Friday, June 28, 2013

Gone Fishin'

Hello readers!

I'm heading off on vacation, a SCUBA-tastic beach excursion to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. So the blog, too, will be off for the week. Talk amongst yourselves while I'm gone, and I'll see you on the other side.

Steel Drum Band

I had a mixed reception to the new Superman film, Man of Steel. But I had a better opinion of its musical score by Hans Zimmer. Sort of. Actually, I loved the music (and have bought the soundtrack)... I just didn't like it for the movie.

For Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer has basically scored his fourth Batman movie. The orchestral palette is virtually identical to the one he used for The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. There's only a sparse use of melody, but there's extensive use of powerful horns and percussion, driving away at a frenetic pace. I felt this approach may have actually hurt the film a bit; rather than set apart Superman as his own thing, the music roped him in to being very much like every other superhero in the modern crop.

But, set aside the fact that I thought the music was wrong for the movie, and I actually loved the music itself. I mean, it's like getting a fourth Batman soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, and I've really enjoyed his work on the last three. This soundtrack is loaded with tons of frenetic action cues. "Tornado" and "Ignition" are two especially powerful tracks from key scenes in the film, but they're only the tip of the iceberg.

The vast majority of songs on the album start off in a more restrained, contemplative mode, then cut loose into absolute chaos after a minute or two. There's a mournful recurring melody for Clark's character, showcased in many songs -- most notably "Sent Here for a Reason.' And as a special treat for soundtrack enthusiasts, there's a nearly a nearly 30-minute bonus track at the end of the album that represents a "sketch book" of Zimmer's various motifs for the movie.

In all, this is a soundtrack that I've enjoyed a lot more on its own than I did watching the movie. It's still no substitute for John Williams' iconic Superman anthem, though it's still enjoyable. (And it was probably a wise decision not to try to simulate something in that vein.) I'd give the soundtrack a B+. If you're a fan of any of Hans Zimmer's other scores, you'll probably want to pick it up.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

TNG Flashback: Deja Q

As I've worked my way through episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've written on several occasions about the restrictions and demands set by Gene Roddenberry, which the staff writers had to work through. Often, I've commented how I think the stories were actually made worse for these requests, but on this occasion, I'm reviewing an episode where Roddenberry got it absolutely right: Deja Q.

Q appears on the bridge, stripped of his powers (and of his clothing) by the fellow members of the Q Continuum. They've kicked him out for his Loki-like behavior, and have forced him to live as a human. The Enterprise crew believes this story is just another of Q's games, a game that somehow involves a suddenly unstable moon falling from orbit and threatening an apocalypse on the planet the ship is visiting. But when a strange alien race of energy, the Calamarain, arrives to exact retribution on the now-mortal Q, the truth is made clear. Picard and his crew must find a way to restore the moon's natural orbit while keeping the Calamarain at bay.

In the original concept for this episode, the nature of the crisis was considerably different -- a sudden event was precipitating the end of the Federation-Klingon alliance, and a return to war seemed imminent. Moreover, Q indeed was behind the crisis, and was faking the loss of his powers. Though Gene Roddenberry's demand to avoid conflict among his future-enlightened characters was often a killer of good drama, this time he saw right to the heart of what would be good drama. The story of a man who had godlike powers and suddenly lost them, his struggle to come to grips with that unthinkable loss -- wasn't that the more interesting story to be told here?

Indeed it was. And the fact that it was Q rather than some other super-powerful character not seen before made it better still. The audience and all of the characters had a history with Q, and that history made for a classic bit of "ripples in the pond" storytelling. Everyone had their own reaction to Q's predicament. It made for a rare occasion where Dr. Crusher had no sympathy for her patient. It made for a nearly-as-rare occasion in which Counselor Troi was able to sense an emotion that was not readily apparent on the surface (when she notes that Q is in fact truly terrified; his mirth is only a mask).

It made for more marvelous scenes between Patrick Stewart and John de Lancie, as Picard shows contempt for Q without seeming unfair. It made for an avalanche of great comic exchanges between Worf and Q. And it made for an excellent scene featuring Whoopi Goldberg. We see a truly different -- and somewhat scary -- side of Guinan, delighting in Q's torment and delighting in adding to it.

But most of all, this is an excellent episode for Data. A very well-written scene spells out the irony here: Q has achieved in disgrace the very thing Data has always aspired to -- humanity. And yet, in the course of the episode, as Data tries to teach Q about what it is to be human, the defrocked alien is forced to concede that Data is in fact already a better human that he could ever be.

John de Lancie is exceptional in this episode. Q still displays all his characteristic playfulness and haughtiness, but you can tell that on this occasion, it's all gallows humor. There are plenty of serious moments too, including one of those great Picard-Q scenes I mentioned earlier, in which Q reaches the decision to commit suicide. And on top of all this, de Lancie had other challenges in this episode. The finale required him to mime playing the trumpet with a mariachi band, a scene which reportedly required numerous takes to nail. And when the time allotted to film the opening scene ran out due to struggles trying out how to fake Q's nudity, de Lancie tucked away his modesty and went au naturel.

Other observations:
  • The episode juggles the multiple plot threads of Q, Calamarain, and falling moon quite well... but the aliens threatened by the moon more than a bit awkward. Their strange lamprey-mouthed makeup apparently required all their dialogue to be overdubbed after shooting.
  • Dennis McCarthy composed some great music for Guinan's encounter with Q, very dark and sinister.
  • Corbin Bernsen makes a brief appearance as "Q2." Though he was a regular on L.A. Law at the time, he sought this appearance here because he wanted to be in a Star Trek episode. He said it wasn't that he was a Star Trek fan as such, but rather that he liked the franchise's overall philosophy. At the time this episode aired, I thought Bernsen's slightly unhinged performance here was unusual, but appropriate for the role. In the time since, having seen him in other TV series (like Psych) and in his total batshit craziness on Celebrity Mole (yes, I watched it; we can have that discussion another time), I now suspect that in truth, Q2's personality is actually pretty close to his own.
  • Capping off a great episode for Data, Brent Spiner just completely goes for it in the final scene in which Q gives the android the gift of experiencing laughter. It's a fantastic performance, especially brilliant in the sudden recovery Data makes to instantly return to his usual self.
This was immediately one of my favorite episodes when I first saw it, and it remains a favorite of mine today. I give it an A.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Step Forward

Today was the big day at the Supreme Court, when two rulings were handed down in major marriage equality cases: United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. I felt that I couldn't just do a "normal" blogging day without acknowledging the rulings... and yet my opinion is considerably more reserved than the chorus of "We did it! Equality!" I see across my social media.

Reviewing is what I do here at the blog the vast majority of the time. In that vein, if I were to review today's two Supreme Court rulings, I'd give them a C+.

There's no denying that yes, progress was made today in the slow march toward marriage equality. Legally married couples in the 12 (now 13) states that allow same-sex marriage will now enjoy the full benefits of their marriages -- more than 1,100 federally granted benefits, only one of which (inheritance tax exemption) was at issue in the Windsor case. Also, adding California to the "win" column is huge. It's the most populous state in the U.S., and adding it to the other big equality wins of the last nine months now means around one-third of the country's population lives in a state recognizing marriage equality.

Of course, it leaves two-thirds of the country, living in the other 37 states, with more battles to fight. And the nature of the court rulings today don't provide a great deal of additional ammunition in that fight.

The ruling in Perry was, as many expected, a punt. The Supreme Court ruled on a jurisdictional aspect of the case, avoiding entirely the question of whether it is constitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Instead, the Court found that the proponents of the ban itself, having lost their case in a lower district court, could show no injury enabling them to appeal their loss to any higher courts. That's of course true, and a major point in the equality debate centers on that: "how does allowing other people to marry in any way negatively impact your marriage?" But it leaves us without any kind of precedent on which to hang future court cases.

Windsor was little better, failing to establish valuable legal precedent for gay rights on two fronts. First, like two big Supreme Court cases before (Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas), it declined to establish gays and lesbians as a class worthy of anti-discrimination protections similar to those in place on the basis of race, gender, national origin, and so forth. That would have been the brass ring that would have made nationwide marriage equality an imminent inevitability.

Second, the Windsor ruling did not rely exclusively on Equal Protection rights -- the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that all people are equal under the law. Instead, it conflated that principle with the Tenth Amendment principles of "state sovereignty," that marriage has always been left to states to decide for themselves, and that therefore the federal government had no business passing a law (the Defense of Marriage Act) to enshrine a nationwide definition of marriage. Had the Court been solely on Equal Protection ground, a clear legal path forward would be laid out. Instead, this "states rights" hedge provides a substantial handhold for the argument that states are perfectly within their rights to pass marriage bans. Essentially, both sides got points to cite for the next round of legal wrangling.

So really, today's rulings amounted to almost the smallest possible outcome that could still be considered a win. Worth tossing back a drink in celebration, but not worth partying in the streets. A C+. As of tonight, the best path forward is probably the same as the one we had a few months ago: hope that Justice Roberts, Alito, Thomas, or (please, oh please) Scalia retire or die by the time the next big gay rights case reaches the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Warmer... No, Cold, Cold, Cold

Earlier this year, the movie Warm Bodies came along with a different take on a zombie tale. It's the story of one zombie who experiences love for a human woman, which begins to transform him from a mindless creature into something more. I had been interested in the film, and was disappointed I didn't get to see it at the time. But now that it's on video and I have seen it, I'm quite glad I didn't waste the money before.

The ads for Warm Bodies would have you believe it's a funny, quirky comedy. But this is one of those cases where nearly every funny line in the film is there in the trailer. The movie is in fact an almost straight-up romance, though admittedly with an unusual "complication" keeping the couple apart. I might have been able to get around my misaligned expectations, but it's simply not that well executed a romance.

The couple of zombie "R" and Julie is impossible to root for. And the Romeo and Juliet metaphor, in case you didn't get it from the names, is quite strained. The narration of R's inner thoughts is no compensation for the generally uncommunicative character -- he can't show his love, so he's constantly having to tell us about it. I remained unconvinced throughout.

The cast doesn't do much to help matters, and in many cases they can't. Nicholas Hoult as R is too constrained by the script to be a compelling lead. Teresa Palmer as Julie is just a pretty face, not capable of a very deep performance. Comedian Rob Corddry, as zombie M, is given only one real joke to play, over and over. And John Malkovich phones in his minor part.

The movie does serve up a laugh or two here and there, but they're awfully few and far between, and not really worth the patience it takes to get there. I give Warm Bodies a D+.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Arcane Ritual

Following right on the heels of "The Gloria Scott," the next Sherlock Holmes tale, "The Musgrave Ritual," is quite similar in style. It's another previous adventure from Holmes' early days, narrated to Watson by the consulting detective himself. But unfortunately, this story has all of the same flaws and far fewer good elements to recommend it.

I noted of "The Gloria Scott" that Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to break from his established format, and yet was unwilling to set aside the character of Watson. The same holds true here, and so the story has an awkward Inception-esque nested narrative in which Watson writes to us of things Holmes tells to him, some of which include things that a past client once said to Holmes, which sometimes includes dialogue spoken to the client. A dizzying number of embedded quotation marks ensues, both making for a dense read and robbing the story of any sense of immediacy.

It's the same technique I disliked in "The Gloria Scott," but at least that tale had an intriguing mystery at its heart, and a satisfying resolution. "The Musgrave Ritual" is short on the latter. The crime involves a butler who goes missing after being found snooping in his boss' papers, and another woman who goes missing shortly after him. Eventually, the man is found dead, introducing yet another puzzle -- did the woman kill the man, or was his death just an unfortunate accident she fled from? Holmes never learns the answer to this, leaving it an unsatisfying unresolved thread at the end of the tale.

This is only one of the dangling plot elements within the mystery. It turns out that all the fuss surrounds a hidden object now recently uncovered, the actual crown of a past king of England that has been missing for centuries. The question is raised, how did this crown go missing that the king himself didn't seek it out? And that too is a mystery unresolved in the tale.

The creaky wheels of artifice can be sensed in this story as well. By now, we readers know full well that whenever a detail seems insignificant in the narrative, it is in fact the key on which the mystery will be exposed. In this tale, that detail is in the papers which the butler snooped on prior to his disappearance. It wouldn't be so maddening that so obvious a detail is planted in plain sight, but for the fact that Holmes' client goes out of his way to repeatedly assure us that there's no way the contents of the papers could be at all important. Doyle is simply working too hard to try to misdirect his readers, and it makes the effort transparent.

I feel like this mystery was a bit lazy on Doyle's part, simply trading on royal intrigue with its tale of a missing king's crown. This may have held some allure for a British audience, but doesn't translate well to me, a American reader more than a century later. I try to imagine if I'd have been more excited about this story had it, say, revolved around a missing draft of the Declaration of Independence or something. Maybe.

But there are a couple of bright spots. The opening sequence, setting up Holmes' tale for Watson, is a wonderful vignette of "life as Sherlock Holmes' roommate." Doyle paints a thorough and entertaining picture of Holmes as a slovenly hoarder. Particularly amusing is the way the Holmes manipulates Watson to get out of cleaning the place up, basically: "how about I tell you a story you've always wanted to hear about instead?" The mystery is also notable for having more macabre touches than most other Holmes adventures; there are passages where it reads almost more like Edgar Allen Poe than Arthur Conan Doyle.

But overall, "The Musgrave Ritual" is an unresolved mystery burdened by an overly complex narrative structure. I think it one of the weakest Sherlock Holmes tales, and give it a C-.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Catching Some Z

The long and winding road to bring World War Z from book to film has been well publicized. The budget ballooned, there were multiple extensive rewrites, and the entire final act of the movie was reshot. The result is a movie that bears virtually no resemblance to the book whatsoever. And that is a shame, because the book was absolutely incredible. But it doesn't necessarily mean that it resulted in a bad movie.

In fact, the movie is pretty good. Brad Pitt stars as a former United Nations employee who is drafted back to action when the zombie apocalypse arrives. The zombies of this apocalypse are exceptionally lethal, running at a breakneck pace, swarming like stampeding wildebeests, and transforming anyone they bite in a matter of seconds. Pitt's character embarks on a quest around the world to try and find the origin of the virus that created them, in the hopes that locating "patient zero" will hold the key to developing a vaccination against the outbreak.

I could easily spend paragraph after paragraph writing about how this movie is or isn't like the book, but I think in this case, that's not a particularly useful exercise. My boyfriend, who has read Robert Ludlum's novels about Jason Bourne, said you should think of this as no different from the Bourne films starring Matt Damon -- they happen to share the same titles with a series of books, and that's about it.

So then, let's just focus on what the film does well. The first act is solid, conveying a real sense of desperation and hopelessness. You feel like there can be no escape, and the reactions of society feel like an authentic response to an apocalypse.

But it's actually the third act that I found most enjoyable. After the rather hyperactive conclusion of Star Trek Into Darkness and the maniacal destructive cacophony that was Man of Steel, this summer has already made me tire of "45 minutes of explosions" to conclude a movie. So I found it incredibly refreshing that World War Z's much talked-about final act rewrite served to tone down the action and move it into solid suspense territory. The last half hour of the film is a very tense stealth mission into the heart of a zombie-infested building, with the conceit that the players must cause as little destruction as possible.

It's the middle part of the film that's the weakest, and oddly enough, it may be because it's that part of the movie that tries to be most like the book. The novel is a brilliant post-war documentary style novel, that I believe would have been best realized on screen as a "Band of Brothers with zombies" style mini-series on HBO. Such a treatment would have allowed for different episodes focused on different characters in different places, and could even have been voiced-over with mock interviews of people recounting their stories.

The middle chunk of the movie feels like it's trying to incorporate some of this sensibility. Brad Pitt's character hops all over the world, from the Atlantic Ocean to Korea to Jerusalem and more, sometimes under a slightly strained logic. Along the way, he interviews a number of people who each give their brief one- or two-minute tale of their zombie encounters. I think this was all a nod to the original book's narrative structure, but it all feels a bit untethered and unguided in the film.

Still, the opening is a more believable end of the world than any recently served up in a movie, and the finale is a marvelously tense sequence better than anything The Walking Dead has served up since season 1. In all, I'd give the movie a B. Check your love of the book at the door, and you'll find it a rather enjoyable film.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Nothing Done Right

According to writer-director Joss Whedon, back in the days when his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air, he would have periodic gatherings at his house where he and the cast of his shows would read Shakespearean plays in a casual setting. This, combined with a desire to do something decidedly less intensive following The Avengers, was the inspiration for his newest film, an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing that sets the play in modern times.

Among the Shakespeare I've read or seen, Much Ado About Nothing ranks somewhere in the middle for me. It never struck me as quite the all-out comedy it was supposed to be, and many of its conventions about love are much more dated than the topics in Shakespeare's more respected tragedies. There were things I liked about the Kenneth Branagh adaptation, but only enough for me to find it good and not great. This new adaptation, I enjoyed much more.

Filmed in black and white at Joss Whedon's own home over a tight schedule of just a few weeks, Much Ado About Nothing may offer a taste of those old, impromptu cast readings, in that it's filled top to bottom with Whedon "alumni." Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof (both from Angel) play Beatrice and Benedick, the two obstinate lovers at the heart of the play. Acker is strong willed incredibly nimble with the language, while Denisof portrays his character as just enough of a blowhard to be humorous while staying sympathetic. Both are excellent with physical comedy injected into the proceedings through Whedon's adaptation.

Whedon's series Dollhouse is represented by Reed Diamond as Don Pedro and Fran Kranz (who also appeared in The Cabin in the Woods) as Claudio. Diamond has a great deal of fun with the princely excesses of his character. Kranz deftly manages a lot of emotional heavy lifting required of his character, who in turns must be smitten with love, consumed by jealousy, filled with rage, and overwhelmed by grief. It's a schizophrenic role on the page, but he brings it credibility.

Firefly is represented well by Sean Maher and Nathan Fillion. Maher is the villainous Don John. In Whedon's adaptation, one of Don John's two henchman is switched to a woman, and the two are a wicked couple together. I think the reasons for Don John's villainy are still rather unclear (blame Shakespeare for that), but Maher performs the role with skillful relish. Meanwhile, Nathan Fillion plays the role of the fool, a pompous policeman named Dogberry. He doesn't have a great deal of screen time, but squeezes every last drop of comedic juice out of each of his lines. He's riotously funny, and the adaptation sets him up wonderfully with Tom Lenk (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a duo that's part C.S.I., part Keystone Kops.

But possibly the real scene stealer of the piece is Clark Gregg, new to the Whedon fold from his role as Agent Coulson in the Marvel films (a role he's soon to reprise on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series). He was apparently a last minute replacement of Buffy alumni Anthony Stewart Head, and he stepped into a part that, on the page, makes absolutely no sense at all -- a father who wishes his daughter eternal happiness one moment and wishes her dead the next. Gregg commits with gusto to every turn the script demands of him, and while I still don't see the logic in the play that explains the behavior, you can tell that the actor figured out a mindset to make it work.

The result is a real triumph for Shakespeare on film. Some would call it sacrilege to place someone else above Kenneth Branagh, and others would say I have a blind spot where Joss Whedon is concerned, but I truly do think this film superior to Branagh's adaptation in every way. I give it an A-, and my enthusiastic recommendation.

Friday, June 21, 2013

TNG Flashback: The High Ground

I remembered "The High Ground" as being a fairly middling episode for the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So I was quite surprised to find out just how much the series writers hated it.

The Enterprise visits the unaligned planet Rutia IV to provide medical supplies which can be used in the wake of violent terrorist attacks. The attackers, a group of separatists known as the Ansata, have increased their activity since developing a new transporter technology that can't be traced. But it comes at a price; this "dimensional shifting" is altering their biology at a molecular level, and the group abducts Beverly Crusher in the hopes she can reverse the effects.

"The High Ground" is an episode about terrorism, and watching it today is a very different experience than seeing it in 1990. In many ways, the episode feels quaint. The typically Star Trek perspective of not understanding a violent or destructive mindset seems so naive in today's society. The look of the aliens-of-the-week seems inspired by the original series; all the men have a white streak through one side of their hair, while all the women have a black streak through the other.

But in other ways, the episode still feels very topical. The terrorist leader, Kyril Finn, is full of justifications for violence that you hear from the mouths of real world terrorists. ("They're the ones killings your son, not me.") And the head of alien security, Alexana Davos, has a number of lines that could have been taken from transcripts of American politicians of this new century. The tactics she resorts to, infringing on her society's freedoms in the name of security, is a subject being debated right now.

Why do the writers hate this episode so much, then? Well, to hear them tell it, it's because they didn't really say anything here. The script is credited to Melinda Snodgrass (for once, focusing her story on a character other than Data). She had originally wanted to draw a more resonant metaphor with the American Revolution, and putting our heroes in the role of the British. Instead, she was instructed to drop this approach, and the script became an analogy for a conflict that American audiences could regard at a much greater distance, the terrorism in Northern Ireland. (A bit more about that later.)

Staff writer Ronald Moore pointed out that the episode offered no insights and took no stand on the issue. It simply presented that "terrorism is bad," preached awkwardly on the subject, and provided no social commentary. Another staff writer, Brannon Braga, noted that the episode was created in the wrong way. Ordinarily, he said, an episode would begin with an idea to put a science fiction spin on a topical issue. This episode came from a producer request to have a more action-adventure episode, and they simply decided on the terrorism theme without first having an "angle." In fact, the sci-fi device of the dimensional shifting wasn't even originally part of the concept; it was conceived of to address a complaint from Gene Roddenberry, who wanted a logical way in which the terrorists could overcome Enterprise technology.

On the one hand, the criticisms aren't off base at all. The episode is really sterile when it comes to any meaningful commentary. But on the other hand, that doesn't mean it's devoid of anything good. There's actually a lot of strong, unconventional writing for many of the main characters.

Dr. Crusher is especially strong in this episode. She wields her authority, ordering Worf around in the opening teaser. And we see that neither Riker nor Picard is willing to cross her by beaming her up against her will during a crisis. She remains resilient while being held prisoner, standing up to her abductor on many occasions, even though he is a known killer.

Picard gets to cut loose a bit too. During the terrorists' attack on the ship, he even throws a punch! And in the final acts of the episode, when Picard and Crusher are held prisoner together together, the interactions are wonderful. They first dance around what they really want to say, and then start to let loose with what's really on their minds. It culminates in a great tease where Beverly is about to reveal "some things I want to tell you, in case we don't get out of this." Rescue comes right then, and we don't get to hear anything. (For now. In the final season, the episode "Attached" would at last address the relationship between the two characters.)

Other observations:
  • Ron Jones provides another great musical score. The Ansata terrorists get their own theme, which is played in a suspenseful motif during the opening, and an all-out anthem during their later assault on the Enterprise.
  • Interestingly, this episode that you might have very masculine expectations about revolves around Dr. Crusher, has a female guest character as the alien security chief, was written by a woman, and was directed by a woman -- Gabrielle Beaumont, Star Trek's first female director. I applaud the subversion of gender stereotypes.
  • As I noted, this episode's closest real world allegory was to Northern Ireland and the IRA. Data makes a direct allusion to this when he mentions the "Irish Unification of 2024," which he says was brought about through violent means. This one reference got the episode "banned" in the UK for more than a decade. Though it was released on video, and did air on satellite and cable (though often with this dialogue removed), the fully intact episode did not go out on the BBC until 2007.
  • There's a moment near the end of the episode in which an armed young child threatens to shoot the alien head of security. There I do feel the preachiness the writers were critical about; it's a totally over the top moment. But I do wonder, how different would the episode have been if the child actually had gone through with it and shot her? (Not that they'd ever have dared to do such a thing on television in 1990.)
No, "The High Ground" is not a fantastic episode. But it's not nearly as bad as some of the people behind it seem to think. I give it a B-.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Midnight Movie

Amid the mega-hyped, multi-million dollar, blockbuster movies pouring out week after week, the film I may have been most looking forward to this summer was a quiet little independent film, Before Midnight. In a way, it's appropriate that the movie arrived with countless other sequels, because it too is a sequel -- to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Almost 20 years ago, director Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and French actress Julie Delpy got together and made Before Sunrise, a simple tale of strangers meeting on a train in Europe and forging a sudden, deep connection. The film had the sensibilities of a tight little two-actor play, with a heavy emphasis on smart and probing dialogue and a tight unity of time (it all unfolds in a single day, hence the title). At the time, that was all there was to it, but nine years later they would reunite for a sequel, Before Sunset, which checked in on the two characters after the passage of nearly a decade.

It seems now that these three filmmakers have decided to make a fictional version the Up Series of documentaries, revisiting the lives of their characters on a regular basis. In the three years since I watched the first two films, my opinion of them has only grown. As I've toyed with Flickchart a few minutes at a time, I've realized that both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset deserve a spot in my top 200. That's solid A- territory for both. I was far too faint in my praise when I wrote my original reviews.

Now I have the chance to get it right the first time. Another nine years have passed, and the trio is bringing us Before Midnight. The once-young couple, Jesse and Celine, have reached their 40s. They have twin daughters, and have been together since the prior film. But they've hit a rough patch in their relationship. They're concluding a long vacation in Greece, but the trip has only postponed a confrontation they really need to have.

As with the prior two films, everything takes place in a single day. And once again, dialogue and theatricality is king. There are few scenes in the film shorter than 20 minutes, and most sequences are filmed in as few camera takes (with as few cuts) as possible.

This time, the relationship drama is not confined just to the couple we've been following now for multiple films. In the middle of the film is a long dinner party, where Jesse and Celine are just one of four couples. Each pairing at the dinner represents different ages and different perspectives on life (a narrative device cleverly telegraphed earlier in the film when Jesse, a writer, describes the new book he's drafting). The scene is a wonderful examination of relationship dynamics. It's also more tense than most action sequences in this summer's big blockbusters. By this point, we know Jesse and Celine are on the rocks, and the audience cringes every time a stinging line of dialogue comes along -- is one of them going to take the bait and start a full-blown argument in front of everyone?

The film serves up an excellent third act, in which the dam that has been building up pressure all movie finally breaks. But the actual final scene feels like a bit of a stumble to me... a little too fast, a little too unearned. Even so, it's easy to recommend the movie. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both excellent, incredibly real characters in a relationship that feels totally authentic. And it's just fun that this time out, they have an advantage on the audience; prior to this film, we've essentially seen every moment the two characters have ever spent together.

I'd put this third installment just a touch below the first, and a touch above the second. But that's all just quibbling over details. It gets an A- in any case. I'd strongly recommend all three movies.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Custom Car

It's possible this qualifies as "overshare," but I had the strangest dream the other night and I have nothing better to post today. I so rarely remember my dreams anyway, so it seems fitting to mark the occasion by writing about it.

I'm at the mall with my bike, coming back to my car. (I don't actually own a bicycle, but it appears the unfeatured back story of this dream is that I do, and I was riding it around the mall for some reason.) I reach my car, and I'm trying to use my key to open the trunk and put my bike in. For some reason, the key is not fitting. So I take a moment to realize what I'm really looking at, and then I see it:

Someone has come along and cut off the entire back half of my car, and they've welded a pickup truck bed in its place. The color has been matched and everything, but there's a clear seam between the front and back of my vehicle. They didn't even bother to change/remove/whatever the license plate; the license plate on this pickup truck back half of some other car is right there.

I have to contact the police and explain what has happened! So I get out my phone. Now, for reasons that make sense only in dream logic, I'm not permitted to actually call the police. I have to send them a text message. Now in the dream, my phone is not my spiffy iPhone. I have this half-sized little device with a full keyboard, each of the buttons mere millimeters across. (It's a shrunken Blackberry or something.) So I'm trying to type out a text message on this thing, but my fingers are way too big to type out the letters correctly.

I'm getting increasingly frustrated with this process, when a bunch of thugs pull up in a tow truck and start snooping around my car. I realize they have the real back half of my car up on the bed of their truck. So I confront them. "What the hell are you doing? What the hell did you do to my car?"

"You weren't supposed to come back so soon!" says the leader of the group. "We were going to have this all put back before you got back, and you'd never have known."

I'm kind of flabbergasted at this. I want to yell, "how would I have not noticed a giant welding seam all the way down the middle of my car?!" And yet, I realize the truth is that in fact I did not notice when I first walked up to my car. I didn't even notice at first that my car had been transformed into an El Camino or something; I only figured it out when my key wouldn't fit in the hey-wait-a-minute-where-did-the-trunk-on-my-car-go? (And by the way, there's absolutely no way I could have gotten to the mall in the first place with a bike somehow closed inside the back of my car's not-that-large trunk. But that's more dream logic and back story I can't explain.)

Unable to come up with a retort to this thug, I say nothing and step back. I have to finish typing this text message to the police and get them here! But these guys are already going to work on my car, removing the back section. I'm now worried if I don't get the police here before they finish reassembling my car, then in fact they will get away with this!

Suddenly, my boyfriend arrives. I'm shocked and amazed he's there, because our plan was to meet at the movie theater. (Suddenly, I have more back story! I was extra upset at this whole thing because it was making me late to meet him at the movie theater.) I explain everything to him as I'm frustratedly trying to type a damn text message into this ridiculous munchkin-sized phone. I'm also pissed off about missing the movie because, in the dream, I was going to blog my review of the movie and now I have nothing to post! And everyone is going to have seen the movie now before us and spoil the ending!

My boyfriend is just totally calm about the whole thing, and trying to calm me down, telling me I'm never going to get the message right if I'm so crazed. Besides, I can blog about this weird story instead of the movie, he assures me. And then...

The alarm clock went off.

As I said, I rarely remember my dreams, but the ones I do remember never have an ending, because it seems the only way I have even a chance of remembering a dream is if I am awakened in the middle of it.

But I figured I'd follow the advice of the dream version of my boyfriend and get a blog post out of it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Hunted

"The Hunted" was an episode created in the classic Star Trek allegorical mode. It was crafted as a sci-fi themed examination of how soldiers are treated after returning home from war; touching most particularly on the issues of post traumatic stress disorder and the reception of Vietnam veterans.

The Enterprise is sent to the planet Angosia III to review their application to join the Federation. Soon after their arrival, a prisoner escapes from a lunar penal colony, and Picard agrees to help capture the escapee. But the "criminal" turns out to be a genetically enhanced, psychologically reconditioned super soldier who has been exiled from his planet's society after the end of the war in which he fought. Stunning though this revelation is, the greater issue may be trying to retain custody of the man, whose heightened abilities allow him to escape the brig and run loose on the ship.

Like "The Defector" immediately before it, "The Hunted" is an episode based largely around its main guest star -- in this case the super soldier Roga Danar. Also like "The Defector," the episode does not focus on any one crew member's particular reaction to the guest, opting instead to put several characters in contact with him. The primary relationships explored with Danar are with Troi and Data. This is a technique the show has used once or twice before, juxtaposing the series' most emotional character and least emotional character. When Troi and Data are in agreement -- in this case, in their assessment that Roga Danar has been fundamentally wronged -- then what they're saying must be the truth.

The problem is that Roga Danar isn't realized as a very compelling character. Some of the problems start on the page. The writers seem to be trying too hard to sell us on how brilliant and tough this guy is. The opening act revolves around the ship's pursuit of Danar, who employs a series of tricks to avoid capture. But the cat and mouse just isn't that compelling, and it feels most of the time like it's the Enterprise crew members' stupidity and not Danar's brilliance that is postponing an end to the chase.

But I think the larger problem with Roga Danar is in the casting. Guest star Jeff McCarthy simply isn't that imposing a presence. He's not physically large or strong, his voice is soft instead of gruff, and he doesn't carry himself like a soldier. Even his face is wrong for the role -- he looks rather like comedian Kevin Nealon, which makes it nearly impossible for me to take him seriously. Makeup could have perhaps bridged the gap here (some very unthreatening performers have been made into credible Klingons, for example), but this particular alien-of-the-week doesn't get any special treatment. Danar has very similar eye makeup to Yuta, the character from the recent "The Vengeance Factor," which makes him look more like he's been to a face painting booth at a carnival than a military conditioning camp.

It also doesn't help that later in the episode, when Roga Danar escapes from the brig and an act-long pursuit sequence begins, there's absolutely no sense of urgency from anyone involved. In this supposed chase, everyone walks everywhere... and at a quite leisurely pace. Neither is there a sense of claustrophobia. In this first appearance of the "Jefferies tubes" in Star Trek: The Next Generation, these mechanical ducts through the ship are tall enough to walk upright in. (The Next Generation seemingly realized this was not a good thing after this episode; future episodes would revise the tubes to be more like the crawl space ducts of the original series.)

The intended climax of the episode was tossed out for budgetary reasons; there was neither the money nor the time in the schedule to film it. It reportedly involved Danar and his soldiers barging into the alien capitol building on a Rambo-like rampage, shooting up every member of the government, and taking over in a coup. Instead, we're left with an ambiguous ending in which Picard leaves the planet behind in a sort of Mexican standoff -- the soldiers' mental programming doesn't allow them to attack the politicians unless they're threatened, but the politicians can only resort to force to make the soldiers leave the building. It might be an interesting resolution for a science fiction short story, but it's rather unsatisfying as a Star Trek episode, since it sort of leaves you to wonder, what was the point of our heroes getting involved in the first place?

So what is good about the episode? Little bits here and there. Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner give good performances as Troi and Data; they do make the most of their scenes in this episode. The second chase through the Enterprise, though lacking urgency, does have a great deal of cleverness in it -- both Danar and the crew make several smart moves and counter-moves.

The episode is also notable for its "lesser" guest character, the alien leader Nayrok, played by James Cromwell. He doesn't even get top billing in this episode; this was long before anyone knew who he was. But his appearance here laid the groundwork for future Trek appearances: another Next Generation episode, a Deep Space Nine episode, and of course his big role in Star Trek: First Contact as Zefram Cochrane.

Other observations:
  • With the episode falling short in many places at trying to instill a sense of urgency, the music has to make up the shortcomings. And it's a rare occasion where Dennis McCarthy, whom I find to be the least skilled of Trek's regular composers, actually succeeds. Bombastic music underscores the early ship-to-ship pursuit, and a more percussion driven theme underscores the later chase through the ship. The finale of the episode is also good, featuring a nice fanfare for the soldiers when they storm the capitol.
  • Poor Worf. Once again, the way to show the audience that someone is tough is to have them beat the crap out of Worf.
  • This middling episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation gave us one of the most powerful cards in Decipher's Star Trek: The Next Generation Customizable Card Game. By the time the game was released at the end of 1994, I hardly remembered who Roga Danar was, but I used his personnel card in probably every single deck I built for the first several years of the game's existence.
There are good ideas at play in this episode, and a few good character moments for some of the main cast, but the overall execution here is quite dry. I give "The Hunted" a C.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sin-ful

I recently watched last year's horror film Sinister. It stars Ethan Hawke as an obsessive true crime writer who moves his family into a house where the grisly murders he's now writing about took place. In the attic, he discovers a series of super 8 movies that chronicle not only the very murders he's investigating, but a series of similar crimes dating back decades. Most unsettling of all is the ghostly image of a horrific creature he finds embedded in each of these films.

Sinister does indulge in a few tired tropes of the horror movie genre, but there is no denying the movie is effective overall. A number of elements in the film just work exceptionally well. First is the casting of Ethan Hawke as the central character. He is a very natural and relatable actor, and he manages to make the compulsion of his character here understandable. In a lesser actor's hands, it would be too easy to shout at the screen, "stop watching these damn movies!", but you completely buy the premise here.

Secondly, the execution of these super 8 films within the movie is absolutely perfect. Each film is more horrific than the last, and well thought out from top to bottom. They unfold with a true, methodical sense of creeping dread. They rely very little on cheap scares. Each detail is perfectly executed, right down to the playfully horrid name written on each film canister, a nod to the terrible way in which a whole family is killed off on celluloid.

Third, there's an excellent soundtrack. Composer Christopher Young creates a truly unsettling score that in all the crucial moments (the super 8 films themselves) sounds more like a creepy soundscape than actual music. If you blasted this stuff at your house on Halloween night, no trick-or-treaters would dare knock on your door.

But oddly enough, the movie possibly fails at reaching the top of the horror pile because of its supernatural component. The phantom monster in each of these films is a well done, ghastly looking creature. But what you see in these movies is plenty horrific before you add the notion that an ancient Pagan deity might be behind it. The movie is just as much about the obsessive psychology of the main character as it is about the mystery of the murders themselves, and I can't help but feel that somehow the supernatural trappings of the latter undermine the effectiveness of the former.

Nevertheless, this is a watch late at night in the dark kind of film that will then have you jumping a bit at strange noises for a while after. It's not top shelf, but it far exceeds the quality of most horror movies. I give it a B.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Meh of Steel

Yesterday, I went to see the new reboot of the Superman movie franchise, Man of Steel. It certainly had the comic film pedigree to be a winner. The story was crafted by Christopher Nolan, writer-director of the modern Batman trilogy, and Dean S. Goyer, his writing partner on those films. (The latter wrote the screenplay here.) Director Zack Snyder has bored me with 300 and Watchmen, but he's also the man behind the fantastic Dawn of the Dead remake -- and either way, he's a man with clear genre street cred.

This new film is better than the last film, Superman Returns... though that's not saying much. In fact, it still leaves a considerable distance to go to reach being a "good" film, and unfortunately Man of Steel falls within that margin.

The first hour is pretty great. The origin story of Superman is told once again, which I would have thought we surely didn't need to see another time, but enough details are changed to make it interesting. This is the first Superman movie ever that really depicts both planet Krypton and Superman himself as truly being alien. It does this so effectively, in fact, that the movie could have stood on its own without even being a Superman movie. It paints a crystal clear picture of an entirely different alien culture, and then goes on to truly show what an outcast young Clark Kent is within Earth society. The film also makes an excellent choice (spoiler here -- but only a vague one, if you know the backstory of Superman) in changing up the death of Jonathan Kent; it's considerably more dramatic than having him simply drop dead of a heart attack, and plays much more into Clark Kent's psychology.

The villain of the film, General Zod, then arrives on the scene around the halfway point. And at first, this too is working well. His motivations for villainy make a great deal more sense here than they did in Superman II, and his arrival at Earth is also given an explanation (rather than the unlucky contrivance of that previous film). But then things slowly begin to slide downhill. And then not so slowly. And then the film accelerates into 45 minutes of ear-splitting, eye-numbing, destructive nonsense.

It's as though having seen last summer's The Avengers, which trashed New York quite thoroughly in its action-packed climax, the writers here decided they had push all-in in an effort to one up it. First, Smallville Kansas is trashed from end to end in a battle that leaves no product unplaced. (Oh no, we've destroyed the IHOP and the Sears!) Then seemingly every last building in Metropolis is brought to the ground, one at a time. And then, because we're running out of places on Earth to destroy, we head up into space to knock a satellite from orbit just for good measure. Briefly, at first, this is all entertaining... but by the end of it, it literally gives you a headache.

And part of the reason for this wall to wall nonsense seems to be to keep you from questioning too much what's happening. Because when you think about it after the fact, it makes very little sense. I'm not clear why what they're trying to do will stop Zod, and I'm even less clear on why, when they finally pull it off, it actually stops everybody working with Zod and not Zod himself. (Well, I'm clear that the writers thought we needed a Superman-vs.-Zod hand-to-hand battle. I'm unclear on how the "stop Zod" plan stopped everybody but Zod.)

They did at least assemble an excellent cast. Henry Cavill is a wonderful Superman; he's relatable and sympathetic despite being essentially invulnerable -- this answers the major problem Superman has always had as a character. Amy Adams is a wonderful, strong Lois Lane who isn't a shrinking victim. Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe, two actors I've never particularly liked, are actually compelling as Superman's two fathers, Jonathan Kent and Jor-El. Michael Shannon as Zod manages to be about as nuanced as a comic book movie villain is ever allowed to be. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Richard Schiff, Harry Lennix... everyone is solid.

But ultimately, Man of Steel is half of a great movie, followed by a one-hour highlight reel of every explosion in every Michael Bay movie ever made, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. It's too much of what I'm not even sure is a good thing to start with. Together, great movie and terrible movie average out right in the middle and result in a C in my book. I'm hoping that when this emotional launching point is used to spawn a sequel against a simpler, Earth-bound villain, the results will be better.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Blog Milestone

Hello readers!

This is the 3000th post on the blog. Granted, it's not much of a post, since I don't have too much to say. Well, nothing much more than, man, I sure have written a lot here over the years!

Friday, June 14, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Defector

Fresh off a quality episode about the Romulans, the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation served up a sequel of sorts in "The Defector."

A Romulan scout ship charges across the Neutral Zone, pursued by an attacking warbird. Backing down from a confrontation with the Enterprise, the warbird departs, leaving a Romulan defector in Federation custody. He brings word of a covert outpost being built illegally in the Neutral Zone, but his story and the circumstances of his defection are suspicious enough that Picard must seriously weigh the claim. Is it worth violating the Neutral Zone and risking war to try to prove the accusations?

This script, a "Cuban Missile Crisis in the Neutral Zone" tale, is the second credited to Ronald Moore -- but he has said in interviews that his first draft was essentially thrown out and an extensive rewrite was undertaken with different members of the writing staff each taking an act. (He claims the teaser and Act 1 as his work.) The script holds together without showing the signs of its patchwork construction, though it does have another minor flaw which showrunner Michael Piller acknowledged in an interview of his own. It's a story with a solid opening and ending, and only a lot of talk in the middle.

It is indeed a hell of an opening. When the Romulan warbird comes screaming onto the scene, firing at the scout ship, it's the most impressive ship battle sequence the show has produced to date. And the mystery itself is compelling too. Who is this Romulan, and can his story be believed? The final reveal of the episode, that the entire scenario was concocted by the Romulans to test this defecting Admiral's loyalty, is a similarly compelling conclusion to the tale. But yes, the middle -- while by no means boring -- isn't as compelling.

Perhaps part of the problem is that no one main character is really the focus of the episode. The episode doesn't make the mistake of focusing too much on the guest star (although he is painted as a compelling character), but the story trades off a lot between characters. Data comes closest to being the central character, in that Picard asks him to be an impartial chronicler of the history that may soon be made, but Picard himself has just as many compelling scenes -- in particular the extended sequence in which he dresses down the defecting Admiral Jarok while only raising his voice once, briefly. At least if the whole crew is sort of sharing focus in this episode, they all come off smart. No one really seems to trust the situation; and they do indeed figure out how they're being deceived.

It's a good episode for guest stars. James Sloyan makes his first Star Trek appearance as Alidar Jarok. He gives an excellent, sympathetic performance; it's understandable that he'd be used again in a later Next Generation episode, as well as on Voyager, and in the important role of Odo's "father" Mora Pol on Deep Space Nine. Andreas Katsulas returns as Tomalak, and is once again a solid Romulan adversary. He's really an interesting foil for the Enterprise crew, and it's a shame we never saw him again on the series. (Not "for real" anyway; he appears as a hologram in the fourth season, and in an alternate reality in the series finale.)

And there's another "guest star" who might look familiar. The teaser shows us Data on the holodeck, performing a scene from Shakespeare's Henry V with two holographic actors. One is played by Patrick Stewart, who wears makeup and employs an unusual accent. It's not enough to keep him from being recognized, but since Picard himself is also in the scene, there isn't really any confusion.

The reason for Stewart's "cameo" here is more than just the show taking advantage of an accomplished Shakespearean actor in their midst; the scene was actually his idea. This opening teaser was originally written as a Sherlock Holmes scene, but then came a last minute complication. At the time the series made the episode "Elementary, Dear Data," the writers believed the character of Sherlock Holmes to be lapsed into the public domain. In fact, descendants of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle still retained a small percentage of the rights, and were entitled to financial compensation for the use. Paramount, having failed to secure those rights for the prior episode, were now in hot water over it. This delayed an actual Moriarty sequel episode until the sixth season of the series, and meant that a substitution had to be made for the opening here. With just two days to go until filming, Michael Piller went to Patrick Stewart as a sort of "resident scholar," who suggested that Henry V offered excellent parallels to this episode, both in the Romulan Admiral masquerading as a low-ranking officer, and in Picard's own wishes to know if the people under his command were prepared to go to war over this situation. Indeed, these connections add a lot to the episode, and you can sense that Jean-Luc Picard's enthusiasm for Shakespeare here is really Patrick Stewart's.

Other observations:
  • Ron Jones delivers another excellent score. He continues to develop the Romulan theme he created in earlier episodes, and also delivers a nice blast of a Klingon anthem when their ships make a surprise appearance.
  • Tomalak's presence in this episode isn't the only point of continuity with "The Enemy." Dr. Crusher references that opportunity to have learned about Romulan medicine, and gives Worf a meaningful, accusatory look for his actions then.
  • Data gets to give a log entry in this episode (a follow-up on Picard's request to chronicle events).
  • Despite the fact that the Romulan warbird in the opening cloaks as it veers off, Worf is somehow able to detect that it's returning to the Neutral Zone.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what might have made this episode truly great, but it's still a fairly good one. I give it a B.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

(Mostly) Great Scott

The Gloria Scott is the "origin story" of Sherlock Holmes adventures, chronicling what the consulting detective himself refers to as his first case. In it, there are elements that work very well, and some not quite as well thought out.

In the plus column, the depiction of the younger Holmes who doesn't quite realize his own capabilities is convincing. The mystery here revolves around Holmes off-handedly using his deductive reasoning as a parlor trick on a friend's father, and coming so near a long-hidden secret as to terrify the man. Later, when that secret past comes home to roost, the friend enlists Holmes to get the bottom of the puzzle. Believably for a first time detective, Holmes isn't quite able to do so... or at least, not in a way that averts tragedy.

The case itself plays reasonably fair with the audience. You're not provided quite enough detail to actually deduce the solution, but you can certainly get in the ballpark of the answer, as Holmes does. You even have an advantage the detective himself does not have -- the knowledge of the mystery's title, and the strong indication it must refer to a ship of some kind.

But on the down side, Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't willing to dispense with the character of Watson to tell to this story. Thus, the story is actually Holmes sitting down to tell the tale of his first adventure to Watson, and Watson in turn recounting it to us. It's two steps removed from the actual action. Worse still is when Holmes, in his narrative, comes to moments where his friend is recounting his backstory to then-young Holmes. So now Watson is recounting Holmes, who is telling a story of a time that a friend of his once told him a story. The quotation marks get nested three deep for a significant chunk of the tale, and it's quite off-putting. While I certainly feel that Watson is a vital part of any "modern" Holmes adventure, I think the thing to do for this tale would have been to set him aside and just tell Holmes' first mystery, straight up.

Still, the tale manages to be fairly compelling overall... one of the better Holmes stories to date, in fact. I'd give it a B+.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Black Spot

I'm a bit behind in my reading, and haven't yet had a chance to read the latest fantasy novel by Terry Brooks. (I'm used to him publishing once a year, and he's on a once-every-six-months pace with his newest trilogy.) But I did find an hour to read his newest short story, The Black Irix. This is the third entry in his Paladins of Shannara series of short stories, revisiting characters from his very first trilogy published decades ago. But compared to the prior entries, Allanon's Quest and The Weapon Master's Choice, this one was unfortunately a disappointment.

The story picks up after Brooks' original novel, The Sword of Shannara, and focuses on the young brothers at the heart of that story, Shea and Flick Ohmsford. When they became separated during that novel, Shea teamed up with a roguish character named Panamon Creel, who now returns in this short story to recruit Shea for one more adventure. He wants to steal a precious item that was a token of their mutual friend, which has now fallen into someone else's hands. Flick doesn't want Shea to go, but Shea feels a debt to both Panamon and their fallen friend, so all three set off on this smaller quest together.

In The Sword of Shannara, a novel that has been criticized by some for following too closely the plot structure and character sketches of The Lord of the Rings, Panamon Creel was one of Brooks' more original inventions. Basing a tale around his character seems like a natural choice for this series of short stories. But unfortunately, the tale is told entirely from the point of view of the Ohmsford brothers. It's not that they're bad characters. It's even an understandable choice, given that The Sword of Shannara had no sections written from Panamon's perspective. But it doesn't do justice to the content of this story.

Panamon Creel is the driving character here. He's the one who sets the quests; he's the one who has the plan on how to pull off the theft, and he does not fill the brothers in on what he's thinking. Consequently, the "main characters" of this story, the ones whose eyes we see it through, don't really affect the story. They bob around, caught up in the tide, and when the biggest moments come, we don't even actually get to witness them. Panamon is away, out of the brothers' sight, and only returns later to fill us in on everything that happened. It deflates any possibility of tension from the story, and resolves everything in a rather unsatisfying way.

Brooks' writing technique itself -- word choice, illumination of character through inner monologue, and so forth -- is still on display, so the short story is brisk and fun to read on that level. But the plot is just an enormous letdown, a real "why bother?" of a story that could have been far more compelling if told from another perspective. I think you'd have to be a longtime Terry Brooks fan with a powerful nostalgia for his first book to enjoy this story. I'm the former, though I don't have the latter. (I've always felt that Brooks became a much better writer in later books, as he stepped out from Tolkien's shadow.)

The Black Irix gets a C in my opinion. It's only $1, and quite short, so you won't be out much money or time if you do decide to pick it up. But I nevertheless can't recommend you do so.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Vengeance Factor

"The Vengeance Factor" is a rather forgettable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While watching it, you do get a sense of what the writers were trying for, but they miss the mark a bit. The results aren't bad, but they are rather boring.

The Enterprise responds to an attack and theft by a piratical group known as The Gatherers. Seeking a way to end these attacks for good, the ship proceeds to Acamar, the now peaceful world from which the Gatherers splintered away long ago. Picard convinces the Acamarian sovereign to make an overture to the Gatherers, inviting them to give up their nomadic existence and return to their homeworld. But it will be a difficult negotiation. The Gatherers are violent rogues still grounded in a way of life the Acamarians have left behind: endless, murderous vendettas between rival clans. And a member of the sovereign's own delegation is herself secretly pursuing just such a vendetta.

Back in the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, episodes that flopped often did so for lack of focus on any of the main characters. It's a mistake not made in the third season until now. This episode is all about the guest stars -- and none of the characters are that compelling. We have an abstract reunification story, complicated by an abstract blood feud. The Acamarian sovereign is positively bipolar; she's compassionate and calm one moment, flying off the handle the next, and constantly vacillating in whether she thinks this peace overture is a good idea. The Gatherers are all just cartoonish "scoundrels," but possess only the odious qualities and none of the charming roguishness. It's hard to care about any of this without one of the main characters providing our access point.

The writers clearly thought they had provided such an access point in Commander Riker. He forms a bond with Yuta, the sovereign's quiet servant who is really a vengeful assassin working to annihilate every member of a specific clan. Riker spends the episode trying to get closer to Yuta, and then is forced to kill her at the end when she won't back down from her quest for vengeance. The drama of the episode is supposed to be that this is a tragic and soul crushing thing for Riker to do, but that drama doesn't really work.

The problem as I see it is that Riker has, to this point, been written as simply too big a horndog. From the beginning of the show, he's been cast in the James T. Kirk mode of bedding every shapely alien female he comes across. (There was even a horrible montage about this in "Shades of Gray.") With that "love 'em and leave 'em" history in place, this episode then has an added burden to convince us that this female, Yuta, is different. And it doesn't even make an effort at this. The episode either needed to devote a whole lot more screen time to the relationship (something it didn't have the luxury of doing, given the time needed to lay out the political landscape), or it needed to have a different character in the central role. Picard, Troi, Geordi, Worf... these are characters who don't fall in love every other week; I feel the story would have worked better for one of them.

Further dulling the proceedings this hour is the fact that the audience is uncharacteristically informed ahead of the characters. Star Trek almost always reveals the solutions to its mysteries in the final act of an episode, the characters showing us what they have discovered. This time, the audience is a witness to Yuta's first murder halfway through the episode, and we spend the rest of our time waiting for the characters to catch up. The attempt to try something different is understandable, but it simply doesn't play out well here.

Without the whodunnit to keep us engaged, the episode falls back on how it was done for the big reveal. And it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It turns out that Yuta is the carrier of a genetically engineered virus that triggers heart attacks in only members of the rival clan she's trying to kill. What's more, her aging process has been slowed so that she can live long enough to carry out her vengeance killings. So her race has access to highly advanced genetics and an apparent means to stop aging? How is this not the most important thing going on in the episode? How is this just a tossed-away afterthought?

But in this rather boring episode, there are a few moments of interest:
  • The show continues to be more sophisticated in beginning an episode, just starting us with an Away Team beaming down and leaving us to suss out the story, rather than downloading it in a dense, expository Captain's Log.
  • There's an intriguing commentary on Starfleet's values early on in this episode. Though Picard praises the planet Acamar for enjoying a global peace, he still pressures its leader to invite the warlike Gatherers back. It seems that inclusiveness is a higher ideal than world peace. Discuss.
  • Rare props to composer Dennis McCarthy, who provides a strange and interesting synth percussion rhythm for the Gatherer ambush on the Away Team.
  • Worf gets a great line: "Your ambush would be more successful if you bathed more often."
  • Random fact: this was the final episode of The Next Generation to air in the 1980s.
  • But getting back to things that don't quite work: the very first shot of the episode looks out a station window at what I thought to be some very fake-looking scenery, uncharacteristically bad for the series. I then happened to read online that this background was actually pulled from storage, having first been created for the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. So that explains the fake quality, I guess.
  • The final moments of the episode struck me wrong too. There's a real filler of a button scene in which Riker is mourning in Ten Forward over having to kill Yuta, and Picard comes up to talk about shore leave plans. It shows an odd lack of awareness for Picard, who completely ignores the fact that Riker is so glum, and it's odd for a Star Trek button, which usually offers some commentary on what we've just seen to wrap everything up.
Despite all the flaws I've mentioned, this episode, as I've said, comes off more boring than bad. I'd give it a C-.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mhysa

With last week's monumental of episode of Game of Thrones completely upsetting expectations for the non-book readers, it fell to this episode to simply reassure everyone that there was still more story to tell. (Don't give up the show, please!) The approach seemed to be to touch, at least briefly, on every storyline they could, even if they didn't culminate in a particularly cliffhangery place.

The writers did manage to find time for an original scene, a very nice exchange between Varys and Shae. If you take Varys at his word (a suspect proposition, to be sure), he seems to legitimately care about the world at large, and legitimately believe that Tyrion is one of the few equipped to save it. But Shae, no longer wanting to be thought of as a whore, wasn't about to take money to up and leave.

Of course, there were plenty of other great scenes that were more grounded in the books. King's Landing served up a number of gems. There was the wonderful opening scene where Sansa showed just how young and naive she really is by confessing her idea of a nefarious scheme for revenge. There was the great council scene revolving around Joffrey, in which both Tyrion and Tywin cut him down to size. There was the uncharacteristically earnest discussion between Tyrion and Cersei about how to ease Sansa's sadness. And of course, the moment when Cersei realizes Jaime has returned.

There was the continuing torture of Theon, along with the reveal of the identity of his torturer and the assignment of his new identity that readers of A Dance With Dragons know well. Balon Greyjoy and Theon's sister (named Yara on the show) were also reintroduced, ramping back up for the larger role the Iron Islands play in the fourth book. (As for the grisly gift they received, Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake were very clear, step one is supposed to be "cut a hole in a box.")

There was the brief meeting of Sam and Bran, one of the rare character intersections between the separated plots. There were a pair of nice scenes between Davos and Gendry. And once again, as in season one, Daenerys had the "uplifting final moment" in her story across the ocean.

For book readers, who last week were asking "didn't Ygritte shoot Jon Snow as he in the book?" we got the scene were she caught up with him and delivered her "you know nothing" line with an entirely different tone.

But my personal favorite scene had to be the moment with Arya, who viciously committed her first murder, invoking the words of the assassin who gave her her coin. The Hound's reaction was priceless, not chastising her for doing it, nor warning her not to something like that again. He only wanted to be told ahead of time the next time she was going to do it.

So there we have it -- the last Game of Thrones until 2014. I've had a lot of fun discussing this latest season with my friends who have read the books, enough that I'm seriously considering reading them again before the next season rolls around. (We'll see if that happens. We are talking a serious time commitment there.)

Now, bring on the final season of Dexter, please!

Sunday, June 09, 2013

A Candle Lit Evening

Two weeks ago, Game of Thrones (and HBO) took a week off for Memorial Day and instead ran an original movie, Behind the Candelabra -- a biopic about pianist-entertainer Liberace and the life he kept hidden from the public. I've written before a few times that biopic movies don't usually thrill me, but there were a few things about this one that grabbed my attention.

The main draw was that this was something of a passion project for many of the people involved. Director Steven Soderbergh has been talking about his intent to retire from filmmaking soon, but seems to keep finding "one more movie" to make. It does suggest that any movie he's making at this point had something fairly compelling about it on the script page that might make it worth a look. His Liberace film has been in the works for long enough that he secured his two stars, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, years ago, and both were actively talking up how they looked forward to making the movie.

What Soderbergh wasn't able to secure in all that time was a studio. He reportedly shopped the film around to every major studio in Hollywood, and was turned down by all of them. No one wanted to make a film that was that "gay," was the story, until he turned to HBO. So what was conceived of as an Oscar bait bio movie wound up a big ratings draw on HBO.

The movie does manage to negotiate some of the flaws I perceive in the average biography film. Usually, these films suffer for not really having a narrative throughline. The movie wants to tell you the entire life story of the subject, show you adversity and triumph, and wrap the whole thing up in an ending that (if you know anything about the subject of the film) you already know. Behind the Candelabra manages to generate a bit more interest by really being a film about Liberace's lover Scott, Matt Damon's character, rather than about the man himself. The film picks up with Liberace already a celebrated sensation, and we follow this young man's slow entrapment in the web rather than the celebrity's rise to stardom. That said, you still know exactly where the story is going. Whether you know about the end of Liberace's life or not, you can tell how Scott's story will end right from the opening minutes of the film. And there's really nothing that compelling about this "slow descent" film to separate it from the many others like it.

But there are some good performances. Michael Douglas is an excellent Liberace. He manages to channel the real man credibly without making it seem like an impersonation, and he manages to play a man who embodied the flamboyant gay stereotype while still seeming like a real person. Matt Damon is also excellent as Scott. You'd probably think him far too old to play a role like this, but he portrays the young man's early naivete so believably that you never question it. There are also great supporting roles played by Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, and Rob Lowe.

Had this actually been released on the big screen, though, the person most deserving of an Academy Award would have been the makeup artist. The work here is absolutely superb. Both of the main actors are playing people younger than their actual age, and the work done to make them look younger is absolutely undetectable. On the other end of the spectrum, there's much showier makeup work too. Rob Lowe's character is a smarmy plastic surgeon whose own face has been contorted into an absolute freak show. The work done on Lowe in the film is genius, because the actor remains totally recognizable, while still managing to look like he's been in some horrible kind of accident. Similarly effective work is then done on Matt Damon in the second half of the film, to depict his character after the surgeries Liberace made him undergo. Brilliant, brilliant work.

But the movie itself, despite the good performances, is still simple paint-by-numbers fare. My attention waned several times throughout, and by the end I really hadn't seen whatever it was that had captured Steven Soderbergh's imagination. I give the movie a C+.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Price

Poor Counselor Troi. The third season writers at Star Trek: The Next Generation were really figuring out a lot about the show, but never quite seemed to know what to do with her character. After the early third season misfire "The Survivors," they tried again to build a story around her -- with roughly the same results.

A technologically limited race has discovered a stable wormhole in their space. Lacking the means to exploit the resource, they open negotiations for control of it, hosted aboard the Enterprise. One of the alien delegations is represented by "gun-for-hire" negotiator Devinoni Ral, a morally flexible human who hides his one-quarter Betazoid lineage and his empathic abilities to gain an upper hand at the bargaining table. Troi is swept up in a whirlwind love affair with him. As negotiations grow tense with the arrival of the Ferengi, Data and Geordi are sent to explore the far side of the wormhole, where they learn it may not be exactly what it seems to be.

There are some good things going on in this episode, but first let's start with the bad: basically everything about the Counselor Troi storyline. Showrunner Michael Piller acknowledged in interviews that this wasn't a strong episode, but he maintained that they had a strong script that serviced Troi's character well. I strongly disagree; I think it does great disservice to both the character and the actress.

It starts with Troi falling so instantly in love, abandoning any professionalism or good judgment, that she puts out on the first date with a total stranger. And not at the end of the date, either. Ral shows up at her quarters, they decide to skip dinner, he literally sweeps her off her feet, and they're off to bed. Troi comments that her "human physical response" must be interfering with her Betazoid senses, but it's a lame excuse for her to neither realize that her new man has empathic powers, nor sense that he's a rather morally bankrupt individual.

Each act brings an indignanty on Troi worse that the act before. Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden are forced to suit up in leotards and thongs to gossip about boys during a pre-workout stretch. Troi then gets walloped thoroughly in a moral argument against Devinoni Ral; her character is given absolutely no compelling points to argue against anything he says to her. And to cap off the show, Troi "outs" him in front of everyone. Ral has decided to hide the fact that he's an empath from people, and Troi blurts it out to everyone even though it will probably damage his career. The negotiations have already closed at this point too; it's not like they can say "oh, we didn't know you were an empath, so these negotiations are null and void." Nope, she just drags him out of the "empathic closet" apparently just because she's mad she lost an argument to him.

Even setting aside all that, it's simply not a steamy romance. Between some unpolished writing and a terrible performance from guest actor Matt McCoy, Devinoni Ral doesn't at all come off as the suave and seductive character he's meant to be. He comes off creepy, off-putting, and smarmy. Whenever Troi asks for a moment to slow things down, he chastises her for it with a kind of a date rape vibe. And he seems way too transparent in the moments where he's supposed to be a persuasive negotiator. basically, he's really a huge jerk.

And hard though it is to believe now, this relationship actually got a lot of press leading up to the original premiere of the episode in 1989. This episode actually contained the first "bed scene" shown in any incarnation of Star Trek. (Hard to believe, given Kirk's reputation, but remember he was hooking up with every woman in the cosmos during the 1960s.) The advance word that these scenes were coming -- and that they were super steamy -- had some people in a tizzy. I have a hard time believing this was steamy even by 1980s television standards; even at the time, it must have completely fallen flat.

Fortunately, while the Troi storyline may be just short of a disaster, there are good elements working in the rest of the episode. The Ferengi are back in the mix, and this is the first time they're being used deliberately for comedic effect. It really works, and it feeds an atmosphere where the main cast gets to cut loose just a bit too. Patrick Stewart does some great "takes" as Picard. Riker delivers the wonderfully deadpan line: "Poker. Is that a game of some sort?" Data gets a great comedic line too, "comforting" Geordi about the possibility of being stranded together in a shuttle 80 years from home.

And actually, you could say that this episode inspired two entire Star Trek series that followed. Deep Space Nine would revolve around a stable wormhole, while Voyager would deal with a ship that got trapped across the galaxy (as happens to a Ferengi shuttle in this episode; Voyager even did a sequel to this episode by following up on what happened to them).

Other observations:
  • This is the first episode establishing Troi's love of chocolate.
  • In a totally "ahead of its time" moment for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Troi essentially Googles Devinoni Ral after meeting him, when she wants to know more about him.
  • There's a goofy line where Riker says Geordi has been in "continuous visual contact" with the wormhole since the Enterprise arrived. So, what, he's just been staring out a window somewhere for 12 hours?
  • Troi gets quite defensive when it's suggested that she and Riker are a couple. It's an interesting bit of psychology, when you consider that the two do end up getting married in the movies. She seems right now to think they can't be together while they work together, so her mind isn't even letting her entertain the possibility.
  • The actor who plays Arridor seemingly couldn't talk around his false Ferengi teeth very well. All his dialogue appears to have been re-recorded after the original performance.
  • Troi claims that she can sense DaiMon Goss is lying in this episode; this is before it was established in a later episode that Betazoids can't read the Ferengi.
  • The tall alien Leyor is played by Kevin Peter Hall, who made a career of playing tall creatures -- most notably the Predator.
Despite the terrible romance storyline, there's enough worthwhile material in this episode to keep it from falling into the cellar. I give "The Price" a C-.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Grin and Bare It

This week, the Barenaked Ladies released a new album, their second since the departure of singer Steven Page. It's titled Grinning Streak, and that's an appropriate contrast to the songs of their previous album, All in Good Time.

Band leader (and principal songwriter) Ed Robertson has indicated in several interviews that there was a lot of turmoil in his life during the last album, and that's reflected in the fact that the more powerful tracks there were the melancholy ones. By contrast, this new album swings back strongly to the sort of bouncy fun that has been the hallmark of the band from the beginning.

But it's a bit different for the band as well. To my ear, it sounds like Barenaked Ladies is reaching for their most "pop music" sound ever. It's an approach that I think yields mixed results. My two favorite tracks on the album are "Odds Are" and "Did I Say That Out Loud?" The tracks have a somewhat similar sound, employing more basic rhythms, simple lyrics, and a few techniques that I'd associate with the boy band toolbox -- stop-and-start instrumentation and unison chanting in the chorus. Part of me is whispering that I'm not supposed to like them, but they are truly catchy songs.

And yet there are other songs that play with things like computer-processed vocals ("Off His Head") and drum machine percussion ("Keepin' It Real"), that I find far less effective. Plus of course, the obligatory song written and sung by pinch-voiced keyboardist Kevin Hearn; that's always been my least favorite track of any Barenaked Ladies album, and this album's entry ("Daydreamin'") is no exception.

I'd say this is a slightly weaker effort than All in Good Time, though the album certainly has its highlights. I'd grade it a B overall.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

New Developments

It's been about a week and a half since Netflix unveiled the new, fourth season of Arrested Development. I know people who binge watched them all that day, and others who have only just started to go through them. I fall somewhere between the extremes, having just finished all 15 episodes a couple of nights ago. Acknowledging that probably nothing could have lived up to the quality of the original three seasons of the series, nor the 7 years of anticipation that have built up since then, I still have to say that these new episodes, while good overall, were not "great."

In the plus column, the humor of Arrested Development is still intact, and very clever. Episodes are loaded with callbacks, in-jokes, broad comedy, wordplay, and everything in between. The writers don't intend for you to catch every joke the first time through, just the same as the original three seasons, and they're willing to wait for you do go back and mine the new layers they've worked in.

All the actors are back, and they still know their characters oh-so-well. The writing was always great on classic Arrested Development, but it was the work of the skilled cast that made it soar. Seven years later, they aren't missing a beat as they slip back into their old roles.

But part of the problem is that it is seven years later, and many of these actors have moved on to other things. Most of them are actively working on other projects, and simply weren't available at the drop of a hat to come back and make more Arrested Development, no matter how much they may have wanted to. This limited availability of the actors led to the unusual construction of season 4: each episode is centered on one character. Some episodes are missing certain characters entirely, and some characters (particularly Maeby and Buster) seem barely in the season at all.

This damages the show in a few subtle ways. First, we miss out on the full spectrum of character interactions. Classic Arrested Development was always mixing and matching characters in fun ways; in this batch of 15 episodes, some characters hardly say more than a few words to one another. We also get only one ensemble scene in the entire run, depriving us of the series' fun group scenes in which each character is chiming in with his own selfish thread.

Second, some characters just aren't as able to carry a full episode on their own. People might debate about who their favorite character is... and they may even change their minds from one episode to the next. But sometimes a little of one character goes a long way. There are dry spots in the Lindsay episodes, for example; and the first of two George Sr. episodes is one long dry spot from beginning to end.

Of course, the slow spots are not always just because of the characters. It's sometimes about the run time too. The first three seasons of Arrested Development had to fit into a brisk 22 minutes to make room for commercials. Every episode of this new batch is at least 30 minutes long, and some are even pushing the 40 minute mark. And it turns out that sometimes, there can be "too much of a good thing." Some jokes that fall flat are left in, when they never would have made a 22-minute cut.

All that said, this new crop of episodes is funny a lot more often than not. I loved the very first episode, and the opening 5 minutes in particular I found a wonderful welcome back to everything I loved about Arrested Development. The two Gob episodes were great, as were the late-in-season Maeby and Buster episodes. This new season did a wonderful job of incorporating many great secondary characters from the original run, and had a great time with new characters too. (I personally enjoyed seeing "Ron Howard" poke fun at himself, while the "narrator" remained a separate persona.)

All in all, I would say these new episodes were strong enough to keep the overall reputation of Arrested Development intact... while at the same time, not being as good as the original run. I'd give season 4 as a whole a B+.