Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Short Review

Last night, I went to see The Big Short -- the potential Oscar contender about the mortgage crisis that almost collapsed the world economy in 2008. Interestingly, it's directed by Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman and its sequel. That speaks a lot about the tone of the film; though it's far from an outright comedy, there's a lot of humor in it, and long stretches of the movie are surprisingly light in tone.

This is all part of a clever script (by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis) that understands the need for this film to be light. For starters, though it's the real story about how millions of lives were ruined as people lost their homes, jobs, and retirement plans, it's specifically about a number of investors who knew it was coming and bet money that it would happen. The only way to keep the actual horror/disgust of it all at arm's distance, the only way to make the characters remotely sympathetic, was to make it rather funny.

The second smart move is to have the film break the fourth wall a lot. Multiple characters speak directly to the audience all throughout the movie, and it even opens with a narration directly into camera. When boring, inscrutable banking terminology comes along, a character throws it over to a celebrity cameo to explain it. This all has the combined effect of keeping reality at a playful remove until the carefully chosen moments when it's meant to be examined more closely.

Mostly, those moments come through the character of Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell. Cementing his status as a dramatic actor (begun in Foxcatcher), Carell stands out as a real star in this ensemble cast. His character is driven by an unresolved rage and sadness that's constantly leaking out in tiny bursts. It's a well modulated and realistic performance that anchors the overall playfulness of the movie and lends it the moments of gravitas it needs. And no, two years ago, you would never have thought Carell to be be the serious one among this ensemble.

Another standout is Ryan Gosling, who plays a perfectly smarmy investor -- and is responsible for most of the narrations and asides to the audience. He's the closest thing this story has to a villain, but he's a weirdly likable and funny one. But even if Carell and Gosling draw the most attention, it's not like there isn't plenty of good acting throughout this cast. Christian Bale vanishes into another meticulously sculpted character, Brad Pitt is tightly restrained, Max Greenfield oozes the sort of punchability he's made his signature, and Marissa Tomei and Karen Gillan both make the most of two small appearances. You may well also recognize Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, and more. It's a rock solid ensemble.

The Big Short is certainly worth seeing, and I expect its chances of scoring a Best Picture nomination are pretty good. That said, my enthusiasm is a touch restrained. I'd give it a B+ overall; it wouldn't be my pick to actually take home the Oscar.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Be a Good Chap, Won't You?

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp made a big splash with his debut film, District 9. He then made the critics remark that "hey, every director misfires once in a while" when he followed up with the forgettable Elysium. I've now caught up with his third movie, Chappie. In my view, the downhill slide continues. (Not that I thought it actually started from as high a point as many seem to think.)

Chappie is the story of a police robot in a not-too-distant-future South Africa, who is experimented on by an idealistic programmer after being marked for the scrap heap. The programmer has cracked the problem of artificial intelligence, and "Chappie" is the result. But the robot is immediately taken by a gang of criminals, who begin to raise the young intelligence and warp it according to their values. What sort of person will Chappie turn out to be?

There are a number of problems plaguing this movie, but the biggest one is character. The only one with any logic or consistency is the title character, the artificial intelligence. Nobody else's behavior makes any sense whatsoever. A programmer who should be moving heaven and earth to protect his creation of a lifetime (perhaps the biggest breakthrough of all humanity) seems almost ambivalent to leave it in the hands of criminals and work the problem in his spare time away from his job. The criminals who have a death threat and a massive debt hanging over the heads seem to forget all about that when they have a cool new robot to play with. And even though the robot is the clear answer to their problems, they actually abandon it at one point -- to toughen it up or something.

Bad characters begets bad acting, and there's plenty of that in Chappie too. Hugh Jackman plays an ambitious rival programmer with a mullet and a pair of Crocodile Hunter shorts. He's too cartoonish and one dimensional to amount to much -- yet not cartoonish enough to serve his function as the "Dick Jones" character pushing the "ED-209" in a subplot ripped straight from RoboCop. Sigourney Weaver is here too, but in a boring, glorified cameo. Either she's "collecting directors" with this appearance, or Blomkamp has dirt on her. Dev Patel can't make sense of his non-sensical character, who is neither paternal enough to be a father figure to Chappie nor obsessed enough to be the genius who could have created him. And the various South African hip-hop artists who round out the gang -- well, they're not actors, and it shows.

The one good performance -- indeed, the one saving grace of the movie -- is Blomkamp's regular on-screen collaborator, actor Sharlto Copley. Here, he provides the voice and animation reference for Chappie. He perfectly captures the "man-child" aspect of the newborn AI, brain working at a mile a minute. He's fast-talking, desperate for guidance and affection, deep-thinking but inarticulate. It's an absolutely on-point performance that's frankly wasted in this scattershot story.

At this point, I'll approach Neill Blomkamp's next project with great skepticism. I know some fans were disappointed to hear that his prospective Alien sequel had been benched in favor of Ridley Scott's planned Prometheus sequel. Me, I'd rather have another Prometheus than another Chappie. (Particularly when Ridley Scott has so recently reminded us that he's also capable of making some excellent movies too.) I give Chappie a D+. Straight to the junkyard with it/him.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

You Probably Don't Need "We Don't Need Roads"

I'm the sort of person who likes "behind the scenes" looks at movies. And, of course, I love Back to the Future (a fact well documented here on the blog). So naturally, I'd be interested in a book that sits squarely at the intersection of those two things, We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy.

The tricky thing is, most of the behind the scenes stories involving Back to the Future have been told, re-told, and told a few more times over the years. Any true fan knows that Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty McFly; that Crispin Glover's great performance as George McFly came with on-set diva antics that ultimately saw him dropped from the sequels; that a dry interview response by Robert Zemeckis convinced thousands of people that hoverboards were real; and so on. That this is well traveled ground is a fact that the book's author, Caseen Gaines, acknowledges in his introduction. Nevertheless, he hopes that his detailed interviews with most of the cast and crew behind the trilogy will lead to an authoritative collection of memories.

Well, the book is certainly complete. All those familiar stories and more are covered, with multiple viewpoints offered by different people involved. But the book isn't exactly essential. There's very little that's new. (One of the few stories I didn't know involved a near-fatal accident shooting the hoverboard sequence in Part II. But that section itself was published in a web site article promoting this very book. So even that I'd heard about before reading it.) Plus, the final chapter is little more than a virtual parade of various licensed products made for the film over the years -- almost more advertisement than exposé.

You can tell that Gaines loves this subject as much as his readers. You can appreciate all the time that writer-producer Bob Gale gave him, expressed in numerous quotes and recollections peppered all throughout the book. I did gobble it up very quickly, and I found myself enjoying it -- but I couldn't help but feel that much of that joy came from my love of the films, more so than the book itself.

I'd give We Don't Need Roads a B-. As far as a recommendation goes, the sweet spot here really would be a moderate fan of the series who's into movie making. A megafan isn't going to be impressed. A casual fan isn't going to be interested at all.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Now Museum, Now You Don't

A few months back, I blogged about working my way through the Night at the Museum movies. I actually finished that little "project" a while ago, watching the third installment, Secret of the Tomb. Noting my thoughts here managed to slip through the cracks, though.

Secret of the Tomb marked a bit of a course correction from the second movie, Battle of the Smithsonian. Where the lovable side characters of the first movie sat out too much of the first sequel, this final installment puts the old gang back front and center as they all travel to London. Also in focus is the life-instilling tablet Macguffin that started it all; its magic may die forever if the characters can't find a way to restore it.

That's not to say that there's nothing new at play in Secret of the Tomb. In fact, some of the new additions yield some of the movie's best laughs. Blowhard Sir Lancelot, played by Dan Stevens, is a funny new presence in the mix. There's a hilarious cameo appearance by Hugh Jackman (alongside Alice Eve). Rebel Wilson is doing her shtick as a night security guard at the British Museum. (Though some people really seem to hate her.) And while I wasn't quite loving the dual-casting of star Ben Stiller as a new Neanderthal character named Laaa, the visual effects used to put him in scenes with himself are pretty seamless.

But while the jokes do work rather well, the surprising thing is how poignant this final Museum film ends up being. No doubt the deaths of Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney after filming these roles plays into that, but regardless, there's a lot of emotion in this story. The plot touches on growing up, moving on, and making sacrifices for others. I mean, it's not a dramatic masterpiece, but it's more deep than the average family-friendly fun fest tends to mine.

All told, I'd say Secret of the Tomb merits a B+... which actually puts the series as a whole in a good place. While none of the Night at the Museum films are truly top shelf, there is a quite consistent level of above average entertainment there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Room-inations

A few months ago, I blogged about the book Room by Emma Donoghue. It's the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life as a captive with his mother in a tiny room, which he think represents all of existence. Now that book has been made into a movie, a movie that is likely to figure into the coming Oscar race.

Although the movie script was written by the book's author and follows the major plot points quite closely, Room the movie is actually a quite different experience from Room the novel. The book is written entirely from Jack's point of view, in a display of great ingenuity by Emma Donoghue. The story is powerful and moving, but is simultaneously at a bit of an emotional remove because it's filtered through a five-year-old's perspective.

The movie does honor the spirit of this approach. Jack is in every scene; there's only a brief two or three seconds (at a pivotal moment) that he's not actually there to witness. He also occasionally jumps in as narrator, telling the audience what he thinks of the larger world he's now learning about. Still, we're seeing this story through a camera, not Jack's eyes, and the tone shifts as a result. Room the movie is much more brutal and visceral, making you identify much more with the emotions of Jack's mother Joy. The movie makes the audience confront the horrible reality of the situation more than the book does the reader.

Casting was absolutely essential in pulling off this story, and the movie nailed it. Brie Larson plays Joy, and is being talked about as not only a sure nominee for the Best Actress Oscar, but the likely front runner for the win. It's not just talk. Her performance is raw and sympathetic. Then there's Jacob Tremblay as Jack. About once a decade, along comes a movie with a newly discovered child actor who makes it all work. (Think The Sixth Sense.) Jacob Tremblay is that young actor for this decade. He's perfectly natural throughout the film, despite the story's incredible circumstances. He too would make a worthy Oscar nominee (though it's often the director of a film responsible for a good child performance; so kudos here to Lenny Abrahamson).

A slight spoiler here in this paragraph... (last chance!)... but there are other characters in the movie. Of particular note are Joan Allen and William H. Macy as Joy's parents. Allen is heartbreaking in a substantial role in the last half of the movie, while Macy is excellent in just a handful of scenes, consumed by guilt and anger in ways that the script doesn't explicitly spell out to the audience.

Forced to choose between the two, I'd probably choose the book over the film by just a little bit. But both are worthy experiences. I give Room an A-, and I hope it does indeed do well in the Oscar hunt.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sharp Criticism

Though I didn't intend it at the outset, I've been reading author Gillian Flynn's novels in reverse order. First, I read her breakout hit Gone Girl, and then her second book, Dark Places. Most recently, I finished her debut novel, Sharp Objects.

Sharp Objects follows a journalist named Camille Preaker. After a history of self-harm, she has marginally put her life back on track... until her editor sends her back to her home town to cover the investigation of a serial child murderer. Contact with an overbearing mother and a rebellious younger half-sister, combined with the grisly murders themselves, begins to unravel her precariously balanced normalcy.

Gillian Flynn certainly has a recipe for her books. She's almost a female Chuck Palahniuk, writing about messed up protagonists with dark back stories. And while she proves a decent writer even here in her first effort, you can definitely see that this is a recipe that had to be improved before she arrived at Gone Girl. Dark Places was not as polished, and Sharp Objects is yet another step back, rougher around the edges.

Flynn is at her best in portraying her central character. You're always inside her head, and it always feels natural. If you're lucky, you don't know anyone like Camille, but the protagonist still feels like a real person. Not "relatable," entirely (as she isn't meant to be), but real.

Where Flynn stumbles a bit is in the unveiling of her mystery. With a murderer at the core of the plot, "whodunnit?" is of course the natural question to ask. And much of what's going on isn't hard to suss out long before Camille does. There's a bit of a turn thrown in near the end, as though Flynn recognized a need to complicate the story a bit, but it doesn't unfold as naturally as the main character's own tortured thoughts.

Overall, I'd give Sharp Objects a B-. If you've read Gone Girl and/or Dark Places and enjoyed them, you'll probably find this a pleasant but mild diversion. But this isn't the book to sell you on Gillian Flynn if you haven't read her before.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Potent Force

Everybody's talking about it; now it's my turn. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Actually, it seems to me that most everybody is gushing about it, with enthusiastic praise. My own reaction was muted by comparison. I certainly enjoyed the movie, and if there were a single person in the entire world actually waiting on my recommendation, I would give it. But I would generally call the movie "very good," not great.

There were great things about it. The new heroes are all wonderful, already as compelling and well-rounded as anyone in the Star Wars universe. Finn is one of the most real people the franchise has ever had -- definitely driven by a strong moral compass, but having to work to be heroic, against a lifetime of conditioning and a sharp self-preservation instinct. Poe Dameron is an inspirational and capable swashbuckler, a great blend of some of the best elements of classic Luke, Han, and even Obi-Wan Kenobi. And without a single line of dialogue the audience can understand, BB-8 is made as loyal as they come. Then there's Rey. It may be something like sacrilege to say this, but move over Leia -- I think the franchise may have a new most compelling female character. Rey is strong and capable in many ways that don't rely on the normal Hollywood techniques of showing a "strong, capable woman."

I was almost as intrigued by villain Kylo Ren. He's been created with the kind of moral turmoil that took George Lucas six movies to retrofit into Darth Vader (first in Return of the Jedi, and then later in the prequels). If Kylo Ren seems less villainous than Vader at times, that's very much the point of the character. If he seems to be overcompensating in his villainy at other times, that too is the point. I might quibble a bit with the multiple never-before-seen Dark Side powers he possesses, but at least it's in service of an interesting character.

It's appropriate that all these great characters are realized by the best cast ever assembled in the Star Wars saga. That goes not only for John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver -- who play the characters I mentioned above -- but for smaller new roles as well: Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Gwendolyn Christie. And it absolutely goes for the classic returning cast members from the original trilogy, doing some of their best work for Star Wars.

This is also by far the most visually impressive Star Wars movie. Director J.J. Abrams fills the screen with spectacle as George Lucas tried to do in the prequels, but his choices feel more natural and realistic. Things are put on screen to elicit an emotional response, not simply to engage (and quickly exhaust) the eyes. This feels like Star Wars because the universe feels lived in, not merely projected onto a green screen background.

Also very organic, the dialogue and the action. Lots of characters get moments to be funny -- which hasn't happened in a Star Wars movie since 1983, and then only really for Han Solo. And the action sequences always spring from natural story turns, unlike the prequels that awkwardly shoehorned them in just because so many minutes had elapsed since the last action sequence.

But...

All these wonderful ingredients are serving a story not entirely up to their potential. A lot of plot elements are lifted from the original trilogy, and from Star Wars in particular. At first, it's fun and familiar. An homage. But when things start happening for the third time in just seven movies, familiarity breeds a touch of contempt.

Plus, this is the most open-ended Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Every aspect of the final act is calibrated in a way that leaves you painfully aware that Episode VIII is coming to a theater near you in 2017. Indeed, I'm baffled that J.J. Abrams has elected not to return for the next installment, as he didn't really tell a complete story here. (In particular, given some of the comments he's given about the story he did want to tell, he didn't even scratch the surface.)

And as much as I praised the acting above, there is a different "performer" who barely even bothered to show up. This is composer John Williams' most lackluster score in a decade, a bland backdrop that barely grabs your attention even when it's referencing the famous Star Wars melodies of the original trilogy. As for new melodies? If he wrote any at all for this movie, they were utterly forgettable. I never would have imagined I wouldn't buy the soundtrack album for a Star Wars movie, but that's where I am now. If I picked it up, it would only be to confirm that I somehow didn't overlook something.

So... you might now have the impression that the list of things I liked about the movie was considerably longer than the list of things I didn't. Why then am I a bit tepid in my response compared to so many longtime Star Wars fans who are proudly proclaiming that Star Wars is "back?" Well, I have a theory about that. It all comes down to who was your favorite character from the classic trilogy.

In my experience both with friends and with fans I've met while working on Star Wars trading card games, most people love Han Solo. He's the favorite character by a wide margin, more than everyone else combined. And it seems to me that if you love Han Solo, then you love The Force Awakens. There's not a thing wrong with that; it's a great movie for his character, and the best movie Harrison Ford has been in for at least a decade.

But if your favorite Star Wars character is basically anyone else, there's not as much for you in The Force Awakens to take you back to where it all began. You can enjoy the new (and I did), but you're not getting the same classic rush as all the Han fans. For me, the favorite was always Luke. Those of you who have seen The Force Awakens will understand why my reaction is less effusive.

Still, a fun and enjoyable movie overall. And clearly made by someone with a better grasp of what makes Star Wars fun and enjoyable than its creator George Lucas displayed in the prequel trilogy. I give The Force Awakens a B+.

Friday, December 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Inheritance

At the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation, if you'd looked at the array of main characters, you probably wouldn't have guessed that the one who eventually would have the biggest family would be Data. But that's exactly what happened. After meeting his brother, grandfather, daughter, and father, "Inheritance" introduced us to his mother.

The Enterprise is trying to help the people of Atrea IV stabilize the rapidly cooling core of their planet, with the help of two of its foremost scientists: Pran and Juliana Tainer. Juliana is human, and as it happens, the former wife of Data's creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. As everyone works on the problem of the planet, Data wrestles with the discovery of an early "childhood" and a mother -- all of which was erased from his memory. Plus, Juliana is hiding a surprising secret.

The original pitch for this episode came from outside writer Dan Koeppel, but it was ultimately heading to the scrap pile when staff writer René Echevarria made it something of a personal mission to save the idea. Feeling that there was interesting material to explore here, he undertook a rewrite that greatly increased the emotional heft and drama in the story. His efforts yielded a workable script.

Still, there's a fair amount of impersonal material even in the finished episode. Right from the teaser, you're hit with the very technobabbly problems of Atrea IV, and the very technobabbly means proposed for saving the planet. And though the teaser ends with the more dramatic revelation of Data's mother, most of the first act isn't getting to the emotional meat of that idea either. Instead, a lot of time is devoted to explaining how Data could have had a mother (and Soong a wife) without any of us (characters or audience) ever knowing it. So really, about half of "Inheritance" is technobabble or retconning, and the pace suffers for it.

That said, the other half of the episode -- the stuff Echevarria focused on in his rewrite -- is generally pretty good. First, there's a lot deft and fitting fan service. We get multiple mentions of Data's daughter Lal. Brent Spiner once again gets to play Dr. Soong (this time aged somewhere between his appearance in "Birthright, Part I" and his appearance in "Brothers"). There are also fun moments playing stereotypical mother/son scenes using the creator/creation relationship -- mom telling embarrassing stories about the kid running around naked as a child, son thinking his mother is exaggerating his accomplishments, and so on.

But the best moment, the scene that truly saves the episode, is the choice that Data must ultimately make. The revelation that Juliana Tainer is actually an android seems like it's going to be purely for shock value, until Data discusses his options with Picard, Troi, and Crusher. The very poignant resolution is that Data chooses to carry on alone in the universe, so that his mother can keep living the life he's always wanted for himself -- life as a human. Once again, the series uses its emotionless character to stir grand emotions in the audience.

Other observations:
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven has a number of deleted scenes (and lines within scenes) from this episode. Juliana has a fun anecdote that speaks to Noonien Soong's quirky nature: he was determined to perfect an algorithm for giving Data hiccups. The episode's scene outside Troi's quarters is followed by the logical scene with Troi you would have expected. And, fleshing out the slim plot thread of Juliana's husband Pran expressing a distrust of androids, he actually welcomes Data to his "family" after attending the concert in Ten Forward.
  • Speaking of Pran's initial anti-android prejudice, he expresses it in a rather odd way early in the episode, asking Riker if someone should double-check Data's calculations. Doubting a computer's ability to compute? Would you ask for a slide rule to double-check the results of a calculator?
  • Data behaves a bit oddly in this episode too. Having decided that his mother is probably an android, he's uncertain enough to seek verification from Dr. Crusher. Yet when she refutes his theory by declaring Tainer to be a normal human being, he somehow becomes more certain, and a short time later shoves his mother off a 30-foot cliff.
"Inheritance" is an uneven episode, with a lot of dead weight in an uninteresting science plot. But it has enough other good scenes -- particularly a very touching decision for Data -- to be worthwhile overall. I give it a B-.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Return to the End

I've reached Return of the Jedi. The end of the road, for about another 36 hours. Jedi is certainly the weakest of the original three Star Wars films, though that's in large measure because it has to stack up to two of the best movies ever made. On the grand spectrum, it's still pretty solid.

Return of the Jedi definitely tries to weave in elements of the two movies that preceded it. Sometimes, this is a solid asset. There's Luke and Leia, swinging on a rope across a chasm like in the original. There's the reversal of Empire's great "I love you / I know" moment, as Leia comes out shooting even while injured. But occasionally this feels like a drawback. Another Death Star? Been there, done that.

Certainly, the movie keeps a great emphasis on character, where it belongs. As in Star Wars, everyone gets at least one moment to be a hero -- even C-3PO in communicating with the Ewoks, and Chewbacca commandeering the Walker that turns the tide of the Endor battle. There are a lot of great entrances too. There's Vader's grand arrival in the opening (which then gets completely upstaged by the Emperor's arrival at the start of the second act). Han returns in flashy style, immediately followed by the reveal of Leia. Luke marches in with swagger.

Many subtle nuances speak to this importance of character. The Yoda puppet was deliberately not repaired when brought out of storage, its unsynced eyes fitting for the Jedi Master's failing health. Alec Guinness, who shot his Empire scenes alone on a blue screen, was actually on the Dagobah set with Mark Hamill this time around -- it was too important in that scene for him to have another actor to connect with. Han and Lando share plenty of banter, so the audience is clear that all is forgiven after the latter's betrayal in Empire.

Speaking of Empire, there are a lot of cliffhangers to resolve from that movie, which actually leads to some structural weirdness in Jedi's script. The whole first act is about saving Han -- though at least Jabba the Hutt had been talked about in both prior movies, so it feels like the payoff to a long setup. Luke needs to go back to Yoda, but we don't need another long training subplot, so Yoda is (in)conveniently dying just as Luke finds him. But things do smooth out once we're all on board the "take out the Emperor" train.

But there were some prequel-caliber dumb decisions being made in this movie too. Remind me again why Boba Fett is a thing? He's absolutely useless here, getting shot by a blind man before rocketing straight into the Sarlaac. Why is the Emperor so bad at coercion? Every time he's about to get what he wants and have Luke come to the Dark Side, he opens his fat mouth and wakes Luke up to what he's about to do.

Watching Jedi hot on the heels of Revenge of the Sith does affect the experience in interesting ways. CG doesn't necessarily seem like an inherent evil. Jabba works well, a slob so fat he can hardly move. But Wicket is the only expressive Ewok (his eyes blink, and you can see his tongue move); the others all are clearly guys in teddy bear suits.

It further heightens the sense of what disservice was done to the character of Padme in Sith when you see everything going on here in Jedi with Leia. Leia is the one who gets Han out of carbon freeze, who takes out Jabba, leads the speeder bike chase, and is first to make friends with the Ewoks. She's an essential actor in this story, unlike pregnant Padme, just along for the ride.

Having just watched Sith, Vader initially seems less scary as this movie begins. You picture whiny Hayden Christensen inside the suit. Fortunately, this is the movie where Luke himself is unafraid of Vader, so ultimately that settles in and kind of works. But the big surprise reveal of the Emperor's lightning powers is totally undermined if you've seen the same ability in two of the prequels.

As far as George Lucas' Special Edition treatment goes, Jedi really does have the most baffling changes. Why add the extended rock number in Jabba's palace? The "feed me, Seymour" mouth on the Sarlaac? Vader bellowing "NOOOOOOOOOOOO" before tossing the Emperor over the rail?

The worst alteration of all is replacing actor Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen in the final shot, which seems to take Vader's conversion a step beyond atonement and into total erasure of all wrongdoing. The one tweak that sort of works is the depiction of celebrations on other planets in the Star Wars universe.

Return of the Jedi has its flaws, but it's ultimately a fun ride. I give it a B+.

And now, having rewatched all six, I hope I'm properly set up for The Force Awakens. I think it's been valuable, even watching the prequels, in calibrating my expectations. Originally, The Phantom Menace had to be "the movie that took me back to my childhood." It could never be that. Then the next two prequels had to be "the movie that saved Star Wars." They could never have been that. Now, I hope I'm looking at Star Wars like James Bond, or some other franchise. Some movies will be great, some will be terrible. You hope the next one you're seeing will at least be decent. But it's not like I was expecting the world when I went to see Spectre. Hopefully, that's the right approach for this weekend.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Stepping Into the Spotlight

The Oscar nominations won't be announced until mid-January, but many people are already attempting to predict the Best Picture nominees -- with this year featuring considerably more uncertainty and disagreement than usual. The one film everyone seems to regard as a sure nomination is Spotlight (even though many are reluctant to proclaim it the front runner for the award itself).

Spotlight is the true story of the news reporters for the Boston Globe who worked throughout 2001 to uncover the epidemic of child abuse committed by priests within the Catholic Church. Some have called the movie an All the President's Men for the modern age, in that it's more a film about the power of investigative journalism than it is about the specific scandal being investigated. (Some also suggest that for this reason, the movie is more adored by critics -- journalists -- than it will be by the Academy's voting body, hence why it hasn't already got Best Picture all sewn up.)

In any case, the movie is a powerful viewing experience. But for the most part, it's not loaded with the showy histrionics that often mark the typical Best Picture. The cast is top notch, featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and more. But it's all very subtle and restrained, grounded acting. Ruffalo gets one scene where he really cuts loose and burns the figurative store down, but otherwise the actors are conveying their emotions through stunned silences, small head shakes, and tiny eye movements.

The actors who do actually land the movie's biggest emotional punches are a procession of incredibly well cast, hard-working actors who each get just a few minutes on film. The script, by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy, creates powerful scenes for several performers who portray adults wrestling with the consequences of past abuse. Every one of these hits home. In one, a character powerfully expresses the spiritual component to the abuse, beyond the obvious physical abuse. In another, a man notes that when he was struggling to come to terms with being gay, validation from a priest seemed at first to be a sort of life raft. There are but a couple of the movie's impactful scenes; I won't spoil more in continuing to detail them.

Perhaps the movie's biggest emotional punch comes right before the end credits roll, when the audience is very effectively reminded that this is a real world story. On screen text lists all the major cities in which large scale abuse was covered up by the Catholic Church -- the list is both haunting and infuriating in its length.

Overall, Spotlight doesn't necessarily feel to me like a movie that makes you sit up and take notice. Nevertheless, it does take you on a journey and leave you wrung out at the end. I give it an A-. It might not necessarily be my Best Picture pick of the year, but it's certainly worthy of being in the hunt.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Revenge of the Prequels

Until now, Revenge of the Sith was the one Star Wars movie I'd seen only once, having watched it in the theater on opening weekend and then never since. I wondered if my opinion on it would change much after a decade, but I still felt generally the same about the movie: I'd personally call it the best of the prequel trilogy, though not by much. It's certainly not without its problems.

One of the biggest issues with Revenge of the Sith is that it has to line up with Star Wars. As the film builds to its conclusion, it becomes increasingly predictable; it has to end a certain way. Though a few elements do still work despite the knowledge of predestination, more of them don't. The Yoda/Palpatine fight is actually rather dry (definitely distracting from the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel) because the stakes aren't personal and we know neither of them is going to win or lose. It's ludicrous that Vader would never think to check in on his family on Tatooine... but he didn't, so of course Luke ends up safe there. Padme somehow doesn't know she's having twins until the last second, simply because Vader will later not know that either. It apparently took around 20 years to build the first Death Star, even though it took around two to build the second. Threepio ends up mind wiped to preserve continuity (though why doesn't Artoo as well?).

Revenge of the Sith is also pretty terrible from a feminist point of view. Padme doesn't really do anything in this movie (unlike the two preceding it). Her job in the Senate doesn't seem to amount to much anymore, and she's not part of the action; she exists only to amp Anakin's angst. And despite being in perfect health (according to a medical droid), she just "loses her will to live," having served her function in the plot. But at least she gets to speak! The couple of female Jedi we see during the Order 66 sequence don't have any dialogue. Nor do they put up any fraction of the resistance their male counterparts do.

The dialogue descends to the prequels' most painfully bad in a number of scenes. Almost every exchange between Anakin and Padme is stilted and awkward. The killing of "younglings" feels like an abstract whitewashing of the horror of Anakin's wholesale slaughter. Obi-Wan's scathing accusation that "only a Sith deals in absolutes" is itself an absolute.

There are some tortured twists in the plotting. There's a wholly unnecessary trip to Kashyyyk just to show us some Wookiees, I guess. Then there's the big contortion. Anakin needs to kill be the one to kill Count Dooku to begin his fall in earnest... but he has to be on Coruscant for the beginning of the final act. So Dooku is dispatched early (why even have him survive the last movie?). Yet without Dooku, Obi-Wan needs a reason to be off-world and not on Coruscant, so General Grievous is created as an interrim villain -- and is presumably made a wheezing robot just for parallels to how Vader ends up. Or something.

All these problems, and I'm still proclaiming this movie better than The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones? Well, the thing is, Revenge of the Sith does at least get the drama right sometimes. The Obi-Wan/Anakin confrontation at the end of the film was almost 30 years in the making, and is fed by all the emotion of everything we've seen since Star Wars. (The Clone Wars cartoon series would later come along to feed even more of a sense of loss into this moment, by showing so much of Anakin and Obi-Wan together.) The stakes of this duel feel high and personal. And the final moment, when Obi-Wan must watch Anakin burn and then walk away, is the moment that most truly captures the darkness this whole Anakin-to-Vader story line should exemplify.

The dialogue of this movie might be bad, but the acting is really the best of the prequels. Ewan McGregor does a fantastic job of conveying Obi-Wan's anguish. Frank Oz lands some poignant moments voicing Yoda. And Ian McDiarmid is pretty great as Palpatine. The "opera" scene, in which he recounts the story of Darth Plagueis, is (I believe) the longest single scene of dialogue in the entire Star Wars saga, and he really does make you hang on every word. He believably sets his claws in Anakin, and totally conveys the subtext that he himself was the apprentice in the story that killed Plagueis. Alright, so later in the Mace Windu confrontation and the "naming of Vader" scene, McDiarmid is practically unhinged. But I frankly prefer that he just go completely over the top like that. It's a breath of fresh air after the rest of the prequels were so routinely under the top.

The action sequences are generally quite good too. The Phantom Menace might have had the lightsaber duel with the flashiest technique, but this Obi-Wan/Anakin duel feels the most brutal and visceral of the entire saga. The opening space battle to board the enemy ship has a massive backdrop, a great pace, and some fun character beats. (It also feeds directly into more good lightsaber action once they get on board the ship.) We also get of taste of Yoda fighting the way he should fight (hurling people into walls, rather than whipping out a lightsaber).

But the movie as a whole? For every cool moment (Vader draws his first mechanized "breath"), there's an equally uncool moment (moments later, he pitifully screams "NOOOOOOOOO!"). Many of the dark moments (Anakin shows up to slaughter children) are undermined by unintended humor (the kid Jedi who talks to him has a "please sir, I want some more" accent). Cool visual ideas (lava planet) are compromised by lack of logic (apparently, they must rebuild that factory on a regular basis, because lava starts melting it apart halfway through the duel).

And so I'd call Revenge of the Sith a straight-up-the-middle C. If it weren't burdened with existing in the Star Wars universe, I'd wager no one would even remember it today -- it probably would be forgotten like so many other summer action blockbusters with two or three good moments awash in a sea of stupidity.

Now I'm left with just a few days to get back to Return of the Jedi and finish this thing right!

Friday, December 11, 2015

What I Thought of It

Since it ran in theaters earlier this year, I've been hearing a lot about the movie It Follows. It was an exceedingly rare example of a horror movie critics were showering with praise. It was an equally rare example of a horror movie which two particular friends of mine (who love -- or at least find some good in -- almost all horror) proclaimed a big pile of crap. I found that I just had to know what had provoked these atypical reactions.

It Follows is a riff on the horror movie cliche (articulated in Scream) that "sex kills." A young college student named Jay decides to sleep with her new boyfriend Hugh. Afterward, he informs her that doing this has passed a curse onto her. She will be pursued by a supernatural entity that only she can see. It can alter appearance to look like any person, friend or stranger. It is always moving toward her, but always at a slow and steady pace. If it ever catches her, it will kill her. The only way to be rid of the creature is to pass it on to a new victim.

In my opinion, It Follows resides somewhere between the extreme reviews I mentioned above. It's neither the most amazing horror movie to come along in years, nor a catastrophe. It is a bit of a throwback to 70s and 80s horror, more reliant on psychological thrills than blood and gore. That part, I quite enjoyed. The movie embraces this "classic" quality in a number of ways, unfolding at a slow pace (much like the original Halloween), and even setting up the world as weirdly divorced from a specific time frame -- characters have cell phones, but watch 4:3 tube televisions; they drive beat-up old cars through old neighborhoods, but wear less dated fashions.

Yet the idea of a slow burn is more interesting than its actual execution here. The pace is downright glacial at times, to a point where some audience members (my friends) will question whether this supernatural curse is in fact rather manageable. And the acting is pretty scattershot, even from the same performer in different scenes. You usually believe when people are terrified, but not always when they have simple conversations with each other.

My theory on the ultimate "lukewarmness" of this movie is that the part that most interested the filmmaker is not the part that most people latched on to. According to writer/director David Robert Mitchell, this story was inspired by a childhood fear of being followed everywhere he went. (And indeed, the moments where you see the creature actually approaching are when the movie is at its best.) The "transmission by sex" aspect, which critics latched onto as evidence of the movie's clever, allegorical agenda, was in fact an afterthought in the story's creation. Mitchell wanted a means to transfer his curse between people, and this is what he came up with. (And it's not like the movie has anything remotely profound to say about sex; the only reasonable message you could infer is "don't ever have sex, ever," which isn't worth trumpeting even if it was intended.)

If you're a fan of horror, The House of the Devil is a far better example of a good modern horror movie with retro sensibilities. If you're not a fan of horror, then you probably shouldn't waste your time with either. I give It Follows a B-.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

TNG Flashback: Force of Nature

Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode "Force of Nature" went through a long development process. Unfortunately, the finished product suggests that process wasn't nearly long enough.

The Enterprise is attempting to locate a missing medical ship when two Hekarans disable the ship's engines and demand a meeting to present scientific research. They claim that warp travel in this region is eroding the very fabric of space and threatening the climate of their homeworld. Though the Enterprise crew -- and Geordi LaForge in particular -- are initially skeptical, evidence soon emerges that the "environmental damage" caused by warp travel may not just be a local phenomenon.

Staff writer Naren Shankar first pitched this story idea for the sixth season episode that became "Suspicions." Early in season seven, after he and fellow writer Brannon Braga met with an environmental watchdog group, he came back inspired and resurrected the idea under the working title "Limits." In principle, it's a great idea that's quintessential Star Trek: examining a real world issue (in this case, fossil fuel use and climate change) through a science fiction allegory. But that noble idea faced a number of problems.

At first, the episode was conceived as a semi-sequel to "Interface." Geordi's sister was to come aboard to help him deal with the death of his mother, and he'd then be hit with a double whammy by having his faith in technology shaken too. The draft wasn't working, and Shankar wanted to take another crack at it. Instead, with an empty filming slot fast approaching, he was persuaded to instead swap the sister subplot for a personality conflict with another crew member. That fell apart too, and now the deadline was really looming.

The episode was too short to run without a subplot, but there wasn't any time left to come up with one. Thus was born a series of scenes about Geordi in an "engine optimization contest" with another ship's engineer, and Data attempting to train his cat Spot. The engine material at least has minor thematic resonance with the main storyline, depicting the pride Geordi takes in his warp engines. The cat stuff? Shankar, who readily admitted this episode was "not one of my finer moments," half-heartedly suggested that the connection between the eco-disaster story and the Spot scenes "is the notion that you can't control a force of nature like a cat." Riiiiight.

Indeed, none of the series writers were happy with the finished product. Everyone noted that the story didn't even really get going until the beginning of Act Three. (The summary I wrote above begins at that point.) Showrunner Jeri Taylor thought that while Shankar did his best, the premise was "doomed" from the start due to the difficulty in adding emotional and personal stakes into a story about "the ozone hole." Michael Piller, who ran the Deep Space Nine writing staff and also supervised The Next Generation, called this the worst show of the season, saying it spurred a series of meetings where he criticized everyone for letting the final season "slip away."

All that is fair criticism, but I think the biggest problem of this story isn't its lack of personal stakes, but rather its lack of lingering consequences. I like that they're not able to wave a magic wand and fix this environmental damage caused by warp travel; it keeps this a good representation of the real world issues it's trying to dramatize. And yes, Picard tells us that Starfleet is implementing a warp five "speed limit" to limit further damage. That limit even gets mentioned in a couple of future episodes.

But it still feels like lip service. This is the last season of The Next Generation, so they don't have to live long in this "warp limited" world. Deep Space Nine and Voyager never even acknowledge it. (Reportedly, production teams members Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda mentioned in a unpublished Voyager Technical Guide that some technical advancement removed the negative impact of warp travel.) I suppose a follow-up episode wouldn't have helped either -- I mean, if they couldn't get enough drama out of revealing this problem, they probably couldn't get much out of solving it in some technobabbly way. Yet it still feels like a cop-out. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I suppose.

Other observation:

Actually, I have just one this time: Spot is suddenly female in this episode, after being male in all previous appearances. This would actually go on to be a significant plot point in a future episode.

"Force of Nature" does try to tackle an important issue. (An issue we've scarcely made progress on two decades later.) It's even occasionally clever in how it adapts real world aspects of that issue to fiction. Yet it still falls flat... and that's without even considering the time-wasting, unrelated subplots. I give the episode a C+.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Maveth

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wrapped up for the mid-season (and three months) last night. Honestly, I expected the show might leave us in a more cliffhangery spot than it did; instead, we got quite a lot of closure on the season so far, and the stage set for a new main story when the series returns.

Most of the episode really worked for me. Fitz and Simmons (and Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Hensridge) continue to be given more to do, continue to develop, and continue to thrill me with every episode. There were things throughout the episode that first-season Fitz and Simmons would never have done -- the former trying futilely to steal Ward's gun, the latter engineering her own escape -- showing just how far these two have come.

The Inhuman trio of Daisy, Lincoln, and, Joey was a lot of fun, particularly the latter's exuberance at discovering new facets of his metal melting powers. There was too much plot to cover in this episode to give us a lot of their infiltration efforts, but what we got was enjoyable.

But a couple things didn't work as well for me. First, I felt like they really defanged the alien creature. There was something very ominous about it when Simmons was stranded on the planet and it was the shadowy, cloaked apparition that messed with your mind. Now it's basically just a corpse parasite that wears dead people as a meat suit. And sure, it may yet manifest some of its older powers, and new ones we've yet to see... but taking physical form makes it feel like something tangible you can fight, which to me makes it a lot less scary. It also too-neatly sweeps the Fitz-Simmons-Will triangle under the rug, killing a very cool minor character off screen in the process, which feels like a bit of a cop-out to me.

I also didn't like that after a season and a half of Ward making enemies of virtually every character on the show, Coulson got to deliver the death blow. Though the show tried mightily to sell the "this time, it's personal" aspect of it all, it was already quite personal for Daisy, Hunter, May, Bobbi, Fitz, Simmons... basically, everyone else. It was a combination of two issues for me, really: first, the fact that once Coulson decides it's time to kill Ward, it gets done almost immediately; second, the fact that Coulson didn't really build and nurse his grudge over time in the way that all the other characters I mentioned did. It just felt like the wrong character got to do the deed.

But at least the show did do it. Ward had been hanging around too long, in a too cartoonishly one-dimensional state of villainy. The schtick had stopped being sustainable a while ago, and it was time to move on. I don't object to the twist of keeping Brett Dalton around on the show to wear the monster's face. (As I noted above, I dislike giving the monster a face at all, but if he's going to have one, it might as well be Ward's.) Somewhere down the line, maybe a more fitting character will get to kill "Ward."

Plenty to look forward to in the back half of the season. Lash is back on the loose, as is Gideon Malick (with his new pet alien)... and yet both of those elements feel to some extent like the start of something new rather than the continuation of what's come so far. In the meantime, we can enjoy the holidays and the return of Agent Carter. I give "Maveth" a B+.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Strand and Deliver

The Stranded is the fifth and final installment of Wool, completing the first of three volumes in Hugh Howey's Silo series. This story sees societal tensions boiling over into open revolt, with the residents of the lower levels arming themselves against the silo's corrupt leadership. (Saying more than that would give too much away of Wool's earlier installments.)

This novella feels quite "mythic" in comparison to the four that came before. The stakes are higher, and you have lots of minor characters rising to the occasion to find heroism deep inside themselves. The overall formula here is similar to other multi-part stories that culminate in war; a timely example is The Hunger Games series. I find the clash here to be much more "earned" and believable by comparison. The class system of Wool seems more plausible, as does the sudden escalation to conflict now of all times.

At the same time, the goal of the main character, Juliette, is subverted in an entertaining way -- after working so hard for her own survival in the previous story, here she has to come to the rescue of others. She remains a great protagonist who finds strength in her resourcefulness. And when she's not able to help everybody, her sense of loss has weight to it.

As a whole, Wool is definitely a springboard for something more. Its ending is both resolved in some ways and quite open ended in others. It left me very much looking forward to the next book. (Only my desire to jump around more between genres kept me from forging straight ahead.)

I give The Stranded an A-, which is pretty much what I'd give Wool as a whole. It's a great sci-fi story, another example that real gems sometimes emerge from the vast world of self-publishing.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Unmerry Krampus

I had... well, not high hopes, but hopes... for Krampus, this weekend's unconventional new Christmas horror movie about the titular evil monster coming to terrorize a suburban family who has lost the holiday spirit. It seemed like it had the potential to land in the space ruled by Gremlins and Die Hard -- unapologetically non-sentimental Christmas classics. But whatever hopes I'd let myself build up, Krampus fell well short of them.

Foolishly, I expected more of this cast. On the one side of things, you have Adam Scott and David Koechner, both of whom have a proven track record in multiple comedies. Lending some unlikely dramatic heft are Toni Collette (an actual Academy Award nominee!) and Allison Tolman (who was fantastic in the first season of Fargo). Not that any of these people are right at the top of the Hollywood A-list, but you'd think there would be something going in this movie to attract all of them.

Unfortunately, the movie is simply not enough of anything. It's not scary enough to be an effective horror movie, nor funny enough to be an oddball Christmas comedy. There are a small handful of moments peppered throughout that suggest what the movie could have been if they'd leaned more into the premise (or perhaps gone for an R rating instead of a PG-13). The single best extended sequence in the movie involves a confrontation with killer toys in the attic, and even there, some probably unintentional laughs stop the scares in the scene from landing well.

Really, the best thing about the movie is its artistic design. There are some truly creepy snowmen that appear on the front lawn when the blizzard sets in. (But the script doesn't make the most of them.) A storybook moment in the middle of the movie explains the backstory of Krampus in a nicely moody animated segment -- like a Rankin/Bass Christmas special as filtered through Tim Burton's sensibilities. (Not quite The Nightmare Before Christmas, not quite Frosty the Snowman.) But being by and large good looking doesn't make the movie good.

We do not have a new Christmas movie tradition worth starting this year. Stick with whatever you usually watch for the holidays. Krampus gets a D+.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Closure

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stepped on the accelerator in anticipation of next week's mid-season finale. (No doubt a cliffhanger where we'll be waiting for months.)

It started off with the shocking and sudden death of Rosalind. I have conflicted thoughts about this. It's the overplayed cliche of "killing the love interest to motivate the hero," a cliche particularly irksome for the undercurrent of misogyny that usually comes with it -- it's always the woman dying to motivate the man. And yet, I can't lie, it was damn effective here.

The dinner date scene that opened the episode was absolutely wonderful, full of still more great banter between Clark Gregg and Constance Zimmer. It was witty, charming, sharp, and made me want to see more of this relationship. That being the point, of course. I feel like any other show would have used Rosalind's death as the big event to conclude an episode. So having it come here, in the teaser, was especially shocking.

And it did lead to a pretty great action sequence, which Clark Gregg rarely gets to do. Indeed, that amped the thrill of the sequence -- not out of any genuine fear for Coulson's life (because of course he wasn't going to die here), but that it was all so well executed, involving a character we don't take for granted will deliver us great action.

So then we get an hour of vengeful Coulson. More great work from Clark Gregg, but here I admit I felt a tinge of, "oh sure, now he wants to take out Ward. Until something bad happens to him, it's not a worthy enough issue." But whatever might get us some... ahem, closure (see episode title)... on this story line.

Fitz-Simmons... always great. Obviously, you'd use one against the other in any interrogation scenario. And it's good that they wrote the honest thing -- that Fitz would be the one to cave. Simmons, particularly after the hardening months on the alien planet, would be the one to hold out.

Malick word-jitsuing Ward into wanting to head to the alien planet? Nah, not buying it. Ward has been an unnuanced character for some time now, with just one agenda. Making him set that one agenda aside in a single scene was too big a bridge to span. But it did move the pieces into place for a big showdown on the alien world, with Ward, Will, Fitz, Coulson, and a nasty soul sucking creature all in the mix. (And plenty of redshirts for any of the above to kill along the way.) Big fireworks for next week.

I give this week's episode a B+. Here's hoping for a great payoff.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Secret's Out

Kingsman: The Secret Service is the oddest movie. On the surface, it's a stylized spy adventure that follows a shadowy (but heroic) British organization as it seeks to recruit young blood and keep the country safe from terrorist threats. But on a deeper level, Kick-Ass is part of its DNA -- the story is adapted from a comic series co-created by Mark Millar, and the two movies share a director, Matthew Vaughn. If only Kingsman had in fact dared to be a bit more odd, it might have really been something great.

There are plenty of hints throughout that the movie was never meant to be taken with a completely serious attitude. Colin Firth is not the first actor you'd think of to play a butt-kicking action hero. Samuel L. Jackson is affecting an odd lisp for no particular reason (save perhaps to enable one joke about the British accent). And the "polished gentleman vs. wrong-side-of-the-tracks" relationship between mentor and student feels like such a cliche that it could hardly read as anything but parody.

Yet for all those clues, the movie plays out with general earnestness for the first three-quarters of its two hour run time. There are familiar plot threads built around that mentor-student relationship, a supervillain and his nefarious schemes, impossible gadgets, and more. Kingsman doesn't feel like it's winking at other movies so much as it's stealing their ingredients for a thoroughly average concoction of its own.

But then comes the last half hour -- a giddy, ridiculously over-the-top display of action and absurdity. For some reason, only then does the movie really let its freak flag fly and make you realize, "Oh! I see what you're doing now!" It turns out Kingsman is as much a send-up of James Bond (and other genres) as Kick-Ass was of the typical comic book superhero. It just doesn't get there until the final act.

Still, there are several actors having fun along the way. Despite what I said earlier about what one expects of Colin Firth, he actually does make a pretty great action hero. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery as the movie's villain, in a bit of particularly fun casting now that he's so identifiable by most audiences as Nick Fury. And there are no noticeably weak links among the (mostly unknown) younger members of the cast.

But no matter how deliriously fun the movie gets in the last thirty minutes, it doesn't excuse it not being that way all along. All told, I'd say Kingsman: The Secret Service rates a C. It's an unfortunately missed opportunity.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Send in the Clones

Continuing my march through the Star Wars saga, last night I watched Attack of the Clones. I had remembered the movie being far worse -- actively bad -- than it actually was.

Sure, there's bad dialogue. Anakin's attempts to be poetic are painful (though, realistically, when would he have cultivated a poet's gift with language?). Yet is it really any worse than most of his dialogue from The Phantom Menace? Sure, there are nonsensical plot points. (How easily Amidala forgives Anakin for mass murder!) But are they any worse than the unjustified story turns of The Phantom Menace? No, I have to say there aren't many places where Attack of the Clones is truly bad. I'd say its larger problem is that it's boring.

The stakes laid out in the plot are quite abstract. The Republic is on the verge of collapse, but it's a dry, political problem until the final act, and difficult to relate to. Personal stakes would help immensely, but the only character who has a real arc in the film is Anakin. Obi-Wan spends the movie alone in a film noir mystery. And Amidala is only there to fall in love (unconvincingly) with Anakin. Certainly there's no growth or change for Yoda, Mace Windu, the droids... or anyone else.

Accentuating the boredom, there really aren't that many action sequences in the movie until the final act. And nearly all the action sequences that are in the movie don't feel realistic enough to be engaging. The car chase on Coruscant feels like a drawn out version of something that was done much better (and more succinctly) in The Fifth Element. The conveyer belt sequence feels like a video game level that you don't actually get to play. The arena fight is so much lifeless CG, you could probably take the generic reaction shots of Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen, and make a whole new scene in a wholly different context.

Speaking of Hayden Christensen, lots of people point to his wooden performance as the biggest fault of the film. I don't agree. I noted of The Phantom Menace that lots of fantastic actors came off flat there, thanks to George Lucas' inability (or disinterest, take your pick) in working with actors to elicit a good performance. Christensen is decent in Shattered Glass, and quite good in Life As a House. In fact, he has pretty good chemistry with Ewan McGregor in the opening act of this film -- the two have a decent banter going between them.

The problem with Anakin is that the script is trying to make a Han-Leia romance of he and Padme. They're supposed to find love amid danger and duress. But where The Empire Strikes Back built upon already likable characters established in a prior film, here we're starting with an older Anakin played by a new actor. Han's barbs thrown at Leia seem playful. Anakin's quips toward Amidala seem petulant. When Amidala confesses her love for him, the audience can only ask, "why?" -- because he's only alternated between whiny and creepy for most of the movie. (If the kiss had at least come after the meadow scene and the dinner scene, that would have helped the love story's progression -- in those moments, Anakin is at least slightly endearing.)

There are a few elements of the film that do work. Ewan McGregor really channels Alec Guinness at times, adopting the original Obi-Wan's speech patterns (though it's a shame he spends most of the movie alone, or acting opposite CG characters). Jango Fett is shown to be the badass in a fight that we were always supposed to think Boba Fett was in the original trilogy, but never actually saw. The visual design is excellent, very cleverly evoking styles that we saw in the original trilogy.

But when the mind is bored, it starts to wander.
  • This Jedi Sifo-Dyas was an actual person that multiple characters in the movie met. So why does he have a name that's so close to "Darth Sidious" that you'll surely assume it was an alias?
  • Shmi really held out for a month only to die 20 seconds after her rescue? Couldn't she have just been dead when he got there?
  • If C-3PO worked at the Lars' moisture farm for years, shouldn't Owen recognize him when he purchases the droid from the Jawas in Star Wars?
  • Given how much the fans hate Jar Jar, is it actually a good thing for the story that he enacts the vote that literally leads to the destruction of the Republic?
  • Why is it they can pass a vote to empower Chancellor Palpatine to make an army when they can't pass a vote to just make the army?
  • Sure, C-3PO has always been comic relief. But when did he just become a pun factory? ("What a drag." "I'm quite beside myself.")
  • Is it a good idea to invite blabbermouth Threepio to your secret wedding?
I guess what I'm ultimately saying is that I'd rather take some bad with a little bit of good (The Phantom Menace) than just be bored (Attack of the Clones). This is the low mark for the Star Wars saga. I give it a D+.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

An Extra Dimension

In my recent review of The Thought Pushers, by Dima Zales, I noted that, due to the story losing a little steam after book one, I probably wouldn't be rushing into book three of the series. And I didn't. But I did take a look at what is colloquially called "book 0," a short story called The Time Stopper. I'd already downloaded it into my e-reader (for the unbeatable price of free), and it was short enough for me to read in about an hour.

The Time Stopper shifts focus to another character in the series, vengeance-driven Mira. In a story set before the events of the first book, Mira worms her way into the underworld of the Russian mob looking for clues on her hunt for her parents' killers. In a breezy few dozen pages, she gets herself into and out of trouble, leading toward the events that begin book one of the series.

Despite being set earlier in the chronology, this really isn't meant to be read first by anyone considering the Mind Dimensions series. Those books turn on the ignorance of main character Darren, whereas this story's heroine Mira knows all about the world of psychic abilities. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that here, because the audience knows she goes on to be a major character in the series, there's no real sense of danger to anything she does here in this prequel.

But then, to what degree this story has appeal, surprise isn't meant to be it. With the main series told entirely by Darren in the first person, the point here is to get inside the head of another character. It may in fact help improve subsequent books in the series. It's not like there was much mystery to what made Mira tick in the first few books. Still, writer Dima Zales was probably projecting a little too much of himself (or his own wish fulfillment) into Darren, which makes Mira's point of view here a nice change of pace. If it informs the characterization going forward, it's all for the better.

There's nothing truly essential here, but if you make it through the first two Mind Dimensions books and find them even modestly engaging, you've nothing to lose in this short side trip. I give it a B-.

Monday, November 30, 2015

TNG Flashback: Attached

The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation knew that the seventh season would be the show's last. You can at times recognize their effort to touch on any dangling threads from earlier seasons while they still had the chance. A major one in the eyes of many fans was the romantic tension between Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher. This gave birth to "Attached."

The Enterprise is evaluating an unusual petition to join the Federation, from a faction on a planet that has not yet achieved a unified global government. The Prytt, enemies of the petitioning Kes, abduct Picard and Crusher, implanting them with devices to probe their minds for purposes of interrogation. But when the two are able to escape captivity, the devices reveal an interesting side effect: the two are increasingly able to read each others' thoughts. As they struggle to contact the crew, they're also forced to confront long-hidden feelings each has kept hidden from the other.

This episode was written by Nicholas Sagan, son of the famous Carl Sagan. Interestingly, it was a separate movie script he'd adapted for Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game that got him noticed by showrunner Jeri Taylor (even though that version of the film was never made). Sagan pitched to both Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, but it was reportedly the last of 12 ideas for the latter that finally stuck: physically chaining together Picard and Crusher in a prison escape. The idea of the telepathic link came from a different, uncredited writer, but was so well incorporated here that Sagan won himself another episode later in the season, and ultimately a permanent position on the Star Trek: Voyager staff.

There are some interesting ideas at play in this story, including the feuding factions of the planet Kesprytt and the non-violent (though still invasive, to be sure) means of interrogation through mind reading. There are fun moments in revisiting Picard and Crusher's breakfast tradition, and Crusher's piercing the veil of Picard's apparent certainty in his decision making.

But ultimately, that's all just window dressing. It basically doesn't matter that the Kes and the Prytt are too paranoid to be believably under consideration for Federation membership in the first place. It doesn't matter if Riker ultimately deals with them in a rather trite way. This episode really exists to give longtime fans one scene: the campfire conversation between Beverly and Jean-Luc. And that scene is fantastic.

The campfire scene takes its time. It starts with innocuous conversation about breakfast before moving into philosophical talk of fire, and then finally the weighty matter of the relationship between these two. I think some fans felt it a bit of a cop out ending that Picard and Crusher decide that their past feelings for each other are indeed just that -- past feelings. But the way they talk in this scene feels incredibly honest for both characters. Both are too loyal -- in their lives in general, but here to a deceased husband and best friend in particular -- to have ever voiced their feelings.

The episode ends with an almost melancholy scene of restrained flirtation between the two characters. Jean-Luc gently challenges Beverly not to be afraid of exploring their feelings; Beverly rebuffs him by suggesting they should be. I wish that this had been the final word on the matter; the fact that their relationship comes up again in the finale (albeit in an alternate future) seems to me to rekindle the "will they/won't they" dynamic that's quite definitively addressed here.

Other observations:
  • It's surely no coincidence that this episode was given to Jonathan Frakes to direct. Such a big moment for two main characters could only be handled well by someone who'd spent plenty of time with those characters and the actors who play them.
  • It helps that several scenes in this episode were actually filmed on location. Even though the pivotal fireside scene was filmed on a set, the daytime exterior shots leading up to it helped set a more realistic stage for it.
  • This is the last time the "captain's jacket" is ever seen on the series. (He even takes it off during the escape and leaves it behind, in a probably unintended bit of symbolism.)
  • It's not just Picard and Crusher's back story together that's referenced in this episode. Crusher's fear of heights, established in "Chain of Command," also comes up.
There are certainly weak elements to this episode. But if you've come this far with the series, then the parts of this hour that actually matter to you are quite satisfying. I give "Attached" a B+.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Phantom Pains

Continuing to work my way through the Star Wars saga, my next stop after The Empire Strikes Back was... The Phantom Menace?

I suspect that most of my readers are big enough Star Wars fans to have heard of the "Machete Order" approach to watching the saga. If not, the short explanation goes something like this: audiences are sophisticated enough these days to accept "nested flashback" narratives. (And come on, you've all seen these movies anyway.) Right after Empire's revelation about Luke's father is the perfect moment to flashback and show the story of how he transformed. Then you complete the original trilogy with Return of the Jedi. All "surprises" in the overall narrative are preserved. It seems like pretty compelling logic to me.

Of course, Machete Order also argues that you should skip The Phantom Menace entirely, stating that it provides nothing of importance to the story that isn't reiterated early in Attack of the Clones. Setting aside whether that's true, my goal here is to watch all the existing Star Wars movies, so leaving one out wasn't an option.

So then... The Phantom Menace. It's been many years since I'd last seen it. Watching it again, I feel it was a touch worse than I'd remembered. It honestly might be hard to tell whether that's because originally, I was fighting to wring enjoyment out of it... or whether now I'm so jaded on the prequels that it has retroactively infected the first movie even more.

It's just so easy to pick nits with this movie. Is the trade dispute with Naboo "alarming," as the opening crawl claims, or "trivial," as Qui-Gon Jinn says not three minutes later? How does a girl of 14 become an elected official, and why is she called a Queen? Why are those Galaxy Quest-esque force field walls there during the lightsaber duel (or, for that matter, the massive empty room just outside)? But I think these are the details people would overlook if they'd otherwise been emotionally engaged with the film in the first place. The bigger distractions are the ones that inhibit that initial investment.

Everyone says that CG visual effects are over-utilized (in this and all the prequels). But it's lack of emotional resonance with the CG that causes the worst moments. The Gungan battle with the Trade Federation, for example, is all CG, but isn't a terrible element of the movie. Jar Jar "battling" a pit droid inside Watto's shop, however? That's like a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the soul surgically removed. Or the fact that CG Jabba doesn't look like Return of the Jedi's puppet Jabba? That doesn't necessarily mean the CG is bad... because Phantom Menace originally had a puppet Yoda, and it didn't look anything like original trilogy Yoda either. (The CG Yoda Lucas later inserted feels somewhere between the two.)

Using Jar Jar Binks as comic relief doesn't feel inherently awful to me. But the movie tells us to dismiss him, because that's what Qui-Gon Jinn (a character we immediately know we should respect) tries to do the moment they first meet. And frankly, the fact that you can't understand half of what Jar Jar says annoys me far more than anything he does.

Is young Jake Lloyd too unskilled an actor to be the focus of the movie? Perhaps, but the script deals far more damage to Anakin than the acting. We're supposed to believe it's "love at first sight" for him and Padme. But the age gap between them is pretty hard to overlook, and the fact that he doesn't recognize her when she switches into the Queen Amidala outfit seriously undermines that narrative. We're perhaps supposed to believe that Anakin's success in the final space battle comes from instinctual use of the Force. But the fact that his scenes are intercut with Jar Jar's antics in the ground battle make both look like it's merely dumb luck at work.

But all that said, I truly don't think the movie is awful throughout. Liam Neeson is solid as Qui-Gon Jinn. Ewan McGregor is a lot of fun as this more brash Obi-Wan Kenobi, like a Jedi with a touch of quippy Han Solo stirred in. (It's a shame Kenobi is sidelined for so much of the plot.) The final lightsaber duel is a feast for the eyes (even if Darth Maul is rather easily dispatched at the end of it). The pod race sequence is pretty engaging -- one of those cases where CG does its job, and actually the greatest triumph of sound design in the entire Star Wars saga.

Also, John Williams' score for this film is exceptional. His music for the final lap of the pod race ratchets the tension up to the highest degree. Then there's "Duel of the Fates," the most iconic piece of music from the prequel trilogy, as widely recognized as his best work from the classic films. And speaking of those classic themes, the way he twists some of them for use here is absolutely brilliant. Anakin's Theme is a sweeping, emotional melody whose final five notes evokes Darth Vader's Theme. The triumphant parade at the end of the movie features children joyously chanting the same melody that an ominous mens' choir drones as the Emperor's theme.

The bottom line? The Phantom Menace isn't great. Or even good. But set aside the disappointment of this being a Star Wars film, and I've actually seen a lot of movies that are a lot worse than this. I mean, it's a freaking masterpiece compared to Wing Commander, that terrible piece of crap a lot of us went to see in 1999 just to catch the first trailer for this. (Ah, the olden days, when trailers didn't instantly leak online.)

I'd grade The Phantom Menace a C-.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Games Have Ended

This past weekend, The Hunger Games film franchise wrapped up with Mockingjay, Part 2. As I noted in my review of last year's Part 1, I don't object in this case  to the trendy decision to split a saga's concluding book into two movies. I feel that in this case, it allows the films (in principal) to give more narrative weight to the revolution that at times felt like an afterthought in the books (surely not author Suzanne Collins' intent).

That said, I'm not sure the movies really used that opportunity well. Like Part 1, Mockingjay Part 2 feels stretched thin at times, with a few dry and unengaging sections. Worse, the chance to expand on some potentially interesting aspects of the story is overlooked. Why cast Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie to play a supposedly powerful military leader when she's only going to have two or three lines in a single scene? Why again squander Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks by barely doing a thing with them?

Mockingjay, Part 2 isn't a bad conclusion to the series. And from what I remember -- which is admittedly spotty -- it's a quite faithful adaptation of the decent concluding book. But it is pretty workmanlike. It checks all the boxes and pushes all the buttons in a deliberate and obvious way. Enough of the sequences do work to make the whole endeavor worthwhile (for example: the subterranean mutt attack is a solid sequence, in moments evoking the feel of Aliens), but many other sequences are a bit old hat by now (Snow's taunting television broadcasts, Gale's self-pity over being second best).

If you've come this far, there's no reason not to complete the ride. But in the long run, I don't think these movies will be remembered for going out on a particularly high note. I give Mockingjay, Part 2 a B-.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Music for Another World

Last month, I praised the film adaptation of Andy Weir's sci-fi novel, The Martian. For me, the movie has lingered over the past several weeks, in the form of its score. I picked up the soundtrack album, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and I've had it in fairly heavy rotation. At the most general level, the score for The Martian takes a fairly typical approach to music for a science fiction film: it blends synthesizer elements with a full orchestra. But how Gregson-Williams chose to do this is a perfect match for this particular story.

The synth elements of The Marian's music are almost always rapid fire ostinato accents -- fast eighth and sixteen note patterns that feel artificial and inhuman at times for their speed and repetition. This technique is often showcased when the story is in full on "science" mode, when a character is working a problem and essentially rising above in a display of ingenuity.

Meanwhile, the orchestra represents the more grounded, emotional elements of the story. Usually playing quarter notes or slower, this component of the music creeps along, often four times slower than the frenetic synth. This anchors the film. The Martian works as a movie because you care for the characters and not just the science, and the traditional orchestra is the part of the music that speaks to this.

There are several highlights in the score. It starts strong right out of the gate with "Mars," a track that at first might be just as right for a horror movie as for this. It opens with an ominous chord to rattle the subwoofers, punctuated by occasional eerie sprays of synth notes in the treble. It then establishes the slow melody that will represent the Red Planet itself throughout the movie -- sparsely placed pairs and trios of mournful notes.

"Sprouting Potatoes" is one of the most purely uplifting tracks on the album, and is particularly interesting in that it opens with a solo cello -- an instrument so much more often used for somber music. "Hexadecimals" is almost exclusively synthesizer, with intriguing staccato patterns that ever so slightly evokes Vangelis' work on the original Cosmos mini-series.

Gregson-Williams establishes his approach to this score so consistently that the few moments where he breaks formula really stand out. Human vocals are showcased in just two cues. The first, "Crops Are Dead," uses a solo vocalist to really emphasize one of the lowest emotional points of the movie. The final track, "Fly Like Iron Man," uses a full choir to stress one of the highest. And the synth element gradually recedes in the final section of the movie, dropping out almost completely by the finale.

I've found the music from "The Martian" to be great background for different parts of my day. I'd give the album a B+. It's not a "must own" soundtrack for people who aren't normally enthusiastic about them. But it is a good addition to the collection for fans of movie music.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Many Heads, One Tale

Well, the plot thread revolving around Ward remains the least interesting aspect of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But the good news? It's no longer dangling out there on its own. This week's new episode tied him -- and all the other parallel story lines -- into a single, overarching narrative.

I will acknowledge of the Ward story that actor Brett Dalton does kick some serious ass in the role. Sometimes, as in the final scene of this episode, it's figurative. He just dove right into the mustache twirling premise of tormenting Andrew, and made it work. Of course, he's also good at the more literal ass-kicking too, as in the opening fight where four Hydra goons tried to take him out. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has better fight choreography than many movies, and this was a good example.

Of course, the show has multiple performers who can sell these great fight sequences, and we got another example of it in the Bobbi fight near the end of the episode (even if we cut away from some of the fight). "Boomerang" fighting sticks was just plain fun, and it capped a just plain fun thread of her and Hunter infiltrating the A.T.C.U. together. Sending in hunt-and-peck typist Hunter instead of Fitz makes no sense, of course, but Fitz had other work to do this week.

Speaking of which -- I continue to love-love-love the Fitz-Simmons storyline, and I say that as someone who doesn't usually get caught up in "will they/won't they" TV romances. As fantastical as this situation is, it actually feels like a legitimate love triangle where the pivot character has realistic feelings for both of the other characters. It's wonderful that Fitz isn't made to be the heel here, and even more wonderful that a scene actually acknowledged how that fact only makes things harder for Simmons. And said scene ended with a kiss seasons in the making, so there's that.

I suppose it undermines Rosalind's intelligence a bit that she didn't know she was working for the enemy, but it's so much better than she's not the enemy herself. That would have been too cliche an angle for the show to play. Another cliche avoided: Coulson didn't trust her pretty much from minute one. It was nice to see him reveal a master plan here... though I also hope we get to see a little emotional fallout for him down the road. It turns out he could have had a genuine relationship here, and he blew it. Lonely is the head that wears the crown and all that, and I hope the series plays that up in episodes to come.

Now that everything is woven together, the stage seems set for a handful of big episodes leading up to a mid-season cliffhanger finale. I'm interested in that direction, and give this episode a B+.