Thursday, April 30, 2015

Moce (Goodbye)

The blog is taking a short hiatus here. I'm off to Fiji for scuba diving and beach time. See you on the flip side.


(Actual accommodations probably not pictured.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Dirty Half Dozen

This week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a pretty good episode, if you get over a couple of contrivances.

Getting the original core six characters back together was a bit of a tough sell. I mean, if even Simmons wants to kill Ward (and I believe she would, if for no other reason than to try to make things right with Fitz), then it seems like all the rest of them would too. Perhaps not Coulson, but certainly May, Skye, and Fitz.

Perhaps an even bigger ask is believing that Gonzalez would allow an "all Coulson" team to go unsupervised into the field. Bobbi even asked to go with them! I could buy it when it seemed as though what Gonzalez might really be hoping for was for them all to die in action. But once he revealed at the end that he actually did want the mission to succeed, then it defies logic that he wouldn't send at least one of his own people. The only reason not to was for the narrative purity of the team consisting of just the original cast members.

But like I said, if you get over those contrivances, there was an awful lot of fun here. The infiltration into the Hydra base was executed very well. And a big tip of the hat to the long single-take fight scene featuring Skye. (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. apparently isn't going to just let itself be upstaged by Daredevil in that department. Granted, this single take wasn't as long, but on the other hand, there didn't appear to be any place they could have substituted a stunt double for Chloe Bennett.)

The name dropping and teasing for Age of Ultron worked fairly well too. In particular, the Maria Hill cameo was a nice way of having our TV heroes pass information off into the movie without any of them actually having to appear in the movie (or, I'm guessing, make "required viewing" of the TV show).

Raina's powers continued to develop. It's interesting that the writers have actually given her the ability to see the future, when a major red herring of the first season was "the Clairvoyant," and a supposed future-sight ability that everyone insisted couldn't actually exist. Indeed, there's great dramatic symmetry in Raina -- who was so disappointed to learn the Clairvoyant wasn't as advertised -- becoming an actual clairvoyant. Plus, Raina basically gets to see Age of Ultron before anyone else in America, so she's got that going for her.

It's a little hard for me to invest in the Agent 33 storyline. Not only have we not seen her real face for most of her on screen appearances, but we've hardly ever seen her real personality either. First she was a victim of brainwashing, then she was a misguided disciple of Ward. Perhaps having Bobbi reach out to 33 will pay off in future episodes; Bobbi, at least, we care about. A great deal. Indeed, I quite look forward to the Bobbi/Hunter conversation that will need to happen soon.

So that's it until the movie. As for the episode, I give it a B+.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Strange Thoughts

A darling of Sundance and other film festivals, the movie Love Is Strange was at one point talked about as a possible Oscar contender. Somewhere between that splashy arrival, its wide release, and the run-up to the Oscar nominations, all its momentum fell away -- it received no nominations in any category. But I'd heard enough good critic buzz about it to throw it in the Netflix queue anyway.

Love Is Strange is the tale of Ben and George, an old gay couple in their 70s. After nearly 25 years together, they decide (and are finally able) to get married... after which George is immediately fired from his job teaching music at a religious school. Suddenly unable to afford their expensive New York apartment, they look to their friends for help and a place to live. But it soon proves a hardship for everyone.

Although this movie sounds very much like a "Gay Film" on paper, those elements really just push the story into motion. The bulk of the movie is quite universal, neither gay nor straight, and mainly illustrate the difficulties of living with family. Ben moves in with his nephew, putting an immediate strain on his family. The nephew's wife and teenage son wind up most impacted by the new situation; the former works at home and has to deal with Ben day in and day out, while the latter is forced to share his room right at the time of life he most wants privacy. At the same time, Ben is quite set in his ways at his age, unused to living with so many other people. And as his husband George is having to live elsewhere, the two must deal with living apart at a time when they finally were able to marry.

The film's biggest asset is its cast. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as Ben and George. Each lends an incredible pathos to his character, and the two are effortlessly authentic as an old couple of 25 years. Marisa Tomei plays Ben's in-law Kate, and does an excellent job portraying a difficult character arc, going from total support of Ben to fed up with his constant presence. Young actor Charlie Tahan is also quite strong as teenage Joey, lashing out against the unwelcome intrusion of "Uncle Ben."

The film is strong in its simplicity, and often quite honest and real. But it also indulges in a few distractions that really hurt its overall effectiveness. There's a side plot involving young Joey and a mysterious friend, with some unsubtle implications about the nature of their relationship. It's not so much that this thread is unnecessary as it is unfulfilled; the movie never really seems to reveal the point. There's also a strange turn near the end of the film. After being starkly realistic for 75 minutes, the final 15 minutes pull a bait-and-switch by bringing in fantasy and imagination. What is surely meant to be poignant instead comes off feeling unearned by what has come before it.

The overall effect of the movie is not bad, but I personally see why it didn't survive to figure into the Oscars this year. I give Love Is Strange a B-. It's fine if you happen to catch it (mostly for the acting), but not necessarily something to seek out.

Monday, April 27, 2015

High Sparrow

This week's Game of Thrones was stuffed to the brim, running the full hour and still feeling swift as always.

The biggest storyline of the week for book readers was the newest major departure from the book -- Sansa Stark is to be wedded to Ramsay Bolton. It's a wonderful development that improves the narrative for almost every character. TV viewers and book readers alike are aware of what a psychopath Ramsay is, and the thought of having Sansa anywhere near him is horrific. It might even be more tense for book readers, who can imagine some of the horrors that were visited on a minor character in the books now befalling Sansa instead. Theon's story is elevated too. Faced with the dilemma of what -- if anything -- he can do in his position, at least he would be contemplating it to help an actual Stark (rather than the imposter of the book).

The one character I'm not sure this change helps is Littlefinger. He has always been the character in this story that knows exactly what every person in the game of thrones is about. Yet it seems as though he knows nothing of Ramsay's penchant for cruelty. It's hard to imagine him putting Sansa in danger deliberately and not caring, but the alternative is that he doesn't know what he's doing in this situation -- and that can't be true. I suppose we'll have to see what develops in the weeks ahead.

The other major departure from the book was made possible because the child characters are older on the show. Thus we got to see Margaery actually seal her marriage with Tommen. (Third time's a charm, I guess.) Yes, as we've seen time and time again, the TV incarnation of Margaery is a very clever and calculating individual. If Book Margaery is even really a player of the game at all, she has chosen the role of naif. TV Margaery is willing to be much more bold. And I expect the show's writers will have more bold moves in store.

Other small adjustments this week dealt more efficiently with major plot points. As in the books, Cersei is responsible for increasing the power of the High Sparrow. But here, she is essentially the one that gives him any political power at all; in the book, she augments power he already has in a more abstract chapter that involves historical precedent and clearing family debt. Nice adaptation there.

Tyrion's capture by Jorah Mormont completes the excising of the aggravating "Griff" subplot from the books. But the fact that they still made a point of showing us a Red Priestess in Volantis, and an even louder point of talking about greyscale, does make me wonder if those minor plot points from the book are in fact not as minor as I thought they were.

Jon's story at the Wall continues as it has this season, largely in the path of the books, but largely out of order from the books. On this occasion, I think it improved things on one count and damaged them on the other. In the books, he offers a promotion to Alliser Thorne after he executes Janos Slynt (a circle of vengeance moment for Slynt's role in betraying Eddard Stark). Here, Jon offers a carrot before a stick, which I think lends greater credibility to his acceptance as Watch Commander. But on the other hand, on the show he turns down Stannis' offer of Winterfell and legitimization after being appointed Watch Commander. In the book, Jon was more noble to turn down the offer when he had nothing to fall back on, only the prospect of abuse at the likely soon-to-be-commander Thorne. Jon refusing from a position of power makes it seem less of a sacrifice.

Arya's story essentially played out exact beats from the book, but powerfully so. It mattered in the book that she couldn't give up her sword Needle and chose to hide it instead, and that moment carried the same impact on the show.

And then there was Brienne's story of why she loved Renly. Again, this was taken from the book, but it was powerfully performed here in monologue by Gwyndoline Christie. She took you through each step of Brienne's anguish, embarrassment, and resolve. And also made more explicit was the real motivation that seems to get her up in the morning -- the possibility of getting vengeance on Stannis. That's something not at all clear in the books.

Overall, a wonderful episode that put a lot of tense stories into motion. I give it an A-.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Bust of an Adventure

Because exploration of his characters was rarely high on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's agenda, the quality of any given Sherlock Holmes story generally turns on the cleverness of the mystery at its core. In this, "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" is rather a disappointment.

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard shares an odd and seemingly trivial crime with Holmes and Watson: two locations, a store and a residence, have been burgled for the strangest of purposes. The perpetrator has disturbed nothing but plaster busts of Napoleon Bonaparte, shattering them into pieces upon the ground. Holmes must uncover the motive behind the crimes before he can apprehend the culprit.

The trouble with this story is that the twist is readily apparent from the moment Lestrade introduces the case: someone is breaking the statues in hopes of finding something inside. But the story doesn't provide any clues as to what might be hidden in the statue; Holmes reveals this only in the climax, having deduced it from investigation the reader isn't made privy to.

The result is a lot of uninteresting pages between the brief introduction and brief conclusion. The reader already knows the shape of the ending, but is denied the opportunity to guess the specifics. Watson and Lestrade come off even less capable than usual; Lestrade's theory of some madman who hates Napoleon is laughable even for him. There's simply nothing here to engage the reader before the inevitable wrap-up.

I'd say "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" rates only a D.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Breaking Free from Prison

There's been a lot of talk lately about the HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Having picked up HBO again for the new season of Game of Thrones (and Veep, and Silicon Valley), I was able to see what the fuss was all about.

Taking inspiration from an earlier book (of the same title) by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear examines how Scientology came to be, explores its actual practices and beliefs, delves into its scandals, and interviews a number of former members. To the degree the film seems to be expressing a message, that message seems to be: "how did these guys get tax exempt status as a church?" To the degree people have been commenting on the film, the commentary seems mostly to be: "I'm astounded at the crazy crap Scientologists believe." Going Clear is certainly a well-made documentary. But on both those counts, I was hardly surprised.

It's worth noting that this film was made by Alex Gibney, the same man behind the documentary Mea Maxima Culpa, which examined the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church, and the institutional protection of the abusers. Arrange the two documentaries mentally, side by side, and you get my take on Scientology: why are people surprised by any of this? Yes, Scientologists believe some batshit crazy stuff. So do other religions. Yes, it's offensive that Scientologists are able to exempt themselves from paying taxes and use their money like a corporation to fuel their own expansion. Same for other religions. Yes, Scientology seems to be a transparent means of aggrandizement for a few power-hungry individuals. Same for other religions.

"How is Scientology a religion?" many people ask. How is it not a religion?

Since Going Clear so astutely puts this on display, I was definitely bound to like it. It's a more focused film than Mea Maxima Culpa, which often let (justifiable) rage dull its razor. I was already aware of the origin myths of Scientology, so the movie wasn't particularly informative for me on that count. Still, if it's a vehicle for people to think critically about one religion, it's doing good. Some of those people might then go on to think critically about all religion.

I give Going Clear a B+. It's an insightful, and not unnecessarily cruel or flippant, take down of a Scientology. It's a magnifying glass and, perhaps, a mirror.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Supreme Disappointment

Over the past couple years, I've read a few books about the U.S. Supreme Court, each with a different tone. There was the "insider exposé" that was The Brethren, the critique of originalism that was The Nine, and the more purely informative overview that was The Supremes' Greatest Hits. I've recently added another book to the list, this one largely critical of the institution itself: The Case Against the Supreme Court.

Author Erwin Chemerinsky is a law professor and practitioner, dean of the law program at the University of California, and attorney who has argued at the Supreme Court. He has steeped himself in constitutional law and the Supreme Court throughout his decades-long career. And over time, that has had the effect of transforming a reverence for the Court into a disillusionment with what he sees as its long history of failure.

Chemerinsky builds a fairly compelling case that the Supreme Court has rarely been a force for good in U.S. history, and that even when it has, it hasn't done as much as it could. He begins his argument with a sort of mission statement for the Court that few could quarrel with: the purpose of the federal court system -- and the Supreme Court above all -- is to look out for the little guy. The Court exists to enforce the protection of the individual's rights against unconstitutional overreach, be it from unthinking and unfeeling majorities or acts by the government itself.

He then parades an alarming litany of examples in which the Supreme Court grossly failed in this mission. Some are widely known, like the infamous Dred Scott decision that dissolved the Missouri Compromise and condoned slavery; and Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation that would endure for decades. Still more cases were already known to me, and should be generally more well known than they are, like the shameful Korematsu decision that upheld forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.

But there are so many more horrific decisions in Supreme Court history that I knew nothing about. The Court supported the forced sterilization of the mentally disabled. It upheld the Sedition Acts of World War I, seriously curtailing free speech. It struck down a law aimed at reducing child labor. It condoned McCarthyism. It voided numerous attempts to prevent corporate monopolies, and to establish a minimum wage. When given the chance to acknowledge the right of women to vote before the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Court did nothing. And it was so pro-slavery in the Civil War era that it even struck down Pennsylvania's attempt at a law which simply said "if you're coming to our state to take back your escaped slaves, we don't want you to use extreme force or violence."

Over several chapters, Chemerinsky presents dozens of cases that no serious person of any political conviction could defend as rightly decided. This was his aim -- to make a point that could be embraced by people of any political ideology. It's why he starts on the politically neutral ground of the more distant past. Later, he transitions to the present, showing that close analogies can be drawn between those past cases and more recent ones.

For a while, it seems as though Chemerinsky is on solid ground. He covers a case where the Court ruled that victims who were seriously harmed by a generic drug can't sue the manufacturer for damages -- even if the harm was caused by design defects, and even if that patient could have sued the manufacturer if they had been taking the brand name version of the same drug. He presents another case where a man, after 24 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, was told by the Court that even though the prosecutor at his trial knowingly withheld evidence that would have proved his innocence, he could neither sue that prosecutor nor the city that employed him.

But Chemerinsky just can't help getting a few extra swipes in. After spending three-quarters of his book building an argument using cases that would seem unimpeachably wrong to anyone, he presents a chapter with the trolling title "Is the Roberts Court Really So Bad?" He examines Bush v. Gore (which wasn't even decided by the Roberts Court), Citizens United (the notorious campaign financing case), and Shelby County (the nearly-as-notorious Voting Rights Act case). And while I personally agree with his analysis of those cases, I suspect they're all too ideologically loaded to support his argument as powerfully as his other examples. I can easily imagine a conservative reader, who might have been gently persuaded by the bulk of the book, suddenly throwing it down in disgust. That's a shame, because the author has a solid underlying point. (And it's not like he lets the liberals off the hook either. One of his chapters argues that the Warren Court -- the one brief period in history where the Supreme Court was truly progressive -- was unclear even in the rulings celebrated today, such as in the school desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education.)

What does Chemerinsky suggest be done about the Supreme Court? His concluding chapter presents a number of prescriptions for improving the institution. He suggests merit-based nominations -- something President Jimmy Carter did for his federal court appointments (a practice Ronald Reagan discontinued, and that no president since, Democrat or Republican, has reinstated). He suggests substantive confirmation hearings (rather than the "Kabuki" of the current process) and term limits (a notion he admits with shock he agrees on with Texas Republican Rick Perry). He also implores the Courtto improve its communications, something the Justices themselves could implement on their own.

Ultimately, Erwin Chemerinsky has written a solid book. It would be great if the people in positions with the power to change things would take heed of his arguments. But it is a shame that he undermines his presentation a bit with some unnecessary partisan digs. Overall, I give the book a B+.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Quality of Life

"The Quality of Life" is a fair, if somewhat forgettable, episode from season six of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise has been sent to evaluate a new "particle fountain" mining technique being tested by an engineer named Dr. Farallon. But it's one of her other inventions that proves more compelling. To keep her mining operation running smoothly, she has created a set of adaptive robotic tools she's dubbed "exocomps." When one of these devices appears to exhibit an extinct for self-preservation, Data speculates that the exocomps might have attained sentience. After an accident on the mining station, he is determined to preserve their lives even if it means sacrificing the lives of Picard and LaForge.

If you think the technobabble in this episode is a bit thicker than normal, you're not imagining it. The script was written by Naren Shankar, who would later become a full-fledged member of the writing staff, but who officially at this point was just the staff's science advisor. Showrunner Jeri Taylor had bought this episode's premise from an outsider story pitch. Either for lack of staff time or following a successful lobby by Shankar, she agreed to let him develop a draft of the script on his own.

Fortunately, the script isn't all science and engineering. It ultimately comes down to Data's difficult exploration of life and what defines it. He has a more than one deep conversation with Dr. Crusher on the subject, and ultimately develops an "instinct" that the exocomps qualify. It's a huge moment for Data, because it feels so out of character for him. In an argument in the episode itself, Riker articulates pretty much every reason why: Data doesn't know for certain that he's right, yet he's still willing to see his captain and best friend die for that hunch. It's frankly hard behavior to understand or rationalize, until the final scene where Data explains himself to Picard. When Data's own sentience was questioned, Picard came to his defense. Data basically felt the urge to pay back that support by advocating on behalf of the exocomps.

While this is obviously a "Data episode," Dr. Crusher has almost as good a part in it. Besides the heady discussion of life itself I mentioned before, she gets a couple of nice feminist moments too. There's a fun poker scene in the teaser where she argues that beards on men are just as much an affectation as makeup on women. (And it seems she would have won a bet on that point, but for a timely interruption by Picard.) Later in the episode, we learn that Crusher has been bat'leth training with Worf -- and that she is improving enough to have almost gotten in under his guard. Perhaps because a woman was now running the Next Generation writing staff, things were evolving beyond the point where female characters had to use pottery to fight instead of swords.

But there are also parts of the episode that don't quite work for me. Some are merely production issues. The decision was made to portray the exocomps using rod puppets. The results seem oddly jerky, less smooth than you'd expect a machine to operate. There's also a scene in Engineering where one of the exocomps goes down an "impossible" conduit -- we see a hallway stretch on for hundreds of feet, beyond the point where we know a wall exists (people have been walking into Engineering that way for years).

Other problems are unpolished quirks in the script itself. For example, it seems awfully easy to accidentally create artificial intelligence. Farallon wasn't even trying to do it, but given her statement that she's reformatted several "malfunctioning" exocomps in the past, she's actually done it multiple times! There's also an uncomfortable, quasi-corporate vibe to the way the Enterprise crew interacts with Farallon and the mining operation. Just because the Federation is evaluating the mining process, does that mean they "own" the exocomp technology too? Because our heroes pretty much act like they do, taking control away from Farallon. Plus, it bothers me that Data (whether he was "right" or "wrong") faces no consequences for his indisputable act of insubordination to Commander Riker.

Other observations:
  • Although there are three exocomps in the story, there was only enough money in the budget to build two puppets. Every scene where you see all three is a visual effects composite, such as when Brent Spiner plays both Data and Lore in the same scene. You wouldn't think twice about such a trick today, but I find it interesting that even in 1992, split screening was cheaper than building a puppet.
  • This is the second straight episode where people specifically mention Geordi's beard. LeVar Burton preferred to have one, and in the past had very briefly been allowed to wear one. He argued again this season to have a beard, and this time had a more powerful reason for it on his side: he was getting married, and thought it fair that he be allowed to have a beard at his own wedding. The producers agreed, but then promptly made him shave it off again afterward.
  • Speaking of guys with beards, Jonathan Frakes was again in the director's chair for this episode.
Ultimately, the biggest disappointment of the episode is that the huge importance of Data's actions in it -- his growth as a student of humanity -- aren't acknowledged strongly enough. This episode shouldn't be as unmemorable as it is. Still, it's not "bad" as such. I give it a B.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Frenemy of my Enemy

Well, on the plus side, this week's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had lots of action and momentum in the plot. It also caused story lines to converge that had remained too separate for too long. And above all that, it was a hell of a lot of fun as it did it. But it did come at the cost of characters behaving in a logical and consistent way.

First, there was Jiaying. If she never had any intention of keeping Cal captive up at the Afterlife retreat, if he was too dangerous to have there, then what was the point of even bringing him there in the first place? And once there, why tell him Skye had been found and brought there at all? Residual feelings for their past relationship is sort of an explanation, but if she takes her job of protecting Afterlife at all seriously, she has to know that it isn't smart to cast him out into the world knowing Skye isn't to be found there. Better to send him back out on a fruitless search, thinking he can still find her somewhere.


Then there's the matter of how foolishly and completely Coulson trusted Ward. Repeatedly. He too easily assumed he'd coerced Ward into an agreement. He mistakenly assumed that the carrot that would entice Ward would be a brain wipe, when he already knows from firsthand observation that the one thing that truly motivates Ward to do good is Skye. He continued going along with Ward's plan even after a revealed double-cross. And then, at the end, he apparently left Ward alone with Fitz and Hunter! There's no way on Earth those two can keep him in check.

That last decision seems a particularly hard sell even as an act of desperation, since abandoning the group also meant turning himself in to "other S.H.I.E.L.D." I hope we get some rock solid explanation of his thinking next week, because on the face of it, his choice to give up after spending several episodes on the run leaves viewers to wonder what the point of any of it was.

I appreciate big story moves, but not so much at the expense of character. This felt like movement propelled more by a ticking clock: the end of the season is fast approaching, and the writers suddenly realized they have more story left to tell than time to tell it in. Fun, but not particularly well executed. I give the episode a B.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Sounds of Desolation

I had high praise for composer Howard Shore's work on the first film of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. Nevertheless, it took me until after the home video release of the last film before I finally picked up the soundtrack to the middle film, The Desolation of Smaug. While this score certainly does have its highlights, it's not the grand accomplishment of its predecessor.

Part of the problem is that Shore seems to have lost some of the desire for experimentation he showed on An Unexpected Journey. Much of his score for The Desolation of Smaug relies quite heavily on what I'd call "the chords of the Rings," a distinct style he'd established on four prior Tolkien movies -- to a point where the sound begins to constitute a bag of tricks. The album kicks off with a particularly egregious example of this, "The Quest for Erebor," a sort of shapeless collection of minor chords and languid strings. And while Shore tries shaking things up with the use of a solo boy soprano in several tracks ("The House of Beorn" and "Feast of Starlight"), the same regurgitated underpinnings from the orchestra leave those efforts rather dull.

Some of Shore's new attempts at themes fall flat as well. The new hero of the film, "Bard, a Man of Lake-town" gets an amorphous tune, largely in free time, rather than the strong (or even noticeable) anthem he deserves. Even his ancestor, "Girion, Lord of Dale," gets a more potent melody -- and Girion only actually appears on screen in the Extended Edition of the film.

But fortunately, there are also many cues where Shore snaps out of his funk. "Wilderland" builds from a slow pulse to a relentless race over five tense minutes. "Mirkwood" is a fantastic and eerie track with a whispering choir and odd clanking that one could imagine being recorded in the basement of an abandoned factory. And if some of the quieter moments of the album seem a bit vague, the action cues are bombastic in opposite measure. Shore uses thundering timpani, furious strings, and growling brass for "The Forest River," "My Armor Is Iron," and the sprawling, nine-minute "The Hunters." And I found "Flies and Spiders" to be a particularly thoughtful evolution of the "giant spider music" he wrote for Shelob back on The Return of the King -- he again focuses on strings that skitter around quickly within an octave, but this time with a different rhythm and greater support from the rest of the orchestra, all suggesting a greater number of creatures.

Shore also plays around with instrumentation in the last half of the soundtrack. First, it's just odd arrangement of his usual orchestra, creating the evocative "The Nature of Evil." Then, it's bringing in a harpsichord for "Thrice Welcome." But it's his leitmotif for Smaug that's most effective, an odd flirtation with a Middle Eastern style. Perhaps thinking of the Tales of the Arabian Nights that possibly inspired Tolkien himself to imagine a cave filled with treasure, Shore crafted a melody in a double harmonic scale and brought in unconventional percussion including zills (Middle Eastern finger cymbals) to represent the dragon and his lair. Over the course of three tracks ("Inside Information," "A Liar and a Thief," and "Smaug"), he plays around with these ideas, introducing something new and different to the musical language he has created for Middle-earth.

One other tradition of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films has been the inclusion of a song for the end credits. I've usually found these to be middling at best, but this film's "I See Fire," by Ed Sheeran, is a pleasant surprise. It's a real masterpiece of overdubbing, layering in the vocals and instruments one at a time. Sheeran starts with a single guitar and gradually adds bass, violin, cello (the only instrument he didn't play himself), and percussion. Similarly, his vocals, which begin in double-tracked unison one octave apart, gradually fill in with more harmonies each time the chorus comes around.

In all, I'd say there are more skippable tracks on this soundtrack than on An Unexpected Journey (or any of the three Lord of the Rings films), but there are still enough good ones for the album overall to get a B.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The House of Black and White

As promised by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones this week continued to depart from the book source material -- and continued to entertain by doing so.

Actually, it was one of the smaller changes that marked the only place where I thought something got lost in translation somewhere. The election of Jon Snow to Watch Commander played out over several chapters of the book. (That book being A Storm of Swords; we're backtracking to finally grab this important development.) Multiple votes were taken over multiple nights, which obviously had to be compressed for dramatic effect on the show. But book Sam made much shrewder political maneuvers to position Jon as a sort of alternative "consensus candidate" to everyone else. I had a harder time believing that one rousing speech would get the job done -- particularly when Thorne made an equally convincing (to your average rube, I thought) counterspeech.

On the other end of the spectrum, Brienne's story this week effectively allowed her to skip an entire book's worth of Martin's material -- material that was far from compelling to begin with. Sure, you have to allow that Brienne and Podrick just happen to grab food in the same place as Littlefinger and Sansa, but it's a coincidence I welcome as an alternative to weeks of fruitless searching. Instead, we got a powerful moment for Sansa, who may not have made the right choice in sticking with Littlefinger, but who at least make a choice (more than I can say for her book counterpart). Then we were treated to a wild action sequence through the forest that delivered plenty of thrills. I look forward to Brienne's continued tracking of Sansa (to where, we still don't know).

Somewhere in the middle were the changes to the Dorne storyline. Having Jamie decide to go there seems like a big improvement. Book Cersei sent him off on a menial clean-up mission to deal with the Red Wedding aftermath, which, being deliberately menial, was generally not exciting to read. It did serve to bring about Jamie's slow disillusionment with his sister over several chapters, but I have faith a more efficient way can be found to do that on the show. Instead, we now send a major character into the heart of action that sorely needed a familiar character in the books.

The secondary characters are switched around too. Bronn popped as a character far more on the show than he ever did in the books, where he was just one of three or four named fighters working for Tyrion. His wry humor will be a welcome return. Also changed are things in Dorne itself. In the books, Prince Doran had a daughter, Arianne, with an elaborate plot surrounding Myrcella -- one that did not involve killing her. It's a simplification to turn that into a desire to start carving Myrcella up for revenge, but that is at least a viewpoint that some characters had in the book. Combining Arianne and Ellaria into a single character is likely a change that will work, particularly in the name of preserving further use of an actress who was solid last season.

So far, the show's answer to the boring Meereen chapters of the book seems to be sinking Dany in the quagmire more quickly. I don't remember this decision for a public execution in the book at all -- or perhaps all that changed was her decision to be there in person for it? Either way, it made for a much stronger "what are you doing?!" moment that highlighted the core issue of the book, distilled down: Dany's attempts to do the right or just thing are rarely rewarded. The show's added visit from Drogon was a nice punctuation mark on it too; even Dany's dragon doesn't want to hang around with her much.

Tyrion's tedious travels through the east continue, largely unaltered by the presence of Varys and absence of Illyrio. I don't mind the show keeping things slow for him for the moment as they focus on other stories.

Which just leaves the story we didn't get to see last week, Arya's arrival at the House of Black and White. I loved her little showdown in the street (even if we were denied the chance to see her make good on her threat). The major change here is the return of Jaqen H'ghar! In a place where people can change their faces at will, it's still possible that it isn't him, of course. Still, the show has again put a familiar character into a storyline that lacked for that in the books. And again, it feels like a good change.

I'm excited about the directions things are going this season. This newest episode, I give an A-.

Friday, April 17, 2015

TNG Flashback: A Fistful of Datas

For quite some time, Star Trek: The Next Generation had steered clear of the "dangerous holodeck malfunction" cliché that seemed to recur so much in its early seasons. But then along came an idea to make them revisit it: "A Fistful of Datas."

When a rendezvous with a supply ship is delayed for 48 hours, the Enterprise crew suddenly find themselves with free time to kill. Worf's son Alexander takes him to the holodeck to play sheriff and deputy in the "Ancient West" town of Deadwood -- joined by Counselor Troi. But the game turns deadly when an experiment by LaForge and Data unknowingly infects their scenario. The holodeck safeties are disengaged, the controls are locked, and the characters are replaced one by one with facsimiles of Data -- complete with the android's physical abilities.

The pitch for this episode came from an outside writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The idea was so well received that it earned him a staff writer position on the new Deep Space Nine series. Still, every outside script gets a polish from an in-house writer, and Brannon Braga did the honors here. He reportedly lobbied to swap scripts with Ronald Moore (giving Moore "Relics") to work on this. I've heard two conflicting versions of the tale -- that Braga was a lifelong Western fan itching to work on this; and that he knew little or nothing of Westerns, but still thought this sounded like fun.

The original plot would have pitted "Sheriff Worf" against some sort of robber land baron, but Ira Steven Behr over on Deep Space Nine heard about this episode coming up on The Next Generation and suggested a more specific Western homage, to the film Rio Bravo. It was a win all around, letting the episode feature more fun Western conventions -- complete with the Enterprise riding off into the sunset at the episode's end. It also gave a welcome upgrade to Counselor Troi's originally envisioned role as a saloon dancing girl; the cross-type, gender-blind placement of her as "the mysterious stranger" is a vast improvement.

The "Spaghetti Westerns" which this episode lovingly references were, of course, directed primarily by Italian filmmakers. So, fittingly enough, there wasn't an American directing this episode either. Patrick Stewart drew this assignment, and reportedly watched one or two Westerns every night in the run-up to filming it. From his "studies," he incorporated several shots that were specific homages to films like Rio Bravo and Shane.

The episode actually filmed on location for a single day, on the "Western street" backlot at a rival studio. Stewart made the most of that day. There are lots of wonderful, wide angle shots that show off the dusty streets of Deadwood and evoke still more classic films.

The episode gives a lot of actors a chance to shine. Michael Dorn again proves himself a skilled comedian throughout the episode, from lines like "I'm beginning to see the appeal of this program!" to the wicked grin that accompanies his finger-gun in the final scene. Marina Sirtis really sinks her teeth into her unexpected role here, adopting a fun drawl and getting several laughs of her own. (In a scene where she attempted to blow smoke rings, Dorn reportedly joked that she needed to stop being so funny in "his" episode.)

There are even good moments for the characters that don't get to join in on the holodeck fun. Patrick Stewart bristles with irritation in an opening scene that hints to us why Picard never studied an instrument before his experience in "The Inner Light" -- he gets no uninterrupted free time. Jonathan Frakes bullies his way through Riker's loud rehearsal as Beverly Crusher's newest actor (complete with a callback to Data's fantastic poetry).

Of course, its Brent Spiner who really gets to cut loose this episode. This isn't simply Data imitating human behavior to varying effectiveness; this is Spiner getting to play multiple other characters. They're mostly a great success (even if his take on Eli Hollander doesn't really match much with the guest star who plays the character before the holodeck glitch). Spiner is perhaps a bit over the top outside the holodeck -- for example, when he walks bowlegged over to the plant and spits in it. But his menace as Frank Hollander is fantastic.

Joining in on the fun is composer Jay Chattaway, who underscores the episode with plenty of authentic Hollywood Western style music. In fact, to record this score, he hired Tommy Morgan to play harmonica -- the same performer who played on most of those classic Western soundtracks.

Other observations:
  • This episode was first meant to be called "The Good, the Bad, and the Klingon" before the far better title "A Fistful of Datas" was dreamed up. The new title was so well-liked that for the rest of the series' run, the writers would joke about doing a follow-up episode called "For a Few Datas More."
  • This was another episode where the series won a technical Emmy; it won for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Sound Mixing for a Drama Series.
  • I love Picard's demure "I'm not much of an actor," for the sheer irony of it coming from Patrick Stewart's mouth.
  • Having the characters refer to this time period as the "Ancient West" seems like a fun detail... but when you really think about it, would we today call the 1400s "ancient?"
  • Can you imagine how big a cowboy hat has to be to fit a Klingon?
  • No holodeck episode would be complete without a reference to Reginald Barclay; Worf's disapproval of the prostitute in the program is quite funny.
  • Brent Spiner has spoken often of how difficult it was to work with the various "cat actors" who played Spot over the years. Given that, I have to wonder how long it took to get the footage in this episode, where the cat actually does exactly what it's supposed to in two rather long, unbroken takes.
  • When Frank Hollander comes to visit his son Eli in jail, then proceeds to threaten Worf, Eli appears to be "played" by a very fake looking mannequin posed behind Brent Spiner.
  • Worf has some serious heretofore unknown engineering skills; rigging up that communicator-powered force field seems like no small feat. (Still, the writers had to do a sci-fi take on the classic "steel plate bullet-proof vest" gag.)
  • There's an unfortunate touch of homophobia in the final act, when Worf is unable to conceal his alarm and disgust at seeing Data-as-Annie. Worf just survived a shootout, and it's receiving a quite chaste hug from a man that he can't face?
This episode is fun enough overall to forgive going back to the malfunctioning holodeck well again. I give it a B+.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Double Digits

Today marks a mind-boggling milestone for this blog: its 10th anniversary.

When I started up Heimlich Maneuvers 10 years ago today (and nearly 3500 posts ago), a lot of my friends were into the blogging thing. A lot of us had recently been laid off from Decipher, and we were maybe looking for a way to keep in touch with each other as we departed Virginia in every direction imaginable. (Facebook wasn't yet the widely known phenomenon that could have served that purpose.)

Gradually, the blog morphed into what it is today: a place where I mostly review pop culture -- movies, TV shows, books, board games, music -- occasionally interrupted by vacation stories. I probably would have given it up a long time ago, but to my surprise, I have a tiny handful of readers who seem to enjoy it. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you still get what you're looking for.

I make no promises to still be at this in another 10 years. (Especially if I ever actually redirect my writing efforts into my take on the Great American Novel or something.) But for now, I'll keep my opinions coming. I have plenty of them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Melinda

This week's installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a curious mix of moving things forward while tap dancing in place a bit at the same time.

On the one hand, things did happen. May actually began to doubt Coulson. Jiaying revealed herself as Skye's mother, a secret you might well have expected her to hang onto for a few episodes. Skye made big strides in mastering her new powers, while we the audience finally learned what power Raina got. (With great spikes come great auspex ability. Or something like that.) This is all a lot more forward momentum than the show had in its early season one days.

But then, from another perspective, everyone pretty well ended the episode where they began. Skye is still at the Inhuman mountain hideaway. May is still being wined and dine by "the real S.H.I.E.L.D." Coulson and Hunter are still on the run, and no closer to contacting Ward as they'd planned to do last week. So really, you could be forgiven for feeling like this episode didn't amount to much.

What it ultimately comes down to is whether you enjoyed finally getting to see May's backstory, the origin of "the Cavalry." I happened to like it quite a bit. As more hints had been dropped about Bahrain, it seemed more and more like nothing would reasonably explain the end result. What made May give up on field work, turn her back on Coulson, and let her marriage crumble? Well, I can believe that being forced to kill a little girl might just do it. (Even if you could justify it by arguing that she'd was an irredeemably evil little girl.)

What I enjoyed about May's backstory, though, was not just how it explained the person she became, but how it actually revealed in her another layer of emotional strength and character. She'd had about as miserable an experience with a super-powered individual as you could imagine, but she had still found it in herself to try to help and protect Skye after her transformation. And, for that matter, she'd allowed herself to get close to Skye before that, in the role of her S.O., a role that was in at least some ways rather maternal. It was a great episode for May's character, and Ming-Na Wen did a great job with it -- in particular, in showing how different May was at two very different times in her life.

So even though the series may have pumped the brakes a bit with this episode, I was still mostly entertained. I give the episode a B. (Though that said, I do hope the pace picks back up a bit next week.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hollow Music

Many weeks ago, I went to a special concert by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. They presented two hours of music composed by Danny Elfman, all from the films of Tim Burton. Over a dozen movies were covered, spanning their decades-long collaboration. Much of the music presented came from soundtrack albums that have been a much-loved part of my collection for some time. But some of it, though taken from movies I have seen, was music with which I'm far less familiar.

An example from this latter category was a suite of the score to Sleepy Hollow. I don't remember thinking too much of the movie when I saw it in the theater back in 1999. It had undeniable style, as all Tim Burton films do, but I seem to remember thinking it a bit silly and lackluster. Not terrible, but quite forgettable. And among what I'd forgotten was Danny Elfman's score. But hearing it presented in concert made me immediately set about tracking down a copy of the album online. Whatever deficiencies there were in the film did not extend to the music.

Danny Elfman's work for Sleepy Hollow is a perfect display of the twisted dichotomy he brings to a score. The music is flowing and beautiful on its surface, while simultaneously having creepy, fresh-crawling qualities lingering just beneath the surface. Nowhere is this exemplified more than in the movie's main title track, featuring a single boy soprano "aaaaah-ing" out a crystal clear melody. It feels as though it should bring a tear to the corner of your eye, but in actuality it makes you recoil minutely with the feeling that something simply isn't right.

This same melody -- and similar techniques -- permeate the score. "Sweet Dreams" don't sound as advertised, and "More Dreams" are even darker. Confrontations are personified with power in "The Church Battle," "The Windmill," "The Chase," and "The Final Confrontation." (Fun Elfman trivia: all of his scores have a cue titled "The Final Confrontation," unless the story of the film simply won't accommodate it.) The best tracks of all are "The Tree of Death," a cue which pulls the tension tauter and tauter over nine exhilarating minutes, and "End Credits," which swings the other way by condensing all of the film's clever musical ideas into a loaded three minutes.

For a fan of scores in general, and of Danny Elfman in particular, it's a shame this album wasn't in my collection before. But I can thank the Colorado Symphony Orchestra concert (which was amazing,by the way) for leading me to correct this oversight. Because of films where I think Elfman's work was even stronger, I'd probably give this album a B+. Still, a used copy of Sleepy Hollow wasn't at all hard for me to track down, and I'd certainly recommend fans of the genre do the same.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Wars to Come

Game of Thrones returned last night for season 5, with a good enough episode. It was perhaps hamstrung a bit by the need to reintroduce characters (and their current circumstances) that many viewers haven't checked in on in a year. Consequently, things got a bit exposition-laden in spots. Still, there were plenty of great scenes all the same.

An interesting change for me going into this season is in how recently I've read the books on which the show is based. During the four prior seasons, it had been years since I'd read George R.R. Martin's original books. This time, it's been only months since my stitched-together reading of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. I'm already finding that interesting, as the show begins to drift a bit farther from the source material.

It turns out that one key decision made last season by the showrunners has cast a shadow of doubt over everything this season. It spoils nothing for TV-only fans to say that I'm referring to the way Lady Stoneheart did not appear in the season finale as expected. Since then, the showrunners have gone on record saying this was no delay; they claim to be cutting that subplot entirely. And while, granted, it hasn't led very far in the books yet, it was such a jaw dropper there, and felt like surely it will lead to something important. So the question for book readers is, what will the show do to patch the hole Lady Stoneheart leaves behind?

More importantly, the fact that they changed that on the show means book readers are now more in suspense than they've ever been watching the show. And it's wonderful! In some storylines, we're completely in the dark. What are Brienne and Podrick going to be doing this season? Clearly something, since the premiere checked back in on them. Where are Littlefinger and Sansa headed? No idea, but I'm loving that TV Sansa seems to be a good deal more shrewd than her book counterpart.

Even when things unfolded closely to the book, there were questions. For example, the episode kicked off with a flashback, showing us the prophecy Cersei received as a teenager. This dominated her storyline in book four, doled out one tiny nugget each chapter until the whole finally took shape near the end of the book. Here, it was revealed all at once. (And quite effectively, in a very creepy sequence.) But very notably, the show left out the "valonqar" piece of the prophecy, predicting Cersei's own death. So, what to make of that? In the book, Cersei fears one particular person because of this. Clever readers have an alternative suspect in mind. But on the show, none of that seems to be in play.

Or take things up at the Wall. The execution of Mance Rayder does happen in the books. But given some book events that had happened to Jon before this moment, can we be sure that some of the aftermath of this execution will still happen? And how much more awful was it to watch someone being burned alive on screen?

The show actually added several very powerful touches like that, throughout the episode. The stones on the eyes of the dead had been shown before, but that made it no less creepy to see them on Tywin early in this episode. The craftiness of Margaery Tyrell was a welcome addition too. We don't really know that she isn't that crafty in the books, as she isn't a point-of-view character. Still, she certainly seems more naive than the far more compelling TV version.

With so many characters and plots to spin back up, some people made no appearance this week. The showrunners have said Bran will be taking the year off, so no surprise there. Theon was also missing this week -- though his captors the Boltons got a mention. But perhaps the most surprising omission this week was Arya. Since literally the last shot of the last season was of her, it's a bit surprising not to check back in with her now.

Still, the show did a pretty solid job of getting most of the balls juggled back into the air. I'd give this season premiere a B+.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Uncovering the Skeletons

Writer-director-producer-actor pair Jay and Mark Duplass have been slowly building up indie cred with a string of critically well-regarded movies. I gave them a lot of rope after thoroughly enjoying Jeff, Who Lives at Home. They hanged themselves with that rope with the abysmal Your Sister's Sister. (And landed somewhere between the extremes on Safety Not Guaranteed.) Now I've watched the latest produced by Mark Duplass, and I've decided I probably just don't like these brothers' taste in movies.

The Skeleton Twins is the type of film that comes along every so often. One or two actors generally known for broad comedy take on a more serious story (sometimes with comedic elements) and plays it straight. Critics swarm. I'm often drawn in right along with them, because I've found that skilled comedians typically play drama more effectively than dramatic actors can play comedy.

This time around, the comedians in question are two deserving ones, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. They star as fraternal twins Maggie and Milo, replete with emotional issues -- Maggie is serially cheating on her husband, Milo is trying to rekindle a fling with his old high school teacher. Both resent their absent father and their flighty mother. The movie begins with Maggie's own suicide attempt interrupted by the news that her brother has attempted suicide. Yes, it all sounds depressingly serious. But Maggie and Milo both have a weirdly twisted view of everything, a sort of gallows humor about life in general that only they share. The movie isn't relentlessly dark.

The performances are very good. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader make a likeable and believable pair. They're more than capable of handling the movie's more serious scenes, and they're experts at drawing little laughs in the middle of heavier moments. One particular scene, a lip-synched pseudo-karaoke song in the middle of the movie, plays out for virtually the entire length of the song -- for far longer than it should be effective, yet it ends up being one of the best scenes in the movie, the one sequence of unbridled joy. Luke Wilson provides a fun counter-vibe as Maggie's perpetually upbeat husband, while Ty Burrell (another skilled comedian showing us he can play drama) plays Milo's complicated high school teacher.

However, the movie doesn't really have much to say. In the way that people battling depression sometimes zombiewalk through life with a thousand-year stare, aimlessly looking for something to kindle interest, the movie fumbles around with no aspirations at being more than a simple "slice of life" tale. It has no desire to comment on the reality it's presenting; it only wants to present it.

My attention was wandering long before the final credits rolled; not even the good performances were enough to really hold me. I think the movie will score with an audience who recognizes themselves in it -- people particularly close with a brother or sister, or people who have themselves battled depression. But it doesn't do enough to let the outsiders in. I give it a C-.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Sound of the Whip

I've been enjoying the hell out of the soundtrack to the movie Whiplash. I mention this only in part to recommend the soundtrack itself; mostly, I'm looking for an excuse to once again declare how brilliant the movie is, and to encourage everyone to see it. But the soundtrack stands well on its own, an assemblage of a rather wide variety of music.

Jazz obviously plays an important part in the movie, and the soundtrack includes all the major songs. There are classics like John Wasson's "Caravan" -- specifically the 9-minute version that figures so prominently in the last act of the film. There's also "Intoit," as originally recorded by Stan Getz. There are new jazz compositions from Tim Simonec, including "Upswingin'," a masterfully balanced jumble of different time signatures. And of course, there's the track from which the movie takes its name, Hank Levy's 7/4 rock-jazz fusion "Whiplash."

If you're just looking to relive the movie, there are a few brief tracks of dialogue featuring J.K. Simmons in the role that won him an Oscar. (Including, naturally, the monologue in which his character articulates the philosophy behind his draconian behavior.)

And then there's the film score itself, composed by Justin Hurwitz. The album's liner notes discuss the challenge of finding the right underscore for the film. Just "more jazz" would have simply been too much, and Hurwitz wisely provides only one such track, a rabbit-paced "Overture" to open the film. There was brief consideration of using an electronic score, but that was almost immediately dismissed as inappropriate.

But Hurwitz found the answer in blending those two approaches -- he created an electronic-style score using conventional jazz band instruments. Recording samples of trumpets, trombones, drums, upright bass, and piano, he built up an underscore note by note, an unsettling soundscape of drones and rhythms that ratchet up the film's already considerable tension. Stylistically, it feels very much like an organic version of the music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (And as the former film's music won that duo an Oscar, Hurwitz has placed himself in good company.)

With music to suit just about any mood, the Whiplash soundtrack has been in heavy rotation for me since I picked it up. A couple of dud tracks bring it down to an A-, but I still highly recommend it. (And, once again, the movie itself.)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

TNG Flashback: Rascals

Throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were episodes that sounded good in principle, but unraveled a bit in their execution. Now I come to one that sounds absolutely ridiculous in principle, but in fact ended up being quite entertaining: "Rascals."

Picard, Guinan, Ro Laren, and Keiko O'Brien are returning to the Enterprise when an energy field surrounds their shuttlecraft. They're beamed out before the shuttle is destroyed... but in the process are transformed into pre-teen versions of themselves. As Dr. Crusher searches for a way to restore them to adulthood, the Enterprise responds to a distress call. Ferengi profiteers in Klingon birds-of-prey have cooked up an ambush and manage to capture the ship. But the "children" have slipped under the Ferengi's radar, and now must retake the ship.

This episode came from an idea pitched by a freelancer back in season five, and may have been inspired by the final episode of the animated Star Trek series, "The Counter-Clock Incident" (in which a phenomenon causes everyone on the Enterprise to age rapidly in reverse). Only the two oldest members of the writing staff -- Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor -- wanted to buy the idea; the rest thought it was ludicrous. But since Piller and Taylor were the two showrunners in seasons five and six, they went for it, perhaps interested in the notion of a "second childhood episode."

Several drafts from outside writers were going nowhere, and finally it was "do or die" time for the episode -- Whoopi Goldberg was at the end of her window of availability, and everyone felt this episode needed to have Guinan. So Ronald D. Moore drew the assignment for a polish (uncredited) on the script. Personally, I think he saved the story, even if he did feel going in that it was "completely insane." He really focused on the characters, keeping their individual voices crystal clear even in younger bodies, and explored what a serious reaction by everyone to the situation might look like. And it's that first half of the episode -- before the Ferengi show up -- that really makes the episode work.

For his part, Picard wants to just keep working. His desire to ignore the problem borders on the irrational; he doesn't even want to hang around the site of the accident to gather information that might help in restoring him. He has to put up with people around him suddenly losing respect for him -- even if unintentionally. Even Data briefly forgets protocol, hastily adding a "sir" when addressing the child captain.

Miles and Keiko have to deal with an intense strain on their relationship. Miles wants to comfort his wife, but understandably struggles to get over a child wanting to get close to him. Only when their own daughter Molly fails to recognize Mommy (a heartbreaking moment for Keiko) does the massive wall between them start to come down.

Ensign Ro has only hatred of her childhood, and disgust at the thought of having it inflicted on her again. But really, it's growing up as a Bajoran refugee that Ro hates. Guinan is eager to wring whatever bit of fun she can out of the situation, for however long it lasts, and encourages Ro to do the same and have the real childhood she was denied the first time around. Under Guinan's guidance, Ro actually starts to enjoy her situation -- and is even reluctant to turn back at the end of the episode.

As thoughtful as all these character moments are on the page, they wouldn't work on the screen if they hadn't cast some wonderful child actors to play the parts. All four studied their adult counterparts, and mind the details in their performances. Young Picard is played by David Tristan Birkin (who also played Picard's nephew in "Family"). He brilliantly captures the indignity of the situation -- and mimics Patrick Stewart's trademark tunic tug. Megan Parlen perfectly evokes Michelle Forbes in playing both Young Ro's disgust and eventual enjoyment -- and pulls off one of Forbes' signature one-heel turns. As Young Guinan, Isis J. Jones retains all of Guinan's regal dignity, even while acting like a child. (This was not Jones' only experience as a young Whoopi Goldberg; she served the same role in the movie Sister Act, released the same year as this episode.) And as young Keiko... well, I'll be honest, Caroline Junko King feels like the weak link here. But casting one solid child actor is a coup, and three out of four is a minor miracle.

Guiding these actors in their performances was first time director Adam Nimoy, son of Leonard Nimoy. After first pursuing a career in law, Adam decided to follow in his father's footsteps. He assisted director Nicholas Meyer during the production of Star Trek VI, and then began to shadow different directors on The Next Generation. This was quite a tough assignment he pulled for his debut, but he got it not only by his own determination, but with the support of Whoopi Goldberg. She'd kept her filming schedule open as late as she had specifically to work with Leonard Nimoy's son.

It's actually the second half of the episode that I find a bit tougher to swallow. It feels a bit unnatural, even forced. To save money on the visual effects, the production reused shots from "Yesterday's Enterprise" -- that meant Klingon ships. But they're crewed by Ferengi, being the only race you could ever believe a bunch of kids defeating. Even then, the rest of the crew has to be stupid enough to be beaten by a bunch of Ferengi in the first place. It's a vicious cycle.

Still, even if it's all one "ask" too many after the whole transporter-turns-people-into-kids thing, it is all great fun, to be sure. Bringing actual child Alexander in as a "young warrior" to assist in the plan is a nice touch. And how can you not smile at Picard's hissy-fit, picturing Patrick Stewart performing it? Plus, the scenes between Picard and Riker are pure comic gold. ("He's my Number One Dad!") Riker's ruse to distract the Ferengi is also particularly inspired -- a scene which Ronald Moore dubbed his "Salute to Technobabble." The Next Generation didn't do comedy often, but it certainly felt like they mined every bit from this premise.

Other observations:
  • Dramatically, there might have been one or two missed opportunities. First, I think it might have been interesting if Miles had blamed himself for the accident that affected his wife, since he was operating the transporter that turned the four into children. And second, I think involving Worf in the accident might have been a great opportunity, pairing a young Worf with his own son of the same age.
  • Speaking of Worf, even the Ferengi get to "beat him up," knocking him out cold with a phaser blast.
  • The "RVN" element of biology is completely made up here, as Rick Berman specifically asked for some other thing here besides the often-referenced DNA. Unexplained is how clothes change size too. And unexplained in the long term are any ramifications of the key to immortality apparently discovered by accident in this episode. Just run yourself through the transporter every so often and start over again at adolescence with all your memories intact!
  • This was Miles and Keiko's last appearance on The Next Generation before moving over to Deep Space Nine. (Though this episode was actually filmed after the pilot for Deep Space Nine.)
  • Michelle Forbes, eager for a movie career, not only rejected the offer to become a main character on Deep Space Nine, she increasingly pulled away from guest appearances on The Next Generation. This was her only appearance in all of season six -- and she's only actually on screen during the teaser. In part because of Forbes' unavailability, and given that this episode never actually shows Ro restored, the writers briefly toyed with the idea of leaving her as a child to keep the character on the show! Ultimately, they decided that was too drastic a change.
This episode probably shouldn't work. Even Ronald Moore has admitted surprise at how many people tell him they like it. But it's a lot of fun in its lighter moments, and even manages a lot of effective serious moments despite the goofy premise. I think it just barely muscles its way up to an A-.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Afterlife

After last week's best episode of the season, this week Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started out basically misfiring on all cylinders for its first half.

The Skye storyline began as a massive exposition dump, not very dextrously written, and presented by a new character Lincoln, whose powers of extreme prettiness seemed to come at the expense of an interesting personality. I swear, if he told Skye "I thought you knew" one more time, my eyes were going to roll so hard, they'd fall out of my head. The Coulson storyline was depriving us of the promised joy of seeing a cool team-up of Coulson and Hunter, because Hunter was being colossally stupid -- attracting unnecessary and unwanted attention, and basically being almost suspicious, to a point where you couldn't blame Coulson for not wanting to share any details of a plan with him. The story back at the base was rather mechanically putting the characters through paces, specifically manipulating Bobbi into a position where, in long term, she'll likely come to believe she backed the wrong side.

But then, at about the halfway mark, it's as though some writer burst into the room and screamed, "what the hell are we doing?" Suddenly, everything in the back half of the episode was frankly pretty awesome.

In the Skye storyline, you had a compelling character moment for Skye in her confrontation with Raina. You had the jaw-dropping revelation that Skye's mother is still alive! (Somehow not eviscerated by Whitehall? Though apparently with some scars on her face from that incident?) The further reveal that she and Skye's father Cal may have actually worked together to some extent in finding Skye? I have questions! And I'm suddenly a lot more interested in this mountain version of the Dollhouse (complete with Sierra).

The Coulson storyline got massively more interesting with the sudden arrival of Deathlok. I'm not sure who I was expecting the "backup" to be, but he was about the last character I was figuring to show up again this season. (And it looks like they've improved the costume quite a bit, to boot.) And though I'm a little fuzzy on Coulson's logic for now reaching out to Ward, I do think it's high time for Ward to be worked back into the stories in a more regular way. (So I'm cautiously on board, for now.)

The storyline at the base got more entertaining with the revelation that Fitz and Simmons had an unspoken patch up of their relationship, bonding over the invading "other S.H.I.E.L.D.-ies." They worked together to swap Fury's Toolbox out for a dummy so Fitz could smuggle the real one out. Like last week's moment where Simmons got the drop on Morse to my considerable glee, I was giddy at Fitz revealing subterfuge as a weapon in his arsenal.

I could maybe have done with a bit more subtle writing for the character of Gonzales, but I suspect this is all a consequence of the new breakneck storytelling pace the series has set for itself. The over-the-top dramatics of the gun scene were called out by May herself, but I was more uncertain about Gonzales' blind distrust-bordering-on-hatred of all things super-powered. His unkind characterizations of Skye and the long-suffering Mike Peterson left me wondering, if Captain America himself walked through the door, would Gonzales have a problem with him too, just because of the whole crazy-buff thing? I mean, I understand that the end goal here is paint Gonzales as Not the Greatest Guy, but I felt like it was all handled only slightly more delicately than all the Inhuman exposition at the Afterlife retreat.

But despite this episode's missteps, it did ultimately find its footing and deliver a lot of fun moments in the second half. So I'm going to call it a B overall. Certainly, they have me hooked for next week.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Making Each Day Special

After the success of his earlier book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, magician Penn Jillette has crafted a second volume: Every Day is an Atheist Holiday. If you liked the one, there's no way you won't like the other.

As the title suggests, Jillette has once again put atheism at the core of his book. But once again, it's a subject from which he strays regularly. The book is ultimately a collection of anecdotes from his life, and not all of them relate back to that theme. If you want to read about Jillette's (first) stint on Celebrity Apprentice, he has you covered with some amusing tales. If you want a bit of background on how he first partnered up with Teller to form their famous team, you've got it.

But it's actually when Jillette sticks to the topic of atheism that his book is at its best. A common question that a religious person asks of an atheist is (in some form), "where does your morality come from?" Many theists are so utterly confused by the concept of morals without religion that no amount of reading or discussion could make them understand. But Penn Jillette is on a mission to explain just that, and his simple, down-to-earth manner of writing cuts to the heart of the issue.

Jillette explains how he murders exactly as many people as he wants to: zero. He explains how morality that springs from an external source like a holy book seems less genuine than a moral code that springs from within. And, as his book's title suggests, he explains how someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife will instead look to extract maximum meaning and value from the limited number of days here on Earth that he does have.

Lest you think this is all rather heady stuff for a Las Vegas entertainer, I should clarify that he does all this in a very funny and breezy style. He makes good points, but is just as interested in making good jokes. I found myself laughing out loud at the book far more than I was nodding my head in agreement.

But because this book was more effective than the previous one in those more serious moments, I judge it to be a little bit better. I'd call Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday a B+. You likely still won't want to read it if you're not a fan of Penn Jillette, but you'll definitely be entertained if you are.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The Eyes Have It

At long last, The Avengers has brought Joss Whedon the notoriety we fans have long felt he deserved. But since long before even any of us knew he was, he's been carrying around a story idea that only now has seen the light of day. Since the early 1990s, Whedon has been periodically updating (and failing to get made) a script called In Your Eyes. In 2014, he finally had the clout to do it.

In Your Eyes is a light romance film, a boy-meets-girl, falling-in-love tale that in many ways presents no differently than the many film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels. But since it springs from the mind and pen of Joss Whedon, you know there has to be a twist in there somewhere. In this case, it's that the movie skips the "boy meets girl" part. Rebecca Porter, living in New Hampshire, and Dylan Kershaw, living in New Mexico, have never met face to face. But they have shared a telepathic connection for their entire lives -- an ability to see brief flashes of the other's life, though the other's eyes. Suddenly, they're beginning to gain control over this connection, and with it the ability to speak to one another. Though they've lived very different lives, this supernatural connection starts to pull them together.

Joss Whedon made the interesting decision to relinquish this apparent passion project to another director, the little-known Brin Hill. It's likely that scheduling was the primary reason for this, with Whedon having his hands full with the next Avengers film. Still, it probably works out best for the movie itself, as it helps shed some of the expectations that the movie be "Whedon-y." Very quickly, you realize it isn't going to be. Compared to most of his past work, the sentiment here is more overt, the dialogue less witty, and the course of the plot more predictable -- and all deliberately so.

But if the story itself is only a small twist on a familiar form, the movie as a whole manages to rise a cut above thanks to solid casting. The couple at the heart of the story is compelling. Zoe Kazan plays Rebecca, and after Ruby Sparks, this isn't her first unconventional romance. She's vulnerable without being a pushover, soft without being unlikeable. In many ways, she embodies the qualities of one of Joss Whedon's go-to actresses, Amy Acker. For Dylan, the film casts Michael Stahl-David, probably best known from Cloverfield. He plays a screw-up who stays lovable despite being rather oafish.

The film is suprisingly missing any recurring Whedon actors, but you may recognize a few of the supporting players from other places. Mark Feuerstein (star of Royal Pains) walks the tightrope well as Rebecca's husband, playing the character in a way that's understandable even though you know as the audience that his role is to be an obstacle to the romance. Steve Harris (veteran of The Practice and Awake) has a similar plot-complication-device role as Dylan's parole officer, but he injects a bit of fun into it.

Really, the performances are all a good summary of the film itself. There's nothing revolutionary about this movie, but it's a well-done little twist on a generally tried-and-true formula. I give it a B+. It's probably not a film I should tell "any fan of Joss Whedon" to see, but any one who does will probably find it pleasant enough.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Music for a Naked Romp

La-La Land Records, always there to feed my movie score habit, is sometimes there to provide me albums I didn't even know I wanted. One of the latest is The Naked Gun Trilogy, a 3-CD set of music from the cop genre spoofs starring Leslie Nielsen.

The film franchise was created by the trio behind the brilliant classic Airplane! -- David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. The hallmark of their comedies was a deadpan seriousness by all the actors involved, and this aesthetic extended to the musical scores as well. For The Naked Gun, they brought back Ira Newborn, the composer who had worked with them on the short-lived Police Squad! TV Series on which the films were based.

Newborn's scores for the trilogy are a to listen to because they're only barely self-aware of belonging to a set of comedies. They're all solid dramatic scores, turned up to a slightly over-earnest degree. Everything is grounded in the cliché jazz band style one associates with "hard-boiled detective" noir: extra bluesy when the hero is out on the beat, cutting loose with a screaming brass theme for action scenes. You might be able to pair this music up with the images from classic detective films and never notice anything amiss; knowing it's meant for a comedy, you sometimes smile at how damn serious it can get.

The CD set devotes one disc to each film, each providing a  complete score. They're do bleed together to some extent, each a continued exploration of the same style and the same set of melodies. But there are a few differences in each film too. The original Naked Gun's plot thread involving brainwashed assassins makes for a fun recurring "mind control" motif. The third film features a bogus trip to the Oscars, which lets Newborn compose parodies of the schlocky, sweeping music that accompanies award shows.

Also included are a number of songs and source cues from the films. Some of them are the sort of thing most people would expect on a "soundtrack album," like the poppy "I'm Into Something Good" that got prominent montage treatment in the first movie. Other tracks aren't something you're likely to listen to regularly, but are interesting inclusions, like a series of common baseball game melodies rendered on authentic organ, for the first film's ball game climax. (I now know that the songs you hear several times a game are called "Las Chapanecas" and "La Raspa.") There's also a track or two to instantly call to mind ridiculous scenes from one of the movies, like Leslie Nielsen's irreverent and off-key take on "The Star-Spangled Banner."

I was persuaded to buy the score when I listened to a few samples of the music online. But to be honest, entertaining though it is, 3 CDs' worth of it is probably a bit much even for me. A lot of the music reinterprets the same two core music themes -- one for the main title, and one for the character of Frank Drebin. It sometimes feels like there's really only around 1 CD worth of music here if you boil it down to the essentials. The result is an album that's great to come up on shuffle mixed with other music. Listening to it all alone in one go gets a bit repetitive.

So in all, I think I'd give the set a B-. It's probably not even for every film score enthusiast's collection. But I regard it as a fun oddity that I'll enjoy having in mine from time to time.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A Lesser-Known Nemesis

It's been some time since I last read a Sherlock Holmes short story. (You can thank George R.R. Martin for that; my re-reading of A Song of Ice and Fire was a lengthy undertaking.) But I haven't given up on reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's entire canon, and I recently picked up where I left off with "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton."

Holmes has taken up the cause of a woman being preyed upon by a serial blackmailer. Charles Augustus Milverton is said by the great detective to be one of the most odious men alive, and he proves it when he rejects Holmes' attempt to reason with him in person. Ultimately, Holmes concludes that the only way to do right by his client is to turn criminal himself; he and Watson break into Milverton's house to steal the blackmail material.

Most film and TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes got around to the character of Milverton at one point or another. Still, I had not actually heard of him prior to seeing the BBC Sherlock's third season finale (and one episode of CBS' Elementary). I find that both a surprise and a shame, because it seems like Milverton really ought to be a more generally known character. The villain everyone knows, Moriarty, also appeared in only one of Doyle's stories. (As did another somewhat known character, Irene Adler.) Yet Moriarty casts a far longer shadow. Sure, there's the whole "he 'killed' Sherlock Holmes" thing helping him there, but in this story, Holmes' contempt of Milverton seems about as great as any he ever had for Moriarty.

Adding to my interest is that Milverton is actually based on a real-life person, Charles Augustus Howell. (And you can see from the name that Doyle made no attempt to disguise the fact.) Howell was also a serial blackmailer, who turned up dead with his throat slit posthumously and a coin shoved in his mouth. That makes this story a sort of "Law & Order" episode of its time -- a "ripped from the headlines" adventure.

I also find it interesting that Milverton is so less prominent than Moriarty in Holmes lore, because so much of what Sherlock who he is derives from this story. It's here that Holmes becomes a criminal himself (noting that he'd make a good one), using his skills in lockpicking and safecracking instead of any deductive powers. The TV series Elementary in particular plays up this "darker side" to Holmes, having him cultivate criminal skills ostensibly to help him solve crimes. (And the BBC's Sherlock, of course, amplified Milverton's power to turn Holmes to darkness... by a considerable magnitude.)

The one flaw in the story is that it ultimately reaches a resolution that would have been the same even if Holmes and Watson had done nothing. But while they don't affect the plot outcome in anyway, the characters are certainly themselves changed by the actions they take during the story. That's enough to redeem the story to a fairly solid grade, a B+ in my estimation.

Friday, April 03, 2015

TNG Flashback: True Q

"True Q" is something of an oddity among episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- the series seems to be largely re-making one of its own earlier episodes.

Young Amanda Rogers has come aboard the Enterprise for an extended study, hoping to learn what she wants to do with her life. But in the months leading up to this opportunity, strange things have begun to happen around her, spontaneous fulfillment of her own unexpressed wishes. When Q suddenly appears, the reason for this is revealed. Amanda's original parents (who died when she was a child) were members of the Q Continuum, who in human form had given birth to a child and renounced their powers to raise her. Now that she is manifesting the powers of a Q herself, Amanda faces a "choice" to join the Continuum herself... a false choice, as the Q intend to execute her if she refuses.

Coming into this episode, Q had not appeared on Star Trek for an entire season. It wasn't for lack of trying. Several story ideas had reportedly been pursued and abandoned throughout season 5 -- including one dealing with some sort of "Q Olympics," and another in which Q created evil doppelgangers of each of the main characters. These ideas were shot down in part because showrunner Michael Piller felt that the character of Q had become undesirably comedic over time, losing his original sense of menace.

After all those failed ideas originating from the writing staff, the story that finally gained traction was submitted from an outsider. A 17-year-old named Matt Corey pitched a script about a teenager unlocking latent Q powers. (In his version, it was a young man; he'd hoped that he would be able to play the part himself.) The staff bought the idea and gave it to Rene Echevarria to develop. He'd long been a freelancer for the show himself (contributing "The Offspring," among other episodes) and this was to be his first assignment as a newly minted staff writer.

But I have to wonder if the writers were just desperate to bring Q back somehow, since this hardly seems like a story that was worth waiting for. Indeed, it feels like a story the series had already told. The tale of a human suddenly forced to deal with the powers of a Q was expressly depicted early in The Next Generation's first season, with "Hide and Q." I was perhaps a bit hard on the episode when I reviewed it years ago, but the episode was indeed weak in the grand scheme of what the series would become. The characters' behaviors hadn't gelled, the writing was more stilted and prone to awkward pontification, and the pacing was uneven. Produced five years later, "True Q" seemingly wanted to take a second run at the same core idea, with the benefit of sharper characters, more polished dialogue, and tighter direction and editing. And to be certain, this episode does have all of those things.

But there's one very important thing that "Hide and Q" did get right: focus on the main characters. It's one of their own, Riker, who is empowered with Q's abilities, and it's all of them who must deal with how this changes him. Here, the life hanging in the balance is that of a stranger. And while the main characters do get to advise Amanda Rogers (and sleuth around the mysterious death of her Q parents), they ultimately neither affect nor are affected by anything that happens in this episode.

The closest the episode gets to truly intertwining a regular character in the story is in how it casts Beverly Crusher in a very maternal role toward Amanda Rogers. It's a bit odd to have a character other than Picard be the center of a Q episode. (In fact, though Q would appear on the series two more times, this would be the last time he ever interacted with a character other than Picard.) Still, it does give Gates McFadden some decent material in a few scenes, such as when Beverly is asked to contemplate if she would bring her husband Jack back from the dead if she could.

Other observations:
  • When Rene Echevarria wrote his first crack at the story -- changing the focal character to a female -- he named her "Samantha." This persisted for several drafts, until producer Rick Berman figured out that he was making a sly pop culture reference to the old TV series Bewitched. Berman ordered the name to be changed.
  • Somewhat awkwardly wedged into this episode is a tiny little parable about an alien world that has destroyed its atmosphere with pollutants, a toothless commentary on carbon emissions that probably deserved a whole episode unto itself.
  • Q offhandedly remarks in this episode that in the matter of the Continuum's trial of humanity, "the jury's still out." This thread would ultimately form the basis of The Next Generation's series finale.
  • The Blu-ray version of this episode includes a long deleted scene, and for the second time in season six, it was Counselor Troi who got left on the cutting room floor. She brings Amanda an adorable puppy to care for, and engages her in a discussion about what she wants to do with her life. None of it feels like essential material, but it does underscore Amanda's curiosity and wide array of interests -- qualities that will ultimately serve her very well in a life as a Q.
While "Hide and Q" approached the story of "a human becomes a Q" from a more compelling place, the execution of "True Q" is better overall. The quality of the dialogue, the acting, and the production values were simply all stronger by season 6. Still, I'd rate "True Q" no higher than a B-.