Friday, February 27, 2015

TNG Flashback: Time's Arrow, Part II

The sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation kicked off by wrapping up the cliffhanger that concluded season five.

Picard, Riker, Troi, Crusher, and LaForge have all time-traveled back to San Francisco in 1893, hoping to find Data, and tracking the sinister Devidians who have been preying on cholera victims of the time. As the away team struggles to maintain a cover, Data and Guinan struggle to avoid the nosy Samuel Clemens, who has learned of their true nature and is certain they mean Earth harm. Everything culminates in a subterranean cave where Data's destiny to lose his head is fulfilled, Clemens is transported into the future, and Guinan is critically injured. Will everyone, friend and foe, end up in their proper times, and will history unfold as it must?

Season 6 marked a milestone and a turning point for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The milestone was largely ceremonial, as the Enterprise-D had now passed beyond the (unfulfilled) "five year mission" of the original Enterprise. The transition was behind the scenes, as the staff was working to bring the next Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, to the screen. (Its two-hour pilot, "Emissary," began filming at the same time as "Time's Arrow, Part II.") Michael Piller, who had led the writers of The Next Generation for three straight seasons, took over the Deep Space Nine writing staff. Promoted into his place as The Next Generation showrunner was Jeri Taylor.

Taylor started her tenure by taking this first script for herself. She had story notes left by Part I writer Joe Menosky, but he had left for a sabbatical and wasn't there to wrap up the cliffhanger himself. Unfortunately, the convoluted time travel tale, with all its dangling threads that had to be resolved just right, took up a lot of Taylor's time. It was time she'd later regret she hadn't spent bonding with her team early in the season, breaking other stories with the newly added staff writers. As a result, she vowed that the staff would never again head to break on a cliffhanger without having its follow-up script completed first.

Unfortunately, for all Taylor's efforts to ensure that the time travel made sense, the narrative itself is rather inert, dramatically. The lack of tension and urgency is apparent right from the beginning of the episode. Time has passed since last we left our heroes, and a lot has happened to them... yet none of it is particularly important. We don't know how the Enterprise crew got set up in the past with an apartment, period clothes, and cover identities. The biggest obstacle they face is not the supposedly menacing aliens that are kinda-sorta eating "souls," but a busybody landlady demanding her rent. Similarly, Data's threat is not impending headlessness, but a nosy Samuel Clemens, who has so little credibility as an adversary that not even people of his own time believe his stories of "aliens among us."

Indeed, virtually no tension develops at any point in the episode. Essentially, our heroes spend the first half of it confirming that the Devidians were up to no good (which, duh, they pretty much knew at the end of Part I). In the end, the crisis is resolved by firing one photon torpedo. Granted, there's a little technobabble about how it has to be a special torpedo, but my point is that the Devidians never offer any kind of resistance. They're a candidate for the most pushover adversary in all of Star Trek, and for a race with the ability to time travel, that's a serious disappointment. Not even the U.S. military proves the slightest obstacle to the plot; even though the subterranean cave where the climax occurs is said to be on a military base, everyone sneaks in there without trouble. Samuel Clemens actually sneaks in twice, and then brings in a team of doctors to save Guinan, all apparently without raising any questions.

Speaking of Samuel Clemens being where he shouldn't, the episode takes a rather odd turn once he travels to the future. Suddenly, no one much seems to care how much he learns about the future. Yes, it all gets to where the story needs to go, with Clemens' suspicion giving way to support of these evolved future humans. But the behavior of the Enterprise crew seems a bit odd.

It's an episode big on references. We learn that the bellboy Data befriended is actually Jack London. There's also a fun moment when Samuel Clemens asks about Halley's Comet; in life, the real Clemens was born two weeks after the comet's closest approach to Earth in 1835, and he predicted his own death when it returned in 1910, which indeed happened one day after its closest approach.

The episode is also big on paying off references, attempting to unify all the snippets we've heard over the years about how Picard and Guinan first met. In "Booby Trap," we learned that a "bald man" was once very kind to Guinan. In "Ensign Ro," she said an "old man" once helped her when she was in "serious trouble." But the biggest problem with this subplot isn't its minor contradiction with "The Child," where Guinan told Wesley she'd never met Picard before coming aboard the Enterprise. The problem is that Picard doesn't really seem to do much. He stays with Guinan when she's injured, which isn't nothing, but he provides her no medical aid. Basically, Guinan is being awfully charitable to credit Picard so much here; it seems as though she would have lived anyway.

Other observations:
  • The young reporter who interacts with Samuel Clemens is played by Alexander Enberg, who would later play two Vulcans: Taurik, in TNG's "Lower Decks"; and Vorik, a recurring character on Voyager. Enberg is the son of sportscaster Dick Enberg and TNG writer-showrunner Jeri Taylor.
  • In my review of Part I, I noted a missed opportunity to not at least mention race in the context of the 1890s. There is a brief allusion to it here in Part II, when the cop accuses Geordi of having gotten hold of a "gentleman's cane" that implicitly can't belong to him.
  • Writer Ron Moore lamented the fact that the writers didn't do more with the 1890s time period. But he spoke of an idea -- dropped for time and budgetary limits -- that would have had the crew in the past for months before the start of this episode, with Picard having set up a restaurant. I don't think still less tension in the episode would have helped at all.
  • Although the San Francisco scenes in Part I were actually filmed on location, the Part II scenes were filmed right on the Paramount lot. The studio had built a "New York Street" set over the summer break, and Star Trek made a few modifications to it to set it in the 1890s.
  • This episode won two Emmy Awards: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Series, and Outstanding Individual Achievement in Hairstyling for a Series.
  • The Blu-ray release of season six includes a few deleted scenes from this episode. In a nice character moment, Dr. Crusher deals with the sexism and lack of medical knowledge in the 1890s. In an unneeded, redundant scene, we see Troi question the patient she later refers to in the episode-as-released. Lastly, in an overly long and unnecessary scene, we see Riker walking the beat as a cop, trading surreptitious words with Picard.
  • You know, I have to go back to the Guinan-Picard subplot here, because something is bothering me. If Guinan knew she was destined to meet a future Picard, it takes a lot of the power out of the moment in "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II" where she said she was willing to let Picard go to beat the Borg. She apparently knew all along that he was going to survive!
The wrap-up of the "Time's Arrow" arc is even more muddled than its opener. It's saved a bit by some fun performances -- particularly by Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jerry Hardin (as Clemens). But it's still a weak start to the season. I give it a C-.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The People's Brief

When I last dedicated a post to marriage equality, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear a number of cases from multiple Circuit Courts of Appeal. Through their inaction, the Supreme Court paved the way for same-sex marriage in several new states.

Since then, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals released an shoddy and contrarian ruling in a group of cases from their four states -- Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. Standing against the rising tide, the Sixth Circuit ruled (by a vote of 2 to 1) that bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional. With conflicting rulings now having come from different parts of the country, the Supreme Court could no longer ignore the issue. They agreed to hear an appeal of the ruling in the Sixth Circuit cases; oral arguments will be heard in late April, leading to a ruling in June.

In advance of oral arguments in every Supreme Court case, both sides submit briefs summarizing their legal arguments. In addition, other concerned parties may submit their own amicus (friend of the court) briefs, presenting additional angles they feel were overlooked or given short shrift in the main parties' documents. As you might imagine, these supplementary legal briefs are often ignored by the Supreme Court justices. But a few times a year, an amicus brief rises above the crowd, becoming the focus of questioning during oral arguments, and/or forming the foundation of the Court's eventual ruling. When amicus briefs do matter, they matter a lot.

It should come as no surprise that a large number of amicus briefs are being submitted in these same-sex marriage cases, on both sides of the issue. But one of particular interest is being submitted by the Human Rights Campaign, and it's thought to be the first brief of its kind. The "People's Brief" is intended to represent not just a handful of people, or a company, but tens (hopefully hundreds) of thousands of Americans. Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who won the last big Supreme Court battle over gay rights, has drafted the brief. She and the HRC are inviting anyone and everyone to affix their name and support, resulting in something part legal brief, part petition.

As with any political petition, it's hard to know if this effort will ultimately affect the outcome. But Kaplan has crafted a document highlighting the same argument with which she won the day last time, in the Windsor case striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. She points out that laws banning gay marriage reflect unconstitutional animus (the legal term being somewhat different than the conventional English definition), and must therefore be struck down.

You can read the People's Brief here, and affix your own name if you so choose. The deadline to do so is tomorrow -- Friday, February 27th, at noon, Eastern time. If you're interested in joining this tiny part of history, give yourself time today to take a look.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Valediction

Well, Agent Carter didn't quite go out on the "bang" I was looking for. But it still ended on a fairly solid note.

I do feel the writers did an excellent of splitting the difference between "hoping for a season two" and "tying things up in a decent conclusion." They left Dottie out and about to one day return and kick butt, but they caught Ivchenko and basically tied up his story line. The post-credits tease showed him meeting Zola, from the Captain America movies, in prison -- but I think that cuts either way. If the show returns (unlikely, from what I've heard of the ratings), they could pursue the storyline of "how Hydra infiltrates the emerging S.H.I.E.L.D. organization from the beginning." If they don't return, well, we know Hydra did, we saw the eventual end of that on Marvel's other series, and we can all simply fill in the rest in our own imaginations.

The episode did deliver us a lot of moments that had been promised/expected for several weeks now. We got the all-out fight between Carter and Dottie. We got the return of Howard Stark. We got the moment where Carter was finally recognized by her peers. Those moments in turn led to a few other nice scenes I wasn't necessarily expecting. Jarvis' emotional dilemma of having to go after Stark was fairly effective. Thompson still swooping in to steal Carter's credit with the senator felt appropriate -- he's still looking out for himself, after all.

But I think my hesitation to love this last episode stems from the fact that these two villains -- Dottie and Ivchenko -- were wearing out their welcome with me. Just as the first three episodes of the series were a repetition of "Carter gets no respect, Carter hides her double agent activities from the SSR, Carter hides her true job in her personal life," the last three episodes became a repetition of "I'm just a girl... THWAP!" and "I vant you to foooocus." So. Much. Focusing. Perhaps because these two villains were only meant to last to the end of an eight-episode story arc, they, well, weren't built to last. Each had one tool in the toolbox, and they used it for everything. I think it all ended right on time; one more episode, and I would have been sick of them.

I'd give this final episode of Agent Carter a B+. Which is roughly where I'd put the season as a whole: maybe a B. It was a fun distraction, preferable to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reruns. But I'm now thoroughly ready for that show's return.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Frat Fall

I recently caught up with a "screwball comedy" from last year, Neighbors. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star as a couple with a newborn daughter who find trouble when a fraternity house led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco sets up next door. The couple's initial efforts to get the frat to "you know, keep it down" quickly escalate into an all-out war. Hilarity ensues.

Well... occasional hilarity, anyway. The biggest problem with Neighbors is that it isn't nearly as funny on a consistent basis as its fun premise leads you to expect. There are only a couple of solid jokes involving the couple's baby daughter. Nearly all the sight gags that don't involve sex or nudity were spoiled in the trailers and commercials for the film. And unfortunately, a fair chunk of what's left doesn't focus enough on "the war," but on schtick that's been covered in previous movies. We've seen hijinks within a fraternity, and we've seen a free-spirited young couple coming to terms with being new parents -- this movie doesn't add much to either scenario.

What does save the movie a bit from its unfortunate familiarity is a solid rapport between a number of skilled comedians. Seth Rogen is generally a "love him or hate him" type of celebrity, but he's less of a slacker stoner here than in any other movie outside of 50/50, if that helps. Zac Efron proves skillful at "self-delusional" comedy, playing a character that doesn't realize how ridiculous he is. Perhaps the real gem in the cast is Rose Byrne, who displays some true comic chops. This may not come as a surprise to fans of Bridesmaids, but to someone like me, who really knows her best from the TV series Damages, it's still a bit of a shock. There are also fun supporting turns by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka "McLovin") and Lisa Kudrow, and cameos from a number of current network and cable sitcoms.

Still, I'm not sure that good performances spiked with clever improvs are enough to recommend a movie that really ought to have packed more laughs into 90 minutes. The idea here is simply better than the execution. I give Neighbors a C+.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Distance

This week's installment of The Walking Dead was a considerable improvement over the last -- though that wasn't a high bar to clear. This week, the writers were able to trust that their point would come across, enough that they didn't feel the need to insert a Rick speech into the episode specifically stating that point (and the name of the show). The message this time: once you've lost all hope, it's nigh impossible to believe in hope again.

What was interesting about this setup is that one by one, over the course of the episode, most of the other characters revealed that somewhere within them, they were still nursing a sliver of hope. It was particularly interesting to see this from Michonne and Maggie, who have probably lost more than just about anyone else in the group. (Carol is certainly up there, though.) And it was particularly interesting to see that Rick was without hope, as he probably still has more to live for (in his two children) that just about anyone else in the group.

If Aaron truly is on the up and up, then there's a good deal more I want to learn about him in the future. I want to better understand the psychology of a person who is willing to go out into the apocalypse, leaving the safety of his home behind, to approach strangers more than likely to have a reaction like Rick's. We did get that tidbit of back story about his overbearing mother who constantly told him to "man up," but I think that barely begins to explain the level of bravery/crazy I perceive there.

I am getting weary of the same old gimmicks being repeated for getting our heroes into trouble, though. I guarantee you, if I'm driving in the apocalypse, I'm keeping my eyes on the damn road! (Or if I think I can't do that, then I'm refusing to drive.) I suppose it did lead to the admittedly awesome flare gun Zombie Kill of the Week, but it all felt like a needlessly manufactured jeopardy the characters brought down on themselves.

Improvement though it was, there was a lot of repetition this week too. Rick doubts, someone else doesn't. Repeat. It got to a point where it became abundantly clear that, combining this week's episode and last week's, you could have gotten one good episode out of them that didn't start to bore before the final credits. (Though that episode would have been made of maybe 3/4 of this episode and 1/4 or less of last week's.) I'd say "The Distance" gets a B.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

According to tradition, my snarky friends joined me to watch the Oscar ceremony this evening. Here were some of the comments bandied about.

Clint Eastwood is all "who the hell is Kanye West?"

NPH killed the opening number... but of course, we knew he would.

NPH had a way better J.K. Simmons insurance commercial joke than any of us.

Foxcatcher loses the Best Makeup award by a nose.

Michael Keaton is chewing gum? Spit that out!

Marion Cotillard's dress appears to be made of a shower curtain.

Singing "Everything Is Awesome" is the only way Andy Samberg would ever get to go to the Oscars.

One of the winners of Short Documentary is being attacked by tribbles.

I think it's time to prune Gwyneth Paltrow's dress.

The Sound Mixing winner from Whiplash give a rocky speech. They're use to recording what they want to express.

Jared Leto looks like Jesus Christ going to his high school prom.

I don't care if it now stars an Oscar winner, I still don't think CSI: Cyber looks like it will be any good. (Patricia Arquette killed it with her speech though!)

The one good thing about Chloe Grace Moretz's dress is that it has pockets, and she really wants you to know it.

Kevin Hart's tux looks like a Reddit downvote.

Every minute or so, confetti flutters down, leftover from the "Everything Is Awesome" performance.

The cast of Big Hero 6 is literally in the back row.

Tony Revolori, the lobby boy, has become the face of The Grand Budapest Hotel. They show him every time they mention the film. Ralph Fiennes must not be there tonight.

A song after the Memoriam montage instead of during?

The woman speaking for the Best Documentary winner looks like a Bene Gesserit.

And now, two straight minutes of awesome jokes about John Travolta.

Best Song was a proxy battle for perceived Selma snubs versus perceived LEGO Movie snubs.

For Best Original Score, Alexandre Desplat pulls off the incredibly rare and difficult feat of not preventing his own win by splitting votes between his two nominations in the category.

How stale must Michael Keaton's gum taste by this point?

This isn't how Oprah Winfrey should be handing out Oscars. ("YOU get an Oscar! YOU get an Oscar! EVERYBODY GETS AN OSCAR!")

Cate Blanchett said to her hairstylist, "give me the Tilda Swinton."

Eddie Redmayne gives the best, most genuine reaction of the night. (He'll be home polishing the Oscar.)

Matthew McConaughey looks like Jesus Christ as a Vegas lounge singer.

I guess they needed to spend another 12 years on Boyhood.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Best Recommendations on the Best Pictures

Tomorrow night is this year's Oscar ceremony. Best Picture appears to have come down to a two-horse race between Boyhood and Birdman. If I were forced to bet money on it, I'd put it on Birdman, counting on the Academy's reliable tendency toward self-admiration: rewarding movies about actors and/or Hollywood. (The Artist, Argo, Shakespeare in Love, etc.)

Birdman would not be my personal pick, however. Here's a list of the eight Best Picture nominees in the order I'd rank them, with links to my original reviews, and a few comments to help you decide which movie you should be rooting for.

#1. Whiplash. What I look for most in a movie is to be swept up in some feeling. The genre of the movie doesn't necessarily matter. Make me laugh hard if you're a comedy, shed a tear if you're an emotional drama, grip my chair if you're a suspenseful horror... or anything else, if you're riding the lines between simple genre classifications. Whiplash made me feel more than any other Best Picture nominee this year. It's nerve-wracking and tense. If you like to be caught up in a movie, Whiplash is the movie for you.

#2. Boyhood. I wouldn't fault the Academy for bestowing Best Picture on this. It's the one for you if what you prize in a movie is originality. The story here is simplistic; some would say it's barely a story at all. But the film is unique and visionary. The fact that it was filmed over a 12 year period sounds like a gimmick, but it really lends power and relatability to the tale. No one ever thought to make a movie like this before director Richard Linklater, and no one will soon be able to replicate the feat.

#3. Birdman. If you value good acting foremost, and consider story subordinate to performance, Birdman is the film for you. Other movies from 2014 may boast better work by individuals, but the cast of Birdman is the strongest and most consistent from top to bottom. This cast also worked with an added degree of difficulty, because of director Alejandro González Iñárritu's decision to make the film appear to be a long, single take without cuts.

#4. The Imitation Game. This is the movie for you if you like "Oscar films." The Imitation is a very well executed movie in the style of The King's Speech and A Beautiful Mind. I loved the subject matter, and Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent. It's well worth seeing... but it also feels as though it were built in the "Oscar factory." Familiar doesn't necessarily mean "bad," though.

#5. Selma. This is the movie for you if you feel films serve a role in preserving and revitalizing true history for new generations. The same could be said of The Imitation Game, of course, but The Imitation Game has been more manipulated by a writer's pen to fit the traditional three-act story structure. Despite minor controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in Selma, this movie is actually the truest to reality of all the based-on-a-true-story films in contention this year.

#6. The Theory of Everything. If you like traditional biopics, this is your film. The other "true story" nominees this year focus on specific points in their subjects' lives (using few, if any, flashbacks to illuminate character). The Theory of Everything follows the more conventional formula of tracking its subject over a period of decades. If you want a broad picture of an extraordinary life (and/or you're a fan of Stephen Hawking), you'll want to check this out.

#7. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Movies are hardly the only way to tell a story, and among the many vehicles for doing so, they're an especially visual medium. If this is what you look for, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the movie for you. You'll also enjoy it if you like to see the artist in the art; every frame of this film bears the quirky stamp of director Wes Anderson. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a movie no one else thought to make. Other directors could have made The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it would not in any way have been the same movie.

#8. American Sniper. The "war movie" has a long, proud history, from old classics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter to more modern fare like The Hurt Locker. I personally need more than "war is hell, and it changes you" in a movie. But that formula has entertained many over the years, and (judging by the box office haul) American Sniper has done the same.

Whatever your tastes (including tastes that would never qualify for a Best Picture nomination), have fun with your movie of choice.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Snafu

It took a few days, but I finally got to this week's episode of Agent Carter -- another solid installment as this sort of mini-series is about to wrap up its run. What I most enjoyed this week were the ways in which they were able to take advantage of Carter not being a badass one-woman wrecking crew. Because six prior episodes have established quite well that she is a badass one-woman wrecking crew, her reputation is hardly in any danger from the audience.

For example, Jarvis swooping in with Stark's fake confession was a great moment that, several episodes earlier, might have come off like he was trying to rescue a "damsel in distress," taking Carter no more seriously than her SSR co-workers do. But with their working relationship well established, it instead read only for the pure gesture it was -- trying to help a friend.

Having established Carter's calculating toughness, we could understand and forgive her one moment of sentimentality, a moment even she herself could not properly explain: her relatively unstrategic decision to go back to her apartment to retrieve Steve Rogers' blood sample. Carter doesn't have to be robotic to stay tough in the eyes of the audience, and this element provided some appreciated emotion to the episode.

For once, Carter didn't have to have all the answers. It was a wonderful comedic scene when she and Jarvis worked together to bash through the interrogation room window, only to realize that it still hadn't really gotten them any closer to an escape.

All that, plus strong moments for Sousa and Thompson, and a nice swan song for Chief Dooley. The one moment that did feel a bit silly was the contrivance of Stark's "suicide vest" invention; the practical application for which it was supposedly intended didn't really ring true for me. But then, this sort of goofy retro gimmick is a regular part of the series, so love it or leave it, I suppose.

Another A- episode of the show in my book. I'd love it if next week could close out the tale with the best episode of them all.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Feast Your Eyes on This

It was around 2001 that I first read A Storm of Swords, the third (and then, latest) book of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. By that point, the series' earliest adopters had already been waiting a year for the next volume, but even I was in for four years before it finally arrived. After that much anticipation, A Feast for Crows almost had to be a disappointment -- and indeed, it was. But reading the series again from the beginning, without the sky high expectations, I was curious to see if my opinion of the book would change.

(At this point, I'm probably obliged to note that there will be spoilers in the following review. I wouldn't ordinarily be so cautious about a widely read 10-year-old book, but many people are experiencing the tale for the first time through the HBO series, and the book covers material that won't be seen until the fifth season begins in a few months.)

Although there are various small problems with A Feast for Crows, they ultimately stem from one big problem: it's a book George R.R. Martin never meant to write. In several interviews, Martin indicated that his original plan for his series was to time jump his narrative after A Storm of Swords, picking up the tale after several years, and sprinkling in a few flashbacks to the "missing time." But after dozens of chapters and hundreds of pages using that approach, he found himself writing more flashbacks than narrative. The book wasn't working, he thought, so he scrapped his efforts and started over, abandoning the time jump plan.

The problem is, A Feast for Crows often reads like a few short stories -- originally meant to be told in flashback -- stretched unnaturally to fill out an entire novel. (Two entire novels, actually, but I'll get to that issue in a moment.) Each of the story lines in the book is slow paced and repetitive. Samwell spends an entire book traveling south from the Wall, a distance that took Tyrion a fraction of the space and word count to cover in A Game of Thrones. Sansa spends the entire book stuck in the Eyrie (a far less tense place than King's Landing proved to be in the earlier books). Brienne spends chapter after chapter wandering around in search of a "maid of three-of ten." Cersei spends all her time complaining about others' stupidity, as Martin over-stretches the revelation of the prophecy explaining her behavior.

Yet at least those are characters we've been tracking before this book (even if we haven't been inside some of their heads until now). Where A Feast for Crows really bogs down is in the subplots featuring two parts of Westeros where Martin has previously spent little or no time: the Iron Islands and Dorne. Even assuming these elements will later tie meaningfully into the overall story (I give Martin the benefit of the doubt, and I have my hunches too), the manner in which these sections are written is jarring and off-putting. Where most of the "viewpoint characters" of past books have been featured in at least a half dozen chapters, Martin takes the half dozen chapters about Dorne and divides them among three new perspectives. He does the same for the Iron Islands (to even worse effect, thanks to thoroughly reprehensible characters like Victarion and Aeron Greyjoy). The lack of one solid perspective on these subplots subtly suggests that they aren't truly important for the reader to invest in. And perhaps they aren't, but that's not the sort of thing Martin should be calling attention to... especially not when he's denying his readers what they really want to read about.

As George R.R. Martin started over with this new "bridging book" he'd originally intended as a series of flashbacks, it kept growing on him. And growing. And growing. Eventually, he had such a large manuscript that he chose to take the one book and split it in two. And because he was struggling mightily with the chapters surrounding Daenerys (a problem he'd later dub "the Meereenese Knot"), he made an unorthodox decision. Rather than follow all his characters, splitting his two books at the midpoints of their stories, he'd publish one book following only some of the characters. A later, second book would pick up the rest (the book that became A Dance With Dragons).

Ask any fan of A Song and Ice and Fire who their favorite character is, and you'll get a variety of answers. Still, the frontrunners are usually Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys. Arya sometimes sneaks in there (more now, thanks to the great performance of Maisie Williams in the HBO adaptation), but Arya's storyline in A Storm of Swords ends in one of the least cliffhangery places of all the threads in that book. By contrast, Tyrion is suddenly on the run after committing patricide, Jon Snow has just been elected leader of the Night's Watch, and Dany has decided to set herself up as monarch in the latest of her conquered cities. Those are the stories most readers are itching to continue after A Storm of Swords. A Feast for Crows ignores them all. And that crazy epilogue from A Storm of Swords, unveiling a vengeful, undead Catelyn? Even that is picked up only in one chapter near the very end of A Feast for Crows. (And it hasn't shown up on the HBO series at all.)

So A Feast for Crows is the Book That Wasn't Meant to Exist, focusing on the wrong characters, and unfolding at the wrong pace. No wonder it was such a letdown to those of us who waited for it. But that said, when it doesn't have to be the book you waited four or five years for, its good points become more apparent. And it does have them.

Despite the absence of Daenerys from the book, A Feast for Crows really is where the women of the series take center stage. George R.R. Martin has featured a number of important women in his saga, all well-rounded and interesting. Many of them have been "perspective characters" right from book one. But A Feast for Crows is the first book where the number of chapters written from a woman's point of view outnumber those from a man's point of view -- and it makes for some very interesting reading. Westeros is a man's world (how much more so than the real world is a provocative topic for discussion), and we get to see in detail how six very different women negotiate it: Arya, Sansa, Asha Greyjoy, Arianne Martell, Brienne... and Cersei.

Cersei. Many a fan probably cringed to read her name at the top of a chapter in A Feast for Crows. We'd seen George R.R. Martin let us into the heads of villains in past books, redeeming them in the process (to at least some degree). And if Martin planned to make us like Cersei as we'd come to like Jaime, or partially like Theon? Well, screw that! Fortunately, and far more interestingly, Martin had other plans this time. Cersei's storyline in A Feast for Crows is one of having it all and losing it all. Martin lets us in Cersei's head not to make us feel sorry for her, but to let us understand her. She makes one bad decision after another, incomprehensible to the outside world, but each logical when you're let in on her thought processes. And being right there for the ride down, you get the most satisfying feelings of schadenfreude in the entire series. Cersei blames the world and its sexism for all her problems, but she's her own worst enemy.

One other point that will always be in George R.R. Martin's favor: his prose. Martin has a powerful way with words. When he describes a dinner, your mouth salivates to imagine each course. When he writes of foul weather, you want to grab a blanket to huddle under it for warmth. When his characters tell stories of the horrors of war, you feel the weight of the experiences that haunt them. When they make bad decisions, you can simultaneously curse their stupidity while totally understanding why they do what they do. A Feast for Crows, for all the flaws in its actual construction, may actually have some of the most evocative and poetic writing of the entire series so far.

Still, it will surprise only George R.R. Martin himself that the writers running the HBO series have found a way to boil down both this book and A Dance With Dragons into essentially just one season of television. Narratively speaking, there's a lot of fat to be trimmed here. If Martin hadn't set such a high standard with the first three books of this series, I might see things differently. But he did, and so I see A Feast for Crows as deserving a B-.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sniping on Sniper

After having seen seven of this year's eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture, last night I completed the set with the last movie. Last and least. American Sniper. Though not a "bad" film, it gives short shrift to its most distinct aspects, instead following a path well forged by other films.

As by far the highest grossing film of the eight Best Picture Contenders, I probably don't need to tell you that American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle, the "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history" (as the subtitle of his autobiography, upon which the film is based, explains). Predominately following his multiple deployments to Iraq in the 2000s, the film also gives us brief tastes of his formative childhood, decision to enlist, and training. It also touches on life at home between deployments -- and it is this area that deserved more time and focus.

As a movie character, Chris Kyle is frustratingly uncomplicated. The least charitable interpretation of him would paint him as an adrenaline junkie with a heightened sense of duty. This is familiar ground, a cocktail presented much more effectively in a recent Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. A more fair analysis would dub him an Ahab chasing his white whale. This too is familiar ground, covered quite powerfully in Zero Dark Thirty.

The most charitable take on Kyle would be to call him a life-saving hero who did what had to be done. Perhaps this might be more easily said of Kyle the real-life man; the movie doesn't do a particularly effective job at saying this of Kyle the character. The single best scene in the movie comes when he has to face a tangled-up moral trap of a moment in the field, actually coming face to face with his own morality while at war. The movie lets him off the hook by not exploring these scenarios more. Moreover, it uses a couple of early childhood flashbacks to demonstrate a childhood that seems to square away any deeper issues by explaining his behavior with an overly simplistic psychology.

Meanwhile, the film seems not to realize the powerful emotional elements it does have right there in the mix. The scenes dealing with Kyle's wife back home are the most consistently moving of the film. It's Taya Kyle who comes off most heroic, always dependable, always standing by her husband, and making Herculean efforts to understand him. Through her, far more than through Chris, the film illustrates the personal cost of going to war -- but without more screen time to really explore this, she will no doubt come off to some people as the nag who keeps her man from his True Calling.

Perhaps more frustrating is an abandoned subplot involving Chris' brother. Early scenes set up that the two are most certainly not cut from the same cloth. When they both decide to go to war, you know it's not going to go well for the brother. The film starts to pay this off in a short scene halfway through, where Chris briefly reunites with his brother, who indeed is haunted and hollowed out by his experiences. But this potentially interesting contrast is never shown again.

Instead, the movie tries to present as little moral complexity as possible, instead opting for a more traditional war movie that largely apes the plot of (in my opinion) one of the more blandly traditional of war movies -- Enemy at the Gates. Boiled down, this film could just as easily have been called Sniper vs. Sniper.

Bradley Cooper is solid as Chris Kyle. The script doesn't give him many gears to work with, though he does convincingly present one face in the battlefield and another one at home. This being his third Oscar nomination for acting in a row, he seems destined to win the award eventually... but I feel the recognition in this film should have gone to Sienna Miller, who as Taya Kyle does even more with far less screen time.

I give American Sniper a C-. It feels like a lengthy missed opportunity.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

TNG Flashback: Time's Arrow

The final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season was the series' first genuine time travel story (not counting trips to the holodeck).

The Enterprise is summoned to Earth, where evidence has been found of alien activity on the planet in the late 19th century. Also found: Data's head, implying a destiny to be transported back in time to meet his death. The crew is able to trace the aliens to the planet Devidia II, where they discover a cavern existing just slightly outside of normal time. When Data devises a way to investigate it, he is transported to Earth, and back in time to 1893. In the past, he looks to a young Guinan as a possible ally; meanwhile, in the present, the crew tries to find a way to follow Data.

Although season ending cliffhangers had become the norm for Star Trek by this point, executive producer Rick Berman and showrunner Michael Piller hadn't originally intended to end the fifth season with one. But the word was out about the upcoming spin-off, Deep Space Nine, and they became concerned that fans would think The Next Generation was leaving to make room for it. A Next Generation cliffhanger was their way of demonstrating the show was still in business.

Unfortunately, it's not a terribly exciting cliffhanger. It seems to be trying to crib from one of the successful aspects of "The Best of Both Worlds," namely audience fear that a main character might be leaving the show. But this episode never really convinces us that Data's number might be up, as Picard's seemed to be against the Borg. Part of the problem is Data's blasé acceptance of his fate. He can't be emotional about it, of course, and there's clever writing in the way he "bright sides" impending death by comparing it to the bleak prospect of outliving all his friends. But Data being cool with dying only reinforces the audience's doubt that his end is really near, and undermines all of the soul searching the other characters seem to be doing. The episode could say something meaningful about death, but doesn't. ("The Next Phase" very recently covered that subject.) It could say something about fate, but doesn't. It's really just a gimmick for a rather empty time travel romp.

The destination for that romp was a subject of brief discussion among the writing staff. They considered several possibilities, but dismissed each as having been covered already by the original Star Trek: the "present day" was done in the movie Star Trek IV, the 30s in "City on the Edge of Forever," and the 60s (then the present day) in "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" and "Assignment: Earth." Finally, the writers settled on the 1890s.

That time frame creates a few opportunities, some seized, some missed. Bringing in Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is clever, and casting Jerry Hardin to play the role was particularly great. Hardin had never played Clemens before -- he looks nothing like him (as you can see in The X-Files or in season one's "When the Bough Breaks"). Yet after a masterful makeup job by Michael Westmore, and a lot of his own research, Hardin grew to love Clemens so much as a person that he later developed a one-man theater production about him. On the other hand, as tantalizing a prospect as it is to learn of Guinan and Picard's past, it seems a missed opportunity to place Guinan in the 1890s as a wealthy socialite without commenting on the state of race relations in the U.S. at the time. (Particularly when you read some of Mark Twain's casually racist -- but of the time -- writing.)

Perhaps the lack of emotional punch in this episode is due to the fact that its primary writer, Joe Menosky, was on his way out the door. He'd decided to take a sabbatical after the fifth season, though he did leave behind some notes about how the cliffhanger could be resolved. Menosky does at least put a few great lines in the script. ("Your head is not an artifact!") He also includes some nice character touches, like Guinan's metaphor-for-time-travel drink that comes crashing down with the slightest misstep, and Troi's recitation of how Data describes friendship (taken from "Legacy").

Other observations:
  • Data's cool-as-a-cucumber nature is also a detriment in the scene where his friends listen, helpless, as he investigates the alien cave. It's a cool horror movie type of premise, having Data narrate what could be his own demise, but the fact that he can't express any anxiety or fear (plus, again, the fact that we the audience don't really think he's going to die) undermines the tension of the moment.
  • Marc Alaimo makes his last of many appearances on the series, as one of the gamblers Data beats at poker. After this, Alaimo would move over to Deep Space Nine, and the pivotal role of Gul Dukat.
  • There's a new prop for Data's head in this episode, a fair bit more convincing than what we saw for Lore's head back in "Datalore." Voyager would later repurpose the prop as a Borg drone's head.
  • Typically, when Whoopi Goldberg would film for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, she'd only be available for one day. For this episode (and its conclusion to open season six), she blocked out more of her schedule so that she could participate more.
  • Note that Worf is sent back to the Enterprise right at the end of the episode, to set up for Part II. It's simply getting him out of the way, removing the need for some sort of "mechanical rice picker"-esque explanation of his appearance in the 1890s.
After the strong run of episodes leading up to it, "Time's Arrow" is a rather lackluster season finale. I give it a C+.

With another season in the bank, it's time to look back on that batch of episodes. Overall, it was a still more polarized year for Star Trek: The Next Generation that the year before. It had some of the best episodes of the entire series... and some of its worst clunkers, including the first F since season two. My picks for the top 5 episodes of season five: "The Inner Light," "Darmok," "Disaster," "I Borg," and "The Next Phase."

On to season six!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Them

I struggle to come up with much to say about this week's episode of The Walking Dead, as it seems like very little happened to comment on. If this were perhaps one chapter of a novel, making its tonal point while allowing the reader to immediately turn the page and go to the next chapter, it might have worked. As a single hour of weekly television, though, it just didn't do it for me.

There was a tiny sprinkling of decent little character moments scattered throughout the episode. But between those moments was more walking than in a Lord of the Rings movie. And not a lot going on. It felt like the show has done this sort of "basic survival is difficult" thing before, and achieved it using a few quick scenes within an episode, rather than devoting a whole dry episode to it. The basic day-to-day of existence is simply not the intriguing part of this series' premise, nor what it does well.

The stuff that felt like it could have been interesting got introduced without really being explored. For example, there seemed to be a world of back story implied by that (zombie) woman bound and gagged in the trunk... but we'll never know it. The (maybe poisoned?) water on the road was an interesting little set piece -- except we'll probably never know who left it and whether their intentions were good. Not that either of those elements, expanded, would have amounted to an interesting episode either. The Walking Dead excels when it's about facing hard choices, and this was an episode with no choices; there was nothing they could do.

And... I'm really trying to find something more to say about this installment, but it was just too empty and boring. It felt like only in the last minute of the episode did it even really get started -- when the new character of Aaron finally showed up to inject an actual plot into the proceedings. So I'll just put as much effort into this review as it felt like the writers put into creating the episode, and cut things off here. I suppose I'll give it points for deviating from The Walking Dead's formula. But I'd still call it a D at best.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Isle of Feld

Whenever Stefan Feld releases a new board game, I'm eager to take a look. His latest, La Isla, also happens to be #10 in Alea's "medium box" series -- a run of games with roughly (very roughly) a similar level of complexity and number of components. There have been hits and misses in the series, but I still have the entire set. Feld is an interesting designer to add to this collection, because his games tend to be more complex and sophisticated on average than most of these medium-box games. Feld has succeeded before with a simpler system (in The Speicherstadt). Could he do it again?

In La Isla, players are explorers on an isolated island, looking for species of animals thought to be extinct elsewhere in the world. The board is an interesting geometric puzzle, a 10-sided core shape around which 10 more jagged tiles converge to create the island. Animal tokens are scattered throughout, with intervening spaces where players will ultimately position their explorers. When you completely surround an animal with your explorers, you claim that token. Explorers are placed using pairs of resource tokens, specifically matched to the space you want to take.

The core mechanism for doing all this is simple but clever. Each round, you draw three cards. Each card has three different aspects to it: a rule it lets you break (for now and potentially several turns to come), a resource it lets you gather, and an animal type for which you score. You must use exactly one of your three cards for exactly each one of the three purposes.

The result is a fun series of pressures as you try to prioritize. Sometimes, the usefulness of certain cards for certain things is crystal clear. But often, you'll want to use the same card for two different things. So what's most important, you have to ask yourself: do you need that resource for playing your explorers, or do you need the quick victory points? You also get to keep a maximum of three abilities in play at once, so soon you must also ask which old power to cover up to make room for a new one.

La Isla is rather short for a Stefan Feld game, taking only 30-45 minutes to play -- but that feels about right for this game. There aren't as many different things to consider as in, say, Amerigo, but the game comes to a conclusion before the "A-B-C" decision process can become repetitive. In any case, the game isn't at all one-note. You can try for easily surrounded animals to collect more of them, or more difficult ones that are worth more points. You can bend your choices to fit the card powers you draw, or focus more on resources. You can try to capture multiples of one animal and score for it as often as possible, or try for a full set of five different animals -- and the bonus points such a set awards.

With so many gems in Stefan Feld's catalog, I can't truly dub La Isla a new favorite of mine. Still, it is one of the better medium-box games to come along in a while, and certainly seems like it will be interesting for many playthroughs to come. I give it a B+.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Inner Light

In my long journey back through all the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've come to the best one: The Inner Light.

The Enterprise encounters an alien probe, which targets Captain Picard with an unusual nucleonic beam and knocks him unconscious. Picard awakens in a small alien village, where everyone sees him as a man named Kamin, and where he lives with a wife, Eline. Though he is initially determined to find a way back to his ship, Picard slowly comes to accept the world around him, and goes on to live for decades in this other life -- a profound experience that is actually being implanted in his mind by the alien probe.

"The Inner Light" is not simply a great episode of Star Trek, it's a great episode of television in general. No real understanding of the series is required to watch it, but its themes are universal -- getting to explore a road not taken in your life, the growing love for family, struggling to survive against impossible odds. It's a powerful demonstration of empathy, as Picard is given the chance to spend a lifetime in another man's shoes. (Shoes that he often leaves for his wife to put away.)

The episode was a favorite among virtually everyone involved with the show. Showrunner Michael Piller praised it (along with "The Measure of a Man" and "The Offspring") for its emotional power. He said the episode "genuinely explored the human condition, which this franchise does better than any other when it does it well." Writer Ron Moore was only disappointed that the show wasn't fully able to honor the fact that this would have been the most profound experience in Picard's life. He noted they were just after a good hour of TV at the time, and later just had to content themselves with a single follow-up episode, "Lessons."

There was even award recognition for the episode, when it received the 1993 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. Sadly, the Emmys would not deign to recognize a sci-fi show -- and a syndicated one at that. This episode received only a nomination for its makeup, which it didn't even win. Makeup designer Michael Westmore, for his part, was more upset for Patrick Stewart, who he thought deserved an Emmy for his performance.

The concept for "The Inner Light" was pitched by an outsider, Morgan Gendel. He was a hardworking freelancer at the time, selling scripts to several series. It took several attempts before he sold this idea. Originally, the story sent Picard, Riker, and Ro Laren into a shared alternate reality, the purpose of which was promotional -- an alien advertisement transmitted directly into your brain. He refined and simplified that idea, ultimately circling on the notion of giving Picard an entire alternate life, though he initially worried that the Star Trek staff would never go so far to allow their main character to be given a wife and kids.

Instead, the idea was embraced, and staff writer Peter Allan Fields was assigned to polish the final script. Though Fields has declined to be interviewed about Star Trek since his retirement, Gendel had only kind words for him (both in the audio commentary included on the Blu-ray season 5 set, and in the many interviews he's given over the years). In particular, Gendel credits Fields with punching up the romance between Picard and Eline, adding details like putting away the shoes, and really selling them as a loving couple. Gendel also noted that his original draft had a few more moments back aboard the Enterprise, with the crew getting hints of what was happening to Picard. He doesn't miss those elements in the finished product.

The script is filled with numerous subtle touches, no matter who put them there. There's the use of the village tree to show the passage of time. There's Picard's slow improvement at the flute, along with the particular detail that at first he practices with "Frère Jacques," until finally accepting his new life and switching to the Ressikan melody. There's also a lovely passing of a torch, as Kamin's son seeks as a vocation what his father only pursued as a hobby.

What the script never had, according to Gendel, was a more specific explanation of the tech involved -- an incredibly wise omission. How was this largely agrarian society able to launch a probe into deep space that was capable of implanting memories in an unknown alien being? Not only would calling attention to this have interfered with the emotional throughline of the story, it would have raised unnecessary, unanswerable questions.

Everyone on the production side of the show brought their A game to this episode. The village of Ressik is arguably the most successful alien environment ever created on the series, because this is not one of the occasions where the show went out in the real world to film. (The brief shot of Picard hiking in the mountains notwithstanding; that was filmed in go-to Trek location, Bronson Canyon.) The village is an indoor set, lit very convincingly -- and ever harsher, in the later scenes where the sun is close to death.

The old age makeup is another tremendous accomplishment. Sure, we now know that Patrick Stewart has seemingly not aged a day in the last 23 years, but one can hardly hold that against the makeup artists, who had to do something to show the passage of time. Their seamless work took six hours to put on, giving Patrick Stewart the earliest makeup call of any actor during the entire run of the show, but it holds up even in the Blu-ray remaster. And Picard/Kamin was not the only character they had to age.

The episode's music is composer Jay Chattaway's finest work on the series. Not only does his underscore tenderly pull your heartstrings without becoming conspicuous, the haunting melody he created for the flute is likely the most memorable music of The Next Generation. Morgan Gendel was prepared for a fight to even include the flute in the story, after Michael Piller initially laughed at the idea; Piller quickly changed his mind before it became an issue. The production even relented on its standing policy of having no music from inside the ship be audible in space, allowing for the fantastic conclusion where the solitary flute accompanies the Enterprise to its next adventure.

Then, of course, there's the acting. Michael Westmore wasn't wrong; Patrick Stewart should have won an Emmy for his work here. Stewart himself called this episode the greatest acting challenge he faced in the series' entire seven-year run, but he rose to it wonderfully. There's one tear-jerking scene after another, from Picard/Kamin finally committing to his new life after five long years, to observing that the things he didn't know he needed now complete his life, to the death of his wife Eline, to the realization that he's the "message in a bottle" for a dead civilization, to discovering his old life wasn't a dream, to clutching the Ressikan flute to his chest in the final scene -- his one and only souvenir of an entire lifetime.

Stewart doesn't have to bear the weight of telling this story alone, though. The guest cast is also exceptional. As Eline, Margot Rose really has the responsibility of making the whole thing work. She has to be "good enough" for the audience to accept that Picard would ever stop searching for the Enterprise. She is that compelling, in every scene from her initial heartbreak that her husband doesn't remember her, all the way until her touching death scene. Character actor Richard Riehle (who you may recognize from Office Space) is also wonderful as Kamin's friend, Batai. And Patrick Stewart's real life son Daniel appears as Kamin's son.

Other observations:
  • The Blu-ray version of this episode includes a number of deleted scenes, though each is really just an extension of a few lines within an already-existing scene. Most are trims you'd never miss, but there is a fun episode intro: Picard gripes about sitting through a 12 hour opera with an admiral, both telegraphing the musical hobby he would later adopt, and the fact that sometimes a short amount of time can feel like it passes very slowly. There's also a nice moment after Kamin mourns the full life his grandson won't get to have; his daughter Meribor pipes up to insist that he's her son, and she has seen to it that he has had as full a life as possible.
  • Counselor Troi isn't in this episode, which conveniently removes the most likely way the crew could have learned what was happening to Picard while he was under the influence of the probe.
  • Writer Morgan Gendel named this episode for the B-side of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna," thinking that the title spoke to the content of the episode. Later on, listening to the song's lyrics in more detail, he'd decide there were even more connections than he'd intended. But in truth, all he'd really intended was to name this and any subsequent Trek episodes he might sell for Beatles songs. He admits that today, he has mixed feelings about the fact that when you Google "The Inner Light music," this episode shows up in the results before the Beatles song.
  • Among all its other wonderful elements, this episode even has some subtle commentary to offer on climate change, as Kamin fights to get a politician to listen to his plan to save the planet. Morgan Gendel says this was purely coincidental, because he knew little of global warming in the early 1990s. He just needed a reason a whole civilization would go extinct, and a supernova fit the bill nicely.
Granted, I still have two more seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation to re-watch, but I certainly don't remember anything as powerful as "The Inner Light" in what's yet to come. I think it's undeniably the best installment of the series, a perfect grade A.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Sin to Err

Increasingly, it's looking to me as though the best way to improve the eight-episode Agent Carter series would have been to make it only six episodes instead. Where there formulaic repetition of the early episodes left me cold (and, looking at the ratings, caused the show to hemorrhage viewers too), these episodes in the back half keep getting better. This larger story they've been telling has an endgame, and the writers are now moving toward it with purpose.

No more double-agentry. Sousa finally revealed what he'd learned and exposed Carter's secret. It made the last half of this episode a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse. Of course, we've seen the ineptitude of the rest of the SSR on full display for weeks now, so it was no surprise who would win. Still, it was satisfying to see them face some real consequences for underestimating Carter all this time.

Perhaps even more satisfying was to have Carter found out in her personal life as well. Her friend Angie has been the awkward attachment in the storytelling (very much like the roommate on Alias, before they radically changed the character in season two of that show). This week, Angie not only learned the truth, she helped Carter make her escape.

Well, almost. The show also paid off the running threat of Russian agent Dottie. (The dichotomy of the phrase "Russian agent Dottie" is fantastic, by the way.) I liked that they didn't make Carter so supreme that she was able to slip away from everyone including her would-be assassin. I also liked that by having Angie save Carter's neck, we now have a bit of investment in whether Dottie is going to do something horrible to Angie or not.

There were a few hokey touches in the episode that didn't quite work for me. The Russian doctor's super-effective hypno-ring felt rather unrealistic, for example. Even though the 1940s Marvel Universe has been allowed to be a bit more campy than modern times, here it had tech that simply doesn't exist in the future. (Well, unless you're an Asgard.) And while Carter and Jarvis' investigation of Stark's women did produce a few funny moments, it was unfortunate that so much screen time was given to it, as the audience knew they were really on the wrong trail.

But once again, Agent Carter served up its best episode yet. I think it might finally have crept above the B line and delivered an A-. And it seems like the last two episodes are poised to pack as big a punch.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Getting Horny

Movies need not necessarily be "one thing," and many defy easy categorization as, say, a comedy, a drama, a horror, a mystery, or a supernatural thriller. Horns is a movie that tries to be all those things, but the result is a film with a reach that exceeds its grasp.

Young Ignatius (Ig)Parrish is living a nightmare. His girlfriend has been brutally murdered, and everyone in his small town thinks he's responsible. As he struggles to live with being perceived as a monster, he suddenly begins to actually become one -- demonic horns sprout from his forehead. But the curse starts to look like a blessing when Ig learns of the strange powers that come with the horns. People feel compelled to tell him their darkest secrets, and to act on the impulses he encourages them to indulge. With these new abilities, Ig sets out to uncover the real murderer.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ig, and continues to be just as compelling a protagonist in adulthood as he was growing up as Harry Potter. The script asks a lot of him, but he ably expresses Ig's heartbreak, thirst for vengeance, bewilderment, and eventually, glee in embracing the dark side. There are also a number of solid supporting actors surrounding him. Juno Temple plays his girlfriend Merrin in flashbacks, ably defining for the audience just what was lost when the relationship was cut short. David Morse is strong as Merrin's grief-stricken father, while James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan are solid in a few brief scenes as Ig's parents -- scenes in which the film most effectively combines its distinct elements.

But the film really does go all over the place, to its detriment. As Ig begins to discover his powers, it's an entertainingly dark comedy. But before really settling down in that mode, it becomes a cautionary drama about the emotional cost of unvarnished truth. Then, instead of fully exploring that, it veers off into an unfortunately predictable detective story (complete with narration). And it all leads to a bizarre climax in which the tale's supernatural elements -- which worked well enough as an unexplained backdrop to the story -- suddenly take center stage in a massive tonal shift that is nonsensical and unsatisfying.

I'm all for genre-bending, nonconforming movies, but Horns feel like it pulls an unearned bait-and-switch. And the odd black comedy it begins as is far more compelling than the unfortunate jumble it becomes. The only constants throughout are the strong performances and the overly on-the-nose metaphor about becoming the villain others see in you. I give Horns a C+.

Monday, February 09, 2015

What Happened and What's Going On

The Walking Dead returned for the back half of its fifth season with an episode that's likely to please some viewers and enrage others. I'm a bit torn in my reaction.

On the one hand, they really told a story in which character was vital. Tyreese was really the only character on the show they could have told this story with. None of the other characters who have so many demons in their pasts continue to be haunted and tormented by them. The return of so many specters was not just fun fan service, but really fed into an interesting and poetic death for Tyreese. And amazingly, four years into the show, they haven't really done a death like this. We've seen "death comes quickly and you just gotta keep going." We've seen "how death affects the survivors." But we haven't really seen an exploration of "death from the perspective of the dying." It was interesting, and it worked.

But, because Tyreese was the logical character for such a story, it felt to me like the writers were maybe putting the cart before the horse here. They decided to tell this sort of story, and then decided to kill Tyreese to do it. I have a hard time seeing how Tyreese's death is going to help push the long-term narrative forward. (They'd already lost Beth. Characters were already changed by that, such as Michonne, who suddenly wanted to settle down.) Sure, it made for a need bait-and-switch where the funeral at the start of the episode turned out not to be the one we assumed it was... but that seems awfully capricious.

They also had to have Tyreese make rookie mistakes to die in such a manner. In the group I watched the episode with, at least one person simply couldn't get past how dumb Tyreese was to get caught with his pants down so thoroughly -- not when he had been so cautious entering the house, not when he knew there was still at least one Walker in there. It almost felt like "Suicide by Zombie," and perhaps given the content of some of Tyreese's hallucinations, maybe it should have been that, directly. That might have been a stronger exit for the character.

But he did at least exit in one of the series' most visually striking episodes. It's interesting to me that in a show based on a comic book, featuring many of the plotlines from that comic book, that The Walking Dead hasn't really ever experimented with looking like a comic book. Last night it did, in a big way. Camera angles looked considered and composed, and were often evocative of comic layouts, right down to leaving large spaces near characters' heads for "speech bubbles." This style was not just evident in Tyreese's feverish visions, either, but in straight-up real world scenes too, like Tyreese's conversation with Noah in the van, early in the episode. I certainly don't think the series would want to regularly play around with the blown-out, "old photo" gags, or get too liberal with its use of slow motion. But it could certainly stay more in this visual space.

I think I'd call the episode a B. It didn't leave me itching for what's next, but it did feel to me like it at least stopped the slide that had begun in the last few episodes.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Civil (Rights) Discourse

There's been a fair amount of press written about how Selma is the most "wronged" film among Oscar's Best Picture nominees, how its lack of other Oscar nominations is a sign of the undercurrent of casual racism that still flows through Hollywood. That such racism (and sexism) still exists in the movie industry is beyond dispute; it's a shame that one film alone must bear the burden of being Oscar's litmus test. But Selma is, at least, a fairly good film.

Ostensibly the biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Selma mostly avoids falling into the trap of the dry, sweeping biopic by instead focusing on a single event in the man's life. On most levels, Selma is more the "biopic" of the famed civil rights march and the events surrounding it than it is a biopic of its leader. By tightening the scope and timeline that the film portrays, it becomes more real and relatable than most biopic fare. We're spared the long time jumps, the ham-fisted cues in the dialogue noting the passage of time.

The film does a great job of portraying the depth of racist sentiment in 1965 Alabama, of showing how any moment of any day could potentially be a moment for equality to be denied. The level of hatred is so strong, there was probably a risk that it could come off cartoonish on film, but the movie never feels less than real, or the need for change less than urgent.

But the movie does occasionally stray off its prescribed path, dipping its toes in the water of a traditional biopic. These are the moments it lags, scenes that probably should have been cut from the movie. Talk of Malcolm X, and how his militant tactics contrasted with King's, seem appropriate to mention... but the film actually brings Malcolm X on screen for one scene, and not to show that contrast; it's an extraneous bit. A small subplot depicts some strain in the relationship between King and his wife, scenes likely included to flesh out King rather than lionize him. But in a story about Selma, why not lionize King? His possible character flaws have little bearing on the matter, and the film does nothing to round out any of the other people it presents. (Including, in a much-talked-about departure from real history, President Lyndon Johnson.)

That relative lack of focus on character does suit a movie that's ultimately about an event. But fortunately, there are some good performances in the film to help flesh out those characters. Oprah Winfrey, Common, Cuba Gooding Jr, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce, Stephen Root, Martin Sheen -- the bench is deep enough that all of those people play quite minor roles in the film. Standing out from that pack are Tim Roth (as the thoroughly odious George Wallace), Tom Wilkinson (as President Johnson), and Carmen Ejogo (as King's wife, Coretta).

Then, of course, there's David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King himself. He does give an exceptional performance, channeling Dr. King with all the precision of a great impersonation, but with more truth and humanity than impersonations usually have. Should he have received a Best Actor nomination for it? Probably. I think I would give Steve Carell's Foxcatcher slot to Oyelowo (but then, I likely would have given the slot to Channing Tatum's Foxcatcher performance anyway).

Selma is a solid film overall. But the "human factor" works on a more generic level than through any specific character, and its few missteps into traditional biopic territory definitely cost it narrative and emotional momentum. I give it a B.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Next Phase

Earlier in the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Power Play" had started out as a money-saving "bottle show" that grew into an expensive, action-filled episode. It happened again with "The Next Phase."

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from a Romulan scout ship. When Geordi LaForge and Ro Laren attempt to beam back with a defective part, they are apparently killed in a transporter malfunction. In truth, they've become victims of an experimental technology being tested by the Romulans -- a phasing cloaking device that renders something not only invisible, but able to pass through solid objects. Now Geordi and Ro must find a way to communicate from "beyond the grave" and warn the crew before Romulan sabotage destroys the Enterprise.

It seemed that no one really knew going in quite how difficult this episode would be to pull off, in terms of the visual effects. On paper, the technique was actually quite simple: film an actor on a blue screen, then insert them into other footage as a "ghost." But episode director David Carson noted that this took longer than anticipated, in part because a certain level of quality would be expected by the audience. By this point, he said, everyone had seen the movie Ghost; they had to achieve a similar look on a television budget.

In the end, getting the actors to pass through other objects required frame-by-frame animation of a sort, selecting exactly what parts of their bodies should be visible and which should be hidden. The finished episode had 20 shots with this "ghostly" effect, and more than a dozen costly disruptor beams on top of that. And all that was before the episode's specific space scenes -- a Romulan ship ejecting its warp core, then receiving an energy transfer from the Enterprise. Though all of this would be considerably easier today in the age of CG, it was expensive and tedious at the time.

But apparently, no one ever really questioned going to all this effort, because of the quality of the story it was servicing. Showrunner Michael Piller had been feeling that Romulans were a bit overused, but two similar pitches that came in convinced him to give them another shot. He assigned writer Ronald Moore to fuse the two ideas together into one, and praised Moore's finished script. Producer Rick Berman also loved the episode, calling it a "great piece of science fiction" -- though he hated the admittedly cheeky title.

The high concept is fun. The playful scenes of Geordi and Ro passing through objects are entertaining. The big chase sequence between Ro and a phased Romulan adversary is fantastic. Even if this was all the episode offered, it would be enough. But there's also a tremendous amount of emotional, character-driven material too, and that's what really puts the episode over the top.

Originally, the episode was to have featured Geordi and Counselor Troi. The switch to Ro was apparently made because the writers felt Troi had already had enough action in the season. Actress Marina Sirtis clearly lost out there, but using the newer, Bajoran character really was a boon for the story. With Ro, the episode is really able to explore the spiritual aspect of the situation in a way that would have felt out of character with Troi.

For a brief time, Ro really embraces the idea that she's in the afterlife, and that she has to achieve closure with the life she has left behind. It leads to a pair of touching scenes -- one where you sense how much the Enterprise has become a home for a person who has never really had one before, and another where Ro voices how much Picard means to her. At the end of the episode, Ro is left clearly shaken by her experience, rethinking her beliefs. This is all about as close as The Next Generation ever gets to taking on religion -- at least, without framing it as dogmatic superstition. It was a small taste of what the Bajorans and Deep Space Nine would later be able to present.

The episode also turns out to be wonderful for Data. Believing his best friend to be dead, Data takes on the task of planning the memorial service. Several outstanding scenes result. When Data speaks to Worf about death, we not only get the very interesting Klingon perspective on the subject, we get Data's profound and affecting speech about how Geordi taught him what friendship really means. It all culminates in a joyous celebration for a funeral (which Geordi loves), and another brilliantly subtle beat by Brent Spiner. When Geordi returns and Data says simply: "Geordi, it is good to see you," it's a perfect delivery. Data isn't emotional, but we the audience sure feel it anyway.

Other observations:
  • You can very quickly pierce the premise of the episode with some nitpicky questions. Why don't Geordi and Ro fall through the floor as easily as they pass through the walls? (A question that's thrown especially in your face when you see Geordi resting on the steps of the transporter platform.) If regular matter passes through them, then what and how are they breathing? I think it's very much for the best that the episode doesn't waste time trying to explain away things like this, but admittedly it means this episode has a higher "just go with it" factor than most.
  • Chief O'Brien is nowhere to be seen. It's possible this was because Colm Meaney was unavailable for filming that week, but I suspect the real reason was to preserve the competency of his character. What would have been worse for O'Brien, losing two people on his watch, or not realizing that in fact he hadn't lost them?
  • Patrick Stewart deftly handles a great little story about Picard meeting a young, eager-to-please Geordi.
  • Jonathan Frakes gives a hilarious and entertaining reaction as, mid-trombone solo, Riker sees Geordi and Ro reappear.
This episode really pulls a lot of elements together for just one episode: a neat sci-fi concept, exciting action, and meaningful scenes for the characters. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Iron Ceiling

Just when the formula of Agent Carter was starting to get stale for me, along came an episode that tossed the formula out the window.

For the first time, we got to see Carter out in the field with her co-workers (and with Neal McDonough, reprising his role from Captain America). The quick-draw ingenuity she'd displayed in the past was amped up to a higher degree, and supplemented with a strong command presence too. And thank God that unlike, say Captain Janeway of Voyager, the writers of this show know how to present a strong, commanding female without just having her yell at everyone and ignore everyone else's suggestions.

The scenes of Carter hiding her double identities were turned on their head. The scene that would normally be about her keeping her spy life out of her personal life instead was a scene about her creepy Russian agent neighbor (a 1940s Black Widow or something?) stealing her key. The scenes that would have been about her hiding her work for Stark from her co-workers were instead about Sousa figuring out her secret.

We also saw some very welcome development among the secondary characters. Thompson's relentless brutishness was undermined with a war story in which brutality was really the wrong answer. Dooley was starting to believe in the idea that Stark might be innocent of weapons dealing. And both those characters advanced in their acceptance of Carter as a real, honest-to-God agent, instead of a "lady agent."

All that said, the highlight of the episode, honestly, was still probably the commercial that promised the return of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a month. But at least Agent Carter took a strong turn towards the entertaining. It was probably the series' best episode so far, and it made the next three weeks of "filling in" suddenly show a lot more promise. I give this episode a B+.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Something Fishy

In writing about board games, I've often mentioned the usefulness of having a short "filler" game -- the game that can be played with a flexible number of players in 15-30 minutes, while waiting for people to arrive at game night (or for bribing them not to leave just yet). Aiming squarely at that target is "Sushi Go!", a fast-paced card game about pigging out at a sushi restaurant.

The game plays out over three rounds, in each of which all the players are dealt a hand of seven cards. The core mechanic will be familiar to many, especially those who have played 7 Wonders. Players simultaneously choose one card from their hand to play, then pass the remaining cards to the next player. Over 7 turns, those original hands dwindle down to a single card, and then scoring is updated.

The cards themselves represent various types of sushi, arranged in several set collection mechanics. Some cards are individually worth points. Other cards are grouped in a sort of "double or nothing" mechanic -- you score if you can get a set of two or three, but you score nothing at all if you don't get there. Still other cards pile up in "pyramid math," worth 1 point for the first card, a total of 3 for two, 6 for three, and so on. In all, there are maybe half a dozen different things going on with the cards, enough to inject some variety, but not too many to make the game too complicated.

But perhaps some complexity would have been welcome. The strategy of the game seems to simply be "don't do what the player to your left or right is doing; choose your cards accordingly." Admittedly, that's about all there is to the strategy in 7 Wonders too, but there feels like a little something more to that game, probably a result of the historical theme and the way you acquire resources to "build" cards. Sushi Go!, appropriately enough, just feels like a conveyor belt whizzing by, from which you pluck the choicest morsel you can at any moment.

The game does hit its intended target -- you can teach and play it in a total of about 10 to 15 minutes. But it's hard for a game that takes only 10-15 minutes to really satisfy. The Resistance pulls it off thanks to the social dynamics at play. Snorta gets there because making animal noises is funny. Sushi Go! is really just a bit too lightweight for my tastes. Given any more time, I'd sooner just play 7 Wonders. Given only the 15 minutes, too few people for The Resistance or Snorta, and too many for a game like Lost Cities or Odin's Ravens, I'd sooner just sit and, you know, have a conversation with friends. But then, if those friends really like sushi, maybe you'd want to give this a go. I'd call it a C.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Eve of Destruction

Every now and then, I give an acclaimed classic movie a try. On occasion, I find a gem that's every bit deserving of its reputation. But more often, I find the cinematic conventions of yesteryear too tedious for my tastes. The latter was unfortunately true when I decided to watch All About Eve.

Released in 1950, All About Eve is the story of an ambitious and calculating young woman who schemes her way into success as a theater actress. She approaches an established veteran as a starstruck fan, getting a job as her assistant. But over time, she worms her way into becoming an understudy, and then arranges a "big break."

All About Eve was one of the most widely acclaimed movies I'd not seen before. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for eight more -- a record total of nominations that stood for over 45 years until finally tied by Titanic. It's ranked among the Top 250 films by users of both IMdB and Flickchart. And on paper, I think I understand the affection. In an era with very few worthwhile roles for women in film (an "era" many might argue extends to today), All About Eve features four strong female characters. All four earned Oscar nominations (two lead, two supporting), a feat that to this day has never been equaled.

But though the movie might remain cutting edge in this one aspect, it's been left behind in virtually every other way. It was made many years before the movement toward more natural acting in film, and so everyone is mugging for the audience in a heightened, soap operatic style. The villainy Anne Baxter displays as Eve when the character finally drops her mask would be the most over the top performance in the movie... were it not for the even more outlandish performance given by Bette Davis.

Yet the performances almost have to be larger than life, to compensate for a story that moves at a plodding pace. In modern film and television, tales of this sort of ambitious scheming can be found anywhere and everywhere. All About Eve may have been some form of progenitor, but that doesn't mean it can hold interest half as well as, say, an episode of Game of Thrones or House of Cards. The movie's technique is simply too unrefined. Multiple different characters all take turns helming the narrative with their meandering voice-overs, giving the sense of a movie that lacks direction. Half an hour in, I found I just couldn't stay focused on it. To get all the way through to the end, I wound up dividing my attention with folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, and more. Good for getting chores done, not so good for entertainment value.

Despite the accolades, despite the good plot at the core that no doubt inspired subsequent writers, I simply couldn't get past the dull execution. I could barely finish the film at all, in fact. I can only grade it an F. I've found a few old gems, but this simply isn't one of them.