Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ghouli

With the episode "Ghouli," the new revival season of The X-Files grabbed firmly back on to the third rail that is its ongoing story line, a lethal (to engaging storytelling) tangle of cliché and confusion.

Mulder and Scully investigate an incident in Norfolk, Virginia, where two teenage girls viciously knifed each other, each seeing the other as a terrifying monster. Scully is having visions similar to those the girls had before the attack, but it's not because she's to be the next victim. Instead, she's convinced that it's because the son she gave away, William, is somehow involved.

Fortunately, this episode was written and directed by James Wong and not Chris Carter. That meant it was not the travesty-in-multiple-parts that the "My Struggle" series of episodes have been. Still, being forced to pick up where that story left off, there's only so much Wong could do here.

Ordinarily, I love it when a largely procedural, episodic show finds ways to reflect on the main characters by involving them in the story. (Among current genre shows, Supernatural may be the best as this.) But this episode was exactly the opposite. During the opening minutes of the episode, when we were teased with the weird premise of people seeing monsters and attacking each other, I was intrigued. When Scully began to have visions too, I worried about getting another "Scully's in danger" episode hot on the heels of the last... but I still had hopes they could take a left turn that would surprise me.

But then we learned the context, that this all had to do with William. Part of me applauded Gillian Anderson for her emotional, tearful performance in the morgue. Most of me dreaded that it was all going to go south. And sure enough, The X-Files then tried to do the X-Men. The back half of the episode became about a young teenager trying to cope with emerging mutant-like powers, but without any of the social commentary that underpins the most effective X-Men stories. The story didn't even really seem to take a stand on whether William was an emerging superhero or supervillain. (And if you're going to do a comic book, commit!)

As for Mulder and Scully, the episode ended just when it actually got interesting. They finally get confirmation of William's strange powers, soon after having confirmed that he is indeed their son (well, Scully's anyway, according to that horrible season opener). But we don't get to see them reckon with the knowledge at all. Roll credits.

There were some effective and moody moments peppered throughout, and that great performance I mentioned by Gillian Anderson. But overall, the episode fell flat for me. I give "Ghouli" a C-. Great by "X-Files Mythology Episode" standards, but dangerously low on the "Keeping Me Interested in This Season" scale. Can we just have nothing but Darin Morgan episodes from here on, please?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Panther on the Prowl

Marvel's newest movie, Black Panther, is a huge success -- judging by its box office, anyway. Creatively? Another worthy entry in the franchise, I'd say, though my reaction is a bit more muted than some. There's a lot to like here. Foremost, I do feel like they finally gave me the "something different" I've been asking for of the last several Marvel movies. The narrative of this movie isn't radically different overall, but there are some change-ups; more importantly, it definitely strikes a different tone.

My favorite 15 minute stretch of the movie, for example, feels more like a James Bond movie than anything else. (Though you could make the argument that James Bond kind of is a superhero of a kind.) When the characters go to South Korea for a spy mission, they "gadget up" with help from a Q figure before getting into a fantastic fist fight (featuring a visually stunning single take) and a car chase through the busy city streets.

Other parts of the movie really sideline forward momentum in the narrative in favor of some intense world building of the country of Wakanda. In terms of pacing, these sections do drag a little bit. But in terms of making the film feel like something different for Marvel, they're a rousing success. Writer-director Ryan Coogler does a great job of serving up a cultural stew that blends African cultural heritage with sci-fi futurism. It's a feast for the eyes and tantalizing for the brain.

The script isn't rock solid, though. (Some minor SPOILERS in this paragraph. I'll keep it vague, but skip ahead if you're being extra careful.) Before we learn the villain's real motivations, his activities in the first act don't really make a lot of sense. (Why is he playing around, and not working more directly for his goals?) An act two fake-out in which we're supposed to believe something bad happens to the hero falls totally flat. And the climax of the movie loses the human thread in favor of a classic, emotionally weightless CG showdown.

My biggest "problem," though, is the main character himself. Black Panther is, far and away, the most boring thing in his own movie. Chadwick Boseman gives a game performance at what is provided for him, but he just doesn't command the screen. Partly, it's because his character of T'Challa is such a goody-goody stick in the mud, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, that he just isn't that fun. But moreover, it's because everyone else in the movie is so fantastic.

Black Panther is surrounded by a very deep bench of very compelling characters. His sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is a runaway favorite, that smart gadgeteer Q figure I alluded to above, with a razor wit to match her intelligence. She's an easier-to-like Tony Stark, sharp and smart without being an egomaniac. Danai Gurira is wonderful as Okoye, leader of a sort of Wakandan Secret Service. She kicks ass, is often the voice of reason, and by 30 minutes into the film has made a fairly compelling case that she deserves her own spinoff movie.

Those two are standouts, but as I said, it's a very deep bench. Lupita N'Yongo is an intriguingly complex foil and love interest. Daniel Kaluuya has a compelling supporting role that illustrates how politics (and a charismatic outsider) can erode a friendship. Winston Duke brings fun comic relief (that doesn't belabor the funny) as the leader of a rival tribe. Forest Whitaker embodies the wise mystic, while Angela Bassett brings her regal bearing to the role of the Queen Mother. Sterling K. Brown brings all his considerable emotional gravitas to an important role I dare not spoil anything about for people who haven't seen the film. Andy Serkis, not hidden behind motion capture for once, serves up a baddie with verve. And Martin Freeman has a lot of fun with a role that is very cleverly and conspicuously written as a token supporting character with little agency of his own.

Then, stealing the movie, is Michael B. Jordan as N'Jadaka. Spider-man: Homecoming represented the first decent villain in a long while for Marvel, as Michael Keaton's character had compelling and understandable motivations. N'Jadaka has a point. Methods and authoritarianism aside, the character could be seen as having a more direct claim to the moral high ground in this movie than the protagonist. What's more, Jordan gets to give an unrestrained performance, louder and more boisterous. He's so charismatic as to almost tip the scales of sympathy against the fuddy-duddy main character, and it's really something to watch.

All told, I'd give Black Panther a solid B. I hope its success encourages Marvel Studios to continue taking bigger risks with their films than they seem to have been willing to so far.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Deadly Experiment

James Gunn has been working as a director for some time, and as a writer for longer still, but it wasn't until the Guardians of the Galaxy movies that more people came to know his name. That recognition may have had something to do with MGM contacting him to see if he'd still be interested in making a script he'd submitted years earlier and then (for a variety of reasons) walked away from. He was. And that's how we got the twisted The Belko Experiment.

At a secretive office building in Colombia, 80 American employees show up for work one morning to find all the locals absent. Impenetrable shutters abruptly slam down to block every door and window, and an ominous voice suddenly comes over the loudspeakers: they are all now part of an experiment. If two of the workers aren't dead by the time 30 minutes have passed, there will be consequences. It seems like a cruel prank that no one takes seriously... until explosives embedded in the heads of four employees are suddenly and violently detonated. The next time the voice demands deaths, the trapped workers have no choice but to take it seriously. What follows is a warped melding of Office Space and Battle Royale, Die Hard by way of The Hunger Games.

James Gunn chose not to direct himself, handing off those duties to Greg McLean. But the script has Gunn's fingerprints all over it; this feels like a movie you'd expect from the guy who made Slither. In all the right ways, it's simple and it's gross, and filmed in as fantastically violent a manner as it needs to be for maximum impact.

Part of the fun is that this isn't cast like an action movie; it's cast like an office dramedy, with an ensemble including John Gallagher Jr. (of The Newsroom), Tony Goldwyn (of Scandal), John C. McGinley (of Scrubs), and Josh Brener (of Silicon Valley). Arguably, the only actor you'd expect to see in a movie like this is Michael Rooker, here because he's in most of James Gunn's movies, though this time not playing the tough sort of character you'd expect. As you move down through the ensemble into actors you probably won't recognize right away, there's a satisfying diversity, including Adria Arjona, Melonie Diaz, David Del Rio, James Earl, and more. And everyone is giving a solid performance, committing to this wild premise.

There's a great economy of storytelling here. The movie comes in just under an hour and a half, getting straight to its premise and not dragging things out longer than it could be sustained. That said, it also doesn't seem like the movie has much of an agenda other than horror. There could be an opportunity here to express a point of view on the true nature of people, but the movie isn't interested in being profound. Yet at least in its pursuit of visceral thrills, it's strong.

I am left a bit conflicted by the ending. This is one of those stories where the idea itself really is everything, and I suspect there aren't very many compelling ways to conclude it. I certainly don't have a better idea on how I'd have ended it. Nevertheless, there's something sort of inevitable to the conclusion that I'm not sure amounts to much.

But I think you know what you're in for when you sit down to watch a movie like this -- people are going to beat each other to death with office supplies. You get exactly what you sign up for, and horror aficionados will find it delicious most of the time. It's a solid B movie, which I mean here as a grade, not a putdown. I think most fans of the genre would enjoy it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Progress

In the first half of its first season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine struggled to find a different voice that would set it apart from The Next Generation. In the back half of the season, the series was beginning to find that voice, though it still struggled to present the best versions of its ideas. "Progress" is an example of this.

The Bajorans are undertaking a project to tap one of their planet's moons for energy. But this will require the evacuation of the surface, and a crotchety old farmer living there refuses to leave his home. Kira is tasked with trying to convince him to evacuate, but it soon seems like he's the one doing the convincing, as Kira feels sympathy for his plight. Meanwhile, Jake and Nog embark on a series of unusual trades, trying to earn gold-pressed latinum from worthless goods discarded by Quark.

There are some strong ideas at the heart of this episode. This is essentially a story about eminent domain, of the power of a government to seize property for "the good of the many." On a personal level, it's the story of Kira realizing a major shift in her own sense of identity; she used to fight the power, but now she is the power.

These ideas are stronger than the way they're explored by the script. The cranky old man who wants you off his lawn was a worn-out trope long before this hour of television, has continued to be a worn-out trope since, and nothing presented here really makes it stand out from that large pack. Writer Peter Allan Fields said in an interview that he thought the character he'd created here, Mullibok, was more prickly than he came across in the finished product. He saw Mullibok as manipulating and conning Kira.

Whether that was on the page or not, Fields is right that that Mullibok, as played by actor Brian Keith, is pretty much the stereotypical angry old coot with a secret heart of gold revealed in the end. Don't get me wrong -- it's a natural, authentic performance. It's just also a bit boring because we've seen this schtick before. Mullibok is more folksy than thorny, and even though at this point in the show we don't know anything about Kira's father, you automatically assume she sees something of her father in this old man.

The story line does end in a compelling, Deep Space Nine kind of way. Unable to persuade Mullibok to see reason, Kira is forced to destroy everything he loves and burn his house to the ground to get him to leave. Yet that ending does lack some punch, perhaps because The Next Generation actually got to this kind of Deep Space Nine-y story and ending first. This plot, and the particular way it wraps up, shares many similarities with the season 3 episode "The Ensigns of Command."

Weirdly, the plot involving Jake and Nog -- clearly meant to be a light B story -- is almost more compelling than the A story. According to staff writer Ira Steven Behr, this episode (and "The Storyteller" before it) marked the beginning of  "an intense period of trying to turn Jake and Nog into Laurel and Hardy." (Or, as Nog actor Aron Eisenberg saw it, "a futuristic Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.")

The comedy mostly works. It's fun to watch the boy's turn trash into treasure. It's interesting character development for Jake to be the one who sees the value of trade more than Nog; I guess it makes sense that Nog wasn't learning from a good example in his father Rom. (Or even his Uncle Quark, who here doesn't see any potential in the worthless "yamok sauce" he gives away to start this whole adventure.) It's amusing to watch the boys puzzle over what a "self-sealing stem bolt" does, and for not even O'Brien to know. But it is a bit of a letdown that Jake and Nog sell so cheap in the end, and that we never find out what they'll use the money for.

Oddly, the moments that work best in this episode are a little removed from the core narratives. One of the best scenes is when Sisko comes to talk to Kira at Mullibok's farm. He sympathizes with the underdog too, he tells her, but she's got a job to do. You see him using tactics with Kira in an interesting way, and because it's Avery Brooks in the role and not William Shatner or Patrick Stewart, there are intriguing racial brush strokes at the margins of it all when he talks about siding with the little guy. Also entertaining is a moment when Sisko is challenged briefly by Dr. Bashir over the commander's request that he file a false report. "Make it true, Doctor" is Sisko's curt, effective reply.

There's also a fun scene early on between Dax and Kira, in which Dax talks about being asked to dinner by Morn... and being oddly attracted to him. Most fans just read this as fun with the emerging gag about how Morn doesn't talk. Actress Terry Farrell read the scene in a more interesting way, deciding that Dax wasn't being serious. She saw it as an effort to rattle Kira and draw her out. As she put it: "[A]s Jadzia, I think that Kira puts too much emphasis on what a guy looks like, so I'm teasing her about her youth, and her naivete about what people are really about. I'm trying to be funny, but I am also trying to get Kira to laugh at herself." I think these moments feel integral to Dax's character, letting her be more whimsical because she's really centuries old and has seen it all.

Other observations:
  • In a fun bit of world building, the front door of Mullibok's home is just super weird, an odd hexagonal shape that's hinged in an even weirder way. (It sort of opens downward a bit.)
  • Not to be outdone in unusual world building, the prop department hands out Bajoran phasers that seem to be color matched to the uniform of the characters carrying them.
  • I know why the two other Bajorans living with Mullibok don't speak; the production was cheap and didn't want to pay them. But why have these characters at all? Does it really make a difference whether Kira is morally conflicted about relocating one person or three? Especially when it comes down to just Mullibok in the end anyway?
Even though this episode falls short of where it could be, I think it shows what a strong performer Deep Space Nine found in Nana Visitor. (And this isn't the first time she's been the best thing about an episode, either.) Her heavy lifting brings this episode up above average, to what I'd grade a B-. It's not one of season one's best, but it's far from one of its worst.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Post on The Post

Looking at its "stat page," the movie The Post seems as though it could have bred in a lab to win Oscars. It stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It's directed by Steven Spielberg. It's about the Pentagon Papers -- specifically, the decision by the owner of Washington Post in the early 1970s to stand up for the First Amendment, by publishing leaked information harmful to the Nixon administration and executive branch. Star power. Timely subject. Oscar please.

But something happened on the way to being anointed. They neglected to get top writing talent.

To be clear, The Post is a perfectly fine movie. It's worth seeing (later, on home video, at the least). But it's missing that certain extra oomph to make it Best Picture worthy in my mind. The script does have a perspective on things, one even more timely and capital-I Important than the "free press" and "truth to power" elements; the clear arc of the story is that of a woman blazing a trail in a male-dominated environment, and proving as tough and capable as anyone.

Yet the movie also amounts to a somewhat dry recitation of events. There are a lot of characters here, and vanishing few of them have much of a personality. The film cheats on this by casting lots of actors "you love from that thing," inviting you to graft your goodwill onto these ciphers. They do what the story (and history) requires of them, but writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer really don't give much explanation of what's motivating them. The backbone of the movie, for example, is about the lead character, Katharine Graham, transforming from pushover to leader, yet it never really offers evidence of key moments in that transformation. (I guarantee you that Meryl Streep made decisions about what motivated the change; it's a shame the rest of us didn't get to see it.)

The film also falls short on keeping sight of the personal stakes in all this. Being the second major "Newspaper Movie" in two years (a fact Seth Meyers recently joked about in a viral clip from his late night show), it's easy to want to compare. Spotlight did a much better job of reminding the audience why this fight was "worth having." The principles of The Post feel squishier and loftier, not in as easy reach. It's a much more intellectual endeavor.

But if I seem too down on the movie, it's only because the people involved here are capable of better. The truth is, even if they can't spin straw into gold here, they can spin it into something perhaps like silver. Steven Spielberg can direct a movie like this blindfolded, and it's not that it seems like he isn't trying, it's that he can make it so naturally and effectively that you aren't always even aware of the work. There are plenty of tricky camera moves throughout, from long push-ins on moving cars to elaborate single takes that weave through crowded houses. Framing and staging always subconsciously reinforce the power dynamics. It's really quite clever, and I suspect if I were to watch it again, I would notice plenty more great directorial decisions that slipped by me the first time.

Meryl Streep is excellent. As I said earlier, she clearly made choices about the arc of her character, and the change shows even if the audience can't fully track the reasons. We've seen her portray plenty of "force of nature" women over the years; this performance is notable for the bulk of the story in which her character isn't that self-assured. Halting, doubting, and timid, it's compelling to watch Streep inhabit someone like this, and helps the audience cheer her on to glory all the more when we know what she's capable of.

Tom Hanks is great too. He's a rough, barking "newspaper man," and because he's Tom Hanks, this man never comes off as unlikable. You want to charge into battle at his side. And the list of other great actors here is impossibly long: Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jessie Plemons, Zach Woods, Michael Stuhlbarg (in his third Oscar nominated film this year!), and more. Some of them are only here for one or two scenes, but they're seemingly happy to do even that little to work with these other actors, and for Steven Speilberg.

At the end of the day, The Post is a fine movie from which I expected much more. I understand why it's in the Oscar hunt, and I understand why no one seems to be calling it a serious contender. I grade it a B.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Will You Take My Hand?

Overall, I liked the story that Star Trek: Discovery told with its first season. Despite many twists and turns, and apparent resets of its premise along the way, it really was all of one piece, building to this conclusion. I'm just not so sure they stuck the landing.

I get what they were going for here. Though there were moments throughout the season where some people doubted the sincerity of the writers' devotion to female empowerment, this final episode really showed us where they stood. It all came down to women in every important role in the story. Burnham had to thwart the evil plot of Mirror Georgiou. She had to stand up to Admiral Cornwell. She had emotional support from Tilly. And in the end, it was L'Rell who stepped up to force the Klingon Empire to fall into line. It's a fantastic construction.

But the logic was strained. How exactly could they know that L'Rell would behave as they wanted if they let her go? Why would she not prosecute a campaign against the Federation to its ultimate end, once they'd shown her their weakness by releasing her? How about the rest of the Klingons? L'Rell is a nobody who served for a defeated and disgraced leader. Why listen to her? She shows up at the High Council waving an iPad and saying she has the power to blow up the world. What possible reason would anyone have to believe her?

We knew the season wasn't going to end in the destruction of the Klingon homeworld -- but then, that wasn't put out there until part way through this episode. Still, I at least needed to feel like the twist that ultimately happened was at least as dramatically satisfying as the plan they'd put on the table in front of us at the end of last episode: that Discovery was going to map key locations from inside the planet to set up a possible offensive strike. But the twist with L'Rell was lacking for the reasons I mentioned above, and the substitute "big showdown" between Burnham and Georgiou wasn't nearly as dramatic as advertised. Nor, again, very logical -- Mirror Georgiou is literally Hitler, on a galactic scale. No principle of "honoring one's word" justifies turning her loose to terrorize the universe. (Similarly, how could you justify letting go an intelligence resource like Ash Tyler/Voq?)

But at least some little moments along the way were satisfying. Having L'Rell open the episode by giving us the "Previously on Star Trek: Discovery" in subtitled Klingon was amusing. The barbs traded between Georgiou and Saru over her desire to eat him were wonderfully pointed. The confrontation between Burnham and Cornwell was great, where Burnham stood up to assert what Star Trek is for both the whole bridge crew and the audience. (Her speech at the end was also quite inspiring.) The short appearance by Clint Howard as an Orion druggie was another great moment for long time Trekkers, who will recall that as a child, Howard appeared in one of the very first episodes of the original series. (That wasn't the only way the show came full circle, but I'll get to that shortly.)

It was a fantastic episode for Tilly, arguably the show's best character. Sure, there were laughs in her being chastised for half-heartedly saluting the Emperor, and later falling into a drug haze, but her dramatic moments were even better. Her assurances to Burnham that she had her back really meant something, because of how far Tilly had come as a character over the season. We saw that she was watching out for Burnham too, in every action. (I loved as they walked down the corridor, early in the episode, and Tilly positioned herself deliberately between Ash Tyler and Burnham.)

The writers also set up for next season in the most tantalizing way. Without making a total cliffhanger of things (the season's story did resolve, after all), they gave us room to speculate on all manner of things that might be ahead. First, we're getting a new captain. Who it might be, what actor they might get to play him or her, is prime for conjecture. (What if they took inspiration from having Jason Isaacs as captain in season one and embraced a Harry Potter approach? What if Discovery starts going through captains like Hogwarts goes through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers? You could conceivably attract some real A-list talent with the promise of single seasons or less.)

Then, of course, there was the tease of taking us back to where Star Trek all began by ending on a rendezvous with the Enterprise. (And a full, new performance of the original series theme song -- soprano, bongos, and everything.) This is very much "where it all began," as we're talking about the Enterprise commanded by Christopher Pike in the original series pilot "The Cage." So not only can we spend the hiatus waiting to hear who they'll cast as Pike, we can wonder about whether the other crew members of that episode will make an appearance -- do we get a new Number One, a new Dr. Boyce, a new José Tyler? (And will they get more of an actual personality than they had before?)

Then, of course, there's Spock. He was there in "The Cage" too, and judging by the surreptitious look between Michael Burnham and Sarek right at the end of the episode, showing him is something the writers know they can't cheese out on here. Seeing the actual dynamic between brother and sister is something that needs to happen. And is there any chance of coaxing Zachary Quinto back to television to reprise the role, or are we going to get Spock #3?

Those last few minutes of the episode really kind of overshadowed the episode that came before, in many ways. Overall, I was satisfied by this season of Discovery, and though we can expect the break to be long, I'm very much looking forward to the next. But for this episode itself? I'd mark "Will You Take My Hand?" a B-. Great character work with Burnham and Tilly, but the rest was a rather nonsensical and anticlimactic end to a fun ride.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Discover Something Great

This weekend, Star Trek: Discovery will be wrapping up its first season. It seemed like the time to talk about the Discovery podcast I've been listening to throughout the show's run.

A while back, I blogged about The Greatest Generation, "a Star Trek podcast by two guys who are a bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast." It's a fantastic and hilarious podcast that went through every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, offering commentary and comedy. (They've now moved on to Deep Space Nine, and the show is as funny as ever.) When Star Trek: Discovery spun up, their podcast spun off; every Tuesday after a new episode of Star Trek, they served up their own new episode of The Greatest Discovery.

The tone is the same: they're looking to make jokes, but not to poke fun. These guys love Discovery -- indeed, they might even like it a bit more (and a bit more consistently) than I do. But that doesn't mean they can't laugh at it. Sometimes this revolves around pointing out when the show has food on its figurative chin, but more often it's about running a riff about taking a serious scene not-so-seriously, or pulling out a running gag from their ever-increasing stable.

The two hosts, Adam Pranica and Ben Harrison, actually work in film and television production for their "day jobs," so occasionally the show can get educational too. If there's a particular camera set-up being used to achieve a particular effect, certain lighting, certain movement, you name it... they'll notice it and comment on it. They have "favorite directors" who work on Star Trek, and when they point out those directors' signatures in an episode, you'll come to understand why, even if you're not the sort to normally take note of how the entertainment you watch is put together.

Of course, the key difference between The Greatest Discovery and The Greatest Generation is that they're watching these Star Trek episodes for the first time, like we are. This is no nostalgic look back, but a look at whether Star Trek as a franchise has brought what it takes to be noticed in this era of prestige television. (The hosts' answer: generally yes.) Speculation about what would come next has added to the Star Trek: Discovery experience; once or twice, it's made me wish the writers of the show had zagged where they zigged. (How fun would a whole episode of the Mirror Discovery in the Prime Universe have been?)

In a podcast queue that's always bursting, I always drop everything Tuesday morning to listen to a new Greatest Discovery (even switching away from something I was halfway through the night before). For season one of Star Trek: Discovery, at least, it's too late for you to "listen along" as I did. Still, I'd recommend the podcast. It'll give you a way to keep Discovery in mind over the coming hiatus between seasons. The Greatest Discovery gets an A in my book.