Friday, August 29, 2014

TNG Flashback: Half a Life

In reviewing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've often been critical of stories that focus too heavily on the guest stars, to the exclusion of the main characters. It may be that no episode in the entire series did so more than "Half a Life."

An alien scientist, Timicin, comes aboard the Enterprise to test his method for rejuvenating his planet's dying sun. In the process, he strikes up a relationship with Counselor Troi's mother, Lwaxana. But soon it's revealed that on Timicin's planet, people at age 60 are expected to take part in a ritual suicide called the "Resolution" -- and that he's only days shy of that mark. Worse, when his experiment fails, he questions whether any other scientists from his world will be able to take up his work after his death and save the sun before it fails completely.

If the writers were going to center an episode around its guest characters, they at least set themselves up for the greatest chance of success. For the critical role of Timicin, they cast the brilliant David Ogden Stiers. IMdB lists more than 150 credits to his name, and though I'll probably never see them all, I can say I've never seen him in any role of substance where he was any less than brilliant. He has a wonderfully real, yet carefully understated method of performing that instantly draws the audience in. Here, he has several incredibly challenging scenes, but handles them all with skill. When Timicin's experiment fails, you can feel the crushing weight he feels: a life's work wasted, and all for nothing. When he explains the reasoning behind the custom of the Resolution, he does so in a way that makes it more than a "wacky sci-fi premise"; you can actually almost believe a society might find it logical.

Then, of course, there was Majel Barrett. In a way, she was almost "family" and not a guest star, having appeared three other times as Lwaxana Troi, and of course providing the voice of the ship's computer virtually every week. But the decision to use her here in a dramatic storyline, rather than as comic relief, was a very risky one. Frankly, there are moments in the episode where she's not quite up to the challenge -- her breakdown to Deanna in the transporter room feels a bit manufactured, for example. Still, she holds her own in her scenes with Stiers, nailing the two critical moments on which the story really hangs: first, the scathing "if your planet's time has come, why save it?" moment that drives Timicin to seek asylum; and lastly, the closing moment in which Lwaxana accompanies Timicin to his Resolution.

There's also one more important guest star here that you might otherwise forget was in this episode: Michelle Forbes. She has a single scene as Timicin's daughter Dara. It's not a very long scene, but it's a dense and layered one. Dara pleads with her father to go through with the Resolution, curses Lwaxana for corrupting him, and ultimately disowns him as someone she no longer knows. Forbes hits every beat perfectly, and is just as strong in her performance as David Ogden Stiers is in his. She reportedly made such an impact on the producers that they thought of her when they were casting for Ensign Ro Laren just a short while later. If they had any concern about using the same actor twice so soon, and so recognizably, the summer hiatus between seasons and the quality of her work here clearly put any such concerns at bay.

From one point of view, this story of this episode isn't particularly original. Compulsory suicide has been examined in other sci-fi settings, most notoriously in Logan's Run. But the writing here is clever enough to bring some new things to the table. It's the first Star Trek script from Peter Allan Fields, who would later contribute two more episodes of The Next Generation (including the brilliant "The Inner Light") and 10 episodes of Deep Space Nine.

For one thing, there's coy dialogue leading up to the big reveal. Timicin talks wistfully of wanting to rescue his planet's sun before he dies, and of a wife who died a few years earlier. There are well crafted lines, such as Deanna's comfort to her mother: "You will never be one of those who dies before they die." But on a deeper level, it's nice to see an older couple falling so quickly and completely in love -- a bit of a rarity for television. And the debate about the Resolution between Lwaxana and Timicin does really raise some provocative points about assisted suicide. (Though, of course, the notion of it being mandatory does place quite a weight on the scales.) There's also a thoughtful reflection on the impact a single revolutionary can have in a defiant act against a long-standing custom. And there's even a brush against the subject of religion, when Lwaxana realizes that in puncturing Timicin's belief in the Resolution, she's taken his "faith" away from him. It's a shame the story doesn't find a way to use more of the main characters in better ways, but it's otherwise a very solid script.

Other observations:
  • This may be a serious episode overall, but Lwaxana is still used for comic moments early on. Patrick Stewart plays a great beat at the top of the show, with Picard nervously on the lookout for her. And Lwaxana calls our resident Klingon "Mr. Woof" for the first time.
  • Marina Sirtis was gracious to share her on-screen mother with other actors in this episode. In a later interview, she said: "I didn't have much to do, which is good since I don't want it to be a given that every time mom comes aboard, I have to deal with her. I think it's more interesting that when she does come back, other characters have to deal with her."
  • Director Les Landau saw parallels between this episode and another he directed earlier, "Sarek," as both dealt with the issue of old age. And perhaps when you look at the mental deterioration of the esteemed Vulcan in that episode, you can begin to see the point of view the alien race of this episode.
While this episode wasn't nearly as strong as the several before it, it was probably the best Lwaxana Troi installment of the series. I give it a B.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Grand Movie

I've seen only a few of writer-director Wes Anderson's films, but that's all I really needed to see to know that he has a very particular style. It's on full display in his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A nested narrative spanning four time frames (though set primarily in the 1930s), the film tells the story of the Gustave H, concierge/lothario of fictitious hotel. He and his protege, a young lobby boy, are swept up in a web of intrigue when an old woman dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving Gustave an extremely valuable painting in her will. Rival heirs seek to reclaim the art and frame Gustave for a murder they themselves may have carried out. Hijinks ensue.

I can't think of a stronger example of "conspicuous film making" than this. Every frame is self aware, and crafted to call attention to itself. It starts with Wes Anderson's choice to shoot each time frame in a different aspect ratio -- with the largest part framed in 1.33, the old television (and even older film) ratio. The black bars on the left and right edges of the screen create the impression of looking at a storybook, and the visuals only underscore this. Wise location shots are created with models, chase sequences realized with obvious rear projection, and some elements of the sets are clearly non-functional.

Framing for the narrow screen size defies many of the conventions an audience has come to expect in this age of widescreen. And it leads to even more conspicuous Anderson trickery. Characters who are placed very close to each other in profile shots are suddenly much farther away when cutting to closeups. Sudden pans are used to reveal things that would have been visible all along in a more conventional format. And all this playfulness is absolutely part of the intended effect: a story that does not pretend to pass itself off as reality.

Another way the audience is kept at arm's length is the cast, a long, long list of faces so recognizable, each one briefly pulls you out of the narrative. Ralph Fiennes is the charismatic Gustave H. His lobby boy Zero is played by Tony Revolori -- likely the only face in the film you won't recognize. Otherwise, each new scene seemingly brings a new star: Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban... on and on and on. Nor does Anderson try to channel their performances in a way that makes them feel like they belong in the same film together. There is no consistent accent suggesting a single location; every performer speaks in his or her own voice. Often, the performers are deliberately affecting a cliche version of themselves; Willem Dafoe mugs for the camera, Jeff Goldblum bites off his dialogue in his characteristic way, Bill Murray doesn't really seem to be acting, and so forth.

The result is more confection than film, a sugary sweet tale that will absolutely be too weird for most people. I have to include myself in that, to some extent. While I certainly recognized and appreciated the cinematic vision here, I can't say I always enjoyed it. The tale didn't seem to amount to much. For my money, winking at convention can be a fun diversion within a film, but I don't believe it justifies an entire film.

Still, it's at least somewhat enjoyable as art. I'd call it a C+ overall. If quirky is your thing, you should probably check it out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Viva La Revolutions

Last year, I wrote about the special 2-disc soundtrack album La-La Land Records released for The Matrix Reloaded. Since then, the company has gone on to complete the trilogy with another 2-disc album for The Matrix Revolutions. It's widely agreed that the third Matrix film was an ignominious end for the series, but that's nothing to be held against composer Don Davis, who served the final film as ably as its two predecessors.

The music of the Matrix trilogy is an odd thing. On the one hand, if I were to play the opening fanfare of the films, the famous call-and-answer of loud brass chords, a great many people would be able to identify it and the movies it came from -- even people who don't normally notice movie music. On the other hand, if I were to ask someone -- even a film score enthusiast -- to hum the tune of any song from a Matrix film, they'd be hard-pressed to do so. That's because even though the music of The Matrix is engaging and appropriate, it's almost entirely devoid of any recognizable melodies. In fact, it's something like the kind of music Rick Berman wanted for the Star Trek TV series he produced, a sort of musical wallpaper that rarely draws specific attention to itself. But it's the best possible version of that idea, a score that despite lacking for melody is replete with force, excitement, and energy. (It's perhaps not surprising that Don Davis actually scored a few Star Trek episodes earlier in his career.)

The Matrix Revolutions really represents Davis reaching the pinnacle of this non-melodic style. The score is a torrential sonic downpour that carries you away better than the movie itself. Powerful brass build up dissonant chords one note at a time. Wailing strings skip around from octave to octave, taking time in each to whirl up and down the scale. Military snare drums beat rat-a-tat sprays of sixteenth notes that ratchet the tension ever higher. Flutes write around the scale like snakes as someone pounds on low piano keys, all accompanied by harsh synthesizer drones. You may not be conscious of the music as you watch the movie (if you watch the movie; man, that third movie is just so bad), but listening to it in isolation really gets the pulse racing.

The music even reaches a literal apex in the opening notes. That famous Matrix theme I mentioned? In each successive film, Davis transposes it upward a half-step. Here, the final film opens with some instruments at the very top of their registers, and it's easy to imagine performers pouring everything into it.

The crowning moment of the score is the final confrontation between Neo and Agent Smith(s), a piece entitled "Neodämmerung." It's the most prominent use of choir in the entire trilogy, a strong chant somewhat evocative of the famous opening to Carmina Burana. Where most of the choral passages in the score use the human voice in amorphous ooos and aaahs, "Neodämmerung" gives them specific lyrics in a foreign language, lending an appropriately liturgical cast.

Once again, the Wachowskis wanted a techno influence in the music, and asked Don Davis to collaborate with the group Juno Reactor -- as in The Matrix Reloaded. If there were any bumps in this collaboration the first time around, they seem to have smoothed out by this final film. The three hybrid tracks are among the best on the soundtrack. "The Trainman Cometh" uses staccato electronic percussion reminiscent of Danny Elfman's Planet of the Apes score (another instance where the music far surpassed the film for which it was written). "Tetsujin" starts out almost as a pastiche of the old Kung Fu television series before erupting into a full-on techno-orchestral assault. And "Navras," created for the end credits, is essentially a techno remix of the pivotal "Neodämmerung" track, weaving in interesting Middle Eastern influences. In fact, the opening of "Navras" is such a get-you-psyched passage of music that the Colorado Avalanche were using it during this past spring's playoff run to introduce the team in home games.

All that said, while this third film might represent the best soundtrack of the series from the view of a musicologist or theorist, it may actually be slightly weaker for the average listener. There's actually less action in the final Matrix film overall, and as a result less action music in the score. Nevertheless, if I give this album only a B compared to the higher marks of the previous scores, I'd still call it a must-have for film music enthusiasts.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Drumhead

When "The Drumhead" originally aired near the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season, it's probably safe to say that I was too self-absorbed in my adolescence to fully appreciate the bigger picture meaning of the episode. I didn't think it was "bad," but I certainly didn't think it was anything special. Coming to back to it now, after more than two decades, I suspected I would find more there.

When a Klingon exchange officer aboard the Enterprise steals classified information for the Romulans and apparently sabotages the warp core, an investigation begins. Retired Admiral Norah Satie arrives to root out any co-conspirators the Klingon might have had. But her search turns into a witch hunt when a timid young officer falls into her crosshairs for lying about his quarter-Romulan lineage. And soon, Captain Picard himself comes under her scrutiny.

This episode had a somewhat desperate origin. The season's budget had been overrun, and the studio was demanding that it be balanced. They asked for another clip show, along the lines of the dreadful "Shades of Gray." Executive producer Rick Berman and head writer Michael Piller were adamantly against the notion, and promised to come up with a money-saving alternative episode that could be filmed on existing sets, without significant visual effects.

The core idea itself came from staff writer Ronald Moore, a concept he called "It Can't Happen Here." (It seemed very much in sync with themes he would later explore on Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica.) Another staff writer, Jeri Taylor, fleshed out the actual script. She was inspired in large part by actual history, particularly the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials. The result, she felt, was the best script she ever contributed to the series.

And indeed it was strong, not only for the way it believably channeled history, but for the timelessness of the episode, and the sad way it remains extremely relevant today. The railroading of quarter-Romulan Simon Tarses is a pure and ugly portrayal of racial profiling. It easily calls to mind anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the September 11th attacks. And it's an easy analogy for still more scenarios with which different viewers might feel different connections. I myself, for example, see Tarses' concealment of his Romulan grandfather as an obvious metaphor for hiding one's homosexuality -- particularly for people in the military before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or for anyone in any government job just a few decades before that. (Or, sadly, for LGBT people today in the 29 U.S. states with no employment protections against sexual orientation discrimination.)

There are still other analogies one can draw from this episode. The use of a Betazoid as a means for truth verification feels like the suspect results of a lie detector test. The continued hunt for a conspiracy even after the warp explosion is revealed to be an accident feels just like a politician doggedly pursuing an agenda long after its pretext is exposed as false. And when Admiral Satie taunts Picard about his experience with the Borg, it's not unlike a person blaming the victim of a rape for the crime.

These lofty ideas are presented well thanks in large part to some strong guest stars. Spencer Garrett plays the nervous Simon Tarses, holding his own in scenes that feature some real acting heavyweights. One of those is Jean Simmons, the two-time Oscar nominee and Emmy winner who plays Admiral Satie. If the fire in her performance feels Shakespearean, it's no coincidence; one of those nominations was for playing Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. Even the bit players make an impact. Earl Billings doesn't have a single line as Admiral Henry, but the camera keeps cutting to his reactions during the episode's climatic scene, and his forceful exit from the room tells you all you need to know.

If the big ideas and strong performances in this episode don't do it for you, the sheer volume of connections to earlier episodes ought to be enough to thrill any longtime fan. Besides the Borg reference, we get a mention of the last Starfleet conspiracy, a return of the interspecies exchange program, a repeat performance of Riker as lawyer, and a callback to the recent escape of a Romulan spy. Plus, of course, there's an important subplot for Worf that follows up on his discommendation; Satie's interrogator throws in Worf's face the "fact" that his father was a Romulan traitor, while the Klingon spy believes he can bribe an apparently dishonorable man like Worf. Indeed, Worf's initial zeal for the witch hunt feels like his way of overcompensating for the shame he feels among his people.

This episode also marks the return of Jonathan Frakes to the director's chair, for the third time. This episode was his most dialogue-driven yet, and shows his clear knack for working with actors to get a good performance. He also did his cinematic homework; he revealed in subsequent interviews that his staging of certain scenes was deliberately meant to evoke moments from the movies Judgment at Nuremberg and The Caine Mutiny.

But another stint behind the scenes came to an end with this episode. Composer Ron Jones was fired from the series by executive producer Rick Berman, who told Jones just before he began work on this score that it would be his last. After nearly four years of wonderful and bombastic scores that didn't fit his vision for inconspicuous mood music, Berman had had enough. In a sad irony, this episode's score was exactly the sort of quiet and atmospheric composition Jones had almost never turned in. Jones indicated in subsequent interviews that he felt this episode was so driven by the acting (and effectively so), that he wanted to music to just step back and make room for it.

Berman approached the series' other regular composer, Dennis McCarthy, and invited him to become the sole composer for The Next Generation. McCarthy turned down the offer due to his workload on other projects outside Star Trek, so Jay Chattaway was brought in as Jones' replacement, continuing the alternating schedule between two regular composers.

Other observations:
  • Although it is nice that the sympathetic Picard reaches out to Simon Tarses for a private meeting, it's bad lawyering on Riker's part to allow it to happen. Picard is technically part of the investigating team, after all.
  • In an interview, Michael Dorn cited this as one of his two favorite episodes of the series. He has a notable role in this one, unlike his other pick, "The Offspring." Interestingly, both episodes were directed by Jonathan Frakes. (And I think that's not a coincidence, but rather another sign of Frakes' skill in working with actors.)
  • Picard has many powerful lines throughout, but the sentiment with which he closes the episode may be the best of all: "[S]he or someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay."

For the third episode in a row, I find myself handing out an A- grade. For so late in a season, when the grind of television production is often weighing a series down, this was a particularly strong run for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Monday, August 25, 2014

2 Much

After the 2012's The Amazing Spider-man, I was eager to see what the assembled group could do with a sequel. Though I was bored by the first film's unnecessary rehash of the character's origin story, I loved the casting and felt there was good potential for the follow-up. But then the reviews came out for The Amazing Spider-man 2, and they were generally unkind. I decided I'd wait for Blu-ray and catch up then. As it turned out, lowered expectations were a good thing; the movie was not the embarrassing disaster I'd been led to believe.

Again, as with the first installment, you can thank the cast for everything that's good about the movie. Andrew Garfield is still a fun and exuberant hero. Emma Stone again makes Gwen Stacy a more witty and potent character than the original trilogy's Mary Jane Watson. Together, the two are an immensely likeable couple with charisma and chemistry to spare. Sally Field shines once again as Aunt May, bringing great emotional weight to her too few, too brief scenes. Campbell Scott, returning for a more expanded role as Peter Parker's father, brings similar pathos.

The new cast members are quite good too. Jamie Foxx makes a painfully awkward Max Dillon (if a somewhat less effective) Electro. Dane DeHann offers a quite different and more nuanced take on Harry Osborn than the original trilogy's James Franco, at times both more and less pitiable, and certainly a more credible villain-in-the-making. Paul Giamatti has little screen time, but chews the scenery with relish during his scenes. And Chris Cooper manages to make Norman Osborn sufficiently contemptible, even though the few moments in which we see him afford little opportunity.

The actors are great, and so individual moments -- even whole scenes -- really do shine because of it. But the story itself is an overcrowded mess. Ultimately, it feels like the longest "scenes from next week's episode" trailer for a TV show you've ever seen. Because the writers are trying to fit so much into one movie, each of the different subplots is missing one or two of the scenes it needed to be told well. Dillon/Electro goes from idolizing Spider-man to despising him in the span of a single scene, and with no apparent justification deeper than "he's crazy." Aunt May is sacrificing to find money to put Peter through college... except we don't know what Peter hopes to study, or if he's even planning to go to college at all. We're told about the long time friendship between Peter and Harry, but there really isn't much time spent showing it. Gwen and Peter (minor spoiler) break up with little justification for "why now and not sooner?" and then get back together later with no work at all, because there simply isn't time for friction.

But at least all that stuff gets more space than the perfunctory set-up for Sony's version of "Marvel's Cinematic Universe." Every movie studio with a comic book license has made no secret of the fact that they're trying to get themselves a billion-dollar Avengers-style blockbuster with a raft of related movies. Here, those efforts lead unsatisfying results. Some flaws are easily overlooked or forgiven, like the odd casting of B.J. Novak for a handful of lines (just because he's meant to be a supervillain in some later film), or the squandering of someone with the acting chops of Paul Giamatti when you could have gotten any muscle-bound former athlete to play his tiny role here. But then there are the significant plot developments crammed into an almost-epilogue after the wrapping up of the Electro plotline -- events that really deserved their own film. Ten minutes of the film carry so much weight, in such a compressed span of time, that it crushes the life out of the finale.

There's also something that apparently had comic fans complaining, the teasing of a future involving the Sinister Six by way of showing their signature gear in the background during a scene set in an Oscorp vault. As comic purists, those people voiced objections to the way these villains' origins have all been disposed of, apparently in favor of making Oscorp the root of all evil. As a non-comic purist, I'll voice my own skepticism of this change: it seems to me that it reduces all of these potential characters to a simplistic parade of psychopaths, each armed with a different bit of secret military hardware. I'm not tantalized, I'm fearing monotony.

But ultimately, I have to say that The Amazing Spider-man 2 is worth seeing. The whole is hopelessly flawed, but the parts are fantastic. Almost every single scene that comes is wonderfully realized as an island unto itself. Each made me long for the more sensible, less compressed movie in which that moment would be a vital part. When the scenes lasted long enough, I would forget the short attention span whole and just enjoy it for what it was -- and that happened enough for me to give the movie a B overall. But I also think the reported delay on The Amazing Spider-man 3 is wise. The creative forces behind this franchise should rethink trying to cram decades of comic history into a mere two hours.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Into the Deep

I recently got to play the board game Lords of Waterdeep. It's themed in the Forgotten Realms universe (one of the established worlds of Dungeons & Dragons). I feel like I've seen other D&D board games come and go over the years, and my casual assessment of them is that they've been aimed generally at the Talisman crowd. The games come with loads of bits, take hours and hours to play, and are fine if you don't mind that luck overwhelms any element of strategy present. Lord of Waterdeep seemed to be trying for a different audience, the strategic "Euro game" crowd. But in my opinion, the game missed the mark.

Lords of Waterdeep is a worker placement, resource gathering game. Players have a series of Quest cards (and can acquire more during play). Each quest requires certain resources in certain quantities. When completed, the quests provide a variety of rewards, and a certain number of victory points (scaled to the difficulty in completing the quest). Players compete to get the resources needed for their quests by placing workers onto the spaces of a large game board. As in some other games (Caylus comes to mind, in particular), new spaces with new options are added throughout the game, and can be "owned" by individual players -- who reap rewards when their opponents use them.

Despite being dressed up in the trappings of a Euro game, Lords of Waterdeep still felt to me like it bore the hallmark of those other D&D games: luck overwhelmed the strategy. This wasn't in a readily obvious way, as the game did dispense with overtly random elements like dice to establish its strategy game credentials.

The problem for me was those quest cards. Set aside the question of whether or not the designers properly balanced each quest's difficulty with its payoff. (Though I'm rather doubtful they did.) Quests had a rather wide range of difficulties, from almost trivially easy to supremely difficult. Most quests provided some sort of ongoing benefit to the player completing them. This effectively put a ladder-like structure in place. A player really needed to finish an easy quest (or quests) early to enable the rewards that would allow an intermediate quest. That in turn would grease the skids for the difficult quests.

But all these quests were shuffled together in a single deck, with each player randomly being dealt two to start the game. Some players would randomly receive great building blocks to begin their game, while others would be hamstrung with impossible tasks that stymied early progress. Players in the latter camp could use game mechanics to draw new quests, of course, but this would put them actions behind the players with luckier draws -- and put them into direct competition with other stymied opponents, thus providing even more advantage to the fortunate.

There are lots of other Euro games with similar kinds of "objective" cards -- Louis XIV and Yedo are two that come to mind. The key difference is that in those games, the cards are divided into separate decks of different difficulties. In my opinion, Lords of Waterdeep is critically flawed for not doing the same thing. I suppose players could easily implement a house rule to do this (if they could agree on which cards belong in which decks), but I personally feel like I'd rather just play one of those other games that got it right, rather than try to modify this game.

It's possible I'm judging the game too harshly from a single playthrough. But it was a rather unpleasant playthrough where I felt behind the curve from square one. (And from what I could tell, I wasn't the only player in that position.) The components are good, and the overall concept decent enough, but I don't really see myself trying Lords of Waterdeep again. I give it a C-.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

TNG Flashback: Qpid

Fans of Q might have been a bit anxious as season four of Star Trek: The Next Generation was winding down. Only a few episodes left, and Q's apparently annual appearance hadn't happened yet. And then came "Qpid."

The Enterprise is hosting a prestigious archaeology conference, and among the attendees is the roguish Vash, with whom Picard had a romantic adventure on Risa. But the relationship beings to show strain when Vash learns that the captain hasn't told anyone about her, and Picard learns that she's really there chasing an illegal score. At just this wrong moment, Q arrives on the scene, troubled by the debt he owes Picard after their last encounter. When Picard rebuffs his "advice" to cut Vash out of his life, Q decides to show the captain what one risks in love, by tossing the crew into a Robin Hood adventure.

The core idea for this episode, a love triangle between Picard, Vash, and Q, came as a pitch from an outside writer. But the writing staff then began to develop the concept themselves, soon deciding that the best approach would be to place all the characters inside some classic tale of love. Staff writer Ira Steven Behr initially suggested a setting of Camelot, but fellow writer Brannon Braga prevailed on them to use Robin Hood -- then quite in fashion thanks to the new Kevin Costner film. Piller gave Behr the writing assignment, as he was a huge fan of Robin Hood.

In particular, Behr loved the classic, swashbuckling films starring Errol Flynn. And it's this vision of Robin Hood that's strongly evoked in the finished episode. There's a cinematic scope to the hour, helped by one day of forest location shooting at the Descanso Gardens, and rather impressive castle sets expanded with some foreground in-camera tricks. The costumes, the swagger of the climactic sword fight -- all pure Errol Flynn.

This episode is tremendous fun. Worf gets some of his best one-liners in the entire run of the show, from "Nice legs. For a human." to the unforgettable "Sir, I protest! I am not a merry man!" There's also the moment where he smashes Geordi's instrument with a mumbled apology, a specific homage to Animal House that Behr threw in for laughs.

But the fun starts well before our characters arrive in Sherwood Forest. Indeed, even before Q appears, we're well on our way to a solid episode as Vash interacts with the crew. Beverly's playful inquisitiveness is delicious. Riker immediately noticing Vash in Ten Forward and making a failed pass at her is a wonderful joke at his expense. And the moment when Picard steps on to the bridge to find Vash literally curled up in the captain's chair is simply priceless -- as is his awkward unwillingness to kiss her in front of the crew.

This episode really marks the pinnacle of Q as a comedic character (on The Next Generation, at least). He started off quite serious, and he would become so again in later appearances, but here he's essentially a genie, quipping about how Picard is "the most impossible person to buy a gift for," remarking that he should have appeared as a woman now that he knows the captain's weakness, and whisking away Vash at the end of the episode like The Doctor with a new Companion.

But there is one way in which the episode misfires: in its unfortunate chauvinism. Vash at least acquits herself fairly well. Thrust into the role of Maid Marian, she is keen to save herself rather than be rescued by Picard, and is well on her way to doing it by the time he arrives. (Indeed, without Picard's interference, it's likely she would have been just fine by the end of Q's 24-hour game.)

But poor Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi don't fare nearly so well. If it were just the "sad trombone" moment of Troi shooting Data with an arrow, you could forgive the schtick. But in the big assault on the castle, while everyone else is fighting with swords, Crusher and Troi take out guards by smashing crockery over their heads. Shameful. And to appreciate the extent of the shame, you should know that Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis were the only two members of the cast who actually had extensive sword training earlier in their careers. Director Cliff Bole defended this sexist staging by claiming that the setting was the 12th century, and saying "I can't change history." But Robin Hood didn't have any "merry women." Given the conceit that they're in Robin's band, they should have been used in the fight equitably. At least Marina Sirtis didn't seem bothered ultimately by her role in the story;she thought it was a fun episode, and observed in later interviews that "the writing was really good on that show."

Other observations:
  • Another big fan of of the episode was show runner Michael Piller, who thought this a good example of why the fourth season was stronger in his mind than the season that followed. Personally, I don't recall it that way (though we will see in time), but he liked the more eclectic mix of episodes, noting that "each week you were never quite sure what was going to come on."
  • It's a big episode for Picard's hobbies. First, he's giving a keynote address to a group of noted archaeologists (even though he thinks of himself as only an "enthusiastic amateur"), and then later his fencing comes in handy as he duels as Robin Hood.
  • Vash is a lefty, as we see when she writes her warning to Riker.
  • Jonathan Frakes received a cut eye during filming, when a sword broke his prop quarterstaff. He was immediately rushed to the hospital, still dressed as Little John.
  • During Vash's restless pacing in her first scene as Maid Marian, actress Jennifer Hetrick actually did trip over her own dress. The producers chose to leave the moment in, figuring that Vash would not actually be comfortable in such clothing.
  • Some sci-fi trivia: actor Clive Revill, who plays Sir Guy of Gisbourne, provided the original voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back (before George Lucas later replaced both him and the on screen woman-with-superimposed-chimpanzee-eyes with Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor in all subsequent films).
  • Relationship trivia: Patrick Stewart was dating guest star Jennifer Hetrick (Vash) throughout the filming of the fourth season. Some sources say he was even engaged to her at the time this episode was made, though the couple never actually married.
"Qpid" is an occasion where I think a lighter tone totally works, resulting in a fun episode. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Good to Be Bad

After decades of acting, Jason Bateman has finally made his directorial debut with Bad Words. The movie tells the story of Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who exploits loopholes in the rules of a middle school spelling bee competition to enter himself as a contender. Profane and selfish, and doing all of this for his reasons he refuses to reveal to the reporter covering his story, he seems determined to drag the entire event down to his level.

Jason Bateman had reportedly been angling to direct for years, and finally got the chance with this script. But the real treat for the audience is that the first two actors he approached to star in it turned him down. He ultimately decided to take the lead role himself, and it's one of the best performances he's given. For almost his entire career, Bateman has played the "nice guy" and the comedy "straight man," more often setting up the jokes than making them himself. Bad Words is a massive departure for him on both counts. Perhaps it's only the goodwill he has an actor that keeps the audience from hating the generally deplorable Guy Trilby, who curses and insults his way through the movie with caustic (but hilarious) glee.

But none of that should overshadow the real talent Bateman displays here as a director. The bulk of the movie hangs on the odd friendship/rivalry his character forms with a 10-year-old entrant named Chaitanya Chopra, played by Rohan Chand. Bateman likely draws on his own experiences as a child actor to draw a wonderful performance from his young co-star. And their interaction is uproariously funny. Sure, there are small, fun turns from the always-reliable Allison Janney, the ever-dry Philip Baker Hall, and the committed comedienne Rachael Harris -- but it's Bateman and Chand (and former Crossing Jordan regular Kathryn Hahn) that make the movie.

To be clear, this comedy is the blackest of black. The movie wants you to laugh at a grown man picking on little kids, revel in irate parents made apoplectic by their impotent rage, and root for chaos to rule the day. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then you should trust your own judgment. But if you can get on board with the crazy premise and give yourself permission to risk being a bad person for 90 minutes, Bad Words will make you laugh out loud. Repeatedly. I give it an A-.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chrome-atic Scales

It's been a year and a half since I wrote about Syfy's aborted Battlestar Galactica spinoff, Blood and Chrome. Overall, it didn't quite impress me, though some elements of it certainly did. One that I mentioned was the score by composer Bear McCreary. A soundtrack album was subsequently released, and has been in my collection for some time now. I recently realized that I never took a moment to sing its praises here.

Blood and Chrome was trying to be a more action-oriented, kick-ass version of Battlestar Galactica. Appropriately, McCreary scored it with a more action-oriented, kick-ass version of his Galactica sound palette. Even casual fans of the revival series, people who don't usually notice film and television music, will know the general sound of Battlestar Galactica: emphatic strings, sprays of Eastern flutes, unusual vocals, and above all, driving percussion led by taiko drums.

For Blood and Chrome, McCreary served up the "rock" version of those ideas. The score uses growling synth bass, lots of electric guitar (far more than was used for the "Pegasus" episodes of Galactica), and odd sounds that evoke one of those weird electrical sparking devices in a cliché mad scientist's lab. And all of these new sounds are presented with prominent distortion. Two tracks in particular really showcase this new approach, "A Cylon Spy" and the long "The Last Battle of the Osiris." Another track, "Ski Lodge Battle," supplements the traditional taiko percussion of Galactica with a thumping four-on-the-floor rock beat.

While throwing these new sounds into the mix, McCreary also plays with small changes to the old sounds. In some tracks, tremolo strings replace the forceful manner in which he usually employs them. Other tracks really amplify the use of those Eastern influences. And he's still strategically using human vocals, and the specific vocalists he's worked with before. But the end credits track, "Apocalypse: Blood and Chrome," is a departure in that (as far as I know) it's the only time English lyrics appear in the Galactica universe. (Well, original English lyrics. "All Along the Watchtower," you can sit back down.)

There are also a few select moments for longtime fans of Bear McCreary's Battlestar Galactica music. The track "Coker's Interlude" is a sedate piano solo that conjures memories of Starbuck's piano noodlings late in the final season of Galactica, as well as Daniel Graystone's musical hobby in the spin-off, Caprica. And then there's the track "The Galactica," which introduces the ship itself. Not only does it reincorporate the melody Stu Phillips created for the original television series, it briefly uses the same rhythms that introduced the Galactica in the revival's debut mini-series. (All weaving in the new rock vibe too. A truly deft composition.)

Blood and Chrome may not have been much of a pilot, but song for song, the music is some of the most consistently engaging material Bear McCreary ever composed for the franchise. I give the album an A-. I know I have a small handful of soundtrack enthusiasts like me following the blog; if you missed this one, you should go back and pick it up.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Exporting Hate

Amid a number of notable documentary films covering LGBT subject matter, God Loves Uganda stands as a distinct entry in the field. It chronicles how the evangelical far right in the United States, having found their anti-gay rhetoric increasingly difficult to push on the ever-more tolerant masses, have decided to export their views. A few specific congregations have stepped up their missionary efforts to spread their brand of Christianity, and nowhere have they found greater success than in the African nation of Uganda.

The film is very topical, but also already out of date in just a matter of months. Just in the time since this film was completed, the "Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill" was passed, and then invalidated by the Ugandan courts (though on a legal technicality that leaves open the specter of a return). In this documentary, you'll see interviews with the American evangelicals and Ugandan politicians behind the ultimately successful push to criminalize same-sex relationships. (The version of the bill depicted in the movie sought to make offenses punishable by the death penalty; the version that passed substituted life imprisonment instead.)

Even as the U.S. (and much of the Western world) makes huge strides towards LGBT equality, many note that we still have a "long way to go." This documentary serves as a chilling and important reminder of just how far we have to go, by showing just how low things really get on the spectrum, in a worldwide context. Many people with bigoted viewpoints here in the U.S. bristle when called out on their bigotry; and yet there's really no comparing their mild, often unconscious prejudice with the violent and dangerous views on display in Uganda.

The documentary does offer a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise ghastly and gloomy setting. It also shows us the efforts of a few people trying to preach tolerance in Uganda -- and clearly risking a great deal to do so. Still, God Loves Uganda is a "hard watch" overall... yet a valuable one for showing just one of the lamentably several humanitarian crises around the world. In the hyperbolic climate of modern American politics, it makes you appreciate just how good you actually have it. I give the movie a B.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Nth Degree

After the well-executed and well-received third season episode featuring Dwight Schultz as Reginald Barclay, the writers were keen to stage a return. They did so in "The Nth Degree."

The Enterprise is sent to repair a space telescope, discovering that its malfunction was caused by a mysterious alien probe. A close encounter with the probe leaves Barclay with rapidly increasing intelligence, which for a time makes him an invaluable resource for the crew. But soon he connects himself to the computer, takes control of the ship, and begins a potentially dangerous propulsion experiment to instantly transport the Enterprise to the center of the universe.

The writers decided early on that they didn't want to bring the Barclay character back just to tell another story about holodeck addiction, and thus the season was starting to wind down by the time they finally worked out what to do. A separate idea had been floating around about a crewmember suddenly made superintelligent, and the writers wisely realized this would be a good Barclay vehicle. Since the insecure and shy character was socially below the curve already, his progression would make for more of a journey.

Of course, I have criticized past episodes for focusing too much on a guest star. But this episode, I quite liked. What's the difference? Partly, it has to do with Dwight Schultz, who turns in a great performance in all stages of Barclay's evolution. First, he's awkward -- but less so than in his prior episode. Then he's suave and confident, while still eager to please his superior officers. Finally, he's simply dismissive and arrogant. It's a full spectrum performance. But it's also important that in both of the Barclay episodes, the story is just as much about how the main characters interact with and react to him as it is about the character himself.

In fact, many of the best moments in the episode come from the regular characters. Most are comedic in tone. There's Data's confusion at the way everyone applauds Barclay's awkward acting performance. And Riker's glazed-over face as Barclay explains his shield modifications. And Troi's coy refusal to tell whether Barclay's "good" pass at her worked.

More dramatic moments are effective too. Troi gets to do some actual counseling, giving a truly motivational speech to Barclay at the beginning of the episode. Dr. Crusher gets a few good scenes as Barclay's acting teacher, a hobby that was given to the character after Gates McFadden's lobbying to round out her character. (Earlier this season, she'd picked up dancing and botany hobbies as well, as a result of the same requests.)

The idea of acting may have come elsewhere, but the specific idea to perform Cyrano de Bergerac actually came from producer Rick Berman. After I've pointed out so many times that he opposed good ideas on the series, it's probably fair that I acknowledge his good contribution here. Not only does the time period make for a good early fake on the audience (who probably expects this is another holodeck program), but the story actually resonates a bit with the episode's conclusion. The alien Cytherians revealed at the climax explore the universe by bringing others to them, essentially using alien species as their mouthpiece much as Cyrano is used in the story. (This connection is likely just a coincidence, though, since the ending of this episode went through a last minute rewrite. More on that in a moment.)

The episode is also rather impressive from a technical perspective. The "Argus Array," the space telescope that makes for the initial Macguffin of the story, is an impressive bit of model work. The use of live lasers on the set to depict Barclay acting as the computer makes for a powerful visual. And Barclay's new propulsion method is depicted by shooting at a jarring 8 frames per second, a simple in-camera effect with impressive results.

Other observations:
  • This is the second time in just a handful of episodes that a great story revolves around a first contact with a new alien culture. But interestingly, the scene featuring the Cytherian was rewritten on the very day it was filmed. Originally, the race was planned to be more malevolent, but the writers smartly decided not to play another "hostage situation" at the end of this episode.
  • This episode shows a rare occasion when Worf makes a suggestion that Picard actually agrees with. (To use weapons on the alien probe.)
  • It's too bad that Guinan couldn't have been used here somehow, particularly after her rather lackluster appearances in a few recent episodes. She had a rather significant role in the first Barclay episode (and Whoopi Goldberg had a role in getting Dwight Schultz on the show to begin with).
  • In the middle of the episode, Barclay makes a truly meaningful point: "I've finally become the person I've always wanted to be. Do we have to ask why?" The episode has too much story to tell to make much of a moment of this, but it's a really powerful truth from a deeply cloistered individual finally coming out of his shell. I suspect many Star Trek fans might identify.
  • The filtered computer voice of Barclay is reminiscent of HAL in 2001. Intentionally, I'd guess.
  • The "teaser" of this episode (the part before the opening credits) is one of the longest in all of Star Trek, clocking in at more than 7 minutes. It's sort of a precursor to the way TV is made today, almost 25 years later. It's much more the style now to treat the teaser as simply one more act in the whole rather than a short... well... teaser of what's to come.
This second Barclay story may just barely be not quite as good as the first, but it's still a solid episode for the show. I give it an A-.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fresh Recruit

It's usually not a good sign when a studio releases a movie in January. (Unless it was previewed in New York and Los Angeles in December, anyway.) That general rule is what kept me from going to see Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit when it arrived early this year. But it still looked interesting to me, so I decided to throw it in the Netflix queue. The movie turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed.

A film franchise reboot of author Tom Clancy's famous Jack Ryan character, Shadow Recruit casts Chris Pine in the role previously played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. (It's seems as though there have been nearly as many Jack Ryans as James Bonds.) As before, the character is portrayed as an intelligence analyst unexpectedly thrust into a more "operational" role. Also as before, the story nods to Clancy's Cold War era politics, despite a modern day update -- Russians are the villains.

But the particular appeal of this movie is that it's a rather more cerebral thriller, while still remaining very much an action adventure. The main plot revolves around currency manipulation, a cyber crime more representative of the modern age. But the writing is clever enough that it's totally believable when this road leads to murder attempts, cover-ups, and undercover ops.

It's also more clever than most action films in using its female lead, Kiera Knightley. Yes, she does predictably become a damsel in distress at one point, and no, I don't think the movie actually passes the Bechdel test (by giving her another female character to interact with). Still, she grows into more than Jack Ryan's love interest as the story unfolds; like the hero, she too is thrust into an "operational" role.

Individually and as a couple, Pine and Knightley have plenty of charisma to propel the film. They're supported by Kevin Costner (as Ryan's "handler") and Kenneth Branagh (who has great fun chewing the scenery as the villain). Branagh is also the director here, confirming that his foray into blockbusters -- Thor -- was not a one-time thing. He keeps the tension here moving along at a brisk pace, as skilled here with action as he's always been with more "respectable" fare like Shakespeare.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit doesn't really do anything you haven't seen in an action spy thriller before. But what it does, it does quite a bit better than most films in the genre. It's a very strong B+, and I'd welcome the news if another Jack Ryan film with this cast was put into production.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mitty Grade

Late last year, when many potential Oscar nominees were arriving in theaters, another movie seemingly designed as award bait was released, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Some saw it as Ben Stiller's bid to be taken "seriously," but that's overlooking his dramatic work from some time ago -- such as his starring role in Permanent Midnight. In any case, this new movie both starring and directed by Stiller, received no Oscar love.

I think speaking fairly, it wasn't quite good enough to deserve any. But it was better than some of the films in the mix.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty revolves around a title character who manages photo assets at Life magazine. His is something of a sad existence; he's always dreaming of grand adventures, much like those depicted in the photos he curates, but he's never been able to take the plunge. And now he's even losing his job, as the magazine is shutting down its print division in the internet age. But when a famous photojournalist's important shot for the final issue goes missing, Walter finally does embark on quest around the world to track down the man and his photo.

The trouble with this movie isn't that it's bad. Actually, it's rather good at what it's trying to do. The performances are winning, from Stiller himself and the likes of Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Patton Oswalt, and more. The cinematography is truly beautiful, with amazing vistas of Iceland (standing in for Greenland in the story) that inspire you, like the main character, to go see the world. Visual effects are cleverly deployed in (day)dream sequences to heighten the reality.

And yet there's a familiar, formulaic quality to the story being told here. You've seen it before -- this type of hero, in this type of story, with this type of ending. You know the lesson of the finale before the first act is even over. Because of the good performances and production values here, familiarity doesn't quite breed contempt. But it does at times breed impatience and indifference.

Ultimately, if you choose to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you probably won't be disappointed. (Particularly after I've told you not to expect the world of it.) But I can't imagine anyone anywhere adding it to the top of a beloved movie list. In the long term, it's a probably forgettable C+.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TNG Flashback: Identity Crisis

"Identity Crisis" is another Star Trek: The Next Generation episode based on a fan-submitted script. This one was reportedly saved from the slush pile and heavily rewritten before making it to production. But I don't think they truly fixed all the problems.

Five years ago, when Geordi LaForge was serving about the U.S.S. Victory, he and four other crewmembers explored the planet Tarchannen III. Now, the other members of that team have been breaking protocol to return to the planet... only to vanish without a trace. Along with his former teammate, Susanna Leijten, LaForge must solve the old mystery before they too disappear.

The original story pitch for this episode put two guest stars at the center of the crisis. They were rapidly transforming into aliens, and it was up to the Enterprise crew to help them. The staff writers rightly realized that a regular character ought to be at the heart of the story to help the audience invest, but their rewrite didn't go far enough. The problem is twofold.

First, the bulk of the story involves Leijten's rapid transformation. She's a character we don't know, and our only connection to her is through Geordi. An early staff draft of the script reportedly put the two in a romance, before everyone reasonably concluded that after a twice-failed romance with Leah Brahms, Geordi needed a break in that department. Leitjen was then conceived to be "like a sister" to Geordi, a relationship made explicit in dialogue. Why not make it Geordi's actual sister? Sure, people can have good friends, but if you're trying to sell an audience on a brand new relationship, why not raise the stakes on it as much as possible?

Second, the back half of the story involves Geordi's transformation and how Leijten, after being cured herself, helps talk Geordi back from the brink. By this point, Geordi has gone full alien, so the scene is a one-sided conversation -- and we don't really know the person on that side. Again, a true sibling relationship between the two could have made it more relatable. Or better still, if it's going to be a "good friend" that talks Geordi back, why not have it be someone who we've seen act as Geordi's friend: Data! How great a moment would it have been, watching the emotionless android trying to appeal to an emotional connection?

But too much focus on the guest star is only one of the problems of this episode. Another big one is pacing. The episode starts with a promising bang, almost immediately telling us that Geordi is in danger of disappearing. But then there's an ultimately meaningless subplot involving a decaying shuttlecraft, a painfully slow exploration of the planet surface, technobabbly investigations by both Geordi and Dr. Crusher, and an even more technobabbly search for Geordi once he himself goes missing.

The script is full of unanswered questions. Why is it this parasite lies completely dormant for five years before suddenly doing its thing in a matter of days? When Geordi's hands begin to shake, he still has enough sense of self to continue his investigation; why then does he not immediately report his symptoms to Dr. Crusher as she specifically requested? The moment Geordi mutates enough to become invisible to the ship's sensors, why does the computer not report his disappearance, as it was specifically asked to monitor Geordi at all times?

There are some interesting elements of this episode, but they don't really help you engage in the story so much as they impress you technically. There's an impressive feat of continuity in the visual recording (and subsequent holodeck recreation) of the five-year-old mission; Geordi's back in red and wearing his original model VISOR, everyone is dressed in season one uniforms and even armed with season one phasers. There's also the fantastic ultraviolet makeup used to depict the alien creatures, complete with creepy contact lenses, and earning the series an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for a Series. Also creepy is the amorphous shape Geordi conjures on the holodeck when he asks the computer to extrapolate the source of a mysterious shadow.

The last moment may be a taste of a more horrific incarnation this episode might have taken. In yet another early draft, no character was being transformed into an alien at all. Instead, the planet was populated with a host of invisible aliens adapted from all sorts of other species, an external horror rather than a psychological one. (Budget concerns probably killed that idea.)

Other observations:
  • Actually, I have a few more questions (of a more nitpicky nature): When Geordi pauses his holodeck simulation, why do the wildlife noises persist? And when Worf arrives with a team on the holodeck and begins a search for Geordi, wouldn't the sensible thing be to turn off the program to make the search easier?
  • There are a few unusual guest stars in this episode. A former Miss Universe appears as an ensign, while Los Angeles radio DJs of the time, Mark and Brian, are the other two aliens scurrying along with Geordi near the end of the episode.
This episode really isn't "bad." But perhaps worse, I think it's just dull. It can't overcome its misplaced focus on the guest star and its exceedingly slow pace. I give it a D+.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Replaying the Game

It has been around 13 years since I first read George R.R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire. At the time, the third book (A Storm of Swords) was the most recent. Since then, of course, we've had the long wait for books four and five, the ongoing wait for book six, and the arrival of the excellent HBO TV adaptation of the series.

As all of this has unfolded, I've found my memory isn't all it might have once been. I remember the broad strokes of the books, but at the same time I find myself regularly challenged to remember the exact ways in which they differed from the way the show has told the story. But I also remember really enjoying the books. A lot. And that's been slowly building up into an urge to simply read them all again. So it was that I recently finished reading book one, A Game of Thrones, for the second time. It was a very different, but still very enjoyable experience.

There are a lot of elements coming together to make the book so great. First of all, Martin really designed an amazingly elaborate world for his series. And more importantly, he doesn't dump all that work on you in giant bricks of exposition as other less skilled fantasy writers often do. Bits of history, religion, geography, and more are peppered throughout the tale, but they come up only in contexts where they're important to the narrative or the characters.

Second, I was struck by just how important and powerful a choice Martin made in centering each chapter on a single character's perspective. So many books stick with a single character's viewpoint, or use a more omniscient narrator to tell you exactly what's in the mind of every character. The device here fits with the idea of a story that lives in moral grey areas. You get conflicting views from different characters, characters' inner thoughts regarding each other, strategically unreliable narrators, and an understanding of why characters (who have less perfect information than you the reader) make the sometimes bad decisions they do. Even characters I really don't really like at least make abundant sense when Martin is letting me inside their heads.

Third, it's clear upon the re-read that Martin is not just making this up as he goes along. He has clearly hit some bumps along the way, and probably he himself would be the first to acknowledge that. But he clearly knew his endgame, and the major plot points along the way. This allows for wonderful foreshadowing throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed picking apart Bran's dreams/visions for new context, slyly winking at Jaime Lannister's declaration that he'd rather die than live as a cripple, and speculating anew about the identity of Jon Snow's mother (which seems much more obvious upon the re-read).

Many people will tell you how boldly this book defied the conventions of typical fantasy, citing the relatively reduced role of magic in the world, and the (spoiler warning, I guess; but at this point... really?) death of the one who appeared to be the main character 100 pages before the end. But I think the real triumph of the book is how it thwarts some expectations while embracing others. For example, you know from the moment Dany receives her dragon eggs that she's going to be hatching some dragons before the book is over. But it's this deft blend of fulfilling and upsetting expectations that makes the book so compulsively readable.

Even having read it once, even having subsequently and memorably watched the story brought to the screen over 10 episodes of great television, I still loved reading this book again. It was and still is an absolute grade A book. It's hard to imagine at this point that any fantasy lover hasn't read it, but hey, if you haven't: do it!

Monday, August 11, 2014

A True Coming of Age Story

This weekend, I went to see the newest film from writer-director Richard Linklater, Boyhood. You might know Linklater from Dazed and Confused. You should know him from the excellent "Before" trilogy (meaning if you haven't seen them, you should). But with Boyhood, he's done something even more special.

Filmed over a 12-year period starting in 2002, Boyhood follows a young boy, Mason, as he grows up -- starting at age 6 and ending with his departure for college. The film uses the same actors over the entire period, including what is likely the most fortuitous bit of casting in the history of film, Ellar Coltrane as Mason.

It's hard to wrap your head around what it took for this movie to get made, and how much could have happened to derail it along the way. Linklater secured the money from studio IFC, who gave him a couple hundred thousand dollars every year to continue the work, despite never having a finished film and never requiring him to show the work in progress. (The producers somewhat miraculously stayed in their jobs at IFC the entire time.)

He had to secure the participation of the same group of actors over a 12 year period. Actors are a typically nomadic breed, tiring of projects and moving on with regularly. Children are even more transitory, gaining and losing interests all the time. (Though by casting his own daughter as the main character's older sister, Linklater at least had her sewn up.) To give you and idea of how long this film took to make, lead actress Patricia Arquette started out with no regular job, got the TV series Medium a few years into production, made that for 7 seasons across two networks, and then wrapped that series up, all within the amount of time this movie was filming. Yet Linklater was unable to secure any obligation from any of his actors, as California law sets a maximum seven year term of service for a performance services contract.

The result is pretty remarkable. A few have compared it to the documentary Up Series, but this story you watch unfold at every step of the way, during the most formative period of a person's life. The performances are superb. I've mentioned Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and the director's daughter Lorelei Linklater; regular collaborator Ethan Hawke is also a supporting cast member. Many times throughout the film, they deliver powerfully emotional performances that sweep you up in the moment and really make you feel for these characters whose whole lives you're essentially watching unfold. Three or four scenes in particular moved me more than any movie has in a long while.

But while Boyhood might be fairly called a "masterpiece," it isn't quite a perfect movie. It's rather long for one thing, two hours and 45 minutes, and does slow down a bit in parts. This occasional meandering is an expected consequence of Richard Linklater having no script going in. But then, how could he? He adapted his story along the way, according to the changes in his young star, and according to what he himself was feeling in his own life when the time to film came around each year. As such, the movie doesn't have a real, single narrative as such -- though it does explicitly own this fact in the final act.

Still, I don't think a better coming of age movie has ever been made. Where other films load up a single event in a young person's life as the one all-important moment of growing up, this movie honestly portrays the entire process. And it makes you care very deeply for all the characters along the way. If you're any kind of fan of movies, and particularly of movies that mark a bold cinematic experiment, you owe it to yourself to see Boyhood. It will certainly make my top 10 list for the year, and it deserves to be in Oscar contention. I give it an A-.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

TNG Flashback: Night Terrors

When the creatives behind Star Trek: The Next Generation have been interviewed about subpar episodes, they've often tried to defend them at least a little. But every once in a while, they'll dogpile on along with all the fans. So it is with the fourth season's "Night Terrors."

The Enterprise locates a missing science vessel, finding just one surviving crewmember aboard -- a Betazoid in a catatonic state. The rest of the crew seems to have killed themselves and each other following a string of unexplained hallucinations. When the same symptoms begin to appear on the Enterprise, they attempt to flee, only to find their ship has become trapped in a Tyken's Rift, an interstellar phenomenon that is draining the ship's energy and disabling its engines. The crew must find an escape and cure their hallucinations before they're all driven mad.

As I said, you won't find anybody associated with Star Trek: The Next Generation willing to defend this episode. Director Les Landau won't even talk about it, noting only that it had something to do with Troi floating in space. Visual effects supervisor called the realization of that Troi nightmare "horrible." Producer Rick Berman thought the episode was hard to follow, and head writer Michael Piller blamed the horrible pace. And they're all right. But personally, I don't think this was even the worst episode of the season, never mind one of the worst for the series. So I'll step in with at least a partial defense.

The core idea here, to do a suspenseful horror episode, is a good one. (In fact, the series would try again in a later season to better effect, using an alien abduction premise.) Indeed, a few of the moments here are absolutely effective, such as Dr. Crusher's creepy encounter with the Brattain corpses in the ship's morgue (which Gates McFadden plays wonderfully without overacting). Riker finding snakes in his bed is unsettling too (and again, played reasonably well by Jonathan Frakes). There are a few other interesting, tangential ideas too, such as the notion that it's still possible to communicate telepathically with a catatonic person.

But the good moments are overshadowed by bad ones. I'm not even sure what Picard's turbolift hallucination is meant to be; one moment he's flying upward, and the next it seems like the ceiling is lowering on him... I think? Does the story really earn the moment where Worf is about to kill himself? And then there are the guest stars, who have an awful lot of weight put on their shoulders. One-off characters start to break down before any of our main characters do, and each one of them is horribly overplayed by a desperate young actor trying to get a big break.

Though yes, of course, the worst element of all is the ill-conceived "Troi flies through a tunnel" idea. For starters, it's supposed to be a nightmare... but most people associate flying with very pleasant dreams. Plus, Troi is always looking for someone (using terrible dialogue), not running from someone... again a reversal of the normal conventions of nightmares. Then there's the fact that Troi rather implausibly concludes in the final act that this nightmare must be an alien communication, and coincidentally realizes that the "one moon circles" repeated in the nightmare is a distress signal requesting hydrogen. That feels like it's putting an awful lot of stock in a dream, when dreams are inherently nonsensical.

It's also a bad idea to tie the hallucinations to a lack of REM sleep. I can understand why the writers wanted to connect to a real world thing rather than yet another made-up sci-fi disease, but it's problematic to ask actors to convey fatigue when they're on a time table. Michael Piller revealed that this episode ran more than 9 minutes long in its first cut, and had to be gutted to reach the final running time. Not only were the actors speaking slowly to demonstrate their fatigue, they were all working on their first episode back after a long Christmas break; Piller thought the latter in particular had them all a bit off their A game.

One person who did bring his A game was composer Ron Jones, who wrote a truly unsettling score for the episode. But after past problems relating to an absence and a technological malfunction, this episode was probably his "third strike." Jones brought in an actual 16-voice choir to supplement the orchestra for this episode, an expensive decision. And he wasn't 100% sure at the recording session how he was going to use them. He recorded takes of them singing dissonant chords, and others of them actually chanting "eyes in the dark" along with Troi's nightmare aliens. It all seems a bit crazy, but the finished product, which can be heard on The Ron Jones Project soundtrack album, is brilliant. Yet in the episode itself, the volume on the music is turned down so low you can hardly hear it. Clearly, Rick Berman didn't like it, and I believe this was the moment when he decided formally to shop for a new composer to replace Ron Jones.

Other observations:
  • The other Federation ship, the Brattain, was meant to be named for Walter Houser Brattain, the inventor of the transistor. Unfortunately, the name is misspelled "Brittain" on the ship's hull. (They at least get it right on the computer displays on the set.)
  • Miles and Keiko appear briefly in this episode, to have a REM fatigue-fueled quarrel. But as the writers really have to protect the characters from looking bad, the argument doesn't even involve so much as a raised voice.
  • If it's questionable why they'd bring in Miles and Keiko for such a small part, it's truly mystifying why they'd bring in Guinan. Sure, the moment where she fires off a 1980s-style action movie quip (after firing off an enormous gun) is pure badass fun, but that upsets the tone the episode was going for. And neither Whoopi Goldberg nor the writers seem interested in portraying Guinan as being affected by the same fatigue as everyone else.
  • Marina Sirtis had long been lobbying for Troi to get more action-oriented scenes, and claimed that here, it totally backfired on her. She spent an entire day suspended on wires to film Troi's dream sequences, and she is deathly afraid of heights.
  • Speaking of Troi, I believe in this episode she is seen wearing every outfit in her wardrobe but one (the dark blue dress). I suppose this was to show the passage of time in the episode.
  • Picard tells Data about watching the deterioration of his grandfather's mental faculties, to a condition that sounds a lot like Alzheimer's. It's a weirdly downbeat note for Star Trek to imply either that the disease is still uncured in the future, or that some other sci-fi version of the same thing just sprung up to plague humans in its place. Though the tale is at least consistent, in that it informs Picard's willingness to help a similarly afflicted Sarek in a wonderful previous episode.
  • When they destroy the rift at the end of the episode, all the ship's systems immediately come back online. But when you drain a battery to almost empty and then stop the drain, it's not like it's instantly recharged. Future tech, I guess.
Okay, so maybe "Night Terrors" is pretty bad. But in the fourth season, I'd still say that "The Loss" and "Devil's Due" were worse -- to say nothing of probably two dozen poor episodes you could find in the first and second seasons. So I'll call it a C-. Not a proud moment for The Next Generation, but not a total catastrophe.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Blade Stands Alone

Terry Brooks has been releasing books in his sprawling Shannara saga for over 35 years (and with regularity for most of that time). But with his latest, The High Druid's Blade, he's doing something he hasn't done since the 1980s: he's releasing a stand-alone Shannara novel. While this book is the first in a set of three known as "The Defenders of Shannara," each of the three will be telling a separate story.

As this is not the first entry in a traditional fantasy trilogy, it should come as no surprise that the story is considerably more compact than most in the genre. The High Druid's Blade follows Paxon Leah, descendant of the series' Leah family line, as he trains to be a protector in the service of the Druids. He has several adventures along the way, beginning and ending with efforts to save his sister from a powerful sorcerer named Arcannen.

Beyond the stand-alone premise, Terry Brooks departs from several other conventions he's built up over his career. Unless you count the historical intermarrying of the Leah and Ohmsford lines, there is no Ohmsford character in this book. Unless you count an extremely minor diversion in a single chapter, there is no romantic subplot here, as Brooks has inevitably included in his past adventures. (All that said, the book isn't quite stand-alone. Brooks has stated that some characters introduced here will reappear in the next two books. And while the protagonist's journey does resolve by the final page, the story does leave some open threads that could be picked up on in the next book.)

This is the shortest of the Shannara novels, noticeably so. And frankly, I was nearly halfway through it before I actually started to like it. The opening half is very episodic in nature. The overall story is one of Paxon undergoing his "Jedi training." This unfolds in the form of stand-alone chapters that describe a particular exercise, and self-contained little two-or-three chapter adventures out in the field. Each feels like a short story in an "Adventures of Paxon Leah" anthology, and collectively I wasn't very satisfied by them.

But then things take a rather dark turn, by Terry Brooks standards. Brooks has always been a generally optimistic writer. He has killed off significant characters before, and put others through an emotional wringer. But by and large, his writing simply isn't as dark as others in his genre. So in this book, when he describes in detail the horrible torture endured by one of his characters over the course of multiple chapters, it's quite shocking -- more so than similar material might be from another author. This instantly ups the stakes, and when the rest of the book suddenly turns to the fallout from this event, the story becomes far more compelling. A book that I was ready to pan suddenly became quite a page turner.

Still, a simple weighing of the two "parts" of this book results in a whole that isn't worth the highest of marks. I'd give The High Druid's Blade a B overall, a reflection of the slog you must get through to reach the good stuff. Fortunately, since the book is short, the slog doesn't take that long. (But then again, neither does the higher quality conclusion.) It's not one of Brooks' better efforts, though it's one his fans probably won't want to miss.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

I Off the Ball

I have a rather long Netflix queue, between my Instant Queue and my list of discs. Sometimes, so much time will pass between when a movie goes in and when I actually get around to watching it that I forget where I heard of it or how it got in there. So it was with a movie I recently watched, The I Inside.

A psychological thriller from around a decade ago, The I Inside begins with a man waking up in a hospital following an accident. He has lost all memory not only of the accident, but of everything that has happened to him in the last two years. That time is quickly revealed to cover the death of his brother, and a marriage to a woman he doesn't know. And that's only the first of several shocks, when he begins to have not only flashes of his forgotten past, but actual time jumps to live inside those memories.

There's an interesting cast here. Ryan Phillippe stars as the man who has lost his past. Two women at the core of his mysterious situation are played by Sarah Polley (from the Dawn of the Dead remake) and Piper Perabo (star of Covert Affairs). Robert Sean Leonard (of House) appears as the main character's brother. All of them do a credible job of making rather overworked dialogue feel natural -- or, at least, natural enough for the heightened world of the film.

But things slowly begin to unravel. The plot of the film is intriguing, and the first several twists and turns spring into even more interesting directions. But then the illogic of it all begins to pile up too high. And as it does, the movie begins to resemble too many other films that covered similar territory in far more compelling ways.

All the while, you feel as though many of the people involved with making this film thought they were working on something far more important than they actually had. Director Roland Suso Richter's hyper-conscious camera placement awkwardly pulls you out of tense moments more than it adds to them. And Nicholas Pike's intrusive score is tracked in twice as loud as it needs to be.

No matter how interestingly things start out, they end in a too predictable, too ridiculous place. And The I Inside is too uneven a film not to survive a terrible ending. Even if you're a fan of "head games" movies, this one is sure to disappoint. I give it a C.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

TNG Flashback: Galaxy's Child

When is a holodeck episode not really a holodeck episode? When it's the fourth season's "Galaxy's Child."

Dr. Leah Brahms, designer of the Enterprise's propulsion system, is coming aboard to inspect the engines. Geordi LaForge, having worked with a holographic version of her to solve a previous crisis, is now keen to meet her in person. But his expectations are thwarted, as Brahms proves to be a willful and prickly personality. She's upset at how he's messed up "her" engines -- and Geordi's past with her simulacrum threatens to sour their relationship even further. But soon the two are forced to work through their issues to solve a new problem: a newborn space-based life-form has taken the Enterprise as its "mother," and is rapidly draining the ship of power.

By this point, roughly halfway through the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series had experimented a bit with continuity between episodes -- most notably in the ongoing storyline surrounding Worf. Still, this was far more the exception than the rule, with an episode like this still an anomaly for the largely episodic series. In particular, Geordi's past "holodeck romance" seems like an odd thing to revisit -- particularly when you consider that this script was turned in by Maurice Hurley, the show runner who left after season two, and who wasn't even around during the third season episode that introduced Leah Brahms. (An uncredited rewrite on this script was done by staff writers Jeri Taylor, who punched up the Geordi-Leah relationship, and Ronald Moore, who worked on the sci-fi half of the story.)

Still, it's a good thing they did decide to revisit that past episode, however it came about. LeVar Burton and guest star Susan Gibney had a great rapport in their previous episode. And they do again here, in a "reunion" that has some fun twists: the real Leah Brahms is married, and at first doesn't actually like Geordi very much.

All this story is really just scratching the surface on some very interesting questions about privacy and etiquette. Geordi has violated Brahms' privacy in a rather serious way by making a holographic recreation of her. Sure, it wasn't the sort of perverse X-rated fantasy you could buy in Quark's Bar (different series, after all), but neither was it a completely chaste, completely professional encounter. And speaking of privacy, Brahms is able to run Geordi's program without his permission. (Something we've seen before, when K'Ehleyr used Worf's exercise program.) And I couldn't even begin to count all the times we've seen someone just walk in on someone else's holodeck program. It seems there isn't much expectation of privacy in the future.

Which was perhaps prescient on the part of the writers. This episode, years before social media, online dating, employers researching prospective hires on the internet, and more... it all seems to touch on a lot of issues that are rather prominent today. But if you leave aside the (for the moment) science fiction element of this story, Geordi frankly comes off as a bit of a creepy stalker in this episode. He's offering to make Dr. Brahms her favorite dinner, calling her by her first name when she hasn't grown that friendly with him, and plotting a romance with a woman he's never actually met. And he deliberately hides from her the reason he knows so much about her.

Bottom line, I'm in Dr. Brahms' corner on this. She's rightly outraged when she discovers Geordi's program. And I think the writers just took it for granted that we'd be on his side here. Geordi fires off an indignant speech about how all he's guilty of is trying to be her friend, but in this century, I think she might have enough cause to secure a restraining order against him.

All that said, I still do generally like this episode. Geordi and Leah, Burton and Gibney, really do play well together as characters and actors. When they solve the conundrum-of-the-week in the final act, it's a refreshing reminder of what made their previous episode, "Booby Trap," so entertaining. Their character driven story gets far more coverage than the sci-fi jeopardy, and the episode is better for it.

Other observations:
  • The episode makes good use of Guinan, who tries to give Geordi advice he doesn't want to hear at first. Particularly memorable is when she updates the old rose-colored glasses analogy, referring to Geordi's "old VISOR."
  • This episode marked another of the occasional efforts to use CG for the visual effects. The still young technology yields rather unconvincing results here.
  • Totally nerdy, nitpicky point here, but ever since "Coming of Age" made such a memorable plot point out of telling us that the only matter/antimatter ratio that works is 1:1, it grates on me when -- as in this episode -- they talk about tweaking the mix. Boom!
  • While this was not the first Next Generation episode to feature the Jeffries tubes, it was the first time they showed up in their lasting design, a narrow duct-like space the characters have to crawl through.
  • The Blu-ray release of season 4 includes a brief deleted exchange from this episode. Picard quotes the beginning of a nursery rhyme, and Worf of all people is the one to finish the rhyme. (But then, he was raised by humans, after all.)
I might have preferred the version of this episode that truly examined what a creeper Geordi is being here, but what we got is still fairly entertaining. I give "Galaxy's Child" a B.