for almost 30 minutes at the end of the game, knowing any chance of pulling out a win was slipping away from me and being powerless to do a thing about it. It's the sort of frustrating randomness I associate (unfavorably) with a game like Fluxx -- but at least with Fluxx, you know from the start that you're signing up for chaos, more activity than game. German Railways felt like it snuck up under false pretenses and punched me in the face.

So, with apologies to the friend who recommended it, I have a copy of German Railways for sale. Not that I'd actually encourage any of my readers to buy it. I imagine that the experience could be better when the odds don't defy you. But I had an absolute grade F experience. And the fact that the game has no rules to limit that sort of thing makes it hard for me to grade it any better than that.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Dull Steel

When people know that you read fantasy books, you get a lot of recommendations. Fantasy books often come in long series, demanding a lot of time from the reader, so fellow fans are usually eager to swap favorites. This was how I heard about a trilogy by Richard K. Morgan, beginning with a book titled The Steel Remains.

Independently of this, I'd been continuing with that intermittent search I mentioned a while back, the search for an interesting book with a gay protagonist. In that, I'd also came across mention of The Steel Remains. Among the three characters who share focus in the book, one is a gay man and another a lesbian. Feeling that two roads had precipitously intersected, I decided to give the book a shot.

I never finished it. This isn't unheard of for me, though it is rather rare. I tend to give books all the chances I can once I've begun. I'm not the fastest reader around, but I am generally fast enough that I'd just as soon give a bad book the opportunity to improve rather than bail on it. But I simply couldn't pull myself through The Steel Remains.

Richard Morgan did have some interesting character ideas. And he certainly used his unconventional protagonists in unconventional ways. But whatever he might have planned, his execution was quite simply terrible. His book is the work of an author trying way too hard to write with style.

Morgan takes a handful of writing techniques and works them to death. Sentence fragments are strewn everywhere. His metaphors and similes seem deliberately crafted to be awkward and pull the reader out of the flow. And virtually every chapter begins with the same device of concealing character perspective. It often takes a page or more for Morgan to concretely identify which of the main characters he's following, leaving the reader frequently confused and disoriented. Any one of these devices could have been used sparingly to good effect, but repeated ad nauseum, they quickly become off-putting.

Then there's more bad writing specific to the fantasy genre. The narrative is often paused for lengthy passages of world building that aren't remotely integrated with the story. Several names of families and cities are unpronounceable jumbles of letters, made even stranger with a smattering of hyphens and apostrophes. And the whole thing seemed too desperate to ride George R.R. Martin's coattails in its more explicit descriptions of sex and violence.

I made it fully two-thirds of the way through the book, occasionally pulled in when a character began to develop in an interesting way. But eventually, I got tired of the bad writing kicking me out of the flow. Realizing there were two more books in the series even if I could make it to the end of this one, I chose to cut my losses.

I suppose the fair grade to give the book would be "incomplete." I suppose it would also be fair to note that the person who pointed me to it specifically said it had a page-turner of a plot, and specifically hedged about how much he liked the book. But it's my blog, and I'll decide what's fair. I couldn't finish The Steel Remains, and I don't think anyone else should start. I give it an F.

Friday, July 03, 2015

He's Bahck

Last night, I went to see the new movie Terminator Genisys. Part sequel, part reboot, the movie plays fast and loose with time as it revisits and then expands the established Terminator mythos. Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation being so forgettable, I'm not sure I can confidently declare whether this new film is the worst of the franchise. But it's certainly in that company. And in any case, there's very little this film does that one of the preceding four didn't do better.

One thing for certain this movie doesn't do well is tell a story that makes much sense. One of the most subtly appealing aspects of the Terminator movies (particularly the first two) is how much they mined from something so simple. The heroes are trying to stop a killer robot that wants to kill them. Sure, the time travel aspect makes for a bit of a wrinkle, but that's it in a nutshell. By contrast, Terminator Genisys is sort of trying to tell the stories of all four previous movies, and mixing in its own new plot threads too.

Time goes in the blender with this movie. An entire alternate timeline is spawned (and it's never explained how, if it could have gone this way, it didn't go this way the first time around). There are scenes set in five different years and two different timelines. There are multiple time machines, multiple time travelers (some arriving from points never identified), and multiple strategically dubious uses of time jumping. (If you have a time machine and you're trying to stop an apocalypse, is showing up less than 48 hours before said apocalypse really your best bet?) Look to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a metaphor for the movie itself: both use lots of words like "quantum" and "theoretically," and clearly have no idea what they're talking about.

The... I guess I'll call it up side... is that it's all so knotted up and inscrutable that you give up trying to make sense of it pretty early on. That makes it possible to at least partially enjoy the handful of charms the movie has on its side. Emilia Clarke makes a pretty good Sarah Connor. While she doesn't seem nearly as confident handling weapons as Linda Hamilton did in the second film, she gives a solid performance with both strong and vulnerable moments. Jai Courtney is also decent as Kyle Reese, good with the action and the everyman humor. Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons (as you should be legally required to call him now) is frankly a bit wasted in a goofy comic relief role, but he squeezes every last drop of juice out of his precious minutes on screen.

And stuff blows up real good. There's an over-reliance on CG, and consequently some set pieces don't work as well as others. For example, there's a helicopter chase that's kind of crazy-awesome in scope, and yet it doesn't thrill as much as the much simpler helicopter work in Terminator 2, because it doesn't look real. On the other hand, there's some very well-done city destruction in the opening minutes. And the much talked about "old Arnold fights young Arnold" scene was quite a bit more convincing than I expected it to be. There are also plenty of good morphing gags involving liquid Terminators and new nanite-ish Terminators (which are somehow supposed to be better than liquid Terminators, but I'm not convinced).

The truth is, you're much better off just staying home and watching the first two (excellent) Terminator films. But if you do decide to go... well, it's not great, but it's not a total loss. I give Terminator Genisys a C-. (But an F on spelling "genesis.")

Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Masterpiece for a Masterpiece

It's a bit strange that a film score aficionado like myself didn't have the music from Psycho in his collection. It's an omission I recently decided I had to rectify.

On the other hand, perhaps it was not that strange an omission, as I'm also a purist for original recordings. (This was a lesson learned back before complete albums for the Star Wars trilogy were finally released. Some of the unofficial albums that offered a track you couldn't get anywhere else unfortunately also featured re-recordings that sounded nothing like the versions in the movies themselves.) The problem is, the original tracks for Psycho simply don't exist. My options were re-record or nothing. "Nothing" finally reached the point where it seemed the worse of two evils. I figured at least that being one of the most revered film scores of all time, any re-recording of the music would be carried out faithfully.

Bernard Herrmann composed for many Alfred Hitchcock films, but his Psycho score is legendary. With the film on a tight budget (being financed by Hitchcock himself), Herrmann didn't have as much money for his orchestra as he was used to. His response was to ditch most of the orchestra and compose only for the string section -- violin, viola, cello, and bass. One great triumph of the score is how much Herrmann squeezes out of this limited ensemble, how many different ways he uses the versatile instruments. Melody isn't just reserved for the violin section; viola and cello get to carry it at times as well. Players use broad, slow strokes and swift, sharp ones. Strings are plucked with the fingers and all but stabbed with the bow. Much of the music is played with mutes on the instruments, swallowing up any reverberation in the sound; this in turn makes the few unmuted moments leap from the speakers.

Psycho is such a celebrated score, with so much scholarly commentary written about it, that there's likely nothing I can say here that hasn't been said somewhere before. But I can at least point to what about it stands out for me.

The first half of the score establishes three different tones, with three different themes. First, there's a manic melody used for "Flight," "Patrol Car, and "The Rainstorm." With swirling violins over dark bass notes, this music represents fear in the film -- sheer, animal panic to run like hell. It's thus quite appropriate that this is the music that plays with the opening credits, in "Prelude," winding up the audience right out of the gate.

The second motif is a sultry, seductive one. It represents the character of Marion Crane in the few moments she feels fully in control.

The third motive is a blend of the two, keeping the slow pace of the Marion music, but introducing some of the movement from the "Flight" music. The strings aren't taking off at a run, but neither are they fully settled. There's a deliberate slowness to it that ratchets up the tension, and it's used to great effect as the plot unfolds, in tracks like "Temptation" and "Hotel Room."

As Norman Bates finally enters the story, a fourth sound begins to emerge. At first, it's a small variation on the seductive Marion music, though underpinned by darker, fuller bass notes. But through tracks like "The Peephole," the theme continues to develop.

Then comes probably the most famous piece of music in the history of film, "The Murder." Often referenced, memorable even out of context, what makes it work so great in context is how different it is from everything that has come before. Just as audiences of the time were completely unprepared for the death of the film's apparent heroine, nothing in the score foreshadows this sudden screeching of strings like attacking birds. Famously, Hitchcock had not planned to have music in the scene at all, but he changed his mind in the editing room after hearing Herrmann's composition.

Cleverly, it's after the murder that the score begins to use tremolo strings for the first time. After a scene like that, anything could happen, and so even the notes themselves are less certain now. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the bass and cello parts begin to move around as the violin and viola parts did when representing Marion earlier. It seems the walls are closing in on him as they once did on her.

But then things slow down instead. A lot. Some of the material in the back half of the movie, Herrmann is said to have cribbed from one of his earlier scores for a non-Hitchcock film. In any case, it's the most controlled, deliberate music of the entire film, running quite counter to the threat that events at the Bates Motel might be brought to light. I think this unexpected stability suggests in a subtle way that someone might actually get away with murder, which helps pull the audience in two directions at once.

I haven't found many older films I'm fond of, but Psycho is definitely one of them. And the score is one of the best things about it. It has held up more than 50 years, even to countless people playfully screaming "reee! reee! reee! reee!" as they stab the air with imaginary knives. It's an absolute grade A example of film composing, and I'm glad to finally have it in my collection.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

View From the Inside (Out)

For a few years now, the movies coming out of Pixar have slipped a bit in quality -- coinciding with a creative surge from parent animation studio Disney. (I mean, compare Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University to Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6.) But Pixar has definitively pulled out of the funk with its latest effort, Inside Out -- a triumph on every level.

Inside Out looks inside the brain of a little girl named Riley, personifying the emotions that drive her. As the girl goes through the traumatic experience of a cross-country move, her emotions have an unprecedented adventure of their own across the fantastic landscape of Riley's mind.

The script is a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and filled throughout with loads of inspired creativity. The ideas behind how things work in the mind of a child are endlessly clever, and the visuals used to present them elevate those ideas even farther. The world in Riley's head is a feast for the eyes -- massive in scope, varied in style, and vividly colorful. In short, the scenic design of a Pixar film has never been better.

The story is powerful in how easy it is to relate to. So many people have memories of childhood moves and the uncertainty they brought. And even those who grew up living in the same house will recognize how a big life change can throw your entire personality out of whack for a while. This movie makes a fun adventure out of why that happens, and along the way stirs in the audience nearly every emotion it depicts on the screen.

The characterization is outstanding, and the casting superb. Amy Poehler is wonderful as the unflappable and upbeat protagonist Joy. Richard Kind epitomizes "will make you laugh and cry" as Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong. Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling are great fun as Fear and Disgust. And in the "real world," Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan are exceptional as Riley's mom and dad. But to me, the real rock stars of the film are Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith. Black is an inspired choice to embody Anger, not only injecting plenty of humor but driving a major twist in the plot. And Phyllis Smith is the perfect Sadness; she's wonderful comic relief for the bulk of the movie, and then the powerful heart of its climax.

In my opinion, Inside Out is so far the film to beat for 2015. And it has set the bar for doing so very high indeed. I give it an A.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Holmes in the Valley

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about Sherlock Holmes in a pair of novels, before switching mostly to short stories. Still, he revisited the longer format twice more over the decades, the last time being The Valley of Fear.

Sherlock Holmes receives a coded message which the sender apparently thought twice about sending. In any case, it doesn't arrive in time to prevent a grisly murder by sawed-off shotgun. Holmes investigates the crime with his usual verve and skill, exposing a tangled motive that stretches back across 20 years and an ocean -- the victim's secret past in America seems to have caught up with him.

The Valley of Fear invites comparison the the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. In both, past events in the American West are to blame for events unfolding in England's present. Both those histories involve a man involved in a sweeping criminal conspiracy. Both of the men want to run off and marry a young woman. But more than the plot similarities, it's Doyle's writing style that push the comparison even farther. In both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, he devotes most of the book's last half to a flashback narrative involving neither Holmes nor Watson.

Generally, The Valley of Fear feels to me like the stronger book of the two. First, the relationship between Holmes and Watson is well established by this point, which allows the mystery to dominate the first half of the novel. That mystery is actually an intriguing "locked room" puzzle on a massive scale -- the murder takes place in actual castle, surrounded by a moat with a raised drawbridge. The mystery also has a satisfying and clever twist in its resolution. Doyle also seems to have a better handle here on his idea of "frontier mobsters" than he did when writing about Mormons in A Study in Scarlet. The saga of the back half of this novel is melodramatic at times, but still feels generally closer to reality than anything in that first Holmes book.

There are a couple of dry chapters. Set-ups just aren't Doyle's forte. When the action first migrates to the aforementioned castle, he awkwardly pauses the story to introduce the place and its inhabitants, in a chapter that feels more like notes from an outline than a narrative. And when the mystery essentially wraps up at the novel's halfway point, it takes a few more chapters before the lengthy flashback grows to be as compelling as the murder case was. There's also a small misfire for continuity fans. In trying to set up this novel as a prequel (before Holmes' "death") he raises the specter of the Moriarty. But here, Watson somehow has full knowledge of the evil professor he only learned of for the first time in "The Final Problem."

Still, I'd say this is probably the best of the four Sherlock Holmes novels. I'd give it a B. Now it's on to the last few collections of Holmes short stories.