Thursday, January 31, 2013

No Thanks for the Memories

On another one of those "great obscure movies you've probably never seen" lists, I found out about a South Korean movie called Memories of Murder. Made in 2003, but set in the mid 1980s, the movie was a rough adaptation of real life events -- the investigation into one of the countries first serial killers.

Something about the film seemed intriguing. Crime thrillers abound, of course, even those about serial killers. But there was something inherently novel in the implied cultural differences here. To think that South Korea had never really had a major serial murderer until well after a sadly long list here in the U.S. (including the high profile examples of John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, The Zodiac, and Ted Bundy -- just to scratch the surface). This movie would surely be a real break from the established formula of more familiar crime movies.

Unfortunately, it really wasn't. Yes, there are a few key plot points surrounding the lack of experience among the detectives. But it doesn't feel like the movie makes much out of the unusual circumstances of this case. Instead, it seems to assume a 2003 audience well-accustomed to the American crime formula, and it simply delivers the "domestic" spin on that. True, the film dares to have an ending that most Hollywood films would not (but it's rather necessary, as it's true to the facts of the real-life case), but that doesn't do enough to make up for a surprisingly conventional film.

I guess I went in actively hoping for something that would feel like foreign cinema. Instead, it felt a lot like American cinema in a foreign language, with a foreign cast. And ultimately, I would only rate it a D. Perhaps that's being a bit harsh, docking the film for my own misaligned expectations. But for whatever the reasons, I found the film to be overlong, even tedious in places. It just failed to hold my interest.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Outrageous Okona

Just as "Elementary, Dear Data" was starting to make it look like Star Trek: The Next Generation might finally have started on the path to its ultimate greatness, along came "The Outrageous Okona" to slap that silly notion out of your head. It's a dreadful episode from beginning to end, notable only for a few good guest actors (popping out from a raft of bad ones).

The Enterprise lends assistance to a roguish character named Okona, captain of his own small ship that plies the space lanes between two systems. Rivals from those two systems soon arrive, each demanding the Enterprise hand over Okona to be judged for different crimes. Meanwhile, Data turns to a holographic comedian in an effort to better understand humor.

I've noted of some past episodes that too much focus on a guest character can be a bad thing. This episode shows the horrid results that can come of that. There's no jeopardy here, as a major plot point is made of the fact that neither of the alien ships has weapons capable of harming the Enterprise. There's no chance for Picard -- or anyone else -- to show off any diplomatic skills, as Okona himself does all the talking that ultimately resolves the conflict (revealing a bad Romeo and Juliet knockoff in the process). The entire story of Okona winds up probably exactly as it would have had the Enterprise never intruded upon it.

There is a way to do this kind of story well, as demonstrated on the fantastic series Firefly, in the episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds." The guest character should be used as a way of casting ripples in the pond, illuminating all of the main characters by way of their reactions to the intrusion. But we don't get that here. Okona's constant joke-telling puts Data on a quest to learn more about humor, a hot young transporter chief gets a roll in the hay, and that's about it. Okona has as little impact on our characters as they do on him.

Part of the problem may be that Okona is such a badly written character. His two major traits are that he's endlessly charming and wildly funny. At least, that's what we're supposed to think, given how others react to him. In actuality, his jokes are quite terrible, and his charm comes off quite false, even oily. It's a particular waste of the actor playing him, William O. Campbell. Later known as Billy Campbell, he went on to star in the film The Rocketeer, and play major characters on The 4400 and The Killing. He can be both charming and funny, as this script wanted him to be, but the material simply didn't allow it. Campbell was also reportedly the runner-up to play Commander Riker; if this was his consolation prize for losing the part, he suffered twice.

At least he got credit, though. The sexy young transporter chief he seduces was played by a before-she-was-famous Teri Hatcher, and she doesn't even get her name on the episode -- not even in the end credits. No one could have known at the time the brilliant comedic skills she would later showcase in the movie Soapdish, or on the TV series Lois and Clark and Desperate Housewives. Another sad waste.

No, the special guest star of the episode that was famous at the time was Joe Piscopo, who plays the holographic comedian Data turns to in his quest to understand humor. Piscopo more or less vanished not long after this. Rightly so, too, as his material in this episode is even less funny than the unfunny things Data is saying. Brought in to replace Jerry Lewis, who the producers had attempted to cast, Piscopo reportedly improvised most of his own material, and it's awful.

And yet, amazingly, not the worst acting in the episode! The two fathers from rival planets who are after Okona are monotone in their outrage, while their two children are aggressively wooden in portraying their star-crossed romance. (The woman even seems like her dialogue may have been dubbed over entirely in post-production. By another actress? I shudder to think how bad the original might have been!)

In between cringing and yawning, I noticed these other things about the episode:
  • By far the most fun thing going on this episode is the music. Composer Ron Jones serves up some super-cheesy 80s synthesizer to give a borderline-porno set-up for Okona's liaison with the transporter chief. And he delivers an all-out Klingon battle anthem... for Worf walking down a hallway to fetch Okona to the bridge.
  • I mentioned that the best use of a guest character like this is to illuminate the mains. This episode sort of tries to do that with Wesley. But everything Wesley says here is ultimately proven wrong. He says he's "made his decision" to join Starfleet, and that he could "never imagine" a life where he'd be constantly leaving places and people all the time. But he winds up dropping out of Starfleet to go hitchhiking all over space-time with The Traveler near the end of the series. Not that a 16 year old should necessarily know exactly what he wants from life, though I don't remember the show really hitting that hard on just how wrong he was.
  • It seems like Brent Spiner often got one-on-one scenes with special guest actors that none of the rest of the cast got to interact with. But remember, he paid for those special moments with DeForest Kelley and Stephen Hawking by having to work with Joe Piscopo.
  • I'm a few episodes into the second season by now, but this is as good a time as any to acknowledge Geordi's transfer to the position of chief engineer. What a good move that was for the show and the character! It seems silly that they thought they could get by without a regular character in the engineer's role, and Geordi was serving as the proxy for that in the first season anyway, in any episode where they didn't want to cast a guest actor.
  • Whoopi Goldberg tries to save the episode a bit, coming off rather natural in her performance as Guinan. She's the best written part of the hour too, almost an "anti-Pulaski." Data comes to her with a problem, and she treats him no differently than any of her other customers, doing her best to help him with it.
I give this episode a D-, though I'm not quite sure I can point to exactly what I think saves it from deserving an F. I just know that watching this, I didn't quite feel the level of suffering I did watching first season stinkers like "Too Short a Season" and "Home Soil." Maybe I'm anticipating some even worse second season episodes I remember being around the corner, and I'm withholding a lower level for those. But in any case, this is certainly an episode to be avoided.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Doppelganger

It seems I've been on an unintentional movie kick recently, watching "strange but true" stories. Not long after I saw Compliance, a recent documentary called The Imposter bubbled to the top of my Netflix queue.

The Imposter is the story of a Texas family whose 13-year-old son went missing in 1994. Three years later, the boy was found halfway around the world when he was picked up by policemen in Spain. But this tale is far stranger than the almost-unheard-of situation of finding a missing child out of the country in which he vanished. In reality, the young man who turned up in Spain was not the missing child, but was so desperate to assume a new identity that he decided to fake being the long-lost teenager. And, amazingly, the entire family believed it!

Where Compliance was a dramatization of real events, The Imposter is a documentary. It's comprised of interviews with around half a dozen subjects, intercut with reenactments of the events as the subjects relate them. The mother and sister of the missing boy are both interviewed, and the mind reels as you try to put yourself in their shoes. Could you imagine being so desperate to find a missing loved one that you would unthinkingly welcome a complete stranger into your home in his place?

Equally compelling are the interviews with the con man himself, who unspools his tale in a showy fashion that makes you think "if anyone could pull off a con like this, it would be this guy." He seems as shocked as anyone that he got away with assuming his new identity. But then again, you must constantly remind yourself as you watch this man: you probably shouldn't believe a single word he says.

I was a bit concerned at the outset of the film that the game was being given away too early. The title itself feels like a spoiler, and it takes less than four minutes for the film to reveal that this poor family was being conned. But I need not have been concerned. In fact, this all became quite the hook to pull me into the movie, and things only got more interesting. How did this story end? When did this imposter get caught? What was in the minds of the family? In the con man's?

And then there came even more unexpected twists! These I won't spoil for you, but I'll say simply that two-thirds of the way into the documentary, the story became even more twisted than I was expecting.

The movie set an amazingly effective tone. Even though it was a story being told to me by people who lived it, I felt myself getting tense as I watched. I was almost worried for what might happen to them. I felt a little uncomfortable at times, watching it alone in my house at night. What did I imagine, that some imposter was suddenly going to show up in my place? Who knows, but watching the movie was definitely a draw-your-feet-up-tight-on-the-couch experience.

And as The Imposter was a documentary made just last year, it's actually eligible to join my Top 10 List of 2012. And it does, sliding into the #8 slot. I've noted before that last year was a good one for movies, and I must repeat it again now. In any other year, I feel like a movie this gripping would surely have earned a Top 5 spot. But whatever the number, the documentary earns an A- grade from me. It's a movie that absolutely makes you think. And I hope it's a movie more of my friends see, because I think it's also one that would make you talk too. It's a conversation I'd look forward to having.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Off the Chain

This past weekend, I went to see the Oscar-nominated Best Picture from writer-director Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. Set shortly before the Civil War, it's the story of a freed slave hunting for his wife, whom he finds in the custody of a loathsome slave owner.

Some people have referred to the film as "Inglourious Basterds of slavery," and I found that to be an incredibly accurate characterization. In fact, though I thought it was an alright movie, I found it so derivative of that earlier film that I'm not sure there's really a need to see one if you've seen the other.

In the plus column, there are some very good performances in the film. Jamie Foxx is an entertaining lead. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a wild turn as the wicked slave owner. Samuel Jackson slips into another wild hairdo and inspires even more hatred than DiCaprio. And there's solid work from Kerry Washington, Walter Goggins, James Remar, and more.

But Christoph Waltz really steals the show as the bounty hunter helping Django on his hunt. He's hilariously dry, and as civil as he is brutal. He has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role, and it's not hard to see why; the movie is at its best when he's on the screen. But the problem is, he's played this character before. Exactly, in Inglourious Basterds. Obviously, he's been transposed here from the villain to a hero, but Quentin Tarantino wrote exactly the same character and cast exactly the same actor. I'm left unsure whether to praise the performance or criticize the self-plagiarism.

I tend toward the latter, because Django is in many ways a lesser version of the same film Tarantino recently made. It's overly long, but Basterds at least juggled multiple storylines to somewhat justify the length. It's deliriously violent, but it's easy to anticipate where all the big gags are going to come.

And yet, there's still something fun about watching the movie -- most of the time, at least. There are some new inspirations here that do help. Tarantino lifts a lot of stylistic camera work from spaghetti westerns and uses them entertaining ways. He's much more careful about letting scenes go on too long, and is perhaps more clever with his dialogue than usual.

Still, I'm not really sure I buy Django Unchained as an Oscar nominee. I think Tarantino is the beneficiary of the Academy's new nomination procedures, which requires 5% of voters to list a film as their #1 favorite to secure a nomination. I can see 1 in 20 voters with enough passion for Tarantino, even if this isn't his best (or, to be fair, his worst) work. I give Django Unchained a B-.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wood for Tritanium? No? How About Dilithium for Sheep?

The Settlers of Catan was the first "German board game" I ever played. There was a time when that was fairly common among gamers, though these days the array of firsts will often include Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and a few others. I remember that first game so clearly, and how (compared to Monopoly, Risk, and any of the other suspects you'll find at Target or Wal-mart) Settlers felt like a revelation. Luck still played a role in the game, but suddenly there was strategy too -- and not just one strategy that would inevitably lead to victory.

Over the years, my love of Settlers gradually faded. I still think it's a marvelous gateway to the great world of German board games, but as I played more of those, I saw more flaws in Catan. It became a "once every long while" kind of game.

Then, a few months ago, the power of cross promotion came to Catan, with the release of "Star Trek Catan." Roads become starships, wood becomes dilithium, and so on until you're looking at a re-skinned game with a fun new flavor. My boyfriend gave me a copy for Christmas, and now The Settlers of Catan is back in the mix.

If the game were purely a reskin, I'm not sure I'd be completely thrilled by it. If you've had extensive experience with the original game, Star Trek Catan is actually harder to play. Nothing looks like you expect it to. It's easy to confuse your "roads" with your "towns" and "cities." Resources are completely changed... which might not be too tough, except that some of the same colors of the original resources are used for different resources. (For example, yellow is still there, for "food" instead of "wheat." Except food isn't wheat, it's actually "sheep!") I suppose maybe all the tweaks help level the playing field for anybody who hasn't played any incarnation of the game before?

Fortunately, there's a little more to the game than the re-skin. Star Trek Catan adds a fun new element of character cards -- 10 in all, depicting Kirk, Spock, and all the other main characters, plus side characters like Rand, Chapel, and Sarek. Each character has a special power that cheats around a rule of the game. Scotty, for example, can replace one of the resources for building a starship (road) with any other resource. Chekov can force the Klingon ship (robber) back to the asteroids (desert), and gives you one of whatever covered resource it just vacated.

You can use the one character you have in front of you once each turn. Upon doing so, you're faced with a choice: you must either give that character back to the bank and take a different one in its place, or you can turn the character to its "B side." On that side, its next use is your last, and you must exchange it when you use it.

Characters have a very nice effect on the game. They add an additional layer of strategy, as you try to figure out what character you'll want next, or plot to keep a helpful character away from the other players for as long as you can. Characters also serve to make the game play a bit faster; when everyone has the potential to cheat the rules just a little bit on every single turn, it doesn't take quite as long to reach the 10 points needed for victory.

In short, my interest in Catan has been rekindled by this Star Trek version. Certainly, I can't see playing the original any time soon. The characters simply add too fun a twist to ignore. There are still stronger board games out there, but if you're a gamer who likes Star Trek, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't want a copy of Star Trek Catan. I'd grade it a B+.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pliable

The #10 slot on my Top 10 Films of 2012 list has certainly been in flux. A movie from very early in the year just bubbled up to the top of my Netflix queue, and from there just sneaked on to the list.

Compliance is the story of a fast food restaurant manager who receives a phone call from a police detective. The detective has fielded a complaint from a customer regarding stolen money, and he's asking the manager to detain one of her employees for a search. But in truth, the "detective" is really a prank phone caller with incredible powers of persuasion and a twisted desire to see just how far he can make people go. The manager's initial (perhaps-sensible) steps down a strange path are just the beginning of an incredibly dark journey.

Compliance is not a movie for everyone. It's made on the cheap, so people looking for high production values aren't going to get them. It has few recognizable actors; the two biggest stars are Ann Dowd, a working actress who has appeared in dozens over minor roles over the years, and Dreama Walker, one of the stars of the likely-just-cancelled TV series "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23."

But the real reason this movie won't be for everyone: Compliance is damned uncomfortable to watch. The movie is meant to make you squirm. As the prank caller pushes his victims into increasingly outrageous demands, the audience is constantly forced to ask themselves, "would I have fallen for any of this? At what point would I have woken up and challenged this insanity?" And ultimately, "wait, would anyone fall for this?" The movie ends up in such a dark place that it's literally unbelievable. The careful dance of tension that works for the first hour falls apart in the last half hour because it all becomes simply too outrageous.

And yet here's the catch: Compliance is based on a true story. A serial prank phone caller actually operated for nearly a decade, and the incident depicted here in this film actually happened. A few details are twisted around just a bit for the movie, but from what I've been able to find with a little research, what happens here is actually 90% accurate or more to the real events. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

It's a credit to writer-director Craig Zobel that this story comes off believable at all. There's going to come a point for every viewer where the chain of events feels too implausible (maybe a different point for different viewers). But it does start out believable. Maybe you wouldn't be dumb enough to fall for a stranger on the phone identifying himself as a cop, but you can see how it happened for these characters. That things do eventually come off the rails is perhaps not the movie's fault. I wonder if any writer and director could have made it believable where the story ends up -- even if it is the real world truth.

In any case, Compliance is certainly a provocative movie. It will get you thinking, and would certainly spark a conversation between two people who had seen it. I grade it a B+ and, as I noted earlier, award it the #10 slot on my list of best films of 2012. (For now, anyway.)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sadie Hawkins

Last night, Glee returned from its winter break with a new episode. Unfortunately, it was the weakest one of the season. Where to begin?

The episode's talk about how Sadie Hawkins was all about female empowerment really felt like just that: talk. It was a loose framework to make girls pine for men, and sing torch songs that felt anything but empowering. "I Don't Know How to Love Him"? And I'm not sure even Ally McBeal ever convinced me to hear "Tell Him" as a girl-power anthem.

Then there's Finn. Sure, he's just a fill-in, not an actual teacher. And his character isn't exactly the brightest bulb in the box. But his lesson plan to force the girls to sing to the guys they wanted to take to the dance? On how many levels was that terrible? What if the girls don't want to go to the dance? What if the guy they want to ask isn't in Glee club? What if -- exactly what happened to Tina -- they get rejected and humiliated in front of the whole group?

Speaking of poor Tina, the character hasn't had a plot line in ages, and now she gets saddled with a crush on an unattainable guy. I suppose at least that's a high-school-authentic story, but it's sad that Tina has only ever been defined by either the man she's with or the shadow she's under (playing second fiddle to Rachel). Though maybe it took the sting off it a bit to put Blaine in the same boat, pining for an unattainable guy himself.

Nothing could take the sting off the horrible Puck-Kitty pairing. As bad as last season's "Puck's Hot for Teacher" story with an older woman was, at least that wasn't potential statutory rape played for comedy.

And doping Warblers? Finishing the rest of the season without competition was just too good to be true, I guess.

All this bad writing, and it's topped off with a snub of geek-rock-god Jonathan Coulton. The episode featured a performance of Sir Mixalot's famous "Baby Got Back," but quirkily altered from a rap song into a slow bluegrass jam. This interpretation was a knockoff of a recording made by Jonathan Coulton. Obviously, the song was not originally his, so any actual copyright permission to use that version on Glee didn't have to be sought from him. But again, the song was a rap originally. In creating his version, Coulton wrote his own melody and practically created a brand new song. Glee could have at least given him the heads up: "We like your take, we're gonna use it." Coulton's a cool guy, he probably would have said "great!" But instead, he found out last week with everyone else, when the Glee songs of the week went up for sale on iTunes. He was not pleased, and I can't blame him. Sure, what Glee did was almost certainly legal, but a little courtesy would have been nice.

So... buried under all this bad stuff, we had a sprinkling of good jokes, a couple of decent performances ("No Scrubs" and "Locked Out of Heaven" -- maybe "I Only Have Eyes For You" as well, but we hardly heard any of it)... and not much else. It's probably generous to grade the episode a D. Unfortunately, it was the worst Glee has been in a long, long while.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

TNG Flashback: Elementary, Dear Data

After introducing Data's fascination with Sherlock Holmes in a lackluster first season episode, the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation decided to go all the way with the episode "Elementary, Dear Data," and make it the focus of an entire hour.

With three days to wait for a rendezvous with another Federation ship, the crew of the Enterprise has some time to relax. Geordi suggests that he and Data do so by playing out a Sherlock Holmes mystery on the holodeck. The initial results are a disappointment, leading to a wager with Dr. Pulaski as to whether Data truly possesses the ability to solve an original mystery requiring deduction and intuition. But in Geordi's efforts to create such a mystery, he unintentionally asks the computer to create a nemesis capable of defeating Data (not Holmes). A sentient Professor Moriarty is conjured up, aware of the world outside the simulation and a threat to take control of the Enterprise.

Perhaps the "bottle show" nature of the previous episode ("Where Silence Has Lease") was intentional after all; maybe the production was saving money there to spend on this lavish episode. The sets created to present the holographic world of Holmes' London are extraordinary. The level of detail is remarkable, especially for a television series, especially for 1988. The Baker Street apartment is filled with curios. Moriarty's lab is in a large storehouse complete with visible rafters. And much of the action takes place on a perfectly realized forced-perspective "outdoor" set, complete with an actual horse and carriage.

Not to be outdone, the costuming department also rises to the occasion. Dozens of background performers are clothed in London commoner rags, and the main characters are all luxuriously costumed. Data and Geordi absolutely look their parts; Pulaski's outfit is particularly striking; Worf's suit is perfectly matched for the joke of him wearing it; Picard is dressed to the nines, complete with a collapsible top hat that provides the episode's best sight gag in Worf's reaction.

The acting is of a similarly high quality. Guest star Daniel Davis plays a compelling Moriarty, though it's Levar Burton and Brent Spiner who really command the episode. Each does a wonderful job of showing their character pretending to be someone else -- and giving over to that performance to varying degrees at different times. Both put on British accents at times, appropriately less than authentic, but what a non-actor at play would use. And Data's take on Holmes is fun, with a bit more zest and bombast than many of the more staid performances of the character over the years.

Even Diana Muldaur's performance of Katherine Pulaski is solid in this episode, as the character tries to stay cool in a crisis and reveal nothing to her captor, Moriarty. And yet the writing of her character is still just as flawed as ever. In her first scene of the episodes, it seems like Pulaski might finally be softening a bit, as she genuinely tries to explain to Data the value of losing and the thrill of an earned victory. But then that earnest attempt to enlighten reverts to more mindless insulting of Data. Why does she get so deeply invested in belittling his capabilities? And weirdest of all, why does she seem to show such genuine tenderness to Moriarty at the end of the episode? She's able to imbue Moriarty in her mind with some sense of humanity; why can she have none of that empathy for Data?

Of course, this entire plot hangs on a notion that's a bit hard to swallow. By a simple misspoken instruction on Geordi's part, the holodeck is able to create a sentient life-form. That the computer would somehow even be capable of doing that poses an interesting question, both technological and philosophical. Will humans ever engineer a device capable of more invention than its own creators? (If so, is that going to be the day when Skynet nukes the world?)

The question gets even murkier if you ponder the original ending of this episode as written and filmed. Earlier in the hour, Data realizes that Moriarty has become self-aware when the Professor sketches an image of the Enterprise on a piece of paper... a paper he then brings off the holodeck to show Picard, despite the well-established fact that holodeck matter can't exist in the real world. In the episode as aired, this seems like an oversight to nitpick. But in the script, it was actually a clue. Picard and Data realized that the rules had somehow changed, and that the existence of the paper outside the holodeck meant that Moriarty too could have left its confines. In the final scene, where Picard tells Moriarty that he will be saved in the computer until such time as the means can be found to bring him into the real world, Picard was actually lying. He knew Moriarty had the power to leave all along.

Gene Roddenberry ordered the final scene to be trimmed, deleting this revelation. He did not approve of portraying Picard as a liar. I think he made the right call for the wrong reasons. For me, the question is, why would Picard lie here? Moriarty had quite clearly evolved beyond his storybook villain roots, and had agreed to release his control of the Enterprise. He posed no further threat. So Picard was essentially denying a thinking person his right to exist! That would have been the greater compromise on Picard's character, in my view. And the ending only would have put it more in the audience's faces: how did the computer manage to solve a technological problem (taking matter off the holodeck) that humans themselves hadn't managed to solve?

Other observations:
  • Picard slips in a French curse that never would have been allowed on the show in English: "Merde."
  • When they're trying to figure out how to rescue Pulaski from Moriarty, how does no one think of just beaming her off the holodeck?
  • Troi actually claims to be sensing Moriarty's emerging consciousness, which seems completely nuts to me.
  • In a brief exchange with Picard, Moriarty challenges whether Data is "alive," and we get the tiniest sneak preview of Picard having to actually defend that fact in court in the upcoming episode "The Measure of a Man."
  • As with costumes and sets, the props department goes all out too. The model of the old sailing vessel Victory is a truly impressive, detailed item.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy strays a bit from his "musical wallpaper" norm, serving up some fun music of a different style to score the Holmes segments of the story.
I might wish for the episode to focus a little more on the main cast and a little less on the guest character of Moriarty. Then again, Moriarty is the one with the compelling story here. Can you imagine what it would be like to be shown a great range of possibilities you could never have imagined... only to immediately realize that for you, they aren't possibilities? All told, I give "Elementary, Dear Data" a B+.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

After Thoughts

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the first Shrek film, but the second and third installments were progressively less well-made, to the point where I never bothered to go see the fourth film, Shrek Forever After. And then I wound up watching it -- appropriately enough, with a couple of kids for best effect. And while the movie still falls well short of the fun original, it's not too bad either.

Shrek Forever After uses a new character, Rumpelstiltskin, to cast Shrek in the story of It's a Wonderful Life, putting him in a world where he never was born. It's a convenient way of reverting some of the characters to earlier incarnations, but it's better still for imagining "alternate universe" versions of many of them. Particularly fun are Princess Fiona, who becomes a strong warrior leader, and Puss in Boots, who becomes a Garfield level of fat.

Most of the jokes in the film are dumbed down for a younger audience, but there are a handful aimed a bit higher, as well as some surprisingly amusing running gags. ("Do the roar.") The plot perhaps moves a bit too briskly, not getting maximum value out of the reimagined versions of familiar characters; but then again, it may be the movie's tight 90-minute run time that keeps it from wearing out its welcome.

By this point, the franchise's recurring actors have settled maybe a bit too much into their roles, but that doesn't mean the voice acting is lackluster. Walt Dohrn is a solid Rumpelstiltskin, pitching his voice somewhere in the vicinity of Jack Black with a hint of Wallace Shawn. And a fun array of people lend their voices to new ogre characters, including Jon Hamm, Jane Lynch, and Craig Robinson.

Ultimately, I'd say it's alright for a one time viewing, but likely to wear out its welcome quickly if you have a child who became obsessed with it and wanted to watch it over and over. I'd give it a B-.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A New Cult Following

Last night was the premiere of Fox's newest television show, The Following. Created by the hit-and-miss Kevin Williamson, the series is the dark tale of a former FBI agent whose life spiraled downward after his efforts eight years ago to capture a vicious serial killer.

I found the pilot quite tantalizing, a success on a number of levels. The casting is excellent. Kevin Bacon stars as former agent Ryan Hardy, forced back into action when the killer he apprehended escapes from prison. He plays the character as tortured and haunted, but certainly not hollow. Where many actors would play this kind of role from a distant, withdrawn place, Bacon makes it clear that his character suffers because he cares deeply.

James Purefoy, best known as Marc Anthony from the short-lived HBO series Rome, plays Joe Carroll, the charismatic but deeply twisted killer that was the object of Hardy's manhunt. The pilot presented scenes both from the present and from a decade earlier, before the killer's capture, and Purefoy portrayed both the smooth and oily sides of the character convincingly.

The supporting cast includes a number of other recognizable faces. Genre fans will probably spot Maggie Grace from Lost (and the Taken movies), as well as Shawn Ashmore (Iceman in the X-Men movies).

That said, it's not the acting, but the storytelling that I found particularly compelling in this first episode. The series is relentlessly dark, so much so that it feels more like a cable series than a network show. There are moments that come about as close to the twisted images from the movie Seven as you could get on prime-time television. The pilot also did a wonderful job of thwarting expectations. I was developing my idea of what the show would be throughout the hour, and something that I was supposing might figure into the season finale actually ended up happening at the close of the penultimate act.

That said, there were a few flaws too. Or at least, the potential for flaws. The pilot makes a brief moment of a mysterious letter written from prison by the killer, and keeps the audience in the dark as to the contents. My hope is that they don't try to play out that mystery for long on the show, because I'm fairly certain that's a puzzle I've already unraveled. (Then again, the show has already surprised me once, so we'll see.)

The series also has baked into it the potential to indulge in one of the elements that in my opinion caused the decline of 24: the bad guy's plan may be too elaborate. Season 4 of 24 was the one that crossed the line for me, where villain Marwan seemed to have backup plan after backup plan, a veritable Russian nesting doll of evil plots all ready to go the second some other scheme was thwarted. Frankly, it felt like Homeland might be starting to go that way too near the end of season 2. The Following sets up its villain Carroll as a sort of cult leader, with an untold number of disciples out in the world willing to do his bidding. If The Following makes smart, sparing use of this device, I think it could soar as a series. If it becomes the "catch the groupie of the week" series, and makes the villain out to be impossibly clever with an operative always in the right place at the right time, I fear it could get old quickly.

But the stylish distopia of the pilot caught my attention enough that I'm going to want to sample what comes next. And I'll be hoping the show continues to surprise me in good ways. I'd give the pilot a B+.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Motherly Advice

Over the weekend, I saw my first movie of 2013. (That is to say, my first movie with an official 2013 release date.) It's safe to say that it's not one that will end up on this year's Top 10 List. Mama is a new horror movie, about two little girls raised in the wild by a ghostly mother figure. When they're rescued after five years, the phantom follows them and begins to terrorize the couple who takes them in.

Guillermo del Toro may be in danger of becoming the next M. Night Shyamalan. In both cases, there was a time when their name on a film was a sign of something special and of high quality. In both cases, things took a downward slide for them somewhere. For Shyamalan, it's become so bad that even when he's just a producer, a trailer can spark unintentional giggles in an audience. (I witnessed this during a trailer for the schlocky-looking Devil.) Now that del Toro has produced the weak Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and followed it with Mama, he needs to start being more careful what he attaches his name to.

To be fair, Mama isn't a disaster. It's a wonderfully creepy premise, and the film does serve up a handful of very well conceived sequences that culminate in fun scares. But the film makes more wrong turns than right. The title creature is given too much power, and ultimately too corporeal a form; it strains credibility that she kills so many side characters instantly, but is not so immediately brutal with the main characters. (There's some lip service paid to the girls asking that they be spared, but I think this is a scene we really needed to see.)

The side characters are a generally foolish lot, even by horror standards. There's a creepy old lady who professes her lack of belief in the otherworldly, before launching into a convenient bit of exposition explaining what's going on. There's a stupid doctor who, suspecting the supernatural element of the situation, decides he must do his investigating in the black of night. There's a cartoonishly flat relative vying for custody of the children; I'm not likely spoiling anything to say what happens to her isn't much of a surprise.

The creature design itself is a mixed bag. Mama moves in wonderfully effective, creepy ways -- crab-walking in an homage to The Exorcist, moving through solid objects in ways that leave pieces of her figure creepily exposed, gliding slowly sometimes and moving too fast for the eye to follow at others. But the creature herself is pretty hokey, or at least is revealed to be so when you see far too much of her in the final act of the movie.

Still, the core cast adds a lot to the movie. The two young girls are convincingly earnest in playing out several horror tropes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau brings some of his Game of Thrones charm to mix -- and also enjoys a brief second role as a twin brother responsible for setting the whole scenario in motion.

But the real star is Jessica Chastain. She plays a young goth(ish) woman, bass player in a garage band, and decidedly non-maternal. Her character is thrust into this situation just because of who she happens to be dating. I just last week saw Chastain's performance in Zero Dark Thirty, and oddly enough it was this performance that really impressed me. She's received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for that other role (and won the Golden Globe for it), but I noted in my review that almost everyone in Zero Dark Thirty seemed very chameleon-like in their roles. Jessica Chastain simply didn't seem like she was "acting" in that movie, and her skill was thus easy to overlook. Her character here in Mama is so different, and her performance so utterly unlike that in Zero Dark Thirty, that it made me retroactively appreciate more just what a worthy candidate for the Oscar she really is.

Mama isn't a total loss of a movie, but it's certainly not one to rush out to the theater to see. Maybe put it in your Netflix queue if you're a horror fan, but skip it altogether if you're not. I'd rate it a C- (and probably a low one at that).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gogh Crazy

For the last few months, the Denver Art Museum has had a special exhibition on display entitled Becoming Van Gogh. It assembles works on loan from collections all over the world, and is said to be a one-time only event that won't be touring to other locations. My boyfriend and I had been wanting to see it, and just got in at the wire, the day the exhibit is scheduled to close.

Well, specifically, the morning the exhibit is scheduled to close. Early morning. Unable to expand the special presentation in days, the Denver Art Museum decided to accommodate more people by expanding their hours. The choice times had long ago been snatched up, which is how I found myself up before dawn this Sunday morning, to get to the museum by 5:30 am.

The emphasis of Becoming Van Gogh was on the evolution of his style in the relatively short 10-year period in which he was an active artist. The exhibit was divided up in a mostly chronological way, with early examples of pencil sketches, through his introduction of color, an early rejection of Impressionism (and later embrace of Neo-Impressionism), before finally arriving the vivid and contrasting colors for which he was ultimately known.

The exhibit included several paintings from other artists, hung side by side with van Gogh, to highlight moments where a new influence came in to affect his style. His earliest pencil sketches were interesting to see, his own efforts to self-train, as he labored through every page of an art book of sample sketches -- the 1880s version of "draw this bunny and we'll tell you if you're an artist." Moving through the gallery, you can see the clear influence on him by Japanese woodblock prints, pointillists like Georges Seurat, and more. There were also works by contemporaries he counted as friends, including Toulouse-Lautrec.

A particular advantage of seeing van Gogh's work in person is that you can perceive the way he layered paint -- a technique he truly found only halfway through his short career. Thick globs of paint are piled in some areas of his images and smoothed flat in others, and are a significant part of the overall effect that could never be noticed looking at a photo of the painting.

I'm honestly not sure I was in full "art appreciation" mode at 5:30 in the morning, but I'm still glad that I was able to see the exhibit while it was here in Denver.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

TNG Flashback: Where Silence Has Lease

The second episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season was a wholly original script (unlike the season premiere), and yet it seems to me that it might have been impacted by the Writers' Strike in another way. "Where Silence Has Lease" is what's known in the TV industry as a "bottle show," an episode written to save production money by taking place entirely on preexisting sets. It's not unusual to see such episodes around the middle of a TV season; the budget has been blown on early episodes, and pennies need to be saved in anticipation of a big season finale. But for such an episode to occur right after the season started? I wonder if they were in such a rush to get something in front of the cameras that time -- not money -- was the limited resource here.

Passing through an unexplored region, the Enterprise stops to investigate a strange "hole," empty of even the trace elements one finds in interstellar space. The ship winds up drawn into a void where strange events unfold: a phantom Romulan ship attacks; attempts to escape put the Enterprise right back where it started; an empty Federation starship appears, with an impossible internal architecture that frustrates the Away Team that explores it. The weirdness is all revealed to be the scientific testing of a powerful alien with curiosity about the crew. And now he wants to kill half of them to study the concept of death.

There are both good and bad things about this episode.The first act or two are actually rather compelling, as for the first time we really watch the Enterprise crew investigate a scientific mystery in detail -- almost in real time even. The strange occurrences within the void really do have just the right amount of building creepiness, and the speculation about the mystery behind it all is compelling.

But then "Nagilum," the alien behind it all, is revealed. And things get much less interesting after that. I think it's because the effective mystery is replaced by an uneffective jeopardy. You really don't get a sense of the Enterprise crew trying to fight back against Nagilum, and so it's hard to accept that their situation really is hopeless. Instead, Picard almost immediately rolls over to die. Almost literally. He decides the only way out of the situation is to just blow up the Enterprise -- killing all his crew -- rather than stand by and watch half of them be slaughtered. I guess there's some sort of morality exploration in there somewhere about choosing the time and place of your own death, but it doesn't come off in the episode as much more sophisticated than "you can't fire me, I quit."

In its conclusion, the episode completely ignores what feels like an obvious question to me... and one that would have yielded a much more fascinating ending. Once Nagilum realizes the humans mean to kill themselves rather than allow his tests, he releases them from his "laboratory." Picard does not immediately cancel the auto-destruct sequence of the ship, not trusting that Nagilum has really let them go. And that's a totally fair concern, given the illusions we've seen that Nagilum is capable of producing. In fact, the very end of the episode has Nagilum magically appearing on the computer screen in Picard's ready room to trade barbs with him one more time. So I have to ask: if Nagilum has the power to appear and influence things beyond the confines of his interstellar void, and (as we've seen) has the power to create things that aren't real, how can Picard know that his crew has in fact escaped? What if the Enterprise is still stuck in Nagilum's lab, the crew being subjected to other tests, and none of them knows it because they all think they've escaped? I think an ambiguous ending like that could have really helped the episode.

What does help the episode, though, are a number of interesting character moments, and the performances of them by the actors. The before-credits teaser for this episode, in fact, doesn't even introduce the main plot. It involves Riker joining Worf on the holodeck to participate in his "calisthenics program" (the only new set built for the episode). This sequence is introduced without a captain's log. In fact, it's introduced with no explanation of any kind. In a more sophisticated writing technique, the first scene just shows Picard pacing the bridge, then acknowledging to Troi that he's worried. Why, we don't know... but we're then shown (rather than told) when we cut to the holodeck.

This training sequence has nothing to do with the plot. From a certain point of view, it's actually nothing but a mindless excuse for a fight sequence in an otherwise all-talking episode. But it peels back another layer of Klingon culture. It establishes Riker's interest in learning more about that culture (which pays off very soon when he spends an episode serving aboard a Klingon ship). It gives Michael Dorn a chance to really act something different as Worf; he delivers a really physical performance with a lot of animalistic movement. Even if this is all just padding out a short script, it's interesting padding that expands the characters. Well done.

Other observations:
  • There's some fantastic music in this episode from Ron Jones. He gives us Klingon music for Worf's training, Romulan music for the brief "battle," all kinds of tension throughout as the crew works to solve their mystery, and a great climax for the auto-destruct countdown's final minute.
  • A hallmark of the first season were the high-and-mighty speeches talking about how primitive and horrible 20th-century humans were. This episode again has our heroes looking back in wonder at their dumb ancestors... but at least this time the joke is one the viewing audience can join in on: Picard and Riker marvel at the time that humans thought the world was flat, and that a ship could sail off the edge of it.
  • Just as in her first episode, Pulaski spends a lot of her screen time insulting the favorite character of most of the audience, Data. She refers to him as "it," questions his ability to perform basic tasks, and then scolds herself that she "must accept" that he's alive -- but only because his service record says so. It's no way to endear the new character to us. In fact, it's this sort of dehumanizing attitude toward Data that becomes the backbone of one of season 2's best episodes, "The Measure of a Man," and a trademark of that episode's main villainous character.
  • The writers continue to make Pulaski be a clone of McCoy from the original series, by having her come up to the bridge for no reason to hang out near the captain and say folksy things. Beverly Crusher rarely hung around on the bridge without a specific reason for being there.
  • There's some weird editing in an early scene, in which Troi seems to suddenly vanishes without a trace. Then again, maybe this was intentional. Her chair goes empty apparently so that Pulaski can come sit in it in the next scene.
  • Wesley is another character who goes missing without explanation for a big chunk of the episode. In his case, though, there's a very specific (and very transparent) reason for it: the writers needed to get Wesley out and put a redshirt in for Nagilum to kill in a later scene.
  • The Enterprise's "sister ship," the Yamato, is introduced in this episode. (Sort of; it isn't really the Yamato.) They give a serial number for the ship that ends in an "E," as the Enterprise ends in a "D." I think that was a bad choice of detail, cheapening the cool legacy of the Enterprise a bit by suggesting that keeping a serial number was not in fact a special thing done just for one ship name. I think the writers may have realized this too; the next time the Yamato appears on the show, they change the serial number to remove the letter.
  • At one point, Nagilum uses some sort of power to move Pulaski about like a puppet. It's an unfortunately laughable performance from Diana Muldaur. She sort of pirouettes into the wall with a wide-eyed expression. The moment really called for a stunt to convey some danger, or at least a visual effect of some kind to not leave the poor actress hanging like that.
  • The auto-destruct sequence depicted in "11001001" is repeated here almost identically, but with a notable exception. Before, it was a specific plot point that the command had a fixed, unalterable countdown clock. Here, it's a specific plot point that it does have a variable timer.
  • Although I criticized how quickly Picard reaches the decision to destroy the Enterprise, it does lead to an interesting scene where Nagilum sends facsimiles of Troi and Data to try to talk him out of it. It's telling of Nagilum's understanding of these people that he sends a very emotional proxy and a very emotionless proxy to Picard. And yet it's simultaneously telling of how little Nagilum understands them, as the two polar opposites speak in the same manner, giving away the ruse.
  • In the same scene, Picard gives a rather long and philosophical speech about what humans in general -- and he in particular -- believe to be the nature of the afterlife. I think it's one of the only times in all Star Trek (up until the introduction of the Bajorans) where religion is brought up in a non-critical light.
  • Jonathan Frakes nails the comic moment that relaxes the mood after a tense scene, with the line: "Yes, absolutely, I do indeed concur -- wholeheartedly."
I do appreciate the attempt to craft an episode that really is about pure exploration and the scientific method. But the actual execution of the episode is too hit and miss to be a good one. I grade it a middle of the road C.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Looking at the Playbook

For the third time in a week, I must again update my list of Top 10 Movies of 2012. I've seen another one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture, and the happy trend continues: this year, the Academy seems to have displayed shockingly good taste.

Silver Linings Playbook is among the lighter films in this year's race. Centered around a character just released from a mental hospital, it's part family bonding, part romance, part comedy, part drama, part critique of the mental health system, part examination of nature versus nurture... it's a quirky little melange of a whole lot of things. If I had to reach for some kind of film to compare it to, I'd probably go with Juno (though I wouldn't quite put the movie up in that same rarefied air).

What impresses me most about Silver Linings Playbook is the rather significant number of things about it that probably shouldn't work, yet somehow do. The main character is painfully self-deluded; it should be impossible to root for him, and yet you do. There's a readily apparent age difference between stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (they don't pass the zeitgeist's "half your age plus seven years" test); they shouldn't really gel as an on-screen couple, and yet they do. Robert De Niro has made a lot of movies in the last decade playing a deliberate caricature of the type of role he plays here; it shouldn't be possible to take him seriously in such a role anymore, and yet you do. And the list goes on.

The film has been nominated for several Oscars, and the acting ones in particular are well deserved. Depending on which critic you read on which day, Jennifer Lawrence is the likely winner for Best Actress. Her performance here is worldly and deep, making you forget completely about the big franchise movies she's also starring in as a teenaged character. She'd be a worthy winner.

Bradley Cooper gives his best performance to date, proving he's not just the charismatic pretty face of action films and broad comedies. His portrayal of bipolar disorder feels honest without being overly showy. He has the misfortune of being nominated for Best Actor in the year where Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for Lincoln, but this work will surely lead to other films for him where he may well get another chance at the award.

Robert De Niro is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. As I noted earlier, his biggest triumph here is in overcoming the caricature he's created for himself. But more than that, he gives a surprisingly well-tuned "like father, like son" performance that adds to the dimension of the script. Jacki Weaver is also nominated, for Best Supporting Actress. I wouldn't have thought her performance in the movie to be a standout, though she certainly holds her own in a movie with three other Oscar-worthy performances. Perhaps that in itself is an accomplishment worth acknowledging. And while neither Chris Tucker or Julia Stiles earned any award recognition for their work here, they're both very fun, memorable pieces of the puzzle.

Director David O. Russell adapted this screenplay, earning himself nominations for both jobs (though with the competition he's up against, he's likely to lose both). I'm intrigued that this film came from the same man who made The Fighter. The two films could scarcely be more different in tone, but both struck their respective tones very well.

Silver Linings Playbook is another movie that, in a weaker year, might well have been a worthy Best Picture winner. It's a movie I'd grade an A-, and would certainly recommend. It's that good... and yet it still only makes #5 on my list from last year. Once again, we have an embarrassment of riches.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Strong Signal

In the months leading up to this last presidential election, I checked the FiveThirtyEight blog at least once daily. Nate Silver's considered analysis seemed like an island of reason amid a sea of insanity. And his methods were proven out on Election Day, when his forecast was correct for all 50 states (improving on his nearly perfect record in 2008).

The election may be over (thankfully), but there's still a solid dose of Silver's insight to be had in his book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't. It's an extremely intelligent analysis of forecasting, and covers a wide range of topics, politics representing only a piece of the whole. Silver also examines predictions in a wide variety of other topics: economics, baseball, weather, earthquakes, infectious diseases, chess, poker, global warming, and terrorism.

The extensive work Silver has done to build his knowledge in these areas is abundantly clear from his book. The endnotes section of the book is a full third of its total length, citing sources for every fact and figure he uses. He presents quotes from interviews crisscrossing the globe, providing insights from true experts in each of the subjects. And he packages it all in effortlessly readable prose.

Nate has a brilliant way with words, particularly the use of analogy. There's really just one core concept he's trying to highlight in the book, but he goes at it myriad ways, demonstrating both where it is helpful in making predictions, and where the absence of it has been detrimental. But no matter how many times he comes at the same issue, he has a fresh approach, a comparison both entertaining and easy to understand.

That core concept he's explaining is Bayes' theorem, a method of trying to realistically assess the probability of an event. Moreover, it provides the means to readjust one's analysis as new information is introduced (this being the crucial flaw in the many failed predictions he cites throughout the book). He posits a very entertaining notion of a "Bayesworld," a reality where every two people of differing opinions that come into contact with each other have only two choices: 1) to come to a mutual agreed revision of their opinions (one or both of them having been convinced to change their opinion by the other); or 2) to agree to a wager between them ("if you don't believe I'm right, then put your money where your mouth is.").

I had some familiarity with some of the concepts in the book, thanks to my own background in gaming. Nevertheless, Nate Silver still had some good things to teach, and a fun way of teaching them. He also provided an intriguing look at many fields in which I had little knowledge.

I found The Signal and the Noise to be a great book, and an absolute must-read for any statistical wonks out there. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Shedding Light on the Dark

Last night, I went to see one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty. It's the dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and has been a controversial film for a number of reasons. But I'm going to set aside the controversy for the moment, and first just focus on the film itself.

One of the most difficult kinds of movies to make is one that tells a true story in which the ending is already known by the audience. It's just such an immense challenge to inject a film with any real sense of tension or excitement when the outcome is known. Interestingly, 2012 seems to be the year for exactly this kind of movie, with Argo and Lincoln both attempting this difficult feat. And because both of those films excelled at this challenge, they earned their well-deserved Oscar nominations.

Zero Dark Thirty does as well. There are multiple sequences of masterfully Hitchcockian terror, where you know with absolute certainty that something bad is about to happen... but you're waiting... nervously... for it to happen. It culminates in a final half-hour depicting the 2011 raid on the Abottabad compound which may be one of the most successful prolonged suspense sequences ever put to film.

Most of the credit goes to director Kathryn Bigelow. Her careful placement and movement of the camera are integral to what makes the film work. She has a gift for action that most A-list action directors don't even have. I may not have been crazy about The Hurt Locker, her earlier film that won Best Picture (and her Best Director), but if the meandering story of that movie made it a bit harder to appreciate her talents, the razor focus of this tale puts them on full display.

Credit should also go to writer Mark Boal, who managed to distill a story that actually unfolded over nearly a decade into a clean and clear narrative of two-and-a-half hours. Of course, his work on the film is also where the controversy surrounding the film stems, but I'll get to that momentarily.

The film also boasts an excellent cast. What particularly impressed me is how much they disappeared into their roles here. In other movies and TV shows, I've seen Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Stephen Dillane, and Harold Perrineau. Few of them may be true household names, but they're all faces I recognize. And yet somehow, here they all seem to fade into their roles to a degree that makes the film feel like it's cast with skilled unknowns. It's a wonderful effect for the movie. (And the only exception I'd point to in the cast is James Gandolfini, who definitely stands out as a "celebrity" in the movie.)

So... the controversy. Though there was initially some blather over the movie being a pre-election, pro-Obama bit of propoganda (in both timing and content, it proved to be neither), the latest criticisms have centered around two other areas. One is a question of whether the filmmakers were granted undue access to classified materials to craft their movie. That is a question of politics and not filmmaking, and as such I decline to comment here.

The other controversy is about torture. Some have accused the movie of being essentially pro-torture, claiming that it depicts accurate intelligence being obtained from "enhanced interrogation techniques," and that that intelligence was key in ultimately finding Osama bin Laden. It's a charge I'm skeptical of, for a few reasons.

First, I think the movie is a bit ambiguous on this front. Yes, it depicts torture. But it does seem to place this in a context of many sources of information, all synthesized together. It's true that those other methods are only referenced or implied in dialogue, while the torture is put front and center on the screen. But I don't think that necessarily condones the torture. If anything, the scenes are crafted to make you squirm. They're uncomfortable to watch. They don't glorify the practice. (I'm not even sure how you'd go about doing that.)

Of course, the criticism stems more from the question of whether truthful information can be obtained from culture. And that gets into the question of what responsibility this movie has to tell the unvarnished truth. This is a dramatization, not a documentary. While it's possible that may not completely absolve the film of any responsibility to truth, I do think its greater responsibility is to tell a story in a compelling way in just a few hours. Sometimes, movies do that with the unvarnished truth. Sometimes, they stretch the facts.

Argo manufactures a tense final sequence that, by real account, never actually happened. But it's the right thing for that movie. Is the problem that Zero Dark Thirty depicts more recent history? United 93 imagines events aboard the doomed flight that we'll never be able to confirm. Is the difference that the subject here is torture? Jack Bauer tortured someone practically on a weekly basis on 24. Is the difference that Zero Dark Thirty is not fundamentally a work of fiction?

The movie entertained, and it got people talking about the issues -- in the real world where they need to be addressed anyway. In my book, that's sufficient... and more than most movies pull off. Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary, and I don't believe it should be held to the standards of one. (Not that all documentaries tell the complete truth either, of course.)

In any other year, I could see Zero Dark Thirty awarded Best Picture, and enthusiastically support the choice. The trouble is, 2012 is not a year of weak competition. I mentioned Argo and Lincoln earlier in this review, and as much as I did think Zero Dark Thirty was well done, I'd rate both of those movies just a touch higher. But that's quibbling over a matter of very small degrees when this movie is still certainly worth an A-. The quibbling is only to decide where to place Zero Dark Thirty in my Top 10 of the year (which I've once again updated; Frankenweenie, we hardly knew you before you got bumped off).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Child

Season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation began with a truly lackluster episode entitled "The Child." But while the episode itself leaves much to be desired, it certainly provides me with a lot to talk about. So, without further introduction...

The Enterprise is transporting samples of a deadly plague so they can be studied in pursuit of a cure. As the ship passes through space, an energy lifeform comes aboard and impregnates Counselor Troi, being born just hours later as her child. As the crew questions the rapidly aging child's intentions on the ship, containment begins to falter on the deadly plague samples, threatening everyone aboard. Are the two incidents linked?

The second season of the series began airing in November, two months later than usual, because of the Writers' Guild strike of 1988. The season would end up being four episodes shorter than any other in the series, and many of the episodes that were produced bear the marks of the strike in different ways. "The Child" is notable in that it was not even originally conceived of as a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Back in the late 1970s, Paramount got the idea that it could launch its own television network. And with Star Trek popular in syndication, they felt that the flagship television series of that network should be a Star Trek show. Interestingly, this all came to pass with UPN and Star Trek: Voyager in the 1990s, but in this first attempt, the TV network deal fell apart, leaving Paramount with a bunch of finished sets and contracted actors that would instead take the form of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It also left them with 13 new scripts for that aborted TV show.

Fast forward a decade to the writers' strike. It had resolved in time to save most of the television season, but with the writers of every show desperate for ideas they could quickly put before the cameras. The Next Generation decided to take one of those aborted "Star Trek: Phase II" scripts, substitute Ilia with Counselor Troi, and quickly churned out their new season opener. They did at least do more than a simple "Find/Replace" pass on character names in creating this script; there are a good number of character beats in the episode, specifically crafted for the Next Generation crew.

Still, you can sense the lack of inspiration in the plot itself as the episode plods through in a rote fashion. The plague side plot feels conspicuously tacked on, a bad way of manufacturing jeopardy that is too easily resolved by the alien child sacrificing himself. Everything is all wrapped up with exposition from Troi explaining what just really happened. You don't even get it firsthand from the alien, because they couldn't have banked on finding a child actor capable of performing it.

Of course, part of the reason the plot gets such short shrift is that the episode had a great deal of housekeeping to do: the introduction of two new characters, and explaining the departure of another.

Fans could only speculate at the time, but today it is known (and discussed rather frankly in the special features of the Season 2 Blu-ray set): Gates McFadden was fired from the series between seasons. I've read in places that executive producer Maurice Hurley was the main force behind it. McFadden more diplomatically avoids naming names, saying that she was too vocal in her complaints about flawed season one writing. In any case, out she went, her character of Beverly Crusher at least not being killed off when she was written out. Even if the character who replaced her had been a good one, this still would have been a great loss for the show; I've written that the Crusher-Picard relationship was the best character relationship of the first season.

Interestingly, writing out one character required an explanation of why another character wasn't being written out. Wesley Crusher is 16 years old at this point in the show. And while it's certainly not unheard of for a mature teenager to be living on his own, it's still a weird premise to have a kid's mother move out and leave her young son behind. It's weirder still for a kid with no family aboard to be allowed to remain on the ship, even with the "acting ensign" commission. There is a fun scene at the end of the episode where the bridge crew pokes some fun at Wesley about assuming parental duties, which at least gives us a good moment out of it all. Still, the underlying weirdness of it all remains unacknowledged.

Adding to the contrived explanation to leave Wesley in place, and the missed presence of Beverly, the final insult in the whole ordeal was that the replacement doctor character, Katherine Pulaski, was pretty awful. A small part of the problem was the casting of actress Diana Muldaur, who always seems at odds with the medical technobabble that being a Star Trek doctor inevitably requires. But the far larger problem with the character rests with the writers.

To begin with, they didn't actually create a character -- they just brought Leonard McCoy onto the show. The "new" doctor is an irascible person with a down-to-earth background, uncomfortable with cutting edge technology, meant to challenge the captain at times, and to poke fun at the series' emotionless character at other times. Seriously, close your eyes and imagine DeForest Kelley saying any given Pulaski line when you're watching a second season episode. You almost couldn't tell the difference, except that it'll probably sound better in your head. Well, that, and the fact that here in her first episode, Pulaski actually tries to out-McCoy the real McCoy. Her first meeting with Picard is him coming to chastise her for not following protocol. And as he begins the dressing down, she interrupts him, tells him to sit down (a tacit "...and shut up" unspoken), and he does!

But what's really grating is Pulaski's interactions with Data. She doesn't even refer to him correctly, pronouncing his name with a short "a" (as though it were spelled "Datta"), and teases him about having bruised feelings when he calls her on it. The fact that Data seems genuinely intrigued at the possibility that he might have an emotional reaction of any kind doesn't take the sting out of the insult we the audience feel on Data's behalf.

In fact, it all makes me really start picking at the McCoy character on the original series, and makes me start to question slightly if he was really as good a guy as I thought! You always got the sense that when McCoy teased Spock, it was out of a playful friendship. But stop and think about it for a moment, and you realize that McCoy was always poking at Spock for being an alien... or worse, a half-breed. He was poking right at the heart of a person with deep inner conflict about his own self-identify. That's where a bully goes, not a friend. This is the stuff that's fueling teen suicides. And it's not even like Spock doesn't have emotions, he just suppresses them. So basically, Pulaski is making me think that maybe McCoy was kind of a dick. So screw you, new character, for making me like a classic old character less!

At least the other new character introduced in this episode was a success. Whoopi Goldberg's first appearance as Guinan is in this second season premiere. A huge fan of Star Trek, and of Nichelle Nichols' character of Uhura in particular, Goldberg lobbied to be on The Next Generation from the moment it started up. Being an actress of growing prestige at the time -- and then, primarily a comic one -- the producers at the show didn't think she was being serious about her offer. Finally, the message got through, and they created the enigmatic Enterprise bartender (and a new set: Ten Forward), leaving the door open for an appearance whenever Goldberg wasn't busy on a film.

Guinan is established here with great clarity. She's an old alien with great wisdom, but always shares it in a circumspect way. Her typical way of conversing is never to come out and say what she's thinking, but to play devil's advocate in a way that makes the other person state her thought and realize it for themselves. We see it first here when she gets Wesley to admit that he doesn't want to leave the Enterprise, but it's the same in virtually every Guinan scene for the rest of the series. It never seemed to get old either, which is a testament to Whoopi Goldberg's skill -- but also I think a convenient side effect of her not being available for every episode at any time. A little Guinan goes a long way.

That said, part of me does wonder if even a little Guinan perhaps did damage to the character of Troi. Almost every Guinan appearance saw her acting as a sounding board and giver of advice. A counselor. Had Guinan never been on the show, it's not a leap to imagine that nearly all of her scenes would have been given to Troi instead. I'm certainly not wishing Whoopi Goldberg hadn't joined the show. Quite the opposite. In fact, Marina Sirtis even raves herself in an on-disc interview about Goldberg's addition to the cast. But I do believe that Guinan's arrival stunted Troi's growth as a character.

All this talk -- already running longer than most of my TNG Flashback posts -- and I still haven't said all that much about the episode itself. So let me come back around to that. I've already noted that it features a bare bones plot that isn't very engaging. And yet, in spite of that, it does actually manage to brush up against a very provocative topic: abortion.

When it's revealed to the senior staff that Troi is pregnant, a conversation ensues about the ramifications. Troi sits silently in reflection as others (all men, many would notice) weigh in with opinions. Worf wants to terminate the pregnancy, citing security concerns. Riker seems to be siding with that opinion, though at least mentions concerns for Troi's health. Data advocates letting the child live... though mainly for the opportunity of scientific study. Finally, Troi announces she's having the baby, and Picard instantly declares the discussion closed. Though the scene is hardly a focal point of the episode, it's a curious two minute melange of pro-choice, pro-life, chauvinism, and enlightenment all rolled up into one.

There's further, less explicit commentary on the same issue in the rapid aging of Troi's child, and the deep bond she forms with him, even though they have only a few hours together before birth (and a few days after). How fast does the bond between a mother and child really form? How different is that bond from one mother to the next? Your answers to these questions will likely inform your analysis of Troi's reactions in this episode, and I can only imagine that reaction could vary greatly between men and women in the Trek audience.

Want to go even deeper down the hot button rabbit hole? Then consider this: Troi's child is basically a child of rape. The episode doesn't quite want to grasp this live wire, because Troi expresses no sense of trauma over the experience. But at its core, an alien presence enters her bedroom as she sleeps and impregnates her against her will. Maybe the writers don't want to acknowledge the seriousness of that, but the composer sure does. In an uncharacteristic bit of music, Dennis McCarthy puts some seriously sinister undertones on the "impregnation" scene.

In short, I have to wonder if this rather bad episode might have in fact been a really good episode -- or at least a really provocative one -- had it dared to truly look at these issues it only skirted.

But enough talk of rape and abortion. How about some other observations instead?
  • Director Rob Bowman clearly asked for a bigger budget on this season premiere. There's a gratuitous shuttlebay shot at the beginning only because "hey, we can build that set this year!" The lighting throughout the episode is moodier. One scene opens with an elaborate matte painting of the Enterprise hull outside Ten Forward. The camera is often placed in unusual angles like nothing seen before. And there's a long single-take shot in the opening designed to show us a bunch of the new changes on the show all at once: Worf's switch to a gold uniform, Riker's beard, and Wesley's new acting ensign attire.
  • Having already thoroughly established the "make it so" catch phrase for Picard, the writers seem to be trying to give him another one here. In two different scenes, he response to an order being carried out with "Grand." I'm glad that one didn't stick.
  • Riker's umbrage at Troi's pregnancy is clear when he says: "I don't mean to be indelicate, but who's the father?" It's a completely honest moment for the character by Jonathan Frakes, and yet it can't help but be unintentionally funny in an otherwise serious scene.
  • Intended comic touches come when Data has an arsenal of questions about pregnancy for Troi. And it's capped by a truly sweet moment, after the delivery, when he thanks her for allowing him to participate. It's a wonderful performance by Brent Spiner.
  • I suspect that I'm already so primed to be insulted by the character of Pulaski that I'm making something out of nothing, but here I go anyway. In the scene where the doctor is dismissing Data as being incapable of providing support to Troi during her delivery, Pulaski manages an insult to a chunk of the viewing audience too! She says that in nearly all of the past deliveries she's performed, the father has been present. An unintended but unthinking jab against any single mothers, gays, or lesbians watching at home. Sure, those are each exceptions to a general norm. But take them collectively, along with any other reason you can think of that a father might miss out on a child's birth? The idea that a physician with around 30 years of experience would still say that the father was almost always there seems unrealistic.
  • Troi's miraculous pregnancy ends with a miraculous birth in which she experiences no pain. This spares Marina Sirtis from having to scream wildly pretending to give birth, and spares us all from having to watch that.
  • Why does everyone seem shocked when Troi's child continues to age rapidly after being born -- just as it did during her pregnancy?
  • Hey, nitpickers! Guinan says in this episode that she never met Picard before coming aboard the Enterprise. Eventually, the time traveling adventures of "Time's Arrow" would make a liar of her. (Kind of, sort of.)
"The Child" is a pretty bad episode overall, and terrible for a season opener. It tiptoes up to the line of being controversial without even pretending it's going to step across. Still, there are some nice character moments in it, and the successful introduction of Guinan. It's not a total loss. I grade it a D+.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Frank Talk

When you think about it, it's amazing that Tim Burton -- even with his relative clout -- was able to get last year's movie Frankenweenie made. To get a major studio film made in black-and-white is a true rarity these days... and to do it for a "kids' movie" seems impossible. It's fortunate for us that he found away, because Frankenweenie is a very clever and entertaining film.

The movie is, of course, an homage to classic horror movies and the Frankenstein story in particular, telling the story of a young Victor Frankenstein who brings his beloved dog back from the dead. It's told with the typical Tim Burton flair, but that style is well deployed here. The most extraordinary aspect of the movie is the synergy -- the movie displays a perfect blending of character design, voice performance, and animation technique. The characters are all simply perfect.

The cast behind the microphone includes Burton veterans Catherine O'Hara,Winona Ryder, and Martin Landau. Martin Short is a fun addition to their number. And the young boy at the heart of the tale is child actor Charlie Tahan, a very effective lead for the film. He's one of several actual young actors cast in the child roles, and this overall to approach the film is an effective one.

However, I'd say Frankenweenie isn't a perfect film. Tim Burton's signature style may also be a mark against it. There are touches of Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, and most notably Edward Scissorhands here, and as charming as this movie feels, it also feels somewhat like the lesser shadow of all those others.

Still, even if it is a shadow, I found it better than most of the 2012 movies I've seen so far. In fact, it just barely squeaks into my provisional Top 10 list, in the bottom slot. (I've updated that post accordingly.) It's not likely to linger for long, being right on the bottom of the ladder, but a brief stint is better than none at all. I give Frankenweenie a B.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The 2013 Golden Globes Snark Goes To...

Every year, I get together with a handful of friends to watch key award shows and lob catty comments at the screen. The Golden Globes seem to be held in ever-declining regard by the industry, but the siren lure of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosting this year's ceremony was enough for my group to gather and continue our tradition. So, without further ado...

Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. are seated at the same table, which is apparently the Crazy Section. (Current, former, it doesn't matter.)

Bill Murray looks like he's recently bought a 19th century cotton plantation.

If they thought they were going to have tamer hosts by not going with Ricky Gervais, they were sorely mistaken. (Fantastic slams on James Cameron and James Franco.)

Kate Hudson may have her dress on backwards.

Christoph Waltz is so nervous, he's almost channeling Woody Allen.

The theme of tonight's dresses seems to be "neck to navel cleavage." (Center side boob?)

I think I saw this woman from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in the movie Brazil.

Damian Lewis shows us that if you stop opening your mouth all the way when you speak, you too can win an award.

Apparently, the banter for Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd was judged to be too poor to be shared with us.

You'd think a CIA agent would know how a microphone works.

Adele is wonderful. Besides seeming genuine and charming, it's just fun when someone's speaking voice sounds nothing at all like their singing voice.

The running gag of inserting Amy Poehler and Tina Fey among the nominees is a winner.

The theme of Kevin Costner's speech seems to be "I'm famous now."

It's interesting to see how starstruck all the stars are by Bill Clinton. The HFPA took a big risk that he wouldn't give one of his trademark lengthy speeches.

I'm not sure what's funnier, Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell's introduction, or Toomy Lee Jones' reaction to it.

Megan Fox's dress is made of papyrus.

When do we get to sign Anne Hathaway's cast? Oh, wait, that's her dress.

Quentin Tarantino is an "I LOVE YOU GUYZZZZZ!!!!" drunk.

Another theme of the night seems to be Wonder Woman bracelets on all the women.

We're not wild about Claire Danes' wind tunnel hair, but she seems to be about the only woman wearing color tonight.

It seems like a strategically placed centerpiece is hiding a completely naked Morena Baccarin.

Not sure what Sacha Baron Cohen's intro has to do with animated movies, but okay...

Is Liev Schreiber shooting another Wolverine movie?

It looks like if Lena Dunham doesn't keep her arms spread, her dress will fall right off.

Jodie Foster's wearing chain mail.

Halle Berry's dress kind of makes it look like she's had a mastectomy.

Ben Affleck wins the award for Best Director, in a wonderful and thorough "screw you" to the Oscars for failing to even nominate him.

It seems like Josh Brolin went so far in learning to impersonate Tommy Lee Jones for Men in Black III that he may never go fully back to himself again.

Nobody had better stand in front of the teleprompter when Christian Bale is speaking!

Jeremy Renner is looking a bit Errol Flynn-ish.

Another theme of the night is "second chances to thank people you forgot."

Jessica Chastain apparently asked for a dress that would make her chest appear to be at her waist.

Daniel Day-Lewis has "There's Something About Mary" hair. He's also showing us that he comes off as brilliant as he does on screen because of skilled writers.

Well, Argo certainly would have been my pick of those films. Does this do anything to swing the Oscar race?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Neutral Zone

The first season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a lackluster affair cobbled together at the last minute. Adapted in part from a short story submitted by outside writers, the shooting script was reportedly written in a day and a half. And it comes off like it. Rather than a grand season finale to whet the appetite for more, "The Neutral Zone" comes off like the result of a timer going off, and the writers simply stopping with whatever they had.

The Enterprise discovers a derelict spaceship from the late 20th century, aboard which they find three humans, cryogenically frozen in the hopes of a future cure for their fatal ailments. As the three deal with adjusting to a life 370 years later, the Enterprise is ordered to the Neutral Zone. After 50 years without contact by the Romulans, a number of Federation outposts in the area have been destroyed. It's up to Picard and his crew to determine what happened, and confront the Romulans if necessary.

I mentioned that part of this story came from outside writers, and that was the 20th-century humans aspect of the episode. I don't know if they were writing personal wish fulfillment, or if they thought they'd craft a winner by stealing the "thawed 20th century human" plot from the classic original series episode "Space Seed." Either way, it's a disaster. There's no Khan here. There's no threat at all here, and that's the problem. These three people from the past are at absolute worst a nuisance to our heroes. One is a drunken mess who just wants to pick up partying again. Another is a "1 percenter" fixated on money. The most sympathetic is a woman pining for her lost family, but what becomes of her matters nothing at all to anyone on the ship. (With the possible exception of Counselor Troi. But even she only takes an interest when Picard orders her to.)

The lack of tension in this plot line isn't the worst thing about it, though. Worse is the endless opportunities it provides for more of that 24th-century moralizing about how stupid 20th-century humans are. The first season was full of it, and it has worn painfully thin by this finale. Sure, if I myself could have a conversation with someone from the 1640s, I probably wouldn't think much of his morality, knowledge, or capabilities. But I feel like there comes a point where hearing Picard and Riker talk about we the audience in this way isn't inspiring us to be better (as I'm sure Gene Roddenberry would have professed), it's browbeating us. It's preachy. It's not entertainment.

But the second plot line really isn't any better. There's lots of dramatic talk about how Federation outposts have been destroyed. But it's really all just talk. The storyline culminates in a viewscreen showdown where Picard talks with two Romulan commanders for a few minutes, and then both ships part ways. Again, no real threat, no tension.

The entire premise of "no Romulan contact for 50 years" is undermined in numerous ways. We never find out why they were dormant. Nor does it seem they actually were. Worf's recently revealed back story tells us the Romulans attacked Khitomer when he was a boy. (Does contact with Klingons not count?) And not long before that, we heard about an off-screen conflict with the Romulans in "Angel One." Eventually the writers would throw this whole dormant Romulan thing out the window when a Romulan attack was also revealed to be crucial to the fate of the Enterprise-C.

Slightly intriguing in this subplot is the fact that the Romulans were not in fact behind the destruction of the outposts -- and that outposts of theirs were destroyed as well. All were "scooped off the face of the planet" by an unknown force. That unknown force would later be revealed as the Borg. Apparently, the writers envisioned a trilogy of episodes to introduce their new badass replacement for the failed Ferengi, and planned to begin season two with a two-part episode following directly on this story, with Romulans cooperating in a first encounter against the Borg. All that was scrapped thanks to the Writers' Guild strike, with the season premiere replaced by an unconnected story, and the Borg's introduction delayed until later in the season. Definitely a missed opportunity, and it definitely left this episode to feel like what it is -- a beginning lacking an ending.

Composer Ron Jones does great work even for this terrible episode, though. His theme for the Romulans has both suspense and action gears, and marks the first time any composer established a leitmotif for the race in Star Trek. Jones also has some silly fun with the 20th-century characters, underscoring them with music more comedic in tone.

Other observations:
  • It's curious that we see two Romulan commanders here where one clearly would have meant one less actor to cast and pay. I wonder if the writers had some sort of twin Romulus/Remus notion in mind here to explain what appear to be two equal commanders on the Romulan ship?
  • Speaking of that Romulan ship, it's fantastic. The model builders delivered a truly different and eye-catching design.
  • One of the Romulan commanders is played by Marc Alaimo, who would later play the role of Gul Dukat on Deep Space Nine.
  • It's puzzling why the writers choose to make the frozen humans originate from the 20th century. With only 12 years left in said century at the time the episode aired, surely they didn't think we'd be freezing people and launching them into space on the timetable they were putting forth. Why set themselves up to be wrong?
  • This episode starts with Picard off the ship and Riker in command. Accordingly, Riker observes the standard Next Generation protocol for away teams, remaining aboard the Enterprise as Data leads the mission to the derelict.
  • Ship security is shown to be preposterously lax in this episode. One of the 20th-century characters just takes a turbolift to the bridge. (You'd think on a ship full of civilians and children, some security measure would be in place to prevent that.) No one notices he's there until he says something. And then, although Picard immediately orders security to escort him from the bridge, the two no-name officers stop to gawk at the Romulan warbird instead, observing the entire sensitive exchange before finally carrying out their orders after being told a second time.
  • When I think that this was Gates McFadden's last appearance on the show for a year (since Crusher was replaced in season two by Dr. Pulaski), it makes me extra sad. She's used only for comic relief here, and poorly, treated with sexism by the 20th-century folk.
Season one ended on this truly dull note, an episode I'd grade a D-. Easily one to skip.

So, a few final words about the first season as a whole. It was both better and worse than I remembered. I graded 11 of the 25 episodes at least a B-, which is probably higher than I might have guessed before watching them. But that means more than half the episodes were subpar (and 9 of them some form of truly bad D grade or worse). Most notably, not a single episode was worthy of an A or A-.

In short, the series really didn't find itself in this first season. Frankly, were it starting out today, I can't imagine it ever would have lived beyond the one season. Fortunately for us, the then-new direct-to-syndication model of the series gave it the wiggle room to work through its growing pains and ultimately reach a consistent level of quality.

My top five for the season: "Skin of Evil" (I know, I'm shocked too), "The Battle," "Where No One Has Gone Before," "The Naked Now," and "The Big Goodbye."