Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Stroll Through the Park

The new TV season continued to unspool tonight with the debut of 666 Park Avenue on ABC. The ads for the series put out that common horror vibe -- could be good, could be bad. But I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the cast.

Well, for one person mainly. Terry O'Quinn was not only a highlight of Lost in his performance as John Locke, but he's been the best thing about a number of movies and TV series both middling (Millennium) and terrible (Harsh Realm). His nuanced acting elevates just about everything he's in, which to me made this series worth checking out.

That said, there were other people in the cast I've seen before. Vanessa L. Williams is well known, of course, most recently wrapping up a stint on the final seasons of Desperate Housewives. Dave Annable gave a solid performance on the drama Brothers & Sisters. And Rachael Taylor is no stranger to horror, having given a decent performance in the not-all-that-decent film Shutter.

But despite connections to all those films and series, 666 Park Avenue can best be compared to another show entirely: American Gothic. That brilliant-but-cancelled one season show from the late 1990s starred Gary Cole as the evil sheriff of a small North Carolina town, capable of wielding demonic powers against the town's inhabitants in his apparent quest to simply be diabolical. His deliciously wicked performance was just the best of many reasons to tune in. (Too bad most people didn't.)

Unfortunately, this sets a rather high bar in my mind for 666 Park Avenue to hurdle. Essentially, the rural town setting is swapped here for a New York highrise, but the premise seems the same: a man with apparently demonic powers tries to corrupt innocent people into doing evil.

Being on ABC, the network that has perhaps launched more successful "genre" shows than any other, this new series may well go on to a longer life than American Gothic -- but the question is whether the content itself will improve. For the moment, I'm willing to give it a couple of episodes to see if it gets there. On the short list of actors that could compete with Gary Cole in presenting a thoroughly evil character in a fun way, I believe Terry O'Quinn could make it.

But judging just from the pilot, I'm skeptical. Basically, if this series hasn't shown significant improvement by the time the new incarnation of American Horror Story starts up in a few weeks, I'll probably just drop it and move on.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Resort Review

Thursday night also saw the debut of the new series Last Resort on ABC. It was co-created by Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield and showrunner for The Unit. The series chronicles the rogue crew of a submarine, the Colorado, whose captain questions a suspicious order to fire missiles on Pakistan and winds up hunted by the United States.

The pilot was a taut and very slickly produced hour of television. It reminded me of the pilot episode of Lost, in that it seemed to achieve film-quality production value on a television budget. The sets and the visual effects were all a cut above what is typical for television. The episode also had a film director, as seems to be the new custom for debuting high concept TV series. Martin Campbell, director of many action films (more notably the James Bond films GoldenEye and Casino Royale), was at the helm of this first episode.

I mentioned The Unit earlier because this show seems to have a few connections to the show. Besides the obvious military setting, the two central characters seem cut from the same cloth and cast with similar actors. Andre Braugher plays the submarine captain, a powerful leader who can project authority with calm grace (much like Dennis Haysbert on The Unit). Scott Speedman is his executive officer, a soft-spoken younger man who is largely unaware of his own authority (much like Scott Foley on The Unit; interesting that both Scotts themselves were together on the show Felicity long ago).

Both series include Robert Patrick in their cast, but here is where the apparent similarities fall aside. His character here is a much more skeptical and down-to-earth man (rather than the beyond-reproach leader of The Unit). The are several other characters in the main cast, though only one has a significant part in this first episode -- Daisy Betts as the sub's navigator. She's part of an interesting subplot dealing with women in a position of authority aboard a submarine, but it remains to be seen how that will play out in future episodes. I was also intrigued to see Dichen Lachman, from Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, though we barely get a taste of her character in the first hour.

I found the first episode to be very entertaining, but I'm left somewhat skeptical about what the series itself will be. The plot of a rogue submarine seems very much made for a film or a novel, a story with a finite and set ending. Telling an open-ended story about it seems to me to present a great challenge -- though the final few minutes of the pilot very methodically (and somewhat awkwardly) tried to lay out exactly what the weekly premise will be. Also up in the air is whether the show will be able to maintain the high price tag appearance on a regular basis.

But all that said, if the show can deliver the same kind of fun and excitement (maybe with a few less scenes of awkward exposition), then it could be a fun weekly thrill. For now, I'm planning to stick with Last Resort and see how it develops.

Friday, September 28, 2012

An Element of Surprise

I couldn't help my curiosity over last night's premiere of the new TV series Elementary. The BBC's Sherlock series is so incredibly brilliant that the mere idea that someone else would also try to do a modernized take on Sherlock Holmes seemed somewhere between foolish and insane. But what then seemed truly insane was that many critics who sampled the first episode reported that Elementary was actually one of the stronger pilots of the new TV season.

I will say right up front that comparing Elementary to Sherlock does indeed leave Elementary lagging far behind. But that said, I actually found it not all that difficult to set aside the desire to make that comparison. Sherlock comes across like an ongoing series of feature films, because of both the 90-minute format and the sky-high production values. The pilot episode of Elementary, on the other hand, felt very much like the kickoff to a procedural crime show. Taken on that level, I found myself comparing it not to Sherlock, but to other crime shows -- particularly other CBS shows like the incarnations of CSI.

In that comparison, Elementary is exceptional. The mystery of the hour was more intriguing. The methodology of solving it -- the observations and deductions of Holmes versus the lab montages -- was far more compelling. And the focus on character was far greater. The back stories of Holmes and Watson were both well developed, as was the relationship between them.

Of course, you can't talk about that relationship without noting the significant change made here by series creator Rob Doherty -- he changed John Watson into a woman, Joan Watson. Fortunately, this seems to have been done with no intent of doing the typical "will they be a couple?" tension typical of most TV series; the script in fact sets up and mocks this very notion in an early scene. Instead, the change to Watson seems to be most useful in altering how that character will interact with the rest of each story; having a woman in the mix will provide a vehicle for different observations, different communications with clients and suspects, a helpfully different sensibility.

When it comes to evaluating the performances of the lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, it does become impossible not to want to stack them side by side with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Those two men are doing such brilliant work on the BBC show that I simply accept them as the real Holmes and Watson, almost as though the 19th century version imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle had never existed first. That said, Miller and Liu do seem to be establishing an interesting rapport right from the get-go in this first episode. And again, the work is far and away better than that on any other CBS crime procedural.

So the bottom line is, I really did like Elementary. It's good in a different way, sufficiently different from the BBC's Sherlock that maybe it will become a regular show for me. We'll see.

Not that I won't be chomping at the bit when series 3 of Sherlock finally arrives.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Makeover

I thought tonight's new episode of Glee was the weakest of three so far this season, though still more enjoyable than some of the scattershot messes we were getting last year. There were plenty of pieces working well this week; they just didn't blend together quite as neatly as things in the first two season 4 hours.

The best element for me this week -- and it almost shocks me to say this -- was Sue Sylvester. She was caustic without being overly nasty, adversarial without being villainous. And she was funny as hell. Her pep talk to Schu, astute analysis of the teachers in the faculty lounge, annoyed participation in the debate, and snarky reading of the results -- any one of those scenes would have been the funniest moment of an episode.

Funny though she was, however, what she had to say about the class president storyline (and the nonsensical addition of vice presidential candidates) was essentially spot on. The plot was recycled from last year and even less interesting than it was then. At least it was resolved in one episode. And at least it was the grease in setting up what might be a good friendship between Blaine and Sam.

What it all meant for Blaine and Kurt was interesting too. I am the sort of person who likes to see some realism and sometimes unhappiness for the characters in the shows I watch. I don't necessarily want to see all the established couples break up, but I think it's a truthful thing to show that long distance relationships are hard, and that high school relationships rarely last. (And I'm a big fan of getting Blaine to take off the bow ties.) We'll see how this one plays out.

The relationship between Rachel and Brody continued to develop, leading to the moment we all knew would come -- the return of Finn. Personally, I'm looking at that comparison and not seeing any way Brody isn't a major upgrade. Maybe this is how people end up being on "Team [Somebody]." Dammit, Glee, for making me care about such things!

Sarah Jessica Parker's introduction to the show was a bit strange. It strained credibility to have her so quickly open up to Kurt and confide her wishy-washiness in him, though I do think it's an interesting storyline for Kurt to have him realize that maybe his big Broadway dream isn't really what he's meant to end up doing. There's another interesting and truthful story -- to be so sure of something, only to find out that something else is a better fit. I'm interested. (Though to proclaim Kurt a leader of fashion in the same week that he wears his weirdest ever outfit -- that wolf shirt with tail hanging off the belt -- was wild.)

As for Schu's storyline, applying for a temporary position outside the high school? Not sure what to make of this one. It felt like it might just be a way of making artificial conflict down the road for Will and Emma. Then again, it might be a vehicle by which Gwyneth Paltrow or Idina Menzel comes back for a guest spot later as substitute teacher. I'd be okay with that.

The songs this week were mostly drab, I thought. "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" was one of Darren Criss weaker performances, and the staging was full of total weirdness including a bizarre LARPing/miniatures hybrid. "Celebrity Hole" had some awesome choreography (especially with the flags), but the song choice seemed a weak stretch to fit the plot. "The Way You Look Tonight / You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" felt awkward; singing all the lyrics of one song, then inserting the last line of a chorus from another, doesn't come across as a true mashup. "A Change Will Do You Good" was probably the winner of the night for me, though the steamy dancing was far more effective than the stuff outside the dance studio -- particularly the creepy old guy taking photos.

I'd call this episode a B. Not bad, but Glee has me expecting better these days (I'm happy to say).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 25-21

25. The Fifth Element. This movie is a masterful blend of things that are often mutually exclusive in movies. It has pulse-pounding action, but is always smart. It has eye-popping visuals, but there's substance in the plot. It's driven by a science-fiction premise, but it's quite basic in story and very accessible. It also has an exceptional cast. Alright, so Chris Tucker is definitely a "you'll love him or hate him" element, but Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich are wonderful leads, Ian Holm a delightful comic foil, and Gary Oldman a wonderful mustache-twirling sort of villain. This is one of only a handful of movies I saw twice in one day in the theater -- and I would gladly go see it again if a theater was doing a retro screening of it.

24. Se7en. Director David Fincher has made several great movies, but this one is his finest. I've raved about it before. The tone is perfectly dark and unsettling. Though less overtly violent than many films, this movie makes you feel the weight of the violence it depicts, and it is horrific. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are exceptional, and play perfectly off one another. The unexpected twists in the normal structure of a detective movie are riveting. And the climax with Kevin Spacey is one of the best movie endings ever.

23. The Ring. I've seen dozens of horror films. Most are cheesy and terrible. A few manage to offer up one or two solid scenes of creepy suspense that make the ride worthwhile. But none offer as consistent a level of unsettling dread as The Ring. The creepy, lurching, long-haired girl of this movie's twisted and mysterious video tape comes from a long line of "creepy girls" in horror movies, but I find her to be the best of the lot. I think this is the perfect movie to watch alone at home with the lights -- and the phone -- off.

22. Star Wars. Though there are times when it seems like George Lucas has been spending the last 35 years aggressively trying to destroy everything that was ever cool about the Star Wars saga, the original film is still transcendent. I'm not sure I could ever sour on it so much as an adult that it would make me forget just how much I loved it as a kid, and it's still through those child's eyes that I watch the film today. Star Wars is loaded fantastic swashbuckling thrills, and heroes of many types for everyone to enjoy or imagine being. This is also the film that began my love of movie soundtracks with John Williams' indelible score.

21. Edward Scissorhands. Tim Burton's best film is this surprisingly emotional tweak to the Frankenstein story. The mash-up of gothic horror with vintage suburbia is a visual and narrative treat, and the performances from the entire cast are excellent. I could continue to gush, but it would likely be a replay of my review from a few years ago.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TNG Flashback: Encounter at Farpoint

Back in July, I wrote about the release of the newly remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray (and the special one-night theater event to celebrate the release). This year is the 25th anniversary of the series, and this new release has rekindled my love of the show that essentially set my career path in game design by leading me to Decipher, makers of the Star Trek Customizable Card Game.

In fact, that 25th anniversary is this very week. And on this occasion, with my rekindled love, I've begun watching the episodes again from the beginning. And I plan to talk a little bit about each episode here on the blog (assuming I can find time for it between all the other in-progress, incomplete article series I have rolling here). Given the recently announced December release date for remastered Season 2, I'll have around five months between each release anyway, so my rather leisurely pace should work out just fine.

The series began with the two-hour episode "Encounter at Farpoint." The newly launched Enterprise is sent to pick up members of its crew at Farpoint Station, a mysterious base constructed by an alien species and almost miraculously suited to Starfleet's needs. On the way, the powerful being Q intercepts the ship and charges the crew with proving they are no longer the "dangerously savage" human race of centuries past, by unraveling the mystery of how the station was built.

The episode is a peculiar blend of competing elements. It simultaneously wanted to demonstrate how the new series would follow in the mold of the original, but clearly wanted to "one-up" the original and be more impressive and modern. It clearly wanted to include many personal moments to establish all the characters, and yet in many cases those characters weren't much like what they'd become.

Even the story is a bit schizophrenic; I've read that the episode was originally planned for one hour, but a last minute request was made to expand it to two hours. This led to the addition of the Q character and subplot -- ironically the far more effective and memorable element of the episode.

That said, there's more than Q padding this episode out to its full run time. The pace of the pilot is very unpolished, with lots of scenes that include oddly lingering camera shots and loosely timed dialogue. There are long, panning shots that show off sets and models. Several scenes are completely unnecessary to the plot, serving only to demonstrate how the new show is "bigger and better" -- Look, the ship separates in half! How cool is this holodeck thing?!

Some of this awkwardness comes from the director. There are several noticeably odd placements of the camera, and oftentimes the editing choices within a scene don't depict a natural emotional arc for a character (a character will be at one emotional level in a first camera angle, but a different intensity in the next). But a lot of the strangeness is baked into the script -- particularly in the scene in Q's courtroom, which includes an uncharacteristic joke from Data and an odd outburst/monologue from Tasha. Many "act outs" arrive with no dramatic tension whatsoever, presenting a commercial break even in the middle of a scene.

But of course, the grand rebirth of Star Trek couldn't have begun here if it was really all that bad. There's plenty here to like. Patrick Stewart gives a wonderful performance of many layers -- hard edges toward Riker and Q, softer moments with Beverly and Wesley. The "handoff" scene with DeForest Kelley as McCoy is a perfect representation of the old doctor, and has extra poignancy in knowing that he was actually the first actor of the original cast to pass away.

Composer Dennis McCarthy does what's probably his best score work on the entire series. Producer Rick Berman ultimately pushed for a quiet "musical wallpaper" approach to the show, and McCarthy would ultimately comply. But here at the beginning, his score is bombastic and entertaining, the only odd moment being when the entire theme song (by Jerry Goldsmith) is tracked in straight from the main title to score the saucer separation sequence.

As I noted when I watched those two episodes at the movie theater, the acting pool of the 1980s wasn't very talented. There are a number of painfully bad line readings from a variety of no-name characters. But there is a hilarious moment from a random female crew member who totally checks out Riker's ass, plus the first appearance of Colm Meaney (in a red uniform!) as the then-unnamed O'Brien. (No wonder they kept using him; everybody else was terrible.) Guest star Michael Bell as Zorn gives a performance that is simultaneously over the top and completely forgettable.

But John de Lancie as Q is excellent. Not only does he establish a character that would be brought back almost every season (and in two other Star Trek series), but he's more nuanced here than some of the main actors still trying to find their roles. Particularly impressive is the opening sequence on the bridge, in which Q switches into different costumes from different periods of Earth history; with each costume change, he adopts a noticeably different persona.

Some other random observations that I found worthy of note:
  • Poor Marina Sirtis had it tough in this episode. The script wrote Troi as practically bipolar in her expression of the emotions she sense empathically. Sirtis gave it her best, acting many scenes with real tears brimming in her eyes. But it read so strangely in the finished product that I think it actually crippled the writing of her character for several years of the series. No one wanted to see that kind of thing again -- not the writers, not the fans, and probably not even the actress herself.

  • The Ferengi are mentioned in this episode, as a worthy menace with cannibalistic tendencies. Needless to say, they went in a different direction.

  • Worf actually comes off less aggressive than Tasha in this episode.

  • Jean-Luc Picard apparently did not get to pick his own first officer, nor did he even seem to have sought the Enterprise for his command. (He says at one point that Starfleet "has given me a ship with children aboard," implying he was just following orders by taking the flagship assignment.)

  • The episode ends with a button so typical of the ending of a classic Star Trek episode, you half expect Alexander Courage's original theme to start playing over the end credits.

I also have to say again that these remastered episodes are truly spectacular. The newly engineered 7.1 audio track is wonderful, and the visuals are truly stunning. For example, I never realized before that the two creatures at the end of the episode were of slightly different colors (implying a male and female, I think). And some of the model shots of Farpoint Station and the Bandi city are really almost too clear in their restoration; you can tell that they're models and can perceive their miniature size on screen.

Encounter at Farpoint was a bit of a rocky start for the series in many ways, but with enough hints of greatness in it to get the ball rolling. Certainly it pulled me and many other fans in back in 1987. I'd grade it a B-. By the standards of the rather weak first season, that's actually a pretty good mark.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Hole Day

I've lived in Colorado most of my life, but there are a good number of tourist attractions around the state that I've never been to see. On Saturday of this past weekend, I crossed one off the list, driving the two hours with my boyfriend to see the Royal Gorge.

A 1,000-foot deep canyon carved by the Arkansas River, Royal Gorge became a tourist spot in 1929 when the Royal Gorge Bridge was built. It was the highest bridge in the world for the rest of the century, and even today remains the highest bridge in the United States. And indeed, the view is stunning:

But impressive though it is, there is something that rings a bit false about the place, and a quick internet search revealed why. The bridge wasn't built out of any need to get from here to there; it was built specifically to turn the place into a tourist attraction, to make it the "Grand Canyon of the Arkansas."

There are attractions there -- an air tram you can ride across (we did), an inclined railway you can ride to the bottom of the canyon (did that too)...

...and other activities. But apparently the place is a "through Labor Day" sort of attraction, because a lot of the food stands and other areas were already closed down for the season. And some of what's open is a bit lackluster. Walking across the bridge, for example, we could hear the sounds of someone committing karaoke homicide on "Two Tickets to Paradise." Or so we thought. When we rounded the corner and saw an actual performer with his name on the sign... well, let's just say that song is never going to be the same for me.

Ultimately, I felt glad that I live here in Colorado and spent only a few hours to get there. If it was the sort of thing I'd traveled across the country to see, I think I'd have been underwhelmed. It's no Yosemite, I guess I'm saying. Or maybe I'm saying that the view was beautiful, but no more so than the view from the top of a Colorado 14er -- and there's something about earning that view through a challenging hike that made the drive-to-Royal-Gorge experience less special.

If you live in Colorado, by all means put the Gorge on your list. (For a summer month.) You shouldn't go as long without seeing it as I did. But don't expect to make a whole day of it.

Or maybe I'm just jaded by all the gorgeous scenery in Colorado.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

2012 Emmys Snark

As is tradition, a few friends gathered at my place to snark at this year's Emmy Awards. Here are some of the better comments and other random observations:

The callback to the disastrous "reality show host"-hosted Emmys was inspired.

One of the Downton Abbey actors is SUPER sunburned. You can't let Brits out in the sun.

Do you suppose that Louis C.K. was a last minute replacement for Will Arnett to present with Amy Poehler?

If Eric Stonestreet wasn't actually getting hairy chest pictures for fans before, you can bet he will now.

Aaron Paul is wearing a 70s wedding tux.

Julie Bowen manages to overcome the "deceased favorite" vote for Kathryn Joosten. She also appears to have dressed to glow in the dark at a rave after the ceremony.

Looking at the other amazing actors in the Best Comedy Actor category, it seems to me people came together to give Jon Cryer a "You Deserve This For What You Put Up With In The Last Two Years" Award. And no one seemed more surprised by it than Jon Cryer.

Every year, Amy Poehler is part of a great presentation gag. This year's with Julia Louis-Dreyfus is no exception.

Tom Bergeron shows why he won, accepting his reward with humor AND a plug for his show all in under 30 seconds.

Claire Danes might have the worst dress of the night. It's the color of a squash, the texture of a bathmat, and the cut of a sack.

I would have been happy with most of the Best Supporting Drama Actor category winning. Aaron Paul was certainly deserving.

"Hold my nunchucks" was really the only funny thing from that Tracy Morgan thing.

No one can go up against Maggie Smith.

I hope Jeremy Davies' hair is that way because he's filming more Justified episodes.

Julianna Margulies is wearing drapes.

When Tina Fey and Jon Hamm walked out, they played the Mad Men theme instead of the 30 Rock theme. He's been on her show, she hasn't been on his -- I think the band made the wrong call.

The only thing harder to do than go up for an award against Maggie Smith is to go up for one against The Daily Show.

It's goofy that the band is even trying to play the theme from American Horror Story as Jessica Lange walks to the stage.

Way to go with the callback joke, Ellen DeGeneres.

People start to applaud during the In Memoriam montage before remembering that the trend now is not to applaud during the In Memoriam montage at award shows.

Lucy Liu wins best dress of the night. In a few days, we'll see if her new show is equally good.

I will only accept Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer winning a writing award over Steven Moffat.

Julianne Moore won what she was up for, apparently making her a better Sarah Palin better than Sarah Palin.

Who sold Julie Bowen, Claire Danes, Julianne Moore on this dayglo yellow-green idea?

Ginnifer Goodwin and Emily Van Camp came to the stage straight from clotting blood and haunting a mansion, respectively.

Kevin Costner just shiny objected staring at his own Emmy.

I saw Game Change. Sherlock was robbed.

I certainly would have picked Breaking Bad over Homeland for Best Drama Series... but I'm glad the Emmy voters finally woke up from their only-sometimes-rational love for Mad Men.

The people of Modern Family have to take their Emmys with them to go get more Emmys.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cheap Love

Most people are aware of the daily "Gold Box" deals at Amazon.com. Occasionally, these deals are for MP3 album downloads; one such deal recently offered several bestselling albums of the year-to-date for just 99 cents a piece. And while current pop music isn't much my thing, I did find one selection I was willing to chance a buck on, the newest album from Jason Mraz, Love is a Four Letter Word.

I wouldn't call myself a "fan" of Jason Mraz, but I do have a sprinkling of his earlier music. The bulk of it borders too much on Easy Listening for me to get truly excited about it. However, some of his songs pick up the pace and serve up machine-gun-fire lyrics full of clever rhymes. I do enjoy listening to those tracks, for the way they really do require active listening to keep up.

Fortunately, I spent only a dollar on this new album. It skews heavily toward that sleepy, overly introspective (and phony feeling) material I don't like. Quiet percussion and soothingly strummed acoustic guitar chords dominate the songs -- though "dominate" seems like a far too active word to properly convey the laid back tone of the music.

There are a handful of tracks that step out a bit from the pack, but none that are likely to make it into regular rotation for me. "Everything Is Sound" is kind of schmaltzy but also fun, with an effective and bouncy melody that pulls you in. "Frank D. Fixer" has nice music, but is a drop in an ocean of love songs with on-the-nose "I wish I could fix you" lyrics.

This isn't an "I want my dollar back" situation, but I certainly feel like I should be warning people not to pay full price for this album unless they're die-hard Jason Mraz fans. (In which case, you must already have the album.) The two or three better tracks pull the whole up to maybe a C- average in my book, but that's certainly nothing to recommend.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Low Valley

Of the Sherlock Holmes short stories I've read thus far, I found "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" to be the most disappointing. I'm not sure its flaws could have been held against it at the time of its original publication, but it is certainly a story that has not aged well.

This story has Holmes and Watson traveling outside of London (to a fictitious location) in response to a man who has been wrongfully accused of a murder by none other than Inspector Lestrade. It is up to Holmes to find evidence of an alternative culprit and exonerate the client.

The problem is, this story just doesn't do well in the CSI age. The unraveling of the mystery doesn't hang on any brilliant deductive leap that Holmes makes, but rather hinges on Lestrade just having done an implausibly shoddy job of investigating his crime scene. The Scotland Yard detective overlooks blatantly obvious evidence, the omission of which inevitably leads to his incorrect conclusion. And it didn't even really take the sharp eyes of Holmes to see what Lestrade had missed; Watson himself in his narration picks up on some of the vital clues in the footprints left at the scene. I've found Doyle's stories to be best so far when he doesn't have to dumb down other characters to make Holmes seem brilliant by comparison; this story is the poorest yet in that regard.

But it's not all bad. For one thing, there's the interesting change of setting. This is the first time Holmes and Watson venture outside of London. It's also the first time that Holmes truly invokes his friendship with Watson; he specifically contacts Watson (now living with his wife) and asks for him to come along on the journey, whereas previous stories had Watson coincidentally showing up to become involved.

Also, as I noted earlier, Watson is able to notice some of the vital evidence himself. He's not quite able to reason what it all means, but has now watched enough of Holmes' methods that he seems to know what to look for, and anticipates in a rough sense how it could be relevant. So even as Lestrade was dumbed down extra for this story, Watson grows smarter. It's nice to have a bit of growth there.

But overall, I'd call this one a mostly forgettable Holmes adventure worth no more than a C.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Britney 2.0

Tonight's installment of Glee revisited the idea of a "Britney Spears theme week" first done exactly two years ago as the second episode of season 2 -- and across the board, this second take was superior. Where the previous episode was a loosely woven excuse to restage Spears videos and show kids getting high on visits to the dentist, this episode deftly juggled several character-driven storylines.

Brittany was having a meltdown over Santana drifting apart from her, and decided to funnel it into a full-on pursuit for rock bottom. It led to solid scenes with Sue and, oddly enough, Sam, and also ended on the nicely ambiguous note that while Brittany may have begun putting her life back together, it may not be a life that will have Santana in it.

In New York, Rachel's battle against her dance teacher continued. The past of Cassie's failed Broadway career wasn't surprising (though the details were fun), though I much prefer that Glee portray its characters with a logical internal consistency as opposed to trying just for surprise. The same goes for the growing flirtation between Rachel and Brody -- not surprising, but entertaining. Welcome, in fact. I haven't missed Finn in these two new episodes at all.

It was a bit of a stretch to have Puck fly all he way out from L.A. for a two minute talk with a half-brother he'd never met, but let's face it -- we'll have to accept some strained believability in moments like this, I think, to have graduated characters turn up on the show. Having got Puck there, they did at least give him a good scene with Jake.

Actually, I'm enjoying how much all the new characters seem to be working all across the board. Jake, Marley, and Brody are all proving interesting; Unique is an interesting fit with the group. I'm also digging the increased song time for underused characters like Tina and Artie

That said, I do think this episode still fell into the trap of past Glee theme weeks -- there were a few too many songs in the hour, crowding out the plots just a bit. Still, I'd be hard pressed in this case to suggest just which songs I would have cut. Every song this week hit on at least some level: they had great staging ("Hold It Against Me", "Oops... I Did It Again", "Gimme More"), fit fairly well into the plot ("Womanizer" and "Everytime"), or were arranged differently enough from the original to be intriguing (the surprisingly decent mashups of "Boys / Boyfriend" and "Crazy / (You Drive Me) Crazy"). Actually, many of the songs hit two or even all three of those categories, and all of the vocal performances were solid.

In short, I'm continuing to enjoy the newly revitalized Glee. I give this week's episode a B+.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's a Gaz

I've watched South Park from the very beginning. I loved Team America: World Police. But some of the earlier efforts from Trey Parker and Matt Stone have missed me. Until recently, anyway, when I did cross one off the list, their low budget 1997 film Orgazmo.

If you've never heard of the film, that's probably due to the NC-17 rating it was branded with (with them lacking any studio clout to argue it down to an R). Not that it wasn't courting controversy, of course. The movie is about a young Mormon on a mission to Los Angeles, who gets caught up in the porno industry when he's offered money-he-can't-refuse to play action/sex superhero Orgazmo in a sleazy director's raunchy movie. Hilarity ensues.

This movie doesn't really have much of the clever satire typical of South Park or present in Team America. It's simply not as thoughtful a film. But that's not to say it isn't funny. Parker and Stone get plenty of laughs from their ridiculous situation, from poking fun at the conventions of blockbuster movies, and from calling attention to their laughably small budget. I ended up feeling like the lack of satirical commentary here is simply because less was inherent in the idea, because it does feel by the end of the film like no comedic stone has been left unturned.

Trey Parker stars as the hapless Mormon who becomes Orgazmo, and delivers the same type of performance he does in his extensive voice-over work on South Park. It's consciously melodramatic, but that works completely within the context. Matt Stone takes on a smaller role as a crew member on the porno film; he's basically just there for one running gag, but it is a gag with a good final payoff.

The rest of the film is fleshed out partly with friends of Parker and Stone that appeared in lots of their early work, and partly with actual celebrities of the porn industry here to be in on the joke. Parker himself also directs, and gets performances from his actors of a similar tone to his own, a "not intentionally bad acting", but also "intentionally not truly good acting." As I said, it works within the context here.

Ultimately, this movie falls in the cult category, and was probably made to go there. And it's not bad for a cult movie. It's not amazing, but serves up plenty of laughs and quotable lines. I grade it a B, though I'd stop short of recommending it generally, given its subject matter. Not everyone is going to appreciate its warped sense of humor. But those who would should find it well worth the time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lost Re-view: Abandoned

The next season two episode of Lost was a momentous one, featuring the death of Shannon. It was written by Elizabeth Sarnoff, a staff writer joining the show here for the first time; she'd continue on and rise to executive producer by the series finale. It was directed by a one-timer, Adam Davidson. For some reason, he just must not have gelled with this cast or with the producers, because he's worked on dozens and dozens of series since.

There's a subplot I want to get out of the way first, since it isn't really the meat of the story, nor is it fully resolved within the hour. It involves Claire, who is having a crisis of confidence in her own ability to raise her son Aaron. When Shannon awoke screaming in the middle of the night (spooked by a visit from Walt -- which I'll get to shortly), her instinct was to wake Aaron and carry him toward the screams, a fact Charlie gives her some grief about before offering to calm Aaron back to sleep.

Later, Locke happens upon Claire when she's struggling to quiet Aaron, and he teaches her how to swaddle the baby to soothe him. Everyone knows more about her baby than she does, she sulks. And worse, she doesn't even really know any of these people her on the island -- Charlie could be a big Jesus freak, for example. Locke smiles that that can't be true, but she mentions the Virgin Mary statue he's been carrying around... which Locke knows contains the heroin from the downed Nigerian plane. (This is also an interesting moment considering the later episode in which Charlie experiences very classically religious visions regarding Aaron. Claire's comment isn't entirely off the mark after all.)

Over a game of backgammon, Locke assures Charlie that he doesn't want to overstep his bounds with Claire and the baby, but he's clearly probing for information. And Charlie throws down a quip that Locke can't let pass, when he says that Claire has to learn some responsibility. "That's an interesting thing to say for a heroin addict," says Locke. And when Charlie corrects him -- "recovering" -- Locke watches him carefully to judge if that's true. He reaches no verdict for now, leaving the matter for a future episode.

So then, on to the bigger stuff. The most compelling element of this episode is the series of flashbacks filling us in on Shannon's background. Yes, she was a spoiled little rich girl, but that rug was snatched suddenly out from under her, and you get the sense that this transformed her ignorance and unintentional arrogance to a defensive, reflexive hardness. This knowledge does successfully soften her character in time for the death blow.

The flashbacks begin with Shannon teaching a ballet class, when she receives the news that her father has been in a car accident. (With the woman who would become Jack's wife.) She meets her stepmother at the hospital, but it's too late. Her father has died, and the stepmother doesn't even think to invite her back to see him; the doctor has to suggest it.

Later, at the funeral, Boone arrives to comfort her, and even invites her to come visit him in New York for a while. She hopes that she'll actually be moving there soon -- she's put in for a prestigious dance internship. And sure enough, in the next flashback, she's defied the odds and gotten the internship! But then her joy is soured when she receives a phone call that she's just bounced her rent check.

Shannon goes to confront her stepmother, wanting to know why the money her father left her has dried up. She coldly informs Shannon that there was no money left to her. She says Shannon will have to work now, like everyone else. As for the internship, there's no chance Shannon would have stuck to that dream for long anyway. Without even offering a loan, she puts Shannon out on her own.

Boone tries to get the money for Shannon, but his mother clearly suspects who it's really for, and refuses. And then, in an apparent move to wrap him further around her finger, she offers him a high-income job to make him leave New York, so Shannon can't even crash with him. Boone offers to front her every penny he has to get her started, but Shannon takes offense at this, as an assertion that he thinks she can't make it on her own. Does he believe she can make it on her own or not? And when Boone doesn't answer quickly enough, she yells at him and throws him out.

This key element of not being believed is what plays out in Shannon's storyline on the Island. The episode opens with Sayid making a big gesture of building her a "house" out of some of the plane wreckage, and the two having a romantic night together. But when he steps out for a moment to fetch her some water, she sees the specter of dripping, backward-talking Walt. When she explains what she saw to Sayid and isn't believed, she storms out.

The next morning, Shannon finds out from Hurley and Rose where Michael and Walt's things are, and raids them for a piece of Walt's clothing. Convinced that she's given Vincent the boy's scent, she heads off into the jungle alone to look for Walt. She winds up instead at Boone's grave, where she collapses until Sayid catches up with her. He tries to console her, saying he knows what it's like to lose someone you care deeply about. But she is angry that he thinks that what this is all about, that he still doesn't believe her, and is off again on her quest to find Walt.

Sayid won't let Shannon go off alone, and follows her until she confesses that she knows about the bottle of messages recently found from the raft. Something happened to the raft, she's sure, and Walt is back here on the island, all alone. She continues on, deeper and deeper into the jungle, as a torrential rain opens up.

When Vincent tugs hard and slips away, Shannon is thrown into the mud, and finally breaks down as Sayid again comes to her side. This time, when she cries about no one believing her, Sayid assures her that he does -- and that he loves her. And that's the very moment the mysterious jungle Whispers (the voices of spirits who died on the Island, we learn much later) begin.

The weird specter of Walt appears again, and this time, both Sayid and Shannon see him. Walt warns them to keep quiet, but Shannon runs off toward him, screaming his name like... well, like Michael, really. She rounds the corner and...

She meets up with the tail section survivors, who have been continuing their journey across the island all episode. It's a long series of scenes that, though interesting on their own, are ultimately just marking time until the end of the episode.

Sawyer, suffering from his gunshot wound, is getting worse all the time. Eko concludes that they must cut through the jungle -- through Others territory -- to get him back to his people before he dies. Ana Lucia is clearly terrified by the idea, but reluctantly agrees. (She jokes of liking Eko more when he wasn't talking, a joke that will be given full context in the next episode.)

Eko is proven right, however, for Sawyer soon collapses into unconsciousness, and the rest of the group has to make a stretcher to carry him on. They reach a steep embankment, where they must carefully pass him person to person with great difficulty (and sweeping Michael Giacchino music) to get him to the top. And when they reach it, flight attendant Cindy, one of the few tailies left, has gone missing.

Ana Lucia is railing at Eko that this is his fault, that he sacrificed Cindy's life for Sawyer, who's already as good as dead anyway. But before she can press the point further, the Whispers begin. Libby's terror is plain on her face, but it's Ana Lucia who screams "Run!" at the top of her voice.

...and the next moment we see her, she has, in her terror, fired her gun before thinking. She's shot Shannon fatally through the chest. She dies in Sayid's arms, his grief hardening as he looks up at Ana Lucia to end the episode.

Now as I said earlier, the flashbacks surrounding Shannon in this episode certainly do help make her character sympathetic and add some context for the loss. But ultimately, too much of the narrative is riding on us buying into the relationship between Sayid and Shannon. We're ultimately supposed to accept Sayid and Shannon as soul mates, given what unfolds in the final season of the show.

The trouble is, until this point in season two, they haven't really been shown together as a couple at all. Their relationship was barely introduced at the end of the first season. In fact, it had some rocky moments when last we saw it. What's more, we've already seen Sayid's flashbacks surrounding Nadia, and they paint a far more believable, deeper picture of true love than what we see between Shannon and Sayid. I hate to become one of those "shipper" fans, but the bottom line is that I believe more in what the writers decided was the "wrong relationship."

Now mind you, this isn't to say that Sayid should just get over it quick and not be moved by the death. I just wish that the writers had given one more solid episode somewhere before this point that established the relationship between Sayid and Shannon. It would have made this moment pay off better.

As it stands, I'd grade this episode right about on the line of B, close to sliding down to a B-. Of the many deaths that would take place over the course of Lost, this one was one of the weaker ones.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Revolution Will Be Televised

Tonight was the debut of the new series Revolution on NBC. 15 years after a global disaster that terminates all power and renders all electronics useless, a family struggles to survive... and perhaps expose the cause of the blackout.

This is another "high concept" show, of the sort that pops up every fall trying to be "the next Lost." This one is even executive produced by J.J. Abrams and his company, Bad Robot. But that's not what really drew my attention. Instead, I felt compelled to check out the series because it was created by Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural.

Supernatural is still going strong over on the CW, and is about to begin its eighth season. It came on the scene arguably trying to be "the next X-Files," and debuted in the same year as a host of one-season-and-out sci-fi dramas including Invasion, Threshold, and Surface. I remember being excited at the concepts of many of those shows, and thoroughly disappointed in the results. At the same time, I remember not being very enthusiastic about the potential of Supernatural, but pleasantly surprised at what it turned out to be.

Revolution seems very clearly made of the same DNA, judging from the first episode. The trappings of the plot are important, but not as much as the exploration of an unusual family dynamic in extraordinary circumstances. The stakes are apocalyptic. And the characters are serious fighters that can kick some ass, promising some impressive action every week.

Supernatural wasn't exceptional right out of the gate, but it was intriguing, and grew to be great by the end of the first season. Maybe Revolution shares that bit of DNA too, because I wasn't amazed by this first episode. But I sure saw a lot of promise in what was there. If Revolution can grow on the same arc (and have the luxury of enough episodes), I think it really could be something.

Among the things I liked best about the pilot: Giancarlo Esposito, who brings shades of his intimidating heavy from Breaking Bad, but with a light undercurrent too that already is starting to carve out different territory for the character; Billy Burke, who sold badass every bit as well as the Wincesters on Supernatural; and the solid and fast-paced direction from Jon Favreau (though we probably can't count on him to set aside his film career much in the future to keep directing more episodes).

We'll see if the show can grow into its potential... and survive the cutthroat network TV landscape long enough to get there.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 30-26

30. Unbreakable. Speaking as one who isn't often impressed by conventional superhero movies, I think Unbreakable is the best superhero origin story ever told on film. Relationships are at the core of the story. There are moving emotional moments, very tense suspenseful moments, and some very compelling characters. Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson do an excellent job carrying the movie and infusing it with utter realism. The movie doesn't even really come off like a superhero tale until you reflect on it later. Very clever.

29. Fight Club. Never has my opinion of a movie transformed as much as my opinion of Fight Club. When I saw it in the theater, I thought it was too weird, too jumbled, and too concerned with sucker-punching the audience with a surprise plot twist. But my roommate at the time loved the film, and when he picked it up on DVD and I then caught the movie a second time, I loved it. Suddenly, I found the disjointed style utterly appropriate to the character at the heart of the tale. I found the twisted plot elements to be very cleverly and interestingly layered in. And I also fully appreciated the fantastic acting from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Director David Fincher made a masterpiece here that snuck up on me. This film drove me to keep checking out every movie he makes (and he generally entertains), as well as got me started reading books by Chuck Palahniuk (until he ultimately threw it all away recycling a too-similar formula a dozen times).

28. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Growing up, I so desperately wanted to be as cool as Ferris Bueller. Today, I think I appreciate the movie even more for realizing just how not mainstream-cool a character he is in so many ways. He's a computer hacker. He programs a synthesizer. He knows old Wayne Newton and Beatles songs. He likes to hang out at art galleries. I think what I realize now is that I liked this movie so much because it made a person with similar uncool interests like me be super-freaking-cool, the untouchable, charmed star of the show. And the comedy completely holds up too. This movie is hysterical, far and away the best of the John Hughes films. Matthew Broderick is perfect for the lead. Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jeffrey Jones, Jennifer Grey, Edie McClurg, Charlie Sheen, Ben Stein -- they all add their own perfect bit of neurosis, suaveness, villainy, rage, lunacy, lethargy, and monotone to blend together in this incredibly fun cocktail.

27. WALL-E. The social commentary in this movie may be a bit ham-fisted, but the emotion evoked by this movie is absolutely genuine. And you feel all this for robotic characters who can barely speak, themselves generated on a computer. Ben Burtt's sound design is genius. That so much humanity could power through a construction of such total artifice is extraordinary. I do wish the title character were a bit more active in his own story, but you can see how highly I think of the movie even despite that misgiving.

26. Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So much should have been working against this movie. It's a sequel, and its plot isn't really any different from the "run from a killer robot from the future" plot of the original. It has at least two main characters played by actors who really don't have much range: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong. But the film rises far above these baked in problems, delivering incredible tension, pulse-pounding action, clever cat and mouse games, and even a few solid emotional moments besides. Not to mention that, at the time, its amazing CG effects to bring the T-1000 to life were blow-your-mind incredible. (And it's not that they don't hold up, because they do -- it's just that you can't say you've never seen anything like it before anymore.) Composer Brad Fiedel contributes an exciting synthesizer musical score. James Cameron films all the action brilliantly. This is simply a great action film.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

There Will Be Retribution

Last night, I was persuaded to go with some fans of the Resident Evil franchise to go see the newest incarnation, Retribution. (My boyfriend was leading the charge, which definitely turned the tide. He had been really excited for the movie since seeing the first preview.)

I've seen only one other of the five (are there five now, right?) Resident Evil movies, and have only the most threadbare memories of it. Describing those dim memories to another, different Resident Evil fan over lunch at work, he told me it was the second installment, Apocalypse, that I'd seen. "The worst one," he called it. (And my boyfriend later confirmed.)

Well once again, I've managed to see "the worst one." I left the theater with my small group of fans proclaiming this was the worst of the lot by far. It was such an assault on the senses, so amplified by the screaming 3D IMAX sound system, that one of my friends proclaimed she felt she'd been "ear and eye raped."

I think maybe the one good thing I can say about the movie was that they were being thoughtful of the folks like me in the audience who hadn't seen every film in the series. After a truly bizarre opening credits scene that played in reverse under the opening credits, things segued to a three-minute long sequence that basically amounted to "previously on Resident Evil." Not that it really mattered. She fights zombies. Everybody got that?

What followed was like watching somebody else play a video game, a video game that was rushed through a couple key stages of development to release about four months sooner than it should have been.

Many action movies feel clumsy in the way they stitch "set pieces" of action together, the way they illogically transition from, say, a car chase to a boat race. This movie felt even one step worse, as though it were "levels" being stitched together. Each segment seemed to open with an exposition statement of the goal that was about to be pursued -- sometimes restated more than once. And when the movie reached the end of the segment, you could almost visualize the Score Summary screen left on the cutting room floor.

The acting is terrible. Milla Jovovich is the only one who feels anywhere close to natural, and the machine-like, badass nature of her character really isn't leaving her much room to maneuver either. Everyone else in the cast once again contributes to that feeling of watching a badly made video game more than a movie. Every piece of dialogue feels like it was recorded one line at a time, probably not in order, probably in one take, and probably guided by a director not really used to working with actors. The performances are stilted and awkward from top to bottom, but two actors really deserve to be singled out as especially awful -- Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine and Li Bingbing as Ada Wong, who radiate "I'm the video game villain" and "I'm the video game companion," respectively, with every word they speak. It hurts.

I don't like it when horror movies substitute cheap "loud noises" scares for genuine suspense. Retribution is only capable of making you jump; it's not scary at all. The creature design is incredibly limited. More interesting "regular zombies" have been shown on The Walking Dead (in almost every episode), and there are only two other kinds of creatures shown in the movie -- again and again and again -- managing to bore you long before the end credits, even in a movie that's only 95 minutes long.

There's one moderately well-done fight sequence early on, in which Jovovich's character takes on about two dozen zombies all by herself. It does at least have some interesting fight choreography, even if it is preposterous. But the rest is all loud and dumb, punctuated by stupid one-liner dialogue that wouldn't even be worthy of an 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

And lest you think to yourself, "well, he wasn't going to like that movie anyway" (though you're probably right about that), let me conclude by again reminding you that all three of the Resident Evil fans I went with agreed with me. I was walking out of the theater, trying to figure out how to diplomatically explain that I didn't really like the movie, when they all just opened up full salvo and declared what a piece of crap we'd all just watched. So we all had a bonding experience, I guess, but one certainly not worth the steep movie admission price.

Resident Evil: Retribution is an unqualified F. Save your money, save your time. Don't wait for video. Just don't see it. Even if you're a Resident Evil fan.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gay Rights in the U.S. -- Civil Unions

I thank you all for sticking with me through these mini-dissertations on gay rights over the last few weeks. I have just one more topic to cover before I'll release us all and return full time to trashing movies and such in my snarky reviews. That is the topic of civil unions.

There are several states that, while denying marriage to same-sex couples, have made available the option of a civil union. This arrangement is a halfway measure meant to appease those who object on religious grounds to permitting gays and lesbians to "marry," while granting the same rights and privileges as a marriage to such couples. I've been asked by more than one friend what I think about this kind of compromise.

The civil union suggestion comes from a noble place of trying to make two apparently intractable sides of an argument find common ground. Let everybody just have civil unions, you'll sometimes hear people argue, and leave marriages to the churches.

But I think that "separate but equal" by definition can't be equal. The very suggestion that there's something about marriage that should be reserved for any couple tacitly acknowledges that a civil union is not equivalent. Marriage and a spouse are concepts immediately understood by everyone in society. Civil unions are not universally understood, and the term "partner" is both imprecise and cumbersome ("oh, what kind of business are you two in together?") in a way that actually points out just how not-like-marriage it is every time somebody uses the word.

Most people reading this either are or have been married, or imagine one day they will get married. Do you remember when you "popped The Question" to your significant other, or when it was popped to you? Or, if you've never married, can you conjure an image of what you hope that moment will be like?

The Question in your memory or dream is certainly not: "will you civilly unite with me?"

Whether a person takes a religious or secular view on marriage, I think most people would agree the concept of marriage is one associated with love. By contrast, a civil union is a contract: a contract with a partner, and with the state. It's law, not love. And so the insinuation is that a same-sex couple can only have law, not love... or can only have a lesser love branded with a less socially recognized status. Many of the people who suggest the civil union compromise mean well, but the bottom line is that "everything but marriage" is exactly that -- everything but marriage, and therefore not the same thing.

Now, all that said, I recognize that society has had a long way to travel on the issue of gay rights, and is still traveling. For that reason, and that reason only, I think there is a place for civil unions. They're a fine intermediate step, a way of showing people on the fence that society will not in fact crumble if gay people are allowed to commit to each other in "near-marriage." And once they see that, it ought to lower subsequent resistance on the real thing quite a bit.

So the bottom line for me is, sure, let's have civil unions be a tool in the box to help in building equality. It may be particularly useful in states (like Colorado) that have voted to ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions, but that have not prohibited all legal recognition. Still, let's not treat civil unions as the end goal to be achieved.

And that concludes my look at the current state of LGBT rights in the U.S. I hope I've been able to share some information you didn't know before, and I hope even more that I didn't bore you silly doing it. (My intention was exactly the opposite.)

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The New Rachel

Glee is back! Tonight began season 4, and a bold new direction (ahem) for the show as it attempts to split focus to follow the graduated characters from last season even while continuing the story at McKinley High School. And if tonight's episode is any indication, Glee might just be on course to become better than it's been since it first began.

It has always been a struggle for Glee to incorporate all the characters in its huge cast, and the real threat of this new season is that the problem will only get worse. We got, what, half a dozen new characters tonight? But the advantage of the split format is that it gives a logical reason to not use some of the characters in any given week. No more split second cuts of Rory every week just to keep him in the mix... the show may now be in a place where a character only shows up if there's a specific use for that character. If so, that's a very good place for the show to be.

So this week, no Finn, no Santana, no Mike Chang, no Puck, no Mercedes, no Quinn, etc. etc. But what we did get were three of the strongest character driven plot lines Glee has served up in a long time.

Rachel struggled to be on her own in a new place. Besides having to deal with a harsh teacher, and not being the star of the show, she had to deal with being separated from everyone she knows and loves. And watching that slowly crush her felt powerful and true.

Kurt meanwhile was spinning his wheels in Ohio, another very honest take on what can happen to a high school graduate. This storyline served up no less than four fantastic scenes: him meeting Sue's new baby, and seeing her new slightly kinder, but still direct demeanor; Blaine finally telling Kurt how much it hurt him to see Kurt lost; another Emmy worthy "world's best Dad scene" (and named as such) featuring Mike O'Malley as Burt Hummel; and the final reunion with Rachel at the fountain in New York.

Lastly, there was the storyline of the remaining New Directions stars getting too full of themselves and experiencing the other side of the bullying coin. It provided a different tone to the bullying storyline of the past explored so powerfully with the Karofsky character, watching characters we already know and care about slip to the dark side. It also served well to introduce new characters. Even though we've never seen Marley or her mother before tonight, the scene between the two of them was still effective.

If any element of the show wasn't top notch tonight, it was the music. Not across the board, certainly. But I wasn't wowed by the opportunistic jumping on the "Call Me Maybe" bandwagon, the mashup of "Americano" and "Dance Again", or going to Adele yet again for "Chasing Pavements." On the other hand, the extreme choreography of Blaine's "It's Time" was pretty fun. And the way "New York State of Mind" was used to bridge the New York and Ohio storylines was really effective.

Holding a level of quality has long been a tricky thing for Glee. But if they can pull it off this time, the show will rocket back to the top of my current favorites list. I give this episode an A-.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gay Rights in the U.S. -- The Supreme Court

My last two posts on gay rights have covered marriage bans (including California's Proposition 8), and the Defense of Marriage Act. Both issues, I noted, have cases currently pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, waiting until the court is back in session for word as to which cases (if any) will be heard.

Scotusblog is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to follow the Supreme Court. An especially good article was published there in August illustrating just how hyper-partisan the Court has become, and pointing out just how important the appointment of even a single new judge could be to future rulings. If I still have your interest and haven't bored you to tears with all my legal talk in these recent posts, then I assume you would find this original article fascinating, and I'd encourage you to go read it.

But for my discussion here, the big takeaway from that article would be this. There are currently four "very conservative" justices on the Supreme Court: Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito. There are currently four "moderately liberal" justices: Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. That leaves one "moderately conservative judge" in what passes for the middle of the current court: Anthony Kennedy. In most of the 5-4 decisions since Sandra Day O'Connor retired, he has been the "swing vote."

When legal experts try to guess what would happen in a gay rights case brought before the Supreme Court, it's a given that Scalia, Thomas, and Alito will vote against. It's a given that Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan will vote in favor. Chief Justice Roberts made a bit of a wild card of himself when he recently voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, but is nevertheless a very likely vote against with his three very conservative peers.

So ultimately, when you ask questions like "do gays have a fundamental right to marry in the U.S.?" or "is the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional?", it may be that only one person's opinion actually matters: Anthony Kennedy. Historically, Kennedy's conservatism has tended toward libertarian. More importantly to the matter at hand, he has voted twice in favor of gay rights in two major prior cases.

First was a case decided in 1996, known as Romer v. Evans. It was born right here in my home state of Colorado, when Focus on the Family and other organizations persuaded voters to approve a measure making it illegal to pass state laws protecting gays from discrimination. When this went before the Supreme Court, the law was struck down as unconstitutional, because it served no demonstratable purpose other than to legislate animus. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion paper for the 6-3 ruling. (Ginsburg and Breyer, on the court then as now, were with the 6; Scalia and Thomas, on the court then as now, were with the 3.)

Then came Lawrence v. Texas. This case from Texas originated when police, responding to a phony call, discovered two men engaging in consensual sex. Texas was among the states to still have an anti-sodomy law on its books, and so the men were prosecuted criminally for their private, consensual behavior. This went to the Supreme Court in 2003. Yes, 2003. As in: less than a decade ago, it was still illegal in many states to engage in certain kinds of consensual sex in the privacy of your own home. But another 6-3 ruling was delivered here, striking down all sodomy laws in the U.S. as unconstitutional. The majority opinion was again written by Justice Kennedy. (And again, Ginsburg and Breyer supported, while Scalia and Thomas dissented.)

So looking at these two cases, it is reasonable to think that Kennedy could side in support of gay rights. But the question is, where is the line that he would not be willing to cross?

Most legal experts seem to think it's a sure thing that Kennedy would vote to strike down DOMA as unconstitutional. Not only are the intrusions on people's rights and the anti-gay animus similar to the two gay rights cases he's already sided in favor of, but there's a "federalism" issue in play too, with the federal law impeding the rights of the states to enact marriage as they see fit. If the experts are right, then by June of 2013, true and complete marriage equality will be brought to the six states that have passed it locally, along with any states that enact it in the coming election.

But those same experts are not as bold in their predictions in the lawsuit regarding California's Prop 8. Where the DOMA cases are about extending full marriage equality to the states that already have chosen to have it, the Prop 8 case was challenged on the grounds that it's unconstitutional to deny gay people the right to marry, period (the conclusion that was reached by the first judge to hear the case).

The trouble is, the judicial branch in general tries to be measured in the use of its power. And ever since the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Roe v Wade, it has been in general particularly cautious. Some have opined that a part of the reason that abortion has remained such a hot button issue for these nearly 40 years is that the court pushed a ruling too far in advance of society's general level of acceptance of the issue. They offer as contrast the (too perfectly named) case of Loving v Virginia, which in 1967 unanimously struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage. At the time of that ruling, such laws -- which had once been in every single state -- had already been repealed in over two-thirds of them. The Supreme Court ruling was largely affirming public opinion, sweeping away the last vestiges of anti-miscegenation in the few states still clinging to it.

If there's any truth to any of that analysis, then regardless of the right or wrong of the Prop 8 case, same-sex marriage hasn't reached that point. The polls have just now in 2012 reached the point where a majority of Americans support it. 31 states have banned it in their constitutions, while none have stood against attempts to ban it. No state has voted to enact it. (Though, as I've written, this could happen this November; the stakes thus may be even higher.)

Anthony Kennedy is one of the older justices on the Supreme Court. Some imagine that he might be looking to make his mark one last time before retiring, by delivering gays their own Loving v Virginia ruling. But the more reasonable speculation is that he is too conservative a man to strike down state constitutional bans in more than half the country and throw open the floodgates on same-sex marriage.

Which puts the Prop 8 trial in an interesting place. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the ruling that declared gays have a fundamental right to marriage, they seemed to be aware of this likely caution by the Supreme Court, and fashioned a much narrower ruling. Setting aside that original, bold declaration, their ruling simply stated that it was unconstitutional for the right to marriage, having already been granted to gay Californians, to be taken away again without legitimate reason. In short, they refashioned the ruling to apply to the particular case of California only.

And now the prevailing wisdom among experts is that the Supreme Court may simply refuse this fall to hear the Prop 8 case at all. If they do, same-sex marriage will immediately be re-legalized in California. That's a solid victory that will immediately double the portion of the U.S. population that lives in a state that recognizes marriage equality. But the fight will have to go on in the other 40-or-so states.

Frankly, it's hard to know what to hope for in the Prop 8 case. The stakes are high if the Supreme Court does decide to hear it. They could simply affirm the "California only" ruling. Or we could get the grand prize, a recognition of a fundamental right to marry that would instantly affect the whole county. Or we could get the nightmare outcome, where the Supreme Court holds that bans on same-sex marriage are lawful, establishing a legal precedent that could bind progress for a generation.

But then again, is it best to wait? Aside from the obvious injustice of continuing to allow discrimination against American citizens, there's the possibility that the makeup of the Supreme Court could become even less friendly to the cause the next time a case finds its way there. And this goes back to that Scotusblog article I mentioned at the beginning of this post. This whole mental exercise has revolved around what one man, Anthony Kennedy, will do. What if he retires? (At age 76, I'd have done it a long time ago!) What if he dies? (None of my grandparents lived to be the age he's already reached.) Put in his place a Supreme Court justice appointed by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, and you get two very different pictures of gay rights in the United States for the foreseeable future.

In any case, the next year is going to be a real nail biter for those who support marriage equality. What will the voters do in November? What cases will the Supreme Court elect to hear in September or October? How will the actual hearing go?

And next summer, what will the rulings be?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Taste of Normal

Writer-producer Ryan Murphy is expanding his television empire this fall. His series Glee and American Horror Story are both beginning new seasons soon, and this week a third series co-created by him began on NBC -- The New Normal. It's a half-hour sitcom about gay couple Bryan and David (The Book of Mormon's Andrew Rannells and The Hangover's Justin Bartha) joining with a surrogate (Georgia King) so they can have a baby. Rounding out the characters are the surrogate's own young daughter (Bebe Wood) and bigoted grandmother (Ellen Barkin), as well as Bryan's sassy assistant (NeNe Leakes).

The pilot and second episode aired on back-to-back nights, offering a good chance to sample what the show is. And, like Ryan Murphy's other shows, it seems that there's plenty to like... and a handful of distracting misfires too.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this sitcom is that it isn't actually all that funny. Neither of the two episodes delivers any laugh out loud moments, but the "comedy" label may still be best. The show does entertain, but isn't going about it in a deeply dramatic way. It's a bit moralistic without being too preachy, a bit after school special without being unrealistic. Basically, it's almost like a drama in its earnestness, but ultimately seeks the fun and the easy happy endings, pushing it into the light-hearted comedy category.

Granted, it's very early for the show, but some of the characters are going to need work. David is a grounded and realistic character, as is surrogate mother Goldie. But the other half of the couple, Bryan, is an overly queeny stereotype that seems crafted not so much as a real person as a vehicle for punchline deliveries; Andrew Rannells definitely makes him fun, but not very realistic.

On the other end of the spectrum, grandmother Jane seems to striving to be an Archie Bunker kind of character, but is too cartoonish in her generic bigotry toward gays, foreigners, minorities, anyone and anything. Again, the acting elevates the material, this time by Ellen Barkin, but the character is too outrageous for a show that largely seems to want to be realistic.

Right now, since the full-on start of most new shows is still a week or two away, it's easy for me to hang in there and give the series a few more episodes to see where it goes. It also helps that it's on NBC, where the ratings would have to be truly lousy indeed for the show to be at risk of cancellation any time soon. But as it stands now, I'm going to need a while longer before I develop any kind of attachment where I'd care if that did happen.

For now, I'd say I'm interested but not eager for next week's new episode. I'm much more looking forward to seeing if Glee is reinvigorated in its new season that begins on Thursday.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Twin Peaks

Those who've known me a while would probably never guess what I did yesterday. I spent the day hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Yes, me, in all my not-particularly-outdoorsiness. My boyfriend wanted to get me to climb to the top of a 14er with him, did all the research and prep, and convinced me to go. (But the truth is, it didn't take that much convincing.)

Colorado has more 14ers (mountains that peak above 14,000 feet) than all the rest of the United States combined -- over 50 in all, give or take a few by how you measure the prominence of the summit. The target of our hike was Grays Peak, the 10th highest in the state, and the tallest mountain located directly on the Continental Divide. It's right next to the 12th highest in the sate, Torreys Peak, and both can be climbed by the same circular trail.

I didn't get a good picture of the two side by side, so I stole the following photo from the internet (Grays is on the left; Torreys on the right):


The hike is a roughly eight mile round trip, starting right around timberline and climbing 3,000 feet. It's considered fairly easy by 14er standards, but I certainly wasn't in it for a challenge. We set off a bit after 9:00 in the morning on a warm and virtually cloudless day, loaded up with water and Power Bars. It being my first climb, and neither of us caring what kind of time we made, we took our time climbing Grays. The view from the top was amazing. You could see Pikes Peak to the south, Rocky Mountain National Park to the north, a glimpse of the great plains to the east, and more impressive mountains to the west.

Being right there next to another 14er, we decided to hike the "saddle" between the mountains and visit the top of Torreys. It was a slightly steeper and rockier climb, but having done the one and basically being just an hour from the other, we couldn't pass it up. By the time we reached the top of Torreys, it was almost 3:00, and most people had already started the hike back to to the trailhead. My boyfriend and I had the top of Torreys all to ourselves.

The hike downhill was arguably tougher than the climb up. I suppose it's all a matter of what you can ignore better -- the need to catch a deep and even breath, or the throbbing in your knees. But it was obviously a much shorter hike. In less than an hour, we were already at a point where it was shocking to look back and think we'd actually been there; in a bit more than two hours total, we were back to the truck and driving back into Denver.

Today, I'm definitely feeling it. My legs scream at me whenever I get up from my chair, and stairs aren't fun at all. The sunburn I picked up on the back of my neck (from not stopping to reapply sunscreen during the day) is particularly painful -- though nothing compared to the angry red my boyfriend picked up on his legs. A lesson for the next 14er, I guess. Not that I can even think about the next 14er right now.

I have a handful of pictures from during the climb that I took on my phone, but the best images (including the summits and me proudly standing there) were taken on the camera and I haven't yet downloaded those pictures. I may add some of those snapshots to Facebook later this week. But for now, here are a few from during the climb:



It turns out there are some pretty amazing adventures to be had right here in my "backyard."

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Gay Rights in the U.S. -- D.O.M.A.

I've now written about states where same-sex marriage has been legalized and states where it has been banned. But I haven't written about the biggest marriage ban of all, the reason why even in the states where it's legal, it doesn't quite count: the Defense of Marriage Act.

In 1996, the United States Congress passed a bill called the Defense of Marriage Act. It passed by a wide margin, with very little debate and no real fact finding effort to determine its implications. The law had two main components:

First, DOMA dictated that no state would be required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. No state at the time had as yet legalized same-sex marriage; but the possibility at the time that Hawaii was soon going to do so (it didn't) prompted this provision to ensure that couples wouldn't flock to marry in Hawaii and then bring their legal marriages back to their home states. In actuality, this provision was unnecessary and served only to highlight the animus behind the entire concept of the bill. The legal truth is that no state is required to recognize any marriage performed by another state. (So if you're married and currently reside in a state other than the one you married in, be grateful that states have historically turned a blind eye to this issue.)

The other provision of DOMA was the truly insidious one. It stated that for any and all purposes at the Federal level, a marriage was to be defined exclusively as an institution for a man and a woman. This marked the first time in the entire history of the United States that the government passed a law enacting a Federal definition of marriage. Even in the heyday of laws against interracial marriages, no such law existed at the Federal level.

The consequences of this law would come into play eight years later, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriages. Put simply, any same-sex couple married in Massachusetts is not married in the eyes of the United States. This brings about a truly tangled web of dual realities.

When the couple files their taxes, they must file as "married" with the state, and must each file "single" to the U.S.

If one spouse dies, the surviving spouse does have control over funeral arrangements, and is able to retain custody of any children the couple had without any legal battle. But the spouse must pay inheritance taxes on anything willed to survivor, taxes an opposite-sex couple would not have to pay. The survivor cannot file to collect Social Security benefits.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been repealed and gays can serve openly in the military. But if such a soldier is killed in action, the spouse can collect no benefits.

If a gay person marries a spouse from another country, that spouse doesn't receive U.S. citizenship, and can be deported by the government.

The list goes on and on. And on. In fact, a study determined that there are 1,138 federal laws that reference marriage, and none of these laws can be applied to a married same-sex couple. Furthermore, several state laws actually derive from federal law, creating the situation that even in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, even when dealing with a state level law, the federal law of DOMA may restrict the state from applying its own law.

There are two possible ways for DOMA to be reversed. One would be if Congress passed another law to repeal it. Such a law has been proposed, called the Respect for Marriage Act (ROMA). But the law has only 33 pledged co-sponsors in the Senate right now, well short of the 51 for theoretical passage (and the 60 to overcome a likely filibuster). Things are even worse in the House, where Republicans currently hold a majority of the 435 members, and only one Republican in the entire body has pledged support for the bill, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Put simply, the legislative repeal of DOMA isn't going to happen any time soon.

The other avenue would be for DOMA to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court -- and this race may be much closer to the finish line. Several cases from states with marriage equality have been slowly working their way up the ladder of the court system over the past few years, and now lay at the Supreme Court's door.

A consolidated pair of cases from Massachusetts (the First Circuit) has been ruled on by a Circuit Court, where a three-judge panel (including two judges nominated by Republican presidents) unanimously found DOMA unconstitutional. That case has been filed with the Supreme Court, who will decide upon returning from their recess this fall whether to hear the case.

Another case from the Ninth Circuit has been ruled on at the lowest level, with a judge again striking down DOMA as unconstitutional. The opposition filed an appeal with the higher appeals court, and the U.S. Department of Justice countered by filing a rare motion to skip that step and proceed directly to the Supreme Court, possibly consolidating the case with the two from Massachusetts.

Still another case, this from New York (the Second Circuit) has passed the first level of review, where again, the judge struck down DOMA as unconstitutional. This one carries extra "sizzle," if you will, as it involves a woman of 83 who was forced to pay over $300,000 in inheritance taxes on property left to her by her deceased wife. Her lawyers have followed the DOJ's lead and also petitioned to skip directly to the Supreme Court, citing their plantiff's advanced age and poor health; they say that she may not live to see justice if the process isn't accelerated.

But wait, there's more! In a fifth DOMA related case out of Connecticut, ruled on just recently at the end of July, another Republican nominated judge found DOMA to be unconstitutional, writing an extraordinary 104-page opinion skewering every argument raised in the defense of DOMA. (You can read it for yourself if you like, some very dense but invigorating reading.)

Legal scholars seem to agree that with all these cases pending, all these challenges from Circuits all over the United States, the Supreme Court will be forced to accept one or more of these cases in the coming session. They'll likely end up hearing arguments some time this winter, and issuing a ruling by next June. But there is some trepidation in approaching the Supreme Court on this right now, given the current makeup and disposition of the Court.

That leads to an entirely new aspect of the marriage saga, but since I've gone on at considerable length already in this post, let me stop for now. I'll take up the issue of the Supreme Court in my next post.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Few Wards, Please

Every year in August, like clockwork, fantasy author Terry Brooks publishes a new novel. This year, he began a new trilogy in his epic Shannara series (now running over 20 books in all). The trilogy, known as The Dark Legacy of Shannara, will be released at roughly six month intervals, rather than the usual one year, meaning that it will be concluded by this time next year. The refreshing reliability of Brooks' output makes him one of my favorite authors, even if his books don't always hit the creative highs of some writers in his field.

But actually this new book, Wards of Faerie, is the best Brooks novel in several years. Set around 100 years after the last of his Shannara books (in internal chronology, not publication order), this book kicks off a quest to find the long missing sets of "elfstones" that are companions to the magic talismans featured in so many of the Shannara books. A new generation of Druids, Ohmsfords, and others are following a trail that may lead to the missing elfstones, but the journey won't take them where they expect.

My one complaint about the book would be that the journey does take them exactly to where I expected. There are enough contextual clues in the opening chapters, not to mention a few dangling hints from the earlier trilogy set 100 years prior to this book, that (being a long-time Brooks reader) I was able to crack the mystery about 50 pages into a 366-page book. The characters themselves didn't get there until past the 300 mark.

That said, this was one of those times where the destination was not as important as the journey, because this time, Terry Brooks did an extra good job on his characters and the subplots. Brooks often uses similar archetypes in his series, but there are just enough interesting twists on them here to really tweak the formula. There are more female characters of prominence (and ability) than he's ever featured before. He's featuring a pair of identical twins for the first time, as well as (a very minor spoiler here, only important to longtime Brooks readers) the first female member of the Leah family.

There's also a fair amount of action surrounding the Druid order this time out, and it's far more compelling than what was depicted in his "High Druid of Shannara" series. There are some interesting villains and henchmen in the mix, perhaps the most compelling since the "Heritage of Shannara" series. There are also some big siege moments, well-written, that come off at a grander scale than he's attempted in some time.

And perhaps most importantly, now that this book has reached the point I was expecting, I'm quite eager to see where the story will go next. I'm pretty sure I've deduced one piece of the coming tapestry -- again, knowledge from past Brooks novels has informed the structure. But I'm far less certain about the way new character relationships will unfold, and quite in the dark about the particular plot points that may show up along the way. Just as the subplots here surprised and entertained me, I'm expecting the same from the next two books.

I give Wards of Faerie an A-. That's a solid recommendation, even if you haven't read any of Terry Brooks' Shannara novels before. There are certainly rewards for longtime fans, but he has shaped his epic saga into more manageable sets of 2, 3, or 4 books that can really be taken in any order you wish. And this series seems like it will be one of the good ones. Now may be the time for you to give Terry Brooks a chance.