Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Deep Freeze

Many critics have praised the latest Disney animated feature, Frozen, as the studio's best musical since the so-called "Renaissance era" of the early 1990s. Having now seen it, I must agree.

Like The Little Mermaid, the film that kicked off that Renaissance era, Frozen is inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story. The Disney animators have apparently been trying to adapt The Snow Queen for film since Walt Disney himself was still alive; finally they cracked the story, by departing much more from the original material far more than most other Disney fairy tales do.

It's easy to see why The Snow Queen was such a siren lure for animation. The icy powers of Queen Elsa lend themselves to amazing visuals: weather from gentle flurries to raging blizzards, light-refracting icicles and snowflakes, and a lavish ice palace are just scratching the surface. Enormous effort was put into these sequences, and it shows. (It also shows, unintentionally, in bad ways too. Some scenes set in simpler, indoor environments, have similar problems to the famous Beauty and the Beast ballroom scene, in that the characters don't seem believably placed in their environments. All the time effort must have gone into those amazing ice and snow scenes instead.)

The songs, from married team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are certainly as strong as anything from the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken films. They advance the story while being both clever and conveying strong emotion. Particularly strong are "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?", depicting the gradual growing apart of sisters Elsa and Anna, and "Let It Go," Elsa's defiant anthem about embracing her true nature. My young niece, who was seeing the movie for the third time with me (and who has endlessly listened to the soundtrack), quietly sang along with her favorites, and knew every word as well as "Part of Your World" or any other famous Disney heroine's ballad.

Frozen also boasts what may well be the strongest group of voice actors ever assembled for a Disney animated film. To cast their musical, the people behind Frozen pulled heavily from the logical talent pool -- Broadway musical performers. Idina Menzel (of Rent and Wicked) plays self-punishing snow queen Elsa. Her performance of the character's big solo "Let It Go" is the powerful and moving highlight of the film (and makes the end credits pop version by Demi Lovato pale in comparison). Jonathan Groff (of Spring Awakening) plays mountain man Kristoff. His singing talents are largely wasted on one brief half-song, but his acting delivers both the comedic and romantic elements the story requires. Josh Gad (of The Book of Mormon) plays clueless snowman Olaf, and keeps what could have been a rather obnoxious character entertaining. And Santino Fontana (star of a host of recent Broadway revivals) plays love interest Hans without tipping the performance (pardon the pun) cartoonish.

This strong batch of Broadway actors is then supplemented with people who have a long animation pedigree. Alan Tudyk plays the scheming Duke of Weselton; we Firefly fans know him best as Wash, but he's been amassing quite the list of animation credits, from Astro Boy to an Ice Age sequel, and even winning an Annie award for his work in Wreck-It Ralph. Maurice LaMarche, veteran of Futurama and voice of The Brain from the Animaniacs, is the father of princesses Elsa and Anna.

Headlining this group as princess Anna is Kristen Bell. She has the unenviable task of holding her own in a duet with Idina Menzel, but she rises to the occasion. And while those of us who knew her as Veronica Mars will be surprised to learn she can sing, we're not at all surprised at her deft handling of both comedy and drama throughout the film.

Although Frozen makes a few minor missteps (such as heavily front-loading the musical numbers in the first half of the movie), it is overall a very well-made, entertaining film. It's worthy of being placed among the great Disney animated musicals, and it surpasses the latest animated efforts of sister studio Pixar. I give it an A-.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Take It to the Banks

As a kid, I really loved the songs of the film Mary Poppins. A few years ago, as an adult, I found when re-watching the film itself that the slow pace and rather dry opening act made for a less magical experience than I'd remembered. Still, I had enough residual good memories about the movie (and that wonderful music) that I was very curious to see Saving Mr. Banks, the new film that chronicles Walt Disney's pursuit of the book rights from crotchety author P. L. Travers.

The film weaves together Travers' two-week trip to Hollywood to consult on the Mary Poppins movie script with flashbacks of her childhood in Australia. The "modern" scenes depict Travers as an irrational monster, rudely ordering around screenwriter Don DaGradi and composer/lyricists Robert and Richard Sherman. As the real-life Travers demanded that all her Disney meeting be tape recorded, much of this material is grounded in actual events. (In fact, you get to hear a sampling of the actual recordings over the end credits.) Meanwhile, the flashbacks gradually inform the audience about the reasons behind Travers' personality and demands, which on the surface seem capricious.

But that process is very gradual. By about halfway through the film, it seemed as though only one of the flashback scenes had any real bearing on the Disney scenes bookending it. But then the weave started to pull tight, and everything came together -- and very well, in fact. The full significance of the movie's title is revealed, and then countless little details begin falling into place one by one. By the end, the emotional journey is well-executed enough to not only make this a satisfying movie, but to in my opinion improve Mary Poppins itself through the lens that's been constructed.

The film has a hefty cast of great actors. Emma Thompson gives one of the most subtly demanding performances of her career. She has to walk the knife's edge of making her character of Travers prickly and infuriating while still be amusing and ultimately sympathetic. And we must see in her face her reactions to all these flashbacks -- which of course Thompson herself didn't get to see when filming the movie. She does such an excellent job that the key moments where Travers' strongest feelings break through really do result in a surprisingly emotional movie.

Tom Hanks makes a good Walt Disney. In actuality, he only appears in a handful of scenes in the movie... and only some of those really afford him the opportunity to really shine as an actor. Still, he's  riveting when those moments come around. Colin Farrell is excellent as Travers' father in the extensive flashbacks. Paul Giamatti is wonderful as limo driver Ralph -- though his mere presence in the role certainly tips the audience to the fact that the character is going to have some more significant scenes late in the film. Bradley Whitford as DaGradi, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman brothers, ably hold their own against Emma Thompson's towering performance. And also look for a few great little scenes featuring Rachel Griffiths (for once, able to use her natural Austalian accent) and Kathy Baker.

I think t's important to remember this movie is really only based on a true story. It's not that the film takes wild liberties. But it's well-documented that P. L. Travers never really came to terms with the finished Mary Poppins film, as this movie implies. Nevertheless, any inaccuracies (wherever they may be hiding) can be easily forgiven, as Saving Mr. Banks does tell a complete dramatic journey of its own. I give it a strong B+.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Campus Visit

Pixar has done sequels (and even a "three-quel"), but this year was the first time they took on a prequel: Monsters University. This return to the world of the excellent Monsters, Inc. follows Mike Wazowski and Sully as they get their college education in scaring. But when I wrote about Monsters, Inc., I noted that it took the character of Boo to bring the real heart and soul to the original film. Without her, how would this prequel do?

Well... not as good. But not too bad either.

The film gets off to a bit of a slow start thanks to "prequel-itis," the filmmakers' need to try to surprise us with situations that inherently can't be surprising, given our knowledge of the prior film. In this case, the conceit is that best buddies Mike and Sully were in fact (gasp!) rivals as college freshmen. There are some good jokes here and there, but overall, the movie is short on sentiment.

But eventually, Mike and Sully have to learn to work together (as expected), and let the walls between them come down. Once that happens, the movie starts to mine interesting dramatic territory. Nature versus nurture. What can be taught versus what's innate. How a team can be greater than the sum of its parts. And the comedic characters confess some very real anxieties to each other. In short, Mike and Sully as enemies -- though a novel gimmick -- simply isn't as compelling as the stories that can be told when they're friends. We saw that in the previous Monsters movie, and the same is true here.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman return to voice their characters (along with a handful of other actors from the first movie), and are once again good. But joining the cast this time out are a number of other entertaining choices. There's Hellen Mirren, Charlie Day, Dave Foley, Sean Hayes, Alfred Molina, and (most fun, if you're like me) Nathan Fillion. It's a fun cast, supported by a number of very fun character designs by the Pixar animators.

In all, I thought this movie was about par for the course for the "new age" of Pixar films. The glory days are over, where every film the studio made was solid gold (including Monsters, Inc.). But the last few have been entertaining enough. I give Monsters University a B.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Europa-dope

I'd heard a bit of good buzz about Europa Report, a science fiction movie from earlier this year that quietly slipped by unnoticed. It chronicles the first manned space flight beyond the moon, traveling to Jupiter's moon of Europa to investigate the possibility of microbiotic life forms beneath its icy crust. Though made on the cheap, the movie actually is slickly produced and looks quite good.

Although there's no one in the film the average person would know by name, there is a sprinkling of actors you might recognize from other places. The most likely is Sharlto Copley, the main character of District 9; his presence in this film does immediately lend it some legitimate scifi cred. There's also Christian Camargo (who played the Ice Truck Killer in the first season of Dexter), Michael Nyqvist (who originated the role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which Daniel Craig portrayed in the U.S. remake), and working actors who have recurred on Mad Men, True Blood, and more.

On the plus side, the film does strive for scientific accuracy as much as possible. There are big asks of the audience, of course, but the writing overall does seek realism. There's brief archive footage of Neil deGrasse Tyson at one point; inviting his specter into the film should tell you how serious the filmmakers are about being taken seriously. Plus, the very idea of life on Europa is a real-world scientific siren, and was famously fictionalized by Arthur C. Clarke in his Space Odyssey books.

But while the movie proudly stands on the shoulders of all that, it's also influenced by a few other sources much to its detriment. The movie uses the still-not-played-out "found footage" conceit, even though you'd think that Apollo 18 would have given pause to anyone thinking to use it in this context. Worse, the movie uses a pseudo-documentary approach, having other characters occasionally (and unnecessarily) come in to narrate some of the footage, and deflating the tension in the process.

The movie also uses a jumbled narrative structure. We start with loss of communications with the mission a few months in, then jump back to its launch, then cover its arrival at Europa, then revisit the communications loss from earlier (with ensuing calamities)... it's a mess. It's not so tangled that you can't follow it, but it's generally not having the effect I think the filmmakers want it to have. Rather than building tension in the audience and making them wonder how things came to be, I found myself often a step ahead of the movie, having figured out exactly how things came to be from the not-at-all-subtle clues. I truly believe a straightforward chronological narrative would have helped this movie tremendously.

But the thing is, there are stretches (and sometimes, fairly long ones) where the movie does start to pull you in. In between the documentary voice-overs and the time jumps were sequences of 10-15 minutes that did start to work. It's just that right on the cusp of "getting good," the movie would throw it all away with ill-conceived narrative trickery. I'd grade it a C+ movie crouched teasingly on the line of B-. If it had firmly crossed it, it might be something I could truly recommend to most of you. As it stands, though, I think you have to be a space exploration junkie who doesn't mind a largely predictable movie so long as it looks good.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Crooked Tale

It's been almost half a year since I last read one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but the impending third series of the BBC's excellent Sherlock put me in the mood to pick up where I left off. Unfortunately, where I left off was on "The Adventure of the Crooked Man," which turned out to be one of the most disappointing Holmes stories I've read.

Holmes is brought in by the police to investigate the death of a man, heard arguing with his wife by their servants just moments before dying of an apparent bash to the back of the head. But the wife has gone catatonic immediately following the incident, and is unable to explain what happened.

The case is a mix of elements used to better effect in previous tales. In particular, this story repackages a lot of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." It's something of a locked room mystery, with a missing key figuring prominently in the tale. An animal also happens to figure into the story as with Speckled Band, though in an essentially incidental role here. And as in "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," the entire case hinges on one secret conversation that the woman in question had with a strange man immediately prior to the mystery. (In fact, the relationship ultimately revealed between the woman and the strange man is essentially the same as well.)

The story is particularly dated among Holmes adventures, in that it relies upon the "frailty of woman" to make a mystery at all. The woman's catatonia following her husband's death has no true explanation other than the chauvinistic attitudes of the time. Without that device, there would be no mystery at all; the woman would simply tell her version of the tale, which could easily be proven or disproven.

But certainly the worst aspect of the short story by far is the fact that Holmes is utterly unnecessary in resolving it! It's implausible enough to begin with that the consulting detective is even brought in to investigate such an open and shut case. The police are not at all confounded or conflicted about what happened -- they found two people alone in a room, one dead. And over the course of the day in which Holmes investigates by his methods, the police coroner conducts an autopsy and is accurately able to determine exactly what happened to the victim. At the end of the tale, before Holmes is able to go to the police and reveal the full scope of what happened, an officer comes to him and tells him what happened. There are particulars behind the case which the police have not sussed out, but they're rather superfluous. Holmes' time feels rather wasted, and by extension, so does ours the readers.

If I were inclined to give a Sherlock Holmes adventure an F, this would probably be the one, but I find I can't quite bring myself to do it. It seems even at their worst, the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle aren't completely unsalvageable. I give it a D.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Year End Movie

I missed it when it ran in theaters this summer, but I recently had a chance to catch up on the most unusual of the year's many apocalyptically themed movies, This Is the End. It features a host of actors including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, and more, all playing "themselves" as they cower in hiding from the actual Apocalypse at James Franco's house.

Some movies step right up to the "stupid line" and only flirt with crossing. Others dive across brazenly and never look back. This movie dances back and forth, serving up alternate doses of pure stupidity and clever hilarity. It's the kind of film you're at times not sure you "like," but you most certainly laugh at it all the same.

Most of the humor comes from the actors sending up their own real world personalities. James Franco is skewered as pretentious. Jonah Hill is playfully mocked for being the unlikely Oscar nominee among them. Funniest of all are the people playing against type, like the party girl/badass version of Emma Watson, and the lecherous horndog version of Michael Cera (think Youth in Revolt times 20). There's also a sort of Mars Attacks! quality to the first act, where loads more people cameo just for the fun of being killed off in entertaining ways.

Because everyone is playing an actor, the film is also stuffed with movie and TV references. A third act development that brings in a subplot aping The Exorcist is probably the richest vein of laughs mined in the movie. There are also plenty of cracks about the more questionable choices in these actors' careers.

All told, This Is the End is a pretty satisfying comedy. I give it a B.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gory Christmas

If your Christmas sensibilities trend to the dark side, have I got the movie for you. Yesterday, I fired up Netflix streaming to watch Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. This 2010 movie from Finland follows a young boy who stumbles onto a strange excavation being undertaken by an American on a nearby mountain -- the real Santa Claus has been discovered, buried deep in the ice for ages. But said real Santa Claus is not the "Coca-Cola version" of Santa we all celebrate today, but rather a horrifying devourer of misbehaving children deliberately buried long ago, and now poised to unleash a new horror on Earth.

The truth is, that intriguing premise is probably the best thing about the film. But even in its sometimes flawed execution, there's a lot to like about it. Director Jalmari Helander has a firm command of suspenseful horror. The first half of the film builds a strong sense of creeping dread, and the sequences in which a trio of reindeer hunters try to figure out what to do with the strange old man they've captured are brilliantly executed.

But then things start to go comic and broad. A rather horrifying injury is shrugged off in an almost slapstick way. And then the young boy at the center of the film suddenly transforms into a strange sort of 1980s action hero, spouting off cheesy one-liners as he orders everyone around. This too is somewhat enjoyable on a certain level -- probably the same level that makes a number of people out there cite Die Hard as one of their favorite Christmas movies. But it's a rather jarring shift in tone that I didn't necessarily welcome after the effective horror of the movie's first half.

But turn or no turn, the movie is still a fair amount of sick fun. I give it a B-. Obviously, this isn't a movie for everyone. But I know of enough twisted people who read my blog that I figured I'd better get a recommendation in before Christmas Day. I suspect a few of you out there will want to give it a shot.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

TNG Flashback: Legacy

"Legacy" was a landmark episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the 80th produced hour of the series, and in reaching that point, it surpassed the 79 episode run of the original Star Trek television series. But despite the history being made, it was actually a rather unmemorable episode.

A freighter crash lands on the wartorn world of Turkana IV, Tasha Yar's home planet. The crew must rescue the freighter's survivors without stirring up trouble among the two prominent factions present, and they seek help from Tasha's sister Ishara in doing so. In her interactions with the crew, Ishara comes to understand the absent sister she's resented all her life... but her offer to help turns out to be less than genuine.

The very name of this episode, "Legacy," was chosen not just for matching the plot content, but as a nod to surpassing the original series' run. The episode is sprinkled with references to planets and ships that appeared in the final original episode, "Turnabout Intruder." Elements of the plot also feel rather "old school." The whole notion of the "proximity detectors" implanted in this planet's inhabitants, so they can carry on their warfare in a civilized manner with a minimum of casualties -- it's very original series in tone.

Of course, the episode is also a nod back to first season Next Generation and the character of Tasha Yar. Director Robert Scheerer, who wasn't with the show at that time, went back to watch all episodes featuring the character, and based on what he saw, recommended the actress to play her sister, Beth Toussaint (with whom he'd worked before on another television series).

It's interesting how much the theme of family plays a role in the fourth season of The Next Generation. We already had an episode literally titled that, showing Worf's parents, Beverly's late husband and Wesley's father, and Picard's brother. In "Brothers," we had a Data family reunion. Now we're meeting the family of characters who aren't even on the show anymore. And while both the writers and the performer do a credible job of presenting someone we can believe as Tasha's sister, the episode is still a bit of a misstep.

It comes down to this: for the second time in just a handful of episodes (following "Suddenly Human"), our characters are made to look pretty stupid. It's pretty obvious to the audience that Ishara is being deceptive, even before her arch "everything is going according to plan" scene. But despite the fact that our heroes are initially skeptical, despite the fact that Picard lectures Riker point blank about not letting feelings cloud judgment here, they all get taken in. And it's hard to buy that they're that tricked by a sister they've never met, that Tasha never even mentioned.

But what does save the episode a bit is that primarily, Data is the character being tricked. It's an interesting dramatic case study, putting the character who can't feel emotion in the position of being betrayed. And it leads to a number good scenes. The poker game returns at the start of the episode, telegraphing the plot to come with Riker's card trick and talk of how Data has become harder to bluff. Ishara's reaction to Data's stoic response to the betrayal is like a little girl wishing her "disappointed father" would just yell at her rather than give the silent treatment. And the final scene of the episode, a personal conversation between Riker and Data about the nature of friendship, risk, and trust, is great stuff.

Other observations:
  • Worf gets a bit sexist when he wants to keep Dr. Crusher from beaming down to the planet. Fortunately, she basically busts him on it.
  • Even centuries in the future, it will apparently still take hours to get the results of a DNA test.
  • I wonder if Denise Crosby ever saw this episode... and maybe got bummed that her character was developed more after she left the show than while she was on it?
A well-intentioned but rather dully executed episode, I give the forgettable "Legacy" a C.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cain Unable

John Lithgow is an actor who ably steps back and forth between comedy and drama, and who has been powerful at both. I was curious to see him in a role that was perhaps a precursor to his later brilliant work in the fourth season of Dexter -- the 1992 film Raising Cain. But as it turned out, I think if the producers of Dexter had seen Lithgow in this film, they had to really look past the movie's inherent cheesiness to imagine the good he'd bring to their TV series.

I didn't know this until I was watching the opening credits, but Raising Cain was written and directed by Brian De Palma. Having now seen several of his movies, I can definitively say I'm not a fan. In particular, I'm really stunned (in a bad way) at how so very cheap his movies look. Set design, lens choice, use of focus... compare Raising Cain to any other random movie from 1992, and this film feels like a made-for-TV movie in comparison.

That's an especially perplexing result when you consider how truly difficult many of his techniques are. De Palma is a huge fan of "one-ers" -- long camera takes without any cuts. Raising Cain has one nearly five minutes long one-er in the middle of the movie. It travels with the actors down a flight of stairs, through several turns, into an elevator, and out into another room all without interruption. But there seems to be no real narrative reason for this; it's all apparently done just for show, and it just leaves you wishing that the time and effort put into this sequence had been more evenly distributed across the rest of the movie.

John Lithgow is fairly impressive. His character suffers from multiple personality disorder, and in the course of the film, he embodies all of the characters convincingly -- often even playing scenes opposite himself. That said, De Palma does him no favors as either a writer or director. The dialogue is stilted and cliche throughout. And in another example of the film's cheapness, none of the "two Lithgow" scenes is achieved with a split screen visual effect. While you could argue that such a technique allowing the actor to appear twice on screen would have been inappropriate, given that the alter egos exist only in the character's mind, the frenetic cross-cutting that is used feels very amateur.

Essentially, the big draw here is the twist, the mid-film reveal that tells us how Lithgow's character came to develop his split personalities. But there's a lot of movie to sit through for that, and it ultimately doesn't feel worth it. I give Raising Cain a D+.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TNG Flashback: Remember Me

Some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation started out well on paper, and then fell down a bit when they tried to execute the script. But occasionally, an episode that doesn't hold great promise on the page turns out special. So it was with "Remember Me."

Beverly Crusher receives a visit from an aging mentor who gets her wistfully thinking about the people in her life loved and lost. But then suddenly she starts living that reality following a chance accident in a warp theory experiment conducted by her son Wesley. One by one, people begin to disappear from the Enterprise, with no trace remaining that they ever existed at all.

In truth, I think this premise sounds quite interesting on paper, but that was apparently not the case for many people involved with the production. This plot had an inauspicious birth as a rejected subplot from "Family," and perhaps because of that didn't have full confidence from everyone involved. Director Cliff Bole, when interviewed later, seemed genuinely surprised that he received so much positive feedback on this episode from among all the ones he directed. Producer Rick Berman said in later interviews that he thought the episode was possibly too "high concept," noting that it was "potentially confusing" and that it was "fooling the audience a little and I don't like to do that." (Way to have faith in your audience there. Thank goodness there are people like Christopher Nolan in the world too.)

The script was written by Lee Sheldon, a new staff writer for the fourth season who apparently knew even as he was writing this that the show wasn't really a good fit for him; he left without contributing any other scripts but this one. The episode was a "bottle show" (crafted to save money by taking place entirely on existing sets), which too often made for an uninspired and uninspiring hour of television. In short, there was a lot going against this episode.

But going for it? It's just a damn cool idea. Of all the characters, Beverly is best paired with this story about losing people close to you, given her history with her husband Jack. The plot also operates on a metaphorical level, in that everyone else's reaction to Beverly's "confused" memories could be seen as representative of dealing with Alzheimer's disease. And the mystery itself is more clever than Star Trek can usually manage. It seems quite natural to think that Wesley's "static warp bubble" is drifting around the ship swallowing people up, because that's exactly the sort of sci-fi conundrum you'd see in the average Star Trek episode. But it's so much cooler that the truth is more metaphysical here, that it's Beverly in the bubble, and her reality has been shaped by her own thoughts.

The bulk of the episode, set inside Beverly's reality, is really quite good. You get mystery, suspense, and even some great notes of comedy. (Picard's clueless "we've never needed a crew before" observation is priceless.) Gates McFadden does a wonderful job carrying the episode, including the always-challenging scenes of believably talking to herself. She even did her own stunts in this episode, hanging off a wall-mounted chair to simulate being pulled into a space-time vortex... and then learning just a day or two later that she was pregnant!

But what doesn't play so well are the parts with The Traveler in the final acts. Apparently, the addition of the character was a very last minute change to the script. The writers were finding the end of this episode problematic, and had already been talking about bringing the first season character back at some point during year. They decided both those roads should converge here in this episode, but the immediacy of Beverly's problem really crowds out The Traveler's return.

Last we saw, The Traveler had apparently phased entirely out of existence, and yet there's no "we didn't even know if you were still alive" moment played here. There's no explanation of where he goes after popping in to solve the problem; the episode ends almost immediately after Beverly is rescued from the bubble. There's also absolutely no attention called to the fact that Wesley briefly displays the Traveler's powers, phasing himself during the rescue. All we get is ten minutes or so of rather cheesy guru-like platitudes that represent Wesley's Jedi training or something. It's frankly all a bit of a letdown from such a compelling set-up.

Other observations:
  • When you think about it, it's totally weird that Wesley would be playing around with Kosinski's warp equations like he is at the start of this episode. They were said quite emphatically to be utter nonsense in "Where No One Has Gone Before." So best case, Wesley is totally wasting his time. Worst case, the equations were capable of doing something, and do you seriously not remember what happened last time? You're just going to casually play around with something that might transport you to the edge of the universe?
  • Speaking of the universe, Beverly gets a gem of a line: "If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe."
  • This episode should have been Ron Jones' turn up in the composers' rotation. Instead, for the second time, Jay Chattaway was called into provide music for an episode. I couldn't find any information anywhere about why Jones was left out this time; possibly this was fallout from the "Brothers" fiasco? (Maybe Jones was using the time he would have composed for this episode to fix and finish the earlier one?) In any case, Chattaway delivers a solid score, as he did for "Tin Man." This was essentially from a time before Chattaway gave up and went along with the restrictive demands by Rick Berman for bland music, so the "Remember Me" score has some notably tense action queues throughout.
  • For the third time (following "The Arsenal of Freedom" and "The High Ground"), Beverly finds herself in a desperate situation and is that close to confiding her feelings to Picard... but is denied the chance. Part of me feels like I should resent the writers going back to that well yet again without drinking, but for whatever reason, I do like just continuing the tension between the two characters.
  • Personally, I didn't notice this, but online nitpickers pointed out that Beverly Crusher goes into the static warp bubble without her trademark blue lab coat, then emerges at the end of the episode with one she put on while she was inside. Continuity error, or subtle nod to the whole "your thoughts can shape reality" message of the episode? (Who am I kidding; it's a continuity error.)
Although the episode stumbles a bit as it crosses the finish line, I think there's quite a lot to like here before that. I give "Remember Me" a B+.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Purgation

Ethan Hawke has been steadily stockpiling a vast amount of entertainment goodwill with me. He's made great films beloved by critics, like this year's Before Midnight. He's elevated movies that probably should have been awful into something pretty good, like Sinister and Daywalkers. And of course, he starred in one of my favorites, Gattaca. Basically, it's reached a point where a movie I might not otherwise have considered might make it into my queue if there was apparently something about it interesting enough that Ethan Hawke decided to appear in it.

Sadly, he lost some of that goodwill on The Purge.

Set in a dystopian future a short decade from now, The Purge is an odd fusion of Die Hard and Panic Room. Any and all crime is legal in America for one night each year, and a family tries to survive the night by hiding in their house from a group of crazed killers. Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones' Lena Headey star as the protective parents of two children, whose own relationship begins to decay as they're forced to do awful things for their family.

I've seen worse by far, but there are still a lot of things wrong with this movie. Setting is a big one. And I'm not even talking about the ridiculous ask that America is just 10 years and one fascist dictator away from instituting an annual murderous bacchanal; there's some surprisingly shrewd satire and social commentary in that concept that gets a thumbs up from me, even if the delivery is a bit on the nose at times. No, the problem (astutely pointed out to me by a friend) is that despite having set up a rather compelling world, the movie then chooses to focus on just one house. If this were television, this would be what they call a "bottle show."

The movie then goes on to play the same moment over and over again. I feel I'm not spoiling anything by saying that eventually, the killers do break into the house. And once they do, every five minutes it's "surprising rescue of someone who is just a half-second from death." I'm not saying a symphony could have been written here, but it's just one note over and over again. For a far more compelling take on "creepy home invasion," with a good deal more variety in the scene set-ups, check out The Strangers.

But I guess I got what I expected, in that Ethan Hawke is pretty good in it. He has a shallow character to work with, but he's believable in every moment he plays. Lena Headey is pretty solid too, though I do think that the script falls short in justifying a turn for her character, instead relying on the audience to automatically infuse her with the strength of Cersei or Sarah Connor. But actually, the best performance in the film might just be Rhys Wakefield as the "Polite Leader" of the thugs who come knocking at the door. With a Joker-like rictus grin and bipolar turns between civility and psychosis, he does make the danger real; more reliance on his performance and less on cheap "make you jump" scares would have improved the film.

The Purge isn't a total loss, but it's certainly not worth recommending. I give it a C-.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Smaug Report

One year later, and we now have the second installment of the "unnecessary trilogy," The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. My review of the first film, An Unexpected Journey, wound up aligning pretty well with most of the professional critics -- it was not a disaster by any means, but it was a bloated jumble that fell well short of the high bar set by the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. To some extent, I would say the same about this second chapter.

The Desolation of Smaug is a better movie overall that its predecessor, but perhaps only by a thin margin. Because the entire trilogy was, for the most part, filmed all at once and has subsequently been tweaked through re-shoots and editing, there's really only so much director Peter Jackson could do to respond to the valid criticisms of the first Hobbit film. His choices had largely already been made; the die had been cast. And so most of those questionable choices linger and repeat here in the second film... but not to the extent they did in the first film. Hence, the result is a slightly improved movie.

This movie is still languidly paced in many places due to the financially motivated decision to expand a simple novel into a three part movie. This time around, there's a lot of Tolkien fan service that simply isn't needed. An early subplot involving Beorn the shape-changer, though largely lifted from the book, feels like a needless diversion. It feels no more necessary to the story that the visit with Tom Bombadil was in The Fellowship of the Ring (which was mercifully omitted from that film). Gandalf's side quest to investigate the rise of the Necromancer (not from the book, but from other Tolkien writings actually set decades before the events of The Hobbit) is surprisingly dry... or perhaps not so surprisingly, given the unavoidable prequel problem: everyone knows exactly how that all turns out.

Not all the added material falls short, though. In fact, some of the wholly invented material is among the best stuff in the movie. Evangeline Lilly's controversial character of Tauriel is a welcome addition. She's a far more interesting and meaningful character than Arwen was in the original trilogy (with no apologies to the comparably dry Liv Tyler), and while her storyline is a bit simplistic in places, she also gets most of the effective emotional material in the film.

The action sequences of the movie are generally better than in An Unexpected Journey. There's nothing here quite as prolongedly stupid as the Goblin Kingdom or Stone Giant sequences of the first film. That said, the "same kinds of mistakes, just fewer of them" problem I mentioned earlier shows up more in the action than in any other element of the movie. There is still a lot of ridiculous, slapstick violence that doesn't feel authentic to Tolkien's overarching "war is hell" philosophy. And the characters still are mostly immune to any injury that would lend any credible sense of danger to the proceedings.

But virtually every scene built around simple conversation works very well. The character of Bard, introduced in this film, is a sympathetic one, and the story in which his family shame over his ancestor's failure to slay Smaug plays very well -- though I believe it's a script invention with no basis in the original book. Scenes that show the corruption of Bilbo (by the One Ring) and Thorin (by his quest for the Arkenstone) effectively do what the action scenes don't -- show that there are consequences to the events of the story.

And as with An Unexpected Journey, the best scenes of the movie involve Martin Freeman as Bilbo interacting with a CG character. Andy Serkis' motion-captured performance as Gollum was the highlight of the first film (and I expect will remain the highlight of the entire trilogy, once it's done). Benedict Cumberbatch's work here as Smaug is nearly as good. The great dragon is not only menacing, but seems wise, spiteful, and toying. (For example, my memory of the book is that Smaug never understands the nature of his invisible tormentor, Bilbo, but in the film he seems to know exactly what the One Ring is and how it is being used against him. A nice improvement, I think.) There are a few bad lines of dialogue here and there (including a "your world will burn" taunt so cliche that I believe it appeared word for word in the 47 Ronin trailer that ran before the movie), but overall Smaug is a fantastically realized character.

All told, The Desolation of Smaug is a decent film. And as I've said, it's an improvement over An Unexpected Journey. I would give it a B. Still, I do think that prior film did lower the expectations. If hypothetically this had been the first Middle-earth film we'd seen since The Return of the King, I think everyone would still be talking about how it really was a disappointment after the superbly executed original trilogy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

TNG Flashback: Suddenly Human

Though it was filmed immediately after "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II," the episode "Suddenly Human" was held to air as the fourth installment of the season.

The Enterprise rescues a human teenager from a damaged Talarian vessel, and learn that he has been raised by the alien who killed his birth parents when he was just a toddler. Given the Talarians' patriarchal and militaristic society, Counselor Troi urges Captain Picard to help the young man, Jono, acclimate to human customs so that he can be returned to his surviving grandparents. But the adoptive father is willing to risk war with the Federation before giving up his son, and Jono himself seems unwilling to leave the only life he's ever known.

This episode is meant to pose another moral debate in science fiction trappings, Star Trek's bread and butter. But the concept suffers from a weak execution. In a later interview, head writer Michael Piller nailed the problem: the aliens of this episode aren't alien enough. There should be a major culture clash between humans and the adoptive aliens of young Jono. Although the Talarians were conceived of as a savage warrior race, they come off as practically human.

So muddy is the portrayal of the Talarians that the production actually received angry fan letters resulting from the confusion. Dr. Crusher believes that young Jono has been the victim of abuse at the hands of his father Endar; Endar's version of the story is that Jono's injuries were normal for a young boy growing up. Producer Rick Berman has stated emphatically that this was not meant to be an episode about child abuse, so apparently these injuries were simply meant to contrast the hard life of Talarians with the softer life of humans. But what loyal viewer is going to believe some strange alien's claim over the medical opinion of our own Dr. Crusher? Not many, and a number of those wrote the production to complain that our heroes gave a young boy back to his abuser at the end of this episode. Indeed, that would be pretty bad.

But then, if you remove that ambiguity, not only does Dr. Crusher look incompetent, but basically all of our characters look bad too. Because absent any abuse, it's hard not to side with the adoptive parent in this "custody battle." Even though Endar came to be Jono's father through deplorable means, he is the only father Jono has ever truly known. To rip Jono away and give him to strangers would be unconscionable. Picard does fortunately reach this conclusion in the end, but only after an entire episode spent trying to do the wrong thing. Not a shining moment for our heroes.

The script for this episode was co-written by Jeri Taylor, her first effort for the series. She was soon made part of the writing staff, and would ultimately go on to run the writers' room on Star Trek: Voyager. But at this point in time, by her own admission, she knew nothing about Star Trek. She'd later cram in an education by watching every episode of both the original series and The Next Generation, but here I think her lack of familiarity with the characters caused her to miss a beat or two. It's a missed opportunity, for example, not to mention Worf's adoptive parents of an alien race and contrast him with Jono. And Troi's potential role in a story with a big psychological element is really marginalized, confined to essentially a single scene with Picard.

Still, the episode is not a total loss. For one thing, that "single scene" between Troi and Picard is a good one. Her sarcastic "really?" when Picard confesses his discomfort around children is priceless. There's some good work by Patrick Stewart (naturally), including an illuminating back story in which Picard reveals he knew even as a child that he wanted to join Starfleet. Watching Picard try to be a "parent" is also entertaining, even if some of the scenes (like the one where he turns off Jono's music) are a bit on the nose.

Other observations:
  • Right at the top of the episode, check out Troi's strange splay-legged pose up next to Worf's station.
  • In the future, racquetball comes with a glowing ball and cool sound effects!
  • Who makes a banana split with blue ice cream? What flavor is blue ice cream even supposed to  be?
  • Geordi appears only briefly in this episode, and I have read that even that much is actually stock footage. LeVar Burton was still recovering from his emergency surgery at the start of the season, and was unavailable for filming this episode.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had come along way since seasons one and two. Back in those days, a misfire of an episode like this would have been nearly unwatchable. Here, it's merely a disappointment, a missed opportunity. I give it a C.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bridge

Last night's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the "fall finale" that will have to hold us over for a month or so, was in my eyes a backslide for a show that had been gradually moving in the right direction. Of course, it's hard to judge not having full context, since we were left on a cliffhanger ending. But it did feel as though the series was reaching for its own "The Best of Both Worlds" moment, while missing key elements that made that classic cliffhanger so amazing.

Sure, you had Coulson in the Picard role, the leader being abducted by the bad guys for the big finish. You had Skye in the Riker role, questioning whether or not being part of the team was really the best thing for her. But the problem was that you had the guest star, played by Angel's J. August Richards, absolutely taking over the entire story. The episode was all about his powers, all about his redemption (which, notably, he did not achieve, regardless of whether his betrayal was understandable). To continue my comparison, the Shelby character of "The Best of Both Worlds" was not the star of the show; her role in the episode was purely to fuel the Riker storyline. I really don't care much about Mike Peterson; I always want to know more about our still developing main characters.

I found all the vague mustache twirling about Centipede and The Clairvoyant and The Girl in the Flower Dress to be very off-putting. It reminded me of the worse excesses of The X-Files conspiracy episodes, with a convoluted and impenetrable plot populated by nameless evil characters. Only in this case, I couldn't shake the feeling that comic readers might well know more about all this, which as I've said in the past is my top complaint about poorly executed comic book movies -- they're written too much for the people already in the tent.

In all, it made for a disappointing hour that in no way left me eager for the conclusion in January. An unfortunate C-grade misstep to cap a run of otherwise improving episodes.

Monday, December 09, 2013

A Love Story. Unequaled.

I believe it was some time late last year that I heard about a YouTube video called "It Could Happen to You," the heart-rending story of Shane Bitney Crone, a young gay man whose partner of six years died in a freak accident. Moreover, it was the story of the added anguish visited upon him because, in the eyes of the law, he could claim no relationship between them.

The story made the rounds on a number of web sites. I believe it was mentioned on George Takei's Facebook feed, in one of his rare breaks from humor. Wherever the story appeared, the response was "this deserves more." Not only did people's hearts go out to Shane Crone, they wanted more people to see the story.

Televsion producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (the creator of the series Designing Women) had met Crone briefly, and contacted him following the groundswell of public support. She thought the story could be expanded into a full-length documentary film, and after a swift Kickstarter project, that's exactly what they did. The movie, Bridegroom, first debuted in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, and now it's available for streaming through Netflix.

Bloodworth-Thomason directed the documentary herself, and wisely lets the story speak for itself with very few bells and whistles. After a brief introduction that hints at the tragedy ahead, the first half of the film is dedicated to the stories of the two men themselves, Shane and Tom, and how they fell in love. We see two very different reactions to two different "coming out" processes, one a tale of love and acceptance (at least, from immediate family), and the other of denial and rejection. The two finally find one another, and the film is full of friends proudly testifying to the depth of their love. But the second half must come. Tom dies in four-story fall off a roof, and then his family comes to do in death what they could not do in life -- take him away from Shane.

This truly tragic story will move you, in turns wringing you of tears and fueling your righteous rage. But the story is all the more powerful upon reflection after the credits (showing all 6000+ Kickstarter backers) roll. That's when the truth really sinks in: this story, sad as it is, is representative. Stories like this are happening somewhere in the country, somewhere in the world, every day. Sometimes, perhaps the loss is not as great, the end less final than death. Sometimes, the end is death, and not accidental, but a crime perpetrated by hateful people who do far worse than the parents depicted in this film. (Sadly, the story of Matthew Shepard is also representative.)

As the campaign says, "It Gets Better." It has been getting better. But a story like this one dramatically illustrates why "now" would be far preferable to "eventually." It's a powerful story that does indeed deserve to be seen. And I give the documentary of it, Bridegroom, an unqualified A.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Seeing Isn't Believing

The movie Now You See Me was a somewhat improbable hit from earlier this year, doing well enough at the box office to already put a sequel in motion. I'd heard mixed things about the movie, but decided to give it a shot now that I could get it from Netflix. It turned out that "mixed things" would be a very accurate review of the movie.

Now You See Me feels like an attempt at a new Ocean's Eleven for the new decade, a comedy-thriller heist movie with an extensive cast of actors. But here, the characters aren't professional criminals, but magicians. And their crime spree takes the form of a series of tricks they perform that set the FBI and a professional "debunker" on their trail.

The opening scene of the movie starts with such tremendous promise. A street magician played by Jesse Eisenberg (who is now forging a career out of playing smarmy and arrogant) performs a simple but clever card trick -- albeit with an extravagant reveal. The core of the trick is performed in camera, for real, with no visual effects or deceptive editing required to pull off. The apparent implication: this movie is going to treat magic realistically and use it in a heist movie! Maybe this could do for magic what Rounders did for poker! But sadly, that trick was a deception. Perhaps on some level, that's appropriate. But when most of what follows in the next two hours feels more like the sort of magic you'd learn at Hogwarts, you can't help but feel cheated.

The movie is undeniably fun and adventurous. When elements of the capers are revealed to have explainable, real world mechanics, the movie feels smart. But when things have no explanation, when the characters behave implausibly, when we get long sequences of action for action's sake... the movie feels like the dumbest of dumb summer fare. And the movie seesaws back and forth between these two modes all the way through, never "smart" long enough for you to feel it's really good overall, not "dumb" long enough for you to give up on it entirely.

Perhaps it's the efforts of the solid cast that keep you pulled in. Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson (Zombieland reunion!), Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (Batman reunion!), and Mark Ruffalo... the movie doesn't hurt for recognizable faces. And yet, no one is truly exceptional in the movie, because the characters are all rather steadfastly shallow. Caine and Freeman can charm, Eisenberg and Harrelson can make you laugh, but none of it quite conjures up substance to pair with the movie's basic visceral thrills.

The result is more or less average. I'd give it a C+. But I can't help but wish for the version of this movie that had taken itself a bit more realistically while having its fun.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

TNG Flashback: Brothers

"Brothers" was a showcase episode for two people in particular: Brent Spiner in front of the camera, and executive producer Rick Berman behind the camera.

Without warning, Data slips into a trance-like state and uses his superior abilities to seize control of the Enterprise and take it to an unknown planet. There he beams down alone to find alive and well his creator, Dr. Noonian Soong, who has summoned Data to give him a special gift. But unknowingly, the homing signal Soong used to bring Data there also summons his brother Lore, who has escaped alive from his previous encounter with the Enterprise. Meanwhile, aboard the ship, the crew struggles to retake control in time to save a young boy who, thanks to an older brother's prank gone awry, will die in days without advanced treatment from a starbase.

Rick Berman was the executive producer of all the "second age" Star Trek series. Although Gene Roddenberry was still alive at the time of this episode, Berman was already effectively in charge of The Next Generation's day-to-day mechanics. But the one thing he hadn't done to this point was contribute a script of his own. With things finally running smoothly in the third season (thanks largely to head writer Michael Piller), he took time in the summer to hammer out this episode as his first effort.

There are a lot of compelling things about the episode. The very idea of getting to meet Data's creator is an intriguing one, and indeed, the conversations between Soong and Data are surprisingly tender and illuminating. Also effective is the idea of a "Data gone mad," taking over the ship single-handedly as he remains two steps ahead of everyone's efforts to stop him. Plus, the episode is peppered with nice callbacks to earlier episodes, including a good-natured ribbing of earlier bad writing (the supposed rhyming nickname "Often Wrong Soong") and Data's torturous attempts to whistle "Pop Goes the Weasel."

But there are also a number of flaws in the episode. A major one is that, for all the other earlier episodes this one references, the episode it seems to ignore entirely is "The Offspring." Soong has to explain the human need to create a child, when Data essentially went through the process himself just a few months earlier. And wouldn't Data's attempt to create an android -- even if it resulted in failure -- seem like a rather important bit of news Data would want to share with his father?

The episode spends a fair amount of time answering specific questions the audience is sure to ask. How did Dr. Soong escape the destruction of his colony? (He had an escape plan in place.) How did Lore get rescued from deep space? (A Pakled ship stumbled on to him. Given the stupidity they displayed previously, Lore dealing with them creates a hilarious mental image.) But the fact that these questions are answered really points out that several more questions -- some of them just as important -- are not answered. Why was Dr. Soong hanging out alone, apparently for decades, without telling anyone he was alive? Why does he know he's dying now in particular, after all this time? Why does he not seem to care that Lore was responsible for so many deaths, including the entire Omicron Theta colony that Soong himself was there for?

Other minor plot holes abound. Unsupervised young children are allowed to remain aboard the Enterprise when their parents go on sabbatical? Suddenly, after three full seasons, there's no way for sensors to detect an android life form? What possible reason does Soong have for temporarily blocking part of Data's memory (other than the narrative necessity of removing Data's knowledge of a boy dying back aboard the Enterprise)? Does the Enterprise really have no security that kicks in when the same person (Captain Picard, in this case) seems to be located in two places on the ship at once (the bridge and engineering)? And given that we've seen the locator technology aboard the ship, shouldn't it know when it's being duped by a vocal impersonation?

The episode's structure itself is also a bit awkward, front loading all the action in the first two acts before transitioning into a low-key sort of one act play. In fact, the only jeopardy at all in Berman's original concept was the threatened life of the young boy back on the Enterprise, and Michael Piller wisely saw that this simply wasn't enough. It was Piller's suggestion to incorporate Lore into Berman's "Data meets his maker" story. Berman originally resisted this input, but was eventually persuaded to make the change.

All these nits having been picked, though, what a great episode for actor Brent Spiner! He plays Data, Lore, and Dr. Soong in this episode, and is strong in all three roles. Data's character fits like a worn glove, of course. But the child-like jealousy of Lore and the doting father figure of Soong are just as strongly drawn. And acting opposite oneself through the trickery of split screen is no easy feat.

To facilitate this demanding technical production, Rick Berman recruited veteran director Rob Bowman to helm this episode. After around a dozen episodes in seasons one and two, Bowman had been persuaded by his agents not to continue working on Star Trek. The possibility of working so closely with Brent Spiner again (after having directed him in key episodes "Datalore" and "Elementary, Dear Data") must have been too big a lure, and so Bowman returned for this one last episode. Knowing the acting challenge this episode represented, he closed the set for the two-and-a-half days of Spiner's solo work, and prepared ahead of time, carefully plotting out all the camera moves and blocking. Spiner filmed a full day as Data and Lore, then a full day as Soong, to stay in character more consistently (and minimize the number of times the complicated Soong makeup would need to be applied).

Oddly, this was not the only technical challenge associated with this episode. Problems also arose when composer Ron Jones went to score it. In creating the sound palette for this episode, Jones decided that the way to represent an especially mechanical Data in the early acts was to supplement the string section of his orchestra with extensive use of synthesizer. He used a then-cutting-edge Synclavier, intending to use MIDI to synch its prearranged performance with the film and the live musicians. But the sequence in which Data commandeered the ship called for an uninterrupted six-minute take of music, and exposed a limitation of the device. After about three minutes of performance, the synthesizer began to lag behind and gradually drift out of synch. By five minutes in, the machine was churning so hard, it crashed altogether. So the scoring session was halted with the music incomplete, and Jones later had to pay musicians out of his own pocket for a second session, completing the music mere days before the episode went out for airing.

This all happened because of Jones' dogged determination to avoid bland, emotionless music, the sort of boring wallpaper Rick Berman had on multiple occasions told Jones (and other series composer Dennis McCarthy) to write. And of all the episodes for this trouble to happen on, it happened on Rick Berman's own episode. This must surely have been a huge black mark against poor Ron Jones, even if the music was somehow finished on time and on budget. Following the confusion of the music for "Tin Man," I believe this was strike two. One more, and Jones would sadly be out.

Other observations:
  • Although the episode wound up being a showcase for Brent Spiner's acting, the original plan had not been to have him play Dr. Soong. Reportedly, the producers initially considered for the role a handful of older Asian actors (including Keye Luke, probably best known to my generation as the shopkeeper in Gremlins). But they soon arrived at the idea of a three-roles-for-Spiner approach, so early in fact that director Rob Bowman, in the Blu-ray commentary for this episode, seems unaware that it was ever planned to be done any other way.
  • We do get some nice glimpses of Dr. Crusher's bedside manner in this episode, as she tends to the dying child.
  • Okay, one more nitpick. When Riker, Worf, and Geordi finally beam down and find Data at the end of this episode, they don't seem to even consider the possibility that he may still be in "unstoppable take over the ship" mode.
For all this episode's flaws, the Soong/Data/Lore material (and Brent Spiner in particular) really do deliver to make it worth watching overall. I give "Brothers" a B.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Catch of the Day

The Hunger Games was one of the better movies of last year, a solid adaptation of the original book, and I was looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (as the film version has been cumbersomely titled) wasn't able to reach the same high mark as the first movie.

The book itself was in a similar position, owing largely to its two distinctly different parts. The first half of the novel was an intriguing expansion of the series' world, a web of political intrigue in which the heroine Katniss had become ensnared. The second half was an unsatisfying retread of the first book, a trip back into the arena that failed to thrill as much as the original novel.

Interestingly, the movie has the opposite problems. The first part of the film, which chronicles Katniss' attempts to mollify the infuriated President Snow, is slowly paced and lacking in memorable scenes. There's a strong early confrontation between Katniss and Snow, effective in large part due to Donald Sutherland's carefully caged villainy, and then little of consequence for the next hour. Scenes with Gale fall flat, leaving his relationship with Katniss lacking in sufficient weight. Scenes with Katniss' family fail to reestablish the strong connection between them. Scenes with Haymitch are too few and far between, not giving enough of a glimpse of the fighter beneath the washed-out drunkard (which is a big shortcoming, given where the story eventually goes).

Yet when things transition back to the arena, the film picks up tremendously. Far more than in the first film, this arena feels truly dangerous. Several of the other competitors are more effectively presented than the characters of the first half, and the geography of the arena itself is established better than the first film. The stakes feel high, and the actions sequences are tense. As great as the first movie was in handling this material, this new movie is better.

Ultimately, this is a great demonstration of the differences between a book and a film, and the types of storytelling that can be handled better by one medium or the other. But that intellectual exercise isn't really enough. The jarring switch mid-movie and the lack of a gratifying climax (this story serving mainly just to set up the next one) make this a rather disappointing follow-up. It's not "bad," but I think it only worth a B- overall -- quite a step down from the top notch original.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bloody Disappointment

There was a time where I wouldn't dream of missing a new book from Terry Brooks. But now I've missed not one, but two. For most of his career, Brooks has published once a year in the summer, like clockwork. But since last summer's Wards of Faerie, he has picked up the pace and released books two and three of the "Dark Legacy of Shannara" trilogy with only a half year gap in between.

I didn't exactly "miss" the books entirely. I knew they'd been published. I even bought them. But I simply wasn't finding as much time to read. The move was a convenient excuse, but when it came to Brooks specifically (rather than books in general), the truth was really that upon reflection, I don't think I really liked Wards of Faerie as much as I'd thought at first. Not as much as I'd wanted to. I re-read it to refresh my memory before continuing on to books two and three, and found I just wasn't that engaged. But I finally did finish it, and then went on to finish book two of this Dark Legacy of Shannara series, Bloodfire Quest.

The truth is that Terry Brooks has (for a long time now, really) fallen into quite a formula. His characters are a bit more shallow with each new series, and what's there is often recycled bits of characters from earlier novels. This series has proven especially derivative, as it has turned out to be a wholly unnecessary follow-up to, in my opinion, his weakest trilogy, The High Druid of Shannara. It seems as though to make up for the unsatisfying climax of that series (in which the main character escapes without ever confronting the monstrous adversary Brooks set up), this new trilogy exists only to go back and finish things there the way they should have been finished the first time.

Bloodfire Quest also is a sequel of sorts to Brooks' best novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. That book, the second Brooks published (back in 1982), cast off the dogged adherence to The Lord of the Rings from his first book (The Sword of Shannara) to tell a truly compelling and original story. But Bloodfire Quest sees characters following in the footsteps of the adventure from that great, early book -- and in a far more perfunctory and uninteresting way.

It also seems that on some level, Terry Brooks knows he has fallen into a formula, and he's trying to rebel against it. He can't help but utilize unwilling heroes rising from modest origins, can't help but include simple romantic subplots, can't help but craft power-hungry villains with little practical motivation. But he's also trying to be a little different, and in Bloodfire Quest he seems have decided that George R.R. Martin is a new muse. Bloodfire Quest is Brooks' bloodiest novel, with characters lined up for slaughter. But unlike Martin, Brooks doesn't successfully make us care about most of the characters before killing them off. His breezy writing style -- the same thing that makes him quick to read, and has kept him publishing every year since 1985 -- is too quick to give us time with the "victims." Martin may drone on for pages about 20-course dinners, taking half a decade or more to deliver a thousand-page doorstop, but nearly every character he kills off is a full personality when they head to the grave. Brooks gives us little more than a name.

Bloodfire Quest was a big disappointment for me. That said, I feel in for the long haul at this point (which, compared to other fantasy writers, isn't that long -- I have just one more 400 page book to go). I will complete the trilogy, and maybe Brooks will find a way to pull out of the spiral. But unless the conclusion somehow saves the series, I do feel that Bloodfire Quest is his weakest novel. And as he's written more than 30, that truly is saying something. I suppose as a long time fan, I can't quite bring myself to give it a truly low grade. I still want to say that a poor effort from Terry Brooks is better than many authors can give you. But I couldn't rate it more than a C-, and a soft one at that.

We'll see what happens in the final book...

Friday, November 29, 2013

TNG Flashback: Family

The second episode of the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a truly unusual one for the series, stepping out in several ways that changed up the traditional formula. Sadly, this risk was not rewarded, as this was apparently the lowest rated episode of the season. Nevertheless, it's a good one.

The Enterprise remains at Earth for repairs following its encounter with the Borg. Captain Picard uses the opportunity to visit his old family home in France, and the estranged brother he hasn't seen in more than a decade. Meanwhile, Worf's adoptive parents come aboard the ship for a visit, and Beverly Crusher discovers a message recorded long ago by her husband Jack to give to their son Wesley.

This episode essentially turns "The Best of Both Worlds" into a trilogy, directly following the story of the season opener. But that wasn't the original plan. After finishing the first episode of the new season, the production went on to film two other episodes. But things just weren't sitting well with show runner Michael Piller. He went to producer Rick Berman and argued that for a show that prided itself on realistic storytelling, they'd done a very unrealistic thing: having Picard essentially be "raped" by the Borg and then being just fine by the next episode. Yes, the series was episodic by nature, but this felt like a case where an exception was warranted.

Berman agreed, but with a condition: the writers would need to come up with some kind of sci-fi plot to take place on the Enterprise as Picard went to visit his family. Piller accepted the condition, and went to work with his writers to come up with something. They concocted and rejected a number of ideas, including one that ultimately became the basis of the later episode "Remember Me," but everything clashed too much with the introspective Picard storyline. So finally, Berman relented, and let the writers do the only episode of the entire series with no sci-fi Macguffin. The hour was fleshed out with additional family related stories for Worf and the Crushers, and thus was born the most character-driven episode of the series. The episode was shepherded through production and rearranged to run right after the season premiere, holding the other two intervening episodes for later.

As you would expect in an episode whose story comes entirely from the characters themselves, continuity abounds. In addition to Picard's pivotal encounter with the Borg, the episode also references Worf's holodeck workout routine, his love of prune juice, and his discommendation from last season. The events of the episode "Pen Pals" are mentioned too. (It's not quite a continuity slam dunk, though. Riker expresses surprise that Worf would not want to see his parents, when he himself was even less happy about seeing his own father in a previous episode. I guess he came around.)

Even more important are the new things we learn about the characters in this hour. We meet the human parents Worf has mentioned before. (It seems very fitting somehow that if humans were to raise a Klingon, they'd be Russian.) Chief O'Brien gets both a first AND middle name (Miles Edward). We meet Picard's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew -- and, in the case of that nephew, see that Jean-Luc has come a long way since the days of the stiff captain who couldn't relate to children.

Each of the three story lines has great moments. I'll start with what to me is the weakest, the story of the recording left by Jack Crusher for his son Wesley. Gates McFadden is excellent in the scene where she finds the message. You can sense her grief and loss, not raw or recent, but still there in a way that I think explains why she never remarried after nearly two decades. The subtext comes through strongly: Jack was her one true love. Unfortunately, the recording itself doesn't pay off as well in my mind. There's really nothing Jack of the past can say to give closure to young Wesley, of course... but playing that honestly can't help but leave the storyline feeling incomplete.

The Worf storyline is wonderful. The love of his parents is deeply touching, as they find a way to tell their closed-off son that he doesn't have to bear his embarrassment and dishonor alone. The scene between his parents and Guinan is particularly great. The "home is where the heart is" sentiment isn't especially profound, but it is expressed in a different way that plays the emotion well.

Then there's the Picard storyline. The story of two brothers, estranged and opposite, is a familiar narrative construct, but the way this story is put together leaves interesting room for interpretation. Jeremy Kemp gives a nuanced performance as Robert Picard that makes me wonder just how much he knows about Jean-Luc's circumstances before his arrival. I can easily imagine events not depicted within the episode, Robert hearing that the brother he hasn't seen in over a decade wants to visit, and wondering "why now?" The way Robert goads Picard throughout the episode seems more than the mean-spirited ribbbing of an older brother; it feels like he knows there's a truth that needs to be exposed, and that taunting is the only way Robert knows how to bring it out. When it does come out, Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Picard's anguish is profound.

Other observations:

  • At the start of the episode, Troi becomes the voice of Michael Piller arguing to Rick Berman. She says the very words that must have been said in the real-life argument over having this episode: that there's no way Picard could achieve complete recovery from his ordeal so quickly.
  • This is the one episode of the entire series in which Brent Spiner does not appear. That said, an exploration of Data's family was soon to follow in the episode "Brothers" (which had already been filmed at the time this episode went before the cameras).
  • There are also no scenes set on the bridge in this episode.
  • We've seen Worf's quarters before this episode, and the wacky sculpture he keeps by his door. In this episode, it turns out it's not a sculpture at all, but a chair!
  • Another great moment for guest star Jeremy Kemp is the goodbye hug between Robert and Jean-Luc. So much is said without words.
  • It's great that the last moment of this episode is not aboard the ship, but with Picard's family on Earth, and about young Rene's ambitions to become a starship captain. That said, it's very sad to know the fate of these characters. In the movie Star Trek: Generations, we would learn that the entire family we met here was killed in a fire. And worse, it seems of trivial importance to that movie's narrative (or maybe it's just that the movie itself is rather weak).

Although this episode is a quiet one, it's also a strong one. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Worldly Thoughts

I haven't yet been able to watch this week's new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, but I did manage to get out to see Thor: The Dark World this past weekend. It was a tremendous improvement over the first Thor movie. But then, if you've read my review of the first Thor movie, you know that's not a particularly high bar to clear.

In the plus column, Thor: The Dark World is actually a rather funny movie. Perhaps more so than any of the previous Marvel movies, it does a great job of sprinkling moments of light humor in amongst the action. Think of a classic 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, but less corny. There's solid patter throughout, and a handful of good sight gags as well.

In the enormous plus column, there's Loki. In this, his third film in the role, Tom Hiddleston has come to perfectly embody the character. His dry sarcasm is the perfect skewer for the self-importance of the plot surrounding him. His bold swagger actually makes him more likable than the title character. He's something of a classic Disney animated villain, actually, but it works completely given the rather cartoonish nature of the film's Asgard setting. Or, to sum up, while I wouldn't line up to see a third Thor movie, I'd probably be there on opening night for a Loki movie.

What's less effective? Well, most everything that doesn't have Loki in it. Rene Russo does score some points as Frigga, the one truly relatable Asgardian character in the film. But so many other excellent actors (including multiple Oscar winners!) are simply wasted in one-dimensional parts. Anthony Hopkins bellows as Odin, Idris Elba is blandly stoic as Heimdall, Christopher Eccleston's villain Malekith is simply bitter and evil for no clearly articulated reason, and so on down the list. Worst of all is the treatment of Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, who manages somehow to be the movie's Macguffin while simultaneously contributing almost nothing to the progression of the plot.

The film also seems to borrow too much from The Avengers. The climax is a rather similar conceit that involves Earth being threatened by a portal from elsewhere in the universe (but in a far more jumbled way that prompted a lady to ask us as we walked out of the theater: "did you follow any of that?"). Even some of the humor is a retread, such as an early "big guy knocks someone out of frame" moment that fails to recapture the hilarity of the "Hulk punches Thor" moment from The Avengers.

As I said, a big improvement over the original, but Thor: The Dark World still fails at making all these immortal aliens relatable, nor does it make the "all of Earth is threatened" storyline feel as important as the more personal stakes of other Marvel movies. I give this one a C.

(Seriously, I can't be the only one who wants a Loki movie.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reopening the Book


I wrote about the musical The Book of Mormon when I went to see it last year. Still, I feel compelled to say a few words about it again, now that I've seen it for the second time just before it headed out of town after its second limited run in Denver. If anything, I enjoyed it even more this time around.

It can't be understated just how big a difference casting can make in theater, movies, and television. Though The Book of Mormon had a solid cast the first time it rolled through Denver, the performers were even stronger this time around -- a combination of great new people coming into the production to replace departing actors, and more time with the material. Last year, the touring cast were opening for the very first time in Denver. This time around, they've been all around the country and back and have really come to inhabit their roles.

The real standout this time was A.J. Holmes in the role of Elder Cunningham, the part originated by Josh Gad in the original Broadway production. On the previous tour, it seemed the producers were trying their utmost to match Gad's physical type (along with everyone else in all the other roles they cast). In Holmes, they've gone in a completely different direction, but in doing so have found a skilled performer who, if anything, "out-Gads" the manic energy Gad displayed on the Broadway cast album. He mined new laughs in the material even from me, someone who has seen the show once already and listened to the soundtrack more times than I could count. He quite simply stole the show and earned the thunderous ovation he got at the final curtain.

Last time, I focused mostly on the hilarity and profanity of the musical... and mind you, none of that has changed. But this time, I figured it worth noting that the show actually has insightful commentary and heart too -- not unexpected, given the "I've learned something today" endings we often see in South Park, the other big endeavor of co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The show is actually remarkably positive on spirituality in general (if not on religion in particular). And it's fairly limited in its jokes on Mormonism; the show picks and chooses moments to comment, and even then chooses an approach of "we're just going to state facts, and let the audience laugh if that's what they're going to do."

The Book of Mormon is on to other cities now... possibly one near you. And its return to Denver in 2015 is already announced. So I'd encourage you to make plans if you can to check it out. It's a fun, hilarious show.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Well

I haven't seen Thor 2 (yet, at least), so I was a touch nervous about last night's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was widely advertised as a follow-up to events of that film. One of my biggest criticisms of most comic book films (the bad ones, anyway), is that they're often crafted too much at the people already "in the tent," so filled with in-jokes and cross-references that they crowd out the entertainment value for the rest of the audience.

That said, I was quite doubtful this episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. would actually make "required reading" of Thor 2. And I was tantalized by the other piece of the advanced hype on the episode -- that it was directed by Jonathan Frakes, who cut his directorial teeth on some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation before embarking on a very successful 20-year career directing television.

I'm pleased to say that all the ingredients came together well. As far as I could tell from last night's episode, the only thing I needed to know about Thor 2 was that, at some point, London University gets trashed. And even that tidbit seemed to be just played for mild comedy in an early scene; the rest of the episode, while involving plenty of Asgardian material, seemed to have no real relation to the plot of the movie at all. If it did, it was completely transparent to me, just the way I'd hoped for.

Moreover, it was actually a good episode! I might say the best so far, in fact. This makes three installments in a row where the machinations of the external storyline were inextricably intertwined with personal drama and stakes for at least one of the main characters. This time, the episode served to pull back the curtain on Agent Ward, giving us insight into what makes him tick. We learned why he's such a devoted do-gooder and hard-ass, and it humanized him a great deal to see it. It's telling that despite all the Asgard-flavored shenanigans, the episode title, "The Well," was not a reference to any of that, but to this very importance piece of Ward's past. (And, as an added bonus, we even got a tantalizing brush against May's inner workings, too.)

Not that the Asgard stuff wasn't fun. I thought it was helped along a great deal by the presence of fun guest star Peter MacNicol. He was perfectly cast in a role that called for his two signature trademarks as an actor, oddbeat quirkiness and soft introspection.

It seems Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is losing viewers with each passing week, but in November, the show really is starting to move in the right direction creatively. Here's hoping they can stop the slide, because the show really is, bit by bit, transforming into something to look forward to.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Oh, the Humanity!

Over the past two nights, FOX has rolled out the last TV series premiere of the fall season. (Until January brings the sizable "mid-season" crop.) Almost Human comes from series creator J. H. Wyman, one of the showrunners on Fringe, and is produced by J.J. Abrams' company, Bad Robot. It's set in a near future L.A., following a police officer working with his android partner.

From the two episodes so far (aired back-to-back on Sunday and Monday night), the show seems aimed at carving out a familiar space despite its undeniable sci-fi trappings. It's part procedural cop show, with a sci-fi brush over the particulars of any given case. It's part buddy cop movie, in which it just happens one of the buddies is an android.

Though rather simple on the page, the episodes so far have managed to be more than the simple premise. I'm not wowed, but I'm definitely interested, in large part because of the two main actors. The series stars Karl Urban (the new Dr. McCoy, but with a pile of geek cred including Dredd and The Lord of the Rings) as the grizzled human cop and Michael Ealy (whose own less exhaustive geek cred still includes an Underworld movie and the short-lived TV series FlashForward) as his android partner. The two actors have an immediate rapport with one another, which puts the writers a big step ahead in trying to figure out just what the show ought to be like.

There are a handful of other side characters, some of them somewhat recognizable faces from other TV series. But the only one making even a modest impact so far is a tech geek played by Mackenzie Crook (known for the original British version of The Office). At this early stage, I suppose it's understandable -- even desirable -- that the focus be on the main two characters. Still, at this point it leaves me wondering why bother with anyone else at all. No one else seems like they're really adding much to the mix.

It will be interesting to see what the show does in the weeks ahead. There was the layering in of an ongoing plotline in the pilot episode, which was not mentioned again in the second hour. Is the show going to feel compelled to build an ongoing story, just because it's science fiction and produced by J.J. Abrams? If so, is that going to be an interesting ongoing storyline, or is it going to go the way of The X-Files? Will the show instead embrace a more episodic, procedural format, letting its unusual setting do the job of separating the series from the pack? The first two episodes have at least earned more than enough goodwill for me to hang around and see.