Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Strangers

Sunday's new episode of The Walking Dead drifted back toward the some of the tendencies I didn't like during the prison days. There was a sense of one group of writers handling the dialogue, while another group was off in a separate room generating the "zombie set piece of the week" -- in this case, wading through hip deep water with zombies so waterlogged that their skin was half dripping off. But fortunately, the writers in the "first group," the group truly telling the story, were doing their job well.

Job one was assuring us that there have been emotional consequences to both the long separation of the characters and their experience in Terminus. A deeper discussion between Rick and Carol was well in order, and the episode didn't make us wait long for it. Credit must go to Andrew Lincoln for his performance. Rick's dialogue asking Carol to join her in the place he'd put her... well, it was very clever writing, but still could have come out cheesy if it hadn't been delivered just right.

Less anticipated, but just as satisfying, was the scene between Carol and Tyreese, covering whether to tell them what happened with the girls. Carol's instinct was to come as clean as possible, probably since hiding information is part of what got her into trouble the last time. But Tyreese really laid it out poignantly -- some things are too horrible to even remember, much less share. And Carol really took it to heart, turning around and using Tyreese's exact words in her conversation with Daryl.

Conversations throughout the episode showed that the characters in fact had been altered by their contact with the "Term-ites." Objectively speaking, Rick telling his young son that he's never safe, ever, anywhere, is pretty awful, but undoubtedly correct in this context. And in a contrast between them, Carl is still inclined to naturally trust someone just because he wears a priest's collar, while Rick isn't about to trust anyone.

As for that priest, Gabriel, he seems like he has an interesting story yet to be fully revealed. We saw his clear psychological torture at encountering someone in death that he knew in life, but there's clearly more going on, evidenced by the writing Carl found carved in the church. The most likely answer would seem to be that Gabriel refused to offer shelter to other people who came by, getting them all killed. Perhaps when our heroes found him at the top of the episode, he was so wracked with guilt over his actions that he was trying to commit "suicide by zombie," only to lose his nerve at the last moment?

But the most lasting consequences of Terminus came in showing us that we're not really done yet with Terminus. It was a bit of a dramatic hole last week, frankly: The Walking Dead has made its business killing off main characters to show us that a situation is really dangerous, thus the lack of casualties in the escape from Terminus subtly suggested that situation really wasn't so dangerous after all. But now tell that to Bob. There are some fates even worse than death, and becoming dinner, piece by piece, is probably one of them. Even if Bob survives now -- which he well may not -- the Termites have definitely proven they mean business.

I'd say this episode merits a B+ overall.

Monday, October 20, 2014

TNG Flashback: New Ground

Star Trek: The Next Generation presented the first of two back-to-back "cute kid" episodes with "New Ground."

The Enterprise is assisting in the test of a new propulsion device, the soliton wave, when Worf's mother Helena Rozhenko comes for a visit. She's brought Worf's son Alexander, and feels it's time for the boy to come live with his father full time. As Worf and Alexander try to adjust to life together, the soliton wave experiment goes wrong, threatening an entire planet if the crew can't find a way to stop it.

In the early 1990s, the door had not yet swung wide open on serialized television. But Star Trek: The Next Generation was still occasionally pushing on it. Almost every time an effort was made to tell an ongoing story, Worf was involved. Once before, his son had been sent away to live conveniently off screen, but this time the writers planned to keep him as a recurring character.

Because they had future plans for Alexander, the writers knew he'd have to be recast. The boy who'd appeared in "Reunion" was timid and limited, and the producers wanted a child actor with an established track record. They found Brian Bonsall, who'd played Andrew Keaton on the late seasons of the sitcom Family Ties. He comes off much less stiff on camera than the prior Alexander, and reportedly loved the transformation of the Klingon makeup. Alexander would be one of Bonsall's last roles; shortly after The Next Generation ended two-and-a-half years later, he gave up acting.

The bulk of the episode is dedicated to Worf's first days of parenting. To be honest, I found his relationship with Alexander to be less than compelling here, but fortunately the change in Worf's life touches some of the other main characters too. Counselor Troi in particular gets another one of her maybe-twice-a-season moments to do some actual counseling, helping Worf understand the emotional state of his son. We also get see how far Picard has come since his "I don't want children on my ship" attitude of the pilot; he's more than understanding of the sudden new demands on Worf's time. (In fact, a deleted scene on the Blu-ray release provides another example of this.)

There's not too much to the sci-fi B-plot, but if the character drama had been as compelling in fact as it was in theory, this would have been the right writing decision. The jeopardy of the soliton wave doesn't quite have the weight it should, perhaps because the prior episode just put an entire planet in danger, but actually showed us that planet instead of leaving it unseen. Still, it is fun to see Geordi's enthusiasm at being there for an historic engineering breakthrough. (And even more fun to hear him compare it to what it would have been like to see Zefram Cochrane engage the first warp drive; he would wind up literally on that ship in the movie First Contact.)

The budget seems to have been deployed a bit unevenly in this episode. The "Corvan gilvos" puppets in the biolab look pretty ridiculous, particularly when Riker is holding them after their rescue. On the other hand, the live on set fire is fairly impressive. (Though I can thank the movie Galaxy Quest for making an unintentionally comedic moment out of Worf lifting the heavy beam off of his son. All I could think of was: "Do the Mak'Tar strength chant!")

Other observations:
  • Besides young Brian Bonsall, another performer in this episode was appearing as one of her last characters. Georgia Brown, who plays Helena Rozhenko, died less than a year after filming this.
  • In an ultra-condensed version of Star Trek IV's "save the humpback whales" message, this episode contains a brief mention of the future extinction of the white rhino.
  • In this episode, the revered Klingon Kahless is pronounced more like the name looks: KAH-less. Later, they'd decide to change it to KAY-less.
  • Some toys will endure for centuries. In the background at the school, you can see the "colorful wooden beads on metal tracks" toy that's in like every doctor's office in the country. (And my own family had more than one at home too.)
I like the idea of developing Worf's character -- and of maintaining an ongoing storyline -- by bringing his son aboard. Still, the idea itself is better than the somewhat dry execution here. I give "New Ground" a C.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Late, Not Great

The Mile High HorrorFest is a weekend-long extravaganza of horror films, most new and independent efforts you'd have to dig to see any other way (short of waiting half a year or more for Netflix). This year -- and last weekend -- it took place at the Alamo Drafthouse. Although friends of mine attended as they do every year, I've never taken the plunge. But this time around, those very friends scrounged up a pair of extra tickets for one of the films in the festival, called Late Phases.

Late Phases is the story of a blind Vietnam veteran who is placed in a community of retirement homes by his son. No sooner has he moved in when both his own guide dog and his new neighbor are both savagely killed by a werewolf. Quickly realizing what's going on, the veteran has one month to discover the human identity of the beast and prepare for its next transformation.

After the HorrorFest was over, my friends informed me that unfortunately, this film they happened to score us extra tickets for was actually the worst thing they saw all weekend. And no, it wasn't great. But it was certainly more of a mixed bag than a total loss. The movie did, after all, get several things right.

First, there's something inherently tense about building a horror movie around a blind central character. M. Night Shyamalan was circling this when he made The Village -- though that movie turned out to be more a romance than a thriller. (And a marked decline for the once great writer-director.) But the main character here is more than capable. He's also acid tongued and clever, making him a lot of fun to watch throughout the movie. Indeed, the movie nails the lighter moments all throughout, and presents a number of characters who, while not unfathomably deep by any means, are all more nuanced than the average horror film would craft them.

But foremost, a horror movie is about the scares. And here, Late Phases fails to deliver. Part of the problem is structural. By opening a movie with a werewolf attack, and then clearly telegraphing that the next full moon is going to happen at the end of the movie, you're telling us that not much is going to happen in between. Sure, the main character keeps it fun, but there are no scares nor even mild tension anywhere to be found. And perhaps worse, the movie is made too cheaply to present us a truly frightening werewolf. When your monster is more funny than scary, you have an insurmountable problem in your horror movie.

The cast has few recognizable faces in it, but those you do spot might make you wonderif you're ready for the retirement community yourself. Ethan Embry, of Can't Hardly Wait, is now the middle-aged son of the main character. One of the possible suspects in the retirement community is Lance Guest, aka The Last Starfighter himself. (Yes, he's now old enough to pass for retired.) Perpetual kinda-creepy-guy Tom Noonan will almost surely not be known to you by name, but his face has popped up in movies and TV shows aplenty.

Ordinarily, I think good characters and dialogue count for a lot in a movie. But here, they're having to overcome key flaws in the story, and they can't quite do it. I'd call Late Phases a C-. If you'll watch any horror movie for pretty much any reason, then you might as well check this one out -- there are far worse ones out there. But I think most people would be disappointed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TNG Flashback: A Matter of Time

Rick Berman, executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, had once before contributed his own script to the series, the fourth season's "Brothers." That effort was considerably more successful than his second episode, "A Matter of Time."

The crew is on the way to a planet experiencing an ecological disaster, hoping to kickstart a new greenhouse effect to counteract the rapidly falling temperatures. Suddenly, a time traveler appears. Berlinghoff Rasmussen claims to be an historian from the 26th century, here to observe in person the events of this day aboard the Enterprise. But his strange demeanor -- and Troi's empathic sense -- suggest that he's hiding something.

Berman's plot for this episode grew from two kernels: what if a time traveler tried to steal Data; and what would a man like Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci have done if someone from the future had given them a calculator? What resulted was this story, in which a failing 22nd century inventor hijacks a 26th century time travel pod, to steal technology from the 24th century that he could "create" back in his own time.

According to show runner Michael Piller, the script did not come easily. Berman didn't get a pass just for being the boss, and he reportedly hammered on this idea for quite some time before it went before the cameras. Unfortunately, not all the kinks were ironed out. At a broad level, our heroes come off rather dumb for falling for this ruse even for just a while. They know, for instance, of their own ability to recreate history on the holodeck in striking detail; it's implausible that a "future historian" would have the gaps in knowledge that Rasmussen has. (In fact, if the writers themselves could have seen into the future and watched the series finale of Enterprise, they'd have watched Riker and Troi play "future historians" on the holodeck.) Riker even points out directly in the first few minutes that they've encountered imposters before (alluding to "Devil's Due," "Conspiracy," maybe "The Dauphin," and others), and yet they still go on to be deceived for a while.

The episode doesn't even do a particularly good job of fooling the audience. It isn't necessarily that one ought to be able to figure out the convoluted temporal plot twist in advance. Rather, it's that the subplot isn't particularly compelling. (A fact Berman himself later acknowledged, noting that when writing this sort of story on Star Trek, you can "get lost in the technical elements of it.") When you think of all the truly dire situations where the Enterprise has been in serious jeopardy, it doesn't quite track that a future historian would come back to witness the fate of one random colony somewhere, no matter the local stakes. When Rasmussen says to a child in Sickbay, for example, that he'll remember he was at Penthara IV, it simply doesn't sound believable.

Which really touches on another problem with the episode: Rasmussen is such a poor con man. Some of his slip-ups are no doubt necessary to the plot, intended to tip off the characters about the truth. Some are even fun, such as the way Crusher gently rebuffs his awkward flirtations. But Rasmussen just comes off shifty in his need to constantly re-establish his "cover"; he has to remind everyone at every turn that he's "from the future," which ultimately is what tells you something must be off there.

I also have issues with the ending, which strains credibility even farther. If you had a time machine, and you were planning to get out of it for even one second, would you set a timer on it, and in doing so run any risk that it might automatically leave without you? (You could argue it's an automatically engaging feature Rasmussen didn't know how to disable, but the question remains: why would that be an automatically engaging feature?) And how did Rasmussen think he was going to be able to reverse engineer technology from 200 years in his future? If you visited a leading scientist of 1814 (and Rasmussen himself admits, he's not a top mind of his time), do you think he'd have a snowball's chance in hell of figuring out how, say, a smartphone works?

After this avalanche of criticism, you may well be asking if I thought there was anything good going for this episode. A couple of things, thankfully. First, there's the rather compelling scene in Act 4, where Picard appeals to Rasmussen for advice in making the right decision. It's refreshing and original to see the Star Trek device of the Prime Directive portrayed with our heroes on the other side. Picard (and Patrick Stewart) makes a powerful case, acknowledging his own past violations of the Directive, alluding to the classic "would you stop Hitler?" thought exercise, and even name dropping original series-and-film villain Khan. Michael Piller thought this scene was a highlight of Berman's episode, and he's not wrong about that.

There's also the performance of Matt Frewer as Rasmussen, who's really cutting loose and having fun with the role. But there's a quite interesting story behind that. Originally, Rasmussen was written for Star Trek fan Robin Williams. I don't know whether he'd reached out to the show, or friend Whoopi Goldberg had prevailed on him to guest star. In any case, the plan for Williams to appear was solid enough that Rasmussen's character and dialogue were written with him in mind. But then he got an offer he couldn't refuse: starring in the movie Hook for director Steven Speilberg. He turned down the Star Trek part, and a replacement had to be found.

I'm doubtful that Robin Williams could have saved what's clearly a below average episode. Still, it's hard not to think about what might have been. And knowing about that possibility when you watch the episode, you can start to imagine it. You can almost hear what he might have done with certain dialogue, such as the list of famous blind people that ends with one of Star Trek's few contemporary references: "Wonder." Indeed, Matt Frewer doesn't quite seem to be playing the character so much as he's playing "Robin Williams playing the character," which makes me respect the performance more. Granted, Frewer seems to have the dial turned to maybe 7 where Williams would have gone to 11, but he's nevertheless pouring a lot of energy into a subpar script.

Other observations:
  • On the subject of future history, we get a reference at the top of the episode to the "nuclear winters of 21st century Earth." I've always found it interesting that all incarnations of the otherwise hopeful Star Trek have intimated (or stated directly) that we're going to have to go through a cataclysmic World War III before we get our collective act together.
  • In the act where the main characters are pumping Rasmussen for hints of the future, it's interesting to me that even Data can't help himself. He asks whether he's still alive in the future. (The sad answer, and the horrible final chapter of The Next Generation that is Star Trek: Nemesis, is a subject I suppose I might get to someday after finally finishing all the episodes.)
  • One aspect of the episode that's not subpar at all is the visual effects. The various depictions of volcanic activity on the planet are far more involved than the "slice of planet below the ship" we usually get to see. And the climax in which the crew uses the Enterprise to siphon the bad particles from the atmosphere is more elaborate still. In fact, this episode tied for an Emmy win in the category of Outstanding Individual Achievement in Special Visual Effects. (It shared the award with a worthy co-winner, another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- "Conundrum.")
Matt Frewer's heavy lifting, plus that well-presented moral argument between Picard and Rasmussen, pull this episode out of the basement. Still, it's too flawed to be completely saved. I give "A Matter of Time" a C-.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Face My Enemy

Last night brought another solid episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which should officially bring us well past the point where anyone should be surprised that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is consistently good. (In other words, if you bailed some time early in the first season -- which it would be hard to blame you for -- it's well past time you came back.)

Character focus continues to be key, and this episode centered mainly around May. Though it would have been a great episode just to see her in her against-type, super-bubbly cover persona, there was a good deal more going on. We know that the reason May is so withdrawn emotionally is because caring too much cost her in the past. So pairing her with Agent Coulson for the bulk of the episode definitely carried extra weight. On the sweet side were the nostalgic references to adventures past, while on the heavy side was Coulson's insistence that she make herself ready to kill him if it should come to it. And although I think it's safe to assume that will never actually come to pass, just the thought of what that might do to the already damaged May is enough to really make you feel for her.

Another big win in the episode -- the heist. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful, it's just hard to beat a heist for fun action in virtually any story. This was no exception, as we got cons and scams, a big dance number, and plenty of humor. Then later, to cap the episode, we got a massive fist fight with more elaborate fight choreography than I think we've ever seen on the show before. And just for extra fun, it was May vs. "May."

If there was any weak part to the episode, it was the Fitz storyline. Not that I don't love me some Fitz, and not that I'm unhappy to see him starting to find his place again. It's just that his subplot did feel a bit predictable and tropey. But even so, Ian de Caestecker's performance was great; the way he has stepped up his game this season has been a highlight among many great new aspects of the show.

I'd say this week's episode gets a B+.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All Dolled Up

Gone Girl was highest on my movie to-do list last weekend, but another movie opened on the same day that seemed worth a shot. Annabelle is a new horror film spun off from the surprise hit (and surprisingly decent) The Conjuring, featuring the creepy doll from the Warrens' display case.

Annabelle is a prequel of sorts, but manages to avoid some of the inevitability and predictability problems of a prequel by not really being about how the doll wound up in that display case. The Warrens aren't even in the film -- which is good from narrative standpoint (but probably unfortunate from a quality standpoint, as the two actors starring in this new film aren't nearly as talented as Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). Instead, this movie tells the story of how the doll first became creepy. (In a supernatural sense; the thing was evidently manufactured with that "I'll swallow your soul" facial expression.)

The writing of Annabelle is fairly solid. Though the pace does lag a bit here and there throughout the first half of the movie, the back half does make up for it. And throughout everything, there is -- as in The Conjuring -- a solid understanding of how to deploy a scare. There are a number of good bait-and-switch moments, where you think you know where to expect the scare, only to have it be somehow different than you anticipated. The movie also uses suspense to earn its purely startling moments; the only moments when something suddenly "jumps out at you," it comes as punctuation to a slow buildup of tension.

What's hit and miss is the acting. As I alluded to earlier, the actors playing Mia and John, the main couple at the center of the story, don't seem quite up to anchoring a movie. The appropriately named Annabelle Wallis gives good scream and panic, but comes off a bit wooden in other scenes. And Ward Horton has an unfortunate undercurrent of smarminess that makes his character seem a bit shifty at times, though this is definitely not the intention.

But there are a pair of solid, working actors in the two major supporting roles that help lift the proceedings. Alfre Woodard -- of Scrooged, Star Trek: First Contact, and more film and television appearances than most people could count -- plays a book store owner that befriends Mia. Woodard skillfully conveys her character's dark past, and layers in enough texture that the audience has some doubts as to what her role in the story might be. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola -- another veteran of dozens of projects, most recognizable to sci-fi fans from repeated Stargate SG-1 appearanaces -- plays the priest at the couple's church. He manages to get through all the expected "priest in a horror film" beats without making them seem too stale.

All told, The Conjuring was still probably a better movie than Annabelle. But if you liked one, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't like the other. I give Annabelle a B-.

Monday, October 13, 2014

No Sanctuary

As the last season of The Walking Dead was winding down, I noted that the show had finally pulled out of a two-and-a-half year slump and was once again as great as it was in its first brilliant season. I even threatened to start reviewing new episodes again. Well, since I know a lot more of my blog readers are watching The Walking Dead than, say, Gotham (I still haven't even gotten around to last week's episode myself; I guess I'm already losing interest), here we go!

The fifth season premiere was, quite simply, a great episode. The bookending scenes of the "original" Terminus folks suffering at the hands of torturers we never got to see made the thesis statement of the episode abundantly clear: when you come into contact with pure evil, it can change you. And within those bookends, we got to see exactly that happen to many of our characters.

Poor Tyreese, trying to walk the straight and narrow after past transgressions in his own mind. He'd done things he wasn't proud of and was trying everything he could to become a better person. But one afternoon in a cabin with a guy from Terminus, and he's beating a man to death with his bare hands -- all the while declaring how we wasn't going to kill anyone. If there's any kind of moral justification for murder, protecting an infant would almost have to cover it... and yet it's a complete descent into exactly what he'd sworn not to be.

And then there's Rick. We'd already seen him earning "Dark Side points" in last season's finale when he bit a guy in the jugular vein. (As with Tyreese, for the ultimate reason of protecting a child.) But remember that not long before that, Rick had been trying to embody the pacifism of Hershel. When meeting anybody new, one of the only things he wanted to know is "how many people have you killed and why?" -- the (quite reasonable) implication of that being that the answer to that might instantly disqualify you as someone worth knowing. Well, last night, Rick mowed down half a dozen people with a machine gun. In the back. In cold blood. And then (at least, before reuniting first with Carol and then his daughter Judith), he was ready to go back to Terminus just to make sure that every last person there was dead. "Farmer Rick" is clearly gone.

Speaking of Carol, while it seems unlikely she'll ever have another moment as dark as having to kill a little girl, she certainly shows no signs of turning around. It was incredible watching her become the one-woman army that stormed Terminus like an 80s action hero. But mixed in with those great moments were glimpses of the emotional cost. Yes, it was "kill or be killed" when she ran into the woman in the warehouse. But her way of "kill"ing was to torture for a bit and then watch as the Walkers dined on what remained.

These dramatic threads were woven in throughout some truly amazing action, with dozens of eye-popping zombie kills (kills of zombies) and zombie kills (kills by zombies). Indeed, it was such a spectacle that it leaves me a bit concerned about what's to come in the rest of the season. I was certainly not a fan of the show staying in place too long -- not at the farm, and not at the prison. But this was the way the show would defray production costs. So I was expecting at least a few episodes set in Terminus. The premiere left no chance of that, and seemingly blew half the year's budget on explosions and zombie gags in a single hour. Given the show's history, I'm worried what budget counterbalancers that leaves for us in the next few episodes. But I'm hopeful that the clear emotional transformations this episode set up in several characters means there's much less chance of the series stagnating again.

In any case, I think I'd have to give "No Sanctuary" an A. Whether it hurts what follows, or sets up something great, the fact remains that it stands on its own as one of the best episodes ever of The Walking Dead.