Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's Go to the Tape

Low-budget films don't really come any cheaper than Tape, a small movie from 2001 adapted from a play by Stephen Belber. It was directed by Richard Linklater, who called upon the star of his indie darling Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke. The movie was also a reunion of Hawke with his Gattaca co-star, Uma Thurman. And rounding out the cast was Robert Sean Leonard, of House and Dead Poets Society fame. In fact, those three are the only actors in the entire film.

As small as the cast is, the setting is even smaller. Tape unfolds in real time inside a cheap motel room, and as far as I can tell, the movie was actually filmed in one. The limited lighting and often-awkward handheld camera further indicates the confined space. If short, if you'd thought of this idea first, you could have filmed one of the cheapest movies ever made.

But that's not to say that Tape isn't good. As is typical for a tightly unified play, it's all about the story and the acting. Tape unfolds 10 years after the high school graduation of the three characters. Drug-addled Vince invites his old friend Jon to the motel room to reunite and catch up on old times. But Vince steadily steers the conversation to his former girlfriend Amy, with whom Jon had an encounter all those years ago. As things heat up, the conversation turns to whether or not Jon raped Amy 10 years ago, and Vince is revealed to be trying to tape record a confession. When Amy herself arrives on the scene, the tense situation becomes even more heightened.

Some of the dialogue in Tape is a bit off, contrived in moments and overly polished in others. It's a sort of heightened way of speaking that is common to the stage, and works well in that environment. It's often less successful on the screen, with the camera (and thus the audience) right up in the faces of the characters.

But mostly, Tape really works. By 15 minutes in, I wasn't noticing the odd turns of phrase very much. By 30 minutes in, I was riveted, waiting to see what happened next. And the whole thing works thanks to the strength of the three actors involved. With no other characters of any kind, there can't be a weak leg in the tripod -- and there isn't. In a brisk 90 minutes, the film serves up laughs and chills. It called to my mind Hitchcock's famous film Rope, and while some may think it sacrilege for me to say so, I think it actually outperformed Rope.

I give Tape a B. If you interested in seeing some good performances, it's definitely worth your time.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Noble Effort

The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor strikes me as a difficult Sherlock Holmes story to evaluate now, 120 years after its original publication. It involves a rich lord who contracts Holmes to find his missing bride. She's gone missing just after getting married to her new husband, and it may have something to do with an unusual run-in she had with a mysterious stranger she encountered in the church.

To a point, the Macguffin of the mystery is a very easy one for the reader to puzzle out. I think that the notion of a "runaway bride" is much more familiar in this day and age than it was in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's time; at least, I imagine that to be the case. In this respect, I feel like a modern reader is farther ahead than a contemporary one would have been, and the mystery is thus a bit dull.

But past that specific point, the mystery is quite opaque indeed. It's clear that the runaway bride escaped after meeting the man in the church, and that his identity is the key to the whole thing. But the details that Holmes seizes on seem too minute even for his vaunted skills. From the mere fact of the bride's American background, and a couple other casual details, Holmes deduces that -- SPOILER ALERT -- the woman ran into a former lover who was a gold claim prospector in the West, who left her to amass his own fortune.

It's possible that in this respect, the modern audience is running behind the contemporary audience. Is it actually possible that to an audience of the 1890s, the thread of logic here ran unfailingly from A to B to C? Or did Doyle merely reach for some imaginary, fanciful notion of foreign America (like the depiction of Mormons from A Study in Scarlet, for example) and fashion this resolution to his mystery?

I suspect it was the latter. In any case, it certainly reads like it was the latter. This installment of Sherlock Holmes doesn't feel like it's playing fair with the mystery. I give it a C-.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hyper Inactive

About a year ago, I wrote about a low-budget Canadian sci-fi film called Cube, in which a group of strangers are thrown inside a surreal maze-like prison and tested with devious traps and psychological horrors. It was enough of a cult hit to spawn both a sequel and prequel film. I recently watched the former, called Cube 2: Hypercube. And though I was pleasantly surprised by the original, Cube 2 was a truly miserable follow-up.

Cube 2 is almost a re-make of the original more than a sequel. It once again features a number of strangers awakening inside a maze-like structure. The archetypes of the characters are an almost-perfect match to the original. There's a compassionate lead female (again played by a B-list sci-fi actress; I'll touch on that briefly later). There's an aggressive alpha male who slowly gives in to madness. The autistic savant of the first film is replaced here by an old woman deep in the throes of Alzheimer's, but you can basically keep mapping one character to another all the way down the line.

The budget of the sequel is a little bigger. Though the movie is still largely confined to its Cube prison, a bit more money was spent on the set, and a fair amount more spent on supplementary visual effects. The concept of the prison is amplified too, literally taken to the next power, as a "tesseract" instead of a cube -- a four-dimensional construct capable of warping time and blending alternate realities.

But these interesting sounding tradeoffs come at some serious expense. The writing -- not of a truly high quality in the original -- is pitiful here. Hackneyed dialogue grates as it spews from the mouths of some truly bad actors. The lead, Kari Matchett (who you might recognize from various TV appearances, including a main role on the short-lived Invasion) is the only one reasonably credible; the rest aren't even worthy of amateur community theater.

The first Cube was somewhat entertaining in spite of its limitations. The sequel just demonstrates what would have happened if the first film hadn't gotten lucky in a few areas. I give Cube 2 a D+. Even if you liked the original, you'd best avoid it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

TNG Flashback: Q Who

After the failure of the Ferengi as a credible recurring enemy on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the writers set about imagining a replacement. Writer Maurice Hurley, who I've criticized in past reviews for many reasons, did at least make one great contribution to Star Trek in conceiving that replacement, and thus was born the pivotal episode "Q Who."

The powerful entity Q abducts Picard and strands him aboard a shuttlecraft, skirting around his previous agreement never to trouble the Enterprise again and forcing the captain to listen to a request. Kicked out of the Q-Continuum for his failure to entice Riker to join them, Q is now homeless and wishes to become a permanent member of the Enterprise crew. When Picard rejects the offer, boldly declaring that humanity does not require help in facing the unknowns of space, Q instantly transports the ship to a section of the galaxy that has been ravaged by an alien race -- the Borg. This first encounter with the powerful and inscrutable aliens proves to be the greatest threat the Enterprise has yet faced.

The introduction of the Borg was one of season two's biggest successes, but it didn't go according to the original plan. Maurice Hurley had already dreamed up his "invincible alien race" and planted the seeds for their introduction in the terrible first season finale, "The Neutral Zone." He planned to start the next season with a multi-part episode that featured the Romulans and Federation teaming up in the face of the new threat, a hive-minded race of insectoids. The writers' strike laid waste to those plans, as no work on the scripts could be done over the summer production break. When the strike's ultimate resolution delayed the start of the fall television season, every series had to rush something back in front of the cameras as quickly as possible. There was no time on Star Trek to work out the introduction of the new alien race.

As the first half of the season filmed, Maurice Hurley continued to develop his idea with Gene Roddenberry's blessing, but the realities of the budget were considerable. There was simply no way they could pull off a believable insectoid race. Once the idea was finally refined into that of a half-cyborg threat (retaining the hive mind concept of the insects), the Borg were ready to go before the cameras.

This episode could easily have gone wrong. Even this more reasonable incarnation of the Borg was a massive challenge for the budget. And the episode script could easily have come off overstuffed. Not only was a new adversary being introduced, but there was also the return of Q. And he couldn't just show up; some screen time would have to spent in explaining how he could return, following the events of his previous episode. And then, just for good measure, the episode also introduced a new side character, engineering Ensign Sonya Gomez. (More on her later.) The fact that the episode managed to include all these elements, and felt like it gave each their due, was quite an accomplishment.

That said, I do have a few quibbles here and there. The way they write Q back into the mix is to mischaracterize his deal at the close of "Hide and Q." In that episode, he wagered and lost, his penalty being to "stay out of the path of humanity forever." In this episode, the deal has transfigured into an agreement not to trouble the Enterprise anymore -- a much easier bargain for the writers to maneuver out of. Still, it's a more than acceptable cheat for getting John de Lancie back on the show. His performance of Q remains simultaneously nuanced and larger-than-life, and is a real treat to watch. The writers clearly love him, and for good reason.

They also love Whoopi Goldberg's Guinan, and so you can understand why they'd want to imply a backstory between her character and Q. But this is another minor misstep in the episode. A strange and unnecessary confrontation between the two characters last for only a few seconds, leaving the audience only with questions that would never be answered. What kind of dealings has Guinan had in the past with this Q and others? Does she actually have some kind of ability to resist his powers? (She acts as though she might.) What "imp"-like trouble follows her, as Q suggests? Don't get too interested in any of that, because you'll never know.

Actually, the portrayal of Guinan in general in this episode is a bit off. To this point, she's always been enigmatic, and uses circumspection to make other people come to her conclusions. But this situation makes that behavior seem ridiculous. With the Enterprise transported into the heart of Borg territory, and Guinan asked point blank what's there, she says she can tell them "only that if I were you, I'd start back now." She continues to hand out information in miserly fashion throughout the episode, when it seems to me that even a deliberately enigmatic person would be screaming at the top of her voice: "we're in danger of being attacked by an invincible race of genocidal monsters!"

My one last quibble with the episode would be that the portrayal of the Borg is inconsistent with future episodes. Don't get me wrong, what's here within this episode certainly works on its own. The idea of a race that takes no interest in life, only in the technology it can consume, is a fascinating one. The idea that they can't be reasoned with, and can't be defeated by the time the end credits roll -- that's all wonderful. But what the Borg became later on wasn't just fascinating, it was scary. The abduction of Picard by the Borg in "The Best of Both Worlds" was a high mark for the entire series. And the Borg further evolved in the film "First Contact," into a terrifying race of body snatchers. The Borg were certainly good here (except maybe for the "bouncing baby Borg" we see briefly, which Star Trek: Voyager later retconned into a "maturation chamber"), but the race would get even better later.

Still, the quibbles fade away in the face of how good the rest of the episode is. Director Rob Bowman does some of his best work on the series, loading the episode with unusual close-ups, fast zooms, and clever staging. Q is effectively placed in truly odd locations on the sets, from a perch in the windows of Ten Forward to a lazy recline on the bridge ramp. Atypical camera angles are deployed throughout, from a beam-out viewed from the back of the transporter pad to a massive pullout on the interior of the Borg cube (rendered by a gorgeous matte painting back from the time before computers made such work easier).

Composer Ron Jones also steps up with a fantastic score that lays down hints of his later, most famous work on the series, "The Best of Both Worlds." There's spooky tension for the abduction of Picard and the arrival of the Borg scout in engineering. There's powerful action in the battle sequences against the Borg cube. And there's a marvelous fusion of gothic overtones and synthesizer that gives perfect voice to this new nemesis.

The acting is great throughout, especially from John de Lancie and Patrick Stewart. Their work in the final act is superb, as Picard concedes defeat and Q then delivers a wonderful summation of the lesson he sought to teach. (There's also a genius little take by Jonathan Frakes when Riker is teleported back into his chair and reacts to suddenly being in Picard's face.) Also strong are Levar Burton, who shows Geordi in an uncharacteristic role as a mentor, and guest Lycia Naff, who convincing plays the awkward and high-strung Ensign Sonya Gomez.

I've read that Sonya Gomez was considered as a recurring character, and possibly even a love interest for Geordi. They even brought her back in the very next episode... before dropping her entirely. I'm not sure what happened there, but it does seem as though the "socially awkward recurring engineer" character was ultimately embodied by Reginald Barclay instead.

Other observations:
  • Q off-handedly suggests that he would renounce his powers if necessary to join the Enterprise crew. This notion may have inspired his next appearance, in which his powers were stripped from him by the rest of the Continuum.
  • After all the times I've watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, I only just now noticed how the lights in the mural behind the Ten Forward bar shift subtly over time.
  • Actress Lycia Naff may be familiar to you as the three-breasted mutant in the original Total Recall. So, there's that.
  • There's an unintentionally hilarious moment when Picard orders Worf to stop the Borg intruder in Engineering, and Worf immediately delegates the task to a no-name security officer (who promptly gets thrown across the room). At least for once, Worf doesn't get beaten up to show how tough someone else is.
Ultimately, the one great failure in introducing the Borg may have been that the writers made them too invincible. Though they were intended as a recurring villain, the Next Generation writers rarely used them for lack of ideas on how to defeat them. Sadly, Star Trek: Voyager later chose to "solve" this problem by dumbing down and defanging the Borg. But then, that's one reason among many that you'll never see any "Voyager Flashback reviews" here on the blog. (Seriously, that show hurt sometimes.) I give "Q Who" an A-.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Twisted Sister

As a fan of acting and actors, I am often drawn to movies with a big emphasis on performance. I'm certainly drawn to directors that know how to draw a good performance from an actor. Those were the qualities that attracted me to Your Sister's Sister, an independent film from last year that I'd heard had some fine acting.

Mark Duplass plays a man still grieving one year after the death of his brother. His friend (and brother's wife) Iris, played by Emily Blunt, suggests that he use her family's cabin for a getaway to enjoy some solitude. But when he arrives, he finds the cabin already occupied by Hannah, Iris' lesbian sister. Played by Rosemary DeWitt, Hannah is herself retreating for solitude after a breakup with her longtime partner. Awkwardness ensues, and is only made worse when Iris herself also arrives at the cabin.

The film is essentially a three-hand play. It takes place almost entirely on one set (or easily could have, but for attempts to "open the story up" a bit), and is driven by heavy dialogue between the characters. Often times, I think such scenarios can be crackle with emotion and result in compelling stories. Not so here.

My attention was wavering long before the first big plot development arrived. The movie then tried to compensate for being boring by being unbelievable. Neither was enjoyable. It's hard to praise the acting much, because the situation was simply too far-fetched for them to lend any credibility to it. In fact, I was shocked to learn that the film was actually written and directed by a woman, because through a certain lens, the whole thing could be viewed as a bizarre male fantasy of romantic and sexual conquest.

There's every chance you've never heard of this movie before now. Perhaps I should not have reviewed it, thus preserving that for you. It landed in my Flickchart in "D- territory," but I honestly can't think of a reason not to give it an F.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seven Years on Four Discs

La-La Land Records continues to display their love of music from Star Trek. Following up on last year's phenomenal remaster of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture soundtrack and their unbelievable 15-CD compilation of all the music from the original series, they've recently released a 4-CD set of highlights from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The good news is, this set does cherry pick some of the best music from the series. The bad news? Well... to be blunt, even the best stuff, at times, is not that good. For those who haven't heard me tell this story a few times already, here's the short explanation. Producer Rick Berman ran things for all the "latter" Star Trek series, from The Next Generation to Enterprise. And his musical tastes were sadly lacking. He believed that music should be a bland wallpaper, never really noticeable in a finished episode. For around half the run of The Next Generation, brilliant composer Ron Jones got away with ignoring that mandate, producing enough quality music that La-La Land records put together a box set of all his compositions. But eventually, Rick Berman fired him, and supplemented his stalwart Dennis McCarthy with another composer, Jay Chattaway, who would give him the boring and interchangeable material he wanted.

Those two composers were responsible for most of the music of Deep Space Nine. But with two Star Trek series always on the air throughout the life of the show, they sometimes needed help from another composer who'd pinch hit for an episode. This 4-CD set includes one disc featuring the work from five such composers, along with an all-McCarthy disc, an all-Chattaway disc, and a fourth "lost soundtrack" disc, a compilation of music that another label once considered publishing (but decided the money wasn't there).

The sad truth is, in these four full CDs of music, there's really only about one disc's worth that's worth having. Most of the music is amorphous string passages in free time, supported by occasional lazy phrases from muted horns. Unless you're looking for music to fall asleep to, or music to have on in the background while you do something that commands your full attention, you probably wouldn't want it. Divorced from the images of the show, it packs no punch.

Why then did I even buy the soundtrack? (Besides being such a Deep Space Nine fan?) Well, because the one disc worth of good material is pretty special. Most of it comes from that "lost soundtrack" disc; that other record label may have decided against releasing it, but their music curators at least had good taste.

That disc features excepts from three prominent episodes of the series. "Our Man Bashir" was a wild, James Bond style romp in the holosuite; its music melds the Deep Space Nine theme with the brassy, rock style of John Barry's music for the James Bond franchise. "Trials and Tribble-ations" was the anniversary episode that digitally inserted the Deep Space Nine characters into a famous episode of the original series; its music runs a bit more free, as it moves along the continuum toward the more brazen sounds of the original series' music. And "What You Leave Behind" was the series finale; its music features a moving, lengthy montage set to the melody of the classic tune "The Way You Look Tonight."

Add to the mix a few noticeably good tracks from the other discs. Gregory Smith does some interesting work on the late episode "Field of Fire" (in which Ezri Dax accesses the memories of a murderous past host to help solve a present day crime). Dennis McCarthy serves up some strong battle music for the episodes "The Die Is Cast" and "Shattered Mirror." and Jay Chattaway has some good moments in the third season premiere "The Search."

All together, the "25% hits" ratio of this set means that most people probably won't want to pick it up. But for a hardcore Deep Space Nine fan, it might be a necessity. I give the set a C+ overall, while the cherry-picked version of it would probably warrant an A-.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Thrilling Engagement

This week is a momentous one for marriage equality in the United States. In the next two days, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in the cases to strike down both Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. It's the latterI want to focus on here... or, rather, the plaintiff in the case.

After a 41 year relationship, Edie Windsor married her wife, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. Although they had been engaged for decades, they decided they could literally wait no longer. Both were in their 70s, and Thea Spyer had been battling multiple sclerosis for half her life. A progressive paralysis had rendered her a quadriplegic, and she believed she would not have much longer left to live. She did indeed die in 2009, setting into motion the lawsuit that will be argued this week before the Supreme Court.

But before Edie Windsor became known for this case, she and her wife were the subject of a documentary film, Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. It's a brief but powerful 63 minutes, and a powerful argument for marriage equality. And it does an excellent job of presenting two contradictory messages about same-sex marriage: "same-sex couples are just like opposite-sex couples" and "same-sex couples are not like opposite-sex couples."

Throughout the film, we see Edie and Thea in a variety of contexts. They reminisce over past vacations, looking at slide shows. They playfully rib each other in that particular way that seems so common in an older couple. But they also talk candidly about how secretive they had to be about their relationship for most of their lives. They speak of the risks of losing their jobs, of family members who weren't accepting, and of the slow march of progress in LGBT rights over the years.

But I think the most moving aspect of the film is actually its depiction of a couple dealing with a severe medical condition. The devotion of Edie to Thea is inspiring, especially when you think that she was there every step of the way to watch the steady decline -- from the use of a cane, to crutches, to a wheelchair, to a motorized wheelchair. The depth of love required to keep the relationship strong is unfathomable.

And anyone who thinks it's inferior to an opposite-sex marriage? Well, I would have words to say to such a person... but nothing the film wouldn't say more powerfully.

I grade the movie an A-, and in this momentous week in particular, I'm happy to recommend it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Wreck You'll Want to See

The Oscars did get it right this year, in my opinion, when they awarded Best Picture to Argo. But they messed up in awarding Best Animated Feature to the good-but-not-great Brave. At least, I realize that now that I've seen Wreck-It Ralph. This computer animated film, created by Walt Disney Studios without the involvement of Pixar, had all the hallmarks of the best Pixar classics, and far surpassed Brave.

Set within the world of arcade games of years past, Wreck-It Ralph is the story of an arcade nemesis trying to break out of his role as The Bad Guy. Crossing into other games in the hours the arcade is closed, the titular character earns a medal in a modern first person shooter, but accidentally unleashes its terrifying bug aliens on an innocent candy-themed racing game for kids.

Wreck-It Ralph lives in its memorable and genuine characters. There's Ralph himself, a misunderstood soft heart trying to better himself. There's Vanellope von Schweetz, the adorably determined "glitch" in the racing game who wants to qualify for the tournament so that actual players can use her. There's Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, the fierce heroine of the shooter with a hilarious-yet-tragic back story. And there's Fix-It Felix, the hero of Ralph's own arcade game, a wonderful fish out of water who learns the hard way what it's like when not everything goes your way.

They're all brought to life with very human animation, and some excellent voice casting. John C. Reilly brings his everyman powers to bear as Ralph. Jack McBrayer is perfect as his do-gooder adversary Felix. Jane Lynch owns tough as nails in the role of Calhoun. And Sarah Silverman is cast wonderfully against type as plucky young Vanellope. Add in Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Ed O'Neill, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg, and some of the wonderfully talented voice actors from the Animaniacs (Jess Harnell and Maurice LaMarche), and you've got one of the best casts assembled for an animated movie in years.

But despite the computer trappings (which are used hilariously at times, with great cameo appearances from classic video game characters), the best thing about the movie is the real heart in its story. Things get emotional for the characters before it's all over, and you never feel like the stakes aren't high just because the environment is virtual. (The film is much more successful in that regard than another Disney classic, Tron.)

Not only was Wreck-It Ralph the best animated film I've seen from last year, but it's good enough to crack my still-updating Top 10 list. I'm sliding it in to the #6 slot, and giving it an A- (and my enthusiastic endorsement).

Saturday, March 23, 2013

TNG Flashback: Pen Pals

The first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation had some good episodes, but also a fair share of subpar efforts that went wrong for a variety of reasons. "Pen Pals" is one of the latter, but distinct in the reason why it went wrong.

The Enterprise undertakes a weeks-long planetary survey in a sector marked with widespread geological instabilities. Riker decides to put Wesley in charge of the survey team to teach him some command skills, and Wesley grapples with a lack of self-confidence. Meanwhile, Data undertakes an experiment to improve the ship's communications systems, and establishes contact with a young alien girl named Sarjenka. Her planet is threatened by massive volcanic activity, and Data seeks Picard's permission to try to stabilize it. But the situation brings with it a moral dilemma; Sarjenka's people are unaware of alien life, so helping her would be a violation of the Prime Directive.

My problem with this episode is that I think it focused on the wrong character. I simply don't believe Data in the heart of this situation. After the series bought this story concept from an outside writer, Melinda Snodgrass (who penned the excellent "The Measure of a Man") convinced the writing staff to let her rewrite it with Data as the central character. She argued that only Data, with his child-like innocence, could get into this Prime Directive conundrum so deeply before seeking help from the captain. But I think Snodgrass was too enamored of her favorite character, the one who had served her so well in her fantastic first episode, and mischaracterized the true tone of this story.

This episode asks us to believe that Data would carry on a dialogue in secret for nearly two months, long after learning that doing so was a violation of the Prime Directive. That alone is too much an "ask" for me; literally no one should be a more by-the-book officer than Data. But that's only the beginning. Data spends the rest of the episode essentially inverting the scientific method. He repeatedly sets upon a desired outcome, and then twists an argument to reach it. He wants to save Sarjenka, even when doing so would violate Starfleet principles. He beams Sarjenka up to the ship without permission, for no reason more than the fact that she would have been afraid to be left alone. This isn't Data showing the innocence of childhood, this is him showing the irrational and willful part of childhood -- two characteristics of which Data is literally incapable.

I've been unable to find any mention of who this episode was originally supposed to be about before it was switched to Data, but I believe the story needed a character with the technical know-how to communicate with the alien girl, but the emotional empathy necessary to get neck deep in the situation before realizing it was wrong. I think that Geordi should have been at the heart of the episode. He even has a moment in the episode where he argues in favor of saving Sarjenka. I'm not sure this would have turned this into a "great" episode, but I'm fairly certain it would have improved it considerably by having it make more sense.

Despite this big misstep, there are some good aspects to the episode. There's a surprisingly interesting scene, set in Picard's quarters, where the senior staff debates the Prime Directive. Setting aside the fact that I would expect Starfleet officers all to be pretty much 100% in support of it, it's actually a very interesting debate. Geordi, Troi, and Pulaski all make impassioned arguments in favor compassion, to save Sarjenka's planet. Picard counters with a challenging point: it may seem moral to interfere to stop a natural disaster, but what about a civil war? Where is the line?

The Wesley storyline is not bad either. Again, there's a minor issue you have to overlook (would Starfleet really assign the Enterprise to a planetary survey for two months when we've seen they have dedicated science vessels?), but looking past that issue leads to at least a mildly interesting story. Wesley revisits his great fear, revealed in "Coming of Age," of being in command and giving the wrong orders. Of course, Gene Roddenberry's strict "no fighting among Starfleet officers" edict means that nobody truly challenges Wes' command, but that's actually a reasonable look at military culture. In civilian life, respect must generally be earned; in military life, respect is given up front, and then need only be maintained.

"Pen Pals" also boasts the only on-location filming of the entire second season. Looking to give Picard another hobby, a couple of scenes send him to the holodeck (to an outdoor location) to ride a horse. It doesn't really have anything to do with the rest of the episode that I can tell, but it's still interesting.

But my interest in the horse hobby is actually less intrinsic to this episode than it is when examined with the Next Generation cast's first feature film that would come years later, Star Trek: Generations. In that film, there's a big sequence in which Kirk and Picard ride horses together. William Shatner is a skilled equestrian, and as we all know also has quite an ego. He's told stories of how thrilled he was to ride a horse in the movie, and of how much help and advice he gave to Patrick Stewart for those scenes. Here, years earlier, Stewart demonstrated he was not exactly a novice horseman himself. Consequently I imagine Stewart, the consummate professional, letting Shatner prattle on with his unneeded "advice" out of respect for the elder in the Star Trek lineage. Maybe it didn't really happen that way, but the mere idea of it makes me like Patrick Stewart even more.

But getting back to the episode, a few last observations:
  • If these planets are all so unstable and volatile, I have to wonder how intelligent life ever managed to form on one of them.
  • It's a bit strange to me that Riker calls a meeting of no less than five senior staff members to discuss whether Wesley should be given a training assignment.
  • What's not surprising is that Katherine Pulaski is there to look down on people some more, voicing her opinion that Wesley's not up to the job. Nor is it surprising that, just a few scenes later, she reverses course and tells Wesley she has total confidence in him. Wil Wheaton has observed that sometimes it seemed like the writers were deliberately trying to make fans hate his character, but I think poor Diana Muldaur had it even worse. (At least Pulaski finally pays Data a compliment in this episode, saying near the end that she thinks he's done a good thing.)
  • Riker is seen romancing some anonymous hot young crewmember in Ten Forward.
  • Picard is seen drinking his "tea, Earl Grey, hot" for the first time.
  • Young Sarjenka is played by Nikki Cox, many years before she grew up and became eye candy on the TV series Las Vegas.
  • There's some connective tissue missing between a couple of scenes near the end of the episode. When Picard contacts Pulaski to inquire about the possibility of erasing Sarjenka's memory, Pulaski somehow knows the alien has been brought aboard when no one has told her this yet. Similarly, when Pulaski begins the procedure, Data somehow knows what she's doing even though no one has told him of Picard's order.
  • I think in the ending, Picard is a bit too cavalier about having violated the Prime Directive. He articulates to Data the reasons why he agreed to help, and he is convincing. But part of me thinks that the "Picard thing to do" would have been to agree to help, yet still formally reprimand Data for what he did.
In all, "Pen Pals" isn't really a terrible episode, but its treatment of Data is too preposterous to be credible. It brings the whole affair down to a C- in my mind.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Guily Pleasures

Sorry Glee, but this week was a bit of a mess.

Was in production necessity or narrative necessity to have Schu sick off-camera this week? Was Matthew Morrison only contracted for half the episodes this year, and his long absence at the middle of the year wasn't quite long enough? Or was it that Schu would never have come up with the "guilty pleasures" theme week, having essentially already done the same lesson, songs with a "bad reputation," back in season one? (I suspect the latter, hence why two characters who weren't around in season one were the ones to come up with it.)

If Schu was going to be out for the week, why not bring in one of the established guest star teachers who have taught a glee club? Sure, on any given week, you might not be able to get Gwyneth Paltrow, Idina Menzel, or Ricky Martin to guest star. But were none of them free this week?

Then there was the song selection. Is it even possible to have a guilty pleasure song from before you were born? Or even from before you were, say, five years old or so? Isn't the whole premise of a guilty pleasure song, "I used to like this (at a time when everybody used to like this), but I'm ashamed to admit it now"? For a bunch of teenage students, I could maybe see the premise being "I'm ashamed to admit I like this song my parents like," except wouldn't the reaction of a fellow student probably be "I've never even heard of that song?" (I know, I know, why am I questioning the encyclopedic musical knowledge of the kids now, after all this time?)

How is Sam mocking Tina for her impossible crush on Blaine at the top of the hour, but sweetly comforting Blaine for his impossible crush on himself at the end of the hour?

Who the hell thought the lonely stalker vibe of "Creep" would make a good duet? (Not to mention that, transposed into a higher key as it was, it actually sounded downright cheerful!)

Some of the songs this week had a nice toe-tapping quality to them. And there was that brilliant quick cutaway to the glee band's drummer, who seemed bored to tears playing "Wannabe" in the choir room. There was even a particularly interesting plot thread, but it was given disappointingly short treatment: I think it's a very compelling question, whether it's okay to support the work of an artist when the artist himself is reprehensible. (I was just having the very discussion in the last week or two, in regards to writer Orson Scott Card.)

Like I said, a bit of a mess this week, Glee. I give it a D+.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Sad Admission

Earlier this week, I got to see a sneak preview of a movie opening tomorrow, Admission. It stars Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and really, their two names were enough to grab my interest in seeing it. But it turns out that while the movie wasn't too bad, my lack of knowledge about it was a bad thing, in this case. My expectations were set quite wrong.

Tina Fey plays an admissions officer at Princeton, contacted by Paul Rudd's character. Rudd is the teacher of an unconventional high school senior who wants to get into Princeton, but his special circumstances mean he's going to need a leg up. Rudd has picked Fey's character to approach for help because he's learned that the prospective student is the boy she gave up for adoption 18 years ago.

I was expecting a laugh out loud comedy in this movie, and that's where my expectations weren't set up right. Still, I think it wasn't wrong to expect that. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd have both been hysterical in plenty of productions, and both have been the best things going in a couple of very bad ones. Add to them a great supporting cast, including people like Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, and Lily Tomlin, plus director Paul Weitz, the man behind American Pie. I figured I'd be in stitches from start to finish.

But Admissions isn't that at all. It's actually a very sentimental story. It examines the regrets Fey's character has at giving up her son, and her strained relationship with her own mother, played by Lily Tomlin. It examines the cracks forming in the relationship between Rudd's character and his adopted son. It tracks the ruins of a collapsed relationship between Fey's character and her boyfriend of 10 years, played by Michael Sheen. And while there are a few scattered laughs here and there, this clearly isn't riotous material.

All told, Admission just wasn't as entertaining as I was hoping for. You could certainly do worse, but I feel good to have caught this one for free. It's one to wait for on DVD, for sure. I give it a C+.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Throw This Iron in the Fire

Having heard wonderful things about Meryl Streep's performance, I decided to check out The Iron Lady, the recent film about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I got exactly what I expected... and less.

Meryl Streep is indeed brilliant. That can be said generally, of course, but her work in The Iron Lady was lauded by some as a career-best for her, and that might indeed be true. As with another recent film of hers, Julie & Julia, she plays a real-life person, and does so in a way that transcends mere imitation. She embodies Margaret Thatcher in a deeply convincing way. Streep spends much of the film -- including most of the opening act -- under old-age makeup that further disguises her own features and takes her transformation that much farther. Her voice drops into a different register, her mannerisms are altered, and her accent impeccable. In short, she's so good that she sometimes even makes you forget you're watching Meryl Streep.

And I would suggest that's actually the only reason to watch the movie. As a biography film, it's painfully dull. Thatcher remains a controversial figure in real life, praised or derided for her incredibly austere financial policies. I think the interesting way to approach her tale would have been to show us what in her back story, her formative years, contributed to her staunch belief in such policies. What exactly made her believe she was so right and that everyone else was so wrong?

Instead, we really only get illustrations of the fact that she thought she was so right and everyone else was so wrong. We get a sense of her roller coaster of popularity over her parliamentary career -- from her first run for office to her final ouster as party leader, with many ups and downs in between. But we're never really shown any meat behind any of it. Instead, the "character" of Thatcher isn't humanized by trying to explain her, but rather by trying to make us feel sorry for her. The entire movie is set in a framing device where a nearly-modern-day Thatcher, widowed and battling senility, is tormented by visions of her dead husband. I imagine an American equivalent would be a film about Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney focusing not on their respective philosophies, but rather on their health problems.

Streep's performance is supported by a few other recognizable actors, including Jim Broadbent and Anthony Stewart Head (big cheer from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans). But ultimately, there's no reason to see this film unless you're a hopeless devotee of one of those actors. It's brilliant work in service of a boring and superficial movie. I grade it a D.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Working Together... Mostly

I received a number of new board games for Christmas last year, and over the past few months I've written about most of them. But one that I have yet to comment on is Archipelago, by Christophe Boelinger. It's set in the islands of the New World as European explorers attempt to control it and extract its resources... without angering the local population to the point of uprising.

There are a lot of interesting mechanics at work in the game. There's a market system which allows the price of buying and selling goods to rise and fall according to demand. There's a deck of cards the lets players purchase bonuses to their strategy; those cards also have a changing price scale, loosely affected by the length of time players have turned them down.

But the real twist at the heart of the game is its system of tracking unrest in the archipelago. Players must work together to provide the goods needed to keep the local population happy. But in the end, there will in fact by one true winner of the game; you don't want to be the only one constantly paying to keep the population happy, or you'll be depleted of resources compared to your competitors. And for an extra added wrinkle, each player draws a secret victory goal at the start of the game, one of which can be to actually encourage insurrection.

All of this makes for an interesting variety in the gameplay that makes me eager to try the game some more. The first time I played with my friends, unrest wasn't remotely a consideration. We easily kept the natives in check, and I found myself wondering why the game had you go to so much trouble tracking something that didn't really matter. But the second time we played, we collectively lost the game on just the third round, as unchecked hostility among the natives quickly surged to a level where it was too late to do anything about it; we all lost the game collectively.

The large number of bits in the game means that it takes quite a bit of space to play it. It's also intimidating from a rules perspective. The lengthy rule book makes it seem considerably more complicated than it actually is. But if you can look past that, the game itself seems to be a solidly conceived, very fun affair. I give it a B+.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Premium Content

Though it looked on the surface like pretty standard "dumb action flick" fare, I heard some good things about last year's Premium Rush. Nudging it farther into the "could be good" column was the fact that the film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose performances have been solid in everything from blockbusters to indie darlings. But sometimes, what you see is exactly what you get.

The movie stars JGL as a bike messenger in Manhattan, drawn unwittingly into an adventure when he's hired to transport a mysterious letter across town. A no-good police detective is hot on his trail, as he also has to deal with beat cops, a rival messenger, and other obstacles.

It's certainly fun in places. The movie does strike a nice tone of not taking itself too seriously, most exemplified by some hilarious canned off-dialogue ("My baby!") and a well-deployed Wilhelm scream. Think Grand Theft Bicycle. JGL is is charming enough to keep the on-paper (and paper-thin) hero from being too smarmy to like. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery in a fun way as the corrupt cop hot on his tail.

But I do think the film could have been "not serious" without also being stupid. Even as shallow as the characters are, you can reasonably ascribe certain actions to them. And yet they pretty much never do the thing that would make sense, always opting instead for the thing that will keep push resolution a few more minutes down the road and keep the plot moving. At literally a dozen places in the brief 90 minutes, you'll see situations where you think "well, he should do this!" or "wouldn't she have just tried that first?" But if they did, the movie would be over.

I've seen worse, and ultimately it was probably my mistake to listen too much to the flattering reviews and build up an unreasonable expectation for what was here. I'm here to tell you, put those expectations back in check. Premium Rush is a middle of the road C. If you like action movies (but don't necessarily need graphic violence; this is strictly PG-13), you might enjoy it. Otherwise, it's probably one to skip.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Icarus Factor

If you were to ask the average fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation to name some of the series' landmark episodes, I believe there's absolutely no chance that anyone would name "The Icarus Factor." But in watching it again, I was struck by how different the episode really was for the show. For the first time, there really isn't an "external science fiction problem" to be overcome. Instead, the two significant story lines of the episode are both personal dramas for two of the main characters; there's no alien menace, no mysterious virus, no interplanetary dispute, just an examination of some of the characters we've been growing ever closer to.

Commander Riker is offered a promotion to captain, and command of his own ship. He must weigh whether to keep his more prestigious position aboard Starfleet's flagship, or to take a rather obscure assignment that would at least put him in charge. But complicating his decision process is the arrival of his father, with whom he's had a long and bitter estrangement. Meanwhile, Worf has come to the tenth anniversary of his Age of Ascension, and is despondent because he has no one around him who understands Klingon culture to celebrate the occasion with him.

In story construction terms, Riker's story here is the "A plot," and Worf's the "B plot." In terms of actual effectiveness, however, I think the two are reversed. The conflict between Riker and his father Kyle stands on a believable back story, but is resolved far too easily and neatly. Reportedly, Gene Roddenberry stepped in to mandate his belief that humans of the 24th century are too evolved for any serious personal conflict, and that led to the rather wishy-washy conclusion here. The director of the episode, Robert Iscove, was said to have done his best to give the story more emotional honesty, but was shot down at every turn; as a result, despite apparently being a life-long Star Trek fan, he declined to ever work on the series again. I think I have to side with him. Sure, it's Roddenberry's vision to tell as he wants to tell it -- but if no true emotional conflict is going to be allowed, then why even bother trying to tell a story like this when it's only going to come off half-hearted?

That said, there are definitely some good moments within the Riker story, mostly having to do with tying into past continuity. Picard mentions meeting Riker in "Encounter at Farpoint," and makes up for being "miserly" in his praise on that occasion. And there are some marvelous scenes that rekindle the dormant romance between Troi and Riker. They have a touching "until next time" (not "goodbye") scene when it seems Riker will be leaving the Enterprise. There's also a nice scene where Troi goes to confront Kyle Riker in a quite standoffish manner; though the past relationship between Troi and Will isn't mentioned there, the behavior is quite consistent with that of a person stepping in unasked to defend someone she still has feelings for.

This episode is probably also the best one for Katherine Pulaski in her single season on the show. (From my perspective, I might even cattily say "the only good one," in fact.) She's given an intriguing past relationship with Kyle Riker, and actually gets to show some tender sentiment in the episode. She almost gets through the entire episode without insulting anyone -- though even the brief jabs she throws at Kyle feel appropriate for a relationship that almost-but-didn't-quite lead to marriage. In short, Pulaski is a real person in this episode, defined neither by her personality conflicts with Data and Picard, nor by any copying huge chunks of McCoy's behavior. I wish we had seen more of this Pulaski in her mercifully brief stint in on the show.

But Worf's story is still the more successful one in the episode. It has a moment of comedy gold, when Data tries to approach him in Ten Forward to find out what's wrong with him. It has a nice crossover with the Riker plot when Worf asks to transfer with him if he leaves. (That's also nice in that it speaks to the growing bond between Riker and Worf over the course of this season.) And it all culminates in the Ascension ceremony, which is a truly fine moment for Michael Dorn. When you think about it objectively, what he's being ask to perform is ridiculous and nearly impossible to make look credible: he has to walk through a gauntlet of people, shouting wild declarations of his own feelings of self-worth (half the time in a made up foreign language), and pretending to writhe in agony... all without going over the top. I honestly do not know how Dorn pulls it off, but the scene feels very real when it easily could have been the silliest thing ever presented on the show.

While the episode focuses most on Riker and Worf, nearly all of the characters to get a moment or two to shine. I've already noted the strong material for Troi and Pulaski. Picard also plays a nice role, even though it's largely on the periphery, giving unwavering support and advice to Riker. And it's another breakout episode for O'Brien; he gets some wonderfully funny dialogue in a scene with Riker, and then shifts over to participate in the Worf plot as well.

Other observations:
  • I said there isn't really a "sci fi problem" in this episode, but okay, that's not 100% true. The episode includes a subplot about a glitch in engineering that is being checked out by a starbase team, but it would be overly generous to elevate it even as high as a "C plot." It feels tacked on, as though the writers couldn't quite trust themselves to really do an episode where absolutely everything was character driven.
  • The drama of whether Riker will accept this promotion is non-existent. Of course, we know Jonathan Frakes won't leave the show. But also, we learned in "The Arsenal of Freedom" that Riker already turned down his own minor command for the prestigious first officer position on the Enterprise. He's being asked to make the exact same choice again here. Since nothing has really changed for him, there's no reason to think he'd choose differently this time.
  • Original series fans can geek out over the brief mention of the Tholians in this episode.
  • Speaking of fans, Entertainment Tonight anchor John Tesh had a walk-on role in this episode as one of the holographic painstik-wielding Klingons.
  • I noted the good material in this episode rekindling the Troi-Riker relationship. But if you're a fan who preferred the Troi-Worf relationship introduced late in the series, you get a little hint of something here too, in the scene where she leads him to the holodeck for his "surprise party." She manages to be fun and playful with a very angry Klingon without getting into serious trouble.
  • The conflict between Riker and his father culminates in a contest in an "anbo-jyutsu" ring. Kudos to the writers for trying to come up with something wild and different that still feels somewhat authentically connected to real-world culture. That said, the outfits are just a touch too silly to take the whole thing seriously, and I also have my doubts about the Japanese spoken in this episode. (I'll have to ask one of my friends for a translation some time.)
  • Ron Jones does a great job with the music in this episode. His fine take on Klingons, established in earlier episodes, continues here for Worf's ceremony. He also invents some half-futuristic, half-tribal music that really works for the anbo-jyutsu match.
  • The Blu-ray remaster includes a deleted scene from this episode, in which Wesley fobs off his investigation into Worf's problems onto Geordi and Data. It was probably cut for time, but might conceivably have been cut because Gene Roddenberry didn't want to show Wesley lying. At least, that's what it looks like to me (and to Geordi): that Wesley is outright lying to get out of an awkward situation.
I think what the writers were trying to go for here was better than the actual finished results. Still, this isn't a bad little episode, even if Riker's feud with his father isn't quite compelling. I give the episode a B.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Private Matter

I recently felt compelled to pull Saving Private Ryan off my DVD shelf and watch it again. I was simply in the mood for a movie I knew I liked, and I hadn't actually seen it in more than a decade. Perhaps seeing the also exceptional Lincoln had put me in the mood for an earlier effort from director Steven Spielberg.

I've sampled a number of classic war movies over the years, and none of them come close to Saving Private Ryan in my mind. Invariably, the problem for me is the lack of a single narrative. Too often, a war movie seems out to specifically show us that "war is hell," without a specific story connecting the hellish montage. (Saving Private Ryan could even be said to be slightly guilty of this, in its opening 25 minute sequence depicting the assault on Omaha Beach -- which I'll come back to momentarily.) Spielberg's film has a very strong narrative, which also happens to be a very simple and very personal one. Even people who have never known war, or never lost a family member to war, can identify with the core premise of this story.

But if the point of a war movie is to show the horrors of war, Saving Private Ryan certainly doesn't skimp on that just because it has a compelling narrative. That opening sequence on Omaha Beach remains the most terrible and visceral depiction of battle I've ever seen, or could even imagine short of actual documentary footage of real combat. It's not just about the violence (for plenty of films have that), but also about what it shows in conjunction with the violence -- the senselessness of it, the shocking swiftness of it, the mental haze that closes in as the mind threatens to shut down. Of course, I'm fortunate never to have known any of this firsthand, but many interviews with actual World War II veterans at the time of the film's original release confirmed the accuracy of the depiction. Some in fact stated they couldn't make themselves watch the entire sequence, so powerful were the emotions it brought back.

It's not just the opening that so clearly lays out the stakes of war, either. Sequences throughout the film show repeatedly how one bad move can get you killed, and one wrong decision can come back to haunt you. You see the different ways people cope with the situation -- or not, in some cases -- and you see how people are permanently transformed by their experiences.

All this is played out by a stellar cast of actors. Many were well known at the time, but still others have risen to fame since their appearances in the movie. No doubt you know the movie features Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, and Matt Damon. You might have known at the time who Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi were. You might recall the appearance of Ted Danson and Vin Diesel in the film. But did you also know the film has Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston, and Nathan Fillion? Did you remember the face of Jeremy Davies when he showed up later on Lost and Justified? It's a perfectly cast company of actors.

In fact, I found in watching the film again that I liked it even more than I remembered, and I wound up moving it upward on my Top 100 List from its former position (at #69) to #42. It remains a solid grade-A movie in my book.

But before I sign off... back in the very (very) early days of my blog, I once alluded to a story from seeing this movie originally in the theater, and promised to relate it later. It's now more than seven years later, but better late than never, as they say. Spoilers of the movie's plot follow, in case you haven't seen it. (You really should.)

One of the more significant subplots of the film involves Jeremy Davies' character of Upham, a linguist who had never seen battle, who is recruited into the company's search. He specifically states that he's never fired a weapon since basic training. Clearly, he's never killed anyone. Halfway through the film, he argues to release a German prisoner when the rest of the group wants to execute him.

At the end of the film, the grand battle to defend the bridge of Ramelle traumatizes Upham. He cannot bring himself to fire his weapon, or even to do more than run about the city without even delivering any of the ammunition he carries. But finally, when the battle is ended and he stands holding several German soldiers at gunpoint, he recognizes the prisoner he argued to release; the German has gone straight back into battle to kill Upham's friends. Upham raises his rifle with a shocking lack of hesitation and shoots the German soldier dead in cold blood.

When I saw the film in a packed theater back in 1998, there was a lady sitting two rows in front of me who let out a triumphant "yes!" at this moment. And I was aghast. I don't generally feel that I want to tell people how they should react to a movie... but I sure felt like if it was possible to have a wrong reaction, hers was it. To me, this was not a moment about Upham finally finding his courage and doing a brave and noble thing; this was a moment about the character utterly and permanently losing himself. Yes, it was horrible that he'd done nothing in battle to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, but that was not a wrong to be righted by a cold execution. From that moment, for the rest of Upham's life, he would be haunted not just by the knowledge of his own inaction in battle, but by the knowledge that he'd abandoned his morals and killed someone -- not in combat, but in an act of murder.

And this woman in the audience was exhilarated to see it. After 150 minutes of the most violent, horrifying, brutal images dramatized in a film. She had what I can only describe as a bloodlust, and it had not been sated. Where I had just witnessed a rending account of the cost of war, she had apparently been watching the latest over-the-top Arnold Schwarzengger action film.

I never really drew any conclusions from the experience, but as you can tell, it certainly stuck with me. I suppose the lesson is that the way some people think is completely different from me. Sure, that's a manifestly obvious point, but demonstrated here in I think a unique way.

Perhaps I'll balance out all this deep thinking by next reviewing a movie that requires no thought at all.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Feud

Glee returned to form this week... that classic form where the behavior of the characters stretch to fit the needs of the plot that works with the songs they've licensed. This week's theme was feuds, and they needed to manufacture enough to fill out an hour.

Suddenly, Ryder -- who has interacted with Unique for months without any problems -- is uncomfortable with her transgender identity. Suddenly, Sue needs Blaine to pick up his commitment to the Cheerios -- despite acknowledging that she's let his absence go for months. At least the episode was rounded out with two feuds that had been brewing for an episode or two: Finn and Schu, and Santana and Brody.

The feuds weren't the only story lines revolving in and out of the show. Hello, Ryder's mysterious online girlfriend. Goodbye, Rachel's brief pregnancy scare. Hello, Brody the escort. MIA: Emma and Brittany. The result of all this was a bit of a jumbled mess.

But the performances were pretty strong all around. The choreographed dance of the escorts for "How to Be a Heartbreaker" made for a strong opening. Santana's performance of "Cold Hearted" really was (as she claimed) one of the best things NYADA had seen. Jane Lynch tore it up performing Nikki Minaj in one of her rare musical performances. Even the N'Sync/Backstreet Boys mash-up was fun to watch (though the songs of two 90s boy bands made it absolutely impossible to take the emotional context of Finn and Schu's dispute seriously).

So, what to make of it? In my book, I'd say a B-. I really do hate when Glee throws character consistency to the wind, but I have to acknowledge that at least they did some fun things this week.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Masterful Disappointment

For years, I've been avoiding the movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." And for just as long, people have been telling me it was pretty good, and that I really ought to give it a try. I finally broke down and did. I didn't end up liking it at all, but not for the reasons I expected at the outset.

There isn't much I've seen Russell Crowe in that I've truly liked. I feel like a certain smugness that is all the actor and not the character seems to seep into everything he does. But I thought he wasn't bad here in this movie. Either he kept that undertone I abhor in check, or it seemed to fit more naturally with this character. It also helps that he's mostly sharing the screen with the far more talented Paul Bettany, who plays the doctor to Crowe's captain.

No, what I didn't like was the script itself. Though ostensibly about the pursuit of a rival French ship, the plot ambles around to all sorts of minor deviations. I found the whole movie to be quite short in its attention span, and it was only afterward, when I was reading about the film's background, that I found the reason why. Master and Commander is based on a long-running series of novels by Patrick O'Brian, of which The Far Side of the World is but one. But reportedly, the film is not a simple adaptation of that novel; rather, it combines elements of no less than thirteen of O'Brian's books!

Consequently, the movie is a cobbled together "greatest hits" of the HMS Surprise. Here's the one where they stop at the Galapagos Islands. Here's the one where the cabin boy loses an arm. Here's the one where the doctor has to perform surgery on himself. And so on, and so on. A long procession of subplots, each filling 5 to 10 minutes, constantly distracts from the overriding mission of finding the French ship, and eroded my patience every step of the way.

By the time it was all over, the convincing sets, the sweeping music, and all the other trappings were no longer enough to keep my boredom at bay. In the end, I wanted my two hours back. I'd grade Master and Commander a D-. Clearly, there are people out there who like it, but don't count me among them.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

TNG Flashback: Time Squared

I'm now more than halfway through re-watching the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You may have noticed that many of the second season episodes seem to have a behind the scenes story about the script. Today, I bring you another such episode, "Time Squared."

The Enterprise comes upon an unpowered Federation shuttle in deep space and brings it aboard. They discover it's from the Enterprise, and its only passenger is a duplicate of Captain Picard! While the doppelganger is strangely incoherent, the crew is able to download the shuttle's log and learn it comes from six hours in the future -- a future in which Picard was the lone survivor of the destruction of the Enterprise. When the ship suddenly becomes snared in an energy vortex, the crew must figure out how to avoid the decisions that doomed their alternate future selves.

If this story seems a bit lacking in sense, it's because head writer Maurice Hurley planned it as a setup for the return of Q a few episodes down the road. The episode that became "Q Who" would have begun with Picard magically appearing aboard a shuttlecraft (that element stayed in the final version), watching the Enterprise be destroyed in the vortex before him just before Q appeared to reveal that he'd been behind this and other mysterious problems that had recently plagued the ship. Gene Roddenberry nixed this idea, and I believe he was right to have done so. It just makes no sense to me to air an episode with a nonsensical ending that the audience wouldn't even know was unresolved until a few weeks later.

That said, they didn't exactly rewrite this episode, and so what we're left with is scarcely better. Without the Q hook, all we were left with was just that nonsensical ending -- and the nonsensical story leading up to it. With Q pulling the strings, one can understand why this strange space phenomenon seems to exhibit primitive intelligence, and why it targets Picard specifically. But Maurice Hurley was insistent in interviews that Q's involvement would also explain the solution to the puzzle: that they had to turn the ship around and drive into the vortex to escape it. Of that, I remain skeptical.

I think Hurley was so focused on his Q tease (and the admittedly neat idea of a time jump of just a few hours rather than the sci-fi typical years or centuries) that he missed the truly compelling story opportunity here: Picard vs. Picard. The "future Picard" of this episode spends most of the episode comatose or incoherent. When he finally does start walking and talking in the final act, he doesn't actually seem anything like Captain Picard. He's driven to escape the ship, but doesn't really seem to know why. He somehow thinks he understands the motivations of the space vortex, but doesn't remember the effects his decisions had the first time he made them. He's a hollow reflection of an actual character. And it doesn't even make sense that he is; if traveling just six hours outside your normal time renders you an incoherent imbecile, why have we not seen even more deleterious effects in the far greater time jumps that Star Trek characters have made on numerous occasions before this?

The better story here, in my opinion, would have been to have the "future Picard" be as real as "present Picard." The captain is used to giving orders and having everyone else follow them. A second Picard would upset that norm. And if future Picard had been able to actually explain everything that went wrong, there could have been interesting dynamics in a debate between the two: "that can't be right" vs. "I'm telling you what I lived through!" (Instead, the only debate we get all episode is between Pulaski and Troi, when the former voices the empty threat that she may have to relieve Picard of duty.)

Despite all these deficiencies in the writing, however, there are also a few strong points. We get some nice details of Riker's past in a casual opening scene where he cooks for fellow crewmembers. The scene strongly implies the strained relationship with his father that we'd see firsthand in the very next episode. It also includes some great physical comedy from Michael Dorn as he bares his teeth menacingly at the food before wolfing it down and pronouncing it "delicious."

There are a few very clever lines of dialogue, particularly Picard's resolution not to "make the same mistake once." There are also continuity references to past Star Trek episodes, both Next Generation (mentions of Paul Manheim and of the Traveler) and classic (mentioning the high-warp slingshot effect used to achieve time travel in multiple episodes, and in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

Other observations:
  • Dennis McCarthy delivers another one of his rare musical scores that I actually like (and again, it hasn't been represented on a soundtrack album release, that I know of). Particularly effective are the slow and sinister undertones for the review of the future shuttle's "flight recorder," and a more urgent restatement of that same leitmotif during the final act.
  • The energy vortex looks fantastic in the Blu-ray remaster.
  • Pay close attention, and a moment at the end of the penultimate act will make you wonder exactly how turbolifts work. Picard gets into one to leave the bridge right before the commercial break, and Troi somehow follows just seconds later... but not in the same lift as Picard. Weirder still, the next act after the commercial break starts in Sickbay, with Troi already there as Captain Picard arrives!
  • The series has delivered many visual effects that still hold up 25 years later, but there's something a bit off about the splitscreen Picards in the finale here. Patrick Stewart is never quite looking in the right place to be facing "himself."
  • Does "present Picard" really have to kill "future Picard" with his phaser at the end of the episode? Sure, FP can't be allowed to leave the ship, but a stun would have seen to that. And we can't have two Picards at the end of the episode either -- but the doppelganger vanishes when the Enterprise escapes the vortex anyway. So as it stands, Picard basically commits murder for no reason. (Or is it suicide?)
  • Possibly stranger still is Pulaski's reaction to finding the dead Picard clone. She checks his vitals, wordlessly pronounces him dead, and then just turns and exits the shuttlebay, leaving O'Brien to... what? Dispose of the body himself? Summon the Enterprise coroner? (Does the ship have one?) Apparently, the instant you stop being Pulaski's patient, she wants nothing to do with you.
"Time Squared" isn't exactly a bad episode, but you can really sense that something's missing -- not just Maurice Hurley's intended explanation of it all, but the more promising story that could have been told with this clever setup. I give it a C+.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

You'd Have to Be an Idiot

I've enjoyed pretty much every Paul Rudd movie I've seen, or have at least found him funny in movies that were otherwise average. So I was curious to see one of his more recent efforts, Our Idiot Brother. The movie casts him, as the title promises, as a complete dolt whose social awkwardness causes strife for all around him.

The "our" of the title is a group of three sisters, played by Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, and Zooey Deschanel. So right off the bat, you can tell this film isn't hurting for skilled actors. Toss in a few supporting players including Rashida Jones and Adam Scott, and you have one of the better comedy casts assembled in 2011.

The problem is, the script simply doesn't offer anything to really showcase their talent. The 90 minutes seem to drag on for much longer than that as the same beat is played over and over again: the main character says the wrong thing, which winds up in him getting booted from one sister's house to the next. He leaves a trail of wrecked relationships in his wake. It's not that it's all too dramatic to laugh at. It isn't. It's just not all that funny.

The movie definitely comes off as one more fun for the cast to make than it is for us to watch. A series of outtakes that run over the end credits offer the best laughs in the film, aside from a couple of skillfully dry one-liners from Adam Scott. Otherwise, the repetition just wears thin. (Isn't it funny that his dog's name is "Willie Nelson?" No? Well, we'll keep repeating it until you laugh.)

The cast does their utmost, but the result is still just a grade D at best. Our Idiot Brother should definitely be skipped, no matter how big a fan you are of Paul Rudd, The New Girl, Parks and Recreation, or whatever past success featured any of these actors.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Barbaric Music

I've never seen the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian. Not all of it, anyway. It's of course been run on TV more times than I could count, and I've seen several scenes from it over the years, out of order and edited of violence to be made TV friendly. Some day, I'm sure I'll get around to actually watching the film.

But one thing that caught my attention in all those bits and pieces was the musical score by composer Basil Poledouris. Despite the fact that Poledouris never quite became a consistent A-list movie composer, aficionados of film music know him well -- and for his Conan score arguably most of all.

For years, the film's complete score was one of the handful of holy grails for film music fans. The first soundtrack album released contained only some of the movie's nearly 100 minutes of music. And subsequent attempts to release an expanded version didn't work out; the original recordings for the movie had been lost, and efforts to locate them had come up empty. Finally, eager to put out something, an orchestra was assembled to re-record the complete score, and a 2-CD set was released a few years back.

But then, last year, the soundtrack company Intrada made a breakthrough. They were able to locate the original master tapes -- not lost after all -- and undertook and effort to release the authoritative Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. Their 3-CD set at last presents the complete score (from the original tapes), a half-disc full of alternates and outtakes, and just for good measure, a reassemblage of the original soundtrack album (with its various truncated cues). This complete set was enough to finally push me to add the soundtrack to my collection.

The score for Conan the Barbarian is a bit dated, but to a large extent that's because a great deal of film music that followed took its inspiration from here. The music is bombastic in every way, just as sweeping and broad in its quieter moments as it is tribal and militaristic in its action sequences. There are also a good number of "source" cues in the score (music meant to seem as though coming from an on-camera source), and they feel like they set the tone not just for later movie music, but for every Renaissance festival that's been held in the last 30 years. Lilting flutes and whistles, simple tambourines and drums, and gentle string instruments both define and embrace cliché at the same time.

Of course, if pulse-pounding action music is your thing, the soundtrack has plenty of that too. The epic "Battle of the Mounds" sequence is a three-part music suite totaling more than 10 minutes. And that's just the climax of a score that include brutal pit fights, wicked cultist chants, and grandiose montages. There's even a bonus item on the set, the opening prologue score complete with the over-the-top narration used in the finished film.

I'm obviously not even a fan of the film, yet I have thoroughly enjoyed the score. If Conan the Barbarian is a cult classic for you, I can't imagine you'd want to skip out on this new album. I give it a B+.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Spark of Life

The idea of a fictional character coming to life is a tantalizing one. With some regularity, new stories are being written that explore the concept. The latest (that I'm aware of) is an indie movie called Ruby Sparks, starring real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

The film follows a young writer paralyzed by writer's block as he tries to craft a follow-up to his widely heralded first novel. His therapist encourages him to just write a page, even a bad one, and it leads him to write literally about the girl of his dreams, after waking one morning with the quirky memory of her still lingering. As he's pulled deeper into the emerging tale, she suddenly becomes real, living with him as his girlfriend, and ever-changing to match exactly the behavior he writes for her in his pages.

The script was written by Zoe Kazan herself, but while she is cast in the title role, the film is much more about the writer. The story doesn't delve too deeply into any one subject, but brushes up against all kinds of provocative notions. What is it like to achieve success too young? Does it matter that you have neither freedom nor self-control if you don't realize that you don't? Does every romantic relationship decay over time, even if started with literally the perfect partner?

But I think the movie is so fascinated with all of these possibilities (and more) that it fails to settle on any one thing and explore it satisfactorily. The movie sometimes wants to be an all-out comedy, and sometimes a probing drama, and it doesn't transition smoothly from one to the other. A climatic scene that depicts the writer abusing his controlling power is so jarring and unsettling that it actually put me off the movie a bit... while simultaneously making me think the whole thing could have been a much more powerful film had it struck such a tone more consistently.

But despite the shortcomings of the script, the movie drew an impressive cast. Paul Dano will be familiar to fans of "film festival"-type movies, having appeared in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, among others. His brother is played by Chris Messina, who has managed to avoid becoming a household name even as he's appeared it seemingly every film and television show made in 2012. Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and Elliott Gould all have small but strong secondary roles. Fans of Arrested Development will appreciate a brief appearance by Alia Shawkat. But it feels like all of them are doing heavy lifting on a script that maybe could have used another draft or two of polish.

I would give Ruby Sparks a C-. It's neither the best nor the worst of the "fictional character comes to life" stories you'll ever encounter.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Royale

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Royale" was a troubled one behind the scenes, and some of that turmoil can be seen in the finished product. Still, when I strapped myself in to watch it, I was dreading what I remembered to be one of the worst installments of the second season. I was surprised to find that, while it was certainly nothing one could call "good," it was nowhere near as bad as I'd recalled.

The Enterprise discovers debris from a 21st-century Earth space vessel in orbit around an utterly inhospitable planet, and further investigation soon reveals a small bubble of breathable air on the otherwise lifeless surface. An Away Team beams down to find a strange revolving door alone in a black void, and steps through it to enter a recreation of a Las Vegas casino. In time, the Team learns that centuries ago, the last survivor of a doomed Earth space voyage was brought here by unknown aliens. Remorseful at their role in crippling the astronaut's ship, the aliens created a false Earth-like environment in which the survivor could comfortably live out his remaining days. But their only blueprint for Earth was a poorly written pulp novel, Hotel Royale, whose plot is now being repeated eternally in this simulacrum. The Away Team must now find an escape from the "hotel," as the revolving door that brought them in works in only one direction.

This episode was originally conceived by writer Tracy Tormé, who penned the fan favorite "The Big Goodbye," and created the memorable and enduring character of Lwaxana Troi in the otherwise uneven "Haven." He envisioned "The Royale" as a highly surrealistic episode with nods to the original Star Trek series pilot, "The Cage." His tortured astronaut lived on after death inside the simulation, eternally sustained by the aliens' design. The resolution involved a killed Away Team member -- herself now permanently unable to leave -- remaining behind to keep him company for eternity.

Head writer Maurice Hurley hated the script, calling it too surreal, and too similar to the original series episode "A Piece of the Action" in its trapping of gangsters and a world being based on a book. Hurley rushed through his own rewrite just days before shooting was to begin, and Tormé found the result so offensive that he took his name off the episode, opting for a pseudonym. Tormé stepped back from day-to-day involvement with the series in protest, and when his next script was also compromised, he left Star Trek altogether. (But we'll get to that later in the season.)

Budget considerations hurt the episode as well. The money didn't exist to create a casino with any kind of credibility; gaming tables were crammed in right next to the front desk and the elevators, and the same handful of extras walk by over and over again trying to create the illusion of a larger crowd. The script seems to treat the setting as the classic Vegas of the 1950s or earlier, but a true period setting was beyond the episode's budget. As a result, all the set decoration, plus all the costuming and hair styling, are clearly of the 1980s. Plus, of course, there was the revolving door in the black void; what set could be cheaper than no set at all?

But despite all the flaws, there is some element of fun that powers through at times in the finished product. Ron Jones delivers a fantastic score, making up in music for the shortcomings in the visuals. In addition to more conventional music to build the tension (Jones' "conventional" being quite effective), he also includes several over-the-top, jazzy pieces with wailing horns to personify the Vegas setting.

The actors, for their part, seem to be having the time of their lives. Jonathan Frakes' ear-to-ear grin throughout the climax is infectious. The comic beats played between him, Michael Dorn, and Brent Spiner are spot-on. And while Brent Spiner seems almost to break character during Data's epic craps run, it's great fun to watch. Even the guest stars (including Sam Anderson, who later played Bernard on Lost) seem to enjoy themselves, squeezing all the sour juice from the cliché dialogue.

Still, the episode drags in places, and at times it feels like the intentionally bad elements of the novel spill over into the rest of the episode. There are painfully long scenes of technobabble as the ship tries to break through communications interference early on, and dull sequences where more focus is given to the plot of "Hotel Royale" than the plight of our characters.

Other observations:
  • A bookend subplot of this episode has Picard pondering the puzzle of "Fermat's Last Theorem," a real world mathematical mystery that, in the captain's words, "may never be solved." But just a few years after this episode aired, a proof was discovered by mathematician Andrew Wiles. From the little I've read, the solution required advanced calculations that were unknown in Fermat's time, and so many contend that it could not possibly be the "remarkable proof" Fermat alluded to in his notes. Thus, a continuity freak working on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine found a hook to write an explanation for all this -- by mentioning that Tobin Dax (past host of Jadzia) had worked on a proof (not the proof) to the theorem, even comparing it Wiles' by name.
  • Speaking of details proven wrong with the passage of time, the space vessel Charybdis is said in this episode to be launched in 2037 as the third manned attempt to leave the confines of the solar system. The way manned space flight has slowed since 1989, I'd set the odds against that. But with the recent possibility of Puerto Rico switching statuses to become a U.S. state, we might be on our way to the 52-star flag this episode posits. Actually, with all the budget cutbacks NASA has suffered in the past decade, I'd say that organization's continued existence 24 years from now might be the least likely of all "future history" tidbits in this episode.
  • Data displays an intermittent understanding of blackjack in this episode. In his first session, he incorrectly states the objective of the game as being "to reach 21" (rather than "to beat the dealer's hand without going over 21"). But in a second session, he offers more correct advice on blackjack strategy to one of the novel's characters.
In the end, it seems the frustration Tracy Tormé felt over this episode really had more to do with his compromised original vision rather than the quality of the finished product. I wouldn't call "The Royale" substantially worse than "Haven," an episode he did keep his name on. In fact, I'd actually say it's a touch better. In any case, they get the same mark: a C-.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Girls (and Boys) on Film

This week's new Glee was a reversal. Typically, when they have a "mixed bag" episode, the song performances are fairly entertaining while the plot and characterization suffers. This time, I felt that the story developments worked better than the songs, which were mostly lacking.

The problem for me musically was the premise of performing songs from movies. Too often, Glee was trying to trade on moments and performances that were much stronger in the original movies they were aping. Numbers like "Shout" and "Footloose" had partly original staging, at least... but recreating the iconic scene of Say Anything with Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" fell well short of the original. The Fred Astaire dance number from Royal Wedding (however skillfully performed in one take by Matthew Morrison and Jayma Mays) was clearly limited by the television budget. The pottery scene from Ghost has been ruined for me forever by the hilarious parody in one of the Naked Gun sequels. And as for Moulin Rouge? (Which they went to not once, but twice!) It's one of my very favorite movies; no recreation of it was going to pass muster for me.

Alright, so the "Danger Zone / Old Time Rock and Roll" mash-up was fairly clever in both concept and presentation. But why say the episode is going to feature mash-ups when that was the only one? ("Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" doesn't count. They threw in only a few seconds of Madonna, and the entire performance was exactly as performed in Moulin Rouge, right down to the shouting of character names from that movie. Huh?)

But there were some interesting plot developments. Finn spurring Schu to pursue his runaway bride out of a secret sense of guilt (which he finally confessed in the end) was a nice thread. Santana's sleuthing certainty that Brody is a drug dealer is an interesting wrinkle, even if it seems like that should have been set up a bit more than one episode in advance. Even better was seeing Santana's prickly exterior immediately melt away the instant she realized how much that Rachel truly needed her friendship.

The episode was fun to a point, but dwelled within the shadow of most of the movies it name-checked along the way. I give it a B-.