Friday, January 30, 2015

The Blitzkrieg Button

Well, I'm still generally finding Agent Carter to be fun. But I'm also starting to get tired of the formulaic way each episode is constructed. It's not unusual for new TV shows to essentially restate their "thesis" with every episode, in case new viewers are sampling -- but the truly great shows do it more skillfully. And in any case, Agent Carter's short run is now half over, which makes me feel like we should be past that point.

Every episode seems to have a checklist of scenes that must be included. The scene where Carter sneaks around at work, trying not to get caught. The scene where she interacts with someone in her personal life, lying about what she really does for a living. The scene where Carter faces sexism at work. The scene where Sousa shows us that discrimination in the 40s was hardly limited to women. The scene where Thompson interrogates a suspect using a method you hope isn't still used today. (At least this week, that scene didn't involve him beating up the suspect again.)

Because each episode so studiously checks all these boxes, very little comes as a surprise. But because Hayley Atwell remains a compelling lead actress, and because the characters are all rather well drawn, the show does still remain watchable overall. This week's episode was helped a lot by the presence of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, with a swaggering energy not regularly on the show. And I'm hoping that next week's episode will be helped by ways this week's plot might have jolted the ongoing story out of the formulaic rut. (Carter says she's not going to help Stark anymore. We'll see.)

But I'm starting to drift to the place where I want Agent Carter either to get better or get out, making way for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to return. I give this episode a B-.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I'm Okay, You're Takei

I recently wrote about Life Itself, the documentary that explored the life of Roger Ebert, with full access to him (in his final days) and those close to him. Not long after I watched it, I caught a similar documentary, another chronicle of a man's life, made with full access to him and those close to him: To Be Takei.

As you can surmise from the title, this documentary focuses on George Takei -- who until a few years ago surely would have been best known as Sulu from Star Trek, though may well now be better known as Facebook's most popular personality. The documentary covers both these aspects of his life, his involvement with the Howard Stern show, and the two great causes for which he advocates.

First is his lineage as a Japanese American, who as a boy was unjustly held in an internment camp by presidential decree during World War II. It's an ugly chapter of American history that not nearly enough people are aware of. Takei has booked many public appearances where he's spoken of his time in a camp, and the documentary covers his latest means of telling his story -- through the creation of an original musical titled Allegiance.

Second is his push for LGBT equality, a cause he threw himself behind when he was among the first actors of reasonable fame to come out as gay. In the documentary, he speaks of the fear for his career that kept him closeted for most of his life, even after he'd long been in a relationship with the man who would eventually become his husband.

The documentary is also subtly revealing of the man behind the causes. George Takei comes off as a born performer always playing to the crowd, happy to laugh and be the butt of a joke so long as others are laughing too. One gets the sense that above everything else Takei is, he's an actor, and would have had to be an actor to find true happiness in his life. You also get snippets of insight from his friends (including fellow Star Trek cast members) and family (including his husband Brad).

Seeing this documentary so soon after Life Itself made me inevitably want to compare the two films, even though Ebert and Takei lived very different lives -- and Takei seems vibrant enough to have a good amount still to live. On the one hand, To Be Takei feels to me like a slightly more substantial film -- though it's quite likely I identify with it more, as a Star Trek fan and gay man. On the other hand, anyone who follows Takei on Facebook (and if you're not, you're doing the internet wrong) will likely know almost everything this documentary has to tell. So all told, I'd average it out to about the same grade, a B-.

I suspect you don't need me to tell you if you're the right audience for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

TNG Flashback: I Borg

After the epic third/fourth season two-parter, "The Best of Both Worlds," Star Trek: The Next Generation fans spent years clamoring for the return of the Borg. It finally happened, though in a form few expected, near the end of season five.

The Enterprise finds a crashed Borg scout vessel with a single survivor. When Dr. Crusher insists on saving the Borg's life, it is brought aboard the ship. But her samaritan gesture is soon undermined when Picard realizes an opportunity: this Borg could be infected with a virus to be transmitted into the entire Borg collective when a ship comes to retrieve him. It's a plan Guinan wholly supports... until she discovers what Geordi and others have found. Since being separated from the collective, this Borg has begun to develop a sense of individuality. Now Guinan and Picard are forced to confront their prejudice for the monolithic race that wronged them.

On the one hand, this episode feels like a bit of a cheat, a Borg episode that isn't exactly a Borg episode. It's certainly not the "next big showdown" that fans were surely hoping for. But then, an episode like that is exactly what the writers were never going to deliver. Although they were never opposed to more Borg in general, they didn't see a way to deliver another satisfying confrontation with them. If they're supposed to be so menacing that our heroes barely escaped with their lives the first time, what would you do for an encore? Indeed, Star Trek: Voyager would later prove that point, defanging the Borg bit by bit with every implausible escape by the intrepid ship (ha, Trek pun) over the course of the last four seasons.

So along came this different approach, from René Echevarria. He had already contributed the superb episode "The Offspring," and other episodes since, but was still an outside freelancer when he pitched this new script. His idea to bring the Borg back by going small and personal proved to be the key. With the series Deep Space Nine now in the planning stages, the Trek production offices knew they'd need to double their pool of writers, and so this was the script that finally got Echevarria a job offer. He'd become part of the Next Generation staff beginning next season.

What makes the episode so strong is the way it provides so many strong scenes for so many characters. It begins with Beverly Crusher, who is so fierce in her commitment to save a single life that she steamrolls everyone else opposed to her -- including Captain Picard -- and sets to work on this Borg, Third of Five. In short order, she's sharing the story spotlight with Geordi, who as Data's closest friend is probably the most logical character to befriend a Borg. The scene where Geordi and Beverly name him Hugh does feel a bit forced, like they're having way too much fun with their pet cobra, but beyond that, LeVar Burton does an excellent job showing us Geordi's growing discomfort with the idea of using an individual as a weapon of mass destruction.

Of course, stronger material still goes to Picard and Guinan. In probably Whoopi Goldberg's best performance on the entire series, we see the normally calm and unshakable Guinan rattled to her very core. First, it's by the notion that everyone around her is foolishly being taken in by the "poor, helpless little Borg." The fencing scene, in which she lies and cheats to make a point ("You felt sorry for me. Look what it got you.") is shocking in Guinan's genuine hatred. Later, Geordi is throwing in her face what a good "listener" she's supposed to be, challenging her to meet this Borg. And when Guinan does so, she's rattled again. Hugh is everything he's said to be, and her core convictions are proven wrong.

It cannot be overstated how big an emotional journey Guinan then has to go on to change her mind. But she does. And then tries to convince Picard to come with her, in another shockingly raw scene. In what other scenario could you ever imagine Picard shouting, "it's not a person, dammit!"? This then paves the way for the most chilling scene of all, in which Picard confronts his darkest memories and masquerades as Locutus to probe Hugh's true thinking. And it's no casual interrogation, either. Picard forcefully goes after the Borg, physically backing him into a corner, until Hugh's shocking assertion of individuality breaks through even all the walls Picard has put up.

Guest star Jonathan Del Arco has a tough role to play here, but he rises to the occasion. He manages carefully restrained emotion within an arc that traverses both the "collective" Third of Five and the individual Hugh. I'm not sure why the writers felt the need to make this Borg a teenager (beyond their normal attraction to "cute kids"), but they found the right actor for the job. Del Arco was a longtime fan of the original Star Trek who had auditioned for the part of Wesley Crusher. He was so disappointed to lose the role to Wil Wheaton that he refused to watch the series until he got this opportunity to guest star. A friend warned him that if he took the role, he'd be talking about it for the rest of his life. The friend was right, of course, but that was hardly a negative for a Star Trek fan. I mean, come on, he got an action figure and everything!

"I Borg" was the only episode of the entire season helmed by a first-time director. Robert Lederman was an editor for the series who, like actors Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart before him, went through the internal "director school" to get this big shot. He did great work here with the actors, and got extra help from the production team. With the episode otherwise being easy on the budget, the producers allocated extra money to build the crash site set. The result was a snow-covered rocky waste that's a good deal more convincing than the series' average planet surface set.

If there's one problem with the episode, it has to do with the ending -- though in a way that really should be held against the follow-up, "Descent," and not this installment. In the end, the crew decides that individuality may be the greatest virus the Borg could encounter, and Hugh voluntarily returns to the collective with his identity intact. But if Jean-Luc Picard, fighting with all his strength against his Locutus identity, didn't have what it takes to break through and introduce individuality to the Borg, it's hard to imagine this random drone would.

Next time, it's made to seem that all Borg have indeed become aimless individuals, so in need of leadership that they turn to Lore. But then comes the film First Contact, and the ultimate Borg retconning. Not only does the film not acknowledge any of this, it suddenly makes the Borg about assimilating people instead of cultures (which is specifically disavowed in "I Borg"). The film puts the Borg back in a collective under a heretofore unknown Queen (whose presence must have been what kept Picard from infecting the Borg with individuality; sure, let's go with that).

Other observations:
  • Showrunner Michael Piller dubbed this his favorite episode of the season, "everything I want Star Trek to be."
  • The 30-second preview created for this episode ("Next time, on Star Trek: The Next Generation...") uses Ron Jones' iconic score for "The Best of Both Worlds," rather than the standard music used in all the series' other trailers. It just goes to show you how stupid Rick Berman was to get rid of Jones. Even the people cutting the trailer were all, "everyone knows this is what the Borg sound like."
  • The Blu-ray edition of this episode comes with a commentary track by Michael and Denise Okuda, and writer René Echevarria. Echevarria tells a great story about something that bothers him to this day, a mistake introduced in someone else's polish rewrite on his script. Early on in the episode, Third of Five asks, "do I have a name?" Not WE, but I, in direct contradiction with the episode's pivotal scene in which Hugh finally refers to himself as "I." Like the Okudas in the commentary, I must confess I never noticed this slip up, though I can definitely see how it would bother Echevarria.
For cleverly finding a way to tell a personal story about the very impersonal Borg, I give rate this episode an A-.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Catch of the Day

The movie Foxcatcher is not in the hunt for a Best Picture Oscar this year, but the evidence suggests that if the Academy's odd new system -- which produces anywhere from 5 to 10 Best Picture Nominees -- had bubbled up 9 nominees this year instead of 8, Foxcatcher would have been the 9th film. It did receive 5 nominations in other categories, including for two of its three main stars. Most tellingly, it picked up a Best Director nomination for Bennett Miller, making him the first director to be nominated without his Picture since the Academy went to more than 5 film nominees. But now that I've seen Foxcatcher for myself, I think the Academy probably got this one right.

The movie is the based on the true story of Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, who are approached by eccentric multimillionaire John du Pont to fund their training for the 1988 games. The brothers splinter over attitudes toward du Pont, one eager to receive his funding, the other suspicious of his motives.

Foxcatcher is indeed a movie with amazing, Oscar-worthy performances. Since Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell has increasingly appeared in more serious roles inside of comedic movies. (See The Way, Way Back. Except don't. Don't see The Way, Way Back.) He throws the switch entirely in the dramatic direction here, and earned himself a Best Actor nomination. At the time the movie was filmed, the brilliant Robin Williams was alive and well. But now that Williams is gone, this movie seems to be Steve Carell's audition as his heir apparent. Carell displays that same intensity in this role, playing on the audience's knowledge of all the manic energy that's being held tightly in check. Plus, in this movie, he's just damn creepy.

Then there's Mark Ruffalo, who had a hell of a 2014. He was excellent in The Normal Heart, and now he's excellent in a completely different role here. Ruffalo is a very deserving nominee for Best Supporting Actor, as he seems utterly transformed here. The way he carries himself is altered, his speech patterns are altered, his facial expressions are altered. He is every inch the battered wrestler who has burned his candle at both ends... but also a protective older brother who loves his younger brother fiercely.

But as strong as Carell and Ruffalo are, it's (perhaps shockingly) Channing Tatum that people should be talking about, that should have been looked at for a Best Actor nomination. There's no trace of the pretty boy heartthrob in his performance; he carries himself like a meathead Cro-Magnon. And even as he is so physically guarded, he's emotionally vulnerable. It's a powerful performance that changes what audiences should expect of him.

Oscar nominated director Bennett Miller guides all three actors in these brilliant performances, and proves himself smart with the camera is well. Scenes are carefully staged, lens carefully chosen, to layer the film with all kinds of allusions and subtext. The Oscar nominated makeup artists quietly support the film by transforming the appearance of all three actors; Carell's prominent teeth and hooked nose have gotten all the attention, but the cauliflower ears of Tatum's character and receding hairline of Ruffalo's are just as effective.

Foxcatcher's one Oscar nomination I don't agree with is the reason why I think it is rightly left out of the Best Picture hunt -- its nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The script for Foxcatcher feels overly long, and often focuses on the wrong things. There are numerous scenes that self-indulgently portray Carell's du Pont as a strange weirdo, many more than are necessary to get the point across. At the same time, other scenes that would have been vital connective tissue in the narrative are missing. Tatum's character of Mark Schultz goes through two significant changes in behavior and allegiance throughout the film -- a journey into du Pont's cult of personality and back. Neither change is accurately explained. Nor do the motivations behind the climax of the film make much sense... that is, if you're looking for anything deeper than "well, that du Pont is just a creepy dude."

If Foxcatcher bolsters the careers of those involved in making it, that will be a fine legacy for it. As for the film itself, I'd call it a slow-paced B-.

Monday, January 26, 2015

First Blush... or Red, or White

Some time back, I wrote of Vinhos, a board game about wine making. At the time, I graded it a "provisional B." Since then, I regret to say, the game has sunk lower in my esteem. Despite the interesting subject matter and a number of clever mechanics, the game takes considerably longer to play than promised on the box. Plus, that number of clever mechanics don't really mesh well together, creating an overly complicated game that's rather difficult to play. I wanted the game to be better, I wanted to like it, but it's sadly just a bit much.

To the rescue comes Viticulture, by designers Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone. It's also about wine making, and tries to capture many of the same ideas: planting fields, harvesting and crushing grapes, aging wine before selling it, and more. But the ideas are presented in a considerably more compact and unified manner, with gameplay considerably more fast-paced than Vinhos.

Each round is divided into the four seasons of the year. Turn order in each season is decided in the spring, with different benefits granted for choosing to go later than your opponents. Later on, fall gives every player a bonus card to work with, from either of two decks loaded with powerful cheats around the game's standard rules. That leaves the bulk of the action for summer and winter, between which players must split their worker pieces as they choose from a limited number of action spaces. With limited chances to plant, harvest, fill orders, and more (and with bonuses for being the first player to do a certain thing!), competition is high. The sort of "indirect interaction" that's a hallmark of so many Euro games -- that constricting of opponents' abilities to do things -- is on full display here.

It took me a few plays to warm up to Viticulture. I at least liked it from the beginning, as a much more elegant take on the wine making theme. But it seemed initially that one particular strategic approach might be the clear "way to go," a suspicion somewhat underscored by a second playthrough. But after game three, when a completely different approach won decisively, it appears that there's a really solid game here. The power in those decks of cheating cards is perhaps a touch too swingy, with fair potential to draw something otherwise strong at the wrong time, but the overall result is pretty satisfying. It's also rather easy to explain for a worker placement game, and a bit quicker than most too. (Depending on the players, you could definitely finish in an hour or less.)

So where Vinhos has sat on my game shelf for many months now, Viticulture has popped up several times of late. I'd say it's at least a B+, and trending upward.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Best on the Beat

Last night, I went to see one of this year's nominees for the Best Picture Oscar, Whiplash. Not only did I find my favorite film of 2014, I found a new addition to my Top 100 list.

Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman, a young drummer in a prestigious conservatory of music. He attracts the notice of the most revered teacher in the school, Terence Fletcher, and is invited to join the advanced jazz performance group. But Fletcher is also the most feared teacher at the school: a task-driving, abusive tyrant with absolutely no tolerance for anything less than perfection. A battle of wills ensues, as Andrew fights to prove how badly he "wants it," and Fletcher fights to wear him raw, both physically and emotionally.

There have been some quality action films released in the last year. There have also been some above average suspense films. With Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle has created a visceral, physical movie more tense than all of them. It puts a knot in your stomach just minutes in, and then keeps ratcheting up the anxiety over the next hour and a half. In the small theater where I watched it, there was just me, three friends, and maybe half a dozen other people. We were under no obligation to respond to the movie as a "crowd." Yet everyone was gasping audibly, in unison, with each new torment visited upon the film's protagonist. I left the movie with a bit of a stomach ache. "Whiplash" is a perfectly chosen title, because the movie really does feel like the roller coaster that too many films are unthinkingly compared to -- it inflicts a palpable sense of nausea.

No film has so powerfully presented the drive for success among the most exacting people in a creative field. You feel how badly Andrew craves success, to the point where he compromises his social life, throws away everything else he has of lesser importance, and becomes a bit of a prize asshole himself. He's hardly a role model, but you want him to come out on top because you understand how desperately he wants it. You understand how literally nothing else in his life means anything to him.

All that raw emotion comes through in the excellent performance by young actor Miles Teller. And that's not even taking into account the insane technical accomplishment that was playing this role. Everyone associated with the film has said that Teller did 99% of his own drumming on screen. Of course, he got plenty of help from the film's editor, who assembled days of filming into single performances. Still, if Teller had only done half of his own playing in the movie, it would have been astounding. As it is, it's robbery that he wasn't ever seriously thought to be in the hunt for a Best Actor nomination. (At least he's young; he'll get another chance if he continues to work at this level.)

But then, part of why Oscar voters may have overlooked Miles Teller is that they were gobsmacked by J.K. Simmons. As tyrannical maestro Fletcher, he's one of the most terrifying villains ever put on film. You cringe when he rages. You tense even more when he softens, because you fear he's just baiting a trap of emotional manipulation. Every single scene he's in, the audience is on edge. And the capper of it all is that Simmons understands "Villain 101" -- Fletcher doesn't see himself as a villain. Indeed, one of the movie's most powerful scenes reveals exactly what makes this monster tick. It may not make him sympathetic, as horrible as he is, but it does make him recognizable as a plausible human being. His like certainly does exist in the world somewhere. (Shiver.) J.K. Simmons quite deservedly won a Golden Globe for this role, and if there's any justice, he'll come away with the Oscar too.

You get so wound up watching the movie that you really can't actually enjoy the music. But that's a shame, as we're talking about one of the most joyful types of music there is, jazz. Jazz is the vital backdrop of the film, and the movie includes a number of amazing songs -- some famous standards (most critically, "Caravan"), but mostly a number of electric new originals. I can surely see myself picking up the movie's soundtrack album to more purely enjoy these songs... assuming that the film hasn't built up so powerful an association with them that even listening to them in isolation becomes tense too.

I really was impressed by Boyhood this past year, and I can hardly begrudge it the Best Picture Oscar it will very likely win. But now I've seen Whiplash, which is said to be squarely in the "it's an honor just to be nominated" camp. And now I'm sad that the true Best Picture of 2014 isn't going to be recognized as such. Whiplash is an unqualified A, and takes the top slot on Top 10 List from last year.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What the Future Holds

One of the first movies released in 2015 isn't playing in many movie theaters... thanks to its simultaneous release in a number of home pay-per-view formats. It's called Predestination, and it comes with a rather distinguished pedigree.

First, it's based off a short story by Robert Heinlein entitled "All You Zombies." Second, it comes writer-director team the Spierig Brothers, among the very few people to pull off a respectably good original movie released in January -- the intriguingly different vampire film Daybreakers. Third, the Spierigs re-teamed with their star from that movie, Ethan Hawke, who has thoroughly demonstrated a taste for unusual but high-quality movies.

It's frankly hard to say much about Predestination without starting to give away elements of the plot. As minimally as I can state it: it's a science fiction story about time travel. An agent jumps around in time on the trail of the "Fizzle Bomber," a seemingly anarchic terrorist who has defied all efforts to be caught. But after a major setback, the agent embarks on a mission to recruit someone new, a man with an amazing history of his own.

More than virtually any adaptation of a famous science fiction author's work, Predestination adheres quite closely to its source material. An additional subplot is grafted onto the film, but the core of the short story is retained beat for beat, which immediately makes the film unusual among, say, the raft of Philip K. Dick-inspired movies. That's even more unusual when you consider that the plot of the story is bizarre enough that you might have easily thought no one would have dared to film it.

That the movie works at all is a credit to the two main performances. Ethan Hawke nails the film noir hero type, narrating (in a way) through a series of audio recordings as he presents the dry portrait of a man who has seen at all and is surprised by nothing. Sarah Snook seems destined for greater fame, lending amazing credibility to an incredibly demanding role at the core of the plot. She presents a tough exterior while making visible the hurt beneath, and is sympathetic throughout.

But at a certain point, it does start to feel as though the film's primary raison d'être is to surprise the audience with its ever-twisting plot. For the first twist (or perhaps two), the effect is pretty remarkable. Yet then, like a wary funhouse patron, you begin to look in every shadow, behind every curtain, trying to anticipate from where the next surprise will come. And with the central theme being time travel (and the film's title being a major clue), it's not particularly hard to guess. I watched the film as part of a small audience of five at my house, and all of us had figured out how the movie was going to end well ahead of actually getting there.

Predictable though it might be in the end, it certainly doesn't start out that way. Indeed, not enough hard sci-fi movies like this are being made -- definitely not this entertaining and featuring performances this compelling. Simply put, this ride is fun. I'd give Predestination a B+. If you're a fan of thoughtful science fiction, you should absolutely check it out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stop in the Name of Law

From time to time, I've noted my ever-expanding interest in the U.S. Supreme Court. This has sometimes manifested in reading books on the subject, and it did so again during my flight out to Hawaii last month: I read Michael G. Trachtman's book, The Supremes' Greatest Hits. Its bold subtitle proclaims it will cover "The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life," and that sold me on it being worth the read.

This is not a lengthy and opaque read stuffed with legal jargon. It's definitely aimed at a non-lawyer audience, which certainly I would have thought included me. Instead, the book demonstrated to me that I've probably reached a level of familiarity with the subject that outstrips the average layperson.

First of all, I already knew about a lot of the cases this book covers. That's no fault of the author's; if he really is picking the most important Supreme Court cases to discuss, anyone with even a bit of knowledge is likely to be familiar with them. Thus, it's expected and appropriate for the book to cover Marbury v. Madison (why the Supreme Court has so much power to affect your life in the first place), Miranda v. Arizona (the reason anyone who has ever watched a cop show can recite their "Miranda rights"), Brown v. Board of Education (the strong roots from which all rulings fostering racial equality grew), and so forth. If you aren't familiar with any of those cases I just named, you can stop reading my review now and go with this recommendation: pick up a copy of this book and read it.

Secondly, I knew of several cases I think the book should have covered. The author's lens is focused a bit too much on the straight male. He does cover a number of important cases on race, so at least he isn't focused on the straight white male. But Roe v. Wade is the only major case covered involving womens' rights. I would have included Craig v. Boren, the case that raised the bar on judicial scrutiny (the degree of "legal leeway") in matters involving gender classifications. In the area of gay rights, it's unfortunate that the book only covers a case where equality lost (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale), while relegating the landmark cases of Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas to mere mentions in passing.

Another oddity of the book is the way it simultaneously holds the Supreme Court in high esteem while expressly acknowledging how susceptible it is to swaying with the political winds. Yes, the Supreme Court is a political entity, as evidenced by the fact that in just the few years since the book was published, at least two of the "37 cases" have been seriously undermined by new Supreme Court rulings. (Buckley v. Valeo's campaign finance limitations, and Grutter v. Bollinger's endorsement of affirmative action.) Yet even though the book expressly acknowledges that a 5-4 vote split one year can be turned around just a few years later, it simultaneously praises the Court as a venerable institution. If the book were to come down on one side of this or the other, it would make a good deal more sense.

Still, the book did teach me about a few cases I hadn't heard of, and the author has a very approachable style. It's easy to read; I breezed through it in just a few hours (with plenty of flight time to spare for a subpar movie). For me specifically, I'd probably call it a B- overall. But I think that grade inches upward, to a B or even B+, depending on how unfamiliar the reader is with the cases included.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Life in Movies

Life Itself was not only supposed to have been a nominee for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary, it was thought by many to be the favorite to win the prize. But the Academy served up several surprises this year. The "whiteness" of the Acting nominees has been widely reported and criticized, as has the absence of The Lego Movie from the Best Animated Feature category. The omission of Life Itself is a lesser observed, but equally unexpected, development.

Taking its name from his own autobiography, Life Itself is a 90-minute look at the life and career of the famous film critic Roger Ebert. It covers his rise to prominence, his winning of the Pulitzer Prize (unheard of for a film critic), his oil-and-water television pairing with Gene Siskel, dedication to giving up alcohol, marriage, and unfortunate diagnosis with thyroid cancer -- which ultimately led to his death. Ebert gave total access to the filmmakers during what would end up being his final days, intent on having the same unvarnished realism in the telling of his tale that he looked for in the movies he loved.

To be honest, Life Itself feels far from essential entertainment. I don't think it makes any profound statements about... well.... "life itself." It's not exposing some aspect of modern life or history that few people know about; everyone knows who Roger Ebert was. But there is a reason Ebert had the respect of Hollywood and fans of movies. More than any professional critic (and certainly more than the amateurs, including myself), he would evaluate a film within its own context: what was that movie trying to achieve, for what audience, and how successful was it in attaining that? So to people who appreciated his work, Life Itself is at least an interesting, if perhaps cursory, look at what made the man tick, what gave him the outlook he had.

On that count, probably the most illuminating revelation of the film is that Ebert was an only child, explaining a lot about his prickly relationship with Gene Siskel. Ebert did not grow up having to share the spotlight, and did not have a brother to fight with; Siskel seemingly was the brother he never had, thrust upon him by some savvy PBS producer.

Life Itself is also perhaps illuminating as one example of dealing with debilitating disease, an affliction that cruelly robs someone of the ability to speak. Here is the real-life look at that, compared with the similarly-timed, dramatized version of it presented in the Oscar nominated The Theory of Everything. It is sad to witness, though perhaps precisely because it isn't being dramatized (and because Ebert had such a loving and supportive wife), it doesn't quite feel like as much of a tearjerker to the at-arm's-distance audience. Not that personal tragedies should be measured and graded, of course, but framing them within a film encourages one to do exactly that.

In all, Life Itself is a perfectly fine documentary. But it's not an exceptional one. I don't cry foul on its omission from Oscar consideration. It's not that I've seen any of the other nominees for comparison, but I simply feel that somewhere, there were likely five more worthy candidates. A nomination here would really only have been a way to honor Roger Ebert himself more than the film about him, and the Academy certainly has other ways it could do that. I give Life Itself a B-.

Monday, January 19, 2015

TNG Flashback: Imaginary Friend

First, the Star Trek: The Next Generation writers brought Worf's son Alexander onto the ship as a recurring character. Then they had a kid imitate Data. Then came another "cute kid" story, "Imaginary Friend."

The Enterprise is exploring a nebula where a strange, unseen phenomenon is inhibiting propulsion. As the crew investigates, an alien entity made of energy sneaks undetected onto the ship for a look around. It manifests itself in human form as "Isabella," the imaginary friend of young Clara Sutter, a girl struggling to make friends on the Enterprise. After Isabella watches the way adults treat Clara, she decides her people should destroy the ship and everyone aboard.

At first, I didn't understand why The Next Generation was repeatedly drawn to these child-centric stories. Then I found this quote from writer Brannon Braga, who crafted the final script for this episode after several freelancers had tried and failed: "The funny thing about kid shows in the Star Trek universe is you can get conflict with kids because they're not developed yet like our perfect adults. In a strange kind of way, kids can have more problems and conflict than our regulars. They can still be imperfect." Aha! The writers saw children as a way around the Roddenberry-imposed edict that future humans would be masters of conflict resolution (and thus, enemies of compelling television drama).

But against that perceived benefit to using children are myriad shortcomings. Most childrens' problems seem petty and small from an adult perspective, particularly when set against a backdrop of galactic adventure. Finding a child performer who can actually act (much less two, as this episode called for) is a tall order. And how much conflict can a child really introduce when, ultimately, an adult can just say "go to your room?" (From a television perspective, I mean. I understand that real-life parents, whose lives don't fit neatly into one-hour episodes, don't have it so easy.)

I guess all of this is me slow-walking my way to this point: this episode is just plain terrible. Its sins are numerous. I'll begin with one I've repeated often of bad episodes: it's another "all about the guest star" story that barely involves the main characters. Only Troi figures prominently in more than one or two scenes, and her role here of counseling a child was far more effective in past episodes involving Alexander -- because in those cases the story involved Worf, another main character. We simply don't know Ensign Sutter and his daughter, and this episode does little to make us care.

This "guest star episode" is anchored by guest stars who can't carry the weight. Noley Thornton does alright as Clara Sutter (and would be used again on Deep Space Nine, in fact). But as Isabella, Shay Astar is a one-note bore. She comes off sinister and arch from the first moment she appears, one of The Shining twins in a blonde wig. Not only does the audience instantly know what's up, it's actually impossible to believe that young Clara would actually accept her now-visible "friend" instead of instantly freaking the hell out.

Not that the script helps the poor young actress. Isabella is one-note on the page as well. And this was apparently Braga's contribution to the story that saved it from rewrite hell. The character was a friendly and curious alien in earlier drafts, but Braga decided to take it in a darker direction. This may have added some bite to the script, sure, but it doesn't entirely make sense. What exactly is Isabella's motivation for goading Clara into breaking rules? Why does she want to go to Engineering so badly? Why, if her first instinct is so hateful, does she bother to live among the crew at all? Why not just proceed directly to destroying the ship?

The resolution is equally unsatisfying. Picard has delivered many a lofty speech in his time (and Patrick Stewart has sold the hell out of all of them), but it strains credibility that the handful of words he offers here are enough to change the alien's mind. That's partly because an impassioned speech about the value of children is inherently awkward coming from Picard. He's come a long way from the "I can't stand children" attitude he held in the beginning, but that left such an indelible mark on the character that it's hard to see him coming this far. Sure, he's figured out how to deal with children, but here he's their champion, and that's a tough sell.

Patrick Stewart isn't the only one straining mightily in this episode. After being occupied with other jobs for most of the season, Whoopi Goldberg suddenly became available here near the end of it. So a last minute rewrite was done to cram Guinan into the script. A cloud-watching scene originally meant for Dr. Crusher was transferred to her instead, and a runner about Guinan's own imaginary friend was added. Sure, Whoopi Goldberg has fun with it. But this story really doesn't merit her talents. In fact, Guinan's presence undermines things a bit; when Troi basically turns to Guinan for advice on how to do her job, it weakens Troi as a character.

But perhaps the biggest sin of all is that this episode recycles much of its premise from another bad episode, "The Child." In case you've blocked it out (in which case, good for you), that episode was about an alien ball of light that came aboard the Enterprise and took on the form of a child to study humanity. At least that episode had the emotional dimension of it being Troi's child, adding personal stakes for one of the characters. Though that episode had ample room for improvement, this one recycles its material for somehow worse results.

Most of the staff didn't even realize just how bad an episode they'd made. Brannon Braga said in a later interview that his work on this script was the most gratifying for him of the whole season. Producer Rick Berman loved the premise, noting "where else but in science fiction could you do an idea about an imaginary friend who turns out not to be imaginary?" (How about Sesame Street? I hear everyone can actually see Mr. Snuffleupagus these days.)

Only staff writer Herbert J. Wright seemed to acknowledge what a dog they'd made. He gave an interview noting the lack of focus on the main characters, and opined that showrunner Michael Piller envisioned this as a lost alien story, a la E.T. (However, Wright didn't totally understand the problem either. He was also critical of doing "90 percent personal stories" on Star Trek in general. In my view, it was the lack of personal stakes -- for anyone we cared about, at least -- that hurt this episode.)

Other observations:
  • Geordi gets a bit of back story in this episode. We learn that both his parents were in Starfleet as he grew up. (A later episode would pick up this tidbit and run with it.)
  • The quality of the food and drinks in Ten Forward must have really declined in Guinan's absence. First, Clara orders a juice without taking a sip, and later Troi orders a chocolate cake without having a bite.
  • When Brannon Braga rescued this story from the slush pile to craft the final script, he chose it over a number of half-baked Q episodes that were also in the works. So, adding to this episode's other offenses, it's the reason fans of Q didn't get a Q episode in season 5.
Bottom line: this was the worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation since season 2. And as I'm unable to find any kind of silver lining in it, I can only grade it an F.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Team (Fire)Work

Fresh on the heels of discovering Pandemic: The Cure, a short cooperative game, I came across another game in this interesting little niche, Hanabi, by designer Antoine Bauza. In roughly 30 minutes, players work as a team to put on a fireworks show to dazzle an undepicted crowd. The mechanics don't especially support this conceit in any way I can divine, but it doesn't seem vital to this particular game.

There's a deck of cards in 5 colors; each color has three cards valued 1, two 2s, two 3s, two 4s, and a single 5. From this total of 50 cards, each player draws a hand of four cards which is immediately turned around, Liar's Poker style. Everyone else gets to see your hand, but you do not. On your turn, you must take one of three actions: play a card from your hand, discard a card from your hand to place a "hint" chip in the group pot, or remove one of those hint chips to pass your turn and tell someone else something about their hand. The types of hints you may give are tightly constrained: you pick a single color or value present in another player's hand, then point to all the cards in their hand that match that value or color.

Cards must be played in ascending order. A perfect game would involve all cards numbered 1 through 5 being played in all five colors. But as this is a game of imperfect information, there are many pitfalls along the way. If the players discard all copies of a certain number in a certain color, there's no going back. If a player jumps over a 2 by, say, playing a 3 from hand on top of a 1, there's no going back. You're always going forward, always trying to pack the straights as tightly as you can.

Sometimes, you have to just play (or discard) a card blindly from your hand, without any information on what it actually is until you've made your decision. There's a mechanic for this as well. The team is allowed three mistakes -- playing illegal cards that are numbered too low to go on the stack of their color. With the fourth mistake, the team loses the game.

There are, of course, many ways you could cheat within these rules to compromise the game. When giving a hint to a friend, you could be: "These two cards are yellow. These TWO (pointing to one card in particular and winking) cards, THIS one and this other one, are your TWO yellow cards." You just have to have a group willing to play within the spirit of the rules, or able to enjoy a hollow, cheating victory.

But assuming all your teammates are on the level, there are a lot of interesting mind games to be played here. "Why is he giving me this particular clue right now?" "Which of my teammates needs help the most right now?" "If I count cards in the discard pile right now, can I figure out what this random green card I have is without getting another hint from anybody?" There's a lot of dimension to this simple rules set.

What the game doesn't have, which may or may not be a deal breaker for your gaming group, is a specific victory condition. You can blow yourselves up with four strikes and lose, but otherwise all you can do is play as many cards out of the possible 25 that you can. The rulebook provides tiers of success (the 18 points our five-person team got on my first play, for example, was a "crowd pleaser"), but you can't really "win" the game, short of attaining the virtually impossible 25 point maximum. Contrasted with other cooperative games that present the team a specific goal, this does make Hanabi feel more like a puzzle than a game.

Still, it seemed like a rather enjoyable puzzle to me. And one that would definitely take on different textures when played with different mixes of players. Hanabi is also refreshing among cooperative games in that it's harder for one player to dominate the strategy. For example, in games like Ghost Stories (also designed by Antoine Bauza) or Pandemic, it sometimes happens that a "leader" emerges to control all the players, telling people what to do on their turns and removing some of the fun individual agency from the game. A Hanabi leader could certainly exert pressure on players to "play a card this turn!" or "discard to get us a hint token!" But ultimately, the game's own rules constraining how hints are given keeps players from suggesting too much, and gives everyone a chance to do something.

It's quite possible my interest in Hanabi would wane as soon as I was part of a perfect game, but until then I suspect I'll look on it rather well. I give it a B+.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Time and Tide

This week's episode of Agent Carter not only confirmed for me that this series is better in one episode doses, it may actually have been the best episode yet aired.

The balance of elements was much more skillfully struck this week. The action was more intense and realistic, with that brutal brawl on the ship between Carter and the big thug. (Even if you knew that thug would be getting a "back massage" to end the fight.) The humor was much more dry and strategically deployed. (Jarvis' quip that the "death ray" was in fact accounted for was fantastic.)

Most importantly, the drama hit well too. Krzeminski was the most cartoonish character on the show, a huge oaf who we wanted to see taken down a peg for his treatment of Carter. Having him get killed was substantially more than a peg, but it certainly served to make the villains of this tale seem a more credible threat.

Surprisingly, it even resonated with some emotional impact. No, it's not as though the audience was going to get choked up over it. But Carter did, and believably. It was a wonderful payoff for the nosy neighbor subplot, when Carter shared her bad day at the end of the episode. By all rights, that subplot should have been an obnoxious distraction from all the spy thrills, but instead it served as a vital and human element of the story, rounding out Carter as more than just an underappreciated badass. This death worked better for that purpose than that of the nearly anonymous roommate in the pilot.

It all felt like a step in the right direction to me, the high end of B. (Maybe even B+.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Movie With Heart

One of my favorite movies of 2014 won't be in contention for any Oscars. It isn't eligible. The Normal Heart was an HBO original movie that aired several months back, though I was only recently able to watch it. Based on a mostly autobiographical play by Larry Kramer, the movie focuses on the earliest days of the AIDS crisis as it rips through the New York gay community in the early 1980s.

These days, TV producer Ryan Murphy is known for lighter fare like Glee and The New Normal. Even his darker series, American Horror Story, is more about having fun than being truly dramatic. It was thus a bit of a departure for Murphy to take on The Normal Heart, and an even greater departure for him to direct it himself. He nevertheless proved to be the man for the job; he assembled an exceptional cast, and guided them in giving exceptional performances.

Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, a strident firebrand who feels that even his fellow activists aren't taking the situation seriously enough. It's a difficult role, in that the character spends most of his time angry -- a set-up for a decidedly one-note performance in the hands of a lesser actor. Ruffalo brings many tones of rage, from ice cold to white hot, and is equally compelling in the tender scenes Weeks has with his lover, Felix Turner.

That role is played by Matt Bomer, who won widespread critical praise (and recently, a Golden Globe) for the performance. With AIDS the main subject of the story, it's likely no spoiler to say that Felix becomes one of its victims. Bomer's intense performance not only shows the emotional toll of the disease, he also undergoes radical weight loss to show its physical ravages as well. Working together, Bomer and Ruffalo make AIDS, which to some might be an abstract disease, feel very real and personal.

The supporting cast is filled with still more talented actors. Jim Parsons, best known for comedy on The Big Bang Theory, delivers a powerful eulogy in a funeral scene that quantifies the losses in the AIDS epidemic. Taylor Kitsch, who Hollywood has been trying to shove in the action hero box for years, returns to his more dramatic Friday Night Lights roots, plays an intriguing character neither fully in nor out of the closet. Alfred Molina plays the brother of the main character, struggling to accept homosexuality as "normal," and plays some of the best scenes in the movie with Ruffalo and Bomer. Julia Roberts is stronger than she's been in years, playing a prickly doctor afflicted by polio, the only one trying to help AIDS patients at the time. And Joe Mantello, who starred in a Broadway staging of The Normal Heart, is "demoted" here to a secondary role among these film and TV stars, though he still delivers one killer monologue late in the movie.

But all these excellent performances wouldn't work as well as they do if the script wasn't just as excellent. The movie is "activist" without feeling preachy, fiery without seeming like a screed. It builds up a group of characters, makes you really feel for them, and then you're ready to understand what they're going through.

I give The Normal Heart an A-. The fact that it was made for TV may keep the Oscars from acknowledging it, but there's no such division on my movie list. I'm updating my top 10 of 2014 to include it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Perfect Mate

"The Perfect Mate" is sort of a throwback episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an episode that in many ways feels like an original series story.

The Enterprise is escorting an ambassador and his cargo to peace negotiations between two long-warring planets. Meddlesome Ferengi guests tamper with the cargo, causing a woman named Kamala to emerge from stasis. She is an "empathic metamorph," a woman with the ability to sense the desires of a man and mold her personality to fulfill them. She is also destined to marry one of the quarreling leaders as a way to facilitate peace. But as she and Captain Picard interact more on the journey to the negotiations, a deeper connection begins to develop between them.

The original series did in fact do an episode very much like this, "Elaan of Troyius." The Enterprise was transporting a woman with a seductive power over men, on her way to an arranged marriage; Captain Kirk made advances along the way. I don't know whether this similarity was known to Reuben Leder, the outside writer who originally pitched the idea (and friend of show runner Michael Piller). In any case, the writing staff took the concept and ran with it, with Piller himself doing the final rewrite. Interestingly, the result compelled Leder to use a pseudonym, "Gary Perconte." This was the only instance in Piller's tenure on the series that a writer asked for his name to be removed from an episode. I'm not sure what Leder's objection to the finished product was, but I do have one of my own. Chances are, though, this was baked in from the beginning: the story feels a bit misogynistic.

The script does a lot of heavy lifting to mask it. First, we're told the there are actually far more male "empathic metamorphs" born than females, encouraging us to imagine that the common scenario is a man becoming subservient to a woman rather than what is depicted here. Second, they hang a big bell on the whole thing by having Beverly specifically object to the arranged marriage as a form of prostitution (and she actually uses that word) -- though the Prime Directive rather conveniently disposes of that conflict. Third, Kamala herself tells us that without someone else's emotions to sense and respond to, she feels incomplete as a person. This last notion is an interesting one to unpack. It's really hard not to see this scenario as Beverly does -- or even worse, as a form of slavery. But if Kamala really is the ultimate extrovert, then, well... you sort of have to take her at her word.

Of course, that speech from Kamala really isn't about absolving the writers of misogyny so much as it's about setting up the character as a tragic figure for the story's conclusion. And here's where I'm really of two minds about the episode... because if you can see yourself to overlooking the sexism inherent in the premise, the episode is actually rather remarkable.

Were you to hear that the next episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was about a woman who changes to please a man, you'd probably assume Riker would be at the core of that story. And the episode initially plays with that expectation. Riker's wide-eyed reaction to the description of what Kamala does is simply priceless, as is the scene in which she kisses him. (As for his line afterward, that he's going to Holodeck Four, it's hilariously explicit by Star Trek standards, and could well have inspired the "I'll be in my bunk" joke given to Jayne in an episode of Firefly.)

But instead (and setting this episode quite apart from "Elaan of Troyius"), this story winds up focusing on Picard. A relationship develops quite naturally between him and Kamala. She is drawn to him precisely because he's trying to be responsible and resist her. She breaks down his barriers bit by bit, first with a shared interest in archaeology, later with a shared sense of duty to broker peace. That obligation, combined with what Kamala told us earlier about needing to be truly with somebody, makes the ending a heartbreak for both her and Picard. The man Kamala marries seems scarcely interested in her, which will surely make the rest of her life miserable. At the same time, Picard has let his guard down in a way he really never has before (certainly not with the "sleep with one eye open" Vash), yet he will find no lasting joy from it. This is an ending you never could have gotten had the story been told with Riker, who would have shirked duty to go after the girl.

Of course, the biggest part of what makes this episode work is the fantastic acting of Patrick Stewart. He does the hardest thing of all at the end of this episode, letting you inside his character's head in a moment where he hasn't got a single word of dialogue. The moment where he gives Kalama away to her groom and then stands by in silence speaks volumes.

But it takes two to tango, and no less credit is due to guest star Famke Janssen. Her role here as Kamala definitely comes "before she was famous," but she goes toe-to-toe with Stewart and has tremendous chemistry with him. (The relationship between them would be quite different when, years later, he would play Professor Xavier and she Jean Grey.) Janssen also does well shading her character's behavior as she interacts with different men, and is especially powerful in the speech where Kamala reveals her permanent bond with Picard. When she says that the core of being a metamorph is the feeling of hearing yourself say "I like myself when I'm with him," you feel her stating a general truth about being in love.

Famke Janssen definitely made an impression on the producers, because she later auditioned for the role of Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- and was actually their first choice. Ultimately, she wanted to be able to pursue a diversity of roles, and asked the show to guarantee her that she'd have time to accept films on the side. When they would not give her that guarantee, she walked away from the role, much like Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher and Michelle Forbes as Ro Laren (who also was originally intended to be on Deep Space Nine). Still, Janssen did leave an unintended mark on the role of Jadzia Dax. When the producers decided that the original Trill makeup wasn't working for the character after two days of shooting, they were inspired by the spotted pattern used on Kamala in "The Perfect Mate" and asked for a change.

Another fun guest star in this episode is Max Grodénchik as one of the two Ferengi. At least, it's fun because of the knowledge that he would later play Rom on Deep Space Nine. As far as this episode goes, although through no fault of his own, the two Ferengi in this episode are obnoxious even by Next Generation Ferengi standards. How exactly they planned to get Kamala off the ship, or share her once they did, is unexplained and unexplainable. And even as comic relief, it strains credibility that a Ferengi would be stupid enough to try "I was looking for a barbershop" as an excuse. (Though there is a fun moment when Grodénchik's character states that "peace is good for trade"; he's come within one word of stating one of the Rules of Acquisition that would later be developed on Deep Space Nine.)

Other observations:
  • Try not to dwell on Riker's request that the Ferengi be given quarters "not too close to mine." There's an undercurrent of sexism in this episode. Why not some racism too?!
  • Try also not to think about some simple precautions that could have been taken to prevent this whole story from unfolding: Can't they just lock the cargo bay door? Or put Kamala back into medical stasis once the ambassador is injured?
  • Data makes a fine enough chaperone for Kamala, I suppose. But wouldn't any of the hundreds of women on the Enterprise have been equally suitable? Or perhaps that gay character some fans had been bugging you for?
  • Speaking of the women on the Enterprise, I feel Troi's absence from this episode a bit. Surely there was an interesting conversation to be had between an empath who uses her skills as a working professional and another empath who uses her skills as a... (ahem)... working professional, to paraphrase Dr. Crusher.
  • And now speaking of Crusher, this episode has two great scenes between her and Picard that once again make me wish that more of a relationship between them had been depicted on the series. It feels far more compelling than the Riker-Troi and Troi-Worf pairings we did get.
  • There's a wonderful deleted scene on the Blu-ray edition of this episode. After Picard gives away Kamala to her groom, he allows himself a brief fantasy in which he stands up for their relationship and decides they should remain together. Michael Piller reportedly came up with this at the last minute, with Patrick Stewart's full support. Producer Rick Berman vetoed the idea, however, and perhaps with good reason: the moment feels quite out of character for Star Trek: The Next Generation as opposed to, say, Ally McBeal or something. Still, it's great to be able to at least see the moment, as an extra twist of the knife on Picard.
My reservations about this episode's premise keep me from giving it the highest of marks. But I have to praise Patrick Stewart and Famke Janssen for their wonderful performances. They squeeze every drop of juice they can from this episode, lifting it all the way to a B+.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Back in Training

The first How to Train Your Dragon was a fun little film (if a bit flawed -- but then, so are the Pixar films these days). I thought last year's sequel might be worth checking out.

On the plus side, this follow-up does seize the opportunity to evolve from where the first film ended, portraying a society that has learned from the hero Hiccup to incorporate dragons throughout their daily lives. On the (rather large) down side, this is about the only way in which events unfold in a logical way.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 certainly has "sequence of events" which take place, but lacking any of the sense necessary to truly call it a "plot." Characters can't do things, then later suddenly can without us ever having seen them learn to do so. They have abrupt changes of heart without motivation. They wallow in an emotion for one scene as though intensity will make up for the fact that they'll be completely over it in the next scene. Sure, the audience for the film is primarily children, so I'm not expecting the story to be complicated or deep. But I am asking it to be more connected than a spinning mobile with dragons dangling from the strings.

The entire cast of the first film returns. Joining the originals are Cate Blanchett (wielding her Galadriel gravitas), Djimon Hounsou (growling with menace as the villain of the piece), and Kit Harrington (of Game of Thrones). The ensemble does inject enough skill into the movie to at least make the nonsense fun going down. Kristen Wiig is particularly funny in the occasional one-liners her character tosses off.

Still, at its core, the movie felt to me like the "kids' movie" version of the "mindless summer blockbuster" in which a threadbare script exists only to deliver explosions -- in this case, dragons. Given how many people seem to have no problem with those explosion movies, I'm sure there's an audience that will enjoy How to Train Your Dragon 2 a great deal. Me, I found it to be a C- movie. It felt like the sort of thing that would slowly drive a parent nuts if it was the movie their child insisted on watching every day.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

And the Golden Globes Snark Goes To...

Tonight was the Golden Globes. As always, a small group of my snarkiest friends got together to watch the ceremony. Some of our better observations (a few even sincere) are below:

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler lead off with a great opening monologue, as always. And as always, they can count on Steve Carell to give a good reaction shot and George Clooney to gracefully be the butt of a great joke.

Robert Duvall was napping before his award came up.

Jeremy Renner seems to be struggling to keep his eyes on his lines and off of Jennifer Lopez's crazy-revealing dress. And then he finally lets the "Globes" joke fly.

Here I pause to applaud the Golden Globes favoring the wonderful series Fargo over the pretentious, overrated True Detective.

Is Benedict Cumberbatch quietly changing back and forth between black and white jackets while we aren't looking?

After the win by Gina Rodriguez, somewhere at the CW, some press agent is going, "Wh-wh-what do I do now? We've never won one of these. We've never won one of anything!"

Kerry Washington seems to have stolen her dress from the wardrobe of The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

Is Prince trying to look like he's blind with the sunglasses and white cane?

The show director needed four tries to find a camera angle of Ryan Murphy after Matt Bomer mentioned him.

Amy Adams' toga/grandmother's drapes dress looks like it has removed one of her breasts.

Selma Hayek's dress is quilted for softness.

I haven't seen all the films in the Animated Feature category, but I have seen the lamely typical sequel that is How to Train Your Dragon 2 (review to come), and from what I've heard of the other movies, the Globes chose as the winner the worst movie of the lot.

Jared of Nazareth. (Leto, that is.)

It started out like Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader were auditioning to replace Amy and Tina as hosts for next year's Globes... but somewhere along the way, they decided to entertain themselves more the audience.

Jane Fonda is unaware of the significant difference between House of Cards and House of Lies.

I sure hope Colin Farrell is shooting a Western right now. Or are goofy mustaches required in True Detective?

Adrian Brody came dressed as Keanu Reeves.

Every time someone says "Olive Kitteridge," it sounds like (broad sweep of hands) "All of
Kitteridge."

The TV series drama category seems bungled too. From everything I've seen and/or heard about, the worst choice in the category won.

It looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones is wearing a dress with a broken strap.

David Duchovny looks and sounds like he's been living a hard life.

When Netflix, the CW, and Amazon are winning all the awards, television has officially changed.

The placement of the NBC logo has been giving sleeveless women tattoos all night long.

Matthew McConaughey is all "why are you showing me?" when George Clooney is talking about being a loser.

One of these days, Owen Wilson just needs to whip it out and say, "See, it doesn't look anything like my nose!"

Ruth Wilson's tailor doesn't seem to understand that you turn clothing right-side-out after you stitch in the seams.

Everybody is sweating a lot. We think the air conditioning in the room is broken.

Wes Anderson looks barely old enough to drive, let alone to have directed movies for as long as he has.

Matthew McConaughey sounds like he's doing a Southern civil war general voice. Or maybe a bad impression of himself.

Thank you, good night!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Everything Isn't Quite Awesome

In this year's Oscar race, The Imitation Game is not the only biopic film about an adversity-battling genius that's likely to be in the mix. We also have The Theory of Everything, the story of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. The film covers both the triumphant advancement of his scientific theories and the inexorable advancement of motor neuron disease that slowly robbed him of his movement and speech.

Even though The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are in fact more different from one another than, say, two typically mindless, explosion-laden blockbusters, it's hard not to compare the movies to one another. For a number of reasons, I'd give the edge to The Imitation Game. Still, The Theory of Everything is a fairly good film.

As is so often the case with biopics, the performances make the movie. Eddie Redmayne, who has lurked at the periphery of true fame for several movies now, is sure to break out in a big way now; his nomination for a Best Actor Oscar is guaranteed. He gives an exceptional performance as Stephen Hawking, in the face of two enormous challenges. First, the man he is playing is still alive, thus creating the need for a more spot-on "impersonation" that at the same time doesn't actually feel like a trick or an act. Second, he must portray the advancement of Hawking's motor neuron disease over a period of decades. In both of these aspects, Redmayne is flawless. His carefully modulated physicality early in the film hints that something is wrong even before Hawking's condition in diagnosed. His contortions in the later part of the film feel absolutely realistic, but leave you thinking afterward that he must have spent every day shooting the film in intense pain. I feel like Oscar voting for Best Actor could be sharply divided between those most wowed by this "degree of difficulty" and those impressed by the endless nuance of Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing. (Though I admire both performances, my vote would go to the latter. But I think both camps may lose to those supporting the comeback of Michael Keaton -- another fine performance, though for me a distant third.)

Another impressive performance, though in an entirely different way, comes from Felicity Jones as Stephen's wife Jane. I suppose if you know next to nothing about Stephen Hawking's life, this qualifies as a spoiler, but Jane ends up divorcing him after about two decades of marriage. Felicity Jones thus has the challenge of taking the audience through the gradual decay of the relationship. And she has another challenge in mostly doing this opposite an increasingly restricted actor who can't be giving her much to work off of. The fact that Jane comes off in fact sympathetic at the end of all this is a great testament to Jones' efforts.

So, as with The Imitation Game, the acting is flawless. And, as with The Imitation Game, it's the script that's flawed. It's ironic, given Stephen Hawking's quest for a unifying theory of physics, but the problem is that the movie lacks a unifying theme. It doesn't zero in on Hawking's work, or his disease, or his marriage -- it's about all those things, and doesn't really seem to be making a single, clear statement that weaves together all those separate threads.

Actually, the movie comes closest to crystallizing when viewed not as the story of Stephen Hawking, but of Jane Hawking. I was feeling this by about the halfway point, and the end credits confirmed that I wasn't imagining it -- the script is attributed as an adaptation of her autobiography. I suppose the powers-that-be thought it would be harder to market a movie about "the woman married to Stephen Hawking." But even in this focus, the movie stumbles a bit; the last 15-20 minutes of the film shift theme as Professor Hawking releases his famous book, A Brief History of Time. Jane suddenly feels like an extraneous character in the story she had been secretly the center of.

Continuing the inevitable comparison, The Theory of Everything is, like The Imitation Game, a film for people drawn to good performances. It arguably offers even more to that audience, though it also offers a bit less to the general audience. I would grade it a B-.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

One-Hundred Feet, Covering 3,338 Miles

My flight to Hawaii was partially filled with The Maze Runner. The 3,338-mile return flight to Denver was filled -- when not by sleeping -- with a movie of a very different character: The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Based on a 2010 novel by Richard C. Morais, the movie tells the story of feud between neighboring restaurants in rural France. One is an established and traditional restaurant with critical acclaim, the other an Indian restaurant being started by a newly settled family who lost everything back in Mumbai. The exacting matron of the French restaurant seeks to put these interlopers out of business, but in the process she discovers the tremendous culinary skill of the Indian family's son, Hassan.

I can't think of another movie that has been put together with quite these ingredients (pun certainly intended), but the general recipe is a very familiar one. It's a story of learning to overcome prejudice, unlocking one's untapped potential... in many ways, a classic hero's journey. The tone of the film is familiar too, as it comes from director Lasse Hallstrom, whose several credits most notably include The Cider House Rules. Essentially, to continue torturing the metaphor, this movie is "comfort food." You can take that in every sense, including the fact that despite its simple and predictable plot, the film is quite pleasant going down.

Helen Mirren stars as Madame Mallory, owner and operator of the French restaurant. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance here, which I think is less a nod to any great demands the script requires of her, but rather is a recognition of the deft touch she brings to this and all her work. She never brings histrionics where none are required. Mirren herself said of this film, "It's very hard to make a soufflé of a film, which is hopefully what this is, a well risen soufflé. But it's very hard to maintain that sort of lightness of touch." It's exactly that sort of insight that makes her so good.

Indeed, the film is the successful soufflé of which she speaks. All the ingredients are right. Manish Dayal is compelling and likeable as the budding chef Hassan. Om Puri is fun as his crotchety father, whose hard ways slowly soften throughout the film. Charlotte Le Bon is wonderful in perhaps the most nuanced role of the story, the part-love-interest, part-mentor, part-rival chef Marguerite.

Ultimately, I don't think the film deserves a spot on the upper echelons of my list. That light touch Mirren spoke of also means that any emotions the story conjures are too muted to be truly moving. And of course, there's the fact that the story ends up exactly where you predict it will within the first 10 minutes. Still, none of that takes away from the fact that the movie is a quite well-made version of what it set out to be. I'd grade it a B. If you're in the mood for a simple, gently uplifting tale, it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A New (Old) Agent Is in Town

Last night, Marvel (and ABC) premiered the mini-series Agent Carter, to serve as a two-month replacement while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on hiatus. Back in the first season of SHIELD, while it was still uneven at best, Carter probably would have been a fine replacement. Now that SHIELD has surged in quality, I'm feeling that Carter isn't going to fill the hole.

It was a fun show, for certain. The slightly campy, period setting that made me enjoy the first Captain America movie (more than I might have otherwise) is back in force, and just as enjoyable. It made for many great gags, from the ridiculous Captain America radio show to the 40s spy-tech version of "texting" (using a radio-controlled typewriter).

The lead character and performer are also very compelling. Agent Carter is a great protagonist. Television has been more progressive than movies have in bringing us these female spy masters (Alias and Covert Affairs come to mind, but there are more), but the time setting offers the opportunity to show something those other shows did not. Hayley Atwell, cast originally for one movie, seems more than capable of carrying a television series (be it for 8 episodes or 80). She commanded moments of action, humor, and drama in last night's premiere.

But I think a double-dose of two episodes was the wrong way to kick off the series. Put simply, what was some sugary fun for the first hour started to bore me a bit in the second hour. The "it's a man's world, toots" jokes began to wear a bit thin. The Macguffins moving the action from one place to the next seemed increasingly unclear, murky excuses to get to a new fight. To sustain through an hour and a half (without commercials), the series really needed to offer more -- and I don't mean an Ant-Man trailer at the end.

Of course, Agents of SHIELD took time to find itself too, so I'm hardly ready to write off Agent Carter. But then, Agent Carter doesn't have as many episodes ahead of it to grow and show more colors... so I guess we'll see.

Technically, last night's premiere was actually two episodes, so to grade them separately: I'd say the pilot was a fun, breezy statement of the show's identity, worth a B. The second episode was a too-formulaic restatement of that same identity, and was inferior to the pilot in just about every way, worth a C. We'll see how Agent Carter comes across next week, in its more traditional one-hour dose.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

TNG Flashback: Cost of Living

In my years as a designer for the Star Trek: Customizable Card Game, I went back and forth through every episode of Star Trek -- and The Next Generation in particular -- several times. So it's a bit of a rarity to come to an episode that I have virtually no memory of. Yet that's exactly what I found when I came to "Cost of Living."

After destroying an asteroid before it can collide with an inhabited planet, the Enterprise is infested with microscopic parasites. Systems fail one by one as the parasites feed on the nitrium metal within them, soon threatening basic operations. Meanwhile, Lwaxana Troi has come aboard with an unexpected announcement: she's engaged to marry a foreign dignitary she has never met. Looking for a distraction from the wedding she's clearly unenthusiastic to be planning, Lwaxana bonds with Alexander Rozhenko, who is bristling at the stern rules set out by his father, Worf.

Producer Rick Berman would routinely insist on injecting some science fiction element into every episode of the series in order to make it Star Trek. In some cases, this served only as a distraction from a strong character story. But here I wish there had been more of a sci-fi story line. The character-driven story in this episode just doesn't have enough gas to go anywhere.

I can't imagine that the writers would have crafted as many Lwaxana Troi episodes as they did if her performer, Majel Barrett, weren't "the boss' wife." And with this installment following the recent death of Gene Roddenberry, I suspect the writers felt it more than usually necessary to give Lwaxana her annual appearance. Yet they really didn't have a story to tell here. Barrett's recent loss provided the only inspiration they seemed to have; Lwaxana agreeing to marry a complete stranger just to combat her own loneliness is about the only genuine emotion in the episode.

The rest of it just feels like a waste of time. This isn't the first time we've seen Alexander quarrel with Worf, or Lwaxana with Deanna. Pairing Alexander with Lwaxana isn't particularly interesting either. It seems like the episode should make something of the fact that he's (mostly) Klingon and she's Betazoid, but it's a straightforward grandparent/grandchild type of relationship. The story focuses on the guest stars enormously, much like Lwaxana's last episode, but young Brian Bonsall is no David Ogden Stiers. And the stakes here are about as low as you can get.

The same lethargy extends to the B-plot. After a misleadingly action-packed teaser in which the Enterprise destroys an asteroid, nothing happens until the episode is literally more than half over. Every act ends with sparkly parasites moving around unseen by Our Heroes, as if to assure the audience, "no really, something will happen this episode -- just be patient!" But once we've come that far without anyone even noticing the parasites, it's hard to take them seriously as a threat to the ship. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if a more interesting take on the story might have involved putting the metal they eat inside of Data, thus making the threat personal to one of the characters. Yet I suspect the plot was a lost cause in any case.

Boring as the story is, though, there's still more here than in some of the worst of the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's because this episode, at least, is fairly funny. Worf is always good for a one-liner (and gets several here), but great punch lines are also given to Troi, Picard, Alexander, Lwaxana, and even a holodeck Juggler. There's some meta level amusement in the scene where Lwaxana interacts with the ship's computer (also played by Majel Barrett). And there are great sight gags too, from popping the "Wind Dancer" bubble to watching Worf grouse in a mud bath. (There's also the unintended humor in the outrageous dress and even more outrageous hairstyle Deanna Troi dons for her mother's wedding.) All this is not enough to make the episode good, though it does mostly make it bearable.

Other observations:
  • It's interesting that the Star Trek CCG didn't make me remember more of this episode, because at least half a dozen cards came from it. Like the episode, though, most of those cards weren't very good. "Wind Dancer" got a bit of play for countering other, powerful cards (though it targeted those cards narrowly, and thus lacked utility), while "The Higher... The Fewer" was sometimes an obnoxious way to force opponents to complete an extra mission (though it fell into disuse once the Borg affiliation came along.
  • When you stop and think about it a moment, Troi asserting herself between two Klingons to serve as their counselor requires no small amount of courage.
  • Nerd nitpick: When Data fires energy from the Bussard Collectors at the end of the episode, the energy instead comes from the phaser ring.
  • Though Lwaxana would make one more appearance on the series (and show up on Deep Space Nine as well), this would be the last Next Generation appearance of her valet, Mr. Homn.
  • The Blu-ray collection for season 5 includes two deleted scenes from this episode. One is a scene extension that shows Lwaxana bristling more under her fiance's rules. The other is a clever scene between Deanna and Worf, complaining about their unruly family members. Troi astutely notes that "grandparents and grandchildren get along so well because they have a common enemy."
  • Bad though this episode is, it actually won two Emmy Awards (Costume Design and Makeup), and was nominated for another (Hairstyling).
While the effective humor saves this episode from being one of the worst of the series, it's still the one of the worst of the season. I give it a D+.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Turing Test

I recently saw a movie sure to figure in a few categories at this year's Academy Awards, The Imitation Game. It's a biopic about the brilliant Alan Turing, and his pioneering work in computer science that was critical in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II.

Years ago, the script for The Imitation Game was lauded by "The Black List" as one of Hollywood's best unproduced scripts -- recognition which helped it sell for a healthy sum. At that time, Alan Turing was a figure well-known only in programmer circles. But in late 2013, after the film was already in progress, Turing's story gained a bit of attention for another reason -- Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him posthumously for his "gross indecency," a 1950s conviction for his crime of homosexuality.

So as you can see, The Imitation Game is poised to push all sorts of Awards buttons. It's taken from a real-life story involving genius, war, impossible odds, and gay rights. It's like Instant Best Picture, just add celluloid.

Which, as it turns out, is part of the problem. To be clear, The Imitation Game is a very good movie. The story is remarkable and unique. But as you watch it, you can't help but become aware that, as a movie, it feels a bit conventional. The scenes are good, but awfully familiar, so much so at times that you begin to doubt that the real history actually unfolded in this way. Turing, the misunderstood genius, is dismissed by everyone, even though he's actually the only man who can save the world. It's just too perfect.

For me, oddly, the "bridge too far" was a relatively minor detail. I found myself thinking that it was a too easy bit of "armchair psychology" that, according to the movie, Alan Turing named his code breaking machine after his schoolboy crush. Did he really do that? So after the movie, I did some research and learned the answer is no, he didn't. And in the course of Googling that, I found all sorts of other ways the film took liberties with the history.

Turing did not report to a commander who obstructed him at every turn. His team did not doubt that the machine was the best way to break the code. Though possessing a stammer far greater than what was portrayed, Turing was not a social pariah of undiagnosed Asperger's proportions. How could he have been? The man worked in the military-- in intelligence! -- while living in the closet, which in fact would have required a tremendous level of social awareness.

In all, so much was tweaked from reality that I think it would be more fair to say The Imitation Game was "Inspired by True Events" rather than "Based on True Events." And while I'm willing to give tremendous latitude to filmmakers trying to make a compelling movie, I'm not sure this story really needed to be dressed up so much. Or at least, not in a way that seemed to so methodically crib from the formula established by A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump, and others. But though I have reservations about the script, I still think the movie tells a story well worth telling. And it's not as though it does so badly, it just does so in a formulaic way.

As for the performances, I have no reservations whatsoever. Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely brilliant as Alan Turing. After his work as the title character on the BBC's Sherlock, it's easy to typecast him as an "antisocial, misunderstood genius." But he is not in any way channeling his version of Holmes in this performance. His Turing is fragile, awkward, and sympathetic... in addition to possessing the dogged, prickly brilliance you'd expect if you've watched Sherlock. It would be robbery for him not to receive a Best Actor nomination for this role, though I have little concern he won't.

Keira Knightley is solid as friend and colleague Joan Clarke, swaggering in at the start of the movie's second act and instantly commanding as much attention as Cumberbatch. Charles Dance brings the withering cynicism that made him an indelible Tywin on Game of Thrones, making an excellent "villain" of Commander Denniston. Mark Strong is excellent as Major General Menzies, actually generating some big laughs with his delivery of a few choice lines. Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear -- all of them have supporting roles, but all of them are outstanding in at least one key scene featuring their characters. And young Alex Lawther makes your heart go out to the grade school Turing in the film's early flashbacks.

All told, I do recommend The Imitation Game. And if you tend to like movies with strong acting, it's an absolute must-see. I give it a B+. But in a year of several phenomenal movies, its workmanlike manipulation of the audience keeps it from cracking my top 10.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Captive Audience for a Tale of Captivity

On my flight to Hawaii, I decided to watch a movie that probably wouldn't have made the cut were I not stuck on an airplane: The Maze Runner. The film is an adaptation of yet another young adult book series imperiling teenagers in an apocalyptic future. I haven't read this particular iteration of the premise, by author James Dashner, so I took the movie only on its own. Unfortunately, the movie didn't quite seem that it could stand on its own. Either important details had been lost in the adaptation from the book, or this first installment was relying too much on the arrival of later movies to provide missing context.

Of all the recent stories of this ilk, The Maze Runner most lets the influence of Lord of the Flies be visible: a bunch of young boys are trying to maintain a society in a secluded valley. But this valley lies at the center of a deadly maze that closes and rearranges itself each night. "Runners" attempt to find an escape for them all... if their makeshift society doesn't crumble first. The protagonist is Thomas, the latest of the monthly arrivals in this maze -- his memory erased, but his determination intact and his skills vital to the group.

Cracks in the premise appear almost immediately. We're told early on that every way to escape the maze has been tried before Thomas' arrival, but a casual brainstorm suggests several plausible ideas that ought to have been explained away. The kids are capable of making rope; can they climb to the top of the walls? They have tools that can carve into the maze walls; how about carving handholds? They have supplies (and new recruits) delivered to them by an elevator in the ground; have they used their tools to try to jam the doors and climb down the shaft?

Even if you ignore all this and take the backstory on faith, events portrayed within the movie also beg for an explanation that never comes. After dozens and dozens of boys are delivered into this maze/prison, the elevator serves up a single girl to kick off Act 2. This single exception to the "all boys club" is never explained. We do at least learn eventually where she (and Thomas) come from, but it's part of a cyclical explanation that fails to satisfy. Both because I don't want to give spoilers and because it seemed unclear to me, I'll summarize it vaguely as this: they've been chosen because they're special, and they're special because they were chosen.

The few people in the cast of lesser-known young actors do inject a bit of life into the proceedings. Dylan O'Brien, from MTV's Teen Wolf, makes a fairly charismatic hero. Thomas Brodie-Sangster -- who has appeared in everything from Love Actually to Phineas and Ferb to Game of Thrones -- is an effective face for the maze dwellers (even if the plot actually has him as the second-in-command). But the film is at a disadvantage compared to other YA dystopian franchises for having essentially no adult characters to cast with more heavy-hitting actors.

Still, the entertainment scale does fluctuate a bit when you're stuck on an airplane. The Maze Runner was good enough for a captive audience to pass two hours. There was an earnest and serious quality to it that kept me engaged until the end. Still, I'm not sure I'm going to look to the forthcoming sequel for the answers this movie should have provided. Not unless I'm stuck on another long flight, anyway. I give The Maze Runner a C-.