Friday, October 31, 2014

Cold War

Want to shatter your sense of calm and work up a serious outrage? Have I got the documentary film for you!

Admittedly, telling you that something is guaranteed to make you angry is probably not the best way to go about recommending it. Still, it's probably the best way to explain the power of HBO's "Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia." The documentary reveals the shocking extent of the persecution against the LGBT community in Russia. During the Sochi Olympics, their so-called "anti-propaganda law" got a some attention -- a law prohibiting any positive depiction of gays in any venue where someone under 18 years of age could be exposed to it. But that's only the beginning.

In Hunted, a film crew follows a vigilante group that cons gay men into what they believe will be private encounters. Instead, the groups then accost and humiliate their victims -- and would clearly torture or beat them, were the documentary crew not there to forestall worse abuse. Yet these vigilantes go much farther than you might think, and show no hesitation in doing so. This is because their activities are essentially sanctioned by Russian police, who do nothing to prosecute such cases -- they believe just as much as the attackers in the righteousness of the "cause."

The documentary runs less than an hour, but the picture it paints is horrifyingly clear. Any condemnation that Russian authorities have received to date is hardly enough, exposing only the tip of a dangerous and large iceberg. Indeed, the scope of the problem is such that the film leaves its audience feeling rather helpless. What could you possibly do, where could you possibly begin, in helping to bring about change? Your heart goes out to the few Russians in the film who -- against all odds -- are trying to do just that.

It's hard to "grade" Hunted, really. If the job of a documentary is to inform and educate, then this would get top marks. But if it's meant to be a call to activism, it's frankly too bleak to be inspirational. Yet either way, I do think it deserves to be seen. If you have HBO (or a friend's HBO Go login), take the hour to watch it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Masterpiece Society

Perched right at the halfway point of season five, "The Masterpiece Society" was one of Star Trek: The Next Generation's most forgettable episodes.

Tracking a stellar core fragment as it drifts through space, the Enterprise discovers an isolated colony of humans on an otherwise uninhabited planet. Menaced by the fragment, the colony is in great danger. But an equally great danger may come from the ship contacting them at all -- the colony represents the end result of two centuries of genetic breeding, a closed society meant to have no contact with the universe outside. As colonists work side by side with the Enterprise crew to stop the core fragment, they become disillusioned with their limited, predestined existence... and Troi strikes up a ill-advised romantic relationship with the colony's leader.

Like many episodes of the fifth season, "The Masterpiece Society" had been conceived of long before. It had been through a year-and-a-half of development, and five different writers, before show runner Michael Piller took a run at it himself. I gather it was a pet favorite of his, as he spoke highly of the story in subsequent interviews. He felt that rescuing this concept and making it work was "the beginning of me feeling better about the season." He also liked the classic tragedy structure of the plot, a series of events where everyone had the best of intentions, but still end up making a ruin of everything.

But Piller was alone among the staff in these feelings. Producer Rick Berman thought the episode was "slow and talky." Jeri Taylor hated the concept from the beginning, and thought the result one of the weakest episodes of the season. Director Winrich Kolbe felt the the inherent premise of "perfection" made for bad drama, resulting in low energy and a flat episode. And Ronald D. Moore was perhaps least charitable of all, saying: "We sort of show up at a genetically perfect colony – which in and of itself is starting to bore me – and when we get there, it's 'Gee, Troi falls in love with one of the people.' You can't wait to get up and get a beer."

But the problems run much deeper than that. In a nutshell, this "perfect colony" isn't something worth fighting for. Eugenics has nothing but a dark history in Star Trek, putting this world of selective breeders on the wrong foot from square one. And none of the main characters are about to defend such a way of life. Picard thinks their society saps people of free will. Geordi thinks they're morally reprehensible, preventing disabled people like himself from ever being born. And one of the colonists herself, scientist Hannah Bates, points out how their supposedly advanced colony is in fact quite technologically backward compared to the Enterprise. It feels like this story is supposed to be the loss of the "New World" to 15th and 16th century Europeans, but no one in this episode is really making the case for wondrous purity of what's being lost. Troi and Picard suffer moral whiplash at the end of the episode when they give it a try, but their efforts are truly half-hearted.

Rick Berman, Winrich Kolbe, and even Michael Piller all alluded to "casting problems" with this episode, though none were specific about what they meant. Certainly, none of these guest stars look like the Adonis-like products of 200 years of selective breeding. But to truly embrace that concept, they could not have used the multi-racial cast they did -- and having a colony full of Hitler youth would hardly have made them more sympathetic. Were Berman, Kolbe, Piller alluding to that conundrum? Or did they have problems with the actors who played the main roles of Aaron Connor, Hannah Bates, and Martin Benbeck? That seems unlikely, as John Snyder had previously played the Romulan Bochra in "The Enemy," while Dey Young and Ron Canada would appear again in later Star Trek series. I mean, there's no denying that all three come off rather wooden in this episode, but I lay blame more on the script than on the actors.

And yet another problem with this episode: it managed to step in a controversy it didn't even intend. When Geordi talks about how he would never even have been born in a colony like this, his choice of words leads you to draw an analogy between this situation and the issue of abortion. Rick Berman insisted that such a reading of the scene was "nonsense," noting that "there are very few people on our writing staff who would be involved with something that would be a non-choice outlook." That may be true, but such a lack of awareness in the writing would be just one more example of where it fell flat, wouldn't it?

Other observations:
  • Actually, I don't have any this time. There's just not much more to say about this episode.
"The Masterpiece Society" is perhaps not as actively bad as some early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But at least those stick in your mind. This episode is flat and forgettable, neither a highlight nor "lowlight" for the series. It's just a "no-light." I give it a D+.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Fractured House

Another week, another solid episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While I know that Joss Whedon himself has not actually been deeply involved with this series since he directed the pilot episode, it felt like his stamp was on the show more strongly than it's been for quite some time.

First there was the Bobbi Morse / Hunter banter. Borderline unprofessional at times, yes, but pure Whedon goodness. It was a fun runner to watch them snipe at each other throughout the episode (without actually getting into it in a serious way), with perhaps the highlight being when they casually and simultaneously shot the same baddie. (Side note: We saw the benefits of being a media megaconglomerate in Bobbi's off-duty fashion choice, a Star Wars T-shirt.)

Ward finally getting out of his cage felt like classic Buffy. We saw the normally unflappable Ward finally... flapped... in a big way when his brother came into the equation. Suddenly, he was working any angle he thought he could even more desperately. Seems like getting Ward out in the wild and getting an obviously potent new villain in his brother is a win-win.

A win-win-win, actually, because actor Tim DeKay is playing Christian Ward. I've never watched a single episode of White Collar. (It's somewhere on the long to-do list.) But I do remember Tim DeKay from the brief HBO series Carnivale before that. And moreover, before that, he was a resident stage actor at the Denver Center Theater Company, where I saw him in at least half a dozen plays. He was excellent in all of them. What I don't recall ever seeing him play was an outright villain, and a conniving, false-faced politician seems like a particularly fun flavor to give him. I can't wait for more.

I loved the subplot between Fitz and Simmons. We've seen Fitz's heartbreak over their separation for the last several weeks. Now we saw what it has cost Simmons. Her watching someone else step in and be part of a new dynamic duo with Fitz, the way she used to be, was a sad twist of the knife.

My one disappointment in the episode would be how quickly (and, I think, implausibly) Talbot suddenly turned around after being so opposed to S.H.I.E.L.D. and our heroes for so long. It was hard to swallow.

Still, it was a fun and thrilling episode overall. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TNG Flashback: Violations

"Violations" was outstanding idea for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that wound up rather lackluster in the execution.

The Enterprise is transporting a trio of Ulians, telepathic aliens with the ability to recover other peoples' buried memories. But one of them is secretly a vile criminal, invading people's minds against their will. With the victims left in comas for days, and unable to recall the assaults even after regaining consciousness, the crew must determine what is happening in their midst.

The raw idea for this episode was pitched by the same outside writer who sold "Night Terrors"; both were bought at the same time. But I'm honestly not quite sure what the original idea really entailed, because the key element that makes the story worth telling came from staff writer Jeri Taylor and one of the production interns: the idea that these would be telepathic rather than physical assaults. Unfortunately, after making that one very smart decision, the writers made several poor ones.

First, there's the challenge of presenting these assaults on screen. The metaphor isn't subtle here; this is meant to be a science fiction take on rape, which one of the characters states directly at the end of the episode. When you really stop and think about it, mind invasion is a horrible violation. But you kind of do have to stop and think about it. And it would help the audience do that if the memories being invaded were of a sufficiently horrific nature that comport with the horror of the crime. We don't really get that.

I'll skip the first memory for a moment, because there are some other puzzling facets of Troi's assault. Riker's memory is of a time he gave an order that led to a crewmember's death. Not to make light of a death, but this must surely be one of many such occasions in Riker's past as a command officer. Nothing we see in this memory suggests anything particularly significant on this occasion to make it worse than any other weekly death of a Star Trek red shirt.

Crusher's memory does only marginally better. It revolves around the death of her husband Jack, which surely must be one of the worst events from her past. Yet the memory isn't about the moment she learned of his death, or the moment she had to tell Wesley his father was gone; it's actually about the moment where she arguably began to come to grips with and accept Jack's death. Maybe if actually seeing the body had rendered her an emotional wreck, if seeing Jack in fact did not provide Beverly the closure she'd expected, that would have been something. Instead, the memory is oddly cold and antiseptic, keeping the audience at a distance. (A distance from which we can't do much but think about how goofy Picard's hairpiece looks.)

So, back to Troi's memory. It's about a post-poker game flirtation with Riker, a moment where she firmly declared that they could not be a couple while serving together aboard the Enterprise. Where it gets weird is that Riker then forces the issue, and apparently begins to physically rape her. Clearly, this isn't the actual truth of what happened. This is further confirmed by the fact that the villain Jev later makes Troi misremember her attacker as his father Tarmin, so clearly he has the ability to alter the memories he invades (as opposed to merely assuming roles within them). But the Riker and Crusher memories seem to represent pretty much the literal truth of what happened (albeit, in a sort of dreamscape presentation). So I find myself having to ask, just how far did things go with Riker? And any discomfort I find in the answer is surely not the discomfort the writers intended.

Not only do all the memories range from awkward to ineffective, but I'm not even sure the right characters are experiencing the assault. The writers reportedly crafted a memory for every character before selecting the victims -- even including Ensign Ro, who ultimately didn't even appear in the episode. Imagine those roads not taken for a moment. In the episode, when Tarmin suggests that Picard might try memory retrieval, his recoil is subtle but clearly visceral. We saw in "Family" the emotional toll of the captain's violation at the hands of the Borg; what if he were forced to relive it again here? Or how about Worf? He gives us a good laugh when he says "Klingons do not allow themselves to be... probed," but how would a character with such a tough exterior cope with such a profoundly internal violation?

I think another big flaw in the episode is how it puts the audience so far ahead of the characters. This story could have been staged as a mystery: which of the Ulians is attacking our heroes? Instead, we know right from the start. Indeed, before Jev even commits his first assault, there's sinister music and conspicuous blocking that tells us he's the villain of the piece. But not only do the main characters not know who is responsible for the attacks, they don't even know they are attacks. So we the audience are made to sit impatiently through scene after scene where the characters investigate avenues we know will prove fruitless. Riker questions an immediately defensive Jev, without ever taking note of the other's odd behavior. Geordi spends an entire scene searching the computer for coma-inducing chemicals that have nothing to do with what's really happening. It's not that this behavior doesn't make sense from their point of view, but when we the audience aren't in the dark along with them, we can't help but look down on them.

But there are a few things that work well. Director Robert Wiemer used some unusual cameras and lenses to stage the memory sequences, achieving wonderful discomfort where the script itself fell short. And guest star Ben Lemon is fantastically creepy as Jev. While his odd behavior does add to the frustration at the other characters' ignorance, it excellently sells the episode's central metaphor: Jev comes off exactly like a sexual predator.

Other observations:
  • Keiko O'Brien is used at the start of this episode to illustrate the good side of memory retrieval. This is the only episode in all of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine where she appears but Miles doesn't.
  • You sort of have to get it from inference, but these Ulians seem to be telepaths of almost exactly opposite abilities to Counselor Troi. They only probe memories, it seems. If they had any awareness at all of a person's current mental state, then Tarmin would not push people to be probed who clearly have no interest (like Picard). Or, for that matter, a monster like Jev could surely never have developed right under his father's nose.
  • There's a nice character scene in which Riker comes to talk at Troi's bedside as she lies comatose. But it contains a very gutsy reference to a previous episode. I think if I'd been a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, I'd have avoided mentioning "Shades of Gray" at any cost.
  • Actor Doug Wert, who played Jack Crusher in the holographic recording for Wesley back in "Family," makes the briefest imaginable return appearance in this episode. In Beverly's memory, that's really him on the slab in the morgue -- for less than a second, before he's replaced by Jev.
  • I've often commented that when the show needs to demonstrate how strong an alien is, they have him beat up Worf. Paradoxically, this makes Worf come off as a bit of a weakling. But not in this episode, when he lays out Jev with one unintentionally hilarious blow.
  • The final scene of this episode feels like a throwback to the original Star Trek series, as Picard delivers a rather Kirk-esque, moralistic summation of the lesson we've all learned here today.
  • For all the flaws this episode may have had, it still handled the idea of telepathic rape better than the terrible Star Trek: Nemesis. That final film with the Next Generation cast included in its patchwork, overstuffed script a needless subplot in which Shinzon's unnamed Reman Viceroy helps him telepathically violate Troi. (Because otherwise Marina Sirtis really didn't have anything to do in the movie.)
"Violations" is a solid idea, well cast, and well directed. But most of that is lost in an unfortunately subpar script. I give it a C+.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Four Walls and a Roof

This week's episode of The Walking Dead picked up right where the last left off, with poor Bob in the hands (and mouths) of the Termites. The writers flirted with a problem that plagued the bad seasons of the show, but managed to steer clear without problem.

The Walking Dead is, of course, based on a long running (and still running) comic series -- one which several people I know speak of quite highly. The writers of the show have chosen something akin to the True Blood method of adaptation for television, using the source material for inspiration, and often certain plot points, without slavishly following it. But in the long doldrums after season one, particularly during the material with the Governor in seasons three and four, they got cute with it. They'd go to silly lengths to twist things up in their storytelling, just to surprise comic readers with how things worked out differently. In doing so, I felt they often lost sight of the primary goal: telling a story on their show that was still entertaining and made sense.

From my friends the comic readers, I knew that this cannibal storyline came from the books, and one of its most memorable moments came in the death of Dale (a character who on the TV series was lost back in season two). He'd been bitten, and took perverse glee as the cannibals chowed down on his "tainted meat." The TV writers transferred this moment to Bob. But if they took anything more from the comics than this one beat, they did it effectively and seemlessly. I detected none of the awkwardness that marked season three's clumsy reengineering of the source material.

Instead, the Termites used this as a jumping off point to really go after Our Heroes. They weren't certain if eating Partially Zombified Meat was going to do them in or not (understandably, they didn't get the CDC memo -- everyone's a carrier), but they were pissed off enough about the whole thing to want to go on a killing spree. They were also pissed off enough to go about it with a rather insufficient plan. Dropping Bob off at the church to provide misinformation sounds good, but appropriately, Rick and the Gang were bright enough to see through that obvious trap.

The slaughter that ensued was shocking. You really can't argue with Rick's point -- even if you could possibly believe a promise from these people to leave you alone (and how could you?), leaving them alive would just put them out there to torment and consume someone else. There might be a debate about capital punishment to be had in there somewhere, if the stakes of the apocalypse didn't quite thoroughly put a thumb on the scales. But even if you agree with Rick in principle, it's still quite another thing to watch him brutally machete someone (as his friends bludgeon several other people) to death inside a church. Gabriel's stunned declaration, that this was a house of God, was only one-upped by Maggie's cold counter that gave the episode its title.

The one false note for me came in the sudden urgency to get Eugene to DC that somehow didn't exist for half a season before now, an urgency that somehow (in)conveniently split up the team again. Don't get me wrong, it will probably be a good thing from a writing standpoint to have the team split. One of the strengths of the back half of season four was in the way that different characters took the spotlight as the narrative traded around from group to group, and now we have two groups to track. (Not to mention going back to see what happened to Carol and Daryl as the events of this week's episode were going down.) But I felt the writers' machinations in setting up this situation.

Still, I think the show is clearly back on high ground. It's certainly back in my good graces. I give this episode an A-.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Hen in the Wolf House

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was another strong episode, but it did bring with it a little bit of disappointment. I felt we may have been cheated a bit out of some great things we didn't get to see.

First on the list was "more of Simmons in Hydra." It was such a wonderful and tense situation to put that character in, having her undercover with people who we know had a brainwashing machine. So it seems a shame to me to pull her out after basically giving us just two episodes of that situation. I'm not suggesting Simmons should have stayed put for half the season, but I do feel like they hadn't even come close to tearing all the meat off that particular bone. And now the opportunity is permanently lost.

The other things I felt a bit cheated out of can at least be fodder for future episodes. The brief taste of Fitz and Simmons' reunion hardly scratched the surface of what I want to know. Did Raina find a way out before Whitehall's 48 hours expired? These things at least will be dealt with down the road, though I would have thought them appropriate for this episode.

Those complaints lodged, what we did get was quite good. The introduction of Bobbi Morse seemed just about perfect. Marvel fans (I gather) got to squeal over her fighting all badass with (what I understand is) her signature weapon; fans of just the show got to enjoy her fighting with her ex-husband, a wonderful payoff to the stories Hunter has been telling us. (That character got instantly more interesting, by the way.) And I do have to wonder if having Morse's first big action scene culminate in her jumping onto an invisible jet was a deliberate tweak at the people who utterly failed to make a Wonder Woman TV series work starring that actress, Adrianne Palicki.

Skye's storyline was also quite good. This season having now well established the new, awesome Skye, this episode helped reconcile that version of the character with the first season's more fragile model. It also seemed to me that it laid a really big brick in the foundation of getting Ward out of his cage at some point, as he volunteered information about Skye's father that proved totally true. (There at least is a situation that the writers seem content to let play until they've milked it for everything. And "caged Ward" I think has a lot shorter shelf life than "undercover Simmons" anyway.)

I'd say this episode earns a B+. I'm yet again looking forward to next week's episode -- which, regrettably, probably now won't get a ratings spike from people tuning in to see what now won't be the premiere of the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. (Sad face.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Fight for the Right Not to Fight

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot over the last few weeks for the rather large number of unexplained decisions they've handed down, in cases with far-reaching consequences from marriage equality to voter ID laws to abortion. Against this backdrop, I recently watched an HBO film that dramatized a significant Supreme Court case from four decades ago: Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.

Based on a book of the same title, the movie covers the 1971 case in which Ali sued to prevent his incarceration for refusing induction to fight in Vietnam. He claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of his Islamic beliefs, though his foreign religion seemed unlikely to earn him any sympathy among a court dominated by white Christian males.

It seemed to me that the movie also adapted in large measure material from Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's book, The Brethren. (Though it may be that I've read that book and thus know its contents, while I've not read the Ali book.) Lots of little snippets of "daily Court life" and "Justice behavior" seemed to come from The Brethren, though it was often presented so briefly and casually that I found myself wondering if anyone who hadn't "done the homework" as I had would even understand what was breezing by.

The case itself feels almost similarly superficial in its presentation. Ali himself is not played by an actor in this film, the "character" appearing only in archival news footage. I imagine the filmmakers were trying to avoid a distracting impersonation -- either of the man himself, or of Will Smith's well-known take on him in a recent biopic. But by putting Ali at a remove like that, I feel the film abstracts him and his struggle. The eight men deciding his fate (Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case) seem like real people with real thoughts and motivations, but the man whose fate is being decided unfortunately does not. It's not so much "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" as it is Justice Harlan's Clerk's Greatest Fight."

There are some interesting faces throughout the cast, including Danny Glover and Ed Begley Jr. But the two actors that really get enough material to work with are Frank Langella as Chief Justice Burger and Christopher Plummer as Justice Harlan. And both do good work. Langella perfectly captures the political paper- and agenda-pusher that nearly all sources agree Burger to have been, while Plummer gets to play the role of the more noble (on this occasion, at least) Justice who is actually swayed by the arguments presented to him. Neither is giving a career-defining performance, to be sure, but if you're going to watch this film, you'll be watching it to be entertained by them.

But overall, I regret to say you should probably not watch this film. It's a great bit of history to learn, but this movie isn't fully successful in making it live. I'd instead recommend The Brethren (as I did months ago). This movie gets a C-.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TNG Flashback: Hero Worship

Patrick Stewart returned to the director's chair for the second time -- and again for a Data story -- with "Hero Worship."

The Enterprise is dispatched to a "black cluster," to determine what has happened to the starship Vico. They find the ship all but destroyed, with only one survivor aboard -- a young boy named Timothy. Timothy may hold the key to determining what happened to the Vico, but he is walled off by the trauma of losing both his parents in the disaster. The only one able to draw him out is Data, whom the boy has begun to imitate as a way of dealing with his emotions.

Like "New Ground," the previous episode, this story revolves around a young boy, and provides an opportunity for Troi to do some actual counseling. This time, she's not only working with Timothy and trying to help him cope with the loss of his parents, she's working with Data. She helps teach him how to be a "counselor," and acts as a surrogate for the android's non-existent emotions in the melancholy ending of the episode: Data had helped create a kindred spirit of sorts, only to have the boy ultimately stop behaving like an android.

Casting was key here. Again, as with the role of Worf's son, the producers found a young actor with experience for the role of Timothy. Joshua Harris had recurred as Christopher Ewing on Dallas for seven years. (And again, as with Brian Bonsall, Harris chose to give up acting within a year of finishing Star Trek.) He's a bit wooden in the early scenes where he's found aboard the Vico, but then does a great job mimicking Brent Spiner, and is fairly good late in the episode when he confesses the "secret" he's been hiding.

The visuals are mostly strong in this episode. The set design of the wrecked Vico is effective, made more so by the dark and moody lighting. The visuals of the black cluster are striking, particularly the refracted phaser shots and the approaching shock waves. One effect that just does not work at all, though, is when Data uses super-speed to build the temple model; it looks like stop-motion animation, and not well-realized stop-motion animation at that.

Other observations:
  • The costumers do clever work here too, coming up with an outfit for Timothy that looks very much like Data's Starfleet uniform without actually quite being a Starfleet uniform.
  • There's an interesting scene for Geordi, in which he recounts being caught in a fire as a child, before he'd first received a VISOR. This trauma from Geordi's past was originally conceived for the next episode, "Violations," where the memory would have been invaded by the alien villain.
  • The cast and crew were filming this episode when they received the news of Gene Roddenberry's death. As expected, they were hit hard by the loss. Marina Sirtis was reportedly affected more than most, as her own father had died exactly ten years earlier.
This episode comes dangerously close to being "too much about the guest star." But there are still enough good scenes for Data and Counselor Troi to make it decent enough. I give it a B.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Strangers

Sunday's new episode of The Walking Dead drifted back toward the some of the tendencies I didn't like during the prison days. There was a sense of one group of writers handling the dialogue, while another group was off in a separate room generating the "zombie set piece of the week" -- in this case, wading through hip deep water with zombies so waterlogged that their skin was half dripping off. But fortunately, the writers in the "first group," the group truly telling the story, were doing their job well.

Job one was assuring us that there have been emotional consequences to both the long separation of the characters and their experience in Terminus. A deeper discussion between Rick and Carol was well in order, and the episode didn't make us wait long for it. Credit must go to Andrew Lincoln for his performance. Rick's dialogue asking Carol to join her in the place he'd put her... well, it was very clever writing, but still could have come out cheesy if it hadn't been delivered just right.

Less anticipated, but just as satisfying, was the scene between Carol and Tyreese, covering whether to tell them what happened with the girls. Carol's instinct was to come as clean as possible, probably since hiding information is part of what got her into trouble the last time. But Tyreese really laid it out poignantly -- some things are too horrible to even remember, much less share. And Carol really took it to heart, turning around and using Tyreese's exact words in her conversation with Daryl.

Conversations throughout the episode showed that the characters in fact had been altered by their contact with the "Term-ites." Objectively speaking, Rick telling his young son that he's never safe, ever, anywhere, is pretty awful, but undoubtedly correct in this context. And in a contrast between them, Carl is still inclined to naturally trust someone just because he wears a priest's collar, while Rick isn't about to trust anyone.

As for that priest, Gabriel, he seems like he has an interesting story yet to be fully revealed. We saw his clear psychological torture at encountering someone in death that he knew in life, but there's clearly more going on, evidenced by the writing Carl found carved in the church. The most likely answer would seem to be that Gabriel refused to offer shelter to other people who came by, getting them all killed. Perhaps when our heroes found him at the top of the episode, he was so wracked with guilt over his actions that he was trying to commit "suicide by zombie," only to lose his nerve at the last moment?

But the most lasting consequences of Terminus came in showing us that we're not really done yet with Terminus. It was a bit of a dramatic hole last week, frankly: The Walking Dead has made its business killing off main characters to show us that a situation is really dangerous, thus the lack of casualties in the escape from Terminus subtly suggested that situation really wasn't so dangerous after all. But now tell that to Bob. There are some fates even worse than death, and becoming dinner, piece by piece, is probably one of them. Even if Bob survives now -- which he well may not -- the Termites have definitely proven they mean business.

I'd say this episode merits a B+ overall.

Monday, October 20, 2014

TNG Flashback: New Ground

Star Trek: The Next Generation presented the first of two back-to-back "cute kid" episodes with "New Ground."

The Enterprise is assisting in the test of a new propulsion device, the soliton wave, when Worf's mother Helena Rozhenko comes for a visit. She's brought Worf's son Alexander, and feels it's time for the boy to come live with his father full time. As Worf and Alexander try to adjust to life together, the soliton wave experiment goes wrong, threatening an entire planet if the crew can't find a way to stop it.

In the early 1990s, the door had not yet swung wide open on serialized television. But Star Trek: The Next Generation was still occasionally pushing on it. Almost every time an effort was made to tell an ongoing story, Worf was involved. Once before, his son had been sent away to live conveniently off screen, but this time the writers planned to keep him as a recurring character.

Because they had future plans for Alexander, the writers knew he'd have to be recast. The boy who'd appeared in "Reunion" was timid and limited, and the producers wanted a child actor with an established track record. They found Brian Bonsall, who'd played Andrew Keaton on the late seasons of the sitcom Family Ties. He comes off much less stiff on camera than the prior Alexander, and reportedly loved the transformation of the Klingon makeup. Alexander would be one of Bonsall's last roles; shortly after The Next Generation ended two-and-a-half years later, he gave up acting.

The bulk of the episode is dedicated to Worf's first days of parenting. To be honest, I found his relationship with Alexander to be less than compelling here, but fortunately the change in Worf's life touches some of the other main characters too. Counselor Troi in particular gets another one of her maybe-twice-a-season moments to do some actual counseling, helping Worf understand the emotional state of his son. We also get see how far Picard has come since his "I don't want children on my ship" attitude of the pilot; he's more than understanding of the sudden new demands on Worf's time. (In fact, a deleted scene on the Blu-ray release provides another example of this.)

There's not too much to the sci-fi B-plot, but if the character drama had been as compelling in fact as it was in theory, this would have been the right writing decision. The jeopardy of the soliton wave doesn't quite have the weight it should, perhaps because the prior episode just put an entire planet in danger, but actually showed us that planet instead of leaving it unseen. Still, it is fun to see Geordi's enthusiasm at being there for an historic engineering breakthrough. (And even more fun to hear him compare it to what it would have been like to see Zefram Cochrane engage the first warp drive; he would wind up literally on that ship in the movie First Contact.)

The budget seems to have been deployed a bit unevenly in this episode. The "Corvan gilvos" puppets in the biolab look pretty ridiculous, particularly when Riker is holding them after their rescue. On the other hand, the live on set fire is fairly impressive. (Though I can thank the movie Galaxy Quest for making an unintentionally comedic moment out of Worf lifting the heavy beam off of his son. All I could think of was: "Do the Mak'Tar strength chant!")

Other observations:
  • Besides young Brian Bonsall, another performer in this episode was appearing as one of her last characters. Georgia Brown, who plays Helena Rozhenko, died less than a year after filming this.
  • In an ultra-condensed version of Star Trek IV's "save the humpback whales" message, this episode contains a brief mention of the future extinction of the white rhino.
  • In this episode, the revered Klingon Kahless is pronounced more like the name looks: KAH-less. Later, they'd decide to change it to KAY-less.
  • Some toys will endure for centuries. In the background at the school, you can see the "colorful wooden beads on metal tracks" toy that's in like every doctor's office in the country. (And my own family had more than one at home too.)
I like the idea of developing Worf's character -- and of maintaining an ongoing storyline -- by bringing his son aboard. Still, the idea itself is better than the somewhat dry execution here. I give "New Ground" a C.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Late, Not Great

The Mile High HorrorFest is a weekend-long extravaganza of horror films, most new and independent efforts you'd have to dig to see any other way (short of waiting half a year or more for Netflix). This year -- and last weekend -- it took place at the Alamo Drafthouse. Although friends of mine attended as they do every year, I've never taken the plunge. But this time around, those very friends scrounged up a pair of extra tickets for one of the films in the festival, called Late Phases.

Late Phases is the story of a blind Vietnam veteran who is placed in a community of retirement homes by his son. No sooner has he moved in when both his own guide dog and his new neighbor are both savagely killed by a werewolf. Quickly realizing what's going on, the veteran has one month to discover the human identity of the beast and prepare for its next transformation.

After the HorrorFest was over, my friends informed me that unfortunately, this film they happened to score us extra tickets for was actually the worst thing they saw all weekend. And no, it wasn't great. But it was certainly more of a mixed bag than a total loss. The movie did, after all, get several things right.

First, there's something inherently tense about building a horror movie around a blind central character. M. Night Shyamalan was circling this when he made The Village -- though that movie turned out to be more a romance than a thriller. (And a marked decline for the once great writer-director.) But the main character here is more than capable. He's also acid tongued and clever, making him a lot of fun to watch throughout the movie. Indeed, the movie nails the lighter moments all throughout, and presents a number of characters who, while not unfathomably deep by any means, are all more nuanced than the average horror film would craft them.

But foremost, a horror movie is about the scares. And here, Late Phases fails to deliver. Part of the problem is structural. By opening a movie with a werewolf attack, and then clearly telegraphing that the next full moon is going to happen at the end of the movie, you're telling us that not much is going to happen in between. Sure, the main character keeps it fun, but there are no scares nor even mild tension anywhere to be found. And perhaps worse, the movie is made too cheaply to present us a truly frightening werewolf. When your monster is more funny than scary, you have an insurmountable problem in your horror movie.

The cast has few recognizable faces in it, but those you do spot might make you wonderif you're ready for the retirement community yourself. Ethan Embry, of Can't Hardly Wait, is now the middle-aged son of the main character. One of the possible suspects in the retirement community is Lance Guest, aka The Last Starfighter himself. (Yes, he's now old enough to pass for retired.) Perpetual kinda-creepy-guy Tom Noonan will almost surely not be known to you by name, but his face has popped up in movies and TV shows aplenty.

Ordinarily, I think good characters and dialogue count for a lot in a movie. But here, they're having to overcome key flaws in the story, and they can't quite do it. I'd call Late Phases a C-. If you'll watch any horror movie for pretty much any reason, then you might as well check this one out -- there are far worse ones out there. But I think most people would be disappointed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TNG Flashback: A Matter of Time

Rick Berman, executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, had once before contributed his own script to the series, the fourth season's "Brothers." That effort was considerably more successful than his second episode, "A Matter of Time."

The crew is on the way to a planet experiencing an ecological disaster, hoping to kickstart a new greenhouse effect to counteract the rapidly falling temperatures. Suddenly, a time traveler appears. Berlinghoff Rasmussen claims to be an historian from the 26th century, here to observe in person the events of this day aboard the Enterprise. But his strange demeanor -- and Troi's empathic sense -- suggest that he's hiding something.

Berman's plot for this episode grew from two kernels: what if a time traveler tried to steal Data; and what would a man like Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci have done if someone from the future had given them a calculator? What resulted was this story, in which a failing 22nd century inventor hijacks a 26th century time travel pod, to steal technology from the 24th century that he could "create" back in his own time.

According to show runner Michael Piller, the script did not come easily. Berman didn't get a pass just for being the boss, and he reportedly hammered on this idea for quite some time before it went before the cameras. Unfortunately, not all the kinks were ironed out. At a broad level, our heroes come off rather dumb for falling for this ruse even for just a while. They know, for instance, of their own ability to recreate history on the holodeck in striking detail; it's implausible that a "future historian" would have the gaps in knowledge that Rasmussen has. (In fact, if the writers themselves could have seen into the future and watched the series finale of Enterprise, they'd have watched Riker and Troi play "future historians" on the holodeck.) Riker even points out directly in the first few minutes that they've encountered imposters before (alluding to "Devil's Due," "Conspiracy," maybe "The Dauphin," and others), and yet they still go on to be deceived for a while.

The episode doesn't even do a particularly good job of fooling the audience. It isn't necessarily that one ought to be able to figure out the convoluted temporal plot twist in advance. Rather, it's that the subplot isn't particularly compelling. (A fact Berman himself later acknowledged, noting that when writing this sort of story on Star Trek, you can "get lost in the technical elements of it.") When you think of all the truly dire situations where the Enterprise has been in serious jeopardy, it doesn't quite track that a future historian would come back to witness the fate of one random colony somewhere, no matter the local stakes. When Rasmussen says to a child in Sickbay, for example, that he'll remember he was at Penthara IV, it simply doesn't sound believable.

Which really touches on another problem with the episode: Rasmussen is such a poor con man. Some of his slip-ups are no doubt necessary to the plot, intended to tip off the characters about the truth. Some are even fun, such as the way Crusher gently rebuffs his awkward flirtations. But Rasmussen just comes off shifty in his need to constantly re-establish his "cover"; he has to remind everyone at every turn that he's "from the future," which ultimately is what tells you something must be off there.

I also have issues with the ending, which strains credibility even farther. If you had a time machine, and you were planning to get out of it for even one second, would you set a timer on it, and in doing so run any risk that it might automatically leave without you? (You could argue it's an automatically engaging feature Rasmussen didn't know how to disable, but the question remains: why would that be an automatically engaging feature?) And how did Rasmussen think he was going to be able to reverse engineer technology from 200 years in his future? If you visited a leading scientist of 1814 (and Rasmussen himself admits, he's not a top mind of his time), do you think he'd have a snowball's chance in hell of figuring out how, say, a smartphone works?

After this avalanche of criticism, you may well be asking if I thought there was anything good going for this episode. A couple of things, thankfully. First, there's the rather compelling scene in Act 4, where Picard appeals to Rasmussen for advice in making the right decision. It's refreshing and original to see the Star Trek device of the Prime Directive portrayed with our heroes on the other side. Picard (and Patrick Stewart) makes a powerful case, acknowledging his own past violations of the Directive, alluding to the classic "would you stop Hitler?" thought exercise, and even name dropping original series-and-film villain Khan. Michael Piller thought this scene was a highlight of Berman's episode, and he's not wrong about that.

There's also the performance of Matt Frewer as Rasmussen, who's really cutting loose and having fun with the role. But there's a quite interesting story behind that. Originally, Rasmussen was written for Star Trek fan Robin Williams. I don't know whether he'd reached out to the show, or friend Whoopi Goldberg had prevailed on him to guest star. In any case, the plan for Williams to appear was solid enough that Rasmussen's character and dialogue were written with him in mind. But then he got an offer he couldn't refuse: starring in the movie Hook for director Steven Speilberg. He turned down the Star Trek part, and a replacement had to be found.

I'm doubtful that Robin Williams could have saved what's clearly a below average episode. Still, it's hard not to think about what might have been. And knowing about that possibility when you watch the episode, you can start to imagine it. You can almost hear what he might have done with certain dialogue, such as the list of famous blind people that ends with one of Star Trek's few contemporary references: "Wonder." Indeed, Matt Frewer doesn't quite seem to be playing the character so much as he's playing "Robin Williams playing the character," which makes me respect the performance more. Granted, Frewer seems to have the dial turned to maybe 7 where Williams would have gone to 11, but he's nevertheless pouring a lot of energy into a subpar script.

Other observations:
  • On the subject of future history, we get a reference at the top of the episode to the "nuclear winters of 21st century Earth." I've always found it interesting that all incarnations of the otherwise hopeful Star Trek have intimated (or stated directly) that we're going to have to go through a cataclysmic World War III before we get our collective act together.
  • In the act where the main characters are pumping Rasmussen for hints of the future, it's interesting to me that even Data can't help himself. He asks whether he's still alive in the future. (The sad answer, and the horrible final chapter of The Next Generation that is Star Trek: Nemesis, is a subject I suppose I might get to someday after finally finishing all the episodes.)
  • One aspect of the episode that's not subpar at all is the visual effects. The various depictions of volcanic activity on the planet are far more involved than the "slice of planet below the ship" we usually get to see. And the climax in which the crew uses the Enterprise to siphon the bad particles from the atmosphere is more elaborate still. In fact, this episode tied for an Emmy win in the category of Outstanding Individual Achievement in Special Visual Effects. (It shared the award with a worthy co-winner, another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- "Conundrum.")
Matt Frewer's heavy lifting, plus that well-presented moral argument between Picard and Rasmussen, pull this episode out of the basement. Still, it's too flawed to be completely saved. I give "A Matter of Time" a C-.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Face My Enemy

Last night brought another solid episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which should officially bring us well past the point where anyone should be surprised that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is consistently good. (In other words, if you bailed some time early in the first season -- which it would be hard to blame you for -- it's well past time you came back.)

Character focus continues to be key, and this episode centered mainly around May. Though it would have been a great episode just to see her in her against-type, super-bubbly cover persona, there was a good deal more going on. We know that the reason May is so withdrawn emotionally is because caring too much cost her in the past. So pairing her with Agent Coulson for the bulk of the episode definitely carried extra weight. On the sweet side were the nostalgic references to adventures past, while on the heavy side was Coulson's insistence that she make herself ready to kill him if it should come to it. And although I think it's safe to assume that will never actually come to pass, just the thought of what that might do to the already damaged May is enough to really make you feel for her.

Another big win in the episode -- the heist. Though it was ultimately unsuccessful, it's just hard to beat a heist for fun action in virtually any story. This was no exception, as we got cons and scams, a big dance number, and plenty of humor. Then later, to cap the episode, we got a massive fist fight with more elaborate fight choreography than I think we've ever seen on the show before. And just for extra fun, it was May vs. "May."

If there was any weak part to the episode, it was the Fitz storyline. Not that I don't love me some Fitz, and not that I'm unhappy to see him starting to find his place again. It's just that his subplot did feel a bit predictable and tropey. But even so, Ian de Caestecker's performance was great; the way he has stepped up his game this season has been a highlight among many great new aspects of the show.

I'd say this week's episode gets a B+.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All Dolled Up

Gone Girl was highest on my movie to-do list last weekend, but another movie opened on the same day that seemed worth a shot. Annabelle is a new horror film spun off from the surprise hit (and surprisingly decent) The Conjuring, featuring the creepy doll from the Warrens' display case.

Annabelle is a prequel of sorts, but manages to avoid some of the inevitability and predictability problems of a prequel by not really being about how the doll wound up in that display case. The Warrens aren't even in the film -- which is good from narrative standpoint (but probably unfortunate from a quality standpoint, as the two actors starring in this new film aren't nearly as talented as Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). Instead, this movie tells the story of how the doll first became creepy. (In a supernatural sense; the thing was evidently manufactured with that "I'll swallow your soul" facial expression.)

The writing of Annabelle is fairly solid. Though the pace does lag a bit here and there throughout the first half of the movie, the back half does make up for it. And throughout everything, there is -- as in The Conjuring -- a solid understanding of how to deploy a scare. There are a number of good bait-and-switch moments, where you think you know where to expect the scare, only to have it be somehow different than you anticipated. The movie also uses suspense to earn its purely startling moments; the only moments when something suddenly "jumps out at you," it comes as punctuation to a slow buildup of tension.

What's hit and miss is the acting. As I alluded to earlier, the actors playing Mia and John, the main couple at the center of the story, don't seem quite up to anchoring a movie. The appropriately named Annabelle Wallis gives good scream and panic, but comes off a bit wooden in other scenes. And Ward Horton has an unfortunate undercurrent of smarminess that makes his character seem a bit shifty at times, though this is definitely not the intention.

But there are a pair of solid, working actors in the two major supporting roles that help lift the proceedings. Alfre Woodard -- of Scrooged, Star Trek: First Contact, and more film and television appearances than most people could count -- plays a book store owner that befriends Mia. Woodard skillfully conveys her character's dark past, and layers in enough texture that the audience has some doubts as to what her role in the story might be. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola -- another veteran of dozens of projects, most recognizable to sci-fi fans from repeated Stargate SG-1 appearanaces -- plays the priest at the couple's church. He manages to get through all the expected "priest in a horror film" beats without making them seem too stale.

All told, The Conjuring was still probably a better movie than Annabelle. But if you liked one, it's hard to imagine you wouldn't like the other. I give Annabelle a B-.

Monday, October 13, 2014

No Sanctuary

As the last season of The Walking Dead was winding down, I noted that the show had finally pulled out of a two-and-a-half year slump and was once again as great as it was in its first brilliant season. I even threatened to start reviewing new episodes again. Well, since I know a lot more of my blog readers are watching The Walking Dead than, say, Gotham (I still haven't even gotten around to last week's episode myself; I guess I'm already losing interest), here we go!

The fifth season premiere was, quite simply, a great episode. The bookending scenes of the "original" Terminus folks suffering at the hands of torturers we never got to see made the thesis statement of the episode abundantly clear: when you come into contact with pure evil, it can change you. And within those bookends, we got to see exactly that happen to many of our characters.

Poor Tyreese, trying to walk the straight and narrow after past transgressions in his own mind. He'd done things he wasn't proud of and was trying everything he could to become a better person. But one afternoon in a cabin with a guy from Terminus, and he's beating a man to death with his bare hands -- all the while declaring how we wasn't going to kill anyone. If there's any kind of moral justification for murder, protecting an infant would almost have to cover it... and yet it's a complete descent into exactly what he'd sworn not to be.

And then there's Rick. We'd already seen him earning "Dark Side points" in last season's finale when he bit a guy in the jugular vein. (As with Tyreese, for the ultimate reason of protecting a child.) But remember that not long before that, Rick had been trying to embody the pacifism of Hershel. When meeting anybody new, one of the only things he wanted to know is "how many people have you killed and why?" -- the (quite reasonable) implication of that being that the answer to that might instantly disqualify you as someone worth knowing. Well, last night, Rick mowed down half a dozen people with a machine gun. In the back. In cold blood. And then (at least, before reuniting first with Carol and then his daughter Judith), he was ready to go back to Terminus just to make sure that every last person there was dead. "Farmer Rick" is clearly gone.

Speaking of Carol, while it seems unlikely she'll ever have another moment as dark as having to kill a little girl, she certainly shows no signs of turning around. It was incredible watching her become the one-woman army that stormed Terminus like an 80s action hero. But mixed in with those great moments were glimpses of the emotional cost. Yes, it was "kill or be killed" when she ran into the woman in the warehouse. But her way of "kill"ing was to torture for a bit and then watch as the Walkers dined on what remained.

These dramatic threads were woven in throughout some truly amazing action, with dozens of eye-popping zombie kills (kills of zombies) and zombie kills (kills by zombies). Indeed, it was such a spectacle that it leaves me a bit concerned about what's to come in the rest of the season. I was certainly not a fan of the show staying in place too long -- not at the farm, and not at the prison. But this was the way the show would defray production costs. So I was expecting at least a few episodes set in Terminus. The premiere left no chance of that, and seemingly blew half the year's budget on explosions and zombie gags in a single hour. Given the show's history, I'm worried what budget counterbalancers that leaves for us in the next few episodes. But I'm hopeful that the clear emotional transformations this episode set up in several characters means there's much less chance of the series stagnating again.

In any case, I think I'd have to give "No Sanctuary" an A. Whether it hurts what follows, or sets up something great, the fact remains that it stands on its own as one of the best episodes ever of The Walking Dead.

Friday, October 10, 2014

New York State of Mind

Every once in a while, I surprise some people with a particular movie that I haven't seen. One that came up in the last year or so was Escape from New York. I'd seen most of writer-director John Carpenter's other films, including the forgettable sequel Escape from L.A., but the original had slid through the cracks somewhere. Recently, I got around to crossing it off the list.

Escape from New York is a clearly influential film, likely spawning First Blood and a raft of other "one-man army" movies that cluttered the 80s. It's interesting that this mindless action would be the Hollywood takeaway from the movie, when by all accounts John Carpenter was actually trying to tap a deeper nerve. Though it took him years to get the movie made, he reportedly first wrote it in the wake of the Watergate scandal, his primary purpose to depict a dystopian future with an untrustworthy president. But then, it's hardly surprising this element was overlooked, as it doesn't seem to play much in the finished product.

It's hard to know how critical to be of the film's countless cliches, as part of me wonders how many of those cliches this movie may have actually inspired. But even trying to allow the movie some rope, I found myself a bit weary as it marched on. The parade of shallow characters seems put there only to set up heroic one-liners for the protagonist, or provide him someone to fight. That protagonist is a bit too much of an inscrutable cipher to be really likeable, and it seems like we hear people tell us he's a badass more than we see him actually being a badass. For my money, John Carpenter nailed a strong man of few words better in The Thing -- and also using Kurt Russell, at that.

There is some fun to be had watching the movie, certainly. But it's the sort of fun that evaporates almost instantly once the end credits have rolled, leaving a vague sense of "it was alright, but could have -- should have -- been better." I'd give it a C-. It's not even remotely the worst example of its subgenre, though I'm not quite sure what inspires the cult enthusiasm for it.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

TNG Flashback: Unification II

With "Unification II," Star Trek: The Next Generation actually delivered on what it had only teased in the prior episode, the return of Spock.

Having located Ambassador Spock on Romulus, Captain Picard learns his purpose in coming: he seeks a reunification of the Vulcan and Romulan people. But when Spock secures a meeting with a supposedly sympathetic Senate proconsul, he suspects a trap. The ambitious young upstart has teamed with Commander Sela to send an invasion force to Vulcan, in a small convoy of ships whose theft the Enterprise has been tracking.

To accommodate Leonard Nimoy's schedule, this second half of "Unification" was actually filmed before the first part. Another accommodation the actor had sought was to have his own son Adam direct the episode, though the younger Nimoy's scheduling ultimately could not be coordinated. (Adam Nimoy would eventually direct two episodes during the next season.) In any case, the elder Nimoy likely needed no guidance to once again inhabit the familiar skin of Spock.

Show runner Michael Piller praised Nimoy's appearance, though he acknowledged his own script was a bit weak. I do agree somewhat with the conclusion, though not with the particulars. Piller felt, for instance, that the scenes with Picard had come off as "flat, talky, and dull." Instead, I think Picard's restraint, which Spock notes is Vulcan-like, contrasts nicely with the fiery attitudes of Captain Kirk. And it's quite brilliant to use Picard as Spock's last chance to reconcile, via mind meld, with his dead father.

There's also the marvelous scene (and here, Piller did feel he'd succeeded) between Data and Spock. After so many classic Trek fans had early on derided the character of Data as a Spock clone, this scene deftly points out that they are in fact polar opposites: Data wants nothing more than to experience the emotions Spock has sought to shed, while Spock notes that he and other Vulcans aspire to the uncorrupted logic that Data takes for granted.

There are a host of other fun character moments too. Spock regrets the way he forced Kirk into peace talks with the Klingons (another allusion to the plot of Star Trek VI). Data co-opts Spock's trademark nerve pinch, with the Vulcan's approval. And over in the B-plot, the somewhat interesting one-off character, bar performer Amarie, gets bluesy with Riker and plays some Klingon opera that Worf hilariously joins in on.

No, I think Piller's script is actually quite strong in these character moments. Where it's weak is in the plotting itself. It's hard to understand why the Romulans would want to commandeer the planet Vulcan, so deep in Federation space and so easily cut off from any reinforcements. It's even harder to understand how they think they'd be successful in controlling an entire planet with just 2,000 troops. (Piller maintained that only a Trojan Horse approach could have been successful. I don't buy it.)

Drilling down to more specifics, it's bizarre that Data and Picard return to the surface of Romulus without their disguises, and wearing brightly colored Starfleet uniforms. It's unfortunate that no explanation is given for Senator Pardek's betrayal of his friend of nearly a century. It's absolutely inexplicable that Sela leaves Picard, Data, and Spock alone and unguarded in her office. And (though this flaw can't be solely attributed to Piller) we're shown once again how meaningless it is that the villain Sela happens to look like Tasha Yar. It's not even mentioned in this episode, in fact. And I think it's not surprising that Sela never appeared again on the series.

Other observations:
  • This episode was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Art Direction for a Series. Presumably, this nod was earned by the depiction of the planet Romulus. The city set was the largest built on the show since the elaborate London set of "Elementary, Dear Data," and was only possible because they were able to combine the budgets of two episodes. (They also saved money by reusing the Klingon ship sets from Star Trek VI.)
  • Soup must be the official meal of Romulan conspiracy. In both halves of "Unification," Picard shares soup (with Data, and with Spock). He leaves it conspicuously unfinished both times, surely explaining how he gets caught.
  • This episode has more "source music" (music actually played by characters, as opposed to background score) than any other episode of The Next Generation, thanks to the multiple tunes played in the Qualor II bar.
  • I like the more serious import given to the Vulcan mind meld in both this episode and "Sarek." On the original series, they sometimes seemed too cavalier about what was tantamount to mental rape.
  • The Romulan proconsul Neral, introduced here, would rise to become Praetor when he reappeared in Deep Space Nine (albeit played by another actor).
If you can overlook the major plot holes, I think there are enough solid character moments here to earn a B for this episode. But then again, it's quite possible that as a Star Trek fan, I'm letting my judgment be clouded by my enthusiasm for seeing Spock. I do wonder what a viewer might think who had only watched The Next Generation and had never seen an episode or movie featuring Spock and the original cast. If you could find such a rare creature, I secretly wonder if this might in fact be a low mark of the season.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Making Friends and Influencing People

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was, I thought, the best yet of the new season, full of new developments throughout the cast of characters.

The biggest came in showing us where the real Simmons has been, undercover as a double agent within Hydra. It's about as "fish out of water" as you could get, as Skye pointed out near the end of the episode. It's going to force Simmons to do a lot of growing up in a very short time -- and it could all still conceivably end with a trip to Hydra's brainwashing machine. In the previous two episodes, something didn't sound quite right about Simmons just walking out on Fitz, but now we learn it's even more sad than that. She too is used to having him around, and is suddenly forced to get by without. (So far, she's making do without conjuring up a hallucinatory Fitz.)

It was also a big episode for Skye. It's interesting to me that May was one of the last characters to "get there" in season one, largely because she was so walled off emotionally. And yet Skye has become instantly more interesting by making her more May-like in the off-season. This episode was all about Skye finding her zen calm, even as she had to make her very first kill. The epilogue, though expected, was still excellent as it showed us what can still drill right through that calm.

As wonderful as all that was -- and it was -- I still think the most powerful scene of the episode came when Fitz stumbled on to Ward and was forced to confront him. It started out looking like a moment that was going to dropkick poor Fitz emotionally and send him back to square one as far as his recovery. Instead, Fitz went down a dark road and fought back, torturing and nearly killing Ward. You could hardly blame him, and yet you also felt in that moment as though a character who has already lost a lot lost something even more.

I wish I could spend a little more time talking about Donnie Gill (aka Blizzard), as I thought his return was quite interesting. Like the Absorbing Man of the first two episodes, he seemed a threat both credible and entertaining, and I oddly felt more engaged by his "forced to work for evil" storyline in just two total episodes than I felt in all of the Mike Peterson saga of season one. But Donnie wasn't built to last; instead, he wound up as the capper on Skye's story, when she had to put him down. I'm sad to lose the character, but the show has been doing so well with new baddies so far this season, I'm hopeful they'll be able to do it again.

I'm left thoroughly entertained and eager to see what happens next. I think I'd have to call this episode an A.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

19 + Nothing = 24

Six months ago, I wrote about visiting the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to watch the oral arguments for Kitchen v. Herbert, the case in which a trio of couples were suing to bring marriage equality to Utah. This case had a great chance of being taken up by the Supreme Court, and becoming the case that would ultimately bring marriage equality to all 50 states.

Or so I thought. Yesterday, the Supreme Court made a move that surprised almost every court watcher there is. The Kitchen case, along with similar cases from four other states, had all made it to the Supremes over the summer. Last Monday, they held their first conference in months, and yesterday were scheduled to announce several orders from that meeting. The conventional wisdom was that they were either going to sit on the cases, waiting for a few more that are expected any day now from two other appeals Circuits, or grant a hearing of one or more of the cases, setting the stage for a big showdown a few months from now, and a big ruling in June of 2015.

Instead, the Supreme Court denied a hearing in all of the cases. In doing so, they allowed the Appeals Court rulings of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits to stand. All five of states where the bans were struck down immediately implemented the change. And just like that, by the Supreme Court doing nothing, the U.S. went from 19 states with marriage equality to 24. Throughout the day, plaintiff couples in the various cases -- previously denied their rights -- were finally getting married, including the couple from which the Kitchen case got its name.

But these "non-rulings" from the Supreme Court will have a bigger impact still. Those three appeals courts all control multiple states beyond the five targeted in those lawsuits, including 6 others that don't presently recognize marriage equality. Those appeals court rulings will now stand as binding judicial precedent for all of them. In the days and weeks ahead, lawyers and couples will push in federal courts in each of those states, where the judges will have a very quick and easy decision before them. The higher court rulings will instruct them to strike down the bans in their own states. In short order, the number of states with marriage equality will rise to 30.

Colorado is almost certainly poised to become #25, because all that work has already been done. Months ago, judges in both state and federal court struck down the Colorado ban on same-sex marriage, but both stayed their rulings (or were made to stay them by higher courts) pending word from the Supreme Court. Now that the word has come (in the form of silence), it's just a matter of lifting those stays. This is expected to happen within a matter of days. Indeed, Pueblo County is not bothering to wait on the technicalities, and began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples yesterday. [UPDATE: Just hours after I first posted this, all the stays I mentioned were dissolved. Colorado has indeed become state #25.]

From 30, we're probably not far from 35. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments last month in cases from Idaho and Nevada, and there was little doubt from the attitudes of the three judges (and the legal precedent on gay rights already set in that region) that their ruling will strike down those bans. Having now seen that the Supreme Court has no interest in getting involved with pro-equality rulings, the judges will allow their ruling to go into immediate effect, and the same ripples will go on to cover three more states in the Circuit shortly after. [UPDATE #2: Just a few more hours after the Colorado update I posted above, the 9th Circuit issued their rulings, striking down the bans in Nevada and Idaho as predicted. It's been an eventful couple of days!]

Meanwhile, eyes will be on the 6th Circuit. Two months ago, they too heard cases, out of all four of the states in their area. Their three judge panel seemed to have one clear vote to uphold the bans, one to strike them down, and one fence-sitter. Many court watchers believed that he would probably uphold the bans. But then, look how wrong the court watchers got it yesterday. Will the 6th Circuit and this judge listen to one of the more ominous silences to come from the Supreme Court this century, and turn 35 to 39?

And then what about those last 11 states, which include the most conservative appeals court in the country (the 5th, covering -- you guessed it -- Texas, among others)? What about the 8th circuit, that actually ruled in 2006 (before the Supremes struck down DOMA two years ago) that bans on same-sex marriage were legal? Will they do an about face when given another chance? In short, there's still a lot of work to do. But for couples in several states, June 2015 came eight-and-a-half months early yesterday.

It turns out I wasn't there for The Case To Make History. But I'm not disappointed to have guessed wrong.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Expecting Too Much of a Girl

This past weekend, I went to see the new movie Gone Girl. It's the latest from director David Fincher, and based on a terrific book by Gillian Flynn, about a man who begins to look guilty of murder when his wife suddenly goes missing. Though I was entertained by the film, I was also slightly disappointed -- it wasn't as good as I'd hoped.

Part of it may be sky high expectations. I really enjoyed the original novel, and though I wasn't necessarily itching for it to become a movie, the news that David Fincher would be behind the camera got me interested. Fincher hasn't always scored with me -- I found Zodiac a bit dry, for example -- but he's a very skilled and thoughtful director who really puts a lot of effort and consideration into everything he does.

But part of it may also be that maybe I didn't really like the novel as much as I thought I did? Gone Girl was adapted for film by the book's own author, and it's a very faithful adaptation. And yet, where the novel's twists left me thrilled, the movie seemed to be playing things a bit too coy. Was there really not much to the novel behind its surprising plot? Thinking on it, I've decided no, it wasn't that. Instead, I've decided that the book (not surprisingly) did a better job of letting you inside the characters' heads. The pacing of the film also feels a bit off in places, particularly in a conclusion that goes on a bit too long. That's all straight from the book, but it feels a bit like Return of the King's notorious multiple endings as it unspools over 20 minutes.

Where the movie does excel, though, is in the performances. Getting most of the attention are stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, though I would praise the supporting actors most highly. Tyler Perry is surprisingly excellent as sleazy lawyer Tanner Bolt. He's cutthroat without being too oily or unlikeable, and quite funny too. Kim Dickens is equally good as Detective Boney. Her type of character is a fixture of countless films and television series, but it still feels fresh here. Carrie Coon is also strong as Nick's twin sister Margo, presenting a very believable sibling relationship. And Neil Patrick Harris serves up something slightly sinister as Desi Collings.

I suspect that those unfamiliar with the book will be more delighted by what the movie offers. I thought it worth a B+ (though honestly, almost just a B). Still, either on the page or in the theater, Gone Girl is a story you really ought to experience. If you can't make time for the 400+ pages, the two-and-a-half hours should do nicely.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Heavy is the Head

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continued the good momentum from the season premiere, with an episode that gave the most time to characters that were a bit more on the sidelines in the opener.

Obviously, the title suggests Coulson as the primary character, and we got plenty of him. The changes in Coulson, now that he's running the new and degraded S.H.I.E.L.D., were subtle but definitely there. His trademark humor, usually right at the surface among his team, had retreated a bit now that he was no longer really part of that team. He joked more with quasi-nemesis Talbot than he did with his own people, and couldn't even really say what he wanted to Skye until she'd left the room.

But there was one person Coulson still trusts deeply, May. It's interesting progress for both their characters -- May is absolutely in no way in the dog house for "spying" on Coulson last season. Instead, May's the only one Coulson wants there for his latest investigation into "who and what have I become?"

We also got a more substantial taste of our newest main character, the aptly-named mercenary Hunter. He seems to be starting from the position of an anti-Ward, in that he should be inherently less trustworthy, though the team will be working with him all the same. (Side note: one way to increase caged Ward's longevity is to not use him every week, as they did here.) There's a lot more of Hunter still to explore now that his most significant motivation to this point -- revenge -- is taken care of. Still, I suspect the lessons of season 1 will have taken, and that the writers will develop Hunter rather more quickly than they did the original characters.

I was pleased to see a glimmer of hope for Fitz this week, and also pleased that it really wasn't much more than a glimmer. He was able to make a contribution to the cause, but it was really just remembering a past contribution to the cause. He didn't even fully command the language necessary to convey the idea, either. "I didn't solve this today," was simultaneously empowering and saddening. I had half-worried that in the crazy Marvel universe, the way Fitz might come back altered by his near-death experience might be more physical -- maybe he'd have crazy cybernetic implants now or something. I'm glad it's a very personal and internalized struggle, and one that feels very human amid all the fantastical happenings.

We also get the return of Raina, and the teasing of Kyle MacLachlan (as apparently Skye's father?). He's a fun actor, and should make a big splash on the show in the way Bill Paxton did.

I'd give this episode a B+.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

TNG Flashback: Unification I

Star Trek actor DeForest Kelley had briefly appeared as his character McCoy in the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But now, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the franchise, a plan was hatched to stage a much more elaborate crossover for an even more (equally? debate!) beloved character, Spock.

The celebrated Federation ambassador Spock has departed for Romulus without official sanction. Fearing that he may have defected, Starfleet dispatches Picard to track him down. The captain first turns to Spock's father Sarek for clues to Spock's thinking, only to find the elder Vulcan completely unraveled by disease. Still, Picard gets a lead on a Romulan senator, and secures aid from a cloaked Klingon ship to smuggle him and Data to Romulus. Meanwhile, the Enterprise has stumbled upon debris from a stolen Vulcan ship, and must determine who stole it and why.

This two-part episode -- the first on The Next Generation to occur mid-season rather than as part of a finale cliffhanger and premiere resolution -- was not the first attempt to bring Leonard Nimoy and the character of Spock onto the series. The writing staff had originally planned to begin the second season with a bang, by using the original series' time travel Macguffin, the Guardian of Forever, as a way of uniting "movie-era Spock" with a new, "Next Gen era Spock." Unfortunately, the Writers' Guild strike of 1988 brought development of the concept to a halt. Not only were we then subjected to a truly dreadful season two premiere, but the deal with Leonard Nimoy fell apart. By the time the strike was resolved, the success of the movie Three Men and a Baby had boosted Nimoy's directing career. Offers were coming in to him, and his price tag as an actor would have blown the entire budget of an episode of television. So that was that.

Until, that is, the approach of the 25th anniversary of Star Trek in 1991. There was a big push to commemorate the milestone with a "meeting of the generations." Michael Dorn appeared as Worf's ancestor in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. And Leonard Nimoy, an executive producer of the movie who was happy to have another way to promote it, agreed to complete the exchange by appearing on The Next Generation for barely more than the minimum salary allowed by the actors' union.

As interesting as the checkered story of Spock's return might be, it's really just preamble when it comes to this virtually Spock-free first episode of the two-parter. And that's the big problem with it: there's a lot of filler here. The combined two hours of Unification really only contain at best maybe an hour-and-a-half of compelling story. We don't even get the explanation of the episodes' title until the second half (notwithstanding the allusion to the "unification" of two generations of Star Trek). Instead, we get a rather dry snipe hunt to occupy those characters who stay behind on the Enterprise.

Cull that from the plot, and what remains is actually rather entertaining. We watch Picard put the screws to a weaselly Klingon adjutant. We watch an obnoxious Klingon captain try to get under the captain's skin by denying him human comforts. There's also a fun comedic scene in which Data's creepy stare makes Picard's already difficult attempt to sleep impossible.

And then there's the powerfully dramatic scene that marks the return (and final appearance) of Sarek. Mark Lenard gives a brilliant performance, showing a defeated Vulcan prone to emotion even in his more lucid moments, a senile and withering man. He can't even make his fingers form the Vulcan salute without Picard's help, nor can he complete the traditional "live long and prosper" greeting. It's a sad deterioration that too many people in the audience can probably identify with from personal experience.

Mark Lenard isn't the only interesting guest star here. Malachi Throne plays the Romulan senator Pardek, and this is not his first appearance in a two-part Star Trek episode; he played a commodore in the original series' "The Menagerie." Erick Avari, who played the same supporting role in both Stargate the movie and the television series, plays the Klingon B'iJik. And though it's hard to believe, that's Stephen Root hiding under the Klingon makeup of Captain K'Vada; Root would later make a career of playing countless schlubs, arguably none as memorable as Milton in the movie Office Space.

The script includes a few oblique references to the plot of Star Trek VI -- though nothing that would spoil it, as the film had not actually been released at the time this episode aired. It episode also includes a reference to the Star Trek animated series of the 1970s; when Sarek tells the story of how Spock used to defiantly venture into the mountains as a boy, he's recounting something shown in the episode "Yesteryear."

Putting these allusions into the script was staff writer Jeri Taylor. Originally, show runner Michael Piller had wanted to craft both episodes of the two-parter himself, but a busy schedule forced him to hand off this first half. Taylor did express disappointment at only getting to write the set-up, but got a consolation prize when Pocket Books approached the show about writing a novelization of the entire Unification event; Taylor wrote the book.

Other observations:
  • As I noted previously, "Disaster" was the last episode aired before the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The next episode, "The Game," was too soon going to be transmitted to syndicated affiliates,so there was no time to alter it. That meant that this episode, appropriately, was the series' first chance to acknowledge his passing. Both halves of "Unification" begin with a card memorializing the Great Bird of the Galaxy.
  • There are a lot of verbal gymnastics here just to avoid inventing any Romulan words. Data's references to "the third day of the week" and "the median hour" are conspicuously awkward.
  • Brent Spiner looks really different as a Romulan.
  • Composer Dennis McCarthy was nominated for an Emmy award for his score of this episode. (Though I must say that personally, I didn't think it stood out.)
There's some good comedy here, and the phenomenal scene with Sarek. But generally, this episode is really just marking time until the appearance of Spock. I give it a B-.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Selina Kyle

I'm trailing behind a bit this week in TV -- a likely sign that I'm DVR-ing too many shows. In the competition not to be cut from that list, Gotham is hanging in there. For the moment. The second episode, compared to the first, was in some ways better and in some ways worse.

On the better side, things were generally more focused than they were in the first episode. The parade of Batman universe faces was still in effect, but to a more restrained degree. The girl who would be Poison Ivy, for example, didn't make an appearance. And the quick pop-up appearances from the likes of the future Riddler were much more brief, and didn't interrupt the flow of the action so conspicuously.

Instead, the episode focused on (as always, Jim Gordon, and) young Selina Kyle. Her storyline felt a bit miscast to me -- I've seen guest star Lili Taylor in a wide number of roles, and none of them helped me accept her as a jovial child snatcher. But Kyle herself was fleshed out a bit, proving to be a relatively interesting character to have in the mix. Certainly more so than Bruce Wayne. It seems the answer to my "how are they going to use him every episode?" question from last week is: "he's going to have a rather pointless 'working to become Batman' subplot every week." No surprise, I suppose, but rather unnecessary, narratively speaking, to the adventures of Jim Gordon.

On the not so good side, though the episode focused more on Gordon, his partner, and their detective adventures in a corrupt city... that adventure was a tired cliche from beginning to end. It was a soup of hard-boiled film noir conventions, served ice cold. We get it already, Gordon isn't going to "get with the program," "play by the rules," "blah blah blah." Ultimately, because the show is primarily about him, if the show doesn't snap out of these cliches really quick, my interest in it will probably be over as soon as they're done exploring all the minor side characters they've set up.

So I suppose that means I'm willing to give them another three or four episodes, depending. Truly, overall, this episode wasn't actually "bad," but TV (hell, CBS alone) offers multiple flavors of cliche cop show, if that alone was what I was looking for here. The clock's ticking, Gotham. I give the second episode a B-.