Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TNG Flashback: Shades of Gray

Readers, we have come to the end of season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ignominious end. The notoriously bad "Shades of Gray."

While exploring an alien planet, Commander Riker is stung by a predatory plant that invades his body like a virus. Numbness soon turns to paralysis and then unconsciousness as the virus pushes into his brain. To sustain his life, Dr. Pulaski hooks Riker's brain up to a stimulator, which triggers a flood of memories from his subconscious. With the help of Counselor Troi, Pulaski tries to isolate the types of emotionally charged memories that will combat the virus and save Riker's life.

You won't find anyone who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation willing to defend this episode. But it was doomed to failure before it ever went before the cameras. With the production having exhausted the operating budget for the year, Paramount demanded an episode that could somehow be shot in just three working days, rather than the usual seven or eight. It was to take place on as few sets as possible; there are in fact only three locations in the episode: the planet, the transporter room, and sickbay. (There aren't even any scenes on the bridge.) This episode is a "clip show," a minimalist plot padded out with footage from earlier episodes of the show.

The concept itself, that we're seeing Riker's memories as a result of his neural stimulation, doesn't even really work if you give it half a second's thought. Without the real world financial restrictions, it makes absolutely no sense that the only memories he seems to have are of the last two years. And it also doesn't work that many of his "memories" include cutaways from his point-of-view, to things he wasn't even present to experience. But this was the reality, a consequence that episode director Rob Bowman said was the tradeoff for all the money they spent on "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Q Who."

Utterly demolishing any chance to salvage something good from these impossible restrictions, the job of writing the script fell to Maurice Hurley. He had already announced his intention to leave the show when he took the assignment. He has acknowledged in subsequent interviews that he "was on the way out the door," and was phoning it in. And it totally shows in the finished product.

We don't even see the onset of jeopardy here; when the episode begins, Riker has already been attacked. The dialogue is stupid and melodramatic throughout, trying to sell us on the sense of danger that isn't at all palpable; though Riker has escaped many worse situations than this before, he (and everyone else) is talking from the gallows here, certain he's going to die. And that's all before the clips even start!

Once they do, things gets exponentially worse. Setting the tone for what you're in for, the very first clip shown is from "The Last Outpost," an episode reviled even by the writers at that time, so much so that they basically pulled the plug on the entire concept of the Ferengi. To lean on that episode here shows just how little care went into this episode. Not that the writers had a lot of great material to choose from. The "erotic memory" montage shows us that, for whatever reason, the episodes in which Riker gets a love interest are usually among the worst of the series to this point. The "action" montage shows us the fist fight from "Conspiracy" with the painfully obvious stunt doubles. In fact, they seem so hard up for visually striking moments that they resort to splicing in a second or two of the Genesis Project demonstration film from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan! And as if deliberately trying to make it all just that much more cheesy, the editors use a cheap "iris in / iris out" effect to get in and out of the clips.

Working on a tight schedule, and with a bad script, it's no surprise that the acting in this episode is pretty terrible. There's a nice moment near the beginning, where O'Brien messes with Pulaski before beaming her down to the planet. There's also a nice moment in the finale scene, in which Riker playfully teases everyone about the possibility of memory loss because of his ordeal. But in between those two moments is a lot of woodenly spouted technobabble delivered by Diana Muldaur as Pulaski, and an over-the-top performance from Marina Sirtis as Troi, who hasn't been uncontrolled and amateurish like this since "Encounter at Farpoint." Watching the episode, you get the impression that there wasn't even time for second takes; in the moment Riker's vital signs are restored, for example, you can see Jonathan Frakes open his eyes on the table for a moment, before the camera pans away and back again to reveal them closed once more.

Other observations:
  • Why would you send the ship's chief engineer to survey a planet with no technology?
  • Despite the limited budget, the planet set is actually not that bad. It even has a knee deep stream of flowing water.
  • This is the final appearance of Diana Muldaur as Katherine Pulaski. As much as I disliked the character, I really would have wished her a better sendoff than this. But then, it felt like she was on borrowed time for her whole season anyway. Though Diana Muldaur has said that she took a "Special Appearance by" credit every week out of deference to the cast who'd been with the series from the beginning, the fact that she wasn't even a part of the main titles made it feel to me like everyone knew all along she wasn't there to stay.
  • This was also very nearly the swan song for director Rob Bowman. After directing a large number of episodes in the first two seasons (a few bad, but most quite good), he also left the show after this. That would have been it, except that he came back one time at Rick Berman's request to helm the technically challenging fourth season episode "Brothers." (Which we'll get to in time, I suppose.)
  • A strong visual indicator of how much things have changed on the series comes in the clip where Riker meets Data in "Encounter at Farpoint." The makeup for Data has evolved significantly over two seasons; early Data has much more red lips, and a strange redness around the eyes.
  • The one person involved with this episode who seems to give it a full force effort is composer Ron Jones. His music does convey the slow, creeping dread the story seems to want as Riker's condition worsens. Jones also has the interesting challenge of trying to unify a hodgepodge of clips from over a dozen episodes under one set of musical themes. In the process of that, he not only scores scenes that were done by another composer the first time around (Dennis McCarthy), he re-scores scenes he wrote himself originally, with different music.
Conceived in desperation and executed with half-heartedness at best, "Shades of Gray" is the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At least, there hasn't been worse in the first two seasons, and I certainly don't remember any worse to follow. And as the low point, of course it gets an F.

What of season two as a whole? The series was definitely maturing, that can be said. Seven episodes (essentially 1/3 of the season) rated B+ or better in my book. The season also featured the first grade A and A- episodes of the series. Still, there were kinks to work out. Another seven episodes (again, essentially 1/3 of the season) rated some form of D or worse... and there were two F grade episodes to season one's single catastrophe. In short, while there was room for things to get better still (and they would), Star Trek: The Next Generation was improving.

My top five episodes of the season: "The Measure of a Man," "Q Who," "Peak Performance, "Contagion," and "Elementary, Dear Data."

Monday, April 29, 2013

Kissed by Fire

Last night brought another entertaining episode from the always-reliable Game of Thrones, but for the first time this season, it actually wasn't the material added from the books that most captured my attention. The material from the book, skillfully adapted by the series' writers, served up plenty of great moments.

Arya's scenes were among the strongest this week, and young Maisie Williams really carried the moments well. The rage with which she threw herself at The Hound after he won the combat was truly visceral. And her last scene was also very telling, in which she ruefully wished for her father to be brought back to life. You realize just how many wondrous things Arya has seen now that the sight of a man coming back from the dead doesn't really shock her; she instead thinks of how she could use such power.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was exceptional in the scene where Jaime explained to Brienne his dilemma in killing the mad king Aerys. It's a really pivotal moment in the book, and is as much a part of coming to understand Jaime and being sympathetic toward him as the loss of his hand. If anything, this scene played on the show even more powerfully than the loss of the hand.

The strange relationship between young Shireen and Davos was an interesting one. Davos is another character I didn't find especially compelling in the books, but the burned Shireen was very well introduced, and that strong introduction made me invest more in her quest to teach Davos to read. (Also, the sequence was preceded by a gruesome little detail we didn't see in the book: Queen Selyse's creepy gallery of stillborn boys.

And the final scene was wonderful, in which you get to see Cersei in a nutshell: she can dish it out, but she can't take it. She's all smiles, playing with Tyrion like she's a cat with a mouse, when Tywin is informing him that he must marry Sansa Stark. But she is utterly deflated when she's told that she too must be married, and to Ser Loras. One of the thrills of the books is watching Cersei take the punches (some on behalf of other unlikeable people in her family), and Lena Headey makes those moments everything they need to be.

Another wonderful episode.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Back from Oblivion

This weekend, I went to see the new sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise, Oblivion. The first of this summer's "Earth is no longer civilized" films, it's the story of a drone repair technician who encounters rebel forces in the field and begins to suspect that all in the world is not as he's been told.

The film looks and sounds amazing. An incredible amount of design work went into creating the visuals of Oblivion, from the landscape to the technology to the costumes and everything in between. It's a gorgeous feast for the eyes. At the same time, it's a marvelous treat for the ears. The sound effects are powerful and run all across the spectrum, and the musical score by French electronic band M83 really commands attention. (It's a soundtrack I suspect I'll be picking up, in fact.)

But when it comes to story and character, the film comes up far short of its promise. Oblivion plays like a pastiche of a dozen different sci-fi films. There's a dash of alien invasion, a pinch of dysopian monotony, a thread of erased memory, themes of technology vs. the primitive, and a few other genre tropes that would be spoiling plot points to mention. As a result, even though the film looks and sounds great, it's exactly the opposite of "nothing you've ever seen before."

Whether you'll want to see the movie at all should hinge on whether you like Tom Cruise. He's at his Cruise-iest here, all winning smiles, rebellion, and quips... not playing a character, just playing himself. And with very few other characters in the film, it's hard to look to anyone else for variety. Morgan Freeman isn't in nearly as much of the movie as trailers and commercials might lead you to believe; his 15 minutes or so of screen time feel like an extended cameo. Melissa Leo plays a mission control contact for our heroes, but the script calls on her to be a bit shady, and so that's the only texture you get from her.

There are a pair of actresses I've seen little of before, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough, but their characters are rather one dimensional. Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also appears, but also as a stereotype. There's simply nothing here for any of the performers to really dig into.

So I'm torn about whether and how to recommend the film. I'd give it a grade C, which would normally mean "wait for video, if you see it at all." But since the visuals and sounds are the reason to see the film, you could certainly argue that if you bother seeing it at all, you should do so while it's still in theaters. So do with that what you will. Just don't expect much substance behind the style.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lights Out

This week's Glee was a largely dull affair, marked by the writers' tendency to get bored with their own ongoing storylines. Yes, we did check in on Ryder's catfishing plot, and Sue's post-school career... but both of those elements received fairly short shrift.

Instead, a brand new Ryder subplot was the focus of the school scenes, as he confessed a past molestation experience. In other words, put a pin in everything else, because Ryan Murphy wants to do a child molestation PSA this week. Blake Jenner sold it fairly well with his acting, as did Becca Tobin in her performance as Kitty... but the whole thing felt like it only looked skin deep in a subject matter that, if examined at all, deserved something much more profound.

The Sue subplot seemed worthy of a deeper look too. We got a hint of the real feelings she had behind the mask, but we are talking about a powerfully driven career woman forced to suddenly reinvent her life. Even for a caricature like Sue often is, that could be potent stuff. Instead, since they probably have to get her back to work by the end of the season (and since there are only two episodes left this season after this), things are on a rushed timetable.

Sadly, the thing the episode spent the most time on was by far the least deserving. The dreary ballet storyline culminated in an uncut, five-minute-plus performance of "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line. The scene was one of the most drawn-out, boring things Glee has presented all season. A dull waste of precious screen time. At least the vocal performances were decent.

The same could not be said of most of the other numbers in the episode. The Stomp-esque take on Queen's "We Will Rock You" was quite bad for a New Directions ensemble number, and the arrangement of Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time" was lacking too (the a cappella numbers should be left to the Warblers, I guess). The one number I truly enjoyed this week was "Little Girls," though I think that had more to do with how rare it is we get to see Jane Lynch sing on the show than anything else. And even then, the whole thing felt like an inside joke, acknowledging that Lynch will be playing in the musical Annie on Broadway this summer.

A truly weak effort for the show, coming in the middle of a run of weak efforts. I give it a D+. It was just announced last week that Glee has been renewed for two more seasons, but I'm certainly ready for this season to end. I think Glee and I could use a break.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reliving the Best

If you've been following my TNG Flashback reviews, you know that I've nearly reached the end of the second season. The timing was intentional, as the third season is being released on Blu-ray next week. This also means that this week was the traditional one-night-only movie theater screening of two episodes. Last night, The Best of Both Worlds -- the classic third/fourth season cliffhanger -- was presented, edited together without interruption.

Of course, this cliffhanger was a high point for the series, and many would argue even for television at the time as a whole. Season ending cliffhangers were not especially common at the time, and it's likely that the success Star Trek: The Next Generation had here marked the beginning of the new wave of cliffhangers that are practically a given on one hour dramas (especially science fiction shows) today. I will get to actual reviews of the episodes themselves in time as I work my way through flashback reviews in the original air order of the episodes. For now, I just want to focus on the actual experience of watching the episodes.

Going to the theater for The Best of Both Worlds was definitely fun. The place was certainly more full than it was for the first- and second-season episode screenings of months past, and the audience was more lively. Still, it would have been impossible to top the circumstances under which I originally saw both of these episodes back in 1990.

Part 1 ran in June. I watched it at a friend's house, she and I in a small den, curled up on the couch and glued to the TV. Neither of us realized that her parents were out in the family room, around the corner, also watching the exact same thing. At least, we didn't realize they were watching it until the words "To Be Continued..." appeared on the screen, when my friend's mother let out an anguished wail at the realization that we'd all be waiting three months to see what happened next. It was kind of like Darth Vader's "NOOOOOOOO!" at the end of Revenge of the Sith, had that moment actually been cool and powerful rather than stupid and laughable.

That was a memorable moment, but nothing compared to what Part 2 would be. That episode aired in September, and coincided with the fall Star Trek convention in Denver. This wound up be the first Star Trek convention I ever attended. I had so much fun that I kept going to all of them, spring and fall, for nearly 10 years until I took the job at Decipher that moved me away from Colorado for a time.

I went to so many of these conventions, seeing so many guests and having so many great experiences, it's hard to remember what happened when. I couldn't tell you today who the guest actors at that first StarCon in 1990 were. But what I do still remember to this day was Saturday night at 5:00 pm, when the main event room hosted "The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I and II," back-to-back on the big screen. Being a syndicated series, new episodes were downloaded on a satellite feed to local stations a week in advance, and some intrepid StarCon employee had a dish to intercept that feed and record the episode. So, simultaneously with the 6:00 PM Saturday airing of the season premiere on local TV, all the attendees of StarCon crammed into the main event room to watch the commercial-free version prepped from the earlier feed.

So my first "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" experience was even bigger than last night's movie theater screening. I watched it in a large hotel ballroom stuffed to standing room only, with thousands of energetic Star Trek fans. We cheered, applauded, groaned, and laughed along with every great moment. And while I think it was obvious even then that Part II didn't quite live up to the amazing set-up of Part I, it was still a hell of a lot of fun. It's 23 years later (yikes!), but I easily tapped into that wonderful memory last night when I saw it on the big screen.

My final season 2 flashback review will be coming soon, and then, just as soon as I pick up my copy of the season 3 Blu-rays releasing next week, I'll be forging ahead into the season where Star Trek: The Next Generation got truly and consistently good.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Casino Night

Once again, the so-called "Alea medium-box" series has quietly expanded by two games while I wasn't paying attention. So once again, it was time to expand my game collection. I picked up the two games I didn't yet have, #8 and #9, and have been looking for chances to try them out.

#8, Las Vegas, turned out to be quite easy to try out, because it sets a new bar in the series for "easy to explain, fast to play." Where previous games in the series have featured multi-page, stapled booklets explaining the rules, the rules sheet of Las Vegas is a single 4 page sheet, printed on both sides and folded in half. For a German game, that's unthinkably simple.

As you might expect, the game is hardly a revelation of depth. But it's still rather fun. The center of the play space contains six numbered casinos. Each is loaded with money cards from a shuffled deck of different values; some spaces will have only one card, while others may have two or three. Each player receives eight dice, and on his turn rolls all of them. He must then select one number rolled, and place all dice of that value onto the corresponding casino. This continues around the circle over multiple rolls until all players have placed their dice.

At the end of this round of play, money is awarded by the casinos. The player with the most dice in a casino gets the highest valued single money card; the second most dice gets the second best card (if there is one); and so on. But there is a catch. Any player who has the exact same number of dice in one casino as another player doesn't get anything at all, no matter how many dice they have. Instead, all "tied dice" are removed, which can cause another player to become highest ranked at that casino. After four full rounds of this play, the player with the most money wins.

The strategy isn't deep, but there are some choices to make throughout the game. Should you play many dice with authority to lock up a casino, or try to hold lots of your dice to roll at the end of a round after everyone else has gone out? Should you commit fully to a casino with only one card to award, or try to have a presence in multiple casinos even if you can't win any of them -- shooting for second place or hoping that the leaders tie? Admittedly, there is some randomness here that can easily thwart your strategy, but things don't feel totally at the mercy of the dice either.

The bottom line is, the game is fairly fun, and certainly fun enough to sustain the 20 or 30 minutes it takes to play. It seems like the perfect game to either start off a game night (before all the guests have arrived), or to end a game night (when people are too tired for a demanding game). I'd give Las Vegas a solid B.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

TNG Flashback: Peak Performance

The next-to-last episode of a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is typically a low-key affair, in which the limited budget is being saved for a blowout season finale. But season 2 predated any season-ending cliffhangers, and perhaps because of this, the penultimate episode struck an uncharacteristically bold tone.

The Enterprise is assigned to take part in a battle simulation to hone their ingenuity, overseen by an alien master strategist named Sirna Kolrami. Riker leads a crew aboard the aging U.S.S. Hathaway, deliberately outmatched by the Enterprise to see what tricks he can pluck from his hat. But a Ferengi ship attacks in the middle of the scenario, and suddenly the Enterprise crew must come up with tricks of their own to save the people aboard the defenseless Hathaway.

This episode leads with the promise of starships battling, a rarity on The Next Generation, given the expense involved in the photography of the models. It largely delivers on that promise, too; though it's hardly an epic battle, there are enough fun and well-realized moments in it to make it a treat.

But what really makes the episode good are the outstanding character moments throughout. It's a great episode for Commander Riker (and Jonathan Frakes). From his bold declaration that "when I agree to do something, I do it" (already proven in "The Measure of a Man"), to his well-played manipulation to get Worf to join his team, to the zest with which he takes command, Riker is simply fun to watch in this episode.

And as much swagger as Riker displays, Picard displays authority in equal measure. Picard has a great scene in which he takes Kolrami to task for his prejudice against Riker, putting the visitor in his place and challenging false assumptions all while barely raising his voice. Just a few scenes later, he's giving an inspiring pep talk to Data, and is firm without being too stern. Patrick Stewart has a perfect command of projecting... well... command.

Most of the great character moments in the episode come from an interesting subplot. Kolrami is a master of a fictitious game known as strategema. (Side note: it seems a lot like some kind of Real Time Strategy game, I believe several years before any actual such game existed.) Riker has another good scene when he challenges Kolrami to a match he can't possibly win, just for the privilege of playing a grand master. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

In a true display of "look who's talking," Doctor Pulaski becomes deeply invested in seeing the smug Kolrami taken down a peg. She volunteers Data to play against him (without asking Data first), only to be shocked when the android actually loses the game. Data subsequently withdraws himself from bridge duty, concluding he could have lost only due to some malfunction that must be diagnosed. Pulaski accuses him of sulking, which seems wildly off target for her character, since she's spent an entire season dogging Data for not having any emotions.

But while the situation leads to questionable material for Pulaski, it leads to some wonderful moments for Data and Troi. As Data is really the last person who should be in need of a counselor, he and Troi rarely have scenes together. Her attempt to counsel him here is a strong scene for both of them, as is a subsequent scene in which the two dissect Riker's possible battle strategies.

The good character moments extend even to the guest stars. Ubiquitous character actor Roy Brocksmith (who you might know from the original Total Recall) plays Kolrami with quirky flair. Armin Shimerman returns to play Bractor, his second Ferengi. And while his character here doesn't really pop, you may also recognize Glenn Morshower as a security officer; he'd play a more substantial "security" character, Agent Aaron Pierce, on 24.

What doesn't quite work here is the actual conclusion of the episode. The Enterprise pretends to destroy the Hathaway to deter the Ferengi, who are then chased off by an illusionary Federation starship conjured up by Lieutenant Worf. He did the same trick to the Enterprise during the battle simulation... because he knew the computer access codes to hack in and manipulate the ship's sensors. How he pulled off this same trick on the Ferengi without security access to their systems is both unexplained and unexplainable. In any event, if the Enterprise was capable of firing photon torpedoes, why not do so at the Ferengi ship rather than in an elaborate ruse?

Other observations:
  • There are some nice nods to continuity in this episode. Picard agrees to the battle simulation in response to the threat posed by the recently encountered Borg. Also, when Riker gives a shipwide address aboard the Hathaway, the "bosun's whistle" sound that plays is taken from the original Star Trek series.
  • Worf is shown building a model ship in this episode. It's a wonderfully ironic hobby to give him, something that requires tremendous patience. The episode humorously displays that he doesn't have the patience required.
  • The Ferengi appear for the first time since season 1, when the writers decided they were an utter failure and completely unconvincing as a threat. They're actually well used here, getting the drop on the Enterprise for reasons that make sense. Actually, this makes two good appearances for the Ferengi (following "The Battle"), which makes me think that the dreadful "The Last Outpost" just gave them a bum rep.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy has some strong moments near the end of the episode, writing fun battle music for the simulation between the Hathaway and the Enterprise, and a short but compelling bit for Data's strategema rematch against Kolrami.
  • Wesley usually walks the straight and narrow, but is surprisingly devious in this episode. He cheats the rules of the simulation, lies straight to Riker's face about his intentions to do so, and then disingenuously defends his actions after the fact. It's a good thing Riker is impressed by the deception, because Wesley could just have easily been reprimanded for this behavior.
"Peak Performance" is a fun little romp that gets a B+ in my book. It's a surprise gem of the second season.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And Now His Watch Has Ended

I was 24 hours late to the Game of Thrones party this week, and it seems that the one time I missed the episode on the night it aired, everybody wanted to talk about it. Apparently, people really dig dragons. That really shouldn't catch me by surprise. But while most viewers seemed excited by the Daenerys scenes that concluded the episode, I once again was enthralled with the new material added that did not appear in the book.

Lady Olenna continues to be a wonderful character on the show, getting one marvelous line after another. Her conversation with Lord Varys was a wildly entertaining game of brinksmanship. In a world where people who speak their minds are often much worse off for it, these two have managed to thrive in spite of their acid tongues. Varys told Tyrion what he thinks the secret is: patience. (In another great scene.)

Just as wonderful was the conversation between Tywin and Cersei. Tywin has a slightly different kind of acid tongue; he's civil enough not to insult someone... until they prod him to say what he really thinks. At that point, he will let you have it with every weapon in his arsenal. Of course, as harsh as he was being to his daughter, he was right on the mark: her flaw is that she thinks she's far more clever than she is... though she wasn't wrong about the craftiness of the Tyrells. (Yet another great scene showed us Margaery's continued manipulation of Joffrey.)

But yes, that dragon scene with Daenerys. I have to talk about that, don't I? I must confess that, reading the books, Dany was never a favorite of mine. For whatever reason, her story never clicked for me in the way that so many of those featuring the other characters did. And, perhaps unfairly, this particular development is now colored for me by what followed.

I'll keep it vague for those who haven't read the books, but if you want to be 100% spoiler free, you may want to skip this paragraph. I really do think this moment where Dany double-crossed the slavers was the reason why, more than a decade after A Storm of Swords was published, we're only two books further in the series and without sign of when the final two books will ever arrive. During the many years George R.R. Martin worked on A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, he seemed to spend more time complaining on his blog about how hard it is to write than actually trying to write. And more than anything else, he complained about what a difficult time he was having with the Daenerys chapters of his story. I hate to say it, but what we saw this week on the show was the high point of her story, period. And it came too early to sync up with events in the rest of Westeros. Suddenly, Martin had to tread water with Dany and stall her while the other characters caught up to her in plot development. So as great a moment as it was, I can't help but feel like it's ultimately responsible for the delays in books and why the next two books couldn't be as good as book three.

That said, there are plenty more great developments to come this season, and I'm looking forward to them!

Monday, April 22, 2013

How To Guide

Ordinarily, you'd find something about the most recent Game of Thrones episode here. But I didn't get to watch it yet, because last night I went to go see a concert. How to Destroy Angels is a group built on parts of Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor pulled in his longtime collaborators Atticus Ross (with whom he won an Oscar for scoring The Social Network) and art director/musician Rob Sheridan. And then, to change things up, lead vocal duties went to Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig.

The female vocalist makes a difference in the sound to begin with, but further differentiating this band from the classic Nine Inch Nails sound is the place Reznor and Ross now find themselves in musically. The more atmospheric sensibility they employ in their film scores has been brought to this band, leading to a debut album ("Welcome oblivion") that is almost sedate for long stretches. It's still interesting to listen to, but also serves well as background music for things.

To bring the necessary concert punch to this, the band put on a hell of a light show. I'm hard-pressed to describe what just what the concert looked like, but it featured a number of... well, semi-transparent, lenticular curtains. They could be deployed in various configurations, including (the most commonly used one) a complete wall between the band and the audience. This allowed a wide array of lighting effects to be projected in a way that appeared to put the band inside the light show. It was pretty cool to look at (except on a handful of occasions in the show when blinding lights were aimed directly at the audience, making it literally impossible to see).

Honestly, it wasn't one of my favorite concerts. The music is generated mostly by electronics, and so the band itself was almost entirely static without the lights playing around them. Still, it was hardly boring either, a real technical achievement. You certainly got something out of seeing it that you wouldn't get listening to the album.

Even if I'd absolutely loved the show, however, it would be hard for me to then say, "go out and see the band when they come to your town," because they probably won't be. How to Destroy Angels is on tour for a mere three weeks, hitting only about a dozen cities, before packing it in again. From its inception three years ago (and release of a pair of EPs), this band seems to be more of a hobby to its members than a full-on effort, and their abbreviated tour reflects that.

Still, if you like the sound of the soundtracks for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or the Nine Inch Nails album Ghosts, you would probably enjoy this new album. That much, I can point you to.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Emissary

Some of my favorite Star Trek episodes are the ones where the "problem of the week" either grows organically from the main characters themselves, or when it takes a back seat to a more character-driven story. "The Emissary" is a very fine example of the latter kind of story, even though Worf isn't necessarily one of my favorite characters on The Next Generation.

The Enterprise is diverted mysteriously to deep space to bring aboard a small probe; riding inside is Klingon diplomat K'Ehleyr, with an urgent mission for the crew. A Klingon ship whose crew has been in hibernation for several decades is nearing several defenseless Federation outposts. Its recently-awakened crew thinks that war between the Klingons and the Federation is still on, and the Enterprise must find a way to convince them not to attack. But the real war is between K'Ehleyr and Worf; the two have a fiery romantic history that's rekindled with her arrival on the ship.

This episode hinges on a compelling guest star, and the character of K'Ehleyr, as played by Suzie Plakson, truly is. She's an excellent merger of good writing and good acting. She's not at all what you would think of as a stereotypical Klingon, but her fiery and strong personality is completely consistent with the race, and great fun to watch. (The costume department has some fun with her too. She has several outfits that seem wildly inspired by 80s fashion, though they do manage to not look overly dated today. Barely.)

Of course, I'm not a fan when an episode is all about the guest star. Fortunately, that's not the case here. This episode is all about Worf. And interestingly, though he's an orphan looking in from the outside on Klingon culture, he's a strict traditionalist. He doesn't want to have anything to do with K'Ehleyr when she first arrives on the ship, but once they give in to a moment of passion, he changes direction on the spot and wants to marry her. (It's also interesting to see a woman happy with a one night stand, and the man demanding to know if "last night meant nothing.")

K'Ehleyr even manages to cause a few ripples in the pond for characters other than Worf. She has a couple of nice scenes with Counselor Troi, in which the two discuss what it's like to have parents of two different races. She even ropes Data into the drama just a little bit, in the scene where Worf uses him as an "android chaperone"; K'Ehleyr asks Data whether he finds human or Klingon culture more peculiar, and gets a fun reply.

The directing of the episode, by Trek veteran Cliff Bole, is fairly strong here. He uses some incredibly tight close-ups on several dramatic scenes. (A big tip of the hat goes to Michael Westmore and the makeup department, as the makeup on Worf and K'Ehleyr completely holds up even that close, even in HD.) Cliff Bole is also said to be the one who came up with the notion that Klingon foreplay involves the man crushing the woman's fingernails into her own palm until they draw blood -- a very nice touch.

Poker returns to the show in the teaser, for the first time since it was introduced in "The Measure of a Man." This time, the connection is a bit more tenuous to the main plot. Essentially, the scene is there to show Worf as completely unflappable, to play up how thoroughly he'll be flapped when K'Ehleyr arrives. It is fun... but I cringe at how badly the game of poker is depicted. It's not that Star Trek is any worse in this regard than most television and movies, but all the pot splashing and string raising drives me nuts. Then there's Data, who offers Geordi a cut, then subsequently cuts the deck himself anyway. (Brent Spiner does a very impressive one-handed cut, though.)

Composer Ron Jones delivers one of his best scores for the series in this episode. He makes very clever use of synthesizers, working with the fact that 80s synthesizers don't quite sound like real instruments. He writes suspense music for the recovery of K'Ehleyr's probe, and an angry anthem for the character herself. He has pounding action music for Worf's calisthenics program, and sweeping romantic music (with Klingon influences) for the encounter afterward. Suspense is back on again in the hunt for the Klingon ship, and another bittersweet melody covers the goodbye between K'Ehleyr and Worf. It's a full musical meal.

Other observations:
  • The idea of sending K'Ehleyr to the Enterprise via probe is a very cool one. The thought of riding for hours in a coffin makes me queasy.
  • There's a great visual gag of Worf cutting a holographic opponent in half with his weapon. The enemy dissolves before you see anything that wouldn't be allowed on TV in 1989.
  • There are two minor guest characters in the episode whose faces you might recognize. Replacing Wesley Crusher at the helm is a character played by Anne Elizabeth Ramsey, who played Helen Hunt's sister on Mad About You. And near the end of the episode, the security station is manned by Deidrich Bader, of Napoleon Dynamite, Office Space, and many projects with Drew Carey.
  • Earlier, I mentioned the well-conceived detail of bloodletting as a prelude to Klingon sex. The blood here looks just like human blood, a fact that would later be contradicted in the movie Star Trek VI. There, the elaborate zero-gravity assassination sequence was animated with goofy looking purple blood specifically so that the violence wouldn't garner an R rating for the film. (Though I suppose you could retcon all this by noting that K'Ehleyr, who is half human, might have "human colored" blood.)
  • This is one of the few episodes where the last image isn't a space shot of the Enterprise flying away to its next adventure. Instead, it finishes with a close-up on Worf, an appropriate conclusion for an episode that had such an impact on him.
Not only was this a solid episode, but it was followed up on in season four with an exciting sequel. But we'll get there in time. For the moment, "The Emissary" gets a B+.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Session Review

Lauded last year for many of its performances, while not in the running for Best Picture, was a movie called The Sessions. It's the based-of-a-true-story of a paralyzed man who can only survive for brief periods outside his iron lung, and the sex surrogate he contacts to help him lose his virginity.

The cast is indeed impressive. The main character is played by John Hawkes. He convincingly plays the weakness of his character's condition without making it seem over the top. His body is often contorted uncomfortably, his voice is devoid of any trace of power and force; and yet the character's wit and spirit are clearly intact though his body is not. In any other award year where Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't been considered a given winner for his performance, Hawkes would have been a worthy contender.

Helen Hunt plays the surrogate, and she has an interesting challenge as well. She must let the audience see that she's a therapist who may feel out of her depth with this particular patient, while at the same time honoring that the character would never let her patient see any of that discomfort or uncertainty. It's a delicate tightrope, and she walks it well. She too was a worthy Oscar nominee, and like Hawkes, was destined to lose in a category that had an unassailable front-runner: Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables. (Though I'd hardly have called this a "supporting" role.)

There are a number of other wonderful working actors in the film. There's William H. Macy as a priest who must struggle a bit between a more traditional interpretation of God's moral prescriptions and what seems to make more humane sense in this particular situation. Adam Arkin is intriguing as the husband of Hunt's surrogate character; the two have an interesting relationship given her job. There's also a bit of a Deadwood reunion going on the movie; in addition to John Hawkes, there are appearances by W. Earl Brown and Robin Weigert.

The movie isn't revelatory. It doesn't take any turns you aren't expecting. But there is a sweet, earnest quality about it, and it certainly has that independent film spirit in its depiction of a subject that would never be approached by mass market Hollywood filmmakers. This is, when you get down to it, an actors' film. If you like good acting in general, or any of these actors in particular, then it's well worth your time. If you find character driven films to be slow and challenging, you probably will want to skip it. I grade it a B.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sweet Dreams

It's always a double-edged sword whenever Glee does an episode that calls back the early days of the show in some way. Last night's episode, featuring Rachel's audition for the Broadway production of Funny Girl, was a perfect example.

On the one hand, that audition scene was very moving -- the most powerful moment in the episode for certain. Even sensing what would be coming as Rachel started her solo rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'", it was still a thrill to see the original New Directions members appear as her backup. On the other hand, it was putting up a giant neon sign saying "remember how consistent and better this show used to be?" We've come a long way since that pilot episode that ended with Glee's most iconic performance, and while there have certainly been high points along the way, the journey has been downhill overall.

That one scene brought another big question to my mind: "where's Mercedes been?" The episode really brought to the forefront the problems of Glee's "separate and follow the graduates" format. On the one hand, you could have it like Puck, who awkwardly showed up at Finn's college for absolutely no good reason, just to get the character back on the show and into the mix. On the other hand, you could have it like Mercedes, used only organically in the story of the show... which is to say, hardly used at all. Neither extreme is very palatable.

Also unpalatable was Schu's sudden dictatorial attitude toward the Glee club. Sure, Glee has a long history of making characters suddenly behave in a completely out-of-character way to grease some particular plot point, but it seemed especially off-putting this time. Everybody at McKinley is coming off a sort of brush with death. You could understand how this has pushed wallflower Marley to want to share her songs, or maybe even use that to explain Sam's completely nonsensical "I have a twin" subplot. But the idea that Schu would suddenly be pushing his students away like this, so soon after an event that brought them all together? Too tough to buy.

So, in trying to grade the episode, I'm essentially faced with the question: does one good scene make an episode? Because that's essentially what last night was -- one good scene. I'm going to say "no," even though that one scene was really good. I give "Sweet Dreams" a C+.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Frank Talk (and Robot Talk, Too)

Some sci-fi movies have ostentatious premises that serve up two hours of wall-to-wall special effects. But then there are quiet, restrained films with a mild sci-fi conceit. Robot and Frank is the latter. Set in "the near future," it's the tale of an old man suffering dementia, whose son buys him robot servant to help monitor him in his home. But the old man, Frank, has a criminal past, and when the robot encourages him to engage in more activities to stave off his mental decline, Frank decides to teach it how to help him commit burglaries.

The movie is a deft blend of quietly expressed messages and themes with a fun and engaging plot. While it never beats you over the head about it, it makes you consider things like: What is a humane way to care for the elderly? How do people relate to technology? How cruel a fate is Alzheimer's Disease and dementia? But really, your mind processes these things in the background as you watch the fun tale of a devious old man trying to recapture his youth.

The cast is what really sells the concept and makes it enjoyable. Frank Langella stars as (appropriately enough) Frank, and really makes you care for his character despite his manifest flaws. His son and daughter are played by James Marsden and Liv Tyler; each provides an interesting energy to the film, as neither character really makes enough time for their father, but both have very different opinions on the robot. Susan Sarandon plays the local librarian with whom Frank has a relationship, Frank being the only guy left in the future who actually wants to read a physical book.

And then there's the robot itself, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard.He serves up a tonality and style very similar to the performance Kevin Spacey gave in Moon, but it's perfectly pitched for this film. The robot is human enough to be a believable and empathetic "person" that Frank would bond to, but dispassionate and innocent enough that it could be believably be drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

Ultimately, the movie isn't revelatory, though it is a well made little effort. I give it a B.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Clue, Alamo Style

Last week was my first experience at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and I was eagerly looking for an opportunity to go again. Last night was my chance. It still wasn't for a first-run movie, but this time it was for a "retro" film that, unlike Robocop, is a true favorite of mine: Clue.

It wasn't all that long ago that I saw Clue in a theater here in Denver. But it's one of my top 10 favorite movies, so I pretty much had to go again, given the chance. And there was an extra fun twist to the way Alamo Drafthouse was presenting the film: it was a "Quote-Along" screening. Ordinarily, the theater enforces a strict no talking policy, but this time out, the audience was encouraged to act out all their favorite lines in unison with the movie.

Don't know Clue as thoroughly as... well... I do? No problem. The presentation was actually captioned. Not every line was presented on screen, but nearly all of the choice moments were, and gradually highlighted, karaoke style, to allow anyone and everyone to get in on the action. And it turns out that the only thing funnier than Madeleine Kahn's outrageous "flames" monologue is 200 people reciting it with her, verbatim.

Adding to the fun? Props! On the way into the theater, everyone received three items: a little bell, a popper, and a business card with one of the six Clue characters identified on it. An on-screen countdown led up to every one of the many occasions where the doorbell rang, and everyone in the audience was encouraged to ring their bells along with it. And the poppers? Well, there are six gun shots in the movie Clue (one plus two plus two plus one?), and they color coded each one of those with an onscreen countdown too. When the countdown corresponding to your character card came, you set off your popper in unison with the gun shot.

Basically, a little taste of Rocky Horror Picture Show insanity, but with a much, much better Tim Curry film!

I had a blast, and will surely be looking out for more of these special Alamo screenings in the future. (I'll probably skip the upcoming one, Beymageddon, which is apparently going to be four Michael Bay movies presented on-screen simultaneously in an avalanche of explosions.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

TNG Flashback: Manhunt

In reviewing second season episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've written a little about the souring relationship between show runner Maurice Hurley and one of the writers, Tracy Tormé, caused by extensive rewrites to scripts like "The Royale." Now we come to the last straw, "Manhunt."

Counselor Troi's mother, Lwaxana, returns to the Enterprise to be transported (along with other delegates) to a peace conference. She's just reached a phase in a female Betazoid's life where her sex drive quadruples, and she's scoping out Captain Picard and other men on the ship as prospective mates. To avoid her advances, Picard retreats into the holodeck to enjoy time as Dixon Hill.

Tracy Tormé conceived of this episode as a "sequel" of sorts, blending two of his episodes from season 1, "Haven" and "The Big Goodbye." The finished result apparently bore so little resemblance to his original concept that once again (as with "The Royale"), he took his name off the finished product and used a pseudonym. And while we may never know what exactly Tormé had in mind, or whether it would have turned out well, I can certainly agree with him that the episode as aired is awful.

"Amok Time," one of the best episodes of the original Star Trek, depicted the sexuality of Vulcans as Spock essentially went into heat. You can imagine this Next Generation episode attempting to tap into that Trek heritage in some way. But where "Amok Time" was fascinating in the other details it revealed about Vulcans, and in the way it pitted Spock against Kirk, The Next Generation simply focuses on the sex. It's an entire episode about a horny older woman. Ordinarily, I might praise the lack of some artificial external problem to manufacture jeopardy, but this character driven problem generates no tension of any kind.

The reappearance of Dixon Hill is also a huge disappointment. One of the things I found intriguing about "The Big Goodbye" was that, despite the episode really being about a holodeck malfunction, an actual Dixon Hill tale with a story arc of its own was part of the mix. Here, we get a lot of set-up to some Dixon Hill story, but absolutely no payoff. Picard keeps resetting the story, and then ends up leaving the holodeck before the story even reaches a middle, never mind a conclusion.

Bad as the episode is, though, it's not a total loss. It does actually generate a couple of laughs. Well, maybe not "laughs" so much as "polite smiles," but there is some solid work here from some of the actors. Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are both excellent in the scene where Picard uses Data as a cover to escape an intimate dinner with Lwaxana Troi. Stewart also displays his subtle but brilliant acting instincts in a Dixon Hill scene where Picard holds a cigarette in an appropriately awkward and foreign way. Majel Barrett has a couple of nice moments too, including one where Lwaxana receives directions from the computer. Since she also portrays the voice of the computer, it's a scene of an actress talking to herself, but the two voices are just different enough that I could imagine people in the audience not realizing it.

Other observations:
  • Speaking of actors, Robert O'Reilly makes his first Star Trek appearance here. He would later be known for playing the Klingon leader Gowron; here he plays a random thug in the Dixon Hill scenario. Look for his distinctive eyes.
  • There's also a cameo appearance by Mick Fleetwood, of the rock band Fleetwood Mac. You wouldn't know it, though, as he plays one of the fish-like Antedean delegates. He shaved his trademark beard and buried himself in thick makeup (and a shower curtain) to make an appearance on Star Trek.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy cuts loose a bit with his music for this episode. There are some fun sprays of melody from a saxophone during the Dixon Hill sequences.
I would say the massive efforts of the cast muscle this dud of a script up to a D+, but they really are squeezing blood from a stone. "Manhunt" is among the worst episodes of the season.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Walk of Punishment

Last night's Game of Thrones was an episode I particularly enjoyed more for brief moments within it even more than for any full scenes.

That trend started right away during the funeral scene at Riverrun. My boyfriend asked as the scene began, "doesn't the archer miss the boat three times?" It was a detail I had completely forgotten from the book in the many years since I read it, and I half expected them not to do on the show. But no, they decided to spend the screen time on the clever moment, and one-upped it by having the archer who finally made the successful shot not even watch his arrow fall after he loosed it. They made a little less in the episode about how the failed shots were meant to be an omen of bad things, but it was still a great little moment.

Soon after that came a moment I believe was invented for the show, at the start of the conference with Tywin Lannister. As the people began to take their seats, one of my friends noted, "why are we all sitting on one side of the table, except for easy camera access?" Oh no indeed, there was a very good reason for the "Last Supper style" staging. Cersei made a brilliant and silent power play by grabbing a chair and taking it to sit beside her father on the other side of the table. And then Tyrion made the hilarious, not-to-be-outdone move of dragging his chair to the foot of the table. It was practically a full minute of screen time without dialogue, unthinkable in most television shows, but it was just such a brilliant insight into both characters that it was worth every last second.

In terms of moments, though, the big one was the one that closed the episode. Seeing Jamie's "behanding" carried out on screen, I was struck by something about it that I'd never realized from reading the book. This is a moment that seems like it could have very easily gone a different way for the character. Essentially, this is the first time that Jamie has ever done anything nice for another person (that wasn't his sister). He went out on a limb to save Brienne from being raped, something he certainly did not have to do, and his "reward" for it is to lose his right hand.

A completely reasonable reaction from a person like Jamie could have been eternal bitterness; see if I ever do anything for anyone but myself ever again. I suppose it's a minor spoiler for those who haven't read the books, but I'll say simply that he doesn't break that way. It marks a real turning point for the character, and not just in the obvious physical way that losing a hand clearly would.

The one misfire in the episode I don't quite understand is the music that then immediately followed that moment for the end credits. The punk band of Westeros just wasn't doing it for me; it felt like such a tonal, fourth wall break of the world of Game of Thrones, it seemed to (pun not intended) undercut the powerful moment we'd just seen.

Still, another wonderful episode of Game of Thrones overall. As always, I'm looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Crown Jewels

My latest Sherlock Holmes read was The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet. Compared to some Holmes adventures, this one is rather long on set up and short on resolution. It's one of Arthur Conan Doyle's more intriguing setups, however, so it mostly works.

A wealthy banker has agreed to accept unusual collateral in exchange for making an exorbitant, short term loan: a priceless, bejeweled crown. Worried to let the thing out of his sight for the few days in which he must keep it, he brings it home one night to lock in his home safe... where it apparently stolen by his own son. Although the crown is recovered, some of its jewels have gone missing, and the son maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing. Holmes must locate the missing gems and either prove or exonerate the son as the guilty party.

The resolution of the mystery itself isn't a very exciting element of the tale. It's readily apparent that the son is not in fact guilty, and Doyle doesn't set up enough alternative suspects to make much of a mystery of things. But nevertheless, the way that Holmes goes about solving the mystery is well written. It has to do with reading footprints in freshly fallen small, a detail which clever readers can apprehend (making themselves feel as brilliant as Holmes in the process), but that is layered into the narrative without calling undue attention. In fact, the very first paragraph of the story references the fresh snow in London, before the mystery is even introduced.

Perhaps it's the construction of the story that I found more interesting than the story itself. More complex back story, simpler resolution. Fewer suspect characters, more interesting development of the few characters the story does have. There's an intriguing ebb and flow here in Doyle's writing, as though he were experimenting a bit with his format. I enjoyed the change. I give the story a B.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Over the Cop

If you've been to my blog this week, you've seen me gush about the Alamo Drafthouse, which I experienced for the first time when I went to see a screening of Robocop. The experience was great, but what about the actual film?

I have seen Robocop once before, but it had been long enough that my memory of the film wasn't that strong. My expectations were virtually reset. I really liked director Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, but frankly hate the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, Starship Troopers. And let's face it, Robocop hews much more to the latter than the former... if indeed you can find all that much space between them.

At some level, the movie is meant to be just as much a comedy as an action piece. The violence of Robocop is so preposterously over-the-top, and realized with such dated makeup effects, that it literally makes you laugh. And the acting rarely does it any favors. The film is virtually a who's who of working character actors, and none of them are delivering their finest work here.

But there are three performers who embrace hammy villainy in a way that does manage to work. Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, and Kurtwood Smith plant their tongues firmly in their cheeks and chew up whatever scenery isn't blasted to smithereens. Peter Weller is also good in the title role in his physicality; his Robocop moves in a strange, machine-like way that makes sense for the character.

The script is a bit hit and miss, but I'm inclined to say it has a few more hits than misses. A bright spot in the movie is the social commentary delivered in the near-future news reports, television programs, and fake commercials. It's a device that, in my opinion, was used less artistically in Starship Troopers, pioneered here. In any case, it fits right in with many elements that were dated even when the movie was released in 1987: the Harryhausen-style animation of the ED-209, the ridiculously arch dialogue, the rote plot with sci-fi trappings.

...And yet, it somehow works. Not exceptionally well, but better than some. I'd call it a B-. A B- that could very well have been affected by the hilarious live in-theater pyrotechnics at the screening I saw, or just the general warm glow of my first Alamo Drafthouse experience. But a B- all the same. If you've liked any of Paul Verhoeven's other films, but somehow have never seen Robocop, you should probably check it out.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Shooting Star

When last night's Glee episode began with a viewer discretion warning and absolutely no recap of recent episode developments, you knew we were in for a Very Special Episode. Glee has done that before successfully, with the early second season episode about Kurt's father having a heart attack, for example. But I felt like this attempt fell far short of that.

First, there were major tonal problems. I found it really hard to take the gun threat seriously when, just a few minutes earlier, we were watching Brittany lead the whole Glee club in a love song to her cat. And the subplot of Coach Bieste making a play for Schu was both implausible and cringe-worthy. Are we really to believe that she would try to swoop in to ask him out just weeks after he was left at the altar?

I thought there was too much "ripped from the headlines" in play here. I'm not talking about the depiction of school shootings in and of itself, though some would certainly want to debate whether this was "too soon" for such a storyline. (I myself don't much believe there's such a thing; I think fiction can be a cathartic way of exploring feelings surrounding real life events, and a helpful part of the coping process.) But I did feel like cramming the "catfishing" of Ryder into the same episode as the gun plot smacked way too much of "Ryan Murphy was reading the newspaper this morning..."

Curious to see whether my less-than-enthusiastic reception of the episode was typical among Glee viewers this week, I browsed a couple of comment threads on entertainment web sites and discovered another complaint that hadn't even really dawned on me: the fact that Becky was revealed as the shooter. Some people have argued that after four seasons of treating her as a well-rounded depiction of Downs Syndrome on television, they threw her under the bus as "too stupid to know what she was doing was wrong" on this occasion. Like I said, I didn't see this angle, but I can understand interpreting it that way.

I did see a different problem in putting Becky at the hub of the story, however. Though the episode seemed to position itself as a story about school violence (that's what the disclaimer promised), there wasn't actually any violence at all. It was all that build up for, basically, an accident. And not an accident that even had much in the way of serious consequences. Yes, Sue lost her job, but you'd better believe there's no way they're actually writing her off the show. (I expect a confession of the truth from Becky before the end of the season.) Glee's big statement on gun violence ended up not being bold or even ambiguous in a way to make the audience reflect. It was simply, "guns are dangerous." Duh.

But while the script was really a mess, the episode wasn't a total loss. That's thanks to the outstanding effort of the actors. Nearly everyone had a solid moment, but I thought there were real standout performances from (as usual) Heather Morris, and newcomers Melissa Benoit and Glee Project winner Blake Jenner. And of course, Jane Lynch. But really, everyone nailed their "cell phone confessional" moments.

The few musical numbers were also decent -- again thanks to the fairly strong performances, his time vocally (because the arrangements and staging didn't really bring much to the table that the original versions didn't have). Again, the ill-conceived ode to Lord Tubbington of "More Than Words" was too much of a clash with the rest of the episode, but the song would be perfectly fine out of that context.

I think I'd put the episode around the C+ range. Maybe a B-, if I'm being generous on account of the actors who really poured their hearts into it. But it was certainly not the momentous episode I think the writers believed they were creating.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

TNG Flashback: Up the Long Ladder

I'm nearing the end of season two of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I've been dreading the terrible episode that was the season finale. But in fixating on that, I'd sort of forgotten another episode that was almost as bad, "Up the Long Ladder."

The Enterprise responds to a distress beacon from a centuries-old human colony on a threatened planet. The technologically primitive Bringloidi have to be evacuated, complete with their menagerie of animals and antiquated customs. But theirs is not the only colony in the area to come from an old Earth ship. Next the Enterprise meets the Mariposans, a race of clones sired from the only five people to survive the crash landing on their planet many generations ago. Facing a crisis of degraded DNA, they want samples from Enterprise crew members to continue their society... and they'll steal them without permission if they have to.

This episode is dreadful, and they even knew it at the time they were cutting together the original preview back in 1989. You can watch that trailer on the Blu-ray, and it shows absolutely nothing of the primitive Bringloidi colonists, focusing exclusively on the clone angle. And for good reason, as the Bringloidi are a borderline offensive Irish stereotype. Their leader is a cliché drunkard with a firebrand daughter; both of them are basically trying to whore the daughter out as a marriage prospect to anyone who appears to have money. Their people as a whole are overly attached to their farm animals, fearful of technology, and look like they haven't bathed in a week.

Hmm... maybe there's nothing "borderline" about the offensive stereotypes here.

In any case, the Bringloidi subplot offers nothing of dramatic value at all. The culture clash isn't compelling. The secondary characters are of no importance. They don't threaten our main characters in anyway. They don't even manage to annoy our main characters, really; at one point, Picard laughs out loud at their absurdity.

Then there are the Mariposans, the clone society that steals DNA samples from Riker and Pulaski to further their lineage. This subplot brushes up against some interesting subjects, but mostly tosses them aside. Riker and Pulaski destroy their maturing clones when they're discovered, and Riker makes a passing reference to exercising control over his own body. It's stepping right up to the front door of a compelling abortion allegory, but then refusing to knock, since the episode abandons this line of storytelling and Mariposans never get to argue their side of the case. There's also no acknowledgement at all of the potential rape metaphor in all this.

And then there's the conclusion of the story, in which our heroes ingeniously bring the two colonies together to live as one. The writers seem to think they're doing something in the classic Star Trek tradition here, but it's utterly preposterous. The gap of societal values and 250 years of technological growth seems far too large to be believably bridged, or at least, not in 3 minutes. And the resolution completely ignores the fact that the only thing the Bringloidi are missing is a planet to live on. Find the Bringloidi somewhere else uninhabited to colonize; don't force them to change their ways unnecessarily. They have no population problem, so why are they suddenly being asked to breed offspring in at least three different couples each generation? (Aside from letting the aforementioned drunkard leader have a "wah-wah" moment.)

Also very "classic Trek"-like in this episode is the writing of Commander Riker. While it's true that his character has always had a touch of Captain Kirk in him, this episode lazily writes him exactly like Kirk. He turns into an absolute horndog this episode, loving and leaving the firebrand Bringloidi woman. And then he practically starts shouting from some moral high ground at the very request that he allow himself to be cloned. He does a very poor job of articulating why he's so against the idea of cloning, which is rather interesting when you consider that later on, in the sixth season, there's an episode in which we learn that he essentially was cloned a few years prior to this. (The usually eloquent Picard can articulate the objections to cloning no better; he simply tells the Mariposan leader that he thinks everyone on the Enterprise will be universally against the idea. Why would he presume to speak for them all like that?)

There's only thing about this episode that comes anywhere close to good, and it's really not that close. In the opening 10 minutes, an additional subplot surrounds Worf fainting on the bridge, suffering from the Klingon equivalent of the measles. Before the next commercial break, Pulaski conspires to hide this embarrassing condition from the rest of the crew, and nothing more is said about it for the rest of the episode.

I think Michael Dorn was left out to dry by the director here, as his acting here is quite over the top. Dorn doesn't usually make that mistake, but perhaps he was coached to after a few days of filming cliché Irish folk -- over the top was apparently the norm on this episode. But there is at least a tiny taste of a decent character relationship between Pulaski and Worf here. Pulaski respects Worf's sense of honor enough to cover for him, and he in turn honors her with a Klingon Tea Ceremony. Michael Dorn says in an interview on the Blu-ray set that he thinks if Pulaski had stayed on the series, it's possible this might have blossomed into a romantic thread between the two characters. I don't know that I would have enjoyed that, but I do enjoy the moment here where Worf is finally the first person to bust Pulaski on needlessly insulting people. Good for Worf.

Other observations:
  • Even the music gives over to stereotype. Composer Ron Jones serves up some Irish music that's rather uninspired. (Though his suspense music for the Mariposans is beter, particularly in the scene where they steal DNA.)
  • Geordi reveals in this episode that his VISOR easily allows him to detect when a human is lying. This feels like a potential problem for all those officers' poker games.
  • Even the costuming is bad in this episode. The Mariposan prime minister wears a white suit clearly too large for him that conjures thoughts of a Talking Heads music video.
This is a truly terrible effort, and the first F grade I'm handing out since the first season.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Neutral Evil

This past weekend (prior to my Alamo Drafthouse experience), I went to see the new remake of Evil Dead. The original is a cult classic that I have seen, but hold no particular affection for; whether or not the new movie was going to be faithful to the original was not a consideration for me. I was just looking for a good horror movie. I got only part of one.

The middle act of the film is pretty solid. The crisis is in full swing. People are possessed, bad things are going down, and the film is striking an effectively creepy tone. The movie even manages to recycle a few moments from the original, and present them more effectively. (For example, even a fan of the original would acknowledge the campiness of the "raped by stop-motion plants" sequence in that film; the remake does manage to make that same idea fairly traumatic without being quite so silly.)

The problem, though, is that the bread in this sandwich is a lot of character stupidity. In order to jump start the story (and to lead it to an "exciting" conclusion), the characters have to behave in a large number of unbelievably dumb ways to manufacture jeopardy. Not just "dumb for people who should know they're in a horror movie" things, but just dumb things in general that no realistic person would do.

Another problem is that this remake, no matter how hard it's trying to strike a more dramatic tone, is arriving in a world that now has The Cabin in the Woods. That brilliant movie is a loving send-up of horror clichés, and there's no one movie it hits as hard as Evil Dead. And I think that's rendered it impossible to take the premise seriously anymore.

Some of the acting is good, particularly Jane Levy's dual performance as the recovering addict Mia and the demonically possessed Mia. The gore is very well realized, and there are a couple of fun departures from the plot of the original. But generally, this is just another average horror movie. I give it a C+.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Remember the Alamo Drafthouse

Last night, I had a movie going experience that pretty much ruined all other movie going experiences for me.

Those of you movie fans fortunate enough to live in the right cities around the country will know about the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Started in Texas in 1997, it's a slowly growing chain of high-class movie theaters. (Though not any more expensive than any other movie theater.) You can buy your tickets online, reserving exactly the seats you want. You can arrange a block of up to 8 seats online, then text your friends a link to buy their own tickets. The theater features complete in-auditorium food and beverage service, with dozens of beers on tap. They have a strictly enforced no-talking, no-texting policy; not only will they kick you out, but they'll mock you in their pre-show announcements.

They also do many special events. Retro movies play on a regular basis. Some get the full-on Rocky Horror style treatment, where the audience is encouraged to shout their favorite lines in unison with the film. The presentations usually get custom-designed, limited-edition posters that would be suitable for framing on your wall... or that could go for an impressive sum on e-bay. And some films get even more unusual treatment. I'll come back to that momentarily.

The newest Alamo Drafthouse opened right here in Littleton, Colorado just a few weeks ago, at the Aspen Groves mall. And last night, I went there for the first time. I'd been looking forward to the experience from the moment they announced the theater's construction a year ago, and I was hoping for some super-awesome film to be the first one I'd see there -- something new I was anticipating, or some beloved classic on the big screen.

I got Robocop, which honestly was neither.

But...

This special screening of the movie feature live-pyrotechnics in the theater!

At choice moments throughout the film, flash pots, smoke machines, and/or confetti cannons were used to punctuate the on-screen action. And it made a darkly hilarious, sometimes so-bad-it's-good movie wildly entertaining. Or maybe that was the on-tap Glider Cider (a local Colorado brewery's intriguingly dry creation) helping things out. For whatever reason, it was a laugh-out-loud, great time at the theater.

Were you looking for my review of Robocop? Eh, maybe I'll get to that in a day or two. It's totally beside the point -- said point being, if I haven't been abundantly clear: if you live anywhere near an Alamo Drafthouse, you owe it to yourself to go there as soon as possible, as often as possible.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Dark Wings, Dark Words

This week's installment of Game of Thrones brought the focus to the story lines that were absent last week. Both Bran and Arya had significant screen time -- and we got to see how much the children playing them have grown up over the last year.

Once again, some of the strongest material in the episode came in scenes not originally depicted in the book. I never much liked Catelyn in the books, though I still look forward to her chapters as the window on the story of Robb. The scene in which she spoke of Jon Snow was a new addition that, while not really making her character any more sympathetic, did make her more understandable.

Another strong new scene was the one between Joffrey and Margaery. Charged with dangerous subtext (and filled with not at all subtle innuendo), Margaery demonstrated her silver tongue as she charmed the little psychopath. Joffrey's a bit too clever for just anyone to tell him what he wants to hear, but Margaery is not just anybody. I continue to enjoy the way Margaery is being portrayed as a much stronger woman than I ever perceived on the page.

The torture of Theon is also an addition from the book... sort of. Readers learned of what happened to Theon in book five, looking back in to see what had become of him. Viewers will get to see it unfold as it happens, it seems. That makes sense, of course... but as this week indicated, it's going to be very hard to watch.

And yet another change... well, more of a refinement, really... were the elements of foreshadowing. For people reading this blog who haven't read the books, I really can't point to exactly which moments were foreshadowing things, or how far down the road the events they portend will take place. But suffice it to say, I think the series is drawing a much sharper sense of cause and effect for the audience. When the time does come, it will be interesting to see what TV-only fans of the story make of it.

I continue to enjoy the journey. Game of Thrones is making it much easier to wait for Breaking Bad to return.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A Dip in the Pool

Right about the time I stopped paying for Netflix's streaming service a while back, I somehow heard about this obscure Canadian horror film called Pontypool. Netflix didn't have it available on disc, so it has languished in the "Saved Discs" part of my queue literally for more than a year. But now, the new season of Arrested Development is on the horizon. I've also heard wonderful things about House of Cards. It was time to forgive Netflix for their poorly handled fee hike of 2011 and sign back up. As it turned out, Pontypool was available for streaming, and I was finally able to watch whatever earned the bit of hype I've since completely forgotten about.

Pontypool follows a morning radio shock jock in a small Ontario turn. Driving into work during a blizzard, he's startled by an incoherently muttering woman who smacks on his passenger window before vanishing into the dark. He decides to make a segment of it on his show, posing the question "when should you call 911?" But that's only the beginning of the profoundly weird. The radio station's traffic reporter calls in with news of a mob descending on a local doctor's office. As his producers strive to gather new information, the DJ tries to negotiate through harrowing reports of vacant, babbling... cannibals?

That's right, Pontypool is a zombie movie. Mostly. There is a twist, which I'll try to be a bit circumspect about in a moment. But first, let me focus on what's quite effective about the movie: the first 45 minutes. Pontypool tells a zombie story in the manner of the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. We hear all kinds of horrible things, but all we see is the mounting tension of three people trapped inside a radio station. It's marvelously effective, proving that what the mind can imagine is sometimes better than what a movie can show you.

But unfortunately, the movie utterly falls apart at the halfway point. A doctor breaks into the radio station and takes refuge with our heroes. Miraculously and inexplicably, he knows exactly what's going on and deduces exactly how this strange disease is being transmitted. It's not a viral outbreak in the manner of most zombie stories, and that's quite novel. But what it is too fantastical -- or at least, revealed too ham-fistedly -- to seem believable. And it's a downhill sprint from there into schlock. The ending is the most nonsensical element of all... although you can sort of see that the writer was actually trying to go for that effect. Nonsense was kind of the point, though recognizing that doesn't make it any more enjoyable. (And if you want something truly bizarre, wait until you see what follows the end credits.)

A group of actors you aren't likely to know lead this cast. I only recognized the shock jock, Stephen McHattie, from his truly memorable guest starring appearance as a Romulan in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. ("It's a faaaaaaaake!") The actors handle the first half of the movie wonderfully, reacting to the unfolding horror in a natural way that heightens the suspense. But they're not capable of the impossibly heavy lifting the script asks of them in the second half.

All told, I'd give Pontypool a C-. A true horror enthusiast with curiosity about a truly different take on zombies might want to give it a shot, but the average viewer won't want to bother.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Trying on Some Boots

I recently watched Puss in Boots, the spinoff film from the Shrek franchise featuring the suave outlaw cat introduced in Shrek 2. And while it was by no means a brilliant movie, I did find it more enjoyable.

Puss in Boots tells a simple story with predictable plot developments, but it does so with a good amount of wit and fun. The writers of the film put their efforts more into the jokes than the story itself, it seems, but those efforts do pay off with several good laughs. Most of the best ones are "cat behavior" jokes that juxtapose well with the swashbuckling hero; if you're a cat person, you are going to laugh. Repeatedly. It's that simple.

The voice cast is fairly solid. Antonio Banderas returns as Puss in Boots. The reason the character was spun off in the first place is that he was pretty much the best thing about the sequel Shrek films. Sometimes, a secondary character like that works best in small doses and doesn't transition well to being the lead. Not so here. The Banderas swagger blends wonderfully with some inspired animation to create a very entertaining protagonist.

The rest of the film is filled with all-new characters. Salma Hayek plays Kitty Softpaws, a pickpocket (should I say cat burglar?) and potential love interest. She's serving a similar function here as Cameron Diaz does in the Shrek movies... which is to say that I think the filmmakers are just trading on a voice backed by a name. I don't think Hayek is especially good or bad, but I do think the animation does more of the heavy lifting in making her character interesting.

Zach Galifianakis is Humpty Dumpty, and old friend who has an important history with Puss in Boots. Ironically, even though animation is a medium that often calls for acting extremes, his work here is actually more subtle than that of most of his movies. Two murderous outlaws, Jack and Jill, are voiced by Amy Sedaris and Billy Bob Thornton, who tear into their villainy with extreme relish. The fact that all three of these performers seem to be having so much fun definitely adds to the overall sense of fun about the film.

I'd actually say that Puss in Boots outshines any of the Shrek films since the original. It's probably not one to go out of your way to watch, but I suspect you'd enjoy it if you did. I give it a B-.

Friday, April 05, 2013

An Unsatisfying Meal

Last night brought the premiere of a new TV show, Hannibal. It got quite a few high marks among the critics, but what really drew me to take a look was the creator of the series, Bryan Fuller. He's the man behind Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies, all wonderful and clever shows. Hannibal, of course, is going to have a much darker tone than any of those series, but if anything I personally would see that as a potentially intriguing plus.

But while the debut wasn't that bad, I didn't find it to be the revelation many of the critics seemed to think it was. For starters, the casting is a bit uneven. Hugh Dancy is strong in the lead role as Will Graham, the highly empathic crime fighter. I'm also intrigued to see Caroline Dhavernas, who starred in Wonderfalls, taking on a character of a wholly different nature. However, there was also a very hammy performance by Laurence Fishburne as an FBI supervisor. (He seems to have been cast purely as a reaction to his two season appearance on CSI; people said he was too dark and broody for that show, so surely he'll fit on a show that's dark by nature, right?! Meh, not so much.)

But the most challenging casting is the role of Hannibal Lecter. How do you follow Anthony Hopkins in the role that won him an Oscar? You try to erase that image from the minds of the viewers, apparently. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lecter, and there's not a thing about him that is familiar. He has a rather dense accent that's hard to penetrate at times. He has a creepy hair style, and is often dressed out of a 1970s wardrobe. His demeanor is peculiar. Sure, he's nothing like Anthony Hopkins... but he's so strange that his very presence undermines the premise that the lead character of Will Graham is a super-gifted analyst who can size up anybody in a moment.

Which leads to another problem the series faces. We the audience all know that Hannibal Lecter is a cannibalistic killer, so there's little point in hiding that revelation from the audience. So far, so good -- the series makes no attempt to do so. But every moment that he isn't caught, every moment that we haven't moved on from Lecter to what follows, is requiring an impossible suspension of disbelief. Every other character on the show is made to look dumb at the expense of making Lecter look smart. It's a losing proposition, and if the show intends to make a season arc out of catching Lecter? Well, it'll lose me long before that.

I'm considering giving the show one more episode to show me something engaging, but overall, I found the premiere to be quite a disappointment. It's like NBC went out shopping for the goriest thing they could get on their airwaves, trying to get themselves a Walking Dead or The Killing. But instead, they should have shopped for a descent into the mind of evil -- a Breaking Bad.