Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Out

Last night's Breaking Bad finale was (no surprise) a perfectly crafted and fitting end to the series.

I probably should have been writing here on the blog all along about my love of Breaking Bad, and praising each new episode as it deserved. I found the show some time during the second season, catching up on DVD. It didn't hook me immediately in that first six-episode season. I found it "good, but not great" until partway through the season, when the episode came in which Walt's cancer was revealed to his family. I've read that some fans of the show apparently dismiss this as one of the series' weaker hours, but I was captivated by the strong performances, the realism of the reactions both in the writing and in the acting. From there, I was hooked.

The third season, the first one I watched on a week to week basis, blew me away. There was a stretch I remember of six consecutive episodes (including the also often-maligned "Fly") that I remember thinking at the end, "wow, that was the best episode they've ever done." And they kept topping themselves week after week.

In the last year or two, Breaking Bad became more than just my favorite show on television, it became a symbol of doing things right when so many other shows were getting it wrong. It was hard not to compare it to other AMC shows I watched. As The Walking Dead was imploding in spectacular fashion, making plot decisions seemingly only to surprise fans of the comic and not for any dramatically viable reason, Breaking Bad was delivering shocks in ways that always felt perfectly natural. As Mad Men would assemble a fair enough season in retrospect despite individual episodes in which it felt like "nothing happened," Breaking Bad was coming on like a freight train every week, with powerful episodes that added up to even more than the sum of their formidable parts.

And then, of course, this season it was hard not to compare the show to Dexter (no spoilers here), also ending its run, but limping across the finish line in an unsatisfying and sometimes incomprehensible way as Breaking Bad charged triumphant to its finale.

In its final hour, Breaking Bad delivered all the things I've loved about the show. The writing was brilliant, that blend of surprise and inevitability, featuring characters you can understand even if you don't like them, making choices that are completely logical even when they sometimes surprise you. (What Walt ended up doing with his former business partner a fine example of the latter.)

As always, the camera was almost a character itself by way of the clever cinematography that was a hallmark of the show. (The slow push-in on Skyler's kitchen, revealing Walt's presence during her entire phone call with Marie, was a brilliant choice that almost made me immediately want to rewind the scene to watch again with that added context.)

And of course, the acting. Though Breaking Bad itself was only recognized by the Emmys as Best Drama for the first time a week ago, its stellar cast has never been overlooked. Bryan Cranston delivered an amazing performance last night, showing us a suddenly-sympathetic-again Walt, something that would have been impossible for most other actors after the things his character has done this season. Aaron Paul was riveting in the episode; though he had very little screen time and hardly any dialogue, two wordless moments revealed the depth of Jesse's emotions so profoundly that no dialogue was needed -- the moment when he got his hands on Todd, and the moment he smashed through the gates and fled the compound. Anna Gunn demonstrated why she absolutely deserved the Emmy she won last week. Her big scene as Skyler was filled with subtext that came across loud and clear; you could feel the wind fall from her enraged sails when Walt finally acknowledged his true motivations for his crimes, and see that anger replaced with a relief telling you that even though we'll never see what ends up happening to Skyler after this, she'll be okay.

It was a top notch ending to a top notch show, a show I have no doubt I'll watch in its entirety several times in the future.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reloaded Revisited

They may have been subpar movies (at best), but the two sequels to The Matrix still had good soundtracks like their progenitor. La-La Land Records, producer of so many great limited edition soundtracks, has recently acknowledged this by releasing a 2-CD version of the soundtrack to The Matrix Reloaded.

The score for all three films in the series was composed primarily by Don Davis. I say primarily, because the liner notes of this new soundtrack album revealed a great deal of information to me about the score that I didn't know. The Wachowskis wanted a big dose of techno sound infused into the mix, and they turned to a sprinkling of other artists to provide it. In addition to the more traditional, symphonic film music provided by Davis, the soundtrack includes a pair of techno tracks by Rob Dougan and one by Fluke (used for specific sequences in the film).

They also employed an act named Juno Reactor to work directly with Don Davis. The two most significant action sequences of the film (the "Neo vs. hundreds of Agent Smiths" fight and the big freeway chase) were scored by Davis and Juno Reactor working together, trading their compositions back and forth. The liner notes feel a bit ambiguous to me on just how easy and welcome a partnership this was. I find it suggestive that the album includes alternate takes for some of the techno tracks that were composed solely by Davis using only the orchestra. On the other hand, the freeway chase track ("Mona Lisa Overdrive") is the most exhilarating track on the album, and I've found myself listening to all ten minutes of it again and again ever since I bought the album.

Davis develops and expands the themes he introduced in the first Matrix film throughout this score. And even if he hadn't done so, this might still be a desirable album for the simple reason that he really caught lightning in a bottle the first time around. The film's powerful anthem, trading proud chords back and forth between different brass instruments, is just as iconic and instantly recognizable as the raining green ASCII characters it accompanies on screen. In this sequel, Davis expands more heavily to a choir to represent the expanding powers of Neo (and Agent Smith), explores interesting techniques for differentiating the real world from the simulated world, and more.

Yeah, the movie kinda sucked. (Though not nearly as much as the third movie that followed.) But I've really enjoyed the soundtrack. There is a bit of dead weight at the heart of each disc. (Do I really need both vocal and instrumental versions of the source music played in the Merovingian's restaurant? Do I in fact need either?) Still, the good stuff on this soundtrack is really good. Overall, I'd give it a B+.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The New Black

It's premiere week for most of this fall's new shows. Yesterday, I wrote about the show most looked forward to in my circle of friends, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But backing up to Monday night, the new series that really grabbed my attention was The Blacklist.

James Spader stars as a criminal mastermind who turns himself into the F.B.I. to begin helping them capture his former associates, under one major condition: he'll only provide his information to a fresh-out-of-the-academy agent. She has no idea what their connection is, but he seems to know things about her even she doesn't know -- such as the fact that her loving husband is not who he appears to be.

The pilot was a well executed blend of intrigue and action, and set the table for an interesting series. It could be compared to a variety of earlier TV series and movies, and yet isn't quite exactly like any of them. The naive young agent sucked into the web of a brilliant evil mastermind might most evoke the character setup of The Silence of the Lambs... but the agent's kick-ass adventures in the field were reminiscent of the series Alias.

By the end of the pilot, the series felt poised at an interesting crossroads. There were enough tantalizing threads of continuing plot lines to suggest a compelling, serialized adventure ahead. But there was also a clear procedural format established, implying an easy episodic format for the show. Impressively, either one of those potential series seemed equally watchable to me. And of course, there's also the third option, that The Blacklist finds a clever balance between those two extremes.

An intriguing premise, a compelling cast, and deft writing in the pilot. I give the first episode of The Blacklist an A-. I'll definitely be looking forward to Mondays.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Up

Last night marked the return of Joss Whedon to television with the premiere of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In his role as steward of the Marvel franchise, Joss worked with his brother Jed Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen to create this new series (with more punctuation marks by far than any other show on television). And while Joss is not expected to have as large a role in the day-to-day running of this show as he has with his past shows, he did direct the pilot episode, and put his stamp all over it.

SHIELD (it's just easier that way) was filled with the elements Whedon's fans love him for: characters who don't always take themselves too seriously, rapid-fire dialogue laced with pop culture references and wit, and moments of drama and heart. The pilot also brought in a few guest stars from the "Whedon Repertory Company" as well -- Firefly's Ron Glass and Angel's J. August Richards (as well as a cameo appearance from Cobie Smulders). The table is set.

There's no question that I enjoyed the first episode, and that I'll be there for more. That said, I wasn't blown away by it. In fairness, none of Whedon's other shows (with the exception of Firefly) impressed to that degree in its first episode either. And there's really only so much you can do in 42 minutes. So if some of the new characters aren't quite popping yet -- either overshadowed by excellent Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson; or feeling thus far like transplants from other shows, like Fitz-Simmons as the two-person version of Topher from Dollhouse -- there will be time to develop. I guess I just mean that if I'm judging simply from one episode, I was a bit more impressed by Monday night's debut of The Blacklist (which I may come back to here on the blog) than I was the premiere of SHIELD.

But I'm by no means passing final judgement now. SHIELD certainly seems to have all the elements in place that it will need to become a great series. I'd give the premiere a B+, and I'm looking forward to what comes next.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Final Cut

Last night brought the series finale of the long-running Showtime hit Dexter. In its run to the finish, many critics have been comparing it to Breaking Bad... and have generally found it wanting. Both shows have focused around dark protagonists, but where Breaking Bad has never dropped in quality (and has been better than ever in its breathtaking final episodes), Dexter has had a roller coaster ride over the years: great seasons followed by mediocre ones, recoveries and collapses.

I'd been hoping Dexter would punch out strong, but the very uneven season eight didn't seem encouraging. I suppose my complaint about this season, in a nutshell, is that it didn't feel in any way like it was building to a series finale. It seemed like just another business-as-usual season for Dexter, introducing a new Big Bad for the year, and seeding the supporting cast with spotty subplots. After all this time, I suppose I was expecting a real hits-the-fan season where Dexter's carefully constructed life begins to unravel around him. The writers have said in interviews that they chose not to go that route, feeling it had been covered thoroughly in season 2 (the series' best year, in my opinion) and season 7. A reasonable point, I suppose...

...but the direction they chose was to largely copy season 4 instead. That year, often cited as a fan favorite, featured Dexter's encounter with the Trinity Killer, played memorably by John Lithgow. Season 8 seemed like the pale shadow of the same major plot points. Dexter encounters another killer who has successfully masqueraded as human, who is desperately looking to hold on to a family connection. At the same time, Dexter is also grappling with whether he can have family connections in his life. And ultimately, Dexter's failure to dispatch his rival in a timely manner causes a woman in his life to pay the ultimate price.

Been there. Done that.

I wouldn't quite savage the series finale in the way many fans and critics have done online in the past 24 hours. But it was very seriously flawed. I suppose I can understand the writers' instinct not to "let Dexter off the hook" by having him killed or captured. And yet if the point is supposed to be that Dexter is withdrawing from his life to save the people in it, I hardly find it reassuring to think about how messed up young Harrison is sure to be as he grows -- having lost both parents to be raised by a mostly unwilling, murdering surrogate, on the run from the law.

I suppose I can understand the infatuation the writers must have had with the idea to have Dexter kill Deb in the series finale. (As an act of love!) But given that Deb spent much of the season dealing with thoughts of suicide, it didn't seem entirely impossible that some part of her might have actually welcomed her fate.

Add to that a lot of things about the final episode (and season) that can't easily be understood (Will Hannah just dye her damn hair? Why does Saxon need to hang around and kill Deb?), and the finale comes off sadly muddled. Glimpses of what they were going for showed through here and there, but mostly, my takeaway from Dexter is the memory of how good the show was at its best. Which I guess has kind of been a while.

So long, Dexter.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

And the Emmy Snark Goes To...

We're starting to get set up in the new house... just in time for my snarky friends to come over and watch the Emmy Awards! Here's a sampling of the group's commentary.


5 minutes into the show, and it looks like Al Pacino is bored already.

I was starting to get tired of the "parade of past Emmy hosts" opening, until Kevin Spacey showed up to give us the House of Cards treatment. Brilliant.

Bryan Cranston looks so normal and nice and not evil with his hair grown back.

Merritt Wever's "I gotta go. Bye." Best acceptance speech ever. (I see she was as surprised to win an award as we were to see her win it.)

Zooey Deschanel took her dress designer to give her the "sci-fi toga" look.

Tony Hale for Veep? The man is funny, and I can't begrudge him the win... but it's starting to look like a night of upset victories this evening.

Robin Williams is looking a bit like Martin Scorcese in the matching white tie. But he delivered a very fitting and deserved tribute to Jonathan Winters.

Jon Hamm decided to go with the Duck Dynasty beard.

Tony Hale stepping up to handle Julia Louis-Dreyfus' bag and whisper in her ear (as he does on the show Veep) shows the kind of funny that just won him an award moments earlier.

The Modern Family theme certainly makes a punchy "get off the stage" warning song.

Jim Parsons trying not to cry seems to be making Kaley Cuoco try not to cry.

Rob Reiner's tribute to Jean Stapleton is strong too. My viewing group definitely approves of this year's new way of doing the memorials.

Elton John's lengthy intro seems to be oblivious to the time constraints of the evening's program.

Arsenio Hall's appearance in the "excessive hosting" segment is as unfunny as I've heard his new show is.

Hmm... I feel like the weakest episode in Best Drama Writing won. But it's hard to overcome the posthumous award momentum.

Glad to see Anna Gunn get her due. Her character on Breaking Bad is often a fan opposite-of-favorite, but she plays it well and believably. (But wait... her girls are named "Emma" and "Ima?" Yikes.)

Neil Patrick Harris performs his own halftime show. (With Dr. Horrible love from Nathan Fillion.)

Stephen Amell is hard to recognize with his shirt on.

If they're going to introduce Diane Carroll with a picture of her from decades ago, shouldn't they be showing Kerry Washington's baby picture?

Does Bobby Cannavale really think the son he just sent to college three weeks ago is actually watching this broadcast in the dorm?

I'm convinced that at this point, they're just picking the winners at random from a hat. Or maybe the strategy to shorten the Emmy broadcast this year is to pick winners who don't have speeches prepared.

Don Cheadle was given the oddest emotional whiplash of a speech ever.

Really, we're going to associate Dean Norris with Under the Dome over Breaking Bad?

Apparently, "Episode 4" of Downtown Abbey was freaking awesome. It keeps popping up in every category.

The writers of The Colbert Report are even more happy to go touch Bob Newhart than to go get their Emmys.

A rare out-of-character moment for Colbert!

The choreography number begins in front of the punch wall from The Price Is Right.

Was Daft Punk's Get Lucky somehow nominated for an Emmy?

Heidi Klum is being strangled by her own blood clot. How did Tim Gunn let her go out there like that? (My friends said she looked like a cenobite from Hellraiser.)

I can't remember The Daily Show ever not winning the Best Variety Series. Yes, this is upset year.

Wow. Somebody worked truly hard to make Anna Faris not look beautiful.

There seems to be an "ugly bridesmaids dresses" theme to this section of the show.

Sarah Paulson seems to be scowling... that James Cromwell didn't mention the American Horror Story cast in his acceptance speech?

And now, the memoriam for people not "big" enough to get an individual tribute. I must say, I'd pick some of them over the ones who did.

Ellen Burstyn thanks the USA network for putting her show (Political Animals) on the air. And I suppose a tacit thanks for cancelling the show after six episodes so that she could enter the Mini-Series category instead of Drama.

Michael Douglas serves up the best innuendo of the night. (One intentional, one not.)

All the wins for Behind the Candelabra seem to be a big middle finger to all the movie studios that passed on the chance to make it first.

The upset momentum is not enough to knock Modern Family off the hill.

Ed O'Neill doesn't seem particularly interested in being on stage accepting his show's award.

Breaking Bad finally gets its due!

All that, and the finally of Dexter over on Showtime. But that's a subject for another time.

Monday, September 16, 2013

On the Move

Things have fallen a bit silent here these last few days, even for the recently intermittent pace of the blog. That's because Saturday, the long-awaited move finally took place! My boyfriend and I are now living in a maze of boxes and strewn furniture, setting things up and making our house a home.

Once we're up and running, the blog will soon follow. See you on the flip side!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

TNG Flashback: Ménage à Troi

The story goes that the writing staff never really liked when it came time for the "annual show for the boss' wife." They just tried to make the best of it. As far as Next Generation episodes featuring Majel Barrett, "Ménage à Troi" may very well have been "the best of it"... as good as it ever got.

The Enterprise visits the planet Betazed for a diplomatic conference, where Deanna Troi reunites with her mother Lwaxana, and takes shore leave on her homeworld with Commander Riker. But a lustful Ferengi named Tog, who became smitten with Lwaxana during the conference, abducts all three of them with dreams of possessing Lwaxana and forcing her to use her telepathy to aid his negotiations. It's up to Riker and Deanna to send a message from the Ferengi ship, signaling the Enterprise for rescue.

Majel Barrett isn't necessarily a bad performer. But I think maybe the reason the writers chafed at using her on the show was that her character, Lwaxana Troi, was so one-note and abrasive. Perhaps because of the writers' distaste for the character, the idea for this episode actually came from outside the staff. But, continuing the "please the boss" theme, it was contributed by Roddenberry's assistant, Susan Sackett -- making her first commercial writing sale. Gene Roddenberry himself did a rewrite draft on the episode, something he was not in the habit of doing by this point in the life of the show.

Still, despite this confidence-eroding origin, there are moments of comedy within the episode that do play well -- Lwaxana referring to her DaiMon suitor as "Demon Tog"; Deanna's description of the famous "Sacred Chalice of Rixx"; the kiss between Tog and Lwaxana, and Deanna's reaction to it. But the overall comedic tone tries a bit too hard in other places, and composer Ron Jones seems to have to oversell it to compensate, with head-tilting "wah-wah" music throughout.

To Star Trek fans, there are a pair of familiar faces in this episode. Frank Corsentino, who plays DaiMon Tog, also played Bok in "The Battle." And the Ferengi Dr. Farek is played by Ethan Phillips, who would go on to play main character Neelix on Star Trek: Voyager. Following "Captain's Holiday," the Ferengi are again being used here for outright comedy, though the technique still isn't as polished as it would be on Deep Space Nine. There are other changes to the race too: suddenly, Betazoids are no longer able to read their minds (though Deanna could do so in earlier episodes); the thick, dark stripes on their uniforms have now been replaced by very shiny and sparkly green.

The "B plot" of the episode involves Wesley once again taking Starfleet entrance exams, and again has him winding up not going off to the Academy. This time, only he is able to decipher Riker's covert message for help, and he misses his "flight out" doing so. However, Picard decides that it's time to promote him to full ensign all the same. So he gets to wear a real red uniform from this episode on (as he wore once previously in the alternate reality of "Yesterday's Enterprise").

Wesley's promotion was a big moment for Gene Roddenberry, in part because the character was created as his surrogate and Wesley bears his middle name. To mark the occasion, Roddenberry held a ceremony on the set in which he awarded Wil Wheaton the second lieutenant bars he actually earned in the Army Air Corps. General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was touring the set that day, and took part in the ceremony.

Other observations:
  • Earlier, I mentioned the episode "Captain's Holiday," in which Riker seems to lead the push to get Picard to take shore leave. The (brief) turnabout comes in this episode, as Picard takes a much more direct route in pushing Riker to do the same.
  • I also mentioned Ron Jones' score, which tries to push the comedy. Listen carefully, and you may notice that the music sounds a bit thinner than normal in this episode. Planning ahead for the larger orchestra he'd want for the season finale, Jones opted to conserve his budget here with a smaller one.
  • This is the episode which gave us the Ferengi concept of oo-mox. It's likely an example of Gene Roddenberry trying to push overtly sexual content onto the show. Another example is recounted on the Blu-ray documentaries by writer Ronald Moore -- apparently, Roddenberry's draft of the script included this bit of scene description: "Mrs. Troi reaches into the picnic basket and brings out an oskoid, which is a long cylindrical piece of fruit with veins going down the side, and offers it to Riker to take a bite." Ummmm... yeah.
  • In the final act of the episode, Picard must pretend to fight to "win" Lwaxana back from DaiMon Tog. It's a fantastic performance by Patrick Stewart, who brilliantly depicts Picard's initial awkwardness before finding his footing with quotes from his beloved Shakespeare. This scene is where the internet got the always profane, but often hilarious "Annoyed Picard" meme (whose image is at the top of this post).
"Ménage à Troi" may not be the best episode, but it's an absolute gem compared to Lwaxana's appearances in "Haven" and "Manhunt." I give it a B.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Comedy Genius

Monday night, the Alamo Drafthouse did a screening of the 1985 comedy Real Genius. It has long been one of my favorite movies (a top 100, in fact), but I'd never seen it in a theater, only discovering the movie later on video.

I've mentioned before some of the reasons why I like this movie so much. A lot of it, I acknowledge, has to do with the time of my life when I found this movie. I was by no means a science genius with ideas no one around me could comprehend, but I was certainly a picked-on nerd. Real Genius, despite being a screwball comedy at its core, offered two surprisingly profound revelations on that situation: that somewhere out there is a place where even the nerdiest fits in, and that smart people can use their intelligence to be incredibly witty and funny. I've seen Real Genius many times, but I still laugh at the jokes. Hell, I laugh before the jokes now, because I know they're coming.

Val Kilmer is perfect as the unconventional Chris Knight, a brainiac trying hard not to take himself seriously in order to maintain balance in his life. Gabe Jarret practically fell off the face of the earth after this movie (though you can spot him, 10 years older, in the mission control center in Apollo 13), but he's painfully awkward and childish here in a way that perfectly suits the movie. (The moments where he tries to mimic Kilmer -- repeating his laugh or throwing Chris Knight's advice back at him -- are just perfectly cringe-worthy.)

You can use the word "perfect" to keep describing the cast all the way down the ranks. William Atherton is a perfect jerk as Jerry Hathaway, treating everyone around him like garbage until his hilarious comeuppance. He's flanked by Robert Prescott as the equally rotten Kent. Michelle Meyrink is hilarious as the impossibly hyper Jordan, while Jon Gries gets laughs on the opposite end of the spectrum as the sedate Lazlo Hollyfeld. It's a cast of characters that can come at humor from just about every angle, and at some point or another, the movie does.

Seeing the movie this time, I learned something new -- the musical score was composed by Thomas Newman. Newman is the composer whose quirky style graces movies like American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, and the opening credits of Six Feet Under. (Not long ago, I commented on his score for Skyfall.) Real Genius is much more noted for the pop music peppering the movie, spotlighted in several montages and the grand finale. But there's 10 to 15 minutes of Newman's work sprinkled throughout, and it's pretty good stuff. It definitely sounds like the prototype version of the sound that Newman would refine over the years, and its oddball qualities certainly suit this film.

Real Genius still gets an A in my book, and I'm glad to have now seen it on the big screen.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TNG Flashback: Sarek

Although there were many worse episodes during the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Naked Now" was generally perceived by the producers to have been a failure. It seemed to frighten them away from making any references to the original Star Trek series... until late in the third season, when they finally decided to bring us "Sarek."

Famed Vulcan ambassador Sarek comes aboard the Enterprise, to be transported to one last important diplomatic negotiation before retirement. But at more than 200 years of age, he is slipping into a cruel senility called Bendii Syndrome, an incurable condition which breaks down the emotional barriers Vulcans traditionally keep in place. Sarek's lack of control is causing him to telepathically project intense negative emotions onto others around him, and the chaos that ensues is threatening the negotiations that will crown his esteemed career.

The original germ of this story came from an outside writer's pitch about an alien diplomat who succumbed to mental problems during a negotiation. The writing staff developed this concept themselves, hitting on the idea to focus on old age and senility. Lacking the sci-fi element they felt was necessary to fit the story to the Star Trek universe, the idea then came to make the diplomat a Vulcan -- a character with telepathy whose condition could inflict consequences on the Enterprise crew. From there, the final piece fell into place: make it Sarek, an honored Vulcan that some of the audience would already know.

Head writer Michael Piller would note in a later interview that this plot came out very much like a metaphor for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Though Roddenberry would live another year-and-a-half beyond this, he'd already stepped away from day-to-day involvement with the series. His health was already deteriorating, to such a degree that even though Piller had only met him less than a year earlier, even he could see the difference. This episode was thus a very emotional one for the writers, because the fiction they were depicting so closely matched the reality they were seeing.

Although the episode is heavily focused on the guest star, most of the main cast is given at least one good scene to play. In most cases, its an emotional outburst inflicted by Sarek's condition, affording the actors a rare occasion to yell at each other in anger. They seem to rip into this rare morsel with relish. From Wesley's scathing insults to Geordi (which shrewdly mock his holodeck dating history) to Beverly slapping her own son (followed by a bewildered counseling session with Troi) to a shouting match between Riker and Picard, everyone cuts loose in a fun way. Even emotionless Data gets good scenes to play, from his imitative violin concert performance to his very astute and logical appeal to Sarek's Vulcan assistant Sakkath.

But of course the real showcase here is for Patrick Stewart. The scene in which Picard confronts Sarek about his condition is outstanding. Picard has to walk on eggshells to protect a great man's reputation, and yet must make his point. The writing is perfect, as Picard susses out the right moments to push with either logic or emotion to persuade Sarek of the truth.

And yet an even greater scene follows. Logically speaking, it's an odd conceit that Sarek would choose to mindmeld with Picard and not his own wife or a member of his staff. But it's a necessary conceit to put one of the main characters front and center, and an utterly forgivable conceit when you see the amazing performance Patrick Stewart gives as Picard suffers the avalanche of Sarek's emotions. With apologies to Marina Sirtis, this is the type of scene Troi is often forced into, expressing a litany of emotions while attempting to convincingly experience them. But this is what you get when an actor as skilled as Patrick Stewart does it. It's an unusually long scene, yet contains only two camera cuts; Stewart plays long passages in a single take, and is stunning. And though this is the scene that brings Picard to tears, it's actually a later scene that is arguably even more moving for the audience; Picard expresses the love to Sarek's human wife Perrin that the Vulcan himself would never voice, and pays Sarek a profound compliment before bidding him farewell.

Guest star Mark Lenard is quite strong in this episode as well. He perfectly modulates Sarek's angry outbursts, letting us know early on that something is out of the ordinary without quite giving the game away. His complete crumbling under Picard's interrogation is excellent. The only weak moment for him in the episode is the tear Sarek sheds at the Mozart concert. Either Lenard was unable to produce an actual tear on camera for the scene, or the producers foolishly decided in advance to use a visual effect for the scene; in any case, the obviously animated tear that rolls from Sarek's eye is shocking in its false appearance, but unfortunately not as much in the emotional context of the scene itself.

Other observations:
  • There's strong foreshadowing in this episode. There's a moment in the first act where Picard is wistful about not having had the opportunity to speak with Sarek and share his thoughts and memories. By the end of the episode, he will have had that opportunity in a far more literal and intimate way than he ever imagined.
  • Writer Ira Steven Behr (who did an uncredited rewrite of this script with Ronald Moore) has said that it was a real fight to get as many original series references into the episode as there are. Riker mentions the events of the classic episode "Journey to Babel." Sarek's first human wife is mentioned. And in the mindmeld monologue, Picard calls Spock and Amanda both by name. According to Behr, the mention of Spock was a battle against the producers over several days.
  • Speaking of the Spock reference, it's interesting that both he and Amanda are mentioned in the past tense, unlike Sarek's current wife Perrin. This could be interpreted as establishing that Spock is dead in the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, though this would be dramatically contradicted in the fifth season. (But since Sarek and Spock have had periods of estrangement in their lives, one could also assume that another one has occurred. This is indeed what is depicted in Spock's later appearance on the show.)
  • The piece at the Mozart concert that moves Sarek to tears is actually by Brahms. It also is a composition for a sextet, though we see only four musicians performing.
  • Though Patrick Stewart is amazing in the mindmeld sequence, it's worth noting that Gates McFadden also does well. She has to be supportive, sympathetic but strong, with very few words -- and she has to follow the sweeping, emotional monologue. It's an unenviable task.
My one minor complaint about the episode would be that the ways in which the main characters are incorporated into what is really the guest star's story don't always make perfect sense. The end results are great, but the basic "A to B" logic of it is just a touch strained. Still, this is a powerful episode that I give an A-.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Royale Treatment

At some point before the film adaptation of The Hunger Games was released, there was a fair amount of talk about how the book and movie seemed derivative of a 2000 Japanese film (itself based on a novel) called Battle Royale. That film was not widely known outside Japan, as its controversial violence got it banned from several countries and scared potential distributors in several others. Suzanne Collins, writer of The Hunger Games, is thus making a quite reasonable claim when she maintains she had no awareness of Battle Royale when she wrote her book. Still, I was curious to see if the well-regarded Japanese incarnation of the concept was as good as people said.

The stories are similar in a number of ways. A 9th grade class of students is chosen by lottery to participate in an annual competition. They're to be marooned on an island with three days to battle each other to the death. Only one can survive, or all will be killed when time expires. The players are given a variety of equipment and weapons of varying effectiveness, and must contend with obstacles ("danger zones") on the island. They must also contend with two "exchange students" brought in, both familiar with the games and apparently eager to compete.

Some elements of Battle Royale work very well. The fascist near-future depicted in the movie comes off far more militant and menacing than the decadent world of The Hunger Games (at least, the first book of that trilogy). There are great moments of darkly twisted humor, such as an orientation video hosted by a hilariously chipper woman channeling anime sensibilities. It's also effective and appropriate that it is incredibly violent. The Hunger Games -- both book and film -- pulled back on this for the sake of being commercial to a younger audience. Battle Royale doesn't seem to have been aimed at such an audience, despite the age of the characters. This frees the movie up to truly depict how horrific a situation this would be, and often works to the movie's advantage.

However, the film has a lot of shortcomings too. The entire premise is shaky, for starters. The Battle Royale game is presented to us as a government program designed to keep unruly children in check. And yet none of the children that participate here have ever even heard of it; how can it be a deterrent if they don't know it exists? There are simply too many characters here. The Hunger Games strains at 24 competitors to make more than a few of them memorable, well-rounded individuals. Battle Royale throws a staggering 44 players into the mix, and we see virtually every one of the losers killed on screen. Some die in effective little vignettes, committing suicide or turning on alliances, but it's virtually impossible to track continuity for more than five or six of them overall; you have to take the deaths as just vignettes and not really try to hook them into the story as a whole.

Because the characters are numerous and shallow, and the deaths so plentiful, there's a certain repetition and numbness that develops after a time. It never quite reaches "boring" because of the inventiveness of some of the sequences. But a lot of it is incomprehensible. Character motivations are unclear, and the reasons they turn on a dime even less so. The resolution is confusing.

In all, I'd say the good roughly balanced out the bad here, resulting in a middle of the road finished product. Maybe you do think The Hunger Games owes this movie a debt of thanks, but even if Suzanne Collins was inspired by it, she improved on it. I give Battle Royale a C.

Friday, September 06, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Most Toys

"The Most Toys" is an interesting episode that treats a familiar concept in a new way due to the character at the heart of the tale.

Data is abducted by a ruthless alien named Kivas Fajo, who wishes to add him to his collection of rare items. Fajo has gone to great expense to procure the android, to the extent of faking Data's death so the Enterprise won't look for him. Unable to find an escape, Data must deal with Fajo's amoral coercions, and may ultimately be forced to do what he has never done before -- take a humanoid life.

Tales of captivity aren't uncommon on television, but never do you have an emotionless character as the victim. Data's presence in this story results in a novel new take on the dramatic construct. His debates with his captor are logical, not pleading. His attempts at resistance seem carefully calibrated. And yet this very detachment that makes the episode more intriguing from an intellectual standpoint also leave it a bit lacking from an emotional one. Data is never in any danger, and the audience has no doubt he'll be free by the end of the hour. There don't seem to be any stakes here.

Still, it is interesting to see such a morally reprehensible character like Kivas Fajo depicted in a Star Trek episode. There have been playful rogues like Okona, mustache-twirling Romulan captains, and even the dispassionate Borg... but never has there been such a diabolical person as this. He can summon fake tears while telling a completely fictitious story of past hardships. He can callously threaten to kill a companion he's traveled with for 14 years. And he can do it all without ever raising his voice.

It's a solid performance by actor Saul Rubinek. But interestingly, he was not the first actor cast in the role. David Rappaport, a little person well known from many performances throughout the 1980s, was cast as Fajo and filmed for two full days, completing the first scene and last two scenes of the episode. But then the weekend came, and he attempted suicide. Though he survived, he was hospitalized. Episode director Timothy Bond had suddenly lost his main guest star, and had to scramble for a replacement.

Bond was a friend of actor Saul Rubinek, who was in Los Angeles in preparation to shoot a movie. Rubinek was a Star Trek fan, knew that his friend was directing an episode, and asked if a set tour could be arranged. Bond called him back with an unexpected offer -- though Rubinek did not usually work in television at the time, he could absolutely get his set tour... if he could come in immediately on Monday morning, be fitted for a new costume, and start filming a guest role as Kivas Fajo that afternoon.

David Rappaport attempted suicide again a few months later, just days before the completed Star Trek episode aired, and this time was successful. But the footage from his two days of filming on the episode can now be seen, as a special feature on the Blu-ray release. It's an intriguing look at how different a character can be in the hands of two different actors -- something you can often see in the theater, but rarely on television. To make Kivas Fajo appropriately menacing despite his small stature, Rappaport plays him as much more dour and stern. Rubinek's take, in sharp contrast, is much more pleasant, the villainy more concealed with a smile. Rappaport's incarnation of the character also sports a much more alien makeup -- though presumably Rubinek's lack of such makeup wasn't a deliberate choice so much as a lack of time to mold a new prosthetic.

The recasting of the actor goes off without a hitch. But there are other aspects of the episode that aren't so successful. The writers are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to showing the reactions to Data's "death" by the rest of the crew. We saw an elaborate funeral for Tasha Yar back in the first season, a character who is deftly referenced twice in this very episode, and yet we see no such grief over Data's death. Of course, the problem is that it would be a waste of time to dwell on Data's death too much, since we all know that hasn't actually happened. At least we do get two moments that seem to appropriately carry the weight of Data's loss: Picard's quoting from Hamlet, and Troi reaching out to counsel Worf on the emotions of replacing yet another fellow crewmember after a death.

Actually, it might be the comedic moments of the episode that play the best. The other contents of Fajo's collection bring a smile to your face, from rare paintings to a bubble gum scented baseball card. Data's attempt to emulate the Mona Lisa's smile is great. And watch the background when Fajo's alien guest Palor Toff comes to see Data; he has a hilarious moment where he picks his three-nostriled nose.

For the most part, I can enjoy the good moments and weather the less good ones in this episode. But there's one element I just can't make sense of at all -- the climactic moment. Data has a disruptor trained on Kivas Fajo, which Fajo says he won't use out of respect for life. The first flaw is that Fajo, who has proven such a master manipulator throughout the episode, so overplays his hand here. He tells Data point blank that he'll continue to murder people to force Data's compliance, and the only escape will be for Data to murder him right then and there. But if Data is to be the cause of deaths in either case, then which is the lesser loss: all the lives taken by Fajo, or Fajo's one life? Framing the situation in such mathematical terms makes the conclusion inevitable for the calculating Data.

But while I have no quarrel with Data's decision in that moment to commit murder, I don't understand what happens next. Having fired the disruptor a split second before the transporter takes him, Data then arrives on the Enterprise and lies to Riker about having done so. It's not that it's ever been stated point blank that Data doesn't lie (at least, I don't think it has), but I can't imagine him doing so without reason. Riker asks point blank what happened, and Data pauses for a moment and makes the calculated decision to lie. This I can't comprehend at all. I think the writers thought they were being cool and ambiguous in this moment. Or maybe the powers-that-be didn't want to consequences of acknowledging point blank that Data had attempted a murder. But either way, I find the equivocation harmful to the drama.

Other observations:
  • The Enterprise shuttle piloted by Data in the teaser is named the Pike. I believe this is the first time a shuttle has been named for a fictional character within the Trek universe.
  • Speaking of ship names, the Grissom is mentioned in dialogue later in the episode. It seems the Enterprise is not the only reused ship name in Starfleet, as we saw the Grissom destroyed in Star Trek III.
  • The makeup work on Varria is really clever and well done. Even though she's an alien, something about her face implies that she may be a burn victim or some such. And the actress alludes to this with a gesture to her face when she talks about the horrible things Kivas Fajo is capable of.
  • The thugs that Data tosses around at the end of the episode do some unintentionally hilarious overacting.
  • This is another episode that, according to the series' policy of alternating composers, would have been scored by Ron Jones. He was still on his trip to Russia, and so Dennis McCarthy filled in. With this, the previous episode, and the subsequent one, McCarthy actually did three in a row.
  • This episode was huge for Decipher's Star Trek Customizable Card Game. Not only did it inspire the limited specialty set The Fajo Collection, it was the origin of two of the most overpowered (and thus widely abused) cards of the premiere set, "Kivas Fajo -- Collector" and "Palor Toff -- Alien Trader." Subsequent expansions were filled with numerous attempts to balance the former in particular. In my time as a designer on the game, I remember one recurring idea for a "Kivas Fajo counter" was going to be named for Data's pivotal line from this episode: "I cannot permit this to continue." I don't recall what the card did in playtesting, nor do I think any version of it was ever actually printed, but I think the gist of it was basically "if your opponent plays Kivas Fajo, burn his house to the ground and spit on the ashes." (Or maybe we did print that card? One decade and dozens of versions of thousands of cards later, I can't firmly recall.)
"The Most Toys" works mostly. (Ha!) But the deflated emotional stakes keep it from being a real gem. I give it a B.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Musical Memories

Daft Punk may have served up their entry for "song of the summer" months ago, but I only recently got around to listening to their newest album, Random Access Memories. Said song, "Get Lucky," is buried deep in the album at track 8 (for those few who even listen to albums straight through anymore), amid a collection of hit and miss songs.

There's a strong disco vibe playing throughout the album. In addition to the ubiquitous "Get Lucky," other tracks like "Give Life Back to Music" and "Lose Yourself to Dance" seem very specifically crafted to evoke disco. Only Daft Punk's signature use of vocoder would give you any indication these songs weren't recorded in the 70s. (Not many besides Peter Frampton were using it then.) Those tracks are among the most appealing (and certainly the most catchy) on the album.

The rest of the album gives in to the cliche excesses of techno music, and is far less enjoyable for it. "Giorgio by Moroder" is a prime example of what I mean -- there are interesting musical hooks there, but they don't kick in until after a minutes-long sampled interview plays; more snippets of the interview intrude on the rest of the song's seemlingly unending 9 minutes. "Touch" eventually coalesces into a relaxing, atmospheric song... but only after two minutes of obnoxious tinkering with a spoken intro processed every possible way it can be through a vocoder. The album's finale, "Contact," is the most obnoxious of all. It's one third actual song, one third recording of an astronaut recounting a UFO encounter or something, and one third shrill burst of static that intensifies in decibels and frequency until you literally cannot endure listening one second longer.

Even the signature track, "Get Lucky," isn't immune to some of these techno excesses. The album version of the song lasts an unnecessarily long six minutes, with the chorus sometimes repeated three times where one is plenty in the radio edit. Daft Punk simply doesn't play with variation enough to justify the repetition, which is part of why I've found some of the covers of their song to be more appealing than the original.

But there are a few tracks where the indulgence does come together well. Besides the disco-influenced tracks I've already mentioned, there's "Beyond," a slow jam track with a powerful orchestral opening. There's also "Doin' It Right," which contrasts its excessive processed vocals with an intriguingly sparse instrumentation.

Overall though, this is one album you have to cherry pick heavily. For every decent track, there's a terrible one. I give Random Access Memories a C.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

TNG Flashback: Hollow Pursuits

In reviewing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've often lamented that many episodes go bad when they center too much on the guest star and not enough on the main characters. But then there are some episodes that can only be told through a guest character. "Hollow Pursuits" is the perfect example of such a story.

Junior engineer Reginald Barclay just isn't fitting in aboard the Enterprise. He's socially awkward, painfully inarticulate, timid and shy, chronically late -- everything that isn't "Starfleet's finest." And after a particularly rough day (which is pretty much all of them), he retreats to the holodeck, where he has recreated all the senior staff members who've been getting him down, and gets the better of them in a variety of fantasies ranging from becoming the swaggering menace of the ship to an accomplished fencer of centuries past. Geordi learns of Barclay's holodeck addiction, and tries to help him through it even as the two must work together to solve a series of baffling and increasingly dangerous malfunctions aboard the ship.

Everyone plays out in their heads those fantasy moments where you wish you'd said something better or behaved differently. Everybody can identify with the person who drives you crazy, to whom you wish you could just say what you really think. It makes perfect sense that if you had access to a holodeck, the desire to live out those fantasies would be even more powerful that the desire to "take that dream vacation" or "live inside your favorite novel." It's an inevitable and natural story for Star Trek to tell.

That said, you couldn't tell it with one of the main characters. Not one of the Next Generation characters, anyway. They are too virtuous, too noble, too good, to succumb to an addiction -- even an addiction that doesn't (yet) exist in the real world. You have to saddle a new minor character with the problem, then try to fit in the main cast around it.

Enter Reginald Barclay, played by Dwight Schultz. The part was especially written with him in mind, which came about after he and Whoopi Goldberg worked on a movie together. He happened to discuss with her his love of Star Trek, and mentioned how much he loved seeing her on The Next Generation. Goldberg went back to the producers, praising Schultz's acting and recommending a part be written for him.

Schultz does a masterful job of playing a painfully shy, socially awkward misfit. This episode aired in 1990, right around the time the modern conception of Asperger syndrome was becoming a more common and recognized diagnosis, and probably a decade or more before the average layperson had heard of it. But in my (completely armchair) opinion, Barclay is perhaps one of the first television characters with Asperger's. He's capable of confidence, but needs the safety net of being able to shut off or reboot a conversation if it doesn't go the way he expects it.

Even though Barclay would go on to be a semi-recurring character, he's still not a "main." But this episode is as much a Geordi story as it is a Barclay story. As much as it's about Barclay's holo addiction, it's about Geordi's attempts to bring Barclay out of his shell. Geordi is the perfect character to discover Barclay's secret, for reasons mentioned specifically in the episode -- he too has had an unconventional experience on the holodeck, having also recreated a person who actually exists in the real world. He even fell in love with the creation. Geordi is also among the most human and understanding of the characters, a person who would try to help someone like Barclay; by contrast, Riker has fallen in holodeck love too, but he's predictably stern with Barclay in this episode.

Other characters get good moments in this episode too. Data's innocent observation that the "Broccoli" nickname doesn't seem to denote fondness exposes the bullying behavior of the other characters. Picard's horrified reaction to accidentally using the nickname himself is a delight (as is Data's attempt to make him feel better about the mistake). Troi's awkward counseling session with an increasingly nervous Barclay is one of the best comedic moments of the season.

But of course, the real fun comes in watching all the main actors play the holodeck versions of themselves -- and it's clear they all had as much fun doing it as we do watching it. There's Picard, Data, and Geordi as "musketeers," with a half-height Riker as their wannabe (and he's no D'Artagnan). Beverly lounges about in an almost laudanum-like haze, as her Blue Boy son Wesley stuffs his face with pie. And Marina Sirtis gets to play off herself as a horrified (and double-standard wielding) Troi encounters her own "Goddess of Empathy" incarnation. Even the less extreme holo-scenarios, which take place on the Enterprise, are a great deal of fun. The episode opens and closes with such scenes, in neither case revealing right away that what we're seeing isn't real, and both sequences are wonderfully effective.

Whoopi Goldberg is also great in the episode. (After getting her friend Dwight Schultz the part, it's only natural that she appear in the episode.) Guinan astutely notes the chicken-and-egg problem of trying to fit it with a tight-knit group, tells a tantalizing story about her family's background, and gets Geordi to appreciate the value of an active imagination.

Other observations:
  • Some people apparently reacted negatively to this episode, perceiving it to be a veiled attack on obsessive fans of Star Trek. ("Look at the nerd who wants to live with the Star Trek characters!") Personally, I don't see this at all. The writers and producers have also emphatically denied any such intention.
  • Though it's the Barclay story that's the main thread (and best part) of the episode, the 30-second "next time on Star Trek" teaser for the episode doesn't show it at all, instead focusing on the final act's manufactured jeopardy of out of control acceleration.
  • The title of the episode is a pun, obviously, but it's also clever and insightful. A life lived on the holodeck is a "hollow" and empty one.
  • I believe this is the first episode in which Starfleet characters who aren't part of the main cast wear the new collared uniforms created for the third season, rather than the leftover first- and second-season spandex.
  • Just what is the protocol on privacy in the holodeck? Other episodes have made one ask the question, but this episode really takes it to another level as LaForge, Troi, and Riker all just barge in on Barclay's scenario. Are there no locks on the holodeck? Are there locks which they're able to bypass as senior officers?
  • The stunt doubles used in the sword fighting sequences are painfully obvious. I suspect this is a case where the Blu-ray remaster actually hurts the intended result a bit; no one ever conceived that faces would look as sharp as this on a TV screen.
  • We never see the actual Beverly Crusher in this episode, only holographic versions of her.
"Hollow Pursuits" is a real gem of season three. And since you rarely hear it mentioned as one of the season's best episodes, I guess that makes it an underappreciated gem. I give it an A-.

Monday, September 02, 2013

See You on the Pitch

Among game enthusiasts, PitchCar is a fairly well known -- if somewhat rare -- game. The idea is simple. You build a race track, complete with some guard walls and (if you have expansions) obstacles, then race around the track with wooden discs. On your turn, you flick your disc with whatever accuracy and skill you can muster, trying to pass other racers, stay on the track, and reach the finish line first.

It's a bit rare because it doesn't come cheap. The track parts are made of wood, rather like those toy train sets so many kids play with. But the fit is much tighter and precise -- and it has to be, since you can't have any breaks in the track interfering with the discs as they go speeding along.

My first taste of "PitchCar" was actually the iPhone quasi-adaptation, Disc Drivin. I've been playing that one for nearly a year. Other games have come and gone among my friends, but Disc Drivin endures, one of the very best take-your-turn-then-forget-it games there is on the iPhone. Disc Drivin one-ups PitchCar by adding a dose of Mario Kart to the proceedings. There are speed boost patches, ramps, and flippers. You get weapons and boosts, including the ability to drop bombs, oil slicks, turn your disc ghostly for a turn, and more. It's a ton of fun.

But my friend has always been curious about the true original, and finally picked up a copy of PitchCar, which I got to play at last this past weekend. I thought it likely that it wasn't going to live up to the hype, and certainly thought it wasn't going to be as fun as Disc Drivin without all its only-possible-in-the-digital-world add-ons. But I was completely wrong.

Within just a few turns, it was easy to see that PitchCar was just pure fun. Everybody would laugh or groan when you launched your disc off the track. People would "oooooo" with admiration when you made a particularly nice shot. It was fun for newcomers, and fun for people with a year of Disc Drivin under their belts. (It even made one person in the group go download the Disc Drivin app after we finished playing.)

Sometimes you want strategy, of course, and clearly PitchCar doesn't offer much of that. (Manual dexterity and a dose of luck? We've got plenty to spare!) But it's one of the most fun race games I've ever played. It's worth the price tag...

...though I don't mind at all that someone else in my play group was the one to finally pick it up.