Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TNG Flashback: The Best of Both Worlds

I've come to the end of season three of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and its unforgettable cliffhanger -- the first ever for Star Trek -- "The Best of Both Worlds."

Commander Riker grapples with his career path, and a decision whether to accept a new command or remain happy and "comfortable" aboard the Enterprise. But when the Borg arrive in Federation space and abduct Captain Picard as part of their new designs to attack Earth itself, Riker is thrust into the captain's chair, ready or not.

I've written before of the profound impact this episode had on me and Star Trek fans everywhere when it first aired. But that really can't be overstated. Many people actually believed there was a chance that Captain Picard was being written out of the show. First, there was the poignant writing within the episode itself, which spoke of the doomed Captain Nelson touring his ship before the Battle of Trafalgar. Then there were the rumors that Patrick Stewart wasn't happy on the series and actually had asked to leave. (It turns out there was the tiniest kernel of truth buried there, in that when Stewart first took the job as Picard, he did so believing there was no chance the series would last longer than one season -- and that was the way he'd wanted it at the time.) I don't think anyone actually believed we'd come back next season to see the Borg cube blown apart in the first five seconds, but it was hard to imagine just what the writers were going to do.

Ironically, episode writer Michael Piller had no idea either when he wrote this episode. In fact, he'd decided to leave the series. He was wrestling with the very issues Riker articulates in this episode: the conflict between ambition and happiness. Piller wrote this subplot with his own experiences in mind, and this incredibly personal touch is an often overlooked part of what makes this episode so great. Yes, the Borg return, the action is amazing, and Picard's assimilation is an unbelievable shock... but through it all is this emotional story of inner conflict and uncertainty. Piller wrote this script with one foot figuratively out the door, having made his decision to leave, and with the freedom that came from knowing that whatever problems he concocted would be someone else's to solve. Then Gene Roddenberry made a personal appeal to Piller, acknowledging how much he'd improved the series, and managed to change his mind.

But we'll leave the wrap-up of the cliffhanger for next time. There was plenty of challenge just in creating it. The writers had actually been considering a "return of the Borg" story all season long, but couldn't arrive at a story they liked. The problem they kept facing was that as a villain, the Borg had limited personality. Some of the writers proposed that what they really needed was a "queen bee" to put a face on the adversary. It was a suggestion Piller opposed... until he himself finally came up with the idea to make Picard that queen bee. It required a bit of hand-waving (acknowledged in dialogue in the episode itself), given that the Borg cared nothing for individual life in their first appearance, but the idea was too compelling to discard over that minor quibble.

There are plenty of other great moments in the writing well before that compelling cliffhanger. The ambitious Commander Shelby is a wonderful guest character, a thorn in Riker's side. It's amazing that this level of conflict between Starfleet characters would be allowed, given Gene Roddenberry's usual edicts against such things, but this contentious relationship is a key part of the story. From the poker game in which she upsets the status quo, to her outright defiance of Riker in their turbolift argument, Shelby is a compelling presence. (And made it seem just a bit more possible that Picard was actually being written out of the show. To be replaced by this new character?)

It's almost random, but this is actually a fun episode for Dr. Crusher as well. Gates McFadden had approached Michael Piller to ask if she could get to fire a phaser some day, and he granted that request by putting her on the Away Team at the end of this episode. We get a smart nod to continuity (and the fact that she wasn't around in the second season for the Borg's first appearance); she has the clever idea on how to stop the Borg ship ("sting them in a tender spot..."); and then, as requested, she gets to fire a phaser. It's all just great fun use of her character, and it's really not even too big a stretch that she's there, given that they're on a mission to rescue a potentially wounded crew member.

But even more impressive to me than the writing on this episode is the composing. The musical score to this episode (and the conclusion) is Ron Jones' finest work among a great deal of fine work on the show. It was some of the earliest Star Trek: The Next Generation music made available for purchase, and I've listened to every track more times than I could possibly count. The music is just so clever and inventive. It's also powerful, using twice as many musicians as the average episode.

The Borg attacks are scored in 3/4 time, a usually airy time signature associated with waltzes, of all things. But Jones transforms it into something sinister and relentless. He makes a perfect choice in using a synthetic choir to vocalize the Borg themselves -- a choice initially resisted by the producers, until he argued that apocalyptic stakes of this episode called for a more over-the-top approach to the music. From the unsettling tones of the initial fade-in, to the screeching fanfare that plays over the "To Be Continued..." card, there's not a wrong note in this score.

All that said, even though this episode is among the series' very best, we fans can still acknowledge a few minor (maybe even humorous) imperfections. The opening teaser, while dramatic, is utter nonsense. They have to beam down to find out about the gaping hole where a city used to be? (Good thing they don't actually materialize at "the center of town," as O'Brien claims, but on the rim of the crater.) Or how about the unnecessary barrel roll Geordi makes under the closing engineering door? Ah, who really cares when you get so caught up in watching this episode, even if it's for the umpteenth time.

Other observations:
  • This episode marks the first occurrence of the ubiquitous Borg catch phrase, "resistance is futile."
  • Actor George Murdock guest stars as Admiral Hanson. He's given much better material to work with than he had in his previous Star Trek appearance, as "God" in the horrendous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
  • In another connection with a Star Trek film, the nebula in which the Enterprise hides from the Borg is created with footage from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
  • The first appearance of Picard as a Borg is simply iconic. The flare of the laser as "Locutus" turns toward the camera is simply brilliant. (And, according to a member of the special effects team, an unintended accident!)
The Best of Both Worlds is the best episode of the season, and among the best of the entire series. I give it an unqualified A.

And since that does mark the end of season three, it's time to look back on it as a whole. What a turning point for the series this was! In the two seasons prior, I'd found only one A episode and one A- episode. Season three had four of the former and three of the latter, putting nearly a third of the season in the "top shelf" category. And that quality was generally quite consistent; only five episodes out of 26 rated any lower than a B-. In short, season three was when Star Trek: The Next Generation really got good.

My top five episodes of the season (as noted, all but one of them A grade): The Best of Both Worlds, Yesterday's Enterprise, The Offspring, Deja Q, and Hollow Pursuits.

On to season four!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Music of the Game

We have around half a year until the new season of Game of Thrones unfolds. There's no telling when George R.R. Martin might actually finish writing the next book. What's a fan to do to scratch the Ice and Fire itch?

Well, there is the TV series' season 3 soundtrack album, from composer Ramin Djawadi.

I've written before about the solid first season soundtrack and the even better second season soundtrack. The third installment is perhaps the weakest entry of three, but it may still be a worthwhile addition to a fan's collection. It doesn't really have any major "5-star tracks" like the earlier albums, perhaps because many of the biggest storytelling moments of the season are more personal in nature, rather than slugged out over a raging battlefield. Still, there is plenty of good music here.

There's something engaging about the insistent, almost melancholy "A Lannister Always Pays His Debts." The initially slow and brooding "Dracarys" ultimately gives way to a thunderous chanting chorus. The uneasy bookends of "Wall of Ice" contain a harrowing burst of percussion in the core. And you can hear a horror in the tracks "Reek" and the pivotal "The Lannisters Send Their Regards."

Not everything on the album is a winner. Young "Shireen's Song," moving enough in the context of the episode in which it appears, is simply a breathy child singing awkwardly without accompaniment on the album. "Kingslayer" is not nearly as moving on its own as it is with Jaime's story to go with it. And I didn't like the anachronistic punk rock "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" even when it ran over the end credits of one episode; I like it no better mixed in with an otherwise orchestral album.

In all, I'd give the season 3 soundtrack album a B-. Cherry picking the better half of the album and discarding the rest, I have enjoyed listening to it. That may not be quite enough "good stuff" for everyone's collection, but it'll get me through a dry spell for things Game of Thrones related.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

TNG Flashback: Transfigurations

It's time to get back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the last couple episodes of the third season. First up is the disappointing and flat "Transfigurations."

The Enterprise rescues the near fatally injured survivor of an escape pod crash, and Dr. Crusher begins the weeks-long process of nursing him back to health. Suffering from amnesia, the alien "John Doe" is unable to recall his past, nor to explain the strange cellular mutation he is undergoing. When the crew is finally able to locate Doe's homeworld, his people demand he be handed over to be executed for unspecified crimes.

After selling his first script to Star Trek: The Next Generation ("The Offspring"), writer Rene Echeverria was reportedly contacted by the writing staff to see if he had any ideas for cracking a troublesome story idea they'd been pursuing. They wanted to tell the story of an alien recovered from a crash, but didn't know who he was or what to make him that would get the story going. Echevarria suggested that Star Trek had depicted several advanced alien races without ever depicting the moment of their evolution to "godhood"; perhaps that would be a good angle for the story.

The problem is, this idea ultimately has nothing to do with our main characters. Indeed, given John Doe's incredible regenerative powers, it could be questioned whether Dr. Crusher even needed to come along to save his life and get him to his moment of apotheosis. And even if Crusher did that much, it's the last moment in the entire episode that any of the main characters have a substantial impact on the story outcome. Doe recovers his memories without any assistance from the main characters -- and notably, at a maddening pace with just enough convenient holes to keep the mystery alive for 45 minutes.

The episode is awash in technobabble. The entire first act seesaws back and forth between mechanical technobabble about the the computer storage device recovered from the crash, and medical technobabble regarding John Doe's recovery. (In a key scene were Worf bellows, "enough talk," we the audience wholeheartedly agree.) At the midpoint of the story, the scene in which Data and Geordi figure out where to find Doe's home planet is another agonizingly long bit of exposition. But worst of all is the climax of the story, a plodding, dry scene in which the camera pans across the passive faces of our heroes as they listen to the guest star download a massive brick of exposition.

If the main characters don't impact the story, we could have at least seen how the story impacted them, in a "ripples in the pond" sort of way. But the story isn't much more successful on that front, either. We're told that a strong -- but non-romantic -- relationship forms between Beverly and John Doe. And though the passage of many weeks during the story does allow for this, the fact remains that it all happens off screen. We're told about their relationship, not shown it. It's hard to invest in. And the only other character John Doe really interacts with on a personal level is Geordi, who somehow gains a "boost of confidence" from his contact with the alien, manifested by his sudden smoothness with the woman he'd been interested in, Christy Henshaw. This thread at least has a more personal touch, but also misfires a bit in that Christy Henshaw is actually a returning character (from the episode "Booby Trap"). In that episode, we saw Geordi's failed attempt at a date with her, yet this episode starts with him seeming to have a crush on her as though none of the previous events had ever happened.

A handful of other scenes are well intentioned, but just don't quite work right. A dinner between Wesley and Beverly, discussing her relationship with Doe, seems a bit awkward. Worf's momentary death doesn't really have much of an impact, since it seems hard to believe that his fall from not-all-that-great-a-height would result in a fatal injury, particularly to a Klingon. O'Brien's holodeck kayak injury (shown here for the first time, before it would occur repeatedly on Deep Space Nine) turns odd when Wesley comes off like quite a jerk by slapping the obviously injured O'Brien on the shoulder.

Other observations:
  • Riker keeps referring to Geordi's girlfriend as "Miss" Henshaw. Does she have no rank or job aboard the Enterprise? It comes off as ever-so-slightly chauvinistic.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy tries to cut loose a bit in the scene where John Doe tries to flee the ship, but like so much of this episode, it doesn't quite work. The synthesized percussion he deploys is conspicuously strange, calling attention to itself in an undesirable way.
  • John Doe's people, the Zalkonians, deploy an unprecedented weapon in the final act of the story. Apparently, at the push of a button, they can either disable the Enterprise's life support or affect the breathing of every member of her crew. Yet despite the shocking power of this weapon, nobody in the episode comments on it. Smartly, the writers never show us such a weapon again for the life of the series (so far as I remember).
There are one or two elements that save the episode from being a total loss. The banter between Worf and Geordi about the latter's lack of skill with women is truly funny. The crash site set where John Doe is found in the teaser is quite impressive for such a short amount of camera time. It almost looks like an outdoor location, perhaps given away only by the sharp clarity of this new HD remaster. In short, even while failing, the series isn't failing as completely as it did in the first two seasons. Still, make no mistake: this is the worst episode of season three. I give it a D+.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Into the West

Over the years, I've written about a series of HBO documentaries called Paradise Lost. The original movie and its two different follow-ups chronicle the case of the so-called West Memphis Three, a group of outcast teenagers who in the early 1990s were convicted of murdering a trio of 8-year-old boys in an allegedly Satanic ritual. The three films paint a compelling picture that demonstrates the innocence of the Three, and shows the ineptitude and corruption among the police and judiciary that led to their wrongful incarceration.

Did the world need another film about the West Memphis Three? You could argue no. But if that film is West of Memphis, you'd be wrong.

Over the years, the West Memphis Three attracted a number of celebrities who used their fame and resources to raise awareness about the case. Among that group were Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the power couple behind The Lord of the Rings film series. This documentary, released last year, comes from them.

West of Memphis does right by its subject matter, but is also a very clever bit of filmmaking. It assumes (and rightly, I think) that a significant portion of its audience will already be aware of the West Memphis Three case, and will have already seen one or more of the Paradise Lost films. It does summarize the case for anyone who might be new to the story, but it does not try to pretend that it's the first documentary to cover the subject. So, after spending about 30 minutes catching everyone up on the main elements of the case (in some instances with very unsettling and shocking photos), it moves on to another agenda.

This documentary is primarily a chronicle of the efforts to exonerate the West Memphis Three and produce another credible suspect. The most notorious of the Three, if you will, married while in prison, and his wife worked tirelessly with Jackson and Walsh combing through the original case, looking for holes. Of course, the Paradise Lost documentaries have already demonstrated that it was positively riddled with such holes, but West of Memphis goes farther than just presenting alternative scenarios. It goes to the next step, showing the hunt for experts -- and many of them -- to verify these alternatives.

And then the film presents a damning case against another suspect: Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. It's an accusation that isn't made lightly. Indeed, West of Memphis begins its search for an alternative suspect by pointing out that the second Paradise Lost documentary, when it presented an alternate suspect, did so with no more evidence or rationality than the original case against the West Memphis Three themselves. Here, the case is laid out rationally and compellingly. By the end of the film, there can be little doubt as to the true perpetrator of these murders.

Which makes the end of the film even more maddening. Last year, resulting from the efforts of the group behind this documentary, the West Memphis Three were granted a new trial. But understandably nervous about again confronting a justice system that had imprisoned them for two decades, the Three were persuaded by their lawyers to forego the trial and instead enter a very rare "Alford plea." In essence, this irrational legal construct allowed them to go free and publicly maintain their innocence... provided they still pleaded guilty in court, essentially forfeiting their right to sue the justice system for redress of their wrongful incarceration.

The film documents this ambiguous conclusion to the case, and yet conspicuously avoids its most unsettling implication. The Arkansas state justice system has their guilty plea. This case is closed for them. But the film has set forth nearly incontrovertible proof of the real culprit's identity -- who will clearly not be prosecuted. The murderer of three young boys, who has escaped justice for two decades, will continue to go free.

I can only hope that someday, there is a fifth documentary covering this case... specifically, depicting the capture and trial of Terry Hobbs. But until that day, West of Memphis stands as the best film of the four on the subject. It will outrage and shock you. It will make you think. I give it an A-. It becomes a late entry on my "Best of 2012" list, sliding into the #10 slot.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Grand Inquisitive

My boyfriend picked up Grand Theft Auto V this week, and just a few days later, it's looking like I'll have a large chunk of reading time to chip away at the huge stack of books that I've let build up.

And it's sounding like Blazing Saddles is playing on a loop at my house.

There are a truly shocking number of racial slurs flying around in this game. And when I mentioned this to some friends recently, it led to a rather amusing examination of the rather arbitrary places people can draw lines. Basically, my arbitrarily drawn lines seemed to say: "Sure, sleep with a prostitute and then kill her to get your money back. Who cares? It's just a game! Wow, that's a lot of n-words."

I think it's because I have a mental image of the team of writers who probably wrote all the dialogue for this game, and that's an image that doesn't quite sit right in my mind. But yeah, I admit, my standards might be a bit goofy on this one.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

View With a Room

I recently spent an evening watching an extremely low budget documentary called Room 237. There must be something about movies with "Room" in the title. Because not since Tommy Wiseau's impossibly bad The Room have I seen watched a movie that I would call predominately "bad," and yet simultaneously find so watchable -- even recommendable.

Room 237 is an examination of Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining. In an interlaced series of interviews, five different enthusiasts of the film share their theories on subliminal imagery and hidden meanings they believe the notoriously controlling and meticulous director placed within the movie... and each conspiracy is more outlandish than the last.

I should say that I myself am no fan of The Shining. I find the movie over-the-top to a point where it's often more silly than scary, and filled with ridiculous performances. So I was coming to this documentary not as a Shining fan, but for this movie in and of itself, having read a glowing review in Entertainment Weekly magazine, which provocatively proclaimed: "even more than The Shining itself, it places you right inside the logic of how an insane person thinks."

From that perspective, Room 237 is pretty amazing. In the course of the documentary, Kubrick fans argue forcefully (though unconvincingly), that the movie is a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans, or a way to personalize the horrors of the Holocaust. They "unmask" how the movie is steeped top to bottom in subliminal imagery, either of a predominately sexual nature or referencing the myth of the minotaur, depending on who you ask. There's a guy who geeks out over what happens when you simultaneously run the movie forward and backward at the same time, superimposing the two images over one another on the same screen. And there's my personal favorite, the man who swears The Shining is Kubrick's secret confession to having directed all the fake Apollo moon landing footage.

In essence, Room 237 is a case study of film criticism and deconstruction taken to the nth degree, past the point where it can spark any meaningful conversation. But entertaining as that is for a while, it does feel like there comes a point where you realize there is no point. I'm unsure if the documentary is trying to say anything, or if it's just inviting us to point at the weirdos and laugh. Which, I confess, I certainly did. Or maybe that's the point? Maybe the documentary is probing for the line between healthy geek passion and crazed whack-a-doodle obsession?

But I'm inclined to think that, like the enthusiasts interviewed in the film itself, I'm probably reading too much into a movie. For one thing, Room 237 is made so on the cheap, I think I could have done it myself... on my dying laptop that doesn't even function right or take a battery charge anymore. Not a single one of the interview subjects is shown on camera in the film. Instead, each is recorded (sometimes quite poorly) by telephone, their comments edited in rather amateur fashion over spliced together footage from a raft of movies -- mostly The Shining, largely other Kubrick films, but ultimately I gather any random movie they could get the rights to show a clip of. The result is a movie so shoddily made that it's hard to take it seriously... though I suppose once you start hearing some of the ravings of the theorists within, there would have been little chance of that anyway.

In the end, the movie is so poorly assembled that I can only give it a C-. That said, there are plenty of people I'd probably still have to recommend it to: if you love film criticism, or enjoy a good laugh at an outrageous conspiracy theory... or, of course, if you're a fan of The Shining. To all of you, I'd say that -- warts and all -- this might just be a "must see."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Girl in the Flower Dress

Just two weeks ago, I was asking if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would "go there," and actually have Skye turn against her new team in a Jayne-from-Firefly-like plot development. It turns out, it didn't take long for us to get the answer to that.

This week's new episode of the show wasn't quite amazing, but I think I chalk that up in part due to that comparison to Firefly, which played a similar story so effectively. But certainly, the episode did do a lot of things right.

In only the fifth episode, the show was boldly addressing some of the big questions posed in its pilot: What is Skye really out for? Who is behind this superpower serum? And it managed to provide some answers on these fronts while turning the page to move another chapter deeper into the mystery: Who are Skye's parents, and what did they have to do with SHIELD? Who is this imprisoned kingpin, and what is his role in the "Centipede" organization?

The exploration of Skye's history and motives definitely started to flesh her out as a better character, more than her "hacker with a heart of gold" broad strokes. I look forward to similar episodes that pull back the curtain on the other five mains.

And the humor worked particularly well this week, too. I'm always a fan of a well executed running gag, so "you gave him a name?" certainly won me over.

I'm still not sure that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has delivered a "grade A" episode that makes me an evangelist, but it at this point it's safe to say it has made me a believer. I give this week a B+.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Less Than Effective

I doubt it will come as a surprise when I say that the movie I waited three months to see wasn't worth waiting for. I'm talking about Side Effects, the film Netflix sent me three months and one home address ago. The idea of the movie turned out to be considerably better than the movie itself.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as a woman in the grip of depression as her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading. She ends up in therapy with a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who upon the recommendation of her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), puts her on a new drug. The drug proves effective, save for the side effect that it causes sleepwalking. And what the woman winds up doing in her sleep turns the story in a very dark direction.

I think Side Effects is a real case study in how important it is for a movie to have a good script -- not that that really needs to be proven. By the time the movie had wrapped up, I found it very similar in tone and plot to one of my favorites, Malice. Both movies have solid casts (though Malice has the "deeper bench" of supporting actors). Side Effects has the better director in Steven Soderbergh, who definitely heightens the tension with his camera work. But Malice has a script by Aaron Sorkin, and I feel that makes the difference.

Side Effects tries to tell a story of wheels within wheels, and as fun as the idea of nested double-crosses is, none of it is as compelling as I think the core plot would have been if played straight: that a woman does something horrible under the influence of an experimental drug. By the time the movie has dropped in a lesbian subplot seemingly just for titillation, I was definitely feeling disappointed about the promising start slowly thrown away.

I give Side Effects a C+. Though not a disaster by any means, it's hard to see what it was about this script in particular that made Steven Soderbergh put off the retirement he keeps threatening.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eye Spy

I finally got around to last Tuesday's new episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and found it worth the wait; I thought it was the best episode they've had so far. Perhaps in retrospect, we'll be able to look back on this episode as the moment the show "started to get good?"

Character development was still a bit light in this episode, but still moving in the right direction. The sparring between Coulson and May seemed to work a little better this time out, particularly with Skye commenting about being in the middle of "Mommy and Daddy" fighting. The continuing thread of "what happened to Coulson?" was also particularly intriguing this week.

But I think what worked best was character involvement this week. By that, I mean that this felt like the first time that every one of the characters had a reasonably important role in the story. Coulson and May got to argue opposite ends of the Amadour problem. Skye and Ward got to team up for a particularly fun heist. And Fitz-Simmons had a brush with danger in the field before their entertaining surgery on Amadour in the final act.

In a way, this was the sort of "ripples in the pond" episode that has worked very well on past Joss Whedon shows; bring in an outside character, and then see how our mains react to them. They got about halfway there this time. In addition to the conflict between Coulson and May, we certainly got Skye's take on what it felt like to be offered a "second chance." But the more introspective character examination ended there; it all seemed "just another mission" for Ward, and Fitz-Simmons' role in the plot, while entertaining, didn't reveal much of who they really are.

Still, the show is starting to find its own special blend of "Alias, if it were done with Joss Whedon's sensibilities," and that's a show I could definitely look forward to each week.

Friday, October 18, 2013

$30 Rentals

It's time to consider cancelling Netflix.

I looked at my queue today and saw that the disc I have right now was shipped to me with an "estimated arrival" date of 7/31/13. I've had it almost three months. I could have bought that movie by now. Maybe twice.

Sure, fixing up the new house and moving into it has cut into my movie watching time, but seriously? At no point in three months could I find the time to watch one movie? A movie I was interested in enough to put at the top of my queue?

Some of you out there may be scratching your heads in confusion right now. Discs? Queues? Why am I not just using the streaming Netflix option? Well... I have that too, but that was really only to watch House of Cards and Arrested Development. (And maybe eventually, since I hear good things, Orange Is the New Black.) If you're a real movie enthusiast -- although these days, it might be questionable whether that describes me -- streaming doesn't begin to cut it. Maybe 20% of the movies you can get on disc are available for streaming. Maybe. Certainly not most of the ones I want to watch, anyway.

But then, if I'm not actually watching them? Well, there you go.

Dammit, I'm going to watch this movie this weekend!

(Side Effects, if you're curious.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Postponed on Account of Hockey

I think the general tone of my reviews of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes so far has been that I think the show isn't bad, but isn't great either. I'm not truly engaged by it, I want it to get better, and I think maybe I can. Good news came in the last week, in the form of a full season order of 22 episodes from network ABC. The series is going to get the chance to find itself. (And it's the first full season order a Joss Whedon show has received since season 5 of Angel. Yikes.)

However, a sure measure of my lack of enthusiasm so far is this: I have no review today of last night's episode. I went to see the Colorado Avalanche last night (who kind of squeaked by the Dallas Stars to extend their improbable undefeated streak this season to 6 games). We didn't get home from the game crazy late or anything. If this had been a new Firefly episode waiting on my DVR? Or hell, maybe even a new episode of Dollhouse, second-season-era? I would have stayed awake however late it took to watch it immediately. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Nah... as things stand right now, it'll wait. Possibly even until Friday, looking at my next couple of nights.

In fact, odd as it sounds, my favorite show on TV right now, now that Breaking Bad has sailed off into the sunset, might just be The Good Wife. I suspect this because no one else I know is ever itching to talk about the newest episode with me; I'm not watching it to stay in the loop. Entertainment web sites don't tend to talk about it much, and when they do, the stories are pretty easy to spot and avoid; I'm not worried about having anything spoiled for me if I don't watch the new episode immediately. And yet, despite all that, it seems to be the show I hurry to fastest when a new episode is on my DVR. (Or, as was the case this week, not on my DVR. Slight malfunction there with the new episode that drove me to CBS' web site.)

So, changing times, I guess. I'm postponing a new Joss Whedon show for a hockey game, and more excited to watch a legal drama in any case.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Home Sweet Home

After a final push over the weekend, we've finished unboxing things around the house and have finally given the place the top to bottom cleaning it has needed since our various installers came through kicking up dust last month. In short, we are fully, officially "moved in."

I was going to celebrate here with a photo or two, for those of you who have been asking... but I neglected to take any yesterday on the bright and sunny Sunday we had here in Denver, and now this morning it's a gloomy and cool morning where the pictures just aren't turning out. So perhaps later this week.

And perhaps now I'll be getting back to more consistent and regular blogging. Falling apart computer permitting, of course. (No, I still haven't located a replacement. I'm making do for now with an alternate power cable that keeps the laptop running without actually charging the battery. But thanks to those of you who gave some suggestions.)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Asset

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took a bit of a step forward for me with this week's new episode, The Asset. Though the episode was steadfastly predictable in the way its "oh no, Skye is (not really) selling out our heroes!" plot line played out, it did devote considerably more time to characterization than the previous episodes, and that was a good thing.

It could be interesting to see what they do with Skye next. Her aggressive training at the end of the episode was the visual expression of her now being "committed," but I do kind of hope it's not as simple as that. And I wonder whether this show would dare to go somewhere as dark as, say, the Jayne storyline that played out on Firefly, with Jayne actually turning on the crew. In any case, there's intriguing potential there.

I also can't help but wonder if it's a coincidence that the quality also ticked up when the series stepped out of the shadows of the film franchise a bit. Yes, we were still teased with the mystery of Coulson's death and resurrection (for my money, the "you're rusty" dialogue repeated throughout seemed to be playing with the notion that he's some kind of android or something), but generally the show wasn't going out of its way to mention an event from one of the movies at every turn. Nor were there any cameos from movie characters this week.

A final thought on this episode -- the teaser and early scenes set in "Sterling, Colorado" were good for a laugh. Yes, the background depicted did look rather plausibly like the Colorado Rockies. (Seems likely it was actually shot in Vancouver, though.) But half a second with a map would tell you that Sterling, located in almost the northeastern corner of the state, is nowhere near the mountains. The backdrop there wouldn't look anything like what was shown. (Though they did seem to wink at themselves a bit with the cowboy and Old West jokes a bit later.)

Overall, the show is beginning to move in an encouraging direction.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Situation of the Gravity

So, as I mentioned briefly yesterday, I have been to see the new movie Gravity. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts marooned in space after their spacecraft is destroyed by orbital debris. But the real star is the virtuoso filmmaking by director Alfonso Cuarón.

Gravity is a truly impressive feat. In an age where most moviegoers know exactly "how they did that" (and can guess in most of the occasions where they don't know), Gravity manages to pull off a number of clever visual effects. More importantly, you're soon so immersed in the movie that you don't even bother to question how. The space environment of the film is so convincing that you really do feel that it's as close to actually being there as you'll ever likely get. (And, given the procession of disasters that befalls the characters, you may feel like you don't want to go there anyway.)

Another impressive accomplishment in my book is that the film more than justifies its use of 3D. It's been a long time since I saw a movie where 3D felt like an integral and enhancing part of the experience as opposed to a gimmick wedged in or tacked on. Gravity may be the first legitimate "see it on the big screen" movie in years. On a huge screen with 3D and ear-bursting sound, you truly just fall into the environment.

It's also the most nerve-wracking, tense movie I've seen in a long time, for more effective at making you grip your arm rests tightly than any horror movie I've seen of late. Every time a character just manages to grab on to something -- and stay holding onto it -- you tense in your seat. When you see the cloud of debris approaching, you cringe. It's a true thrill ride of a movie.

The performances are also excellent. Only two actors ever appear on screen, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. (The very small number of other characters are either only heard, or seen after death.) They have to carry the film all by themselves, and do an excellent job in it. You very quickly become personally invested in their hopeless struggle. Or, put another way, all those impressive effects are in service of a very personal story. Alphonso Cuarón puts the performances and not the spectacle at center stage.

That said, the characters themselves aren't as powerful as the performances. Cuarón also wrote the script (co-writing it with his son), and it does have a few flaws. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out the handful of scientific ones, and has ultimately pronounced the film enjoyable in spite of them. (Generally, the movie doesn't make many science mistakes accidentally; it chooses to fudge a fact or two for a dramatic point.) But setting aside the nitpicks, the other flaw in the script is that the characters are rather shallow. It's sort of a consequence of the breakneck pace of the disaster, and the avalanche of calamities that follows. The movie has too much plot to have much character.

Ordinarily, this would throw a movie straight into "summer action junk" territory for me. If you're trying to distract me with things blowing up in the hopes I won't notice your shallow characters, I'm turned off. But the compensating element here is that there are consequences to "things blowing up." The two characters may ultimately be little more than ciphers, but you watch them struggle mightily, and you care about what happens to them. That ultimately separates this film from normal action fare.

Well, that and the utter, immersive believability of the action unfolding.

I give Gravity an A-. It's certainly going to end up on my 2013 Top 10 list.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Final Throes

This spot was originally going to be my review of the new movie Gravity. But then my computer continued -- accelerated -- its downward spiral into obsolescence.

The power cable and adapter have ceased to function reliably. Plug the thing in, and the power winks on and off, charging up the laptop's battery about 1 to 5 seconds at a burst, every two or three minutes. It's probably not a good thing for me to leave the laptop plugged in under those conditions, but I would like to get enough of a charge for a current backup (I'd fallen behind in the move), and I kind of don't care if the thing blows up at this point anyway. That would be only a marginal decline from its normal performance.

Thoughts on any good laptops these days, anyone? Desktop computers and tablets need not apply.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


Given my love of things Joss Whedon, it just wouldn't seem right for me not to comment on each new episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Last night's installment seemed to continue the momentum of the pilot episode, neither significantly improving nor receding in quality.

The key weakness of the series still seems to be the characters who are at this point little more than stock. Agent Coulson remains the one exception, with Clark Gregg's entertaining performance being possibly the most compelling reason to watch the show. He handles the traditional Whedon-style patter with effortless skill. The other characters were depicted coming together as a team this week, but still don't have much going on as individuals.

But a big strength of the series in my eyes was showcased in last night's episode: they get a lot of bang for their production buck. The episode was filled with big action sequences -- gunfights with rebels, a jeep chase through the jungle, a brawl on a plane. And all were delivered with considerably more realism, scope, and intensity than you usually see in a television show. Mind you, I'm not a fan of action to the exclusion of character, but it's nice to know that when these moment come -- as they inevitably will on a show like this -- they'll be more believable and suspenseful than, say, the average just-a-bit-hokey fight on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I say that with love.)

As for the cameo appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury? Well, it was fun, absolutely. ("Cancel the fish tank" was a particularly great line.) But I do wish they either had used him more fully in the episode, or not been coy beforehand in hinting at his appearance on social media. I was either looking for something more substantial, or looking to be completely surprised. (Even more, I'm looking for one of the new characters to stand out as much in an episode as Fury did in less than a minute.)

I'd still say we're in B, maybe B+ territory here. I continue to hope for improvement, but plan to still be here to watch it happen.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Sour Apple

The internet is filled with stories praising how wonderful Apple's customer service is, how the folks at the Genius Bar in an Apple Store will do just about anything for you and hand out new replacement phones at the drop of a hat. Whenever somebody starts listing the things they don't like about Apple products, an Apple disciple's two most likely retorts are about how easy they are to use, and how awesome the Apple customer service is.

I'm here to puncture that lie.

Starting a few weeks ago, I began to have an intermittent glitch with my iPhone. (Last year's generation, the 5.) About two or three times a week, I'd go to check something on my phone in the middle of the afternoon, and find a message on the screen: "No SIM Card Installed." Each time, I'd restart the phone and the issue would seem to correct itself, but it was a bit inconvenient -- not to mention the fact that for however long passed between the time this error would occur and the time I'd notice it and restart the phone, I wouldn't be receiving any texts or emails (or calls, I imagine) from anyone trying to contact me.

Sunday afternoon, I logged onto the Apple web site to make an appointment at the Genius Bar of the closest Apple Store. That wasn't until 6:40 Monday night. (Hmmm... that seems rather a long wait for repairs on your supposedly reliable products, but okay.)

Last night, I drove to the Apple Store straight from work. A few hours earlier in the afternoon, my phone (in?)conveniently had the same error, presenting me the "No SIM Card Installed" message. Rather than reset it, I decide to leave the message there on screen so that I could show the exact problem to the person at the Genius Bar -- even though this meant going a few hours without being able to contact anyone.

I arrived at the store at 6:30. I walked straight to the Genius Bar at the back of the store... where I was completely ignored by three different employees who all looked right at me at different times without engaging with me, even though I'm clearly standing there with my phone in my hand, looking like I'm trying to get someone's attention.

As 6:40 comes, and still no one has bothered to help me, I decide to go back to the front of the store to talk to the employee greeting people at the door. I explain how everyone at the Genius Bar has been ignoring me, she apologizes, and then "checks me in" for my appointment. She then asks me to stand over in an area that's nowhere near the Genius Bar, and someone will be with me shortly.

Ten minutes pass. There's yet another employee sort of milling about this area of the store, who finally seems to notice that I'm standing there for no apparent reason. He comes up to me, asks if he can help, and I explain that I'm waiting for my Genius Bar appointment. He says "Christian will be with me shortly." He gives me absolutely no indication of who this Christian is or where he is.

Ten more minutes pass. I grab this second guy whose section I'm apparently standing in, and ask him what the delay is. He punches a few things on his iPad, and tells me, "oh, it looks like we're running about 20 minutes behind." Nice. Somebody could have told me that before I got all worked up from just standing around doing nothing.

I stand around staring daggers in the direction of the Genius Bar for another five minutes, and finally one of the employees calls my name. This is the fabled Christian. And apparently, although I've waited for nearly half an hour past my appointment time watching people get one-on-one sessions with the "geniuses," they've decided that now that my turn has finally come, they're now going to line up three customers with one employee and have him round robin us all at once.

I typed in a description of my problem on the web site when I set up my appointment, so Christian is already on the case. He pops out my SIM Card and takes a look, and says, "You're on Verizon? This is weird, because Verizon doesn't even use the SIM card." I'm not sure exactly what that is supposed to mean to me, but he pops the thing back in and asks me to restart the phone. I do so, and he goes off to help the other two people while I wait.

The phone is restarted a minute later, and he's back to me. "Is it working?" he asks. Yes, I say, though I quickly point out: I've always been able to restart my phone to reset the problem this entire time, so that hardly means anything has been "fixed." Well, says Christian, "the first thing I'd do is go to a Verizon store. There may be problem with one of the contacts on the SIM Card, and they need to fix it for you."

And that's it. What the hell? I waited almost half an hour for an appointment I made a day in advance, got to spend all of two minutes at the Genius Bar, time shared with two other customers, after which I was told Apple could do nothing for me -- it's Verizon's problem.

This is the customer service Apple is so famous for? "Did you cycle the power? Then that's all I can do for you" is literally the kind of crap service I can get on the phone from any number of other companies. And at least I can get that from them on the phone from the comfort of my own home, rather than carving out an hour of my day to go stand around and be ignored.

Apple, your customer service sucks. (And while I'm at it, your new iOS sucks too.)