Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving

Because I went to see some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes at the movie theater last night, I didn't get to comment on last night's new episode of Glee. Then again, the episode itself was even more behind schedule than I was, since "Thanksgiving" was airing a week after the holiday itself.

There were hits and misses within the hour. On the plus side, I feel like over the years, the show really has improved its approach to the "competition episodes." They used to offer about 15 minutes of plot and 30 minutes of "reality singing show," and always felt lacking to me for that. They've come around to reversing that formula, allowing at least some space to tell a story.

I'm still not quite believing the bulimia storyline for Marley -- not that she'd be so stupid to be duped by Kitty, nor that Kitty would be so evil to continue encouraging the behavior even after they'd supposedly become friends. But I at least appreciate the effort at character continuity between episodes. I guess I'm saying that if the choice is between a completely new story and schizophrenic characters each week (as it was for Glee for a long stretch), and a storyline I'm not crazy about that at least maintains continuity over several episodes? I'll take the latter.

The return of the graduates to help the glee club was a mixed bag for me. Sure, I'm glad to have the old gang back. But it kind of made you wish the old gang had never left. And more to the point, it wasn't really that big a moment, since all of them (save Quinn) had not only been on the show earlier this season, but had actually returned to McKinley for their stories.

The Kurt and Blaine story served up the best moment of the episode in their tearful phone call near the end. It's not that they're necessarily the "best couple" on the show, but I think they probably are the couple on the show featuring two actors of matching ability. They moved me with a two minute scene, more than some of the other couple storylines have done for me in whole episodes.

Usually the true performance numbers are among my least favorite songs on Glee, but I thought this week the weakest numbers were actually the "it's not supposed to be a staged performance, but it totally looks like one" songs. The graduates' opening mash-up, the cheerleaders' Supremes number, and the Thanksgiving dinner "turkey lurkey kiki" all felt too fake to me. But we got not one but two awesome Warblers numbers. And "Gangnam Style" (in all its kitschy glory/stupidity) was a great finale, with loads of great choreography and Tina (yay!) getting the lead vocal.

I suppose I'd grade the episode a B-. Not stellar, but at least a welcome step up from the previous week.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Adventure Continues

Back in July, to mark the release of season one of the newly remastered Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray, two episodes were given a one-night only theatrical screening. I enjoyed the event enough to plan for tonight, when a similar event was held for next week's season two release.

The two episodes on tap tonight were "Q Who" and "The Measure of a Man." The former saw the return of Q, who forces Starfleet's first confrontation with the Borg. The latter was a legal battle over Data's rights as a person, when a scientist wants to dismantle him in an experiment. Both are strong episodes -- stronger than anything the first season had to offer, though sadly not indicative of the season as a whole. While season two did have a few gems like this, I remember the lows being quite low and numerous. But we'll get there in time, as I continue my review series of each individual episode.

In a bit of a sneak preview of one of those reviews, though, I want to say a bit about this screening of "The Measure of a Man." The remastering team decided to up their game on this episode. They've already wowed us by reassembling each episode from the original master films, creating versions of the episodes better than anything we've seen before. This time out, they literally decided to give us an episode as we'd never seen it before.

Being a legal drama, "The Measure of a Man" was a great deal more dialogue intensive than the typical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The writers and producers misjudged the pacing of the story on the page, and as a result, the first cut of the episode wound up nearly 15 minutes too long to run in the allotted television time. It was subsequently edited down to fit, but a single VHS copy of that rough edit was given to the episode's writer as a memento of her original vision. Nearly 25 years later, with all the raw footage to pull from, and using that decaying video tape as a guide, the remastering team assembled a brand-new version of the episode, restoring all the footage cut for broadcast. This was what was screened tonight in theaters.

I was keenly curious to compare and contrast the two versions, and made a point of rewatching the original recently to refresh my memory. First, let me say once again how amazing these new HD versions of the episodes look. After watching the first season Blu-rays in glorious detail, watching my second season DVD felt like looking through a dirty window (and listening through a tin can). If you like Star Trek: The Next Generation, you owe it to yourself to buy these Blu-rays, even if you (like me) already own the whole series on DVD.

As for the extended episode itself? Well, I'll say that if I must pick just one version, I would probably prefer the broadcast one, trimmed for time. But it's a really close call, and it's mostly because of the small, barely perceptible edits throughout the episode. The extended version of the episode had many unsuitably long pauses -- spaces between lines, slow-moving blocking, and lengthy silences at the ends of many scenes. It was quite similar to the pacing issues I noted in my review of "Encounter at Farpoint," an episode that had too much empty air in it. In that respect, the necessity to trim this episode for broadcast helped it a great deal.

Among the cut scenes were a few that definitely didn't belong in there. A rather lengthy section early on establishes a backstory between Picard and the admiral who orders Data's transfer. Since the admiral doesn't even figure into the trial once it starts, it's wasted time. Another bad scene involves the cyberneticist who wants to dismantle Data, Bruce Maddox, crashing Data's going-away party to insult him. It belabors the point of Maddox's "villainy." In the episode-as-aired, Maddox simply doesn't recognize Data as anything more than an unfeeling machine; in this restored scene, it's hard to justify why he'd make a point of insulting Data so overtly if he really doesn't believe the android has any feelings to hurt.

But the scene I thought was best left on the cutting room floor involved Riker, having been forced to prosecute the case against Data, coming to Picard to inform him he's going to do his best job -- so Picard had better be ready. It's an oddly petulant beat for Riker, ascribing to the character an apparent resentment at living in the shadow of Picard's command. It doesn't suit anything we've ever seen about the character before, not even given his oft-stated ambition to command his own ship. (On the up side, though, the scene did take place in the fencing room, showing Picard engaging in a hobby that wasn't shown nearly enough throughout the series. They were trying for some continuity.)

The rest of the restorations, though, were excellent. Several lines of dialogue put back into surviving scenes did a much more direct and successful job of laying out the Data-as-slave allegory. An interesting exchange between Riker and Troi at Data's party has the two contemplating their own feelings about whether Data has a soul. A fun scene between Picard and Data portrays the two of them plotting their legal strategy. But by far the best cut scene is between Data and Geordi, showing the android giving to his best friend his Sherlock Holmes pipe as a going-away present of his own, and leading into a discussion about what the two might do with their lives if they weren't in Starfleet.

I suppose I'm saying that I think the ideal version of "The Measure of a Man" might be longer than the broadcast version, but trimmed from this extended version. Still, there's no question that in any form, this was one of the best episodes of the series, and a great one to see with an audience.

The theater screening also offered a sample of some of the special features coming on the Blu-ray set: a new documentary specifically about the making of season two, a reunion interview assembling all eight core members of the cast, and some fun new bloopers and outtakes (not the same ones that have been playing at every Star Trek convention since 1988).

So, as I said, the individual reviews I'm writing of each episode will continue, and I'll be getting to season two in time. But until then, this theatrical screening was a fun way to see a couple of great episodes. And you shouldn't wait for me to get to season two to pick up the set yourself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Average Weekend

Last year, the critical darling of the SXSW Film Festival was a low budget British film called Weekend. Several entertainment websites I read regularly touted it as amazing, and it accrued a sky-high 94% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.

Weekend unfolds in that space of time, and revolves around a young man whose evening hookup at a gay bar may or may not be leading into a more serious long-term relationship. The film is ultimately a talking head piece in a very modest and limited setting, but it is a vehicle for discussion of gay relationships.

But the movie somehow comes off both novel and cliché at the same time. There are countless romance films about one person looking for a deeper relationship while the other person is resisting the very idea of relationships at every turn. There are countless romance films adorned with clever dialogue dissecting the different things that two people want in a relationship. In rough shape, you've seen this movie dozens of times before.

And yet, the dimension of it involving a gay couple does transform the story somewhat. Beyond the expected scenes where the characters discuss the relationship, there are scenes where they debate the context of a gay relationship in society at large. They have differing thoughts on the matter, both coloring their view of relationships beyond theirs specifically. That's a dimension the average romance doesn't have to tackle.

But the film is also ultimately not actually very romantic. The nearest comparison I think I could make would be to the indie film Before Sunrise, which does a far better job at blending probing dialogue with budding love. Both lead actors, Tom Cullen and Chris New, commit well to their roles and their characters' points of view, but the two don't entirely pop as a screen couple.

There might be some value here in prompting a discussion, but I think a film (or any other form of entertainment) that's primarily didactic should be more subtly so. I'd call Weekend a middle of the road C. It may be that the critics were singing its praises simply because there aren't that many gay love stories out there. That may be true, but I'll look forward to the day when there are more, and we get a better one.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dice-apalooza

Most German board games feature delicately balanced sets of rules that carefully govern the things that players can do. One missed rule can change your perception of the whole game, as can one player finding a new strategic approach to the game that no one else noticed before.

And then there's something completely different, like Escape: The Curse of the Temple.

A group endeavor that would be better categorized as a party game than anything else, Escape has players cooperating to explore and exit from a temple loaded with all sorts of pitfalls and traps. They do this by individually rolling special dice with a variety of symbols on them. Players in the same room of the temple can pool their die rolls together to achieve their goals, but the time pressures of the game are such that the players can't be successful if they just move around in a single mob.

When I say time pressures, I mean that quite literally. The distinctive feature of Escape is that a game unfolds in exactly 10 minutes of real time. Actual play of the game is simultaneous, a chaotic frenzy of people rolling dice, shouting what they have and what they need to one another, and trying to ignore the shouts of other players who've split up into different parts of the temple. A recording (along the lines of Space Alert) tracks the time remaining, and also throws in obstacles the player must account for in their quest.

The game is pretty good fun, I found. And it's hard to beat its running time; it's an easy game to either start out an evening with (as you wait for other gamers to arrive) or conclude an evening with (when nobody feels the drive for anything more that's too involved). But what it isn't good for is anyone who's a stickler for rules. The open form and simultaneous nature of the gameplay absolutely precludes being able to take in everything that's happening. And things get even more chaotic when you add in the "curses" that force odd real world physical limitations on the players.

In short, if you just let go, Escape is a decent enough game. It's not ever going to become a personal favorite of mine, but it seems like one I'd never mind playing -- it's simple, quick, and fun. I'd grade it a B.

Monday, November 26, 2012

It's About Time

In a time where it seems most Netflix users I know are all about the instant streaming, I still adhere to the disc-by-mail plan -- the plan that gives me access to all of their content instead of a tiny slice. Of course, the company is counting on a good chunk of its customers not mailing their discs back in a timely fashion.

Recently, I was just that sort of customer, as I held on to About a Boy long enough that it probably would have been cheaper to buy it than "rent" it for so long. Worse still, when I finally got around to watching it, I found it wasn't really worth the wait. I didn't strongly dislike the movie, but I'd certainly had my expectations built up too high by the film's presence of several Best of the Year lists and the like. I think it was praised because of some slightly novel tweaks it made on a well-established formula.

Hugh Grant plays a typical rom-com curmudgeon who transforms from a womanizer to a romantic in the course of less than two hours. Usually in these movies, these kinds of changes begin when the character meets "the right woman." Here, however, there's the intermediate step of meeting the quirky pre-teen son of... actually, that's the second twist -- it's not even the son of The Woman, but of an Entirely Different Woman.

Novel, yes. But the way it unfolds isn't believable, even by rom-com standards. I found it difficult to go with the story, as they started Hugh Grant's character off as such a soulless letch that redemption seemed too improbable. Weirder still is "the boy," played by then-newcomer Nicholas Hoult. Everything about him in the movie is styled to hyper-weirdness. He looks quirky, he behaves wildly, he shows up uninvited to places; in short, he's a big nuisance. We're meant to believe that this nuisance that won't be ignored is the catalyst that changes Grant's character, but realistically I can only imagine it pushing him further into his shell.

The actors do their level best to sell this unbelievable material. The film relies a great deal on Hugh Grant's charm to compensate for the lack of charm of his character. Nicholas Hoult plays his character in such a way that you can believe such a person would exist (even if he wouldn't bring about the plot developments of the film). Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz are both strong in supporting roles.

Ultimately, though, I'm just not quite sure what the fuss was about. I rate About a Boy a C-.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dynamic Duets

While most TV shows were in re-runs last week for Thanksgiving, Glee actually ran a new episode on the day itself. (And strangely, not even their Thanksgiving themed episode. Apparently, that's coming this week.)

The episode they ran felt to me more like a parody of Glee than an actual episode. In Glee style, it took a random theme (not unlike the weak "Funk" and "Night of Neglect" installments mentioned in the episode itself) and presented a bizarre narrative to accommodate it. But the parody part came in the way that theme felt like Glee turned up to 11, refusing to take itself even slightly seriously as all the characters decided to dress as superheroes for no particular reason. Sure, there was some fun kitsch factor in the Batman-esque stings throughout the episode, but the situation was too ridiculous.

But worse were the missed opportunities. If you're going to do the superhero episode, how do you not have Sue Sylvester in it? This is the character who actually dressed up as the Grinch in a Christmas episode. Yet we got neither Sue as a super-villain nor Sue's own warped take on herself as superhero. And it's harder still to understand her absence this week given where things left off in the previous episode. She'd declared all-out war against Finn as glee club teacher, but was nowhere to be seen for the first actual week in which he assumed the job full time?

The set-ups for the songs were stretched far even by Glee standards, but at least the numbers themselves were strong. The whole "one more song with the Warblers" moment was completely silly, but I do love me some Warblers a cappella. "Holding Out for a Hero" was fun if only for the whip-as-fan moment, though Kitty in a catsuit was sure to win some fans. And the "Some Nights" finale was another good New Directions rendition of a song by the band fun.

The one solid element of the episode for me was the dyslexia storyline for Ryder Lynn. Blake from the Glee Project continues to shine on the series, and in my opinion has fast become the most interesting of the still-insufficiently-developed cast of new students at McKinley. The writing was a touch after-school special in moments, but the acting was still solid.

For good songs in an otherwise nonsensical episode, I'll average out to a C grade. For me, it was the first real stumble of season four.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

TNG Flashback: Datalore

The "evil twin" story is pretty much a staple of television science fiction. The original Star Trek tackled the plot just a few episodes into its first season, and The Next Generation didn't wait much longer in delivering its own episode, "Datalore."

The Enterprise visits the colony planet on which Data was found. The planet is now dead, all life on it somehow destroyed, but the away team find a hidden laboratory, containing the disassembled parts of Data's android "brother." Hoping to learn more of Data's origins, they reassemble the devious, sociopathic Lore, who quickly summons a giant, spaceborne crystalline entity -- the very creature that destroyed the colony -- to devour the life aboard the Enterprise.

I've read that this episode was actually not originally conceived as an "evil twin" episode. The writers first planned for the crew to find a female android that would have served as a potential love interest in the plot. But as they struggled to make that story work -- even delaying the episode in the production order (when it was supposed to have been filmed before "The Big Goodbye") -- Brent Spiner himself made the suggestion to go with evil twin.

So, Spiner gave himself something juicy to tackle on the show. Which you could possibly look at as totally the thing an actor would do. But he pulled it off incredibly well. Lore is a bit over the top, but certainly no more so than some of the other villains depicted on the series over the years. Certainly, Spiner created two distinctly different performances in Data and Lore, and masterfully met the technical challenges of playing both roles within the same scene.

Lore really is an interesting character. The moment he opens his eyes and says his first words, it's to lie about whether he or Data was built first. Starting on a lie, you really can't trust a word he says for the whole episode, or whether any of the back story he gives Data even in private is really true. And he seems to have no purpose in sacrificing humans to the crystalline entity other than the enjoyment it gives him. Lore's behavior seems to suggest that it was relatively easy for Dr. Noonien Soong to give an android emotions; what was harder to do was to give him morality. (Though I do have to wonder why a cyberneticist familiar with Isaac Asimov -- who is mentioned in the episode -- didn't at least toss Asimov's three Laws of Robotics in there as a "better than nothing" version of a conscience.)

Actually, it's just that sort of nitpick that makes me wonder if the script couldn't have used even a bit more time in prep. These sorts of holes abound once you start looking. For example, best not think too much about how inept the Starfleet crew who found Data was, in that they didn't find the secret lab that took our heroes seconds to locate. Even if you accept that they missed it for lack of a Geordi in their away team, you have to wonder why Starfleet never sent another ship to more thoroughly investigate the planet on which they found a fully functioning android!

The episode may be a good one for Data, but some of the other main characters suffer for it. Tasha, for example, brings up the question of whether Data can be trusted with his brother aboard the ship, and Picard even commends her thoughtfulness in the security matter. But in the end, she isn't part of the resolution of the story at all, so her suspicions are for nothing. I also believe this is the first of many episodes in which someone beats up Worf as a way of showing how strong they are (Lore in this case). Poor Worf. Also poor Troi, who isn't even in this episode. I do wonder if her psychology training would have given her an edge in telling Lore and Data apart.

But the real whipping boy of the episode is Wesley. This is the episode that gave angry fans their rallying cry for the rest of Wil Wheaton's run on the show: "Shut up, Wesley." Both Picard and Crusher say it. And this is after Riker disses him too; Riker specifically sends Wesley down to check on Lore/Data, only to completely disregard everything Wesley subsequently reports. Of course, the only reason Wesley is given this job is a narrative one, because if Riker assigned any other actual officer to make a report and then so casually dismissed that report, he'd look like a really big(ger) tool. I mean, even more than he does when he falls for Lore's stupidly simple ruse.

Then again, Wesley isn't up to his usual brightness in this episode either. When he and his mother go to Data's quarters, wake up Data, and confirm that it really is him and not Lore, do the three of them call security to request a whole squad to locate and capture Lore? No, they don't tell anyone and go after Lore on their own.

Nobody's as dumb as the crystalline entity, though. It's smart enough to communicate in English over a subspace channel with Lore... but too dumb to figure out how to kill the people on the ship that's right in front of it once Lore is no longer aboard?

Still, the overall impression of the episode is good despite the nitpicks. And there are a handful of very good moments to help balance out the awkward ones. There's a great scene where Picard tries to cut through the awkwardness of discussing Lore around Data, and another later scene where Data points out that even Picard is dehumanizing Data by referring to Lore as an "it" and not a "he."

Another highlight of the episode is the great score by composer Ron Jones. It's a moody tapestry that includes suspenseful passages when the away team explores the secret lab, phrases of wonder and discovery when they find Lore, drawn out moments of tension when Lore drugs Data, and amped up action music for their final confrontation. It's a full feast.

Other observations:
  • Throughout the first season, you see a lot of background crew members wearing a mini-skirt version of the Starfleet uniform -- both male and female characters. I find it a bit awkward in either case, and I'm not sure this ever happened again from the second season on.
  • It's interesting to me that Dr. Crusher is so involved in the assembly of Lore. It was probably just a writing choice to involve her more in the plot, though it implies that there's a fair amount to Data/Lore's construction that's at least as much biological as mechanical.
  • Geordi slips into weird Air Force pilot lingo (or something) when he first detects the crystalline entity on his scanners: "I'm picking up a bogey coming in on a five o'clock tangent."
  • Much is made in the episode of how Lore uses contractions and Data does not. This seemed unnecessary to me as a way to tell them apart, and was ultimately just fuel for nitpickers in every episode before and after this one where the writers messed up or Brent Spiner had a slip of the tongue.
This episode probably wouldn't have been very good without the talents of Brent Spiner. But it had them, and so it is. I give it a B.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holmes Left Me Feeling Blue

The next Sherlock Holmes story is The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. It found it a middle-of-the-road effort by Arthur Conan Doyle, but not because it felt average throughout. Instead, it had high peaks and low valleys that totaled out to an unfortunately lackluster tale.

The story revolves around a stolen gem found in the throat of a Christmas goose, and on the efforts of Holmes and Watson to backtrack through the buyer and seller of the goose to determine who was responsible for the jewel's theft. This idea at the heart of the tale is compelling. A jewel heist! What's not to like?

The odd place in which the gem was found certainly starts the mind imagining what must have transpired to get it there. And then there's the fun element of the goose having passed through numerous hands, any one of whom may have been responsible for the jewel theft while the others never even knew the treasure that was passing through their hands. This is all fun background for a rousing adventure.

The problem is that every single plot development in the tale hinges on coincidence. It's mere coincidence that the last owner of the goose was assaulted in the street and happened to drop it, setting the entire tale into motion. And while Holmes is of course able to use his famous deduction to track down the seller of the goose, it's pure coincidence that the culprit behind it all happens to show up at exactly the same moment to be apprehended by the detective.

So while the adventure does have an intriguing conceit, and the story opens with an especially entertaining and impressive display of Holmes' deductive gift, the sum impression of this particular tale is that Holmes is simply more lucky than skilled. Not a good outing for the master then, I'm afraid. I'd call it a C, all told.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

TNG Flashback: The Big Goodbye

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! Ordinarily, I'd take this opportunity for a day off on the blog, but I actually have quite a few posts built up in advance, so it's business as usual.

"The Big Goodbye" is considered in many circles to be the first truly great episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design, and was also nominated for Outstanding Cinematography. Even more significantly, it won a Peabody Award, making the show the first hour-long first-run drama ever to do so. Certainly, I remember loving it the first time around too. Watching it again, though, I see quite a lot of flaws in this episode I didn't really notice before.

But first, the plot summary. The Enterprise is heading to a diplomatic meeting with the Jarada, an insectoid race with strict rules of etiquette, who expects Captain Picard to perfectly perform their traditional greeting in their native language. Exhausted from practicing for this big moment, Picard decides to unwind in the newly upgraded holodeck, assuming the role of a favorite fictional character, 1940s noir detective Dixon Hill. But when a Jaradan probe causes the holodeck to malfunction, Picard, Data, and Dr. Crusher (and cannon fodder Whalen) are trapped in the scenario, with their lives threatened by Dixon Hill's mob-like nemesis, Cyrus Redblock.

So, I noted that I felt more flaws in this episode when watching it this time. But there's certainly a lot here that's great too. The fictitious world of Dixon Hill is lovingly created by everyone involved, with just the perfect amount of "over the top." The script is an homage to many noir films, most notably The Maltese Falcon in its portrayal of a Peter Lorre-like character (Felix Leech) and constant references to an "item" of a significance that's never really explained. The set design, Emmy-winning costume design, and lighting design are impeccable, creating a wonderfully moody 40s environment.

And the performances from the main cast are sterling. Patrick Stewart conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the world of Dixon Hill, and true joy in getting to live it; he shows the same enthusiasm you'd imagine a Star Trek fan would feel on a visit the Enterprise. And he nails many great lines like "if I leave town, the town leaves with me." Brent Spiner delivers some masterful physical comedy in the episode, from checking to "keep his nose clean" to puzzlement over how electric lights work. He's also fun in trying to adopt the affectations of the period.

But it's Gates McFadden who really steals the show. She nails the lack of familiarity with the past, struggling to walk in high heels, aping a holographic character for makeup tips, and hilariously not knowing what to do with a stick of chewing gum. But even better than the way she plays the comedy is how she plays Crusher's relationship with Picard in this episode. The possible romantic relationship that could exist between them is played up more here than ever before.

When Picard invites Crusher to join him on the holodeck, she clearly thinks he's asking her on a date. And when he starts talking about inviting others, she wickedly eggs him on about what it was like being kissed by a holographic woman. Later, when she does arrive on the holodeck, Picard greets her with a wonderful compliment about how she looks in the period costume. But when Crusher asks to see his office and Whalen and Data invite themselves along, you clearly see her reaction to the unwanted "chaperones." In short, this episode made me a believer in a Picard-Crusher relationship even more than the Riker-Troi relationship that, after seven seasons and four movies, finally did come to pass.

In my mind, the problems with the episode come in the balancing of the two plots. Clearly, the Dixon Hill story is the "A plot" to the audience. It's certainly the more entertaining one to watch. But looking at it practically from the standpoint of the characters, it's the Jaradan storyline that should be front and center. And at the climax of the episode, the fact that it isn't strains credibility.

When Wesley finally manages to get the holodeck door open, you'd expect a team to go storming inside to rescue the crew members. But for literally five minutes of screen time, that doesn't happen. Cyrus strolls out of the holodeck only to vanish, just so we can have the villain's big comeuppance moment. Then Picard lingers on the holodeck to say goodbye to a fictional character rather than immediately go deal with the Jarada. Even if you somehow can explain the lack of rescue, you have to wonder why Picard and company aren't running off that holodeck as fast as they possibly can. I mean, if you were stuck in an elevator for hours and someone finally got the door open, would you decide to just keep hanging out in it some more?

There are also some logical problems at various moments in the Jarada story. First, we're told Picard just has to learn the greeting and nothing more. So why does he spend his time learning their alphabet and grammar as opposed to just phonetically practicing the phrases he has to speak? Second, how powerful are these Jarada that a probe they run from light years away can shake the whole ship and damage some of its systems? Third, after all the emphasis made throughout the episode on how easily the Jarada become offended, how dumb is Riker to begin a conversation with them with the words "we demand..."? And lastly, at the end of the episode, when Picard successfully delivers the greeting, why does the Enterprise just immediately leave? Wasn't this supposed to be the beginning of an actual negotiation? Isn't this the diplomatic equivalent of leaving a Chinese takeout menu taped to a front door?

Other observations:
  • The rules of the holodeck are seriously fudged in this episode. The woman who kisses Picard leaves lipstick on him that remains until Dr. Crusher wipes it off later, but Cyrus Redblock vanishes within moments of stepping off. Come to think of it, how exactly does anything not vanish immediately when it leaves the holodeck? (I believe this is what is shown in a much later holodeck episode, "Ship in a Bottle.")
  • Speaking of the holodeck, we're told that its sudden ability to create believable characters (rather than the soulless training simulacrum Tasha demonstrated in "Code of Honor") comes from a recent upgrade. The holodeck will go through another upgrade in just a few episodes, when the Bynars come aboard in "11001001." I've read online that the writers originally intended these episodes to be filmed and aired in the other order, explaining the malfunction here not with the Jaradan probe, but the Bynars modifications.
  • The guest character of Whalen is said by Picard to be an historian and expert on the 20th century. It seems unlikely Picard would know about the hobbies of everyone on his crew -- and indeed, Picard can't remember Whalen's name at first. But if it's not a hobby, then that means Whalen's official position aboard the Enterprise is as a 20th-century Earth historian. Doesn't seem very useful to me for exploring the galaxy. (Which I guess is why we never saw Whalen again.)
  • In the scene where Data is reading the stories of Dixon Hill on the bridge computer, the Blu-ray re-master is sharp enough that you can actually read a fair amount of the content -- all lovingly created even though there was no reason at the time to think that it would be legible.
  • I noted how much effort and money clearly went into creating the Dixon Hill world. But it came at the expense of the Jarada. We don't see the aliens or any of their ships, further reducing the feeling that they serve any serious role in the story. No wonder Picard is in no hurry to get to them.
"The Big Goodbye" has a slow paced and somewhat non-sensical climax, but it sure has a lot of fun getting there. It's nice to see the main cast enjoying their characters and handling comedic material so well. The bottom line is, even while I didn't enjoy the episode as much this time around, it's still "good Star Trek: The Next Generation." Good for the series overall, and among the best of season 1. I grade it a B.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cartered Off

I didn't have much interest in seeing John Carter even leading up to its release in theaters earlier this year. Then the reviews came, which were rather savage, and the door closed entirely.

Except someone stuck their foot in. I heard from several people who all saw it, and their opinions were fairly uniform: "it's not that bad." Nobody wanted to put it in the running for best film of the year, but everyone seemed to agree that it had been unfairly trashed by the critics, and that it was good for a few decent thrills.

Having now watched John Carter for myself, it seems there must have been two different films: the one the critics saw, and the ones my friends saw. I side with the critics. Was this the worst mindless blockbuster ever made? No. But it was every bit the bomb it was proclaimed to be.

Early in the run of South Park, there was an episode where an alien race named the Marklars visited the Earth. They were a fun parody of every crappy sci-fi movie that's pointlessly overloaded with stupid jargon. Instead of "it's time for dinner, so let's all sit at the table together and eat turkey," they'd say "it is the Hour of Marklar, so we must gather at the Marklar to partake of roast Marklar."

John Carter is exactly like that. Stuffed with hilariously cheesy terms like Barsoom, Thern, Jaddak, Thark, Helium, and Zodanga, this movie could have been a laugh out loud comedy if it didn't take itself so damn seriously. And I think the proof of this is that the moments that play best in the movie are all the moments with a comedic edge to them -- John Carter trying to learn to walk in the lighter gravity of Mars; the failed attempts of the aliens to understand him before the communication barrier is surmounted; the super-fast dog-like creature he befriends.

But these are just a handful of accents in a plot revolving around a lame villain with non-specifically evil goals, manipulated by lamer villains pulling his strings. And no one can get through a sentence without spewing one or two nonsense words, just to remind you this is supposed to be Serious Science Fiction.

Most of the performances are boring and flat; the few that aren't are overly campy instead. Even the visuals are scattershot. The landscapes of Mars are rendered with incredible realism and the aliens are mostly convincing, but the cities and technology all seem fake -- overly crisp and lacking appropriate weight.

So while I would agree that the movie is not a total loss, I certainly don't see what made people think the critics were being unfairly harsh. I grade it a D.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Dos of Green Day

Green Day's musical trilogy (which began just a few weeks ago) continued last Tuesday with the release of ¡Dos! Listening to it the first time, I thought it was a distinctly weaker batch of songs than on ¡Uno! But I've continued to give the album a chance as it comes up in the shuffle, and I find the songs are growing on me.

The 38 total songs of the trilogy were recorded over the same period of time, and then arranged into these three albums for release. As a result, there are some threads that connect the first album to the second. Certain lyrical ideas repeat (such as "stop when the red lights flash," a phrase from the first album's lead single "Oh Love," becoming a song title here). The general approach here is the same -- to abandon the concept album approach of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, and instead try a broader variety of song styles.

I noted that ¡Uno! contained many songs that sound like they could have been recorded during different periods of Green Day's career. They try to do the same thing with ¡Dos!, but with more mixed results. Many of the songs don't just sound like "earlier Green Day," they sound like two specific earlier Green Day songs mashed together. "Lazy Bones" is the chord progression of American Idiot's "Give Me Novocaine" with a chorus eerily reminiscent of "Favorite Son." The aforementioned "Stop When the Red Lights Flash" lifts liberally from the medley songs off American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown.

While this self-recycling doesn't thrill me, other songs on the album represent more interesting experiments in trying to sound like other bands. These tracks are hit and miss, but they're definitely different. "Nightlife" is an odd slow jam with a female rapper taking all the verses. "Amy" is a solo guitar ballad (reportedly about the death of Amy Winehouse). And the hilariously overt "Fuck Time" is a fun foray into surf rock.

I would have called the album a C after listening to it the first time, but as I said, it's been worming its way into my brain. It's climbed up to a B-, as I focus more on the tracks I really do like (and ignore the rest). Perhaps I'll grow to like it even more, but I feel pretty confident in pronouncing this a weaker album than ¡Uno! Still, at the very least, there are songs worth cherry picking here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

TNG Flashback: Haven

Although it was aired as the 10th episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Haven" was actually filmed fourth, and then put on hold for reasons I've not been able to locate online. I might say it's because the episode isn't all that good, except that it is better than some of the other earliest episodes (like "Code of Honor" and "The Last Outpost").

The Enterprise is visiting Haven, a planet with legendary healing properties, when Counselor Troi is shocked to receive word that the prearranged marriage set up for her in childhood is imminent. A young human doctor named Wyatt arrives to be wed to her, but is surprised to find Deanna is not the woman he has had dreams of since youth. Instead, that woman is revealed to be aboard an approaching Tarellian plague ship, whose deadly crew is looking to beam down to Haven in the hopes of curing their condition.

If all that sounds a bit scattered, it is. There are too many ideas at play in this episode, none of them fully explored. But the real problem here, as I see it, is that the episode isn't about the main characters; it's about the guest stars. Yes, it's Deanna who may be whisked away from the ship by her arranged marriage, but the big resolution of the episode is all about Wyatt taking charge and beaming over to be with his mysterious plague woman. The climax is the fulfillment of his destiny, and the union of two fated lovers (neither of whom is a main character). Deanna is extricated from her dilemma through no action of her own; Wyatt simply beams away, choosing his dream woman over Troi, and solving all the problems for everyone in the process. It's almost a stand-alone sci-fi short story that just happens to use Star Trek characters as window dressing.

Except that it's not even quite sci-fi so much as fantasy. Somehow, Wyatt has dreamed all his life of this beautiful blonde woman he's meant to be with, who he believes is Deanna Troi. Then it turns out this plague victim, Ariana, has been dreaming of him too. There is absolutely no explanation given for this. Wyatt's a human, and while Ariana is an alien, no telepathic powers are ascribed to her species that would explain any of this. The closest we get to an explanation is a 30-second conversation between Wyatt and Troi's mother Lwaxana, where she feeds us some mumbo jumbo about all life being bound together. Well, that settles it.

If it were just the implausible story and the often hokey dialogue, there would be absolutely nothing to recommend this episode. But there are many saving graces here in the comedic elements of the hour. Patrick Stewart gives an amusing performance being put out and put upon by Lwaxana Troi. Brent Spiner shines as a deeply intrigued Data, watching the "petty bickering" of the wedding party. And Majel Barrett is pretty fun as Troi's mother, even if her accent is a little odd in places. (There's even a reasonable resemblance between her and Marina Sirtis. You can believe they're related.)

There's also interesting material in Riker's reaction to Troi's prearranged wedding. He's supposed to be an enlightened 24th-century man (indeed, the episode has still more early series speechifying about how backwards the people of the 20th century are), but he's not at all able to rise above his emotions here. Even though he has basically acknowledged he doesn't want to rekindle his relationship with Troi, he does not want to see her marry another man. Probably a true reaction, but jealousy is not the sort of behavior you often see from the main characters on Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. (Maybe Riker is just in a mood because people keep calling him "Bill" this episode instead of "Will." They never do that again for the rest of the series.)

Other observations:
  • Entertainment is peculiar in the 24th century. At the top of the episode, Riker is relaxing in his quarters to a hologram of two toga-clad women playing harps. And the dopey smile on his face implies this may be his idea of porn.
  • Filmed before "The Last Outpost" (but aired after), this is actor Armin Shimerman's first appearance on Star Trek, as the face of the Betazoid gift box. But I knew about that particular bit of Trek trivia before I rewwatched this episode. The guest star I was not at all prepared to see was a very young Robert Knepper as love interest Wyatt. 25 years later, I know him best as the snake-like "T-Bag" on the TV series Prison Break, a masterfully villainous portrayal of a character you love to hate. His performance here isn't exactly amazing, but it does show he has versatility.
  • There's a fun little idea in this episode of a "chameleon rose," a flower with petals that change color with the mood of the owner. And in the remaster touch-ups, it looks a lot more natural than I remembered it.
  • Watching this episode, I was really struck by the powerfully 80s hair styles throughout. Wyatt has big, puffy, Blue Lagoon hair. His dream woman, Ariana, has Flashdance flyaway teased half a foot high. Beverly Crusher and Tasha Yar sport some unusual 'dos as well at different points in the episode. I noticed all this while watching, and then read afterward that this episode was actually nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling for a Series. So here's a time capsule of our fashion tastes in 1987.
  • Worf isn't in this episode, for reasons not explained in the story. I feel like it may have been a missed opportunity, too. Much is made of the culture clash between human and Betazoid traditions. I feel like there could have also been fun in commenting on the ways in which one fictitious alien culture clashes with another, especially with Betazoids and Klingons being on such clearly opposite ends of the spectrum.
There is some fun to be had here in this episode, but the storytelling itself is pretty flat. Overall, I'd call it a C-.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Destined for "Pretty Good"-ness

I rather liked the original Final Destination movie -- a bit silly, but a lot of fun. I think I liked the second one even better, which not only expanded on the Rube Goldberg-like death sequences of the original, but connected to the first film's plot in a surprisingly clever way. But then came the third movie, which I actually saw for free at a sneak preview, and which I came out of feeling I'd overpaid. It was such an over-the-top, stupid mess that I never even bothered to watch the fourth one.

But last year, the movie studios were using CPR on their franchise once again, and served up Final Destination 5. There seemed to be a fair amount of feedback conceding that, while still maybe not great, it was certainly a return to form for the series. Reviews weren't enthusiastic enough that I pushed to watch it in theaters, but I did recently decide to catch it on HBO.

I actually wish I had seen it in theaters.

Now, mind you, I'm not holding the movie up as any kind of cinematic masterpiece. It's nowhere near approaching my Top 100 list or anything. But it was pretty fun. And moreover, I could tell from watching it that I'd really missed out on something by not seeing it in the theater in 3D. I say this as someone who generally never wants to see a movie in 3D, but this one was actually filmed for it, and you can tell watching it that it was filmed well for it. Ghoulish gore flies at the screen constantly throughout the film, and even the less gimmicky shots are clearly constructed with an eye toward depth and composition beyond what you'd ever see for a typical cheap horror movie.

As I said, the movie isn't perfect. Frankly, the characters are just awful. The unsubtle exposition used to introduce them all in the opening five minutes is painful, and then a fresh pain comes in learning that that's really about all you're going to learn about them. They don't have much in the way of distinct behavior to separate one from another. And the actors, none of whom you're likely to know unless you've seen Fired Up or the American version of The Office, aren't really skilled enough (aside from maybe the two from the places I just mentioned) to imbue their characters with more than the sliver provided on the page. (Well, okay, Tony Todd rocks. But his part in the film is small and narrowly defined.)

Of course, horror films aren't often about the characters, and the Final Destination movies arguably even less so than usual. They're meat for the slaughter, and man, the slaughter in this movie is fantastic. The writing may have been lacking in the characters, but it soars in the plot. Each death sequence is wonderfully staged, with lots of great suspenseful buildup, just the right amount of schlocky excess, and tons of very clever red herrings. Some scenes are very out of the ordinary (a gymnastics meet that takes on an unthinkable degree of danger), but others are situations that many people in the audience may have actually been in (an acupuncture session, a laser eye surgery treatment), thus lending an extra level of discomfort.

The movie also has a very clever ending. I did end up figuring it out, but only moments before it was revealed, and those few seconds did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of the way the story was brought together.

So the bottom line is, if you like horror movies (and like them extra gory), you'll want to check out Final Destination 5. It's not a masterpiece, but it may have carved out a niche as the best 3D horror film yet made. I grade it a B-.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lost Re-view: What Kate Did

It's hard for me to put myself back in this mindset, but there was a time when one of the most popular unanswered questions about Lost was "what crime did Kate commit?" This second season episode, right down to its title, was crafted to answer that. But talking about this episode is going to take even more space that usual, because in answering that question, Lost covered some interesting character backstory and opened up a number of questions that were never completely explained by the end of the series.

The episode was written by Steven Maeda & Craig Wright, two staff writers who both left the series after the second season. It was directed by Paul Edwards, who after working on the show here for the first time would go on to become the series' most prolific director who wasn't "in-house" working as an executive producer.

It turns out that complicated father issues, already shown to be a key part of Jack, Locke, Sun, and Jin's backgrounds, are key to understanding Kate as well. Her past is both simple and complicated, expected and surprising. Her crime, it turns out, is murder. At age 24, she tampered with the gas main at her mother's house, setting it to explode with Wayne -- her abusive, alcoholic stepfather -- inside. She also took out an insurance policy in her mother's name ahead of time, hoping to set her up for life. The problem was, she didn't appreciate the tangled mess of feelings her mother had for Wayne. Despite the abuse, she loved the man, and she ratted Kate out to the authorities immediately, putting her on the run from marshal Edward Mars.

All that is the expected part. The marshal even taunts Kate with that when he briefly has her in his custody. But there's another dimension to it. It turns out that the man Kate thought was her dad, the Army officer her mother divorced when she was a child, was actually away overseas when she was conceived. Her actual biological father was her "stepfather" Wayne, a fact which (given his behavior early in this episode) it seems he's not even aware of himself.

This is an important piece of Kate's character, the self-hatred she feels that her blood is not that of an army hero, but an abusive drunk. And this self-hatred is sadly driven home even more when Kate goes to see the father who first raised her in a flashback. She asks why he never told her the truth, and he answers "I knew you'd kill him." Worse, when she asks why he didn't, he tells her "I don't have murder in my heart." Kate does, and that's the problem.

The on-Island story this episode plays up the love triangle between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. Jack is tending to a delirious Sawyer, who is still recovering from his gunshot wound, and hears him murmur that he loves Kate. Jack then doesn't want to leave Kate alone with Sawyer to attend Shannon's funeral, but Kate insists he go. It would all be uninteresting to anyone but the "shippers," if not for some new circumstances and the added context of the flashbacks:

Sawyer's unexpected return to the group has Kate thinking about her past. And because her mind is on the past, just before she comes to watch over Sawyer, she sees a black horse on the Island. Not just any horse, but one key to her first escape from the marshal. He wasn't paying enough attention to the road on a rainy evening, swerved to avoid the horse, and hit a tree. Kate stared for a moment at the horse before driving off.

Just filling the silence with her voice (but knowing Sawyer can't really hear her), she tells Sawyer of having seen the horse. He begins to whisper something that draws her in close... and then he suddenly sits bolt upright, grabs her by the throat, and begins to choke her as he screams "why did you kill me?!" Kate believes she's hearing the voice of her dead father Wayne, somehow possessing Sawyer, and flees the scene.

When Jack finally catches up with her to demand why she left Sawyer all alone (as well as the button; oh, we'll get to the button), she breaks down, upset that she's not as good as Jack. She kisses him, but then thinks twice of it and flees again. It all makes sense when she finally returns to the Hatch and confides once more in the unconscious Sawyer (whom she addresses as Wayne): she hates that Wayne is a part of her, and that she will never be any good or have anything good. Every time she looks at Sawyer, she sees Wayne. From the sound of it, Kate wants to be with Jack, but doesn't think she deserves it.

Upon this revelation, Sawyer regains consciousness -- not possessed -- and the two share a lighter moment in which he sees the strange surroundings of the Hatch and is sure they've been rescued. It's followed by a serious moment outside in which Sawyer sees Kate's horse, and she knows she's not in fact crazy.

So, let the unanswered questions begin!

First, was Sawyer actually possessed by Wayne when he choked Kate and lamented her killing him? No subsequently explained property of the Island (that I can think of) would explain any literal interpretation of that scene, so I choose to believe that Sawyer was just having a weird "waking dream" moment in his recovery that Kate misinterpreted in her fixation. Of course, that transfers the question to: just who did delirious Sawyer think he was speaking to? But that feels like an easier one to answer to me. He could have been having a fever dream about the con man he's chasing, the Others who shot him, maybe even Ana Lucia.

Second, what was the nature of the horse Kate saw? Here, I posit two theories. First, the Island shows some measure of sentience throughout the show in drawing people and things there that are "needed." This is the force that Ben refers to in a later episode as a "magic box," and is what magically transported Anthony Cooper (Locke's father) to the Island in season 3. That force could have been responding to some need of Kate's here, bringing the horse to her to sharpen her memories, help her see that she's a different person from the one who killed her father, and hone her for Jacob's purposes (not to be revealed for some time). That's if you believe the horse is still alive out there in the real world.

Option two in my mind is that the horse is in fact dead... which puts it within the purview of the Man in Black. He can transform into any dead person, even someone who didn't die on the Island, and it's possible that power isn't actually limited to people. He could be appearing here as Kate's horse, trying to remind her of her inherent darkness and tempt her down the path that would allow him to kill her. But Kate passes the test, confessing that her motive for killing her father was not out of noble intention for her mother, but out of hatred for what she recognized in herself. Perhaps if Kate had stayed in denial, the Man in Black could have killed her here; by embracing the truth and purging that evil, she stayed beyond his reach.

Still with me through all that heady stuff? Good, because we have a ways to go. "What Kate Did" actually contains a considerable amount of content that has nothing to do with Kate.

There's an arc for Sayid, who tries to eulogize Shannon at her funeral, but can only lament how unlikely it was they ever would have met or even spoken to each other but for these circumstances. He simply acknowledges that he loved her before walking away. He's still deep in despair when Kate later asks him if he believes in ghosts. He answers that he saw Walt in the jungle before Shannon was shot, asking if that makes him crazy. Maybe, maybe not... though if that's what came to his mind when asked about ghosts, it seems he believes Walt is dead too. (Incorrectly, but that's where he's at right now.)

There are two great scenes with Jin. The first is at the top of the episode when he emerges shirtless from his tent with Sun clinging on him -- and gets a sly thumbs up from Hurley. The second is when Locke uses bolt cutters in the Swan station to finally remove the handcuff from his wrist. He and Michael share a laugh over it, showing how far their relationship has come since Michael put the cuff on him.

Jack also has a few lighter moments. One involves Hurley trying to psychoanalyze him with some things he heard bandied around in his time at the psych ward, while the other has Jack bringing tequila to just sit with a self-berating Ana Lucia.

The writers continue a theme that was big in season 2 -- that the Oceanic survivors all had some connections in their pasts. In the flashback that shows Kate going to speak with her army father, there's a brief glimpse of Sayid on a TV in the background. (The relationship between Sayid and Kate's dad would be explained later in the season.)

The mysteries of the Swan station itself deepen in this episode. When Kate flees Wayne/Sawyer, she leaves the button unmanned, and Locke returns with just 23 seconds (Numbers!) to type in the code -- which he does with only 1 second on the clock. Later, Michael points out the blast doors on the computer room that no one has noticed before, their purpose unknown (for now).

But the big Swan-related revelation comes after Locke shows Eko and Michael the orientation film. Eko reveals that he found the missing chunk of the film in the abandoned Arrow station on the other side of the Island. (Actually, he first tells a Biblical story of Josiah and the Book of Law, but I confess my knowledge of the Bible is insufficient for me to speculate intelligently on the literary metaphor being made here.) Locke remarks at the amazing odds that the removed footage would be found and brought back, but Eko cautions not to mistake coincidence for fate -- a key philosophical thread of Lost.

When the footage is spliced back in, "Dr. Marvin Candle" warns that the computer for entering the numbers should not be used to communicate with the outside world, at the risk of compromising the project and causing another "incident." And at that very moment, Michael is in the computer room checking out the equipment and sees a prompt appear on the screen: "Hello?" He strikes up a chat, and discovers that Walt is on the other end of the conversation.

All this material in the Swan station leaves us with at least three unanswered questions -- though admittedly some of them aren't likely to keep a Lost fan up at night.

Firstly, why the warning not to use the computer for communication? Though there is some tension later in the season about whether the button pushing is for a real purpose or just part of a social experiment, we ultimately learn that indeed, the button pushing is keeping an electromagnetic calamity at bay. Is the concern that using the computer for any other purpose than button pushing is simply too risky? That you wouldn't want to, say, accidentally cause the early 80s version of the Blue Screen of Death at just the wrong moment that renders the computer unable to enter the numbers in time?

Secondly, why was this warning excised from the orientation film? We learn later in the season that the man responsible for this was Radzinsky, the former "Hostile" working for Ben, who painted the blast door map and ultimately went crazy. But we never really get the why of it. Was he hoping to cause another incident by removing the warning against it? He was there for the first incident, so that seems unlikely. Unless that's part of the crazy, anyway. (And if it was, then why not simply stop pushing the button if he wanted to cause a disaster?) Sorry, but I've got no theories here.

But those two extremely insignificant questions are small potatoes next to this: how did Walt get on the other end of that computer chat? And to disprove what seems to me to be the best theory here, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are on record in an interview stating that this was not a ruse -- it really was Walt. So I guess the next most plausible answer is that the Others actually allowed Walt to use a computer connected somehow to the Swan, as part of a plan to bait some of the survivors into coming after Walt.

Admittedly, all of these questions are a distraction from the main thrust of the episode's drama, Kate's dark backstory. But to be honest, while this backstory is more dramatic and interesting (by far) than the Kate flashbacks relayed in her last two episodes, it's not as compelling as most of the other stories told so far this season. So all told (and I'm sorry I felt there was so much to be told), I'd rate this episode a B. Not bad, but not among Lost's best.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My Two Horse Cents

You can usually expect good things from a Steven Spielberg movie. And his 2011 live action effort, War Horse, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, which certainly made it seem like this would be "one of the good ones."

Unfortunately, I found it Spielberg's worst in a long, long time.

War Horse is based on a novel that was, unlikely though it might seem from the content, adapted into a very successful stage play. Set during World War I, it follows the story of a horse, the young man who trains it, and the horse's subsequent conscription into the war. Spielberg was reportedly deeply moved by the play, and pushed to make this film adaptation.

The movie has many problems in my view, but the biggest is that it's too much like an anthology. The horse is the central character the movie tracks, and he passes through a half dozen "owners" in the course of the two-hour tale. And it's not that the story doesn't do everything it can to make that horse a character of its own -- it's just that that's not enough.

There are plenty of human characters that come and go in the horse's life, as the movie unfolds over years, but none of these people hang around long enough to make a lasting impact. Just when you might get caught up in one's story, the horse is moving on to new adventures. And so the overall tone of the film remains ponderously boring, for want of any real point of emotional access. Perhaps a real horse lover might feel differently... but then, a horse lover might struggle to watch the film for the hardships this horse (and others like him) endure in the film.

There are a few good actors in the film, including Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, but the structure of the film is such that none of them gets more than a few minutes of screen time to make any kind of impression. They're there and gone before you can care.

I was squirming from impatience long before the final act. Ultimately the only good thing I can point to about the film is the truly impressive job done by the horse trainers who worked on it. Even allowing for the luxury of multiple takes (which surely must have been required for many scenes), the precise things the trainers got real horses to do are quite impressive.

Still, that's hardly enough to hang an entire movie on. I'd certainly never want to watch any part of it again. In fact, I think I'd have to rate it a D-, which probably makes it the "worst Spielberg movie" I've ever seen. An unfortunate disappointment.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Glease

Tonight, Glee took on the musical Grease with mixed-to-good results.

Rachel's storyline, involving her continued rivalry with Cassandra, was a bit mixed in Cassandra's crazed machinations; it's hard to believe that that someone so easily rattled by a young student would still be teaching, as she'd surely have had a career ending meltdown before this. (She had one in her past career, after all.) But the story was good in that it was about toughening up Rachel some more, forcing her to face how condescending she comes off at times, and moving her closer toward the end of defining herself in terms of the man she's with.

The Marley storyline was mixed in the way Kitty's villainy was as extreme as Cassandra, Sue Sylvester, and anything Quinn ever did, all rolled into one. Yes, I suppose there really are teenagers in the world who would try to drive a rival to bulimia as a way of getting revenge, but what misfortune is going to have to befall Kitty down the road to redeem the character and pull her back from the brink?

The small storyline for Wade/Unique was mixed and good for the same reason. After several seasons of seeing Burt Hummel, "Best Dad on Television," in his interactions with Kurt, here we got another texture of parents who were trying to be supportive, but lacking the courage of their own child. It's too bad these characters were weaker in their convictions, but it's also true and interesting. Whether to give in to fear when you have a legitimate reason to be fearful is a moral conundrum that could have easily filled more screen time. I hope the show will explore it more.

The musical numbers themselves were also mixed-to-good. Some were staged exactly as they were in the film version of Grease, and that made them rather boring and uninspired in my book. "Greased Lightnin'" at least had some energy, but as Blaine was supposed to be wallowing in depression, "Beauty School Dropout" was pretty boring. But by contrast, the final two songs of the show, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" and "You're the One That I Want," were quite interesting. These songs blended multiple singers, multiple locations, dream sequences, multiple storylines for each of the characters -- and solid vocal performances too. And the episode's plot didn't feel too distorted just to get the songs to fit, as is often the case when Glee does a theme week.

Overall, I'd call this episode a B+, right about the respectable bar Glee's been reaching recently. I'll leave with this one parting thought. Grease is really a pretty poor musical for a high school to perform, when you think about it. Besides the fact that more puritanical minds would object to the depiction of teen sex (I have no qualms there), I think it sends a really bizarre message in its grand finale, the transformation of Sandy into leather-clad vixen. It seems to me the musical is saying: change everything about who you are and what you dream to become the fantasy of the man you think you want. That feels to me like a message that should be left behind in the decade this musical uses as its setting.

I don't think Danny and Sandy lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

TNG Flashback: Hide and Q

Nine episodes into the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series did its first sequel (of sorts) to one of its own episodes, the episode "Hide and Q." The powerful alien from the pilot episode ("Encounter at Farpoint") returns to stir up some mischief, but it's quickly revealed to be a pretext for tempting Riker. The commander has been given the powers of the Q, and is asked to join their "Q Continuum" so they may incorporate the human compulsion for self betterment. Will Riker accept these god-like powers and leave the crew behind?

I remember being very entertained the first time around by the various Q episodes throughout the run of The Next Generation. And I've also been impressed by the acting of John de Lancie in the many other guest starring roles he's performed in rafts of other shows I've watched over the years. So I was that much more surprised to find this episode not nearly as good as I'd remembered.

Going right back to Q so soon in the series has a slight scent of desperation for ideas about it. The genesis of the episode may not actually have been that, though. I even noted in my review of that first episode that the Q element of the story was certainly the best thing about it. The idea for this episode probably just came from writers watching the footage coming in from that episode being filmed, and deciding this was a successful thing they should revisit as soon as possible.

It's odd, though, that Q goes to Riker in this episode, not Picard. There was a notable scene from the pilot where Q stopped taunting Picard long enough to admit some kind of grudging respect for Riker, and it's easy to imagine the writers drawing a line from that to this episode. But the writers of later seasons would rightly focus Q stories back on Picard. The real clash was always between them, with this brief battle against Riker an odd side note.

There's another big Trek inspiration at play in this episode, though: the classic series episode "The Squire of Gothos." That episode featured a powerful alien with godlike powers known as Trelane, who forced the crew to participate in games for his amusement... until his parents came to take him back home for discipline. While the "godlike super alien" aspect of this had been lifted already upon Q's creation for "Encounter at Farpoint," the actual portrayal on both the page and in the finished product did treat Q and Trelane as reasonably different kinds of characters, I thought. But not so here. Q basically is Trelane in this episode. Q's costume and setting changes that seemed more for dramatic effect in "Farpoint" are all about fun and games here. He's more playful here, even buddy-buddy in moments, rather than serious and adversarial. And in the end, other members of the Continuum come to whisk Q away against his will.

There are odd pacing problems with the story. Q takes a full third of the episode in revealing the point of his visit, and it's several minutes more before we're shown that Riker has been given the powers of the Q. That leaves no time to truly show any of the temptation or corruption Riker feels because of those powers; he more or less instantly turns arrogant, with upthrust chin (and low camera angles).

But the real omission, I think, is that there's never any serious consideration given to accepting Q's offer. Picard just immediately assumes the answer must be no. They're all in the business of exploration and self-betterment. Wouldn't joining the Q be the ultimate opportunity for all of that? Is their power truly such a corrupting influence? Q never really did anything that nasty to this point in time. Maybe Riker could change them as much as they changed him? (That's the actual hope of the Q, in fact.) If nothing else, maybe it would keep the Q off their backs enough so that they wouldn't keep running into giant force fields in space every eight or nine weeks.

The proof of the Q powers' corruption is supposed to be demonstrated in the final act, where Riker is invited to give a gift to each of his friends to demonstrate how much he cares for them. But I find it a weird sequence where the characters' reactions don't feel entirely authentic. Riker starts talking gifts, and Dr. Crusher somehow immediately knows something is about to happen to Wesley. She tries to hustle Wes out of the room, but Riker "makes him 10 years older" (by transforming him into a soap opera extra). And the teenager who has whined fairly regularly about not being treated with the respect of an adult decides that "it's too soon for this" and that he wants to get there on his own. What?

Riker offers to turn Data into a human, but Data stops him before Brent Spiner even gets out of makeup. Not having any feelings of any kind, how can Data decide that, essentially, being made human this way wouldn't "feel right?" What's the difference between a Q shortcut and the emotion chip he receives seven years and one movie later?

Riker offers Geordi normal eyesight. We saw Geordi consult with Dr. Crusher about this very thing in the first episode, and then pine for it under the effects of intoxication in "The Naked Now." But suddenly, he refuses it, and all he can offer for explanation is "I don't like who I'd have to thank." Again, a bit peculiar, if you ask me. But maybe my thinking is too much of "an outdated, 20th-century nature" (as the speechifying 24th-century heroes might put it), and I just don't understand.

There are a few good moments in the midst of all this, though. John de Lancie once again gives a great performance. He's particularly good in a scene where he trades Shakespearean barbs with Patrick Stewart. Stewart also has a more tender moment as Picard when he consoles Tasha in the "penalty box." It's a false moment of jeopardy that doesn't actually threaten the character for more than a moment, but Denise Crosby does show some cracks in Yar's emotional armor, and then berates her own weakness in a believable way.

This episode also has a rare Dennis McCarthy score that I actually like. It has fun militaristic elements for Q's "vicious animal things," including even a few phrases from La Marseillaise. There's an interesting mock choir for Q's appearance as an ancient monk, and weirdly sinister music for the brief moments of the Klingon mating ritual we see.

Other observations:
  • What's with the title, exactly? I mean, "Hide and Q" / "hide and seek," I get that. But that's not even a pun. Doesn't it have to rhyme or something?
  • Q shows up in a Starfleet admiral's uniform near the beginning of the episode. It's a flashier style than the admiral uniforms we'd see later, and has a lot of interesting detailing that shows up wonderfully on the Blu-ray remaster.
  • The exact wager made here between Q and Picard is that if Q loses (and he does), he will "keep[ing] out of humanity's path forever." As I recall, the details of this bet are fudged considerably in Q's next appearance, in the second season. (But they had to write John de Lancie back onto the show somehow.)
  • Counselor Troi doesn't appear in this episode, hastily written out in Picard's opening monologue as being off the ship for some reason. Presumably Marina Sirtis wasn't available for this episode, or she had an "only this many episodes per season" contract and the writers decided to use one of her "off weeks" here. But it's a shame, really. Given Troi and Riker's back story, I think there was a huge lost opportunity here in seeing how she would have reacted to Riker's situation, and how she might have talked him out of joining the Q much more effectively than Picard.
  • While on Q's imaginary planet, Worf is sent ahead to scout the enemy soldiers' camp. But Geordi uses his VISOR to track Worf the whole way, even spotting the camp before Worf reaches it. I have to ask, if Geordi can do that, why send Worf?
  • Speaking of Worf, he really gets a lame gift from Riker in the whole gift-giving sequence at the end of the episode. Wes gets adulthood, Geordi gets sight, Data is offered humanity -- these are all things they could not possibly get any other way. By contrast, Riker basically offers to take Worf to a whore house, conjuring up a Klingon female for him to have sex with. What does it say about Worf if, like those other gifts, it's something he actually can't get for himself?
  • We learned about "the Picard Maneuver" -- the starship combat tactic -- in the episode "The Battle," but the term was later used humorously by the fans to describe the captain's trademark tugging on his uniform. I thought this didn't really start happening until the introduction of the two-piece uniforms in season three, but there's a moment here in this episode where Patrick Stewart sits and then tugs at his waist to smooth his uniform. The first ever "Picard maneuver?"
I guess performance counts for a lot with me, because when I rank this episode in relation to others, I conclude that I should be giving it a C. Content-wise, though, it seems a lot worse than that on paper. I guess the writers ultimately felt the same way I do, as they did end up bringing back Q (a lot) after this, despite a less than stellar episode.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Qui-rious

The first Cirque du Soleil production I ever heard of (from a friend who saw it and enthusiastically praised it) was actually one I never saw myself, Quidam. It was too late at the time for me to see the touring show before it left town, and ultimately my first in-person Cirque experience was Mystère, in Las Vegas. But this past week, Quidam returned to Denver for a brief engagement of a few days, and I got to see where it (sort of) all stared.

Being one of the older Cirque shows, Quidam is somewhat less inventive than some of the later shows that would follow. Its format is the same sort of loose narrative of shows like Mystère and La Nouba. It includes many routines similar to those that appear in other shows -- a routine with Diabolos, an aerial silk performance, comic interludes incorporating audience plants, and so forth. But familiar though it is, it's hardly boring. The acrobatic feats by the Cirque performers are still second to none.

Quidam features one of Cirque du Soleil's more interesting characters. The name of the show itself is shared by a bizarre headless character in bright neon colors, carrying an umbrella and a bowler hat. Many other characters are a bit more "stock" for Cirque shows, but the strange headless figure draws the eye whenever he/it steps on stage.

The show has one of the stronger musical soundtracks of any of the Cirque shows I've seen. It's another contribution by Cirque regular Benoît Jutras, but with a more rock-based set of instruments including saxophone, prominent electric guitar, and four-on-the-floor percussion.

Overall, I wouldn't say I was wowed by Quidam. Maybe you've seen too many Cirque shows if you start to be at all jaded by them. Still, it was entertaining, and I'm glad to have added it to my "collection."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fainting Spell

So, last week, I mentioned a concert I went to. For those who were curious, it was The Faint, playing at the Ogden Theatre. I'd never heard of them before my boyfriend introduced me to their music, but I definitely like their sound. They have a sort of new wave vibe; a touch of synth pop in a heavy base of indie rock. I particularly like their 2008 album, Fasciinatiion, if you're looking to check out their music yourself.

I'm tempted to write two versions of my review here. As it unfortunately worked out, my boyfriend -- the one who wanted to go see the band in the first place -- was out of town for work when concert night finally rolled around. What had been planned as a group of four ended up being a group of three instead. And just so he doesn't feel extra miserable about having to miss the show, I almost want to post a "meh, they were alright" review.

But that wasn't the case. The truth is, they gave a really fun, energetic performance. Their high-octane drummer kept a frenetic pace from beginning to end. Their enthusiastic keyboard player spent as much time dancing wildly on his corner of the stage as playing his instrument. Their bass player (and sometime guitarist) was always front and center in the sound mix, for a powerful pulse you could feel all through your body. And their vocalist moved around through a wild light and fog show that kept the eyes as engaged as the ears.

Basically, they rocked.

There was also an intriguing opening act, Robert DeLong, a one man band who moved around from instrument to instrument as he moved from song to song. Most unusual was the way he generated vocal distortion effects by weaving around a Wii remote, and another moment where he played a synth solo on an XBox controller. Definitely entertaining, and a performer whose music I plan to seek out now.

The Faint's new tour has just begun (as they pointed out several times, telling the audience how this was "the first time" they were performing a given song live). So if you like their music (or sample it and like what you hear), you might want to check if they're coming to your town. It was a very reasonably priced ticket, and a great evening's entertainment.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sky High Expectations

This afternoon, I went to see the news James Bond movie, Skyfall. From the box office returns, it seems many of you out there have already seen it. But if you haven't yet, I want to caution you a bit.

The critics' reviews for the movie have been over the top, with many sky high marks and several proclaiming it the best Bond film that's ever been made. I've seen people gushing about how Javier Bardem deserves another Oscar nomination. I've been hearing about how Adele has served up the best Bond movie theme ever.

Yes, the movie is good, and worth seeing. It's not as good as all that.

What's great is how this James Bond movie has been approached with all the dramatic integrity of a "serious film." Director Sam Mendes never puts tongue in cheek, presenting this tale with the same realism and attempt to capture emotion as any other film he's made (a list that includes American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road). He's assembled as powerful a cast as any of those movies had. Joining Daniel Craig and Judi Dench (already the most highbrow actors the Bond franchise ever had), you have Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and the lesser known Ben Whishaw -- all of whom have been excellent in other movies, and who take their work here every bit as seriously.

And perhaps that's a bit of the problem. This movie is damn serious. There are a few moments of levity, mostly injected by Bardem when he seems to channel touches of Christopher Walken's performance from A View to a Kill. Following Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, this intensely dramatic tone might not be a surprise -- except that Daniel Craig has been saying all over the place in interviews that this is the finally the Bond movie where he feels like they're opening up and having fun again. Only by the slightest degree, I'd say.

Also absent in this film are the grand stakes and grand villainous schemes that were the hallmark of the best Bond films. This is a pretty straight up revenge flick, and the villain is operating on a very personal level. There's nothing wrong with that, on the face of it. But it does sometimes make the train-top fist fights, subway tunnel chases, and massive explosions feel a bit tacked on to what wants to be a more intimate film.

Those action sequences are pretty damn thrilling, though. The pre-credits sequence is an exhilarating romp through multiple settings. The climatic battle is an extended spree of killing and explosions that thrills and entertains. And most of the action in between is just as good. Plus, it's all set to a rip-roaring score by Thomas Newman.

I just want to try to knock down the expectations you may have, in case you'd built them up as I did thanks to the hype. It's good. It might even be the best of the Daniel Craig Bond films, by a touch. But it's not Bond's Best Ever. I give it a B. Factor that into your expectations, and then by all means go see it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Role You Were Born to Play

I finally got caught up with this week's new Glee, and for the most part, I found it worth the wait. There were a few missteps, but I felt the show maintained the creative resurgence that has kept it well ahead of the spotty place it was in previous seasons.

First, what worked. I'm glad the writers have realized that not every episode of Glee has to have Rachel and Kurt in it. I thought the four episodes that kicked off this season did a pretty good job of juggling the New York and Ohio storylines, but I also think that sooner or later, there would come an episode where one plot felt overly distorted to match the other. Instead, they've embraced the approach that Lost came to use in its later seasons, with its divided cast -- some episodes, one of the groups is just going to have the week off.

Blake Jenner is definitely going to work well on this show. I never watched the first season of The Glee Project, but I did catch every episode of the second. It didn't take long for it to become clear to me, Blake was the one who should win it. Watching one of the first season's "winners" smile in the background as Rory throughout season 3 of Glee, the mistake that was clear to me was that Ryan Murphy and company never made sure their choice could act. Yeah, he had a great voice, and a different personal story unlike any of the other characters on Glee (he was from Ireland), but he couldn't act. I assumed Blake, though most deserving, would lose season 2 of The Glee Project -- he was rock solid in every performance, but had no big personal backstory to serve as a short cut for Murphy having to actually think up a character of his own. But I was pleasantly surprised that the Power(s) That Be on Glee made the right choice this time.

I was just as pleasantly surprised to see that choice then shine in his first episode on the show. The character that they created for him isn't exactly fantastic -- I guess they think the show just has to have a "Finn" -- but he was busting out dance moves better than anything he ever showed on the Glee Project, nailing his first big song (the "classic rock" song, ahem, Jukebox Hero), and in my opinion acting the part of "Finn" better than Cory Monteith ever did.

What didn't work quite so well for me was yet another unexplained (and unexplainable) contortion of Sue Sylvester into crazed villainy. Right there in this very episode, she reminded all of us what a supporter she was of Kurt, making it all the more peculiar how she reacted when dealing with someone who identifies as transgender. She was extra regressive in her attitudes, extra mean in her behavior, extra nasty in her insults. It really came to a head in for me in the moment where Finn reflexively insulted Sue's child. His slur was offensive, absolutely... and yet why, when we're meant to take that moment as awful, should we treat any of the equally awful things Sue was doing in the episode as humorous?

Still other parts of the episode fell into a middle ground for me. I'm glad to get more of the old cast back into the show, though I groan at the contrivance of Mercedes and Mike coming back from whatever lives they were trying to start to assist on a high school musical. I'm glad to have Finn in a plot that doesn't involve Rachel, but it's pretty ridiculous that he could just show up and teach glee club, that simple. I'm glad that we got a taste of Mike and Tina trying to work together after their break-up, but disappointed that we didn't see how they got through it; we just jumped straight to her being cast in the musical. I'm glad we saw Blaine still wallowing in the misery of his mistake, but the writing of it (and Darren Criss' performance) were a bit extreme. (Or maybe authentic high school?) I'm glad we saw Will and Emma resolve their differences without dragging out their problems for weeks, but mystified about their use of Coach Bieste as their "counselor."


Great musical performances this week. The gender reversal and slo-mo fun of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" was a good opener. (And seriously, go back and look at some of the things happening around Blaine on the football field. Hilarious!) Unique and Marley's treatment of Pink's newest single seriously rocked; no callback should have been necessary. As mentioned, "Jukebox Hero" was a solid introduction for Blake. The duet on "Everybody Talks" by Jake and Kitty had some seriously impressive dance moves. And "Born to Hand Jive," though ridiculous in Grease, and kind of silly its "dance off" presentation here, was still kinda stupid-fun anyway.

Overall, I'd call this week's episode a B+. Glee always asks some pretty big buys of its audience when it comes to plot developments. At least this time, it went to making a mostly fun episode.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Restrain the Kraken

An author I enjoy reading had himself at some point recommended a novel from China Miéville, entitled Kraken. I knew almost nothing of what the book was about, but in trying to investigate whether it was something I might like to read, a friend of mine turned out to have read it. Without quite stating concretely whether he actually liked the book, he loaned me his copy.

I got around 170 pages into the 500 total before I simply couldn't slog through any more. I don't abandon a book lightly, particularly a third of the way in, but this one was simply a mess.

It started out promising, presenting itself as sort of a Dan Brown style museum thriller, more intelligently written. A man working in a British museum, tasked with preserving a dead giant squid in a massive tank, is shocked one day to learn the squid has somehow been stolen from the museum without a trace. Police try to use his expertise on the subject to track down a cult they suspect may be involved. But soon it turns out that the book is actually a fantasy set in the real world. Magic is at play in London, and a number of end-of-the-world cultists are all circling this mysterious squid as an actual god, the Kraken, that will play a central role.

Once this turn happened, the book almost instantly transformed from compelling, intelligent adventure into a modernized version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It had the same overly dense structure, meandering plots, needless subplots, and an obsession over "the world" more than the characters.

Soon, it reached a point where I was hard pressed to make myself read more than 15 pages a night. And soon after that, I found that in 15-page chunks, the book wasn't making any sense at all. There were so many characters divided into so many plots that I would read about somebody and then not come back to them for days. Worse, the intervening pages weren't always about other characters, but were often just background information on the nature of how magic operates in the world. Incredibly dry stuff. You could read a whole chapter and barely touch on the person the chapter was ostensibly about.

Once I made the connection that I was reading another Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I closed the cover immediately. Mid-chapter. That other book was an epic, painful slog that took me months to finish. And at the end, it was all a thoroughly unsatisfying waste of time. (I rated it a D.) I weighed the possibility that this was another, similar waste of time vs. the possibility that the book might turn around again to be enjoyable as it was in the beginning. I concluded that with the weeks more I'd probably have to put in, and the many more books on my pile, I was opting out.

I suppose I can only grade Kraken an "incomplete" -- but I did give it 1 star over on Goodreads, if you're looking for a definitive measure. The bottom line: don't read it.