Wednesday, October 31, 2012

TNG Flashback: Lonely Among Us

When I wrote about the early first season episode of The Next Generation, "Code of Honor," I took note of its offensive racist undertones. "Lonely Among Us" is offensive in an entirely different way: it's just plain awful, both dramatically inert and preposterous from beginning to end.

The episode fuses two completely unrelated story lines into a single episode. The "A-plot" involves the Enterprise flying through a strange cloud in space, unintentionally taking with it an energy-based life form that hops from person to person, and into the ship itself, before ultimately taking possession of Captain Picard. The "B-plot" has the ship ferrying delegates from two squabbling alien races (a stereotypical "snake race" and a stereotypical "dog race") to a peace conference.

The A-plot suffers from not quite settling on one thing it wants to be about. At first, it's a quasi-mystery about the alien energy consciousness drifting from person to person. What does it want? What can it do? Who will it possess? Will the crew locate and identify it?

Then, roughly a third of the way into the episode, the life form decides to jump into the ship instead. Suddenly, the episode is all about random ship malfunctions. Will the ship break down? Will the crew figure out the reason behind the malfunctions? Will they purge the computer?

But then, with roughly one-third of the episode left to go, the entity jumps into Picard and sets up permanent residence. Now the episode is about whether the captain is behaving irrationally. Can he be trusted? Is a mutiny in order? (In a later season, the writers would look back and realize the missed opportunity here, creating a new episode that was all about building up to a crew mutiny against a false Picard.)

What's really a strain in credibility is that the crew never really seems to connect these threads until Patrick Stewart -- as the alien -- gamely delivers a badly written expository speech at the climax of the episode. Until then, no one thinks to connect Picard's strange behavior to other crew members' memory loss during their periods of possession. No one thinks to connect the ship malfunctions to the recent pass through the mysterious cloud. The whole crew just gets a case of the dumb -- Wesley included, at least. His mother gets it the worst, though; Picard confesses to Beverly in one scene that he's possessed, yet she does nothing about it and leaves Riker to lament in the next scene that there's nothing they can do but go along with it.

The resolution of this story has the Picard/alien beam himself out into the cloud as pure energy, which the crew inside of three minutes miraculously reverses, beaming him back from nothingness. It's a ludicrous ending, but probably no more of an "ask" of the audience than the rest of the story. Still, you could almost call it the worst writing to that point on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Or at least, you could if it weren't for the B-plot of this very same episode. Lame caricature aliens in lame full head masks are brought aboard the ship to snipe at each other while the Enterprise takes them to a peace conference. This is little more than an excuse for the crew to speechify. We get to hear about how our crew just doesn't understand this kind of racial hatred, and about how far humans have evolved beyond "enslaving animals" (the fish in the ready room would beg to differ) and fighting over "customs, God concepts, or even economic systems." Sure, these Roddenberry ideals are a nice sentiment, but they're off-putting when expressed in such a ham-fisted way.

The delegates are portrayed as so much at each others' throats that it's ridiculous to believe Starfleet would have wasted time ordering one of its ships to take them anywhere. These are supposedly peace ambassadors, but they spend the entire episode trying to kill each other, and one even apparently succeeds at the end of the episode. (In a moment that, most bizarrely of all, is played for comedy! Because racial genocide is just a barrel of laughs!)

Director Cliff Bole does manage to shepherd the cast through this nonsense, however. He worked on dozens more Star Trek episodes after this, for The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager -- and all probably because he did somehow get a couple good performance moments on film despite the awful script. Another decent element of the episode is the off-kilter score by Ron Jones, an effectively unsettling mix of tense strings with odd synthesizer phrases.

Other random observations:
  • This marks the first appearance of the crew in dress uniforms. They really put the "dress" in dress uniforms, too.
  • At one point, Dr. Crusher wears a silly helmet while performing a medical examination on Worf. Thankfully, it was never seen again.
  • This episode was the first Star Trek appearance by actor Marc Alaimo, who later went on to play Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine. 
  • There is a fantastically dry comic moment with Worf, when Dr. Crusher asks him about his memory blockout. His response? "I still don't remember having one."
  • Colm Meaney is back as the still unnamed O'Brien, this time in a yellow uniform.
  • Geordi at one point comments that they all might be in "beaucoup trouble." Like, gag me with a spoon, how gr-rody!
  • The writers try to flesh out Troi's "I sense things" schtick with some actual science, having her conduct hypnosis on Worf and Crusher, and formally reporting the results to Picard. It's too bad this professional element of her character didn't stick a little better.
  • The HD remastering team had a nightmare on their hands with this episode, having to re-animate all the arcs of alien electrical energy frame by frame to match the original.
I am saving for last the one big takeaway from this otherwise dreadful episode: this was the hour of Next Generation when Data discovered Sherlock Holmes. It's a tenuous connection, as the mystery here isn't really solved by deductive reasoning (the crew doesn't ever really solve it all), but Data's reaction to Holmes is a wonderful snapshot of his character in the first season. First with the whistling on the holodeck in "Encounter at Farpoint," and then with the Chinese finger puzzles in "The Last Outpost," Data is portrayed as becoming easily fixated on things. Here, he lapses into mimicking the character of Sherlock Holmes to a degree where he irritates Picard, condescends to Tasha, and fails to address Riker with the proper military respect. Ultimately, Data would be written as being more professional with his explorations of humanity, but this child-like sense of wonder was a key aspect of his character all the way to the end of the series, and was established right from the beginning.

Still, an interesting musical score and a fun Sherlock Holmes shout-out really isn't enough to pull this episode from the cellar of bad Star Trek episodes. I grade "Lonely Among Us" a D-. It should be watched only if you're watching them all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ar-tistic Triumph

Last night, I went to see the critically praised new film Argo. Based on true events, the movie depicts the extraction of six Americans from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980, under the cover of filming a fake science fiction movie. It was directed by Ben Affleck, who has been carving out quite a career as a director between The Town (which I thought was not bad) and Gone Baby Gone (which I loved). And while he also stars in this movie, he once again proves that his real gifts are behind the camera.

I think that telling a suspenseful story based on actual events is about the hardest challenge you can take on in movie making. Even if the audience doesn't know every beat of the story, the vast majority of them will know exactly how the story ends up. Whether the movie has a happy ending or a tragic one, there's no real surprise, and thus little opportunity to create genuine suspense. Argo manages to do so anyway, in scene after scene.

The script by Chris Terrio skillfully walks the line between respecting actual events while playing up certain aspects (and yes, occasionally taking a few liberties) for the sake of heightening the emotional impact. It has an excellent opening sequence using movie storyboards to explain the geopolitical conditions between the U.S. and Iran before the hostage crisis. It then quickly leads into a tense opening act that depicts the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran that precipitates the story. And from there, it hardly ever lets up, except to insert a few well-placed moments of comic relief surrounding the doing of business in Hollywood.

Ben Affleck directs with a truly brisk pace, and tight editing. He really makes you feel the rising pressure and tension of the situation, and he gets excellent performance from an enormous cast of wonderful actors. Besides himself, there are wonderful turns by Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. Many will also recognize Clea Duvall, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and more from various television roles. And as an added bonus, the end credits include side-by-side comparisons of many of these actors with their real-life counterparts, revealing the lengths the production went to to match the performers to the actual people.

Assuming October isn't too early for most Academy voters to remember come Oscar season, I would expect Argo to be a nominee for this year's Best Picture. It certainly sets a respectable mark to beat for any other film that wants to claim the title. I give it an A-.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hooked

For reasons I don't really understand, the critics took their claws out and savaged Steven Spielberg's "Peter Pan grew up" film, Hook. But one aspect of the film that no one seems to criticize is the score by John Williams. In fact, there are many soundtrack enthusiasts who regard his work on the film as among his career best.

For years, the lack of popularity of the film kept the soundtrack to Hook a somewhat harder to find item. And even if you could find it, it was a far from complete album. The CD wasn't close to full, more than half the film's music was missing, and several tracks were presented in "concert versions" that didn't match what was used on screen. And so, among those soundtrack enthusiasts, Hook became something of a white whale to chase -- a dream that some day, one of the smaller companies that produces expanded soundtrack albums would bestow the honor on Hook.

Earlier this year, La-La Land Records came to the rescue, releasing a 2-CD album of the Hook soundtrack. And as I've raved about the company's releases several times here on the blog, it should come as no surprise that they've done a wonderful job here. The complete score, well over one hour of music, sprawls over a full disc and then some, while the last half of the second disc collects alternate takes, including some of those aforementioned "concert versions" of tracks as featured on the original soundtrack album.

You get absolutely everything, from the rousing and adventurous theme composed exclusively for the movie's teaser trailer (and never actually used in the film), to the oddly different (but awesome) jazz group number "Banning Back Home," to the three part suite for the film's climax, "The Ultimate War." And everything in between -- the brassy and brazen theme for Captain Hook; the child-like innocence of Peter's theme, the unrestrained and flighty flute of Tinkerbell's theme, and more. You even get the weird vocal number from the film, "When You're Alone," which the liner notes of the release helpfully explain is a vestige in the film left over from a time when Spielberg was contemplating making the entire film a musical in a bit of a nod to the Disney incarnation.

The collection is 37 tracks in all, and while I might not go so far as to really call it a Williams career best -- I mean, look at some of the film's in that man's illustrious career -- it is certainly a soundtrack that no enthusiast of the composer, or of film music in general, should be without. There are quite a lot of quiet, backing tracks that pull my overall rating of the soundtrack down into the B range somewhere, but the highlights of album soar to lofty As, and should really be the driving force behind the decision to purchase it or not.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Man, Oh Man(hattan)

Every now and then, I give another classic film by Woody Allen a try. Every time, I find that I vastly prefer his later films -- which he only wrote and directed, rather than acted in -- but when enough time passes, I always seem to be willing to roll the dice again.

This time, I checked out his famous 1979 black-and-white film, Manhattan. It's a simple romantic comedy (with, when you watch now with knowledge of Allen's subsequent years, maybe a bit of wish fulfillment in it?) about a 40-year-old writer dating a 17-year-old girl, who then falls in love with the mistress of his friend (an unhappily married man).

The tone, and even some of the specific scenes, are very much consistent with his Oscar winner, Annie Hall. Furthering this movie's impression of being an unofficial sequel is the fact that once again, the main screen couple is Allen himself and Diane Keaton.

It's easy to see why Woody Allen kept going back to Diane Keaton to appear in his films. She's an effortlessly natural persona in this movie. You certainly feel a character there, particularly in the first act of the film, where she twists the figurative knife by skewering all kinds of art and philosophy liked by Allen's character. But she also simply doesn't feel like she's acting, in a good way.

Equally compelling is the younger love interest, played by Mariel Hemingway. She received one of only two Academy Award nominations for the film (the other was for its screenplay). She very carefully walks a line that allows her character to come off as an innocent teenager, while still appearing more worldly and more mature... enough to make the romance between her and Allen not instantly, immediately creepy. (Which, let's face it, it totally is.)

But then there's the part that brings down all these classic Allen movies in my mind, the performance of Woody Allen himself. It always amazes me that, for a director who clearly wants to cast naturalistic actors who can converse as though their were improvising, he always cast himself in the lead role. Allen's acting is anything but natural. He always seems to be playing a character, even if you occasionally get the whiff that he might actually be this neurotic and obnoxious in real life. And when he keeps casting himself across from these winning actresses, you're always left knowing what his character sees in them, and mystified about what they would see in him.

Meryl Streep is especially funny in a smaller role as Allen's ex-wife, a woman writing a tell-all book about the relationship that drove her to the realization she was a lesbian. You might expect that a 30-year-old movie would use this plot element to cram in a few tasteless and dated homosexual jokes, but thankfully the movie seemed to be ahead of its time in this regard. Streep herself is quite funny in this truly dry role.

But overall, I was left with the impression of a movie funnier on the page than in its actual execution. I'll bump the score a notch in deference to some very eye-catching cinematography that makes great use of the black-and-white film, but overall, I'd still only call it a C-. A fan of other early Woody Allen would be sure to love it; it's unlikely to win over anyone else.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Twisted Tale

Continuing through the stories of Sherlock Holmes, I reached one that I think might be my favorite so far, "The Man With the Twisted Lip."

A woman enlists Holmes to determine what's become of her husband. On a chance outing in town, she spotted him in the upper window of an unfamiliar building, then watched as he seemed to fall back into the room -- as though pulled? She rushed in to find only his clothes and some blood on the window sill. Two witnesses in the building saw nothing of the man; one was behaving suspiciously enough for the police to arrest, but if indeed he committed a murder, there is no evidence of it. Holmes must first solve the nature of the crime itself before he can ferret out the culprit.

Several elements of this story really worked for me. The first was an interesting little side adventure that began the story. Watson is approached by a friend of his wife's, who wants him to retrieve her husband from an opium den. This is a "case" of an entirely separate nature from the main story itself. And while it's certainly not involved or mysterious, it is an adventure that Watson undertakes completely on his own, without Sherlock Holmes. (Though he does encounter Holmes along the way, setting the story proper into motion.) I enjoyed this taste of Watson working solo. It's not detective work by any stretch, but it does serve to make him a more self-sufficient character separate from Holmes. The sidekick takes center stage for a few pages.

Also of interest is the return of Holmes' skill as a master of disguise. If you've followed my comments on earlier Holmes stories, you may recall that I wasn't entirely enamored of this trait the first time around. I felt that its use in the plot made more of a mockery of Watson than a genius of Holmes. And to a certain extent, this is repeated here with Watson again unable at first to recognize his own friend.

This time around, however, Holmes' background in disguises is integral to the plot. And Arthur Conan Doyle cleverly reminds readers of this at the beginning of the story to foreshadow its importance at the resolution of the story. Spoiler alert here, should you care to skip the rest of this paragraph -- but when Sherlock Holmes himself is taken in for a time, I think it undoes some of the "damage." It turns out that perhaps Watson isn't that foolish, but rather that in the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle, everyone donning a disguise is wholly transformed.

I rate "The Man With the Twisted Lip" a B+. It's a fun little adventure built squarely in Holmes' wheelhouse, and I'm hoping for more like it to come.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 10-6

10. Rounders. We're into the top 10 now, and a handful of movies that I find essentially perfect. Rounders is a brilliant story with a simple but powerful message: you have to be true to yourself. It delivers this message through a subject I can't resist -- Texas Hold' Em. And it does it with an absolutely amazing cast playing a wide array of indelible characters: Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, John Malkovich, Famke Janssen, Gretchen Mol, and Martin Landau. Watching this movie lifts me up and makes me feel like I "can take on da vorld." I can't say enough about it.

9. Gattaca. This is another quiet and simple film with a powerful and resonant message about self -- don't let others define your limitations for you. The story is a perfect use of science fiction as metaphor. The stark setting is just the right amount of bleak to amplify the message, and the cast is exceptional. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law shine in the major roles. The supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Tony Shalhoub, Xander Berkeley, Dean Norris, and Ernest Borgnine flesh out the tale and make it more real. It's another movie I've raved about before, and easily could again.

8. Clue. A movie about a board game should have been a disaster (cough Battleship cough), but this movie is a triumph. It's an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, somehow incorporating every last tiny detail of the rules of the game into the film in a natural way. It's also hilariously funny, and brought to life by a group of actors each seemingly one-upping the can't-catch-your-breath-from-laughing hysterics of the last. Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Leslie Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and Madeline Kahn -- I'm not sure a more superb comedy ensemble has ever been assembled. I've been back out to the theater to see a midnight screening of this film, and would gladly do it again and again.

7. The Princess Bride. The notion that this movie might not be in my top 10? Inconceivable! Screenwriter William Goldman adapted his own brilliant novel into this wonderful wry and witty screenplay. At a time in the 1980s when so many fantasy films were being made that were unintentionally camp and funny, this movie was not only effortlessly comedic on purpose, but was simultaneously adventurous and exhilarating. It's a common theme among my top films here, but once again, an exceptional cast was assembled here by a wonderful director, Rob Reiner: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, André the Giant, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Fred Savage, and Peter Falk. Perfection! Anyone who has seen the movie will quote it endlessly and smile, but I think the real testament to the movie's greatness is how well the romance plays. I've been to more than one wedding reception where the closing song "Storybook Love" was played (including once as the couple's first dance). A wonderful film.

6. Moulin Rouge. This finest of movie musicals amazes even though it barely has any original songs in it; the use of "found" pop songs is that inspired. Director Baz Luhrmann serves a visual and aural banquet where all the sights and sounds are integral to the storytelling. The movie evokes every emotion from joyous euphoria to tearful sorrow; even though you're told at the outset exactly how it's all going to end, the impact of the conclusion isn't softened at all. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman give exceptional performances and make an exceptional couple. As the film says, "this is a story about love." And you truly feel that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

TNG Flashback: Where No One Has Gone Before

"Where No One Has Gone Before" is the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's long seven season run that I feel I could actually recommend to someone who isn't a Star Trek fan -- without apologies or excuses -- as a solid representation of the show. It doesn't pack any of the emotional punch that many later episodes would carry, but it does do a great job of conveying the sense of wonder and adventure inherent in the Star Trek series concept.

A pompous warp specialist named Kosinski comes aboard the Enterprise to test upgrades which appear to be meaningless nonsense. But Kosinski's assistant is a powerful alien with the ability to merge space, time, and thought. His presence accidentally accelerates the ship to such an impossible velocity that it reaches the edge of the universe, a place where every thought can be transformed into reality. But the effort injures him, and he may die before he can get the Enterprise back home.

The episode title, of course, is a reference to the opening "saga sell" read by the ship's captain at the start of each episode. It's also similarly titled to the original series' second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," but the title is much more fitting here. That classic Trek episode involved traveling to uncharted territory only as a Macguffin to get into a basically unrelated story; here, the entire point of the story is the journey to uncharted space, and the wondrous, impossible things that exist there.

Actor Eric Menyuk really anchors the episode through his airy, understated performance as the Traveler. According to many sources, Menyuk was actually the runner-up to play Data, and was given this role as something of a consolation. He was memorable enough here to be brought back again later in the series. By contrast, actor Stanley Kamel is a bit over the top as Kosinski, though the part is admittedly written fairly over the top. In any event, he's worlds more natural than the half dozen or so minor actors cast in this episode for a line or two each.

Composer Ron Jones created a fantastic score for this episode. It does lean rather heavily on Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek fanfare (The Next Generation's title theme), but modulates wonderfully between bombastic adventure and atmospheric wonder. There's also a simple but interesting theme for The Traveler that's very well-suited to the character.

The visuals of this episode are particularly striking, and actually still hold up well even 25 years later. They're especially impressive on the Blu-ray remaster. The visual representation of the "thought realm" at the edge of the universe is both elegant in its simplicity, and yet quite unlike anything represented on Star Trek before or since.

Character-wise, the big takeaway from this episode is the revelation that Wesley Crusher is a gifted genius, a Mozart of thought and science. The Traveler asks Picard to encourage his development, and the episode ends with Wesley receiving a commission as an Acting Ensign to allow him regular access to the bridge.

I think I appreciate Wesley's ultimate character arc now more than I did originally. Wesley was a real avatar for every Star Trek fan in this early episode; who wouldn't want to adventure on the Enterprise, if that were somehow really possible? As The Next Generation first ran on television, I was even close to his age, further helping the fantasy. But ultimately, Wesley's arc would be played for greater truth. Not many people know as a teenager what they really want to do with their lives, and sure enough, once he got into Starfleet Academy (college), he found he was completely wrong. Ultimately, he finds the right path for himself. At the time, I think a lot of fans were upset by this, because Wesley didn't choose their dream of being on the Enterprise. But instead, the writers told a much more truthful story about finding one's own way.

Of course, that happens in the last season of the show, so I'm getting way ahead of myself here. So, to bring it back to the point with some other observations about this episode:
  • It's been so long since I regularly watched Star Trek (in any incarnation) that I'm really realizing just how much the Captain's Log is a ham-fisted technique for compressing exposition. If my memory serves, the more sophisticated Deep Space Nine slowly phased the log entries out almost entirely. These early Next Generation episodes are even more conspicuous, using log entries not only to kick off the episode, but to remind everybody of the plot after each commercial break.

  • Counselor Troi is written better here than in any prior episode, and Marina Sirtis gives a matching performance. The character is much more articulate, and her emotions much less showy.

  • The fact that people's thoughts are made real in this episode really tells us a lot about the few main characters whose thoughts we get to see. Worf's a big softie at heart, thinking about his childhood pet targ while on duty. Picard has a lot of anxiety he tries not to let on to others; his first thought is stepping off the turbolift into the void of space, and soon after he seeks comfort from his mother.

  • The revelation of Wesley's commission here would have been a lot cooler if they hadn't already let him man one of the bridge stations during "Code of Honor."
As I said, this was not a deeply emotional episode, but it was a thoughtful and intriguing one. I rate it a B+. It's certainly a standout from the first season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Terrible Tail

A friend loaned me the copy of the movie Red Tails that he'd purchased on Blu-ray -- possibly out of a need to "amortize" the cost of that purchase, since he himself admitted up front it wasn't very good. But then, George Lucas had stuck his fingers in this particular pie, acting as producer, shepherd of the project, and even the director in some re-shot sequences he'd decided to do.

So what were the chances it could actually be good?

Just as I was about to return the movie to my friend unwatched, I bought something that required about an hour of assembly, and decided to throw the movie on in the background as I worked. On those terms, I was able to get started. But once I'd finished my assembly, there was still too much movie left to go. And boy, it really was bad.

But let me back up a step in case you're not familiar with Red Tails. It's a highly fictionalized account of the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, a group of all African-American Air Force pilots in World War II. Battling racism and shoddy, hand-me-down equipment, the unit nonetheless distinguished themselves in service, and were a shining illustration of equality (and ultimately acceptance from many who actually flew with them), years in advance of the real surge of the civil rights movement.

In short, very worthy material for a movie. In fact, the Tuskegee Airmen have been depicted in films before, including one featuring Red Tails actor Cuba Gooding Jr., and another featuring Red Tails actor Terrence Howard. Both actors should have quite while they were ahead. Well... I assume ahead, because I can't imagine those other films telling the story much worse than this.

The problem that permeates every minute of Red Tails is that it's one endless cliché. The stilted dialogue is every bit of "pilot chatter" you've heard in every aerial combat movie -- good and bad -- ever made. The plot, which should be a unique depiction of the particular struggles of these men, somehow comes off like every cliché movie where underdogs were doubted by authority figures in charge. The subplots play out like every cliché subplot you see in these movies too, from a battle with alcoholism to a battle with rage to an unexpected romance. Even the death scenes are cliché. I suppose I can understand an approach to the Tuskegee Airmen that, rather than focus on their differences, focuses on their similarities to other pilots. But it's as though the writer and director -- and George Lucas pulling the strings behind them all -- knew of no other way to do that than to make the most familiar and hackneyed World War II movie ever.

You'd think you could at least count on the visual effects to be decent, but Red Tails fails on that front too. Absolutely everything is realized through CG, and it isn't good CG. Environments feel obviously green-screened. Planes look almost hand-drawn; their edges don't seem sharp and their movements don't seem to have the correct weight. Nothing seems authentic.

It's unfortunate that such a worthy story resulted in such a lame movie. I can't quite curse it with an F, just because when I ranked it on the almighty Flickchart, a significant number of movies still managed to fall below this one. But Red Tails is certainly no better than a D-.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My One Political Appeal Before Election Day

The presidential election in the United States is two weeks from today. The final debate was last night, and early voting has opened up many places already -- including here in Colorado. So I'm going to allow myself this one political post before Election Day, and then I promise nothing but two weeks of my usual pop culture commentary.

In this highly polarized political environment, the vast majority of you reading this have already decided who you're voting for. I'm not going to focus here on trying to change anyone who has made up their mind. Instead, I'm going to aim at the tiny sliver of people out there who are on the fence. Not so much the unicorn-like "undecided voter," but rather friends of mine who I've heard express their indifference to the entire election. "They're both terrible," I've heard more than one person tell me. "I may not even vote at all, because it makes no difference to me who wins."

If you truly believe that, then let me say to you: it makes a big difference to me.

It's been getting a lot better to be gay in America over the past decade. Indeed, if the polls can be believed, it appears that on election night, at least one state will become the first ever to approve marriage equality by a popular vote. But no matter what happens, the next five to ten years are going to be critical for gay rights.

By next summer, it's likely the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. There's reason for optimism there, but it's likely to be decided by a thin 5-4 decision. And if that margin breaks the other way, then the gay and lesbian couples legally married in the U.S. will continue to have their marriages unrecognized by the federal government, until such time as our perpetually gridlocked Congress passes a repeal of DOMA.

The question of whether gays have a fundamental right to marry is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court as well. Most legal scholars seem to think they'll pass on the California Prop 8 case waiting on their docket at this very moment. But even if they pass on that case, there will be another. Maybe one of the two recently started in Nevada and Hawaii -- or maybe another after that. One way or another, this issue will be decided by the Supreme Court within the next presidential term.

Mitt Romney thinks that equal rights is an "assault" on marriage. He wants an amendment enshrining discrimination in our Constituition, saying that even people who do more to honor this country that I'll ever do will not have equal rights. And while Romney has tried to portray himself more as a centrist since winning the Republican party nomination, he has never deviated from full agreement with his party platform's bigoted stance on people like me.

Barack Obama, by sharp contrast, has given his full endorsement for marriage equality, saw to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and has been pushing anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals even while legislators have been dragging their feet. His leadership on these issues has not only led the Democratic party to endorse marriage equality in its platform for the first time, but has spurred some progress on this issue in the world at large.

The President of the United States holds the power to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, and at least one will almost certainly by appointed before 2016. He also holds the power to veto legislation by Congress, increasing the threshold to pass a law to two-thirds of the representatives (which, in the current political climate, would be essentially impossible). In short, whoever is president come January 20, 2013 will have immense, direct control over my personal rights. It's reasonable to conclude that under a second Obama term, gay people will likely achieve equal rights in just a few years. It's equally reasonable to conclude that under a Romney presidency (even if it lasts only one term), that won't even happen in this decade.

I know that different voters have different priorities in making their decisions. I could go on about how I think Obama makes better sense not just on this issue, but on womens' rights, foreign policy, and even the economic policies that most pundits say will decide the election. But as I said, I'm not trying to change any settled minds here. I'm speaking to whatever percentage of you truly don't care, or really think it makes no difference.

If it's really all the same to you, then would you consider throwing some help my way? I hope I've expressed just how much it would mean to me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lost Re-view: Collision

The next episode of Lost was written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Leonard Dick. This was the last credited episode for the former; he left after the end of the second season (though was apparently responsible for creating the Swan "blast door map" that made a big splash later in the season). It was directed by franchise regular Stephen Williams.

The episode is centered around Ana Lucia, and covers the aftermath of her fatal shooting of Shannon. I found it a particularly strong episode, going back to watch it again. I think the first time around, I was too preoccupied with how much I disliked the Ana Lucia character to fully appreciate the episode. And while I still don't think this episode makes her "likeable" (nor is it intended to), it truly does a masterful job of explaining everything about why she is the way she is.

It all has to do with her flashbacks, a series of carefully written scenes that chronicle her going back on duty as a beat cop after several months leave. We learn that she was shot four times at close range by a suspect, through her vest, and very nearly died. But it's the details surrounding this that really explain Ana Lucia.

In the opening scene, for example, she's talking with a department psychiatrist to get reapproved for duty, and reveals that her boyfriend has left her after the shooting. Pressed to explain her feelings about this, she says that she's probably just one of those people who is better off alone. In essence, the "lesson" she seems to have learned from this relationship is that even those closest to you can abandon you, and can do so even in your time of greatest need. Better not to let anyone in close at all.

On her first day back on the job, Ana Lucia pulls a gun on a civilian, spurred on by the crying of his baby. That same day, the suspect who shot her months earlier is apprehended, but she refused to ID him even after he has confessed to the crime. It turns out she wants him back out on the street to carry out her own justice. She stalks the man, confronts him in a dark alley, reveals that she was pregnant when she was shot (and lost the baby), and then kills him in cold blood. Puts six bullets in him, in fact.

During the Island part of the story, she recounts her shooting to Sayid. She was responding to a call, going in alone through the front door as her partner went around the back. When a man came out the front door professing he was just a bystander, she let him reach for his ID. Instead, he drew a gun and shot her at close range.

Together, all this information paints a vivid picture of why Ana Lucia is so damaged. She lowered her guard for one second, was completely duped by someone she misread, and wound up losing her unborn baby and nearly dying herself. (In fact, she says she feels like she did die that day.)

All of this past played out again on the Island, as we saw in earlier episodes. She pledged to protect a young child from harm, and was unable to do it. She misjudged someone who was pretending to be a friend -- Goodwin. Once again, her experiences were all underscoring some dispiriting points. Don't try to help anyone, because you can't. Don't trust anyone, because they'll betray you. No one is what they appear to be.

No wonder she is the way she is.

The on-Island story blends the aftermath of Shannon's death with the merging of the Oceanic survivors. Sayid tries to attack Ana Lucia, but Eko intercedes, so she uses the opportunity to knock Sayid out from behind, then tie him up. She goes into a barely controlled panic, threatening even her own friends of 48 days with her gun as she tries to figure out what to do.

Almost everyone takes a shot at trying to talk Ana Lucia down, but she's just grasping for control. Finally, Eko is fed up enough with the situation -- and concerned that Sawyer will die -- that he decides simply to leave. He hoists Sawyer over his shoulder and walks away.

But it's not only Ana Lucia in turmoil. The greatest moment of anguish in the episode is Sayid's, when Michael goes to give him water, and reveals that their raft was destroyed. The Others took Walt, who is now somewhere back here on the Island. Sayid's pain at this revelation tells us that he still was likely was just humoring Shannon at the end when he said he believed her. He now realizes with horror that she was right all along. His last moment with her may have been a reconciliation, but he still doubted her in his heart, and he'll never be able to make that right.

Meanwhile, an oddly light subplot has begun that involves Kate and Jack challenging each other to a round of golf, but it's really just a device to separate them from the group and position them where Eko then emerges from the jungle. They all rush to get Sawyer to the Hatch, where they can give him medical attention.

Locke is manning the button, doing a crossword to pass the time. He's prominently filling in clue 42 (numbers!), with the clue "Enkidu's friend." He fills in "Gilgamesh," and Lost fans everywhere scramble to dissect the reference to an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. In a nutshell (for those who didn't see the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok"), two rival heroes battle each other, but then become friends. Both slay a monster together, before one is executed by the gods in retribution.

There are plenty of possible allegories to draw here. This could refer to Jack and Ana Lucia, the de facto leaders of the rival "tribes" of Oceanic survivors. It could refer to Locke and Eko, the "spiritual leaders" of the tribes, and the first from each group to encounter the Smoke Monster. (Eko would be killed by it.) Or, if you believe the Lost writers planned things out way in advance, it could be a reference to the Smoke Monster himself, and his brother Jacob, the former "killed" by upsetting the power at the heart of the Island. However you choose to read it, it's a split second moment on screen that sparks some fun theorizing.

Jack goes to work on Sawyer, while Locke introduces himself to Eko. For his part, Eko seems enthralled by the inside of the Swan station, no doubt comparing it to the emptied out Arrow bunker where his group has been living. It's a stark contrast in the living conditions of the two groups.

Meanwhile, Bernard is pushing Ana Lucia to know her plan. Sayid taunts that she has none, just guilt and a gun. So on the spur of the moment, she decides the thing for her is to finally embrace the lesson that life is repeatedly showing her -- she's better off alone. She sends Michael back to camp to gather supplies for her; if he brings them, she'll release Sayid. And soon, when Libby brings up the incident of Ana Lucia throwing the innocent Nathan into a pit and nearly torturing him, she decides to let them all go but Sayid.

In the Hatch, the love triangle of Sawyer-Kate-Jack is put back into play, as Kate soothes the delirious Sawyer long enough to give him medicine to stave off infection and sepsis. As this unfolds, Locke is trying to convince Eko to take him to where Shannon has been killed, but Eko has spotted the armory of rifles there in the Hatch, and refuses to enable any more potential violence.

Michael finds Sun tending her garden, and she brings him to the Hatch. Jack is furious to learn what has happened, and this only strengthens Eko's resolve to reveal nothing. What are they hoping for? Revenge? Justice? And then he happens to mention Ana Lucia's name -- which Jack recognizes from his chance encounter with her before the flight in the Sydney airport. His icy resolve becomes conflicted, and that's when Eko agrees to take him -- and only him, unarmed -- to see Ana Lucia.

This is the moment in the episode when Ana Lucia tells the story of how she was shot to Sayid, but she stops short of the complete truth -- she lies and says she never found the man who shot her. But it seems that Sayid senses the truth, or at least recognizes they are kindred spirits. When she decides at that moment to let Sayid go, and allows him to kill her because she deserves it, he simply counters: "what good would it be to kill you if we're both already dead?" She died when she lost her baby; he died when he lost Shannon. (Interesting, much later in the series, Sayid would die more literally, and then come back "wrong" through the temple waters and become an agent of the Man in Black. But Sayid's loss here certainly primes the pump for his aimless doubt, his lack of a moral compass in a world where such bad things can happen.)

The episode concludes with another one of Lost's patented montages -- no dialogue, only sweeping, emotional music from Michael Giacchino. But this particular montage is especially powerful, as it covers a series of reunions on the beach. It's aimed first at animal lovers, when Vincent the dog runs to greet Michael. But you're truly challenged not to tear up when Rose and Bernard are finally reunited after so much time apart and so many hardships. Then you're pushed harder still when Sun and Jin reunite (we in the audience recalling that for a short time, she'd given up hope that he was alive). This is without question the most emotionally potent sequence so far in the second season.

It ends with Jack arriving in the jungle to see Sayid carrying the lifeless Shannon. Then Jack and Ana Lucia come face to face. The final shot is a wide angle view of the two of them standing on opposite ends of the screen, a strong visual to end a strong episode.

Ana Lucia may not be my favorite character, but this is a very well-written back story for her, elevated even more by the powerful moments included for the characters we've known longer and loved. I rate the episode an A-.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Lame Horse

With a setting of the Wild West frontier, Dark Horse is a resource allocation game rather in the mold of Kingsburg (assuming you've played that). Each round, every player rolls two dice, and then in turn allocates those dice to acquiring resources in different ways. Those resources are in turn used to build out your network of towns on a hex board, all trying to maximize your points for a fast approaching endgame.

A designer I'm unfamiliar with, Don Lloyd, is the man behind Dark Horse, and every one of the design decisions he has made here is something of a double-edged sword. In the family of dice-rolling resource games, Dark Horse is about the shortest game I've played. It's shorter even than the typical game of Settlers of Catan due to the lack of any trading component between players. The box claims the game can be as fast as 30 minutes, and while the time I played took twice as long as that, it did involve more than one new player. I can see that run time shrinking down.

On the other hand, dice are fickle things. Part of what makes their inclusion in games like Settlers of Catan and Kingsburg work is that they get thrown a lot in those games. Generally speaking (though there are exceptions), enough dice are rolled over the course of those games to flatten out the statistics and make an expected curve of results. By crushing Dark Horse down into a such a short game, there's no real opportunity for statistics to win out. So it's possible -- as I experienced firsthand -- for you to get on a bad rolling streak that doesn't end for the entire run of the short but quite unfun game.

In short, I had a pretty bad experience playing Dark Horse. It wasn't so bad that I'd refuse to play again... though if I had a second experience like the first, I probably would refuse after that. I'd sooner recommend Kingsburg, with all its flaws.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Game's Afoot (It Smells Like One, Anyway)

My good friend whose passion for Sherlock Holmes is a large part of what prompted me to start reading Doyle's complete writings warned me: the recent Hollywood sequel, A Game of Shadows, was terrible. I'd had a lukewarm reaction to the original, where my friend had actually rather liked it. And here he was, telling me that the sequel was atrocious. So it was a pretty easy matter for me to take the film off my list and resolve not to see it.

What I really can't begin to explain to you is what changed. I hit my head and forgot the warning long enough to put the movie in my Netflix queue? I put the movie in the queue before I received the warning and forgot to take it out? I was so enthusiastic for more Holmes that I was even willing to take in the bad stuff? Well, whatever it was, I got the movie and watched it.

And my friend was not wrong. It's pretty terrible.

As if forgetting any of the intelligence and cleverness that made Holmes popular in the first place, this sequel film is focused on blowing up (sometimes literally) all the showy visual aspects of the first film. More slow-motion fight sequences. More mindless action sequences. More everything except actual plot.

The storyline of the film is barely coherent. It has something to do with Moriarty building a criminal plot that for some reason involves a gypsy fortune teller who threatens him, even though she doesn't know why or how. It somehow necessitates getting onto a train and getting shot up, traveling to mainland Europe, stockpiling lots of weaponry (which is used to cause a lot of visually impressive damage in one late sequence), and a disguised assassin? I think. The individual sequences are clear enough, I suppose, but how things connect from A to B to C is... well, non-existent really.

Jared Harris, a fine actor from TV's Mad Men, is wasted in his role as Moriarty. His brand of villainy is too conventional, a personification of the way the film substitutes action for intelligence. It's especially disappointing after the brilliant portrayal of Moriarty in the BBC's modernized take on Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law do still make a truly entertaining screen pairing, and yet what that relationship is in this film seems to have morphed from the first film, and bears little resemblance to the Holmes and Watson of the book. Where Doyle's characters each provide motivation to and bring out the best in the other, these two characters squabble and needle each other like an old married couple. Far from indispensable to one another, they act like they can't wait to be rid of each other. What you see on screen between the two of them is more than sometimes fun to watch, but it's pitched like a 19th century buddy cop movie -- a 48 Hours or Rush Hour done well, sure, but not a Sherlock Holmes tale.

Whatever lapse of mine made me forget my friend's review, I certainly paid for it. I now pass that same judgment on to you. I rate the film a D. It was a dreadful mess, made all the worse for the fists full of cash it apparently raked in at the box office.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Madge As Hell!

Last night, I went to see Madonna in concert here in Denver. It was a strange night that actually kept on giving this morning.

The concert was scheduled to begin at 8:00. The Pepsi Center crowd sat with growing impatience until 8:45, when an opening act finally took the stage. It was a DJ who spun thumpa-thumpa tunes for 45 minutes. For a dance club, he'd have been alright. But for a concert? Strange stuff.

The roadies cleared the DJ's gear from the stage quickly. And then the waiting re-began. When things hadn't begun again after another half hour, the crowd started to get restless. People would begin to boo... and then other people would start cheering just as loudly. It was a war between people rightly upset at being made to wait, and people who seemed to fear that maybe Madonna was a Tinkerbell-like fairy who would never show up at all if we didn't clap loud enough.

10:15 rolled by. Then 10:30. Finally, they dropped the big curtain that had been obscuring part of the stage. The crowd cheered!

Then nothing. 5 more minutes. 10. 15. Then finally, at 10:45, nearly three hours late, Madonna finally took to the stage. There was no explanation, no apology. She even bantered with the audience at one point, asking how much we loved her. Dicey question at that moment, I think.

It's impossible to set all that aside... and yet, I do have to admit that the show itself was pretty great. The stage was unbelievably cool, with a staggering number of trap doors, elevating pillars, giant projection screens, and more -- more than the average stationary Las Vegas show. Similarly, the staging of the songs was always great, with loads of high concepts, elaborate costumes, and crazy choreography. It was a true spectacle.

Madonna herself gave a mixed-to-good performance. She was a high octane dancer, but her vocals were hit and miss. In a handful of songs, she sounded really solid, but most of her vocals were highly processed with electronica effects and even straight up auto-tune. Not the best.

Still, I'd probably have given the concert an A- overall.... had it actually started at 8:00. Getting home on a "school night" at 1:30 in the morning? I don't even know how to rate that. Certainly, I don't feel like I can condone such rude treatment of fans as to recommend other people see her show.

But as I said, the gift kept on giving today. I went to search Google this morning, wondering if I'd find any explanation of the unbearable delay. (I'd learned the night before, while trying to entertain myself, that she'd pulled a similar stunt in Philadelphia earlier in the tour.) I found there were articles galore about Madonna's offensive Denver show. But the tardiness was merely a footnote to an entirely different complaint.

One of Madonna's early numbers was a violent but theatrical staging of the song "Gang Bang." It featured her using semi-automatic rifles and pistols to shoot up her background dancers as they tried to assault her in a grimy hotel room set. In they'd come, she'd "shoot," and send them flying artistically to the floor as a giant gore-laced blood splatter effect played 100 feet tall on the giant screen behind her. Pretty cool, I thought at the time. She punctuated the finale by walking out toward the audience, taking aim with her machine gun, and firing off pretend shots into the crowd.

So this morning, here comes a raft of stories full of people offended at Madonna's insensitivity in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shootings. Hmmm.... what do I think about that?

Well, it didn't even occur to me to make that connection last night. But other people were certainly affected by the shootings in a far more direct way than I was, so the connection is not unreasonable. And yet, what's the "waiting period" on it being OK to stage pretend violence in Denver again? And shouldn't people be getting upset about real gun violence more than this pretend kind?

What's more, this number, staged this way, has been part of this concert tour from the very beginning, in countless cities around the world. It's not like Madonna added this to piss off people in Denver. Should she have taken it out just for our one city alone?

Perhaps most importantly of all, given that Madonna has made her career on pushing buttons, can you really whine about her doing something offensive at a concert?

Uh... wait a minute... when I say I can't whine at her being offensive, does "offensive" include showing up two hours and forty-five minutes late? How big a hypocrite am I here?

I'm going to be pondering just what I thought of this show for a while, I think. Maybe just the way Madonna herself would want it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

TNG Flashback: The Last Outpost

"The Last Outpost" introduced the Ferengi to the Star Trek universe. A Ferengi vessel steals a Federation device, and the Enterprise is ordered to pursue. Both ships are then captured by an energy draining beam from an alien world, where a sleeping guardian of a long-dead empire awakens to challenge both groups.

This episode did so much damage to the Ferengi as a credible nemesis that they were rarely seen again before Deep Space Nine set about the long process of reforming their image. Not as many of the problems as you might think were baked right into the script. The dialogue establishes many of the qualities that were the hallmarks of the Ferengi even later, such as their devotion to profit and innate instinct to deceive. These aspects don't inherently make them laughable villains. What's more, the whip hand weapons they use here look kind of cool, as does the strange weapon we see their ship fire at the beginning of the episode. On paper, the Ferengi could have been neat.

The writers aren't blameless here, though. They mistakenly have the Ferengi fixate on gold, a substance our heroes have learned how to replicate. (The fixation would later be refined by the DS9 writers into an invented substance, gold-pressed latinum.) They also have the ridiculous dialogue about "forcing women to wear clothing" and threatening to unclothe them. Maaaaaybe the writers thought this might come off like a credible threat to rape or something like that, which certainly would have made them villainous. But seriously, could any actor read that and not have it sound laughable?

Still, it's ultimately the director of the episode that did the real damage -- further proven by the fact that this was the only time he ever worked on the show. Actor Armin Shimerman (who later played Quark, but first appeared here as part of the Ferengi away team) has said the director encouraged them to "jump up and down like crazed gerbils." And they do exactly that, most stupidly during the final conversation Riker has with the alien named Portal. It's just painful to watch, really. The Ferengi also writhe around constantly in response to the thunder, because obviously they have big ears and stuff, so loud noises must hurt them. Get it?

I think you know it's the director's fault and not the actors' because this odd fixation on weird physicality shows up not only in the Ferengi, but in Portal as well. He slumps over oddly on his staff with a half-dead leg, even though he swings that staff around (in sped-up time) as a weapon just moments later. All this is why the Ferengi who appears on the viewscreen, DaiMon Tarr, seems almost normal, and certainly not as ridiculous as the others. The script called for him to just sit in a chair and talk into the camera, so there was no opportunity for the director to push a weird physicality onto the actor.

Some miscellaneous observations on the episode:
  • The Ferengi logo appears as a tattoo on the DaiMon's forehead (which I knew before this viewing) and is also stamped several times on the bottom of their ship (which I hadn't noticed until now).

  • Data has an oddly human moment in the exchange where Worf doesn't know who "Uncle Sam" is, this fractional smile that reads as "I know something you don't know! Cool!" Brent Spiner is sort of in what I'd call a prototype state here, but he'd eventually become a master at depicting these moments that read as trying to be human.

  • Geordi is sent down to Engineering in this episode, and has an early scene where he appears very much in his element there. I wonder how much of moving his character to chief engineer after season one was just driven by the desire to have a regular character in that position, or if seeing LeVar Burton's acting in this episode had any influence.

  • Picard says "merde" in one scene, totally cursing on national broadcast television in 1987.

  • It seems the ship geography establishing the conference room behind the bridge may not yet have been in place. Or perhaps there are multiple identical conference rooms around the ship. Anyway, there's this weird beat of Riker chasing out two kids who were playing in there before the senior staff has their meeting. Was this to remind us there are kids on the ship? Strange.

  • Speaking of weird, why is Data playing with a Chinese finger trap while he's on duty?

  • Early on, Troi explains that she can sense nothing from the Ferengi, who perhaps can shield their emotions from her. But later on, when Picard is negotiating with Tarr, she says that she can sense he's hiding something. Sucking up to the boss?

  • Down on the planet, we see the Ferengi dragging in the unconscious Worf after a commercial break. Because they couldn't possibly have shown us a logical way those Ferengi would have gotten the drop on Worf.

  • There's a really crap moment where Picard tells Beverly that her son Wesley "has the right to meet death awake," and she counters with "Is that a male perspective?" Picard calls it like it is, though, proclaiming the comment "rubbish." But oddly, that's the end of the scene.

  • Speaking of weirdness between those two, Beverly calls Picard "Jean" (not "Jean-Luc") at one point.

  • It's not really clear how Riker deduces that speaking the unvarnished truth to Portal is the right strategy, since he starts doing this even before Portal drops the Sun Tzu reference as a major clue.

  • We get the very first instance of "make it so" at the end of the episode.
All told, we have an episode full of good characterization for Riker. It also includes several fun, if not entirely sensical, moments for Data. But the rest is pretty terrible, and what was done to the Ferengi here was unforgivable and almost unrecoverable. I give "The Last Outpost" a D+.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 15-11

15. Love Actually. This brilliant film is perhaps the ultimate hybrid. It's a romantic comedy, an anthology, a Christmas movie, a tear-jerking drama, and more. Its bottomless cast featuring numerous award-winning and -nominated actors will make you laugh and cry. I raved about this movie a few years back (though it was not the first time I'd seen it). Really, the only bad thing I think you could say about it was that it spawned several critically derided knock-offs based around other holidays.

14. Galaxy Quest. When J.J. Abrams, director of the newest Star Trek films, was asked what he himself thought was the best Star Trek movie, he reportedly answered Galaxy Quest. And honestly, whether the story is true or not, the sentiment certainly is. This brilliant comedy is tinged with surprising drama, emotion, and thrills, and soars to heights even greater than my favorite real Star Trek film. It lovingly parodies the actual Trek franchise without ever once denigrating it; it even makes a hero out of a sci-fi fan. Once again, I have an earlier review you can read for more details.

13. The Shawshank Redemption. I've never read the original novella by Stephen King on which this film was based, but based on his writing that I have read, credit for this film's brilliance must go to writer-director Frank Darabont. Whaever alchemy he worked to massage that story into this brilliant script, whatever uncanny ability he had to elicit amazing performances from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman (among others), this film was a towering achievement. And it's criminal that this movie won none of the 7 Oscars for which it was nominated, was left off of the AFI's original top 100 film list (only to be added in the 10th Anniversary version), and barely covered its budget in a largely ignored theatrical release. At least it's appreciated today; IMdB users have rated it the best movie ever made.

12. Frailty. When most people think "horror," they think of a monster or killer lurking in the shadows, jumping out to scare the audience. But Frailty is a true horror film; it is utterly horrific. A domineering father played by Bill Paxton forces his two sons to help assist him in committing grizzly murders of people he says are actually demons in disguise. Can two young boys bring themselves to stop their own father? And are they even capable of doing so? This film was also directed by Bill Paxton, who did such a tremendous job delivering a taut, moody, unsettling film, it's unthinkable that he's directed only one full length film since then. Sure, he's been starring on an HBO TV series (Big Love) for most of that time, but I think his even greater talent is being wasted. (More thoughts on the movie were in my earlier review.)

11. American Beauty. I've gushed about this movie before, and in the process revealed friends who both love and hate it. Anyone who has watched Six Feet Under will concede that Alan Ball's writing can be polarizing that way. I find the tightly woven tapestry here to be ingenious, and the characters all captivating. Sam Mendes provides wonderful direction to a cast of amazing actors. Of all the movies to ever actually win the Best Picture Oscar, American Beauty is my favorite.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Friendly Arrangement

I recently watched last year's independent film, Friends With Kids. It comes from the real-life partner of actor Jon Hamm, a triple-threat writer, director, and actress named Jennifer Westfeldt. It's a film revolving around a pair of longtime friends, played by Westfeldt and Adam Scott, who decide to have a child together in their own platonic, unmarried relationship. The story unfolds over years as the two of them conceive and begin raising the child, try to juggle their parenting, and continue their separate dating lives in search of "the one."

There's a great deal of both humor and sentiment in this film. The cast is full of actors able to play both comedy and drama with skill. Many of the cast are friends in real life, and several actually appeared together in Bridesmaids -- Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd and Jon Hamm. They're joined here by Edward Burns and Megan Fox in supporting roles.

The humor here is sure to play to all kinds of audiences. As one without children in my own circle of friends, I laughed riotously and cringed with familiarity at the opening 15 minutes, which show the singles trying to blend into the angst-ridden wild kingdom of their friends with toddlers. I'm sure if those friends were to watch this movie, they'd have a similar reaction laughing at the moments where those childless friends talk too flippantly about how easy parenting would be if they were doing it.

The drama of the film is just as strong. Because the movie has multiple couples in it, and because it unfolds over several years, you get to see several stages of several different types of relationship. And I'm probably not spoiling anything to say that not all of them do well. There are several honest moments in the film both uncomfortable and sad.

Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt make a wonderful screen not-a-couple. You really end up rooting for them to make their arrangement work. The film could be called an ensemble piece, but it really revolves around the two of them. They do most of the heavy lifting, and the film wouldn't work at all if not for them.

My only criticism would be that you know exactly how the movie is going to resolve. And not only does it make no effort to buck convention despite the unconventional premise, it actually embraces a few cliché moments from other romantic comedies... and not to tweak or deflate them. It's not that they feel wrong in this movie; you just wish it had done a little better.

Still, the movie is well worth watching even if parts of it feel familiar. I'd actually grade it an A-. There's something for everyone here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The L8est

A few months ago, I wrote about "8: The Play," a theatrical piece written by Dustin Lance Black, based on the transcripts of the Proposition 8 trial in California. I noted the all-star reading that can be viewed online, but also commented that local stagings of the play are occurring all over the country. One such reading took place tonight here in Denver, at the Denver Center Theater Company.

Going back to my high school days, I was able to shadow several play rehearsals at the Denver Center, and got to meet several of the actors working there. It's nearly 20 years later, and many of those actors are no longer part of the company. But a few of them are, and some of those were part of tonight's staged reading. So while it's true that I didn't get to see the likes of Martin Sheen, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Kevin Bacon performing live for my entertainment, I did get to see some performances by a few actors I have at least a slightly closer connection to.

I've watched that big LA performance online a few times. I also bought the audio recording, and have listened to that many times more. So watching the live reading tonight was an interesting study in how different actors interpret the same material. And while I've certainly seen different casts stage plays I like in different ways on other occasions, there was an extra added layer here to knowing that the bulk of this play was taken straight from the actual court transcripts, using the words the actual trial participants said. And seeing what a difference this made demonstrated all the more clearly how sad it was that the Supreme Court ruled to prohibit the distribution of the actual trial footage. What could be better than seeing it all exactly as it truly happened?

I don't want to get too much into comparing and contrasting Denver local actors to A-list Hollywood celebrities. But it was interesting to note, for example, how DCTC regular Kathleen Brady served up a trial judge much more probing, even snide and caustic, than I'd heard in the widely distributed recording. As plaintiffs' attorney David Boies, actor Sam Gregory found a good deal more humor in the role than I'd perceived before. Of course, this was a staged reading done with very little rehearsal, so some of the other performances weren't crisp or polished -- but in most cases, the words still rang through with sharp clarity.

This was a one night only event, so unfortunately I can't tell everyone to go out and see it. But I can reiterate that I found it a great experience even already knowing the play quite well. So I'll end this post as I ended my last on 8, by encouraging all my readers to check out the play's official website, to see if there's a local performance happening any time soon in your area. It's well worth it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Izzard Is the Best Part

Last night, one of my favorite stand-up comedians, Eddie Izzard, gave a performance in Boulder. A group of my friends (and, it seems, about half my office) were all in attendance. It was a good show... but unfortunately, not a great show.

The first time I ever saw Eddie Izzard was watching his special Dress to Kill. He's supernaturally funny in that. Tears streaming down your face, let up for a second because I can't breathe funny. I can watch that show (I bought it on DVD) and still laugh at it, even though I've seen it several times, even though I have the audio CD ripped and stored on my iPod (where it comes up regularly in the shuffle).

But it seems that Dress to Kill was his peak. I've watched some of his other concert DVDs. Glorious in particular is very, very good. When I saw him in person on his Sexie tour a few years back, though, I was... well, "disappointed" is not quite the right word. He still made me laugh. I still found him funnier than pretty much any other stand-up comedian. It just wasn't up to the impossibly high bar Eddie Izzard had set in my mind.

Last night's show in Boulder was another step down from there. His material this time out was much more heavily steeped in politics than any other set of his I've seen. And while he has always incorporated religion into his humor, it was much more about atheism than he's done before. It was so centered around the topic, in fact, that I couldn't help but compare it to Tim Minchin, who I saw last year and loved. And, unfortunately for Eddie Izzard, he doesn't quite stack up in that comparison.

Izzard did a full 90 minutes, and when he drifted more into his own weird lens on the world, he was great. He had a hilarious bit on horse dressage, a great prolonged bit about Ancient Greece (specifically the language), and funny little asides about dyslexia and cat behavior. I would still say his material is better than many other stand-up comedians today. It's just not as inspired as the unbelievable material he had a decade ago.

This was a quite reasonably priced ticket, as concerts go, so I would overall call it a very fun night out. But if I'm giving it a grade, it would probably be a B. Nothing shameful in that, except that I used to see Eddie Izzard as an A+.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Orange Alert

I recently wrote of the "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" that, more than other Sherlock Holmes stories, it had not aged well in the more than a century since it was written. Unfortunately, the next story suffers a similar problem.

"The Five Orange Pips" is a case where a young man comes desperately to Holmes after the death of his uncle and father. Both deaths were ruled accidental, but the threatening letters they received before their deaths -- branded with the initials "K.K.K." -- suggest something more sinister. And now the young man has received such a letter himself, and fears for his life.

Doyle certainly loved to craft his stories around people and ideas from foreign lands, things he assumed his British audience would not have wide knowledge of. I've just begun my journey through his complete Holmes writings, and he's already tackled Mormons, India, a pygmy, and more. I assume his aim in this was to make his mysteries more sensational and fantastical for his audience; any inaccuracies or exaggerations he introduced in his portrayal of these aspects were simply in the name of telling a better story.

In this short story, the young man recounts his uncle's history to Holmes, including the fact that he lived in America for a time, worked with the Confederates, and opposed efforts to end slavery. Thus the "mysterious" initials KKK aren't mysterious at all for a modern reader.

Doyle could not possibly have planned for the future here (even if he'd been inclined to; this early in his Holmes writing, he could not possibly have been thinking of any kind of legacy for himself or the character). I did some research of my own (my Google outpacing Holmes' Encyclopedia), and learned that the pro-segregation version of the Ku Klux Klan most widely known today is actually the third distinct incarnation of the group. The first was active in the decade right after the Civil War and, by the time Doyle was writing this story, was essentially no longer active. He thought he was writing about a defunct organization from a faraway country that none of his readers would know a thing about. Little did he know that the group would reemerge more hateful than ever in the next century, and that few of his readers (in the U.S. anyway) would not have heard of them.

So essentially, Doyle's big reveal is completely blown in this story. The motives and perpetrators of the crime here are known to the reader even before they're known to Holmes. This fact alone might not necessarily sink the story... but the resolution does.

I don't see a way to dance around this one without spoiling the ending, so here's your fair warning to skip this paragraph. This mystery ends with the perpetrators getting on a ship back to the United States before Holmes can apprehend them... and then with that ship sinking in the Atlantic by fluke. The culprit eludes Holmes' justice. Indeed, Holmes perhaps can never even be sure of his conclusions in the crime, because the perpetrators can never be apprehended to confess. It's an odd and unsatisfying ending, rendered odder still in the rapid way Doyle tells it. Holmes and Watson are practically mid-conversation, discussing their plans to apprehend the criminals in America, when Watson suddenly ends his narrative with a single paragraph explaining the sinking of the ship. Though he did warn at the opening of telling the story that it didn't have a conclusive outcome, the abruptness of the ending makes the whole thing feel like a TV show canceled after ending its season on a cliffhanger.

So ultimately, I'm afraid I must give "The Five Orange Pips" a failing mark. I'd call it no better than a D+, a truly disappointing Sherlock Holmes tale.

Friday, October 12, 2012

TNG Flashback: Code of Honor

"Code of Honor" is the first real dud of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season. The Enterprise is sent to negotiate with a more technologically primitive culture (with whom the Prime Directive forbids them to interfere), to obtain a vaccine for a plague ravaging another world. The leader of the aliens, Lutan, becomes enamored of Tasha Yar, and abducts her from the ship. His wife then challenges Yar to a fight to the death for the right to be married to Lutan, a battle Yar must wage in order to secure the vaccine.

I wrote of the previous episode, "The Naked Now," that it seemed unwise to have fashioned a copy of an original Star Trek episode so early in the spinoff's run. But that episode did at least have more modern sensibilities; it did seem to have updated the feeling of the story for 20 years later.

By contrast, "Code of Honor" is an original script (mostly; I'll get to that), but has a sensibility trapped in the 1960s. This baked-in attitude is then amplified by establishing shots of the alien city that feel very strongly like images from the original Star Trek, and by a musical score composed by original series veteran Fred Steiner. This was the only time he wrote for The Next Generation. And it's actually a good score -- wild, loud, and fun. But it has a very original series vibe, right down to referencing Alexander Courage's original Star Trek theme considerably more often than the regular Next Generation composers would ever do.

But ugh, that script! It has horribly awkward exposition in the opening sequence. It has oddly inappropriate scenes of levity (such as a dialogue on shaving between Geordi and Data) at times when people are dying of the plague and an Enterprise crew member's life might be in danger. It has an ending stolen straight from the original series classic "Amok Time" (that would be the unoriginal part of the script I hinted at), where the loser of the battle to the death is revived by futuristic medicine. And that's not even getting to the real flaws of the episode.

First, the episode is truly quite racist. Now admittedly, this isn't inherently baked into the script. But the director for the episode made the decision to cast the aliens entirely with African-Americans. Instantly, the interaction with their backward, honor-driven culture suddenly took on the vibe of an early 1900s elitist condemnation of "Darkest Africa." It didn't have to be that way; if the aliens had been of mixed races, it probably wouldn't have been an issue. But the result is in fact so offensive that, according to sources I've read, Gene Roddenberry himself fired the director partway through the filming of the episode. Another director was brought in to finish it, uncredited.

But if the episode is racist only by the actions of one person, it's sexist by the efforts of several. Now I'm not talking about the sexism inherent in the alien society; I grant that it's the writers' choice to portray a culture that way and try to contrast it with the Federation. (It's even interesting to watch Picard, in his efforts to be diplomatic, essentially stoop to their level and demean Tasha to Lutan in one scene.)

No, the real problem is one particular scene. After Lutan has expressed his desire for Tasha to become "his first one," Troi uses her counseling/empathic skills to trick Yar into admitting that she was thrilled to be asked. Then, even after bristling at being tricked, Yar goes on to admit that she'd love to fight his wife Yareena just to embarrass her.

Okay... what?! Is Yar so unprofessional that she loses sight of the need to extricate herself from this situation smoothly, preferably with the vaccine? So unprofessional that she puts a higher priority on the thrill of being asked to marry a man she should find repulsive, and on embarrassing his (to use the phrase that feels appropriate to this sentiment) "bitch wife?" Throw in Troi basically saying that it's understandable Tasha would be emotionally confused since Lutan is so attractive, and you really have one sexist mess of a scene.

Other random observations:
  • The Blu-ray remaster is really almost too good. Lutan has scars on his face and chest, and you can clearly see in some scenes the seam where the makeup appliance has been glued on and not well blended to his skin.

  • Though the episode has a strongly 1960s original Star Trek sensibility, there is one scene that's decidedly modern. This is the first time that a real moment is made about how Picard is not usually permitted to beam down to alien planets himself, and routinely sends his first officer instead. Kirk never played it that way.

  • One of Lutan's guards has a missing eye, a fun detail I'd never noticed before.

  • In the shaving scene I mentioned earlier, Geordi has his VISOR off and is blind. Data gets oddly aggressive with him, barring Geordi's attempt to get away from him. It's supposed to be playful, but comes off just a touch creepy.

  • Basically the one rule we're told about the "fight to the death" that concludes this episode is that it won't be stopped for anything. And yet, when Yareena loses her weapon, they pause the fight to give it back to her. Huh?

  • Tasha gets quite petty with Lutan at the end of the episode, telling him "how sad for you" that he's lost everything. Sure, the guy abducted her and was a total jerk, and Denise Crosby delivers the dialogue with sincerity instead of mocking. Still, it feels like Yar is really missing the Starfleet high road here.
There are a few saving graces to the episode -- none enough to make it "good" by any stretch, but enough to save it from me branding it with the dreaded F. There's that fun Steiner musical score for one. There's also the critical role of the Prime Directive in the plot, one of Gene Roddenberry's more interesting philosophical contributions to the world. (Essentially saying that a truly evolved culture should never try to push what it thinks is superior onto a culture it thinks is inferior.) It's also quite fun to see Picard play the diplomat for the first time, and indeed Patrick Stewart makes the most of some pretty weak material.

Still, even Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner have expressed some embarrassment at having been involved in this episode. I'm probably being too generous in giving it a D.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Less Than Wander-ful

Though its stay in theaters earlier this year was quite short, the comedy Wanderlust caught my attention enough to note it later for home viewing. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a New York City couple forced by expenses to leave the city. They wind up trying out life in a commune they stumble on in Georgia, and hilarity ensues.

Well, maybe not hilarity. There are some great scenes in the movie, but also a lot of dead spots in which the short 90 minutes don't feel short enough. The truth is, if I'd really realized beforehand that it was from writer-director David Wain, the man behind Wet Hot American Summer, I probably would have passed.

But there is a solid cast here, giving it their best. Jennifer Aniston musters her patented charm to good effect (though her best recent performance I've seen was in Horrible Bosses). Lauren Ambrose and Justin Theroux (who were once both on Six Feet Under) both get a few good laughs as hippies in the commune. Ken Marino is pretty funny as an obnoxious, bullying brother of Paul Rudd's character.

The best performance of the film comes from Rudd himself, though. He has two scenes right at the core of the movie where he just goes on a clearly half-improvised, all-ridiculous roll of the worst "sexy talk" ever, anywhere, period. It's funny, then awkward to watch, then gross, then funny again, then almost painful to watch, then outright hilarious. It's almost worth recommending the film just to see these two ridiculous scenes.

Almost. Overall, the film is a pretty rote fish-out-of-water tale that plays every single beat you predict at the 15-minute mark will be coming later. The occasional moments of inspired lunacy that don't necessarily serve that well worn plot are the best parts, and there aren't quite enough of them. I'd call it a C+. You probably will get a few laughs if you do check it out, but I wouldn't expect the movie to make anyone's favorites list.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lost Re-view: The Other 48 Days

Lost's next episode was a very significant one for the series -- and so, not surprisingly, it was written by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. It was directed by first timer Eric Laneuville, who would direct a handful more episodes throughout the run.

For the first time ever, the timeline of the narrative was strictly linear, containing no nested flashbacks. That said, the entire episode was a flashback, covering what happened to the tail section survivors since the day they crashed on the Island. It is, to a fair extent, like an alternate pilot episode to a parallel universe version of the series, and could almost even serve as an entry point for new viewers if not for its rather tight compression of 48 days into 45 minutes.

The show opens with a pastoral view of a choppy surf crashing on a tropical shore. But then aircraft debris rains down, and the tail section of Oceanic 815 crashes into the ocean. The screen cuts to black to tell us this is "Day 1."

Just as the Lost pilot opened with chaos on the shore, we see a series of chaotic moments among the tail section survivors. Ana Lucia is initially in shock, but quickly springs into action helping people. Mr. Eko rescues a young boy from the water, along with his sister, who isn't breathing. Ana Lucia successfully resuscitates her, and promises to her that she'll get both of them back to their mother in Los Angeles. We see Libby set a broken bone with an odd bedside manner that is somehow simultaneously reassuring and a bit creepy. (Perhaps a tiny hint of the mental illness in her past?)

Next, Goodwin appears on the scene -- a man we would learn later was sent by the "Others," Ben's group, to infiltrate the survivors. He brings Ana Lucia into the jungle, where Bernard is trapped in his airplane seat, in a tree dozens of feet off the ground. She talks him through climbing out to safety just as the branch gives way.

As the first day wears on, we see several small scenes of characters getting to know each other. Goodwin starts a fire with sticks, telling Ana Lucia he was in the Peace Corps. Bernard asks Eko if his wife was among the bodies pulled from the water. Eko pledges to pray for her -- and for rescue.

When everyone eventually goes to sleep, they're awakened by screaming and the sounds of a struggle. Several people have been carted off into the jungle. Eko has managed to stop two of the intruders, killing them with his bare hands, but he is too horrified by what he has done to explain anything. My the time day 2 begins, he has shed his blood-strained shirt, and vowed to remain silent as penance for his act. He breaks off a tree branch, beginning to create the staff that will now be with him at all times.

In the light of day 2, Ana Lucia tries to ID the intruders, but they have no wallets -- and no shoes. It appears they were here on the island before the plane survivors, and they pose a threat. She wants to move everyone off the beach for safety, but a suspicious man named Nathan argues this will greatly reduce their chance of rescue. Flight attendant Cindy reveals that indeed, before the crash, the plane had been flying off course for two hours -- rescue planes won't be looking in the right place right away.

Several more days pass in rapid succession. Day 3: the infection in the leg Libby set for another survivor is spreading, and there's nothing they can do. Day 5: That man is now dead, and being buried in a field already filled with several graves. Day 7: Eko is carving the first of his scriptures into his staff. Libby tries to tell him he was defending himself, and that the deaths weren't his fault, but he isn't having any of it.

Then comes day 12, opening with Nathan returning suspiciously from a solitary bathroom trip into the jungle. That night, the Others come again to abduct nine more people in their sleep, including the kids. Ana Lucia grabs a rock to fight one off, unintentionally killing him before he can be questioned. She finds a knife on him, and a list of names -- the exact nine people who went missing, complete with descriptions.

As Ana Lucia tries to figure out what is happening, she lashes out at Nathan. Goodwin, seeking to solidify his cover, comes to Nathan's rescue. (In a fun camera cut, Bernard says "why would they try to infiltrate us? It's crazy!" right before a cut to Goodwin's face.) This time, when Libby suggests they have to leave the beach, no one objects.

On Day 15, the group arrives at a stream in the jungle. The tension is clear, because when Nathan suggests they set up a camp there, everyone else seems to be expecting a fight. Instead, Ana Lucia agrees... though two days later, she's beginning to dig a hole in the the jungle that will become the deep "prisoner pit" we've seen in earlier episodes.

On Day 19, Ana Lucia makes her move. She gives Nathan a boot to the head and drags him into her completed makeshift cell. She explains to the group that she never recalled seeing him on the plane, a fact Cindy corroborates even as Goodwin tries to downplay it. The interrogations begin -- but Nathan knows nothing of where the missing kids are, revealing only personal information that Ana Lucia suspects of being a manufactured backstory.

The interrogations continue until Day 23, when Ana Lucia discovers that someone has been sneaking food to Nathan. The someone is revealed to be Eko, but he still refuses to speak in defense of his actions. Goodwin also tries to reason with Ana Lucia, but she explains why she's been so driven in this -- she promised that girl she'd get her back to her mother. She implies that tomorrow, she'll cut off one of Nathan's fingers to get him to talk.

That night, Goodwin reveals himself to the audience. He frees Nathan from the pit, warning him to flee before Ana Lucia does something to him. But the moment he turns to leave, Goodwin snaps his neck.

On the morning of Day 24, Nathan is discovered missing, and Ana Lucia declares it's no longer safe to be there -- it's time to move.

On Day 27, they discover the abandoned Dharma bunker, the Arrow, and go inside. Besides the ominous "Quarantine" stamp on the inside of the door, they find several things that connect to other episodes. Eko finds a Bible with something hidden inside we don't get to see this episode (though it's the piece of missing orientation film that will be dealt with later in the season). They find a glass eye (that perhaps was meant to connect to the character of Mikhail, introduced later -- though his missing eye was scarred over). And most significantly, they find a radio.

Goodwin wants to take the radio to higher ground to try to get a signal, but Ana Lucia politely insists on going with him. She questions him on the hike -- why are they taking people? Where did they get the army knife she found? (Not that it's a major mystery of Lost, but we do eventually get the answer to that one in the fifth season -- it probably came from one of the soldiers that brought the Jughead bomb to the Island during the 1950s.)

And then Ana Lucia drops the pretense. She knows Goodwin is one of Them. Probably spotted by Bernard in the jungle while he was up in the tree, so he had to pretend to be one of them. (Not quite right.) He showed up not even wet from the ocean; he'd been there already. (Right.) Goodwin cryptically explains that "good people" get to go on "the list" before attacking Ana Lucia. But she gets the best of him, impaling him on a spear and leaving him dead in the jungle. Safe now from The Others, the group decides to stay in the bunker.

The next scene is over a week later, on Day 41. Bernard has been trying the radio for a few minutes every day without luck. On this day, Boone is in the cockpit of the crashed Nigerian plane (as seen in an earlier episode) and makes brief contact. But when Boone identifies himself as an Oceanic 815 survivor, Ana Lucia switches off the radio. She believes it's a ruse by the Others to try to draw them out of hiding. There are no other survivors, she says. "This is our life now. Get used to it."

And apparently, saying those words aloud are more than she can bear. She slips off into the jungle alone and breaks down sobbing. Eko finds her there, and tells her she's going to be okay. It leads to a short but truly brilliant and moving exchange between them. "You've been waiting 40 days to talk?" Ana Lucia asks. "You waited 40 days to cry," counters Eko.

On Day 45, Cindy and Libby are fishing by the shore when Jin washes up unconscious. Ana Lucia doesn't trust him, she says owing to Jin's handcuff. But she's suspicious of everyone after having been duped by Goodwin. As she's debating this with Eko, Jin escapes from where he's been left tied to a tree, and runs out to the shore just in time for Sawyer and Michael to arrive.

Things really accelerate from here, as Michael Giacchino introduces a pulsing, percussive musical theme that marks the "two tribes" of Oceanic survivors inexorably coming together. We see a soundless montage of events from the last several episodes, leading up to...

Day 48. Today. Cindy has gone missing. The Whispers are frightening the group. And when something emerges from the jungle, Ana Lucia shoots without thinking. Shannon falls dead, as Sayid comes to scoop her up in his arms. This episode ends precisely as the last one did.

Overall, this is a very effective episode of Lost. It provides greater context and humanity for the tail section characters, particularly Ana Lucia (who we've never seen be vulnerable before this episode) and Eko (who we now understand is a very conflicted man, deeply haunted by the prospect of violence).

On top of these great character moments, we get to see a fun alternate scenario of what things might have been like for our regular cast, had they not been so well off on their side of the Island. We see an interesting contrast between the two Others infiltrators -- Ethan, who was never suspected until he made his move to abduct Claire; and Goodwin, who was constantly trying to defuse the notion of an infiltrator in the group, lest suspicion fall on him.

The only points I'd dock from this episode ultimately come from how short it is. The Lost pilot itself was a double length episode. This episode is like "the pilot for the tail section," and covers not just those first two days, but the entire season-and-a-quarter up to this point. Even if we really are only seeing the high points here, I can't help but feel like a few more interesting stories could have been told in this period of time for the show's newest regular characters.

Still, it's the strongest season two episode since the opener. I grade it an A-.