Saturday, August 31, 2013

TNG Flashback: Tin Man

After a run of fairly strong episodes generated mainly in-house, Star Trek: The Next Generation once again looked outside its regular writing staff for the story that became its next episode, "Tin Man."

A long-range space probe discovers a massive living spaceship orbiting a dying star. The Enterprise is tasked with reaching the ship before a rival ship sent by the Romulans. To achieve contact with the creature, they are ordered to bring along a borderline unstable Betazoid named Tam Elbrun, whose dubious negotiating history adds even more uncertainty to the mission.

"Tin Man" came from an outside trio of writers. Two had written a short story in 1976 that won a Nebula award, later adapting it into a full length novel. They were inspired to adapt it again for Star Trek after watching the episode "Samaritan Snare," which one of them called "the most abysmal piece of Star Trek ever filmed." They figured they could do better, and got their episode on the air about one year later. (A strange Writers Guild rule of the time did not allow three members of a writing team to all be paid, so the third writer of this episode went uncredited. One of the other two substituted his own middle name for the missing writer's, allowing her at least partial credit for the work.)

While the episode is good overall, it does fall back a bit into one of the bad habits of the earlier seasons of the show -- the story is too much about the guest star. This story belongs to Tam Elbrun. We do get a few tidbits of animosity from Riker, and we visit the always reliable pairing of Troi and Data to give us emotional and emotionless perspectives on the guest... but it's still Elbrun's adventure. It's all about his wounded soul, and how it's healed when he unites with the space creature/ship.

Fortunately, Elbrun is a more interesting character than the guest stars of so many bad early Next Generation episodes. He's not a boring, well-adjusted Federation type, nor an irrational one-note alien obstacle. Instead, he's an interesting exploration of how telepathy could drive one insane. We learn that Betazoids are not born telepathic, instead developing such abilities in adolescence. Children are ill-equipped to process other peoples' thoughts, so the few like Tam Elbrun who are born "switched on" face a difficult life. He's deliberately abrasive to everyone, finishing their sentences and pushing them away because he can't shut out their thoughts. He finds an interesting kindred spirit in Data, someone else who is "different," and bonds with him in large part because he can't read Data telepathically.

Actor Harry Groener is strong in the role of Tam Elbrun. He was a regular on the sitcom "Dear John," and may also be recognized by fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the Mayor of Sunnydale. Here, he gets the difficult and thankless work normally thrust upon Marina Sirtis as Troi: naming a litany of emotions and trying to walk the line of portraying them without making it too hammy. He does reasonably well at this, which given the enormous difficulty of the job, means it's a very good performance.

But there are other aspects of the episode which, while not "failures" as such, aren't executed as successfully. The final act puts Data and Tam Elbrun aboard the living ship, Gomtuu, and it isn't really convincing as an organic, alien environment. (Director Robert Scheerer even admitted as much in subsequent interviews.) There's interesting camera work from odd, high angles, and some unusual sound design (one of the editors reportedly used a stethoscope to record his own stomach digesting pizza), but these elements can't overcome a very mechanical-looking set.

There are also enormous stretches of technobabble in the episode. A confrontation with the Romulans midway through the episode leaves the Enterprise damaged, and LeVar Burton is saddled with pages of nonsense about trying to repair it. He does his best to sell it (and he certainly makes it all sound important), but it's truly boring stuff.

Still, the bulk of the episode does work. There's an adventurous race against the Romulans, a strange and otherworldly object of their hunt, and even a ticking clock in the form of a star about to go supernova. It's not bad.

But this episode is a bad milestone if you're a fan of composer Ron Jones. I've written before about producer Rick Berman's preference for bland musical "wallpaper" in the series' scores -- an edict that Ron Jones regularly ignored while still managing to keep his job scoring every other episode in alternation with Dennis McCarthy. Still, it's probably safe to say that Jones wasn't on Rick Berman's good side. In 1990, Jones was invited to speak at a composers' symposium in the Soviet Union, a trip he cleared with the Star Trek production office well in advance. But a schedule change on the trip apparently surprised the producers when they called Jones for work and found him out of the country. So a new-to-Star-Trek composer, Jay Chattaway, was brought in to score this episode. Though Jones wasn't dropped permanently on the spot, this was likely a key nail in the coffin for his life on the show.

Interestingly, Chattaway's score for "Tin Man" is rather in the style of Ron Jones. Though he'd later go along with Berman's subdued musical sensibilities when he began working regularly on the show, his music here is quite flashy and prominent. There are brash horns for the Romulan encounters, so brazen that they almost feel like Fred Steiner's work on the original Star Trek series and in "Code of Honor." There's an emotional melody for the Tin Man creature, carried on an instrument that sounds like a wooden flute, but is in fact created by synthesizers. Few of Chattaway's later scores for Star Trek would be as dynamic and fun to listen to as this one.

Other observations:
  • Tam Elbrun's first scene is full of great little moments, from his total shock at not having sensed Data in the room, to Picard changing his briefing plans just to be contrary to what Elbrun read in his mind.
  • The Romulan warbirds are named "D'deridex" class ships for the first time in this episode.
  • The effect of the command chair aboard Gomtuu rising out of the floor was achieved by creating a wax model of the chair, filming it in time lapse as it melted, then running the film in reverse.
  • The Gomtuu "attack" effect is not an original visual created for this episode. It's lifted from the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from the ending when V'ger "evolves," and spliced in here.
For a guest-driven episode, "Tin Man" is actually a fairly strong one. I give it a B.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Turn the Other Cheek

The first Kick-Ass film was something of a charmer, entertaining me in the theater and then warming its way further up in my esteem over time. (Though I only gave it a B in my original review, today it sits in A- territory on my Flickchart.) House stuff kept me from rushing out to see the sequel on opening weekend, but there was no chance I was going to miss it entirely.

Kick-Ass 2 reunites the core cast of the original (the characters who survived, anyway) for another dose of super-violent mayhem. A fair amount of noise has been made in the media of this violence, particularly after new co-star Jim Carrey publicly announced his refusal to promote the film he'd completed, citing that events like Sandy Hook changed his thinking such that he could no longer endorse such a violent film. (I guess similar mass shootings prior to the movie's filming had no such impact on him? There have been more than a few.)

I could probably do a whole other post ranting about the specious connection between fictional violence and actual violence (short version: a huge portion of the world consumes American entertainment, the same violent movies, TV shows, and video games we do; violent media therefore fails to explain why our stats on violence are so much higher than theirs). But to stick to the subject at hand, Kick-Ass and its new sequel are a more rare breed, in that the movies really examine the consequences of violence.

Kick-Ass 2 shows a young teenage girl struggling to honor the memory of her birth father (killed violently before her eyes) while keeping the promises she's made to her adopted one. It shows the consequences -- good and bad -- of what happens when more and more people are inspired to seek vigilante justice. And it all revolves a character who is to a large extent living the evil version of Batman's original story; a young man is motivated to become a supervillain after his father is killed by a hero. And, specifically to Jim Carrey's flawed point, his own character in this movie carries a gun but refuses to actually load it.

In short, much of what was inspired and great about the first Kick-Ass is here in the sequel. It's a very entertaining romp full of laugh-out-loud jokes, thoughtful (but never overt) social commentary, and fun performances. But, as is so often the case with sequels, it's not as good as the original. The biggest problem in my mind is that the most entertaining character of the series, Chloë Grace Moretz's Hit Girl, doesn't even seem to be in the same movie as the rest of the cast. As everyone else is starring in a sequel to Kick-Ass, she's off in a remake of Mean Girls, an at-times entertaining one, but one that often feels like two batches of film canisters got accidentally shuffled together.

The visual effects are also uniformly terrible. To be clear, I'm not the sort of person who enjoys a film solely based on the quality of the effects. Summer is loaded with blockbusters that are stacked high with eye-popping visuals, but with storytelling that ranges from uninspired at best to aggressively deficient at worst. I generally just don't care about the effects. But there does come a point where they're so bad, so unconvincing, that it pulls you out of the experience. Such is the case with Kick-Ass 2. The major chase sequence in the final act uses green-screening so bad, it looks like decades-old work. And the CG accompanying a sight gag called the "Sick Stick" would seem more at home in an animated cartoon.

But overall, the movie is great ride. I've already mentioned Chloë Grace Moretz, and she is once again excellent in this movie. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is again sympathetic as the title character -- and asked to play some much deeper emotional material this time out. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (best known as "McLovin" from Superbad, but who picks up a very different nickname here) manages to negotiate being laughable, pitiable, and threatening. And though Jim Carrey's role here is surprisingly small, it's also surprisingly good. He leaves the Carrey bag of tricks at home, disappearing behind his character's mask and thankfully doing nothing that makes it feel like he's trying to steal the spotlight with his usual antics.

I give Kick-Ass 2 a B+. If you like the first, I don't see how you wouldn't like the second.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TNG Flashback: Captain's Holiday

Early in the third season on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart was lobbying the writers (including new writer Ronald Moore) to give Captain Picard more "shooting and screwing" to do. This led to more active roles in general for the captain in episodes like "Sins of the Father," but it led very specifically to the episode I'm reviewing today, "Captain's Holiday."

After a stressful treaty negotiation is concluded, Captain Picard is in serious need of a vacation, and the crew conspires to make him take it. He heads to the pleasure planet of Risa, but the trip isn't exactly relaxing. He meets the cunning (and conning) Vash, an archaeologist who may have discovered where to find a powerful artifact lost by a time traveler from the future. The two go searching for the artifact, the Tox Uthat, together -- but they're pursued by a Ferengi that Vash recently double-crossed, and by a pair of aliens from the future. All are seeking the Tox Uthat for their own purposes, and it's up to Picard to determine who, if anyone, should end up with it.

"Captain's Holiday" is a fun adventure tale with a Maltese Falcon kind of flavor -- particularly in how the actual object of the hunt feels unimportant in its specifics, and in the way the Ferengi adversary Sovak (played by Max Grodenchik, who would later play Rom on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) feels inspired by the Peter Lorre character. Show runner Michael Piller likened the script to an installment of Magnum P. I. in its first draft, noting that the writing was fine, but that it didn't feel particularly like a Star Trek episode. Ronald Moore solved this to his satisfaction with the suggestion that the artifact being hunted come from the future rather than the past.

What really makes this episode shine is how light it is, and how well the comedic moments land. They start even before Picard makes it to Risa, with the whole crew conspiring to send Picard on holiday. (Well, not the whole crew; Riker deadpans that "...there are two ensigns stationed on deck 39 who know nothing about it.") Dr. Crusher badgers, Riker talks up Risa (to Troi's chagrin), and Troi even threatens a visit from her mother, all to get Picard off the ship for a few days. The comedy continues in Picard's education about "jamaharon," his first meeting with Vash, and his swashbuckling encounters with Sovak.

Of course, the episode is also a romance, and that aspect wouldn't work at all if there wasn't a lot of chemistry between the characters. Jennifer Hetrick makes a big impression as Vash (enough to appear in a later Next Generation episode, as well as a Deep Space Nine). Even though Picard is all nobility and Vash is half-truths and duplicity, they make a good couple. And it's just plain fun to hear someone refer to our dear captain as Jean-Luc, rather than calling him by rank.

The resolution of the adventure is fun, with double-crosses, counter-double-crosses, and whatever you'd call the layer beyond that. There was apparently supposed to be a direct implication of a time loop at the close of the episode, with the future Vorgons returning in the final scene to bookend their appearance in the teaser. The writers wisely decided this would be a bit too strange, and in the end opted to give Picard a wry line observing that, given that time travel was involved in their adventure, they might end up experiencing it all again.

Other observations:
  • Speaking of that teaser with the Vorgons, I believe this may be the first time in Star Trek: The Next Generation where the episode does not begin with the crew of the Enterprise. It's an intriguing hint of what's to come, a literal teaser.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy makes extensive use of his "Captain Picard theme" (the series theme he originally composed before Jerry Goldsmith's movie theme was used in its place). This is one of the very few times McCarthy repeats any thematic material.
  • Risa was a fun playground for the makeup and costume departments, with mixed results. It's fun to spot the Andorian in the background, for example... but the strange shower curtains the Risians wear look ridiculous. There's plenty of skin for everyone, from Picard's revealing Speedo to Vash's one-piece with a provocative slice exposing the navel.
  • This was the first episode directed by Chip Chalmers, who would direct many later episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He reportedly soldiered through this episode with a severe fever, collapsing between takes while the crew set up the next shot.
I think this episode rates a B+, and a rather high one at that, almost good enough to crack the next grade. It's a very solid entry for the season.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Worldly Review

The World's End is the latest in what is now the "Cornetto Trilogy" from director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It follows Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in crazy mayhem, a very British sensibility, and a prominent reference to an ice cream treat. This one depicts a group of old friends reuniting for a 12-stop pub crawl through a town that turns out to be harboring a dangerous and potentially apocalyptic secret.

Everyone in the group I went with was agreed: all three films in the series are enjoyable. But there was disagreement on which is the best. My nod still goes to Hot Fuzz, for so skillfully lampooning the conventions of noisy summer action flicks. I'd actually call The World's End the weakest film of the lot... though, as I said, it's still enjoyable.

It's nice that they've added a few actors to the mix this time. Joining Pegg and Frost in the pub crawl are three more actors, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and the ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Martin Freeman. It's a diverse group with lots of comic potential, which is increased by the fact that the character molds for Pegg and Frost have been shuffled up for this film -- as opposed to Hot Fuzz, this time it's Nick Frost playing the straight-arrow stick-in-the-mud and Pegg playing the bumbling screw-up.

I actually found the plot to be somewhat derivative of Hot Fuzz, which is probably why I didn't like it as much. Certainly, nothing is being stolen wholesale from the earlier movie, but the idea of a sweeping conspiracy hiding in a rural British town felt very familiar to me here. The humorously contrasting moments of epic violence felt familiar too -- though they are very well-executed here.

The bottom line is: if you liked Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, there's little chance you won't also like this movie. For me, it drops down to a B- from the higher marks of the other two, but it's still a fun film.

Friday, August 23, 2013


I can't remember the last time I've seen the internet have a collective freakout of the magnitude that greeted the announcement that Ben Affleck will be playing Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel. Unreal. And, I think, a bit ridiculous. Of course, I should preface all this by saying what my regular readers probably know: I don't often like superhero movies. But I really don't get why everyone's so upset about this casting choice.

Ben Affleck is the star of the most recent Oscar winning Best Picture. (Argo.) The movie was fantastic, and he was good in it. It's not like he has only a string of terrible movies to his name.

Yes, he made Daredevil, and from what I hear it's terrible. (I've never seen it.) But one bad turn as a superhero should hardly disqualify you from a second chance. Chris Evans was in two bad Fantastic Four movies (again, I'm taking that on word of mouth; I've never seen them), before becoming Captain America in two fairly good superhero movies.

Lest we forget, Michael Keaton was known for comedies (and generally, not good ones) before he became Batman, and he was just fine. He's certainly not the worst to play the part. If only we'd had the internet then for geeks to rage on.

"Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms."

Now, do I wish that maybe Affleck was directing the next Superman movie rather than starring in it? Sure. But I really don't understand what has everyone so convinced that he's going to make a terrible Batman. How about we worry about whether it's going to be a terrible movie with or without his involvement? After all, Man of Steel wasn't that great, and the entire team who made it is involved in the sequel.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Paint No More!

Last night, we finished painting! *

(* Barring the inevitable "you see a spot you missed," and the later painting of the base boards after the new flooring is installed.)

They also began installing our new hardwood floor yesterday. Things are at last starting to come together!

That's all I've got today. Just ludicrously relieved.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Painting... and Painting... and Painting

Home update!

Saturday was a our biggest "painting party" yet at the new house. Six friends joined us to take care of the last few rooms that still needed it. (One of them also helpfully crawled under the deck -- he found a way to fit -- to cap that sprinkler head.) We painted the remaining rooms upstairs and the basement...

...but couldn't quite call it "done." Sunday, we had to take care of the stairwell down into the basement, which took a little creative ladder use. My parents came over to lend a hand that day; my mom helped with touch-ups and edges around the house, while my dad helped out with one more wrinkle in the sprinkling system.

We still can't quite call the painting "done." We're heading back over tonight to paint the bannisters, and sand down a couple of patches we've had to go over in the wall a few times. The latter will need texture paint. Which means they'll still need actual paint. Which means no, we still won't quite be done. It's like the finish line keeps moving slightly further away.

But really, we're right there. Really.

Monday, August 19, 2013

TNG Flashback: Allegiance

After a run of several episodes thought to be among the series' best by many fans, Star Trek: The Next Generation came back down from the stratosphere with "Allegiance."

Captain Picard is abducted from his quarters and imprisoned with three aliens in a tiny room. The group must learn to work together -- and past their suspicions of one another -- to escape captivity. And Picard really must save himself, for his crew doesn't even know he's missing; a doppelganger has taken his place aboard the Enterprise, and is testing everyone's reactions to ever-stranger orders.

It's not that this is a bad episode. In fact, it's a much better version of an idea of the "mutiny against the captain" idea the series flirted with to disastrous results back in the first season. No, the problem is that this is treading very cliché and familiar territory for Star Trek in general, in fact going all the way back to the original series' original pilot episode, "The Cage." An advanced alien culture that doesn't understand some concept of humanity (in this case, authority) decides to abduct and imprison a crew member in a sort of laboratory experiment designed to investigate said concept. We've seen it again and again and again.

Just like in "The Cage," the unnamed alien species in this case is telepathic. There are loosely implied limitations on their telepathy, but their abilities are still advanced enough to riddle the plot with holes. How can they have learned so much about Picard to impersonate him so thoroughly (his catch phrases like "make it so," his love of Earl Grey tea) and yet be unable to telepathically understand the authority concepts they're trying to study? How is they can't telepathically detect when Picard becomes suspicious of their mole inside the experiment?

And they aren't the only problematic aliens in this episode. Picard is imprisoned with a character named Kova Tholl, of a race that is said to be known for its pacificism, and yet Tholl himself comes off as quite abrasive and passive-aggressive, as though he's deliberately goading others to irration. The violent Chalnoth named Esoqq is a caricature on the opposite end of the spectrum, with the curious (but convenient) ability to know from a quick taste that a food is poisonous to him.

Still, for its flaws, the episode is quite a showcase for Patrick Stewart as both Picard and the Picard duplicate. He shades the duplicate very close to the real thing in the beginning, and then gradually introduces the notion that maybe the alien wants to be found out as the episode goes on. There are many wonderfully awkward moments for the not-captain, from leading his officers in a drinking song in Ten Forward, to crashing the senior officers' poker game. (Interestingly, the only other time Picard shows up there is also noted as being uncharacteristic, for the very final scene of the series in "All Good Things...")

The truly great scene of the episode plays between Patrick Stewart as the double and Gates McFadden. After dangling the idea of a Jean-Luc/Beverly romance in front of the audience since the beginning of the series, we now get a payoff of that... under false pretenses. The double is essentially toying with the audience just as much as he's toying with Dr. Crusher, putting us effectively in her shoes. (Though interestingly, she says she doesn't want to pursue any relationship with Picard during the scene.) The soft lighting adds an appropriate soap opera kind of vibe, and the performances are excellent.

Also notable are some interesting camera choices during the episode. The alien holding cell is full of lens flare, virtually unseen in Star Trek (until J.J. Abrams took it over, anyway). There are strong, dramatic profiles used in the scene where Riker finally confronts the duplicate in the ready room. And the choices in editing clearly tell us the moments when the real Picard suspects which of his fellow prisoners is really one of his captors in disguise. The camera really tells a story throughout this episode.

Other observations:
  • Composer Ron Jones provides music that really highlights the suspicion and mistrust among Picard and his fellow captives.
  • There's a moment where the captives smash open a panel to try to hotwire the door open. The glass breaks with a really cheesy 1960s movie sound effect.
  • During the flirtation scene, Beverly notes that Jean-Luc doesn't dance. This observation is possibly being referenced much later in the film Star Trek: Insurrection, when Picard becomes aware of the youth-giving properties of the alien planet when he spontaneously begins dancing a mambo.
  • For a young acting ensign like Wesley Crusher, the decision to side with Riker and mutiny against "Captain Picard" is huge, especially when Wesley wasn't even present at the meeting where the senior officers broached the subject of rebellion. I wish more had been made of this moment for the character.
  • The aliens' comeuppance in this episode is delivered when, with a single nod from Picard, an order is given to capture the aliens in a force field. The point is supposed to be that even without true telepathy, the crew can communicate non-verbally. But to make this point, we're asked to accept that it takes no less than three bridge officers (Riker, Data, and Worf) to turn on one simple force field. Not a good system, if you ask me.
There are some good performances in this episode, particularly from Patrick Stewart, but the quality of the writing falls well short of the high marks the show had been hitting in the episodes before this. I give "Allegiance" a B-.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Super Troopers

Last night, I took a break from readying the new house to hit the movie theater for a special event. Starship Troopers was being screened. This alone would never have caught my interest; I would say I hated the movie, but I honestly found it too dumb to muster up anything as strong as hatred. But this screening was presented by the RiffTrax team, featuring a live version of their hilarious commentary.

Starship Troopers really has all the "qualities" that made for some of the best episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It had the same ideas repeatedly endlessly in scene after scene (in this case, spaceship flybys and mass slaughter of CG bugs). It had huge gaps in the (bad) dialogue perfect for inserting fast quips. I mean sure, the acting was slightly better than terrible, and the production values were through the roof for the time period, but this was still a "Manos: The Hands of Fate"-esque affair that would surely be the worst film in any director's career, had that director not also given us Showgirls.

The RiffTrax commentary was chock full of pop culture references, scathing putdowns, and running gags. On the rare occasion a joke didn't land, you only had to wait a moment for the next one. There were more laugh out loud moments than I could possibly remember... though my personal favorite had to be the quip for Michael Ironside's "you're it, until you die or I find someone better": "Those were my wedding vows."

It's been a while since I've enjoyed a RiffTrax commentary or an MST3K episode, but last night's event has me browsing their web site and keeping an eye open for their next theater event. Good times.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Do It Yourself

As we've been working to get our new house painted over the past week, we've been getting an ever more clear picture of the former owner. He seems to have thought himself handy, but in truth was barely even proficient at what my father has seen and dubbed "redneck repairs."

For example, when the pull-down shades in the master bedroom were coming out of the wall brackets, did he reattach the brackets to angle upward? No, he got a pair of pliers and squeezed the openings shut.

When the mini-blinds weren't quite long enough to reach the far side of the window? Screw through the top of the window about three-quarters of the way across!

Every room he had painted has missed spots and roller streaks all over the walls... and in one sad case where he'd decided to give a room the "cube treatment," the ceiling too.

And he clearly didn't understand the concept of a basic wall screw mounting bracket. Curtain rods resting on half hammered-in nails, anyone?

Probably the best moment was discovering that when the deck had been built in the backyard, he built it right over the top of a functioning sprinkler head that he never bothered to disable. Whenever that zone of the sprinkler system runs, it sprays water all over the underside of the deck. We still haven't figured out an approach to that problem.

But there has been a lot of good with the bad, in the form of friends and family. So far, we've had two big "painting parties," with people coming over to help us paint more in the span of a few hours than we'd have ever thought possible. My parents and my brother even came over one afternoon (in the middle of the week) to get an early start. My boyfriend's mother has got our kitchen looking practically brand new over some marathon cleaning sessions, and has branched out into other areas of the house that needed it almost as badly. (If the former owner knew little about a toolbox, he seemed to know even less about basic cleaning.)

In fact, it's starting to look like maybe... dare I even hope it?... we'll be able to finish up the painting this weekend. Meanwhile, the materials for the new hardwood floors we're having installed are being delivered this very day.

It's all coming together!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Music for Nothing

One of the newest soundtracks in my collection is the score from Joss Whedon's recent film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It's a particularly interesting addition in that is was composed by Whedon himself. The idea of the writer-director as composer isn't completely without precedent; he wrote all the songs for the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Once More With Feeling"), and many of the songs for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Still, this is his first foray into creating the underscore for one of his own works.

The results are mostly successful. The music certainly works within the context of the film itself. He's chosen a palette of instruments very appropriate for the mostly playful, but sometimes serious tale that is Much Ado About Nothing. Strings are the backbone of the score, often used in pizzicato for the more comedic moments, while moving into lower registers for heavier moments. Piano is also used in a similarly dual mode -- sometimes light, sometimes dark.

The melodies of the tracks are often carried by woodwinds. Again, things are higher up the register for lighter moments, with clarinets taking the lead, and lower for more serious moments, moving to oboe and bassoon. There's virtually no brass in the score at all, which at first I took to be an interesting artistic choice, but have since come to suspect as being a more savvy, intellectual one instead. I'm not 100% certain, but I believe the music has all been created on synthesizer rather than performed by live orchestra. It's an increasingly common choice among low-budget productions (particularly on television), but it has reached the point where many instrument sounds are rendered faithfully enough that can sometimes be hard to tell. The dead giveaway on any synthesizer score is the brass instruments, and it's possible Joss Whedon avoided them here to avoid using blatantly electronic sounds in a score for a very organic story.

It's a very atmospheric score overall that isn't nearly as strong for independent listening as it was in the film itself. That said, there are a few highlights. The villainous character of Don John has a theme that's all dark, bluesy jazz. It's featured in the track "If I Had My Mouth," and is the single strongest composition in Whedon's score. There are also two songs, using lyrics written by Shakespeare in the original play, and set to music by Whedon. The best by far -- and the highlight of the soundtrack -- is "Sigh No More," a wonderful slow jazz number laced with the feeling of a secluded tropical island band. It's performed by Whedon's brother and sister-in-law, keeping things in the family, but it doesn't feel like nepotism to give them the job; their voices are perfect for the track.

As I said, the soundtrack is a bit sedate overall, so it hasn't become a true favorite of mine that I listen to obsessively. But the tracks fit well in the shuffle of background music I often enjoy, and it's been a good addition to my collection overall. I'd give the soundtrack a B (with an A for "Sigh No More," if you're looking for a single track to sample).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

View of a Room

A few years back, I wrote about the impossible-to-rate movie The Room. It's a true contender for "Worst Movie Ever Made," and certainly rules the roost of "So Bad, It's Good." It's also become a Rocky Horror Picture Show for a new generation, being screened all around the country for rowdy midnight audiences who've been building up an interactive ritual for the experience.

This past weekend, I went to take part in such a screening. But not just any screening. The writer-producer-director-actor-freak himself, Tommy Wiseau, was in attendance. He and actor Greg Sestero (who plays his best friend, as the film itself will tell you numerous times) were there in person for a meet-and-greet and autograph signing.

Not that I would have guessed otherwise, but Tommy Wiseau is exactly as he appears to be in his movie. He's a strangely foreign personality you can't ascribe to any particular country as easily as you could to an alien attempting to masquerade as human. His brain will latch on to anything "shiny"; his Q&A effortlessly (and nonsensically) bobbed from him refusing to explain why he was wearing four belts, to showing off his forthcoming underwear line (of which he promised free samples to anyone who dressed up as him), to leading the crowd to chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

Greg Sestero, for his part, seems to have stopped struggling with his captor. The Wiseau-mad audience only lobbed one or two questions his way, which he answered with an ultra-dry gallows humor. And what else can he do? He's now going around the country making appearances with the man who ruined any chance of him having an acting career. Perhaps his forthcoming book chronicling the film will be a hit, and he'll be able to salvage a writing career out of it?

But the real jewel of the experience was watching the movie itself with hundreds of... fans?... of The Room. Each gag was more hilarious than the last, and the repetitive nature of the movie allowed you to get in on most of the fun. Whether it was criticizing everyone who "has to go now" when "you just got here!", cheering on the minute-long tracking shots across the Golden Gate Bridge, providing "foley" for the walk up the spiral staircase, screaming in shock at the creature trying to burst from Lisa's neck... the list goes on and on... it was hilarious. And I have never seen so many plastic spoons in my life. Whenever a curiously framed photo of a spoon appeared on screen, the crowd would roar "Spoooooooooooon!" like The Tick, and toss thousands of the things, practically blotting out the movie. I sure hope the theater recycles.

As amazing, hilarious, and jaw-dropping the experience of watching The Room for the first time was, watching it with the midnight crowd was even more so. I could easily see doing it again some time.

Just not any time soon. Man, that movie is TERRIBLE!

Monday, August 12, 2013


Over the weekend, between painting sessions at the house, I went to see the new film Elysium -- about an action hero fighting to get to a paradise orbital platform above a used-up future Earth. This is writer-director Neill Blomkamp's first effort since District 9. That film was a beneficiary a few years back when the Oscars expanded their Best Picture category from 5 nominees to 10, though I personally wasn't impressed enough by it to understand or agree with the nomination.

Elysium is not as good. This is a case where using Flickchart to rate the movie wound up surprising me. When I walked out of the theater, I wasn't exactly disappoint with the movie. I knew it wasn't a new favorite or anything like that. I even knew "I think I liked District 9 better." But when I got home and plugged it into Flickchart, I was shocked at how low it fell. It wasn't that bad, was it? And yet, looking at the movies right around it, above and below, I felt like it had landed right where it deserved.

To be fair, the movie is not that bad. But it's not that great either. And it took me trying to understand the low Flickchart placement to contemplate why. I'd say it mainly comes down to the shallow characters. Everyone in the film is a one-dimensional caricature that seems unmotivated by anything realistic other than the need to progress the plot. Matt Damon's heroic protagonist is the one possible exception to that, but even if his motivations are slightly more complex, they're very stereotypical for an action movie. The characters only become more cliched the farther down you go. Jodie Foster's conspiring bureaucrat is a mustache-twirling villain with a half-assed "think of protecting the children" justification that falls completely flat. The more physical bad guy, played by District 9's Sharlto Copley, is even more cardboard, a menace who enjoys killing so much that he continues to do so even when he's no longer officially employed to do so.

As with District 9, the most compelling part of the story is the social allegory. Elysium is a metaphor for income inequality and a lack of social mobility. But compared the the far more clever District 9, the metaphor here is delivered in a very ham-fisted way. Resources and technology on the titular Elysium station seem to be inexhaustible (a fact that seems to be literally confirmed late in the film), making the hording of those things a nonsensical plot device. And that's only one of several "but then why?" moments the film forces you to ask, yet never satisfactorily answers.

As I said, the movie isn't that bad. The action is sharper than that of most movies so far this year (assuming you don't mind some rather graphic violence), and the movie does at least try for something more sophisticated than "let's destroy an entire city!" But it just doesn't come together that well. I give Elysium a C+. Walking out of the theater, I probably would have said "B- or maybe even B," but in the crucible of all the movies I've seen, too many are better than this. So C+ it is.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Asylum for the Leaker?

It's been a few days since the last house update, so in case you were wondering...

One of the biggest challenges we've been facing appears to be solved. The front door of our house opens into a large area with an angled ceiling that reaches two stories tall. Also, the height of the ceilings in our place is a foot taller than normal. Consequently, we have an 18' foot tall wall in our entry we've needed to figure out how to paint the top of without painting the ceiling unintentionally in the process.

A friend came through with MegaLadder. It's one of those transforming contraptions that folds in half, unfolds out straight, extends to nearly twice its length... it's an origami ladder. I may be inviting some kind of cosmic smiting by teasing victory before we've actually done the painting, but we have messed around with the ladder and it seems like it's going to work.

So, that's the good news. The bad news came last night in one of Denver's freak storms that happens from time to time. A torrential downpour opened up, revealing a leak in one of our windows. We're not talking river of water, but it's not exactly drip... drip... drip either. To put it another way, it's the kind of leak that can't just have begun, and there's no way the former owner couldn't have known about it. Jerk.

In any case, we'll have to investigate a bit and see if this is the sort of problem that a little caulk will fix (that's what she said). Here's hoping this is an easy one. (Giggity.)

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

TNG Flashback: Sins of the Father

When the proposal to remaster Star Trek: The Next Generation for high definition was being tested, a special Blu-ray disc was put together featuring the series pilot and two other episodes well liked by the fans. One of those was "Sins of the Father."

A Klingon commander named Kurn comes aboard the Enterprise to serve as first officer, recalling the officer exchange program in which Riker took part. After some initial friction with the crew, Kurn's true purpose in being there is revealed -- he is the younger brother of Worf, and is there to learn if Worf's heart is truly Klingon. Kurn has come to tell him their deceased father has been accused of treason by the Klingon High Council, and asks Worf as the oldest brother to challenge this falsehood to restore the family honor. But as a trial unfolds, a dark truth is gradually revealed: Worf is deliberately being set up to take the fall on behalf of a powerful and influential Klingon family.

I was never as much into the Klingons as it seems so many Star Trek fans are. I generally found Klingon episodes to be merely "good," and not "great." That said, "Sins of the Father" is a landmark episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is the moment when the show embraced serialized storytelling. Sure, the character of Q made some recurring appearances. A scene here and there might briefly reference a past event from an earlier episode. But short of that, the closest the series really came to continuing a plot over multiple episodes was the loose connection between "Coming of Age" and "Conspiracy." "Sins of the Father" introduced the machinations of Klingon politics, left Worf in disgrace among his people, and teased a Klingon civil war. All these ideas would be paid off in multiple future episodes. As writer Ronald Moore put it, the ending of this episode (Worf leaving the council chamber after his discommendation) simply demanded a follow-up.

This episode is also pivotal in another way, as it represents the first time that Star Trek: The Next Generation won an Emmy award. They won for Best Art Direction, based on the strength of the set design for this episode. The Klingon Great Hall was a massive space, cheated on camera to look even more massive. All filming in the set was first done in one direction (for example, facing the "throne" and the Klingon logo), and then the entire set was redressed to face the other direction (the entrance) in order to double the apparent size of the space despite the limited size of the stage. And it's only the grandest of several sets built or radically redecorated to depict the Klingon homeworld (which the characters steadfastly avoid naming in this episode). The brilliant matte painting of the building's exterior is another highlight (and rendered impressively with lightning in the HD re-master).

This was the episode that cemented writer Ronald Moore's reputation as the man who writes the big Klingon episodes. This script was actually a blend of two outsiders' spec scripts (more on that in a moment), but Moore was the one who championed them to production. To help sell head writer Michael Piller -- who was not a Star Trek fan prior to working on the show and didn't really know the Klingons -- Moore prepared an extensive memo summarizing their culture. Moore incorporated what little had been defined in the original series and the films with many ideas suggested in one of the Star Trek novels (The Final Reflection, by John M. Ford). The end result was the template for everything the Klingons became in all subsequent Trek series.

However, I feel that foundational writing may have been a bit stronger than the episode itself. I mentioned that this episode was built from two separate script submissions, and I feel the seams show awkwardly in the final product. The teaser and first act deal with Kurn coming aboard the Enterprise to serve as first officer. He drives Wesley and Geordi to complaints, he threatens Riker's life when Will tries to get him to tone it down, and he goads Worf at every turn. It's the beginning of another fascinating "ripples in the pond" story that really upsets the status quo on the Enterprise.

...except that story is abandoned after less than 15 minutes.The rest of the episode deals with Worf's gradual disillusionment with his own people. We meet Duras, a truly weaselly Klingon who takes glee in tarring others with the brush he himself ought to be tarred with. He's nothing we've come to associate with being a Klingon, right down to his slightly effete demeanor and his Facebook-ready duck lips. Both of these two stories are brimming with dramatic possibilities, and you can add to them essentially a third element: the revelation that Worf has a brother. Any one of these feels substantial enough to carry an entire episode, but they're all stuffed in here. The episode is still good in spite of this, but certainly not because of it. A lot of potential feels to have been cut short.

This may be a Worf episode, but it's really Patrick Stewart who gets a chance to shine. Picard's role in this episode starts from the precedent established in "The Measure of a Man" -- when one of his officers is in legal trouble, he'll step in as a defense lawyer. But since Klingon culture is the focus this time, this isn't about Picard delivering any moving speeches. He certainly gets some zinger lines (such as his response to Duras' taunt about his lack of fighting experience: "you may test that assumption at your convenience"). But he also gets physical too; he gets in a knife fight! Stewart's lobbying for more "shooting and screwing" was beginning to pay dividends here. You can tell he was having a blast playing the bluster here.

The guest stars in this episode are also strong. Charles Cooper plays Klingon leader K'mpec, a washed-out old man somewhat similar to the Klingon he played in the film Star Trek V. Needless to say, the writing here is worlds better. Patrick Massett is great as Duras, a villain you want to reach into your TV and strangle. He would gradually shift more from acting to writing; after a stint doing both on the series Friday Night Lights, he wound up working with Ronald Moore again as the writer of several episodes of Battlestar Galactica's prequel spin-off, Caprica.

But of course, the main man is Tony Todd as Kurn. He's probably best known for his roles in the Candyman and Final Destination movies, and the over-the-top cheesiness of those films really does him an injustice as an actor. He's a very skilled performer, and is one of the reasons my favorite Star Trek hour of any series (Deep Space Nine's "The Visitor") is so good. A longtime Star Trek fan, Todd auditioned four times to be on The Next Generation before landing this role. It's hard to believe it took that long for them to see how brilliant he was.

Other observations:
  • There's a clearly deliberate choice in this episode to change the lighting scheme and create deep shadows. I think it goes too far. Though appropriate in the Klingon council chamber, you can't even see Kurn when he first beams aboard the Enterprise, nor read his facial expressions in his quarters when he reveals himself to Worf. Too much detail is lost in the shadows.
  • Jonathan Frakes is a tall man. (I mean, look how he sits in a chair.) But they make Tony Todd even taller; Kurn towers over Commander Riker.
  • It's a great moment when Worf asks Picard to take over as his "cha'DIch, as Picard already knows the appropriate response to give in Klingon. (Which I've read translates to "I accept with honor. May your enemies run with fear.") This was actually Patrick Stewart's suggestion, and a very good one at that.
  • When the knife fight with Picard begins, he has a little trouble getting his weapon clear of its sheath. I'm not sure if this is Patrick Stewart's own mistake (he doesn't get to fight much on this show, after all), or a deliberate acting choice to make the audience fear that Picard is outmatched by his opponents.
  • There are some slight inconsistencies in the pronunciation of Klingon names in this episode. Worf's father is sometimes "Mogh" and sometimes "Morg." The Klingon leader is "K'mpec," but more often sounds like "K'mpoc."
  • The moment when Worf bitch slaps Duras is a wonderfully effective callback to earlier in the episode.

I would give "Sins of the Father" a B+. It does come together well, but it is overstuffed. Still, even if it's not a top shelf episode in my book, it deserves recognition for the more advanced, serialized storytelling it began.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Leave This House!

I promised/threatened some house stories as we're preparing our new place to move in, and I'm keeping/making good on that. Today's story comes from day one, and is subtitled "Move Your Crap Out."

When we went over to our place on Saturday, for the first time it was truly Our Place, we were disappointed to find a lot of stuff still in there from the former owner. There was a stack of a half dozen boxes at the front of the garage. At least one random object was in almost every room. In some cases, they were the odds and ends you could imagine people accidentally leaving behind when they move: a bunch of cookie sheets in the drawer under the oven, a tiny cross pinned over the front door.

But then there were items you couldn't imagine had been missed. A vacuum cleaner just sitting in the middle the bedroom. A Pluto (as in Disney) bowling ball in the top of one of the bedroom closets. Two three-foot high stacks of Maxim magazines in the master bathroom. And the items that, if it were me, I'd be too considerate to leave behind. A stack of four tires in the backyard. A giant can of grease on a shelf in the garage.

Perhaps the worst of all was the basement crawl space, which had been forgotten about entirely. I could maybe understand how the previous owner had overlooked it, since he'd had the door to the crawl space completely blocked by a TV when he'd lived there. Nevertheless, we weren't thrilled to find inside an old television, computer scanner and other equipment, a wheelchair, a bunch of bad wire shelving, and more.

We had the former owner's phone number, and we were in the midst of figuring out the right tone for calling him when he pulls up in a rush in his truck. "I know, I'm sorry!" he's yelling as he hops out. He rushes for the boxes in the garage. We decide, fine, let him do his thing and we'll do ours.

Except that in less than five minutes, when we come back downstairs, he's gone. The boxes in the garage are too, but that represents just a tiny fraction of the crap he has still in the house. Needless to say, this puts a pretty big damper on the rest of our day. Our House doesn't really quite feel like Our House yet with this guy's garbage still in it, and we're reluctant to begin moving in too much of our basics -- painting supplies and such -- for when this guy shows up and probably has no idea what's his and what's ours.

But then, after a while, it becomes clear this guy is not coming back. So finally, frustrated, we decide to stop, grab lunch, and give him a call. As expected, he has absolutely no idea about all this stuff still in the house. I suppose he had a small army of friends helping him move the night before... and yet he didn't walk through and actually, you know, look at the place before he left?

He showed up a short while later and hauled away probably 90% of the remaining stuff, unsafely stuffing his truck in such a way that I'm certain half of what he did take fell out on the way to wherever he was going. But that's both as much patience as we were willing to have with him and clearly as much as we were going to get out of him.

I'll save this downer of a story by quickly saying that Sunday went much better. We had some help with both painting and cleaning, and while there's still plenty of both to be done, even the amount we finished really started to transform the place.

I'm looking forward to Wednesday -- trash day at the new house -- when we can perform a garbage exorcism on this guy's old stuff. "This house... is clean."

Monday, August 05, 2013

Pardon Our Dust... We're Remodeling

If you're a regular reader of the blog, you may have noticed that I didn't post anything over the weekend. (Or maybe you had a super-fun weekend full of more exciting things that surfing the internet.)

My weekend was full of new house. Saturday, my boyfriend and I took possession of our new home. Which is going to be fantastic, but right at the moment is in need of painting. And new floors. And a general all-over cleaning. Basically, stuff that will be much easier to accomplish before we start moving mountains of our stuff into it.

But needless to say, we're very excited about the place and looking forward to moving into it as soon as possible. So all that stuff I said needs doing? Well, for the next few weeks, we're going to be spending as much time as we can over there trying to speed the day we can move in.

That means the blog is likely to become... let's say "intermittent" for a stretch here. I don't intend to stop posting altogether, but it's quite likely you won't be seeing something from me every day as usual. And when I do post, it's possible you'll get a few chapters from "Adventures of the House" rather than the typical fare.

Business as usual will return in time, and thanks for your patience in the meantime.

Friday, August 02, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Offspring

In television production, a "bottle show" is an episode filmed on existing sets, limiting the guest stars and visual effects needed, and generally trying to save money across the board. When one episode overspends its share of the season's budget, a bottle show is needed somewhere along the line to balance the books. Bottle shows can feel dry and inert, but they can also put a more meaningful emphasis on character. "The Offspring," falling between the budget busting "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "Sins of the Father," is very much an example of how a bottle show can be done right.

Working in secret, Data has succeeded in creating a new android based on his own systems. His child, Lal, selects for herself the appearance of a human female, and begins to interact with the crew and her father in an effort to become fully sentient. But when Starfleet learns of Data's breakthrough, an unyielding admiral arrives to take Lal away for education at a starbase.

This episode marked two big firsts. It was the first television script for writer Rene Echevarria. He'd go on to work extensively on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and later, other non-Trek series), but here he got his first ever chance at television thanks to head writer Michael Piller's open script submission policy. Though Echeverria's first draft put too much emphasis on new android Lal over the main characters (and included a needless Ferengi subplot), Piller saw the strong core of the premise and ran with the idea.

This was also the directorial debut for actor Jonathan Frakes. He'd expressed his interest in directing an episode, and was at first put off by producer Rick Berman. But when Frakes hung in there tenaciously and "went to school" by spending hundreds of hours of his free time learning in every other department of production, Berman broke down and gave him this shot. This paved the way for several other members of the main cast to eventually direct their own episodes. Meanwhile, Jonathan Frakes would go on to direct dozens of Next Gens and DS9s, and even two Star Trek films. He continues to work as a director today, having done episodes of Dollhouse, Leverage, Falling Skies, Castle, Burn Notice, and more other shows than you'd care for me to name.

Jonathan Frakes deserves every bit of the success he found in the director's chair, because even here in his very first effort, it's clear that he knows how to work with actors. The hallmark of this episode is the fine array of performances given by everyone involved. Hallie Todd is exceptional as Lal, creating a clear arc that shows her character even more robotic and stilted than Data in the beginning of the episode, and growing ever more human with each passing scene. Nicolas Coster is saddled with the thankless role of the "heavy" in Admiral Haftel, but is compelling in his final scene, where he speaks in amazement of Data's attempts to repair Lal. And of course, Jonathan Frakes knows how to either elicit or get out of the way of great performances by the main cast -- Brent Spiner, Patrick Stewart, and Whoopi Goldberg are especially strong here.

Interestingly, not everyone on the writing staff loved this episode. Melinda Snodgrass, writer of "The Measure of a Man," outright hated it, calling it "fairly obvious and tired and stupid." She felt that it was recycling her earlier story, and far too soon. Personally, I find it sad that Snodgrass couldn't see her way to giving another young writer with no television experience -- just as she'd been when she sold her Data script -- the same chance she'd received. I also think she missed the key differences between the episodes: her tale was one of individual rights, while "The Offspring" plays out very much as a custody battle.

Moreover, I think she misses that both episodes taken together paint a very accurate picture of reality. Historically, human rights have never been won all at once. For example, in the United States, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education was where racial segregation was found to be unconstitutional; despite this, it took another case more than a decade later, Loving v. Virginia, to affirm the national right to interracial marriage. Or barely a month ago, Windsor v. United States established federal recognition of same-sex marriages, while still holding for some future date the decision that will actually outlaw state-level bans against it. Or, to pull it back to Star Trek: just because Data's individual rights were won in season two doesn't mean he might not have to fight for his parental rights in season three. (And as a side note, how special is an episode of television that not only resonates with real-world events more than 20 years before it aired, but also with real-world events more than 20 years after it aired?)

This really is a brilliant script, another wonderful "ripples in the pond" episode where we see how Data's creation of a daughter resonates with many people in the crew. We see Picard struggle to even think of Lal as a daughter in the conventional sense, before meaningfully -- and almost accidentally -- accepting her as such in the final act. We see Troi interact with Data and Lal from a psychologist's point of view (and even make a very oblique reference to her own parenting experience). Wesley and Beverly provide touchstones on a parent-child relationship, covering both viewpoints.

The episode has wonderful comedic highs. Guinan worms her way out of an awkward sex talk with Lal (after an earlier deadpan reaction from Whoopi Goldberg to being called "old"). Lal tries a disastrous flirtation on Commander Riker (culminating in Data's hilarious "Commander, what are your intentions toward my daughter?"). In other scene, Data turns his daughter off when she starts asking too many questions, as I'm sure many parents sometimes wish they could do.

There are even more powerful dramatic moments. Picard is a diplomat with the utmost respect when dealing with his superior officer, until the admiral makes an essentially racist remark, whereupon he unleashes appropriate anger. We get an almost horrific scene when Lal experiences her first emotion... and that emotion is unbridled fear. And the goodbye scene between Lal and Data is surprisingly heartfelt and emotional, given that our real access into the scene -- the main character of Data -- is incapable of expressing emotion.

How good is this episode? Michael Dorn called it one of his two favorites of the series (along with "The Drumhead"), even though his character of Worf hardly appears in it.

Other observations:
  • To accommodate Jonathan Frakes' turn in the director's chair, Commander Riker was written out of most of the episode. In the opening log entry, Picard specifically mentions that Riker is away on personal leave.
  • The opening scene has Geordi, Wesley, and Troi walking down a corridor to Data's lab. They're walking strangely, almost comically fast. Seriously, watch poor Marina Sirtis trying to simultaneously keep up and look at least vaguely natural.
  • Patrick Stewart shows some rather unnecessary skin in this episode, when Picard is wakened in the middle of the night to answer a message in his pajamas.
  • Having argued myself at the legal distinctions examined in this episode vs. "The Measure of a Man," I will agree that once Lal articulates her desire to remain on the Enterprise late in the episode, that should foreclose all debate. Her own individual rights, as established from the prior episode, should apply.
  • The final shot of this episode is a powerful testament to the way people read into others' expressions. It's a lingering shot on Data's face, moments after he's informed the crew that Lal's memories have been transferred back into his own mind. In theory, he now holds the memories of the emotions Lal experienced, and we the audience are left to imagine what that means from looking at his blank face.
  • There was a reported controversy on the set during the filming of this episode, during the Ten Forward scene where Guinan and Lal watch a couple flirt with one another and then leave together. Guinan apparently had a line saying something like "when a man and a woman are in love...", and Whoopi Goldberg objected to the opposite-sex-only framing of romance. She argued tenaciously that Star Trek was beyond that, and wanted to say "when two people are in love..." She even wanted an additional same-sex couple placed elsewhere in the background of the scene, but reportedly someone on set made a call to the main office, and producer David Livingston rushed down to prevent any alterations from being made. To this day, there has never been a depiction of a true gay or lesbian relationship on any incarnation of Star Trek (though there have been a few attempts at allegory, which we'll get to later in The Next Generation's run). In the final cut of this episode, Guinan has no line about the love between a couple, "man and woman" or otherwise.
Even if you do think "The Offspring" covers some of the same ground as "The Measure of a Man," it's hard to judge it harshly when it makes its statement so powerfully. Once again, an exploration of Data's humanity yields a stellar episode. This one's an unreserved A.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Sinister Symphony

A short while back, I wrote about Sinister, an effective horror film from last year starring Ethan Hawke. I briefly mentioned the score from composer Christopher Young, noting how much it added to the movie. Since then, I've picked up the soundtrack album, and I've grown even more impressed by the music.

This album is probably my favorite soundtrack album I've picked up in the last year or two... and yet, it's unlikely I'll listen to it on a regular basis. That's due to the bizarre nature of the music, which is both the most inventive thing I've heard for a film in a long time, and an unsettling and jarring cacophony that doesn't lend itself to playing in the background while you drive, work, or whatever else.

The first track of the album, "Portrait of Mr. Boogie," shows what it's all about. A melody emerges in places, and a driving rhythm even dominates a portion of it. But overall, the music is constructed from out of tune pianos, horns that groan and moan, bursts of industrial machinery, eerie backmasking, electrical arcs, voices droning ritualistically, and strangely chittering insects. And that's all just in the first track!

Some songs on the album never coalesce into any kind of discernible rhythmic structure or melody. "Levantation" is a haunted house hellscape of malfunctioning devices, harsh whispers, distorted voices, and tortured cries of pain. Other songs hew closer to conventional music, like "Never Go in Dad's Office," which almost sounds like a lost song by Peter Gabriel -- yet is still laced with the composer's odd sonic devices for the film.

The album plays with sound in every way you can imagine. Samples are played back at varying speeds, both slower and faster than normal. Different echo effects are used, with sounds seeming to resonate in every space from a musty old bathroom to a 1950s sci-fi film's concept of outer space. And through it all are noises, both hauntingly familiar and unsettlingly unidentifiable, that make your hair stand on end. Is that a human screaming, or metal grinding? Is that an animal growling, or snoring?

Near the end of the album is a sweeping 9-minute suite of music from all throughout the film. There's also an odd club remix of the music by a group called "The Rite of Left"; they add an undercurrrent of The X-Files and transform the melody into sort of a synthpop vibe. (It's the weakest track on the album, but taken purely on its own, without any connection to the movie, it's interesting in its own way.)

Christopher Young has done something really special here, and I'm all the more impressed that this is the same composer who delivered the bluesy, jazz band score of the film Rounders. The two works could not be more different. I'm definitely interested in seeking out more scores he's done over the years to see what else he's tried.

I'll give Sinister an A-, with the "minus" really only being that I can't obsessively listen to the album any time I like. It demands too much attention. But then, I probably shouldn't count that against it. Indeed, the fact that the score works so well within the context of the movie without commanding full attention probably speaks to another level on which it succeeds. So I guess call it an A.