Friday, October 24, 2014

A Hen in the Wolf House

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was another strong episode, but it did bring with it a little bit of disappointment. I felt we may have been cheated a bit out of some great things we didn't get to see.

First on the list was "more of Simmons in Hydra." It was such a wonderful and tense situation to put that character in, having her undercover with people who we know had a brainwashing machine. So it seems a shame to me to pull her out after basically giving us just two episodes of that situation. I'm not suggesting Simmons should have stayed put for half the season, but I do feel like they hadn't even come close to tearing all the meat off that particular bone. And now the opportunity is permanently lost.

The other things I felt a bit cheated out of can at least be fodder for future episodes. The brief taste of Fitz and Simmons' reunion hardly scratched the surface of what I want to know. Did Raina find a way out before Whitehall's 48 hours expired? These things at least will be dealt with down the road, though I would have thought them appropriate for this episode.

Those complaints lodged, what we did get was quite good. The introduction of Bobbi Morse seemed just about perfect. Marvel fans (I gather) got to squeal over her fighting all badass with (what I understand is) her signature weapon; fans of just the show got to enjoy her fighting with her ex-husband, a wonderful payoff to the stories Hunter has been telling us. (That character got instantly more interesting, by the way.) And I do have to wonder if having Morse's first big action scene culminate in her jumping onto an invisible jet was a deliberate tweak at the people who utterly failed to make a Wonder Woman TV series work starring that actress, Adrianne Palicki.

Skye's storyline was also quite good. This season having now well established the new, awesome Skye, this episode helped reconcile that version of the character with the first season's more fragile model. It also seemed to me that it laid a really big brick in the foundation of getting Ward out of his cage at some point, as he volunteered information about Skye's father that proved totally true. (There at least is a situation that the writers seem content to let play until they've milked it for everything. And "caged Ward" I think has a lot shorter shelf life than "undercover Simmons" anyway.)

I'd say this episode earns a B+. I'm yet again looking forward to next week's episode -- which, regrettably, probably now won't get a ratings spike from people tuning in to see what now won't be the premiere of the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. (Sad face.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Fight for the Right Not to Fight

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot over the last few weeks for the rather large number of unexplained decisions they've handed down, in cases with far-reaching consequences from marriage equality to voter ID laws to abortion. Against this backdrop, I recently watched an HBO film that dramatized a significant Supreme Court case from four decades ago: Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.

Based on a book of the same title, the movie covers the 1971 case in which Ali sued to prevent his incarceration for refusing induction to fight in Vietnam. He claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of his Islamic beliefs, though his foreign religion seemed unlikely to earn him any sympathy among a court dominated by white Christian males.

It seemed to me that the movie also adapted in large measure material from Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's book, The Brethren. (Though it may be that I've read that book and thus know its contents, while I've not read the Ali book.) Lots of little snippets of "daily Court life" and "Justice behavior" seemed to come from The Brethren, though it was often presented so briefly and casually that I found myself wondering if anyone who hadn't "done the homework" as I had would even understand what was breezing by.

The case itself feels almost similarly superficial in its presentation. Ali himself is not played by an actor in this film, the "character" appearing only in archival news footage. I imagine the filmmakers were trying to avoid a distracting impersonation -- either of the man himself, or of Will Smith's well-known take on him in a recent biopic. But by putting Ali at a remove like that, I feel the film abstracts him and his struggle. The eight men deciding his fate (Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case) seem like real people with real thoughts and motivations, but the man whose fate is being decided unfortunately does not. It's not so much "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" as it is Justice Harlan's Clerk's Greatest Fight."

There are some interesting faces throughout the cast, including Danny Glover and Ed Begley Jr. But the two actors that really get enough material to work with are Frank Langella as Chief Justice Burger and Christopher Plummer as Justice Harlan. And both do good work. Langella perfectly captures the political paper- and agenda-pusher that nearly all sources agree Burger to have been, while Plummer gets to play the role of the more noble (on this occasion, at least) Justice who is actually swayed by the arguments presented to him. Neither is giving a career-defining performance, to be sure, but if you're going to watch this film, you'll be watching it to be entertained by them.

But overall, I regret to say you should probably not watch this film. It's a great bit of history to learn, but this movie isn't fully successful in making it live. I'd instead recommend The Brethren (as I did months ago). This movie gets a C-.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TNG Flashback: Hero Worship

Patrick Stewart returned to the director's chair for the second time -- and again for a Data story -- with "Hero Worship."

The Enterprise is dispatched to a "black cluster," to determine what has happened to the starship Vico. They find the ship all but destroyed, with only one survivor aboard -- a young boy named Timothy. Timothy may hold the key to determining what happened to the Vico, but he is walled off by the trauma of losing both his parents in the disaster. The only one able to draw him out is Data, whom the boy has begun to imitate as a way of dealing with his emotions.

Like "New Ground," the previous episode, this story revolves around a young boy, and provides an opportunity for Troi to do some actual counseling. This time, she's not only working with Timothy and trying to help him cope with the loss of his parents, she's working with Data. She helps teach him how to be a "counselor," and acts as a surrogate for the android's non-existent emotions in the melancholy ending of the episode: Data had helped create a kindred spirit of sorts, only to have the boy ultimately stop behaving like an android.

Casting was key here. Again, as with the role of Worf's son, the producers found a young actor with experience for the role of Timothy. Joshua Harris had recurred as Christopher Ewing on Dallas for seven years. (And again, as with Brian Bonsall, Harris chose to give up acting within a year of finishing Star Trek.) He's a bit wooden in the early scenes where he's found aboard the Vico, but then does a great job mimicking Brent Spiner, and is fairly good late in the episode when he confesses the "secret" he's been hiding.

The visuals are mostly strong in this episode. The set design of the wrecked Vico is effective, made more so by the dark and moody lighting. The visuals of the black cluster are striking, particularly the refracted phaser shots and the approaching shock waves. One effect that just does not work at all, though, is when Data uses super-speed to build the temple model; it looks like stop-motion animation, and not well-realized stop-motion animation at that.

Other observations:
  • The costumers do clever work here too, coming up with an outfit for Timothy that looks very much like Data's Starfleet uniform without actually quite being a Starfleet uniform.
  • There's an interesting scene for Geordi, in which he recounts being caught in a fire as a child, before he'd first received a VISOR. This trauma from Geordi's past was originally conceived for the next episode, "Violations," where the memory would have been invaded by the alien villain.
  • The cast and crew were filming this episode when they received the news of Gene Roddenberry's death. As expected, they were hit hard by the loss. Marina Sirtis was reportedly affected more than most, as her own father had died exactly ten years earlier.
This episode comes dangerously close to being "too much about the guest star." But there are still enough good scenes for Data and Counselor Troi to make it decent enough. I give it a B.

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-.