Friday, August 28, 2015

Celebrating the End by Returning to the Beginning

I recently wrote about Orphan Black by way of its soundtrack album, a way of kinda-sorta acknowledging a show I should have been praising here on the blog from day one. (I have been watching it that long.) I now do the same for another show, Hannibal.

The titular character of the show is Hannibal Lecter; the series is an adaptation/reinterpretation of author Thomas Harris' books Red Dragon and Hannibal, but with a lot of prequel and invented material included. The series' unlikely showrunner and creator is Bryan Fuller, the man behind Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me. (Well... perhaps he's not that unlikely a choice. He's just removing the light-hearted streak from his clearly macabre sensibilities.)

Hannibal wraps up its third season this weekend. Thanks to ratings so low they can hardly be measured, it's sure to be the show's last season. This is another one of those cases where a brilliant show never got the viewers it deserved (even if it was critically acclaimed along the way). Hannibal brought a heightened style to everything it did. Its visuals, its dialogue, its acting -- everything about it was perched on the razor edge of becoming too pretentious and over-the-top, yet it stayed firmly on the right side of the line. When everyone was going gaga over True Detective in its first season, I was quietly thinking that there was nothing that show was doing that Hannibal wasn't doing far, far better.

Part of the perfectly balanced presentation of Hannibal was its moody score by Brian Reitzell. Part music, part ambient noise, the score slithers around in all the nooks and crannies of your subconscious, a key component to what the show was. Two albums each from the first two seasons of the show have been released, and I've been adding them to my music collection one by one. Each album covers half a season (six or seven episodes), presenting long suites curated from each episode. Most of the tracks run for 10 minutes or more.

Admittedly, it's tough to know the occasion to listen to the album. It hardly ever coalesces into a perceptible time signature. It's the sort of sonic landscape that would make a good background for some common activity... except that the show's imagery is so powerful that even just listening to the music in isolation can sometimes bring clear memories to mind. Still, I enjoy it very much.

Season 1, Volume 1 has so many distinct passages. It opens with the music from the pilot episode, "Apéritif," and a strangely noble drone accented with proud piano chords. The fact that you know the true dark subject it was composed for makes for an effective, unsettling contrast. The album closes with music from the episode "Sorbet," ending on a long bass note that sounds like a warrior's battle horn. In between, there's a full buffet of sounds: stereo panning tricks, echoing to imply a vast space, strange feedback like a rock band gearing up, pounding on water pipes, and so much more.

"Amuse-Bouche" features an odd opening that sounds like "futuristic" music from a 1980s sci-fi movie. It gives way to pulses that sound like an oscilloscope, and a mournfully muted piano. "Potage" is full of strangely sensual music (again, unsettling in the actual context). "Oeuf" features the woodwind section of the orchestra, but often in random-feeling notes that feel like a passing breeze is driving the sound more than a musician. "Coquilles" features skittering insects and a strange motor running as it files down metal. "Entrée" is dominated by wild and scattered drums, and a sound like electricity warming up just after a switch has been thrown. (It also includes one of the most conventionally musical sections on the album, as groaning brass leads up to a vaguely tribal rhythm with wood block accents.)

Along the way, you also get short bursts of classical-style music created for the show's cultured environments -- piano studies, soprano arias, and more. On the other end of the spectrum are sections that sound like pure sound effects; the show's signature for entering and moving through Will Graham's visions, for example, is actually Reitzell's musical score, not the work of a foley artist.

The soundtrack is not for everyone... nor even for me, all the time. But it is beautiful in its own twisted way, just like the show itself. And soon, it will be one of the best ways for me to remember the show after it's gone. I give the Season 1, Volume 1 collection a B+. (Perhaps more reviews of later volumes will come when I'm feeling nostalgic.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Four's Score

Citizenfour was last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature -- and while the Academy never reveals actual vote totals, the feeling from the commentators seemed to be that this must have been a landslide win. But now that I've watched the documentary, I feel that people were voting for the subject matter, not the movie itself.

Citizenfour chronicles the leak of the NSA spy scandal by Edward Snowden. It's distinctive in that director Laura Poitras didn't actually seek out her subject. Having previously made two other documentaries on the abuse of government power, she was actually one of Snowden's first journalist contacts in releasing his information. Thus, Poitras isn't trying to tell the story after the fact -- her film is a documentary in the most literal sense, documenting the actual events as they unfolded.

The resulting film really makes you feel like you're there for actual Important History taking place. Sadly, this story may not be that important in the grand scheme of things, since people seem alarmingly unconcerned at the unlawful invasion of privacy. (And on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver memorably demonstrated how few people actually know who Edward Snowden is or what he did.) Still, it feels like someone is showing you previously unknown footage of say, Chuck Yeager in his cockpit as he broke the sound barrier. It's instantly compelling to look behind the scenes like this.

But "right place, right time" seems to be the one big thing the movie has going for it. As an expose of what Edward Snowden leaked, and what the NSA was doing, it feels surprisingly light. Seeing this movie probably wouldn't inflame someone's passions about the issue of privacy; it's for those "already inside the tent." It also feels quite loosely paced. It's like we're watching the unedited video account of what happened, and there are times you really want to fast forward to "the good parts."

Different people have different opinions of Edward Snowden. But if you take him at his word (and I for one do), he never wanted this story to be about him. He wanted the focus to be on the NSA's overreach, not the man who exposed it. Unfortunately, the movie feels like it's exactly what he didn't want. Because it's light on the details, and because it's not tightly edited, you inevitably end up thinking about the man and not the story. The film even encourages this, with long and unnecessary scenes of Snowden in his hotel room -- shaving, staring out the window, doing generally nothing. It's silently demanding that the audience contemplate the man behind the news. (I mean, look at the poster!)

In the end, Citizenfour is like many non-documentary films: a compelling story in need of better editing. I can't believe it was truly the most deserving documentary in the Oscar race. "Important" as it may be, I give it a C.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

TNG Flashback: Rightful Heir

As Klingon culture was fleshed out more fully by the writers over the life of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it became a vehicle to examine a topic that Star Trek rarely tackled -- religion. Never did the series examine religion more directly than in "Rightful Heir."

Worf has been in spiritual crisis since the events at the Romulan/Klingon colony, and it has begun to affect his duties on the Enterprise. He takes leave to meditate at the Boreth monastery, a place where the epic Klingon hero Kahless promised one day to return from death. "One day" unexpectedly becomes today, when Kahless appears before a stunned Worf. The return of Kahless may alter the course of all Klingon society, and Chancellor Gowron isn't going to sit idly by for that. Plus, through all the politics and religion, remains the possibility that this Kahless is not what he appears to be.

Outside writer James E. Brooks pitched the staff an idea he jokingly called "Jurassic Worf," a tale of a Klingon religious sect who used cloning to resurrect one of their revered figures. His idea focused heavily on intrigue and brinksmanship among the clerics. Staff writer Ronald D. Moore felt there was more potential in presenting a look at faith and religion in the context of Star Trek. It was a subject the franchise had rarely tackled -- largely due to Gene Roddenberry's secular humanist ideals -- and Worf seemed to be the only main character offering a way into such a story.

Brooks' original pitch also did not include Kahless. Here again, Moore saw a chance to try something unusual -- to take a character from the original series who had been vilified as a murderous baddie (like all Klingons at the time) and give him a more fair portrayal in a time of peace. Moore also incorporated a great deal of Klingon history that had been developed and filmed for "Birthright, Part II," but which had been cut from that episode for time.

Ronald Moore may have had a clear vision for the episode, but executive producer Rick Berman didn't fully support it. He felt that the first draft of the script was far too on the nose in presenting Kahless as the Klingon equivalent of Jesus Christ. Berman demanded rewrites to tone this aspect down, and while the Christ metaphor is still crystal clear in the finished episode, it's possible these tweaks introduced an aspect that may not have been intended: Kahless also comes off like the leader of a cult.

So much of Kahless' dialogue and behavior suggests he's a fraud, a charlatan. In the scene where he fights Worf, he seems to sense that he's losing, and suddenly twists the moment into a big motivational speech. (A trick he tries again later, on Gowron.) He tells implausible stories from Klingon myth that sound no less ridiculous for being told in the first person. He has no good explanation for the reasonable, skeptical questions put to him. Even the casting of actor Kevin Conway seems to suggest a trick being played; Conway gives a fine performance, but is nonetheless quite short in stature, compared to how Klingons have historically been presented. The idea that he could be the greatest Klingon warrior ever seems off somehow.

It's interesting that the character who gives the greatest argument for faith in this episode is Data. Two scenes between him and Worf probe the subject, but faith definitely comes out the loser in the first scene: Data tries to ask rational questions, and Worf tries to avoid them before finally just spouting canned responses. It's in the second scene that Data makes a case for the value of faith: it's for moments where the absence of belief is simply untenable. (In his case, the aspirational choice to believe that he can be more than a simple, emotionless android.)

But while Worf might not be the episode's strongest mouthpiece for faith in this episode, he's nevertheless a strong character in the story. Though it actually almost strains credibility to see the amount of political power that he, an outsider, wields. He forces both the current Klingon leader and the greatest Klingon warrior of all time to capitulate to a deal of his envisioning -- a deal which seemingly involves the creation of a Pope-like office. But this is a necessary and acceptable contrivance to keep one of the series' main characters vitally involved in the plot.

Other observations:
  • Worf is late to work one time and people are sent to barge into his quarters? Seems a bit of an overreaction. Then again, I suppose this is the military.
  • The Klingon who first claims to see a vision of Kahless, Divok, is played by Charles (Chip) Esten, who you might have seen improvising on various incarnations of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I love the reaction he gives here when Kahless really appears, which tells you how completely full of crap Divok was in reporting his earlier vision.
  • If Kahless is a fraud (as is ultimately revealed), how exactly does he know about Worf's childhood vision? (A "mentalist" style lucky guess, I suppose.)
  • The cleric Koroth makes a quite reasonable point about the intersection of science and faith: who is to say that cloning isn't the method through which Kahless was meant to return?
  • The Blu-ray version of this episode includes a number of deleted and extended scenes. Nothing removed feels vital, though the material does include understandable skepticism from the rest of the crew about whether Worf is about to welcome the real Kahless aboard the Enterprise. Another scene explains Alexander's absence in this Klingon-centric episode set aboard this ship.
  • This is Gowron's last appearance on The Next Generation. The character would next show up on Deep Space Nine in the more light-hearted "The House of Quark," and would begin to recur more often once Worf made the move to that series.
Though this episode deserves credit for tackling a different subject for Star Trek, I'm not sure it had much profound to say. At the end of the day, I'd say it's entertaining enough, and call it a B.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bow Out

Despite what the title suggests, "His Last Bow" is not the final Sherlock Holmes story. But it many ways, the story suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle was once again contemplating whether to stop writing about the character.

With World War I approaching, a German agent is making plans to flee England with intelligence he's been gathering for years. He plans just one more meeting with his longtime informant Altamont. But "Altamont" is soon revealed to be Sherlock Holmes, having emerged from retirement to serve his country one more time.

So much about this story positions it as an epilogue to wrap up the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It is set decades after the bulk of the Holmes stories, talking about how they've gone on to other lives. It is told not from Watson's point of view, but from a conventional third-person perspective. Indeed, Watson and Holmes don't even appear until the final pages; the bulk of the story follows German spy Von Bork. And even though Doyle wrote one more collection of Holmes stories, this remained the last one in terms of when it was set chronologically.

The choice in setting is not surprising either. "His Last Bow" was published in the midst of World War I, and that surely loomed large in Doyle's mind. He had on one or two other occasions written a Holmes story that came off like a political spy thriller, and the temptation to do so again with the backdrop of that then-unprecedented conflict must have been tremendous.

Yet it really isn't the best "spy thriller," because the espionage makes no sense. After feeding this German agent false information for years, Sherlock Holmes doesn't allow him to escape with it to his home country; instead, he reveals himself and all his deceptions. And he doesn't even capture the agent. In this, again the thought that this might have been the last Holmes adventure looms large -- the agenda here isn't to tell a credible spy tale, it's to have Holmes show off one last time just how clever he is.

But unfortunately, it's not a very great note to end on. The lack of logic and the relative absence of Holmes in the story makes it one of Arthur Conan Doyle's weaker entries. I give it a D+.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mandatory Concert

Though I've been a fan of "Weird Al" Yankovic for as long as I can remember (which is no exaggeration; his music career has lasted 35 years), I'd never gone to see him in concert until last night. He came to Denver on his lengthy Mandatory Fun tour, and played two back-to-back shows with just a 90 minute break between and no opening act.

You'd never know that from the seemingly endless energy he displayed throughout the performance. Bounding and flopping around, he changed costumes more than Madonna, for almost every song. (And, as hilarious clips of his countless TV appearances filled in, his band changed right along with him.)

The concert opened with a fun live adaptation of his one-take music video for "Tacky" (the parody of the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams song "Happy"). As the band took the stage, the screen behind them revealed Weird Al in a nearby Denver restaurant, from which he worked his way out the back door, through an alley, into the theater, and finally through the audience and on to the stage -- accosting diners, police officers, and others along the way. The crowd when completely nuts when he burst through the rear theater doors.

He played every parody and several originals from his newest album. (I'm clearly not alone in loving "Word Crimes.") The polka medley was accompanied on the screen behind by the original videos of all the songs -- everyone from Miley Cyrus to One Direction to Daft Punk, perfectly synced up with the live band. He played all the biggest parodies from albums past, with costumes for each -- "Perform This Way" in an outrageous Lady Gaga-style squid outfit, "Fat" in the famous fat suit, "Smells Like Nirvana" in Kurt Cobain regalia, "White & Nerdy" while riding a segway, and "Amish Paradise" in the titular attire.

To try to satisfy every possible "I wish he'd played this song," he powered through a 10-song medley that served up a verse or two from hits throughout his career, reaching all the way back to his very first album. Another later medley was presented in "unplugged" fashion, with hilarious takes on "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," and others.

It all wrapped up with a fantastic Star Wars themed encore (after a James Brown-style protest about how there couldn't be an encore) -- "The Saga Begins" and "Yoda," complete with a Darth Vader and squad of dancing stormtroopers on stage. (And I wonder if the various dancing abilities of the stormtroopers was deliberate nod to Katy Perry's famous "left shark.")

In all, it was two fun-filled hours that delivered everything I'd hoped for -- a great concert and comedy show all rolled into one. "Weird Al" still hasn't nailed down what he's doing next; his record contract is up and he's talked about self-publishing more topical singles and abandoning the album format. But I can say for sure that if going on tour is still part of his formula, I would absolutely go see him again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Music for the Clone Club

Over the past few months, I've found a handful of interesting new soundtrack albums for TV series I've been enjoying -- shows I probably should have written about here on the blog at some point. Now, talking about the albums will give me an excuse to bring them up.

First up is Orphan Black. This Canadian show, airing on BBC America, recently wrapped up its third season. It follows a group of women who've discovered they're all clones. Each deals with the issues in their separate lives as they work together to pierce the conspiracy behind their own creation. If you've never seen the show, you've really been missing out. The writing can be a bit hit and miss (seasons 1 and 3 being the former; season 2 the latter), but one thing that's always a hit is series star Tatiana Maslany. She plays the clones to perfection, imbuing each with a personality so distinct you can catch yourself forgetting it's all the same actress.

But while I could praise the show at length, for now I'll stick with the newly released album of Orphan Black's score. The music is composed by Trevor Yuile, and is shrewdly matched to the show's subject matter. Yuile's music is created on synthesizer, but in very much the right way if you're going to eschew a live orchestra. Conventional instruments take a secondary roll; a string section usually grounds the music in reality (occasionally helped by a short burst of brass), but most of what you hear is supposed to sound electronic.

The choice of "instrument" is often key in telling the story. The theme for the most dangerous clone, Helena, is accented with a processed two-tone noise that sounds vaguely like a screeching tire. Suburban mom Alison gets a theme on light and airy chimes; it always seems to be forcing itself into some other musical flow, in the same way Alison's personality always comes on strong.

Instrument choice is also key to the general atmosphere of the soundtrack. Synth bass is often used as percussion, in a rat-a-tat manner that ratchets up the tension. Oscillating drones sometimes imply sirens (and danger). When events are spinning out of control, the sounds themselves often sound like they're fraying during sustained notes. The pops and hiss of old vinyl records play over the music for more nostalgic moments. And at other, specific times, you might imagine you're hearing an out-of-tune music box, banging inside a rusting pipe, the squeaks of unoiled hinges, slurping through a straw, or the buzzing of a gnat. These sounds are always far more musical than literal, but they strike you as just familiar enough on some subconscious level to help in stirring an emotional response.

Some of my favorite tracks on the album include the propulsive recap music for "Previously On," the discordant and angry "We Meet Helena," the staccato strangeness of "They're Killing Us," and the light/sinister sandwich of "Alison Kills." Plus, of course, there's the theme itself -- though that song is composed by electronic artist Two Fingers. It's incredibly short, in the way of modern TV show themes, but it packs a lot of oozing attitude in 30 seconds. And its use of an all-female chorus "ooh"ing in tight, airy harmony seems perfect for a show about clones.

Not all of the music works well when stripped from the show's visuals. Some cues are so sparse, they seem almost like a piano lesson. One or two feel too similar to other tracks on the album. But overall, the Orphan Black soundtrack is a good collection of music for a great show. I give it a B. And I'll be using it to fill in the wait until season 4.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The "Death" of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was featured in over 50 short stories and four novels, but it's only in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" that he becomes a title character.

Set during the period where Watson lived with his wife, he is summoned to Baker Street to discover the great detective dying of an obscure Asian disease. Holmes resists any efforts by the doctor to cure him, claiming the malady will be far beyond his abilities. He instead dispatches Watson to bring one Culverton Smith to the flat, an expert in the disease. Soon it's revealed that the "dying detective" has Smith in his sights as part of an investigation.

Of course, given the way the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are plucked from different moments in time, readers know that he is not destined to die from a disease in this tale. Indeed, nearly all readers must suspect the truth, that the disease is part of a ruse designed to ensnare Culverton Smith. Holmes pays Watson a compliment-wrapped-in-an-insult at the end of this story, explaining why he refused to allow Watson to examine him and render medical care: Watson was obviously too good a doctor to fall for the ruse... but too bad a liar to bait Smith unless he truly believed Holmes was at death's door.

In crafting this story, Arthur Conan Doyle shook up the formula by essentially depicting no investigation. Holmes never leaves Baker Street, and Watson only travels to fetch Smith into the trap. But though this seems clever and different on paper, in practice it deflates the narrative considerably. It wouldn't necessarily matter that the reader knows Holmes is faking his illness and running a sting, if the journey to the conclusion were more interesting. Instead, things feel long in reaching the inevitable conclusion, despite the shortness of the story.

I'd say "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" merits a C+.