Monday, December 31, 2012

TNG Flashback: Skin of Evil

It's New Year's Eve, so here's wishing everyone a safe and fun evening, and great things in 2013. Meanwhile, I forge ahead with episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and come to "Skin of Evil," an episode very appropriate for the "out with old, in with the new" theme of the day... because out goes my old opinion (that this was one of the worst hours of the first season) and in comes a surprising new one (despite its definite flaws, this was actually a winner overall).

"Skin of Evil" is without question the most significant episode in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most fans hate it, and many of the cast and crew who worked on the show have expressed the same sentiment in interviews over the years. But that doesn't change the monumental significance of killing off a main character in a Star Trek series for the first time. (You could argue that Spock gets that distinction, but he wasn't killed off during the original run of the series. More significant still, his death didn't stick.)

Counselor Troi is returning to the Enterprise via shuttle when an accident on board forces a crash landing on a barren planet. The only life form on the surface is a vicious alien named Armus, an intelligent "skin of evil" long ago scoured off by an advanced race looking to rid themselves of negative qualities. Armus frustrates the crew's attempt to rescue Troi, torturing Riker and tormenting the group with sadistic games. After it kills Tasha Yar, they must find a way to outwit it and overcome its powers to get everyone else safely off the planet.

Armus may have seemed like a cool villain on paper, but he's far from it in execution. He's a man in an amorphous full-body suit, so coated with a sludgy mix of (this is true) Metamucil and black printer's ink that not only can you not make out any of his features, he can't even really move. He's not menacing; at best he's just plain gross. (Which Jonathan Frakes bravely demonstrates by diving right into the stuff.) The cheesy animation used to "move" the oil slick around the set looks drawn by hand. Badly. And the silly mark it leaves on Tasha's cheek when it kills her makes it hard to take the following scene, in which Crusher attempts to revive her, seriously. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything about Armus is a disaster.

The actual death of Tasha Yar is also rightfully a sticking point for many fans. Gene Roddenberry was reportedly insistent on the "meaningless" death, unexpectedly occurring in the line of duty. No blaze of glory for her, and I kind of see the point. In the history of Star Trek before this, Starfleet security chiefs routinely died in such a manner; why would Yar be any different? Not to mention that Denise Crosby was choosing to bail on a show she'd worked on for just eight months, feeling frustrated that she wasn't getting enough screen time (in a cast of nine actors). Did she deserve a better exit? But in the bigger picture, Yar (and the rest of the crew) had already survived so many other situations that appeared considerably more serious and threatening. It made her sudden death here that much harder to believe.

But I think it's too easy to get focused on these weaker, cheap elements of the episode. It's certainly what I focused on back when it ran brand new in 1988, and I hated it then as much as anybody. But when I watched the episode now, I found it easier to see the elements of the episode that surprisingly do work.

The acting from the main cast is exceptional in this episode, across the board. Patrick Stewart has a battle of wills with a freaking mud slick, for crying out loud, and makes it look credible. Picard confronts Armus, quotes Shakespeare, turns the alien's rage upon itself, and it's not only believable, it's actually compelling. But at least Stewart had something to act opposite. Troi is trapped inside the crashed shuttle for the bulk of the episode, and Marina Sirtis has scene after scene where she confronts the creature only in voice-over. She sells every word, and is particularly strong in the scene where she senses Riker's torture as he's enveloped inside the creature.

And then of course there's Denise Crosby, who shines in her swan song. She has an excellent scene at the top of the episode, where she banters with Worf about his wager on Yar in the upcoming martial arts tournament. Plus, she absolutely nails her funeral monologue. It's the most moving material on the series to this point, a great delivery of some great writing. Perhaps recognizing that we don't know enough about Tasha to make her death truly hurt, the writers wisely crafted her final speech to acknowledge things about each of the other characters. Particular highlights include her callback to the Klingon death yell in addressing Worf, and her profound compliment to Data about his humanity. (And for his part, Brent Spiner perfectly delivers his final moment, when Data wonders if he understood the point of the memorial ceremony.)

Another element of the episode that absolutely soars is the musical score by composer Ron Jones. It's his strongest work of the first season. He crafts a wonderful theme for the Armus creature, initially full of ominous menace, but also mournful and unsettling in the scenes where Troi unearths his back story. The music has tremendous tension during the crash sequence at the start of the episode (making up for the fact that we don't see it on camera), as well as in the scene where Crusher attempts to revive Tasha aboard the Enterprise. But the crowning achievement is the lengthy six-minute cue underscoring that wonderfully effective funeral scene; it supports and amplifies the emotion perfectly.

Other observations:
  • Director Joseph L. Scanlan employs some great camera angles in this episode. There are a lot of unusually tight close-ups in the teaser, and a particularly strong wide shot showing Picard alone at the conference table after everyone else leaves.
  • Speaking of that conference, it was convened to reassess the situation after Tasha's death, and the scene begins with everyone talking over one another. Picard calls them all to order with a simple, forceful tapping on the table. I was struck particularly in that moment -- though it's demonstrated in other episodes too -- just how often Picard (and Patrick Stewart) projects authority without raising his voice. This is a quality I sorely missed on Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise; the writers of those series seemed to equate yelling with authority, always giving shrill dialogue to Captains Janeway and Archer.
  • Worf is promoted to acting security chief in this episode, and his first official act is to suggest he not beam down to the planet with the team confronting Armus. He argues that he can better assist the team from the ship (and he does), but it's a very interesting moment. I found myself wondering if the proud Klingon warrior was actually letting fear show.
  • I try not to pay too much attention to the technobabble used in most episodes, but it's noticeably bad here. A recent episode, "Coming of Age," just made a prominent moment of telling us that the only viable mix of matter and antimatter is in a 1:1 ratio. But when the chief engineer of this episode restarts the warp core, he sets the ratio at 25:1. Um, kaboom? Also, why is Worf using numbers that have two decimal points in them?
  • The writers establish in the episode that the crash survivors can't be beamed out of the shuttle. But I don't think they ever address why the crew can't simply beam over to the other side of the oil slick that's giving them so much trouble.
For me, the bottom line is this. I think many people judge this episode by its weakest elements -- which are admittedly quite bad, and quite prominent. But watching it again, I found myself more moved by the good parts than I was put off by the bad parts. So I'm going to go way out on a limb here and give the episode a B+. In fact, I might just think it the best episode of the first season, despite the super-cheesy execution of the creature. The performances in this episode are top notch, the emotions very genuine, and that's what speaks to me more today.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Strike Up the Band

I have read that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle felt that "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" was the best of all his Sherlock Holmes stories. I have many more stories to go before I can judge whether I agree, but I would concur that so far, this story is indeed in the lead.

Holmes is approached by a young woman living with her stepfather. Her twin sister died two years earlier under mysterious circumstances; a strange whistling roused her in the dead of night for several consecutive evenings, culminating in her emergence from her locked bedchamber to gasp about seeing a "speckled band" before collapsing dead on the floor. Now that the woman herself has recently relocated into the same bedroom, she has heard the same strange whistling, and fears for her life.

Doyle does many clever things with this particular tale. He seizes upon a reason why it could not have been related to the reader at the time, instead presenting it as a flashback to the earlier days with Watson and Holmes still lived together at Baker Street. We hardly got to see the two of them together before Doyle married Watson off and moved him out, so any narrative cheat to revisit these earlier days is welcome. (That said, I am already tiring of the way that Doyle begins every tale by Watson writing something to the effect of: "of all the adventures I ever had with Sherlock Holmes, this one was the most extraordinary." They can't all be that, my dear Watson.)

The other great inspiration in this tale is that it's a "locked room mystery," one of the most fascinating forms of the mystery genre. I also found it enjoyable because more so than any of the Holmes mysteries so far, I feel this one "played fair" with the facts. Enough clues are dropped along the way, recounted faithfully by Watson, that at least the general resolution of the mystery, if not the specifics, should be expected by the reader.

That said, the tale could have perhaps been a bit more intricate. There isn't much in the way of red herrings in this mystery, and no real list of suspects. It sort of works here, because the "whodunnit" isn't as important here as the "how it was done." Still, I think I would have enjoyed a bit more uncertainty about the identity of the culprit.

But as I said, this is probably my favorite Holmes tale so far. I give it a B+.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Misérables Review

Tis the season! Oh, not for holidays... we're getting past all that now. No, I mean the season where movie studios release all their Oscar-bait films. One of the more brazen plays for Best Picture is Les Misérables. It's the adaptation of a stage musical that itself won numerous Tony awards. It's directed by Tobe Hooper, of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech. And it stars several acclaimed actors. And they're singing! "Oscar, please!"

Well, not so fast. I actually found Les Misérables to be a rather flawed movie, those flaws being a combination of things baked into the original musical and new problems introduced in translating it to film.

I've never actually seen the stage version, but one can gather from the film that it's actually more opera than musical. There are perhaps a dozen spoken lines in the entire film, with basically everything sung. It leads to a very fractured presentation. Only occasionally does the singing seem to coalesce into an actual melody of an actual song that last for a few actual minutes. Most of the time, people are just trading lines back and forth in a spray of notes so random, you can't even quite tell if they're actually on key or not. It's disjointed and off-putting. It's a device that might -- and I do mean might -- have worked on the stage, where the audience hardly ever loses consciousness of the artifice of setting. But in a film, where everything is meant to be taken as completely realistic, rendered in faithful detail and extreme close-up, it really doesn't work at all.

The film is overlong at two hours and 45 minutes, though the parts that seem superfluous are things that, narratively speaking, no one would ever dream of actually cutting. There are two comic relief characters that unnecessarily chew up half an hour, but as they provide the only moments of levity in an otherwise thoroughly bleak tale, they were no doubt thought vital in the stage production.

There are multiple times jumps in the first half of the film, each one skipping over so many years of time that the rest of the cast rotates entirely around the two main characters. And yet cutting any of that material would compromise the narrative context for their struggle against each other. So the end result is that long stretches of the film are rather powerfully boring.

But there are a few moments when it's utterly gripping. And they're moments that notably run counter to everything I just described. Sometimes, the random notes find a lasting melody. They're delivered by neither the main characters with the plodding, decade-spanning plot, nor the needless comic relief. They're intense and emotional. Specifically, they're two of the most famous songs from Les Misérables: "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own."

I may be down on the Oscar chances of the film itself, but when it comes to Best Supporting Actress, give it to Anne Hathaway right now! As Fantine, her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" is absolutely chilling. The solo moves through sorrow, misery, and rage, and the entire number unfolds in a single, unbroken take -- most of it a tight close-up on her anguished face. And not only does she give this, perhaps the most powerful song performance ever in a movie musical, she has other moments in the movie nearly as powerful. The times you feel emotion most are when she's on screen, and it's all the more impressive when you consider how little emotional momentum the rest of the story is building up for her.

That said, if Anne Hathaway weren't in the film, I might well be singing the praises of Samantha Barks instead. As Éponine, she delivers the famous "On My Own," and it's the second most moving number in the film. Not coincidentally, the staging of song is quite similar to "I Dreamed a Dream." There are a few cuts at the beginning and end of the song, but the bulk of it is a two- or three-minute, unbroken take that allows the actress to just perform in real time as she would on the stage... but without the obstacle of needing to reach "the back row" with an oversized performance. It's another song of anguish, with tightly controlled emotion spilling out. And it's a powerful moment in the film, despite the fact that the song itself is actually the weakest use of the melody in the musical. (The same leitmotif occurs at two other key points, both with more powerful context.)

But as wonderful as Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are, Russell Crowe is bad in opposite measure. Outclassed vocally by every other actor in the film, and apparently incapable of accessing more than one emotion, he lumbers through the film without ever making his character sympathetic (or even comprehensible). I cannot fathom what was going through the minds of whoever cast him.

Other actors have mixed results in my eyes. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play their parts with fun relish, but they're the comic relief roles that I noted felt largely extraneous to me. Eddie Redmayne is successful at times as romantic lead Marius, but I found myself overly conscious of his performance compared to other things in which I've seen him; he's usually so muted in his expression that his heightened pitch here seemed better suited to stage than screen. And in the lead, Hugh Jackman's vocals were the most operatic of anyone in the film -- well suited to the material, but not of a style I always enjoyed.

I strongly suspect that people who have seen (and loved) the original musical would be more predisposed to enjoy this film. (I know the person I saw it with had, and did.) But otherwise, I would really only recommend the film for Anne Hathaway. See it either if you want to see the performance that will win her an Academy Award... or if you want to share the rage if somehow she doesn't. The film as a whole, I give a C-.

Friday, December 28, 2012

TNG Flashback: Symbiosis

Many aspects of Star Trek: The Next Generation are fairly timeless, and have aged rather well over 25 years. But a few elements mark the early episodes as a product of the 1980s. "Symbiosis" is an episode marked from top to bottom.

While studying the high flare activity of a star, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a malfunctioning freighter. They rescue two pairs of people from two different planets in the system, and the precious cargo the two are fighting over. One race manufactures a drug which mitigates the symptoms of a global plague suffered by the other race, and both are bickering over whether this shipment of the drug has been paid for. When Dr. Crusher discovers the plague is a sham and the drug a narcotic, Picard faces a Prime Directive conflict prohibiting him from breaking the cycle of addiction and exploitation.

The subject of drug addiction is of course just as relevant today as it was when this episode was produced. Many other television series, before and since, mined the subject for drama. But this episode of The Next Generation screams with the preachy and simplistic "Just Say No" drug message of its time. The Ornarans -- the addicted alien race of this episode -- are portrayed in the most simplistic way. They're stereotypical burnouts, not really comprehending anything going on around them, and not even caring about the things they do comprehend. There's no nuance, nothing more than a 45-minute "I learned it from watching you!" PSA.

In fact, we get an almost literal PSA around two-thirds of the way into the episode. Wesley and Data get into one of the first season's common "20th century humans were stupid" discussions on the subject of drug addiction, and Tasha Yar steps in to deliver a Just Say No sermon from the mountaintop. It's awkward and sanctimonious, the only interesting part being an unintentionally hilarious sound bite: "Drugs... can make you feel good."

Other actors in the main cast get saddled with worse, though. Dr. Crusher's outrage over the situation is written in pompous flourishes, and Gates McFadden unfortunately pitches her performance over the top to match it. But she doesn't come off half as foolish as poor Jonathan Frakes, who as Riker is held hostage briefly by one of the Ornarans. The Ornarans have the capability of shocking people with electrical energy from their hands (an ability loosely explained as being a likely consequence of the high solar activity in their solar system), and when one uses this ability to immobilize and threaten Riker, Frakes just has to slouch there, wide-eyed and frozen, stupidly staring into space and hoping that the visual effects team doesn't leave him hanging. (But they kind of do.)

A rather talented guest cast is wasted here too. This episode marked a reunion of sorts for long-time Star Trek fans, as two actors from The Wrath of Khan play aliens in this episode -- Merritt Butrick (who in Star Trek II played Kirk's son, David Marcus) and Judson Scott (who was Khan's lieutenant Joaquin). Butrick spends most of the episode either burned out in the aftermath of a fix, or bouncing off the walls in need of another; it's a one-note performance (even if it's technically a two-note performance). And Scott doesn't even come across as the more prominent of the two Brekkian aliens providing the drugs; the female character of Langor seems to be more thoughtful and in charge.

There is some strong acting in the episode, though, and unsurprisingly it comes from Patrick Stewart. He conveys Picard's brewing irritation at dealing with these aliens without going over the top with anger. He does a great job of civilly scolding the Brekkians when, after they'd earlier praised the Federation's Prime Directive, they get indignant when it works against them. And he also sells a monologue to Dr. Crusher in support of the morality of the Prime Directive. Just listening to the words, the speech sounds just as preachy as everything else in the episode, but Stewart makes you believe there really is a noble ideal there without seeming to lecture on it.

Other observations:
  • This is a first for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and surely a rarity for the series: there's not one Captain's Log voice-over in this episode. But the writers find a similar way of forcing some exposition in at the top of the episode, by having Picard deliver a ship-wide address to the crew.
  • The high solar activity of the star being investigated by the Enterprise looks pretty neat in the re-master. (On a side note, the Enterprise never completes their survey of that star. At the close of the episode, Picard orders them to leave the system with something bordering on disgust, leaving their original mission unfinished.)
  • There's a nice, slow push-in on Dr. Crusher at the moment she watches the Ornarans take their dose of the medicine, and she realizes the true nature of the drug.
  • Although it's the next episode, "Skin of Evil," that features the death of Tasha Yar, this episode was actually filmed after it in the production schedule. And so it's this episode that actually features Denise Crosby's goodbye to Star Trek. Near the end of the hour, when Picard and Crusher leave the cargo bay, you can see Crosby standing in the very distant background. Just as the cargo bay door is closing, she looks straight at the camera and waves.
There's Patrick Stewart's solid performance here, and a few interesting moments about how the Prime Directive can work both for and against the crew. But overall, this is a rather dull episode I grade only a D+.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sampling Other Christmas Traditions

Many people have holiday movie traditions, a film they make a point of watching most every December. For many, that tradition is A Christmas Story (which one cable network helpfully indulges by running the film 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve). But even though I know all about the Red Ryder BB Gun, sticking your tongue to a frozen flagpole, the sexy/creepy leg lamp, and more, I had never actually seen the movie itself until this Christmas season. I found it to be a mostly entertaining experience, though I'm quite certain that you have to have seen it for the first time as a young child to have the strong adoration that I've heard many people proclaim over the years.

A Christmas Story is almost an anthology more than a single tale, an anthology of stories that just happen to feature the same characters. Now, one of my favorite movies (and favorite Christmas movie) is Love Actually, and that's very much a hodgepodge with a single theme, but not a single narrative. So while this aspect of A Christmas Story wasn't really a deal breaker for me, I did find myself wishing for a little bit more continuity in the story beyond the occasional return to the quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun.

Still, some of the stories in this mix were pretty entertaining. I thought the most successful moments were the fantasies in the mind of lead character Ralph, as the adults behaved in fun and over-the-top ways. The sight gags with his younger brother were also well executed (such as his piggish eating habits, and his bundling up for the cold by his mother).

What didn't work for me, in a nutshell, was the narrator. I gather the filmmakers felt they had to have the device of the old narrator reflecting on his childhood -- either to explain the period time setting, honor the anecdotes in the book on which the film is based, or both. But I found the voice-over to be intrusive and redundant. Rarely did he reveal anything that wasn't abundantly clear in the behavior of the characters on screen. Most of the time, the actors on camera are stuck holding awkward poses as they wait the required seconds for the narration to be inserted later.

Ultimately, though I can't quite imagine why a 24-hour marathon of this movie is necessary, I certainly found it better than many other traditional Christmas films that people go out of their way for each year. I'd give A Christmas Story a B-.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Taking It to the Street

While it was nearly impossible to be alive in the late 1980s and not be at least aware of the TV series 21 Jump Street, I never watched an episode at the time, nor have I seen one since. So I came to the recent movie adaptation with no particular expectations other than to laugh -- it certainly looked funny in the previews.

The new movie may not be a laugh-til-you-can't-breathe riot, but it is a well crafted affair. The story and script, by Michael Bacall and star Jonah Hill, is really smart. In confronts all the possible objections to the unlikely situation head on, giving you permission to just forget about it all and enjoy yourself. And I do mean all the possible objections, from the unlikely adult-cops-disguised-in-high-school premise to the very idea of stealing a 25-year-old TV show for a movie because you're out of ideas.

The cast is really solid across the board, but shines at the top. Jonah Hill is a proven comedian who has even showcased some dramatic chops (in Moneyball). Channing Tatum has established himself in more serious roles, and here reveals that he's a gifted comedian. The two together make a great comedy team -- and a flexible one too, as neither exclusively plays straight man to the other's buffoon. Both of them connect with both verbal and physical jokes.

Ice Cube is surprisingly hilarious as the captain in charge of the Jump Street unit, a knowing cliché of a character that tweaks every ridiculous cop drama convention. Another highlight in the supporting cast is Ellie Kemper, playing a raunchier character than she does on The Office (or did in Bridesmaids). I even liked Rob Riggle; I generally find him to be a rather one-note comedian, but that one loud and overbearing note is used well here.

It's pretty widely known by this point that the film also features some cameos from two original actors from the television series, but in case you aren't aware, I'll give nothing more away. I'll only say that even as someone who never watched the show, I found their scene to be probably the funniest in the movie.

I'd say 21 Jump Street was a solid enough comedy to get a B+. A few of the jokes fall flat, but far more of them connect and keep a smile on your face throughout.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

TNG Flashback: The Arsenal of Freedom

Merry Christmas, readers! I usually take a day off each year for the holiday, but this year I find myself with a nice backlog of already-written posts. So today will be business as usual with another Star Trek review.

In terms of delivering action-adventure, no episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season was more ambitious than "The Arsenal of Freedom."

Responding to the disappearance of a Starfleet ship, the Enterprise visits Minos, a once-thriving planet of arms dealers that's now completely uninhabited. An away team beams down to encounter a sophisticated military drone system that learns and improves after each defeat, and is responsible for wiping out the entire population. Separated in two groups, threatened by the drone and by serious injury, the team must survive as the Enterprise itself deals with an orbital version of the same deadly drone.

It's surprising that the series would attempt something with so much action in it, because most of what you see on the screen indicates that the budget was probably too thin at this point in the season to really do it full justice. A lot of the material does actually work, but it does so in spite of the limitations. The planet set, for example, is an attempt to present something different, loaded with vegetation and rocks... but it comes across looking rather fake, despite the money spent on it. And as for the alien drone weapon itself? Visual effects supervisor Dan Curry was forced to be resourceful on the cheap, and built it out of a L'Eggs pantyhose egg, a shampoo bottle. and some gold spray paint.

Equally ambitious is how many different subplots the episode tries to juggle. Three storylines cover Geordi in command of the Enterprise; Riker, Data, and Tasha fighting against the drones on the surface; and Picard with an injured Dr. Crusher in a subterranean cavern.

It's that last element that comes off best, but it's also the one that changed most from its original conception. From what I've read, writer Robert Lewin conceived of this episode to put Crusher and Picard in a situation where, with him threatened by a serious injury, she would confess her romantic interest in him. This was reportedly nixed by Gene Roddenberry himself; Lewin, who felt that Roddenberry had no interest in pursuing character development on the series, decided to leave soon after.

With the romantic element excised, director Les Landau helped to salvage something of the story. This was his first of many directing assignments on The Next Generation (as well as Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), after he proved himself by stepping in to replace the fired, racist director of "Code of Honor." He apparently suggested for this episode the "fish out of water" element of having Crusher be the injured character, and Picard the one forced to care for her. I think he even fought to put a tiny hint of the intended romance in the finished product as well; in a scene where Picard observes there must be a few things he doesn't know about the doctor, she responds with a very knowing (and telling) "quite a few."

Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden do an excellent job with these scenes, Picard doing everything he can to keep Crusher active and engaged, Crusher fighting to maintain a professional detachment when she herself is the patient. And their performances are even more incredible when you take into account the incredibly harsh conditions under which they were filmed. I've read that the sand trucked in to coat the floor of the set was infested with fleas; McFadden had to lie half buried in it as they bit her all day long.

While the battle against the drones fought by Riker, Tasha, and Data does have some interesting moments in it, it's the other subplot that also attempts the personal element of the Crusher-Picard story. Geordi is left in command of the Enterprise, where he has to butt heads with a know-it-all chief engineer and provide reassurance to a pair of inexperienced junior officers who have never been in battle before. LeVar Burton strikes a good tone in his performance as Geordi, exuding the necessary command confidence, not responding to the belligerent engineer in kind, and dealing gently with the junior officers. If anything, he's perhaps a little too good with the junior officers, though. There's a plot point of Troi pointing out to him that he needs to soothe their anxieties, but Geordi hasn't been especially hard on them to that point. My take is that LeVar Burton did the best he could with the lines as written.

Speaking of the lines as written, they stink when it comes to the pompous guest character of Chief Engineer Logan. He's set up as a heavy to antagonize Geordi, but he's all over the map in that role. First, when the ship is under attack, he criticizes Geordi for not fleeing and getting the ship to safety. Later, when Geordi does break orbit, Logan berates him for leaving the away team behind on the surface. And all of this is delivered by a bad actor with only one gear: smug. Sure, there are people like this in the real world, but they aren't very believable in the Star Trek world.

With all these subplots and so much time within them spent on more personal character moments, some things simply couldn't fit in the allotted minutes. And what seems to be missing are some particulars explaining the plot. This automated, self-teaching drone system is supposed to have destroyed everyone on a planet filled with weapons, plus the Federation starship Drake that was first sent to investigate. And yet the drone starts off against our heroes quite stupidly, not being able to fool them in its attempt to gather intelligence with a hologram, nor able to survive even one shot from a hand phaser. Equally confusing is why, after Picard discovers how to "turn it off" at the end of the episode, the drone in orbit continues to attack the Enterprise. The best I've got to explain it all is that there must be two separate drone systems: one smarter and unstoppable, responsible for wiping out the planet (and also the one attacking the Enterprise); the other a basic demonstration model triggered by the away team's arrival, and which hasn't learned anything yet.

Other observations:
  • Hard-working character actor Vincent Schiavelli plays the automated salesman of the drone weapon system. (I assure you, you'd recognize his face, if not his name.) Here, he's a perfect, smarmy huckster.
  • We've been told in past episodes that Riker's driving ambition is to command his own starship. But we learn here that he turned down command of the Drake to be first officer of the Enterprise. Sure, the Enterprise is a more prestigious assignment, but if what he really wanted was command, why would he say no? At least this character quirk is consistent in future episodes (yes, plural) when Riker is offered a command and turns it down.
  • In a ruse to draw out the drone's hologram, Riker says his ship is named the Lollipop. And then, in what has to be the only shout-out to Shirley Temple in all of Star Trek, he quips that it's "a good ship."
  • This is the first episode since the pilot to feature saucer separation. I believe it happened only once more in the entire series after this.
  • They crammed a lot in this episode, but there was no room for Wesley, who isn't anywhere to be seen.
  • For most of the episode, the away team's communicators don't work as part of a plot device to keep them from talking to each other or the ship. But near the end, there's a moment when Picard contacts the ship with total certainty that this time, he's going to get through. (He does, but how does he know that?)
  • This episode has a great musical score, and I'm shocked to acknowledge it came from the composer I don't care for, Dennis McCarthy. It has tense, pizzicato strings during the attacks on the planet surface, rousing adventure in the saucer separation sequence, dark and sinister tones when Picard confronts the automated salesman, and wailing horns for the final action sequence aboard the Enterprise. I wish all his episodes could have sounded this good. (And I'm shocked that in all the Star Trek scores La-La Land records have released, including other McCarthy work, they've never released any music from this episode.)
This episode did overreach and fall a bit short, but what did make it to the screen, I found pretty entertaining. I grade this episode a B.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dead Wrong

A friend recently loaned me a 2010 horror film written and directed by a pair of brothers, The Dead. In the sudden wealth of zombie stories now permeating pop culture, their twist on the subject was one of setting -- the story was set in Africa. A U.S. Army engineer survives a plane crash, and winds up teaming with an African soldier to survive the vast throngs of zombies overtaking the world.

I've essentially just provided you with all the characterization and plot in the film in that one sentence. These are ultimately the major shortcomings of the film.

When it comes to story, there's no real structure here. Characters run from set piece to set piece, but don't really settle on a goal until almost halfway through the film. We never learn anything about the background of the outbreak. It's just two guys running from zombies for almost two hours.

And the fact that it is just two guys for the bulk of the film leads to many other problems. There aren't multiple combinations that can be used to illuminate the behavior or backgrounds of the characters. There's only one relationship, and so there's very little friction, very little suspense or drama. And perhaps most importantly for a horror film, there are no expendable characters to feed to the zombies and establish anything that's happening as a credible threat.

If all you really ask from a zombie film is mindless killing of zombies, however, this movie might be for you. I just found the quality to be a long, long way from, say, season one of The Walking Dead. I'm not even sure it was as good as the lackluster season two of The Walking Dead. Overall, I grade it a D.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Number Crunching

A friend of mine recently pressed into my hand the DVD of the romantic comedy What's Your Number?, suggesting quite directly that I check it out. It's a rather unexceptional film on paper, about a young woman who -- after reading an article saying that women who've slept with more than 20 men never wind up marrying happily -- decides to re-date her exes rather than chance Man #21. What does lift the dopey premise into watchable territory is the cast, in particular the two leads: Anna Faris and Chris Evans.

I don't know why Anna Faris doesn't get to make better movies than the low-rent crap she always seems to end up in, because I think she is one of the funniest actresses her age working today. She has an effortless charm about her, and a total willingness to put herself in situations where she won't come off charming at all. In the few movies I've seen her in, she's been an expert physical comedian, skilled with words, and endlessly likeable.

Chris Evans is, of course, best known now for playing Captain America (and for appearing in The Fantastic Four before that). But he too has a comedy pedigree, starting out in movies like Not Another Teen Movie. He also has charm to spare, a sharp sense of comic timing, and is easy to root for.

Oh, and they're both hot. I don't need to say that; the movie makes damn sure you're aware of that. If for some reason you haven't noticed by the halfway point, the "strip H.O.R.S.E." game on a professional basketball court is designed specifically to get them out of their clothes for your viewing enjoyment.

There are some fun people in the secondary cast as well. Eliza Coupe, hysterical on the TV series Happy Endings, has a small but humorous role. Joel McHale plays a sleazy boss. Zachary Quinto has essentially a cameo in the opening scene. Veterans Blythe Danner and Ed Begley Jr. show up to play around a bit at the end.

But the thing is, this all really ought to be much, much funnier, given the talent involved. Like I said, the people involved do make the film watchable, but they can't disguise that it's a very paint-by-numbers rom-com. You know where it's going five minutes after it starts, and there's nothing surprising or especially hilarious about the journey there.

Overall, I'd call it a middle of the road C. Put another way -- you've seen this movie before. Whether or not you want to watch these people probably depends on how many times you've seen this movie before.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

TNG Flashback: Heart of Glory

I wrote of "Coming of Age" that Star Trek: The Next Generation took its first real step toward telling stories driven more by character than by simple science fiction premise. That trend continued -- and improved -- in its next episode, "Heart of Glory."

Responding to a disturbance near the Neutral Zone, the Enterprise discovers a freighter with a trio of Klingon warriors aboard. They claim to have fought off an enemy attack, but their story is evasive and incomplete. When a Klingon cruiser signals its approach, it's revealed that the three Klingons are criminals wanted by the Empire. But can the Enterprise hold them in custody until the cruiser arrives? And will their efforts to sway Worf to their cause be successful?

This episode focuses on Worf, and fully fleshes out his past with an interesting "nature vs. nurture" story. Living on an outpost as a boy, his birth parents were killed in a Romulan attack, and he was taken to be raised by humans. He spent almost no time around Klingons growing up, but feels a deep connection to their traditions, and a powerful desire to find acceptance among his people. It's an intriguing enough history that even if you never believe that Worf might turn on the Enterprise crew (you shouldn't), you still feel for him and understand his powerful longing.

By contrast, the two surviving Klingons trying to appeal to him, Korris and Konmel, aren't really sympathetic characters. We don't really learn the exact nature of their crimes, but we see that they put a high value on battle and glory, not duty and honor. And even though this is the first time we've seen Klingons on the series apart from Worf, it's made crystal clear what a deviant sense of moral priority this is.

Actually, it's easy to overlook how pivotal this episode was in defining the "new Klingons" of Star Trek. Before this episode, they'd appeared only as villains in the original series, and the first and third Star Trek films. It was this episode that fully established the premium they place on honor, and on dying in an honorable way. (The Klingon death yell also made its first appearance here.) Worf tries to appeal to the Klingon commander coming to take the criminals, not arguing they should be released, but that they should have a chance to die on their feet in battle, marooned on some hostile planet somewhere. It's all foundational Klingon philosophy, but this episode marked the building of that foundation.

The acting is very good. Michael Dorn excels with the expanded role he's given here; he's particularly strong in pleading with the Klingon captain for mercy on the criminals. (And that's particularly impressive, when you remember that he's just acting with an empty blue screen, against a script supervisor reading the lines off camera.)

The two main guest actors, Charles H. Hyman and Vaughn Armstrong, are superb, capturing a wonderful Klingon swagger, and trying all sorts of tactics against Worf -- goading him, entreating him, enticing him. This was the first Star Trek role for Vaughn Armstrong, and while he only appeared on The Next Generation this once, he wound up playing a dozen different characters on the later incarnations of Star Trek, being one of the franchise's go-to guest actors.

The episode boasts a fantastic score by Ron Jones. He paid close attention to what Jerry Goldsmith defined as the "Klingon sound" in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, developing that approach here while not actually copying any of that music. Jones makes use of a similar, unusual array of instruments, including the Alpine horn and bamboo angklung for percussion, and builds his themes on the same fifth intervals Goldsmith used. He builds wonder for an early sequence that shows us the world through Geordi's eyes (more on that in a moment), builds tension as an away team searches the damaged ship for the Klingon survivors, and adds drama to the dilemma facing Worf. Particularly strong is the music for the jailbreak, interjecting a lot of excitement into what actually isn't that elaborate an action sequence, when you look at it carefully.

The one real misfire in the episode happens in the first act. When an away team beams over to the damaged freighter, Geordi is equipped with a bit of technology allowing the bridge to look in on the action, seeing the team's movements through Geordi's eyes. It's a very interesting idea on paper. The question of just what Geordi does "see" was inherently interesting from the moment we met him. And the writers do express some neat ideas here, such as the comparison to learning to sift noise from a crowded room.

But there are several problems. For one, we never really see "GeordiCam" again. (It appears in one later episode, where we the audience see what Geordi sees; but the crew never tries to do this again.) But the bigger problem, within this narrative, is that it steals all urgency from a tense situation. The freighter they board is about to be destroyed by the damage it has taken, but the away team spends a great deal of time just puttering around, oooing and aahing at GeordiCam. I'm forced to wonder if perhaps this episode came short on its script page count in its first draft, and whether the writers simply injected this unrelated element to pad the episode to its necessary running time.

Other observations:
  • This is another episode with no opening Captain's Log entry setting up the story. The series really is trying to grow up in terms of storytelling technique.
  • There's a nice beat during the escape from the freighter where the transporter fails to work. Not that you believe for a moment that Riker, Data, and Geordi are all going to be killed on the spot, but it's nice to see technology fail not simply for a convenient plot point. (cough-holodeck-cough)
  • For those into gadget trivia, I think this might be the first episode where we get to see the food replicator do its thing.
  • For those into behind the scenes trivia, all the footage of the Klingon cruiser in this episode is lifted straight from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (Which is why the Klingons apparently haven't updated their ship design in 75 years. The budget for that wouldn't come until a later season.)
  • Recurring Star Trek director Rob Bowman, who did a great job with "Where No One Has Gone Before," "The Battle," and "Datalore," also does well here. He has a few showy camera moves too, including a great moment for Korris' death, cutting to progressively farther cameras during Worf's Klingon death yell.
Klingon stories aren't necessarily my favorite, but this is still a solid episode. I give it a B. It's one of the better first season efforts.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dragonborn Again

A few months back, I wrote about the first expansion for Skyrim, Dawnguard, which I seemed to enjoy a great deal more than many reviewers. Figuring it wasn't to my tastes, I skipped over Hearthfire, the second non-story driven expansion that was all about designing and building custom housing in the game. But for the recent third expansion, Dragonborn, I was ready to return to Skyrim -- and very excited, given the enthusiastic reviews I'd seen.

It seems that perhaps reviewers and I don't quite see eye to eye when it comes to Skyrim expansions. Now they aren't completely off base. They hailed Dragonborn for presenting truly new locations unlike any of the landscape presented in the first expansion. And I agree, on the visual front, Dragonborn is a major success. The adventure takes you to Solstheim, an island with both Nord and Dark Elf elements, and features all sorts of oddities from giant monolithic stones to a village made of enormous mushrooms. And looming ominously over it all, the volcano of Vvardenfell seethes ash on the horizon.

But that's only the beginning. The main storyline of Dragonborn has you venturing repeatedly into another plane that's ruled by one of the Daedric princes. Apocrypha, as it it is called, is an alien landscape of books and swirling pages, a hellish reflection of the knowledge coveted by its ruler. The denizens you find there are very effectively spooky, and I felt more tension exploring the area than I did in any other part of Skyrim -- original game or expansion.

But story-wise, this new expansion is rather anemic -- and the story is what I enjoy foremost in an RPG. Dawnguard offered a rather significant new plotline to play (plus a massive, multi-step side quest). Playing it at a rather casual pace, it took me well over a month to get through it. I've been playing Dragonborn at an even more casual pace -- for perhaps a few hours every three nights or so -- and I reached the end of its new main quest line in less than two weeks. Now from what I've read, this expansion includes a considerably larger number of side quests to explore. (And for the moment, I intend to do so.) But I was expecting a lengthier main story here after playing Dawnguard.

And a more complicated one too. Where Dawnguard had many interesting twists and turns (and a fairly compelling new character to travel with), Dragonborn's plot is considerably more rote. Go here, then there, then there, and before you know it, you're done. I kept anticipating some kind of plot twist that simply never materialized.

Overall, I would still have to recommend the expansion. Visually, it's outstanding, and at times might just be the most creepy game you could play outside of a zombie killer with all your house lights off. Just don't expect it to last for long, or for you to be surprised by anything that happens along the way. I'd give it a B- (which may yet upgrade to a B, depending on what I find as I move onto the optional side quest content).

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tré Magnifique?

Green Day's three-album trilogy, which began only a few months ago with ¡Uno! and continued just weeks ago with ¡Dos!, has now concluded with the release of ¡Tré! (It's named for the band's drummer, not the Spanish number.) It turns out they did not save the best for last; the album might in fact be the least of the three.

But it's not that ¡Tré! is a bad album. It's just... quite even keel. Where the prior two albums had both songs I'd rate 5 stars and material I'll skip over every time, this final album is quite average. None of the tracks has captured my imagination enough to go on relentless replay, though none of them sends me reaching for the skip button either.

There's a mix of old and new song styles on the album. The opening track, "Brutal Love," has a doo-wop blues sort of bass-and-chord structure that seemed like a fun and unexpected way to kick off a punk-pop album. But then the next song, "Missing You," is not only familiar Green Day territory, but feels a bit like an up-tempo "Wild One," a song off the first album in this same trilogy. Some songs are both old and new at the same time; "Dirty Rotten Bastards" is this album's "Jesus of Surburbia", a several-songs-in-one medley of conflicting styles, though some of the pieces themselves feel quite fresh.

I still have hopes that one or two of the tracks might break through and raise my overall opinion of the album. But that said, I seem to be picking up a lot of new music right now that's pulling me onward and away from this latest Green Day effort. So as of now, I'll give ¡Tré! a B-. If you're a Green Day fan, you'll want this, as with both prior albums in the series. If you're more casual in your opinion of the band, then it's the initial album, ¡Uno!, that you'll likely want to check out.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Accident Coverage

This summer, Entertainment Weekly magazine ran an article touting The 50 Best Movies You've Never Seen. Indeed, I'd only seen a tiny handful of them, and several of them sounded intriguing enough for me to add to my Netflix queue.

One was Happy Accidents, an indie romance starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio, and featuring an unconventional premise. When a woman with a sad history of failed relationships takes a chance on a man she met randomly at the park one day, things start to look up. But then he confesses to her that he's actually a time traveler from nearly 500 years in the future. Now she must decide whether to keep focusing on the good parts of the relationship and entertain the fantasy, or to write him off like her many past exes.

A relationship movie is only as good as its couple. Tomei and D'Onofrio are both good actors individually, but they lack that spark as a couple that would really make the movie take off. The scenes in which Tomei's character interacts with her therapist are strangely more compelling, while D'Onofrio is at his most interesting when he's spouting off nonsense about how the world is different in the far future. Both of them invest in the movie's high concept, but neither quite made me invest in the relationship.

Ultimately, the movie seems more interested in playing games with the "is he telling the truth?" aspect of the plot than it is interested in pursuing the romance. And the movie doesn't ride the line of "is he telling the truth?" objectively enough to make the film very compelling just on that level. You're never really in doubt what will be revealed in the final act.

I may yet check out some other films from the magazine's list, though I'm disappointed that my first random pick didn't really pan out. I grade Happy Accidents a C-.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TNG Flashback: Coming of Age

"Coming of Age" isn't one of The Next Generation's better episodes -- nor even one of the first season's better episodes. But in a number of ways, it had its heart in the right place, and may possibly have signaled a moment (after a string of disappointing episodes) where the show started to show hints of what eventually would be good about it.

The Enterprise delivers Wesley Crusher to a planet where he'll be tested for entrance into Starfleet Academy. While in orbit, Admiral Quinn -- an old friend of Captain Picard's -- beams aboard the ship with special investigator Remmick, who has instructions to comb over everyone and everything aboard, looking for "something wrong" on the ship.

There isn't a lot of action in this episode. Indeed, when they cut together the 30-second trailer to promote it, they focused heavily on a tiny element buried in the heart of the episode just to create an apparent threat: another young man aboard the Enterprise, after being beaten out by Wesley for the chance to test for Starfleet admission, steals a shuttlecraft and attempts to run away. He manages to stall the shuttle out, nearly dying before Picard guides him successfully out of danger. It takes only a few minutes of screen time, but from the trailer, you'd think it was the major A-plot of the entire episode.

The lack of action here is because the episode was trying to pursue a few laudable goals. First, it was being very character oriented. The Admiral's real motive in coming is to offer Picard a promotion. He believes Starfleet may be threatened by a conspiracy (from within or outside, he isn't sure), and he wants someone he can trust serving as commandant of Starfleet Academy. To this end, the story follows interrogations of nearly all the main characters, showing us just how they feel about Picard's leadership. Their reactions to Remmick are interesting too. Riker, Geordi, and Troi all get rather belligerent, making the situation worse by making it appear there is something to hide; meanwhile, Data is dispassionately logical, Worf uses diffusing humor, and Dr. Crusher tells Remmick off with a smile and without raising her voice. We also get insight into Picard himself, who considers but declines the promotion, preferring to remain captain of the Enterprise.

Second, this episode is the first major effort of the series to have significant continuity. During Remmick's interviews with the crew, four different earlier episodes are mentioned in some detail. Even more importantly, the episode sets up a conspiracy storyline that the writers intended to pay off later. (They did end up addressing it in the penultimate episode of the season, though not in quite the way they'd intended here -- as I'll cover when I get there.)

Between the character focus, the strong effort at continuity, and other touches (such as an opener that not only has no log, but starts right up with a scene between Wesley and his friend Jake without fully explaining the context), this show really tries to live up to its title, as though the show itself was "coming of age" into a more sophisticated incarnation.

But it's not there yet. There are a lot of holes in the episode too. For starters, the guest cast is weak for the most part. In his portrayal of Remmick, Robert Schenkkan is particularly bad, taking too much relish in behaving like a jerk. The other students testing with Wesley are fairly wooden too, save John Putch, who as Mordock made enough of an impression to be brought back for a similar character in the second season. But worst of all are the actors in Wesley's "psych test." I suppose you could argue that was on purpose, as they're meant to be Starfleet officers pretending to be in danger for Wesley's testing scenario. But even using that logic, you'd have to say they were convincing enough to fool Wesley in the moment. That, I'm not buying.

The whole premise of Wesley's testing here is weak too. Four candidates are being tested, but in a pure set-up for story tension, only one of them will be selected -- as though somehow, the whole sector gets to send only one student to the Academy, and that Starfleet would stupidly turn away brilliant prospects just because they happen to be in the wrong galactic zip code. And yet, at the end of the episode, that's exactly what happens. Wesley and two others fail to get in, even though the officer who has been testing them says it's Starfleet's loss that they're not being admitted, and that they should all reapply later. Quotas.

Wesley's failure itself is an interesting plot development, when you actually think about it beyond the necessity to keep Wil Wheaton on the show. Later on, Wesley would indeed join Starfleet Academy, subsequently be reprimanded for bad behavior, and drop out. As I noted in an earlier episode review, a truthful story was ultimately told with Wesley, of starting out with one career aspiration only to discover a different, more appropriate path. There's no way the writers here in the first season could have planned any of this, but it could be taken as an early warning sign that Wesley was never a "fit" for Starfleet, given his failure to gain admittance here. (Although Picard does confide in Wesley at the end of the episode that he failed his first time too.)

Other observations:
  • This was the only episode of The Next Generation directed by Mike Vejar, but he'd wind up directing literally dozens of episodes for the next three Star Trek series.
  • When Picard talks young Jake through saving his stolen shuttlecraft by bouncing it off the planet's atmosphere, there are a whole host of logical holes in the scenario. Somehow, he's out of tractor beam range even though he just left the ship. Somehow, he's out of transporter range, even though his shuttle is between the Enterprise and the planet, and people use transporters to beam down to planets all the time. Somehow, only Picard is able to think of how to pilot the shuttle to safety, even among all those pilots (and Data) on the bridge.
  • This is the first episode in which a shuttlecraft makes an on-screen appearance. And they clearly blew the budget building it, because the station on the planet has several really fake-looking set extension paintings in the background.
  • There's a lot of solid acting among the regulars in this episode. Michael Dorn does well with an unusually articulate scene for Worf, in which he advises Wesley about dealing with fear. Wil Wheaton does a good job of selling the moment where Wesley realizes the nature of his greatest fear. Jonathan Frakes makes a fun but subtle acting choice in the scene where Remmick interviews him, sitting down by stepping over the chair in an aggressive manner. And Patrick Stewart is great in giving his pep talk to Wesley at the end of the episode. (For someone who says he isn't good with kids, Picard always seems to do well with them.)
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy delivers a rare score I actually enjoyed. It has some appropriately unsettling music leading up to Wesley's "psych test." It also makes liberal use of his recurring "Picard theme." Originally, before it was decided to reuse Jerry Goldsmith's theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the theme for The Next Generation, McCarthy (acting as composer for the show's first episode) wrote his own theme that was ultimately discarded. He then reappropriated that music as a leitmotif for Captain Picard, using it in episodes throughout the first season, before finally giving into producer Rick Berman's desire for "musical wallpaper" without any recognizable melodies and retiring the theme.
While this episode did mark a turning point for the show, it still had a ways to go before becoming consistently good. The episode itself is only a mixed effort. I grade it a C.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lost in Translation

Each year, a group of German board game critics award several "Spiel des Jahres" awards (or Game of the Year awards) to the types of games my friends and I love to play. As of recently, they have added two special subcategories: the "Kennerspiel des Jahres" and the "Kinderspiel des Jahres."

For those not fluent in German, it's very important to note the difference here.

My friend was curious to see what "kids' game" earned the 2012 top prize, and ordered the KENNERspiel award winner, Village. What he wanted was the KINDERspiel winner, because "Kennerspiel" translates roughly as "Connoisseur-Enthusiast Game." It's fortunate that we like more sophisticated games, because it quickly became apparent during the explanation of the rules that this was no kids' game. (Unless they have some freakishly smart kids in Germany.)

Village divides a game board into a number of different sections, each one with a unique action a player can take on his turn. But these actions are limited by the number of cubes placed in the section at the start of a round; to take an action, you must remove a cube from the area and add it to your resources. The cubes are also color-coded, which informs another key part of the strategy -- some actions ask for payment in certain colors of cubes. Plus, all of this is held in a larger game concept: the game unfolds over "generations." You manage a first generation family at the start of the game, and as each round progresses, new family members are born and old ones die off. The workers you assign to a location may not be there forever as their advanced age catches up with them.

It may sound like a lot going on, and it certainly comes across that way in the rules. But just as you'd expect from an award-winning German board game, the actual gameplay starts to make sense almost immediately. The board is particularly well-designed in explaining the costs and benefits of specific actions, and there appear to be multiple paths to a winning victory point total, all carefully balanced against each other. (In our first play through, it appeared that one player who hadn't been in as much competition with the rest would run away with the game; in the end, he only won by a thin margin.)

Among countless German board games that use similar elements of resource gathering and building, I feel that the area in which Village shines is "indirect competition." Many games allow the players to do anything... that the opponent hasn't already done. The "picking up cubes" mechanic here is a particularly clever form of this, not only limiting the number of times an action can be taken, but establishing a value on that action. Getting to do a much-needed action AND picking up a much-needed cube color at the same time is the holy grail in this game; often times, you have to settle for only one or the other.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next time I get to play. It's a bit early yet to proclaim this a true great of the genre, but I think it has the potential.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newman is a New Man

In my recent review of the new James Bond movie Skyfall, I neglected to mention the musical score. It's really a standout -- though arguably less so within the context of the film than in the career of composer Thomas Newman.

Though only film music enthusiasts are likely to know him by name, Thomas Newman has a sound that anyone would recognize. He's the quirky composer that delivered the oddly discordant music of American Beauty, and the playful-but-mournful theme to Six Feet Under. He has on occasion scored for things that weren't straight up drama, but even then his particular approach has come with him. His score for Jarhead wasn't particularly aggressive or "action-like," but instead continued to explore strange instrumentation and unusual rhythms.

Skyfall is thus an interesting score in that Newman almost entirely masked himself. The movie not only liberally references the Bond themes established in past films, it apes everything about the classic style. Screaming brass, prominent electric guitar, jazz percussion, trembling strings... this score is a loud, pulse-pounding, in your face composition. Indeed, Newman embraces the classic Bond sound to a far greater extent than most of the more recent Bond composers (like David Arnold or Eric Serra) did.

The result is one of my favorite Bond scores in many decades. It includes several 5-star tracks, and a host of others that I find engaging to listen to outside of the film. From the extended opening in Istanbul to the action-packed climax in Scotland, he soundtrack is full of exciting cues. There are a few too-quiet songs in the mix meant for intimate dialogue scenes -- places that might have been good for Newman to indulge his more typical composing style, but he elected to play it straight all the way from beginning to end.

In any case, it's an album I'm glad to have in my shuffle right now. I give it a B+.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Expect the Unexpected

I believe the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy to be essentially review-proof. Nothing anyone writes about it is going to affect anyone else's desire to see it or not. But then, I can't really not write about it, can I? So here we go.

There are many parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that are very well put together and very enjoyable. But there are a lot of parts to it. Tons. Ultimately, all the Lord of the Rings films have felt somewhat episodic in nature, but this new film feels like it might be several installments of some television show all stitched together in some kind of season box set. "Here's the episode where the dragon attacks." "Here's the episode with the flashback that introduces Thorin's nemesis." "Here's the episode about what Jar Jar Binks would have been like if he'd driven a bunny sled."

And perhaps more than anything: "Here are the episodes that needlessly wastes time just because we wanted to bring back characters from the first trilogy."

I don't think it's possible for anyone watching a Lord of the Rings movie to full understand the bond that must have been formed between the actors and crew making it. The film industry is a vagabond one, and many of the people drawn to it are mercurial in nature. They form an intense relationship with people that burns for a few months, and then everyone scatters their separate ways. The Lord of the Rings was different, filmed over the course of an entire year, with re-shoots that kept bringing them back together over several more. So I totally get it... Peter Jackson would want to gather as many of those actors again as possible, and they'd want to come do it.

The problem is, the story of The Hobbit is only tangentially related to that of The Lord of the Rings. So all these contrivances in the film to bring back the original actors feel like exactly what they are: grafted on bits that in no way advance the plot. At a nearly three hour run time, The Hobbit is far too long. And while the sentimental side of me enjoys the bits that call back a decade to the first trilogy, my objective mind, thinking about what's really needed to tell a driving story, would cut old Bilbo, Frodo, Galadriel, Saruman... all that needless fluff.

And most of the Radagast stuff. Dude, he's the worst.

I think another thing that hurt my enjoyment of The Hobbit was how slapstick most of the action was. The Lord of the Rings certainly had its lighter moments (Legolas surfing on oliphants; he and Gimli's "most kills" contest at the Battle of Helm's Deep), but by and large it was a fairly serious affair, and that seriousness brought a sense of danger and immediacy to the tale. The climactic battles of The Hobbit are rather silly. A big action moment of mountains literally fighting each other was so boring that that's the scene my boyfriend chose for a bathroom/snack break. The flight from the goblin kingdom is full of moments that ought to be accompanied by Three Stooges sound effects. And a finale that has all 15 heroes dangling from a tree (several of them from Gandalf's staff) in a literal cliffhanger feels cartoonish. (Just don't look down, boys, and maybe you won't actually fall.)

But as I said, The Hobbit is a very long movie, and so there are plenty of things about it that do work -- and work very well.

The performance capture tools for rendering CG characters have advanced so far in the last decade, it's truly stunning. New creations like the Goblin King are wonderful. I can't wait to see how Smaug (played in performance capture by Benedict Cumberbatch) turns out. And Gollum has been updated with enough fine points of detail and facial expression that he's now surely the most believable CG character ever created.

Of course, those performances are driven by actors. As Gollum, Andy Serkis is exceptional. The famous "riddle scene" between he and Martin Freeman is far and away the most compelling thing in the movie. The sense of danger is more palpable than in any other scene. There are moment of humor effortlessly woven throughout. You can see the mental gears turning for both characters. It's amazing.

Martin Freeman is a wonderful Bilbo. The story of The Hobbit simply doesn't offer as many scenes as The Lord of the Rings for the characters to really have a sentimental moment and express their feelings to one another... but when those moments do come, Martin Freeman absolutely nails them. He manages to keep the rather fussbudget nature of the character as a source of entertainment rather than annoyance, and his monologue which concludes the film is the most emotionally moving thing in the film.

So while I found things to like and be impressed by, I really found myself wishing I could just see the two-film version of The Hobbit instead. Maybe even the one-film version. I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a B-.

As a footnote, I did not see the "high frame rate" (48 frames per second) version of the film. And with several people I know reporting badly on that? (Everything from "awkward" to "headache-inducing.") Well, between that, and me not being that impressed by the movie, I have no plans to go back again and experience it for myself.

Friday, December 14, 2012

TNG Flashback: Home Soil

Following hot on the heels of the most boring episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season (to that point), "Home Soil" tried its utmost to steal that title.

Curious to see firsthand the process of terraforming, the Enterprise looks in on a group of four scientists working to remake a lifeless planet. The evasive leader of the group tries to steer the ship away, but Troi senses his duplicity and Picard decides to investigate. When an accident kills one of the terraformers and almost kills Data, the crew discovers an inorganic life form living on the planet, which now threatens to destroy the ship as retribution for the war they say was started by the "ugly bags of mostly water" (humans).

This episode suffers from a multitude of problems. Perhaps the foremost is its utter predictability. There's no doubt as to what the crew will eventually discover on this "lifeless" world, and it's almost painful at times to watch them slowly catch up to the audience's intuition. Indeed, our heroes seem to go at least two or three times through a cycle of "could it be life? / there's no way it's life / but might it be life? / it couldn't possibly be life / unless it is life." It's almost like every act-out for a commercial break brings amnesia over all the characters.

The writing is so bad in places that it calls attention to the Herculean lifting the actors are trying to do to make it plausible. Brent Spiner has an oddly... halting... dialogue delivery in a scene where he investigates a malfunctioning laser; it almost suggests he was directed to vamp for time. LeVar Burton is saddled with an awful monologue describing the amazing beauty he sees... while looking at a tiny dot of blinking white light. But at least the main cast manages to do a little better than the horrible guest stars. The acting by the terraformers isn't uniformly bad, it's bad in a variety of ways: one is too haughty, one is too monotone, one is too hollow. (And one barely gets any screen time before getting killed.)

The investigative aspect of the plot seems like it might have some legs, but its high point is a long scene in the medlab where the characters end up basically asking the computer to do all the intuitive work of the scientific method for them. The lazy writing makes the characters look equally lazy.

It all winds up with a trite resolution. The ship never seriously seems threatened before the crew figures out that turning off the lights is all it takes to neutralize the inorganic life form. And the final moment of the episode is not a wrap-up scene, but a hasty log entry voiced by Picard over a shot of the Enterprise flying away.

Other observations:
  • The terraformers' leader, Mandl, insists that while he saw the signs of non-random patterns on the planet, he never interpreted it as life. If that's true, it's hard to explain why he tries so hard to get rid of the Enterprise at the start of the episode. What does he have to fear from people looking at a couple of swirls on the surface of the planet's sand if he truly thinks they're nothing?
  • Troi and Yar are tasked with investigating the backgrounds of the terraformers, to speculate on who might be a murder, as well as who have known what, and when. But when it comes to looking into the one female on the team, Troi tells Riker he may have better luck with her than she would. Basically, she seems to be telling Riker to go romance her. Wow.
  • The universal translator is used to communicate with and give voice to the inorganic life form. But the computer's voice is so processed and the language so broken that you actually can't understand a fair amount of the dialogue.
This episode is only better than "Too Short a Season" in that the main characters do actually have a role in the plot. Maybe the phrase "ugly bags of mostly water" is good for a laugh too. But we're still talking about the dregs of the series here. I give "Home Soil" a D-.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Glee, Actually

Tonight's installment of Glee, with its mini-story structure and wall-to-wall Christmas music, is likely to polarize the show's fan base. (Much like this season itself.) But in my view, this was not just the Christmas themed episode Glee has ever done, but was probably the best episode yet of this much-improved season.

My only real criticism of the hour would be that I think the stories weren't told in the right order. I think it's too fashionable to adopt a chronologically jumbled narrative these days. Granted, it didn't really matter which order you took each of the parts in here. But I think they burned up the most emotionally potent stories early in the episode.

Sure, the Puckerman brothers' L.A. excursion culminated in a more tender family reunion at Breadstix, but it was generally a lightweight affair. The Brittany and Sam storyline would be too dopey to enjoy, if Glee hadn't already paved a clear "just go with it" trail when it comes to the intelligence of those characters.

But I think I would have preferred those two stories as a warm-up to the more profound material. Sue's "Christmas miracle" for Marley and her mother, though reliant on the ever-fluctuating sentiments of Sue, still managed to be sweet. Artie's "It's a Wonderful Life" segment was great on several fronts: it served up several funny jokes with the characters, gave a reason to bring back some old Glee stars for nice cameos, and had moments that effectively tugged at the heartstrings.

But most powerful of all was the Kurt segment. The awkwardness of the reunion with Blaine was interesting, but the best material was in the latest appearance by The Best Father on Television, Burt Hummel. After a few wonderful scenes that reminded us why Burt holds that title, he then dropped the bombshell of his cancer diagnosis. And despite his optimism, any long time fan of Glee had to feel their heart sink. It was a perfectly executed vignette that played on the one character relationship on the show that's been consistent from day one.

I suppose I could also quibble a bit about the song choices. Christmas songs can be a bit cloying to start with, and Glee has already used up many of the best ones. Several of the second string choices tonight had particularly repetitive lyrics. (Oh, from the bottom of your heart? Well, thank you then!) Still, the performances themselves were all pretty great.

I'd give the episode an A-. It was a nice note to break on for a few weeks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Roald Trip

After seeing the amazing musical production of Matilda in London, I decided to throw the 1996 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel into my Netflix queue. I didn't expect it to be anywhere near as good, but I had heard it was an entertaining film with appeal beyond a child audience.

This film was directed by Danny Devito. He also stars along with his real life wife Rhea Perlman as the parents of young Matilda, an unappreciated child whose voracious love of learning leads to a discovery of telekinetic powers. The movie diverges somewhat from that of the book (which, not having read it, I believe the musical struck more closely to), but the overall essence of the tale is still intact.

The film does not whitewash the dark nature of the story. The treatment of poor Matilda throughout the story is quite honestly abusive, though her bright attitude and the light touch of the writing does manage to make a dark comedy of it. There's no Hollywood attempt to take the edge off any of this; her parents, her brother, her school principal, her situation, is horrible. But the fun flies high as well. The mischief and camp of the story is fully on display too.

The cast of the film is solid. Devito and Perlman are excellent weasels as Matilda's parents. Young Mara Wilson is wonderfully loveable and easy to cheer for as the title character. Pam Ferris is a perfect villain as school principal Miss Trunchbull, and Embeth Davidtz is a lovely light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel as teacher Miss Honey.

It's really a nice movie all around, if not quite exceptional. Though I do have to wonder how much of that opinion was colored by having seen the musical, which is simply transcendent. I mean, it was "I think it's even better than The Book of Mormon" good, which is automatically going to make any other telling of the story seem deficient by comparison... maybe even, paradoxically, Roald Dahl's original book.

But for whatever the reason, I ultimately pronounce the movie good but not great. I'd grade it a B. It's certainly worth a viewing, in any case.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Vacancy of Plot

I'm generally reluctant to give up on reading a book without finishing it, and I was stinging a bit from having done exactly that recently (with the starts-promising-but-aimlessly-meandering Kraken). And yet I found myself compelled to do so again when I found myself grappling with J.K. Rowling's newest effort, The Casual Vacancy.

When the author of the Harry Potter series first declared she was writing another book, I was thrilled. I enjoyed her books enough that I didn't want to regard her as a lucky flash-in-the-pan novice. A true author, I reasoned, wouldn't hang up her hat after one successful series, but would feel compelled to keep writing and publishing. When Rowling announced her book would be adult fiction, I was even more intrigued. She really was a writer, it seemed, who was leveraging her success to follow her own muse. She not only resisted the compulsion to follow up with something her fans would like, she decided to write something many of her fans would be too young to reasonably read.

But I never imagined she'd publish a book that was essentially unreadable, period.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel set in a fictitious rural town in England. After the death of a local level politician... stuff doesn't happen. That's as close as I can get to a synopsis. Things seemed to be brewing for a political contest to fill his empty council seat, and determine whether the town would remain independent or be incorporated into a nearby larger town. But after reading fully a third of the book, all there was was an avalanche of characters.

The book has over a dozen significant characters, most with sections told from their perspective, all with their own day-to-day minutia that didn't seem to fit into any kind of larger narrative. Children, foreigners, power-hungry figures, wives, mistresses, social workers... on and on and on, like a George R.R. Martin novel without the interesting parts or jaw-dropping plot developments.

But certainly with all the swearing. Rowling lets the first f-bomb fly around page 14, and from there there's no letting up. Rowling has said in interviews that she felt motivated to write about the lower-class world she knew growing up, but the book reads like she was simply trying to use every bit of profanity she couldn't include in seven children's books all in one novel. Harry Potter gave her literary Tourette's.

I kept trying and trying to plow through the book, as the occasional clever turn of phrase had me convinced that J.K. Rowling's clever writing style was still intact despite the boring subject matter. But ultimately, I just couldn't force myself to slog through any more. I simply have no patience for character studies without a narrative.

This being essentially just one bad book after a string of seven very good ones, I'm not about to proclaim J.K. Rowling a one-hit wonder. Nor am I even going to call for her to return to the young adult world with her next effort. But I am going to approach that effort, whenever it comes, with a lot more caution. The Casual Vacancy was an absolute mess that should be avoided, no matter how much you think might like it. (Or might want to.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

TNG Flashback: When the Bough Breaks

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, one of the elements trumpeted as a significant difference from the original series was the presence of families, and specifically children, aboard the ship. It was inevitable that sooner or later, an episode would be written to put this front and center. That episode was "When the Bough Breaks."

The Enterprise discovers the planet Aldea, a place full of artists and creative thinkers, long thought to be an Atlantis-like myth because of its concealment behind a cloaking shield. The inhabitants, who have become sterile, use the powerful technology their ancient ancestors developed to abduct several children from the Enterprise, in the hopes of beginning the next generation of their society. The crew must find a way to rescue the children, and Captain Picard must keep diplomatic channels open with the Aldeans, lest they disappear behind their cloaking device forever.

I found the Macguffin of this episode to be vaguely reminiscent of the classic series disaster "Spock's Brain," in that both episodes revolve around a society too stupid to understand (or even question) the advanced technology they have at their disposal. The Aldeans are so busy making music and carving sculptures that they never truly investigate what scientific causes might be behind their sterility. But at least this artistic fixation is explained right at the start of the episode, earning a little forgiveness (I suppose) when Dr. Crusher is able to solve a global epidemic in three days that no one on the planet could solve in decades.

But if I'm going to trod out even a superficial comparison to what might just be the single worst episode of the original series, I should be fair and acknowledge that this episode is nowhere near that bad. Making the story about abducted children taps something primal that lends immediate stakes to the drama. There are also some good guest stars here, lending their best efforts to elevate the material. Brenda Strong guest starred on countless other series, eventually becoming best known for narrating Desperate Housewives as the character of Mary Alice. Jerry Hardin would return to The Next Generation years later as Mark Twain, and also played the prominent character of "Deep Throat" on the first season of The X-Files.

Speaking of The X-Files, this episode was the one Next Generation hour helmed by one of that show's most prominent directors, Kim Manners. He does very interesting work here, getting reasonable performances from a number of child actors, and achieving a lot of dynamic images through interesting camera work. In particular, the episode uses a lot more close-ups -- and much more extreme ones -- than is typical of Star Trek. The effect heightens the tension in scenes where the Aldeans scan for the children, and later abduct them.

The episode highlights two well-established aspects of Picard's character. His role as a diplomat is key here, and I couldn't help but think about how much of an effort The Next Generation makes to resolve more of its conflicts peacefully that through the force often employed by Kirk and his crew on the original series. This episode also revisits the notion that Picard is uncomfortable with children, when the alien leader Radue ironically entreats him of all people to talk to the abducted kids and calm them. Actually, Picard is quite good with the children in the scene, Patrick Stewart giving a surprisingly moving performance. (Surprising given the quality of the rest of the episode; not surprising at all given Stewart's skill as an actor.)

There's yet another good musical score here from composer Ron Jones. His unsettling orchestra implies the threat from the Aldeans even before it manifests, and he very cleverly creates music for the children that manages to be suspenseful while still having an innocent, almost music box quality. The only misstep (which only a true Trek music nut would notice) is that when one of the children composes her own melody during the episode, Jones steals his own earlier composition, reusing the Traveler's theme from "Where No One Has Gone Before."

Other observations:
  • I'm not positive, but I think this is the first episode that doesn't begin with a log entry voice-over. Instead, we get a scene reminding us that there children on the ship (important for what's to come). It also tells us that in the future, kids are so smart that they're studying calculus by what appears to be around age 10.
  • We're told that Wesley and the other six children abducted by the Aldeans are all "special" in some way. While its understandable that a society of creative types would center on that, you'd think that the lack of any children on the entire planet would be reason enough to take all the children off the Enterprise. The Aldeans aren't portrayed as stupid enough in the sciences to not understand it takes more than seven people to perpetuate a species.
  • Speaking of those seven kids, it appears all but one of them have only a single parent with them on the Enterprise. It's an interesting -- and likely unintended -- commentary on raising kids in the future.
  • One of the Aldeans, Rashella, gets very emotional when the Enterprise child she's been watching is about to be taken and given to her intended Aldean family. She refuses to give the girl up. You'd think this intense bonding to a kid she's only known for an hour or two might give the Aldeans some perspective on why the Enterprise parents are so determined to get their children back.
Even though cast and crew do their best with the material here, the episode is a fairly paint by numbers Star Trek plot that isn't particularly surprising or moving. I'd ultimately dub this one forgettable, and grade it a C-.