Sunday, May 31, 2015

Three-Quarters Good

In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter," Sherlock Holmes must trace the whereabouts of a college rugby player who has vanished mysteriously just one day before a big match. It's rather ambitious for a short story, packing in a search across several towns, multiple suspects, and a twist ending.

It also boasts more character development than the average Holmes adventure. In Watson's traditional opening, setting the stage for the tale, he spends a notable stretch talking about Holmes' past drug addiction, and Watson's own efforts to help him control it. Arthur Conan Doyle writes with an understanding of addiction that feels considerably more modern than most of his other prose. There's a weight and import to it, a real concern on Watson's part, that likely inspired the makers of the CBS series Elementary to figure addiction so prominently in their conception of great detective.

Also interesting are two adversaries encountered in the course of the case, and the clever ways Holmes deals with them. The first is a miserly old uncle of the missing rugby player, who wants everyone to call off the search until Holmes manipulates him into reconsidering. The second is a university doctor who is clever enough to frustrate Holmes' investigations; indeed, Holmes likens the man to Moriarty in the course of the story.

The case is in fact so tough to crack that Holmes is unable to actually do so before the big rugby match arrives. And while the short story hardly marks this as a "failure," it is quite interesting that Holmes isn't completely able to "save the day" in this adventure, as he so often is.

My one quibble with the story is its abrupt ending. When I got there, I actually thought for a moment that there might be missing text in my copy of the story. The story puts several balls in the air (including, for example, the fact that the missing man stands to inherent a great fortune), but only explicitly resolves the matter of his disappearance. As Watson is recounting this case several years after the fact (a narrative structure Doyle employs quite regularly), he could have easily provided us more information on what happened in the mystery's aftermath. Instead, it feels like Doyle hit his absolute word limit in The Strand magazine, and simply stopped writing.

Still, for the intriguing adventure that precedes that point, I'd give the short story a high B+.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Paradise Lost

I recently watched the 2000 film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a Richard -- a young, disaffected tourist who finds paradise in a hidden island community off the coast of Thailand.

There were a lot of things I didn't know about the movie until after I'd watched it. It's directed by Danny Boyle... but is widely considered by critics to be his worst effort. It was actually filmed in Thailand... and the production was accused of harming the environment, which led to a lawsuit for which they were ultimately ordered to pay damages. The film was to have originally starred former Boyle collaborator Ewan McGregor... but the studio demanded the casting of the more famous DiCaprio, leading to a huge falling out between Boyle and McGregor.

All this a lot of fuss over a movie that ultimately isn't very good, a movie that's now an odd footnote in the career of a man who won on Oscar (for Slumdog Millionaire). But I lay the failure at the feet of the script, not the director or the stars. The Beach is based on a novel, and perhaps that book does a better job of telling the audience why it's supposed to care. In any case, the film does such a poor job that I certainly don't want to read it.

Ultimately, the plight of the main character feels like the epitome of selfishness, of a "first world problem." Disenchanted with normal tourist experiences, poor Richard longs for a better one. He doesn't even know what he wants, really, though he ends up shallowly defining it as "finding the perfect beach." When he and two hastily made friends wind up finding a small group of people living on a secluded island, he can't be happy with a life at the never-ending "beach resort." He winds up having an inexplicable Colonel Kurtz-like meltdown where he goes crazy and strikes out on his own. But even that doesn't take. At the risk of spoiling a predictable ending, Richard's actions ultimately ensure that if he can't find happiness on this island (or indeed, anywhere), no one will.

The movie honestly didn't feel that unbearable as I watched it, but my opinion of it rapidly declined the more I thought about it. Ultimately, it's hard to recommend much about it other than a trio of decent performances. The character of Richard may be a spoiled brat at his core, but Leonardo DiCaprio throws himself into the role in a way that makes the character authentic. Tilda Swinton captures an odd kind of charisma (with a tinge of menace) as Sal, the leader of the island community. And Robert Carlyle is suitably unhinged as Daffy, the crazed traveler who sets Richard on course for the island.

Flickchart.com features an insightful bit of cyber-vandalism that sums up this movie perfectly. Someone has entered this tagline for The Beach: "Once in a while, a movie comes along that defines a generation. Let's hope to God this ain't it." I give it a D+. If you've gone these 15 years since the film's release without seeing it, just keep on keepin' on.

Friday, May 29, 2015

TNG Flashback: Face of the Enemy

Inspired by The Hunt for Red October, the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation had long been wanting to present a story of espionage and intrigue. They finally made it happen with "Face of the Enemy."

Counselor Troi awakens in a strange place, quickly learning she's been kidnapped and surgically altered to appear as a Romulan! Spock's dissident movement is working to sneak a high-ranking Romulan official into Federation space, and is using Troi to support the effort. She must pose as "Major Rakal," an operative of the feared Tal Shiar -- forcing a Romulan commander to do her bidding, and drawing on her own Starfleet knowledge if anything goes wrong. Completing the mission and maintaining her cover becomes a delicate balancing act.

Executive producer Rick Berman shot down the first "spy movie" pitch from the writers -- but on this occasion, he was probably right to do so. Apparently, that first idea was to have Q put several main characters on board a Romulan ship, where the rest of the crew would perceive them as Romulans, a la Quantum Leap.

When the focus then narrowed to a single character, the result was the strongest Troi-centric episode of the entire series. But she wasn't the first character they had in mind. The writers originally envisioned Dr. Crusher at the center of the story. (Perhaps because of their Hunt for Red October inspiration; Gates McFadden had made a brief appearance in that film as Jack Ryan's wife.) When someone realized that Troi's empathic abilities would be a huge boon to espionage, they made the switch.

An even better reason for the switch is that the story played to Marina Sirtis' strengths. As in "Power Play" and "Clues," she got to play cold and ruthless. Troi must conceal the emotions she usually displays so easily. She must also come out of her shell and throw her weight around. She asserts herself more and more throughout the story, ultimately even wresting control of N'Vek's plan away from him.

Indeed, watching this episode really makes me wonder about the road not taken. Marina Sirtis originally auditioned for the role that became Tasha Yar, while Denise Crosby auditioned for Counselor Troi. Gene Roddenberry himself decided to switch them, but I can't help but think Sirtis -- who was at her best in these tougher moments -- would have shined as security chief. Ah, but then what would Worf have ended up doing on the show? Quite the "butterfly flapping its wings," that scenario.

Speaking of switching roles, this was the episode where (behind the scenes) Naren Shankar officially moved from science advisor to staff writer. With writer Frank Abatemarco not working out, the staff was far behind schedule. They assigned this script to Shankar as a freelancer, giving him just six days to turn in his draft. By the end of that six days, he'd been promoted into his new full-time job.

Shankar stuffs his script with lots of small details. He named the Tal Shiar for the Vulcan martial arts technique "tal-shaya," from the original series episode "Journey to Babel." He retcons an explanation for why Romulan warp cores implode rather than explode, by explaining they utilize a quantum singularity. But far more importantly, he presents what may be the most well-rounded, multi-dimensional Romulan character ever presented on the series. Commander Toreth deplores violence, an attitude supported by the back story involving her father and the Tal Shiar. Interestingly, though Troi-as-Rakal bowls over her throughout the episode, Toreth is fundamentally right about almost everything -- in both her attitudes and her strategic thinking.

Shankar originally wrote Toreth as a male, imagining all the dialogue spoken by Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius. The gender was changed when the potential was realized for a strong female-female conflict -- though the dialogue was left exactly as it was. There was brief talk of casting Joanna Linville to reprise her role as a Romulan commander from the original series episode "The Enterprise Incident," but she was unavailable. (I think I would have felt bad anyway to see that same commander get duped twice by Starfleet.)

In the end, the role of Toreth went to Carolyn Seymour, who had previously played a Romulan commander in "Contagion." There was brief talk of renaming this character, but the writers decided that Taris had likely been killed in the aftermath of that episode. In any case, Seymour gets a lot more room to play here, and makes the most of the meatier role.

And helming this clash of wills between two women? Another woman! Recurring director Gabrielle Beaumont was in charge in this installment. She brings several interesting moments to the episode, including the moody single take in the teaser where Troi stumbles around in the darkness, and a taut game of cat-and-mouse between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship in the final act. She also went with the suggestion of VFX supervisor David Stipes, who lobbied to make N'Vek's death by disruptor death more grisly than usual.

Other production departments stepped up for the episode as well. The Romulan costumes are surprisingly detailed; though all of them use the same spectrum of greys, each has a different, distinct pattern. The sets for the Romulan ship are also interesting, though here Naren Shankar was disappointed that things didn't end up as his script specified. (He'd wanted the Romulan commander standing at the back of an elongated bridge with her back to the wall, where no one could sneak up on her. He felt that the episode instead ended up with a "Romulan Pizza Kitchen.")

The score for this episode was written not by either of the series' two regular composers, but by Don Davis. He would later go on to score The Matrix and its two sequels. His music here similarly lacks discernable melody (just how Rick Berman liked it), though there are a lot of interesting runs up and down the scales that evokes the feeling of the Romulan music Fred Steiner composed for the original Star Trek series.

Other observations:
  • Though I mentioned liking the episode's long opening shot of Troi discovering her predicament, it does go a little too long. Marina Sirtis is left hanging, gawking open-mouthed at her Romulanized face for an awkwardly long time.
  • The defector Stefan DeSeve has an interesting tick of pausing before longer words, which convincingly depicts a person who hasn't spoken a language in several decades. In fact, there's a deleted scene on the Blu-ray where he can't remember the name of the drink he wants to order, though the scene is a good cut for time. The moment doesn't really do anything that wasn't done better in the third season episode "The Defector."
  • The episode cleverly builds on the established back story of Spock and his dissident movement on Romulus. The writers very briefly talked about having Spock himself be the person smuggled out in this episode. But knowing that they couldn't get Leonard Nimoy to appear, the only ending they could come up with involved a Romulan informing us that "Spock didn't make it." Knowing they could never kill such an important character off screen like that, the writers quickly abandoned the idea.
  • This episode marks the first appearance of Worf's ponytail, a hairstyle that would persist for the rest of the character's existence (including Deep Space Nine and movies). Hairstylist Joy Zapata had been lobbying for the change for a long time, with support from actor Michael Dorn himself. She said the old style looked far too salon-crafted for a Klingon, and looked a lot like Donna Reed too. (And she's right. And now I can't not see that.)
  • This is the first episode to establish that a cloaked ship cannot maintain its shields. It seems like somehow this was always true, but that's possibly just because (going all the way back to the Romulans' first appearance on the original Star Trek) cloaked ships have never been able to fire their weapons.
The Romulans delivered good episodes far more often than not on The Next Generation, and this was one of their best. I give "Face of the Enemy" an A-.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Lack of Regard for Regard

Author Patrick Rothfuss roared onto the fantasy landscape with his debut trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicle. And, like nearly all pillars of fantasy writing, he is having trouble actually finishing his story. Four years passed between the release of the first volume, The Name of the Wind, and the second, The Wise Man's Fear. Four more years have passed since, with no publication date in sight for the final book. But Rothfuss has released a few adjunct short stories and novellas for various anthologies, and now one published entirely on its own: The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This novella focuses on one supporting character from the series proper, the mysterious Auri who lives in the Underthing -- her name for the labyrinthine rooms and tunnels that lurk beneath the series' magical University. Auri is a fan favorite, and the novella pulls back the curtain of mystery surrounding both the character and her home.

But from page 1, Rothfuss is apologizing for writing it. Not because he indulged a distraction from finishing book three itself. Not an "apology" in literal words, in fact. But he acknowledges in a foreword that this book is not a good place to read his writing for the first time, and then elaborates in a lengthy afterword how he felt doubts about even releasing the story at all. It was unconventional, he knew, and he seemed persuaded to release it only by a number of people telling him that if people didn't like it, then it probably wasn't "for them."

Very well. The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn't for me. Rothfuss is right to apologize for it. And none of the criticisms I'm about to level at it aren't acknowledged by the writer himself.

The novella comes no closer to a plot than one character struggling to find the right place to display a trophy. It comes no closer to action than eight pages of making soap. It comes nowhere near dialogue or interaction, featuring only the one character. The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn't a novella, it's a writing exercise. The assignment: shape a third-person narrative to convey the identity of a character.

Where the two Kingkiller Chronicle books thus far presented Auri as a quirky and mysterious character, The Slow Regard of Silent Things seems to reveal her as a young woman with autism. She sees a level of interaction in the world that no one else sees, and she lacks the ability to communicate her vision with other people in any meaningful way. She's obsessive-compulsive, set on finding the appropriate place for everything, and on keeping her face, hands, and feet properly clean.

As pure writing craft -- as say, a college assignment -- the writing is wonderful. It perfectly places the reader in Auri's head. Rothfuss makes strategic use of repetition, homophones (and near homophones), sentence fragments, and odd paragraph breaks, all resulting in evocative prose. And it's prose that feels nothing like the narrative of the novels that feature Auri without centering on her. But it hardly sustains for 30,000 words, and definitely doesn't stand alone with any narrative merit. Put bluntly, it's one of the longest short books I've ever read.

But, forestalling my criticism, Patrick Rothfuss says that this book isn't "for me." Fair enough. But I still think it unfair that he traded on my love of his novels to sell it to me. I do appreciate the way this honed his writing ability, and I hope those skills will be on display whenever we finally get book three of Kingkiller Chronicle (in which one assumes his main character will finally, actually kill a king). Still, I can only give the novella itself a D+.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Sounds of Ultron

One aspect of The Avengers: Age of Ultron that I didn't mention in my original review was its score. That's a story unto itself -- though one where I'm missing some of the details.

Months before the film's release, it was announced that Brian Tyler would be composing its music. For score enthusiasts, this was both surprising and not. The first Avengers had a solid score by Alan Silvestri, so it was odd that he wasn't returning for the next installment. On the other hand, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed composers quite often. And putting Brian Tyler (who had previously done Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) on Age of Ultron already made for more musical continuity than Marvel typically had in the past.

Then the first poster for the movie came out, and eagle-eyed fans immediately noticed a credit of "Additional Music by Danny Elfman." In the finished film, this went one step farther; Brain Tyler and Danny Elfman are both given standard "music by" credit. What appears to have happened is that someone on the film (likely a Marvel producer) disliked Tyler's submitted score -- but not so much to toss it out entirely. Why Marvel was willing to pay Danny Elfman's presumably high price tag when they hadn't paid Alan Silvestri's in the first place is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps Silvestri turned them down for reasons other than money? (Joss Whedon has certainly been implying that Marvel movies are an increasingly difficult place for creative types to work.)

Whatever really went on behind the scenes of Age of Ultron, the result is an interesting score that represents the work of three composers. Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman each wound up on roughly half the movie, and each of them also repurposed the "Avengers theme" written by Alan Silvestri for the first film. Yet where you might expect that to yield a schizophrenic end product, the three sounds all blend together pretty well. You'd have to be a real film music nut (more even than me) to guess who wrote which cues, and you'd probably still get it wrong some of the time.

Generally speaking, Brian Tyler gets more of the action music. His "Avengers: Age of Ultron Title" opens the soundtrack album with a fast, frenetic piece that builds a sense of dread. He toys with wild sprays of jungle percussion in "Hulkbuster" and "The Vault," pulsing bass in "The Mission" and "Soeul Searching," and majestic choir in "Rise Together." Still, he's not high octane all the time. He plays with a slow, almost James Bond sort of vibe in "Breaking and Entering," and amorphous, free time music in "Birth of Ultron" and "Vision."

Danny Elfman (again, generally speaking) gets more of the music with emotional heft. His track "Ultron / Twins" brings an almost gothic quality to the former character, and a distinctly Russian tone to the latter two. He uses acoustic guitar in an unabashedly sentimental way for "Farmhouse" and "The Farm." And it's his reworked version of the Silvestri Avengers melody that soars most often throughout the album, on "Heroes," Avengers Unite," and "It Begins" (the last of which is vaguely reminiscent of Elfman's Batman work, if you strain to listen for it).

The Age of Ultron soundtrack serves up a lot of pulse-pounding, triumphant tracks, but with just enough subtly deeper work to make it stand out a bit from other action fare. I give the album a B+.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Six Heroes Who Aren't the Avengers

Pixar Studios is currently in a bit of a slump; their last few movies have been merely good, after a long streak of excellence. Ironically, their parent company has been the one to step up to fill their gap. Disney had commercial and creative hits with Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, and most recently added Big Hero 6 to that list.

Superhero origin movies are rather commonplace these days, but Big Hero 6 manages to be one of the best of them. It sort of sneaks up on that aspect, even more subtly than say, Batman Begins. At least half the movie has unfolded before anyone dons a costume. By that point, a strong emotional grounding has been established, giving a reason and weight to the superheroics.

That grounding builds on the tradition of Disney films like Bambi and The Lion King, in that it depicts some truly dark tragedy. Young Hiro Hamada is struggling to cope with a profound loss, and turns to the innocent, child-like robot Baymax for help. Their pairing is a powerful core around which the movie is built. Relative newcomer Ryan Potter gives a great performance as Hiro, being far more relatable than many teenagers on film. Animation veteran Scott Adsit (though you may know him from 30 Rock) is hilarious as Baymax, working within the robot character's one-note programming to give an impressively nuanced performance.

The rest of the titular "6" are definitely less developed characters, but the voice actors do inject a lot of fun into their roles. Perhaps because I watch(/ed) both Silicon Valley and Happy Endings, I felt that T.J. Miller and Damon Wayans Jr. overshadowed Genesis Rodriguez and Jamie Chung just a bit. Still, I could see any of these secondary characters being a favorite of any given audience member. Also in the cast are Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, and Disney animation regular Alan Tudyk -- each of them refreshingly cast a bit off type from what you might expect in a live-action film.

The visual design is just as strong as the story. It's all set in the fictitious city of San Fransokyo, which cleverly combines many Japanese elements with the distinct vibe of the sloped, tightly packed City by the Bay. There are also many triumphs of animation, from the eye-catching motion of the villain's army of "micro-bots," to the more clever work that lends humanity to the physically limited character of Baymax.

I give Big Hero 6 an A-. In fact, it earns a slot high in my Top 10 list of 2014 movies. With as many hits in a row now as Pixar has had relative misses, I look forward to Disney's next film with great anticipation.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Gift

I feel compelled to start near the end of this week's Game of Thrones episode, with the moment that made me want to stand up and cheer: Daenerys and Tyrion finally met! This is a moment of gratification that the books still stubbornly delay, making the development on the show even sweeter.

Perhaps the decision to move this meeting forward was part of the reason Barristan was killed prematurely a few episodes back? That death leaves Dany an empty position in the "wise councilor" department that Tyrion can potentially fill -- though of course he'll have to use that silver tongue of his to avoid a vengeful execution at her hands. Show Dany is flirting much more with her darker side than Book Dany was at this point. She's talking about continuing her relationship with Daario even after her marriage, something Book Dany expressly discontinued. (And in doing so, she also made a symbolic break with all his violent ideas.) What Dany will do with Jorah is also a very open question. It all makes for the biggest "can't wait for next week" moment the show has served up all season.

There were other intriguing departures from the books, though they were more subtle by comparison. Sam is long gone from the Wall by this point in the books, on a long journey south with Gilly and Aemon. It turns out that this was a far safer place for him to be than still up at the Wall! As was pointed out to Sam (callously, at Aemon's funeral), all his friends are leaving him. Well, all but Ghost (who didn't go with Jon?!). But even if Sam wasn't on a heroic quest this week, he had a few key heroic moments -- dealing with the loss of a mentor, and stepping up to try to defend Gilly.

Melisandre took a major turn this week too. A Dance With Dragons gave us one odd chapter from her perspective, which seemed mainly about telling the readers that she's sincere in all her beliefs, and that she truly does mean well. That seems quite a contrast with her asking Stannis to offer up his own daughter as a sacrifice! And Stannis' reaction seemed remarkably tame, less than the total rejection of the idea and Melisandre herself that it really ought to have been. Dark times ahead for these two, it appears.

In the Sansa/Theon storyline, it was the lack of a major turn that was the big development. In the books, Theon slowly pulls out of his Stockholm Syndrome one chapter at a time (in one of the book's more satisfying threads). Here, it appeared at first that Sansa single-handedly pulled Theon back from ruin to use him in her rescue. (Which would have been a great moment for her, coming on the heels of the outrage last week's episode generated online.) But no such luck. That Theon remains Ramsay's creature was the surprise for book readers, leaving us to speculate just how Sansa will get out of her predicament.

It's equally unclear how things are going to develop in Dorne -- though I think in this case, not in a good way. The brief conversation between Jaime and Myrcella was less than satisfying. And what was the point of poisoning Bronn just to immediately cure him? (My best guess, to foreshadow a more permanent poisoning in the weeks ahead?)

Lady Olenna continued to do what she does best, verbally sparring with first the High Sparrow and then Littlefinger. Every scene with her is a delight, even though she's failing to get the upper hand at the moment. (Though the implication was that Littlefinger told her about Lancel, and she in turn brought him to the Sparrow's attention.)

The thread most likely to elicit cheers from non-book-readers was Cersei's comeuppance. After a scene with Tommen that pointedly foreshadowed the end of episode, and one last scene of Cersei in power (as she gloated to Margaery), the High Sparrow sprang his trap on her. For a man who claims only to be doing the will of the gods, he certainly seemed to enjoy toying with and ensnaring Cersei. He's a sort I'd like to see brought low at some point too. But for now, he brings us Cersei's downfall, which is enough to make us like him.

Overall, this episode was much more about setting things up than paying them off, but that's bound to change starting next week. I'd give the episode a B+ overall.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chemical Reaction

In the board game Alchemists, players take on the role of potion makers and academics. They compete against each other to discover the magical properties of different potion ingredients, and race to publish their findings. It's an interesting and flavorful setting, and it's supported by an intriguing sales pitch of mechanics. It's a deduction game crossed with a worker placement game! It has a clever smartphone app to adjudicate the players' deduction process! But in my opinion, Alchemists is a suspect brew of ingredients that don't really go together.

The two core game styles that this game combines are too much at odds with each other. A good worker placement game puts the players in a race they cannot win. There are more things you want to do in a single round than you actually can do. You have more plans for rounds to come than there are actually rounds left in the game. You have to make tradeoffs, and you have to weigh those tradeoffs against your best guesses about what your opponents will do. On the other hand, a deduction game isn't about managing the journey, it's about the destination. There's an answer out there. Opponents have limited ways to thwart your investigation (if, indeed, any at all). All the tools to find the solution are at your disposal.

Alchemists exposes all the friction between these two systems. It's a worker placement game in which turn order matters. A lot. In fact, the placement of your opponent's workers can cut off your attempts to "solve the mystery" of the ingredients. In a pure worker placement game, that might be a fun part of the challenge. In a game of deduction, I found it frustrating.

The game lasts just six rounds, which I also found annoying. Most deduction games last until the mystery is solved. (Mystery Express is another example of a limited-turns deduction game, and the fact that some games end without anyone completely solving the murder is part of my reticence about it.) Alchemists is deliberately engineered to always end without any player complete solving the "mystery" of what the eight ingredients all do. Again, in a worker placement game, not getting to do all you want to is part of the fun. But to play a game of deduction where the puzzle is deliberately unsolvable? Maddening.

If six rounds played out as breezily as it sounds, I might still find it in myself to enjoy Alchemists. But in its actual pace, it reminds me of a quite different game: Dungeon Lords. You place workers just six times in that game too... but the game still takes an hour-and-a-half (or even two hours, with some players). Alchemists is the same; a round takes around 15-20 minutes to play out. But where you can spend your down time planning in a game like Dungeon Lords, in Alchemists, I just found myself stewing in my own frustrated inability to fully investigate the puzzle.

What it really comes down to is this. Alchemists isn't actually a deduction game -- at least, not to the degree that it could satisfy a lover of such games like myself. It's really just a worker placement game, with an unconventional "risk" to be mitigated. Judging from the rave reviews on Board Game Geek, this is satisfying a lot of players. Me, I think it's neither fish nor fowl, in a most unsatisfying way.

I've only played Alchemists a couple of times, and I'll acknowledge that it hasn't yet reached a point where I'd actually refuse to play it. But I do feel like there are better choices. If I want to play a deduction game, I'll push for the far superior (and faster) Sleuth or Code 777. If I want a worker placement game, I have countless choices, even within the subgenre of "a limited number of rounds." (I love Dungeon Lords.) I'd give Alchemists a D+. It's simply not two things that taste great together. It's a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.

Friday, May 22, 2015

TNG Flashback: Aquiel

"Aquiel" may be the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about a coalescent organism, but pretty much nothing else about the episode coalesced.

Investigating an abandoned subspace relay station, the Enterprise crew finds evidence of a murder. Geordi begins going through the logs of the presumed victim, a Lieutenant Aquiel Uhnari. But when Lieutenant Uhnari is found alive by a Klingon ship, presumptions are upended -- she begins to look like the culprit rather than the victim. Complicating matters are her inability to remember what happened on the station, and her emerging romance with Geordi.

Reading behind the scenes stories about the creation of this episode, it becomes apparent why it's rather flat in execution: nobody really seemed to know what they wanted. Showrunner Jeri Taylor apparently first pitched the idea of giving Geordi a recurring love interest. She was concerned that the only committed couple on the show, the married O'Briens, had just left for Deep Space Nine. With no "attached" main characters, The Next Generation seemed to be unintentionally sending the message that long-term relationships were rare or not valued in the future.

But then Michael Piller made a suggestion to mimc plot elements from the classic 1944 film Laura, and have Geordi fall in love with a woman he first assumes to be dead. The writing staff, generally feeling that the series had never solidly executed a mystery episode, got behind the idea. But in laying out that story, the character of Aquiel transformed from long-term love interest to cold-blooded killer: she was indeed going to be responsible for the murder. Suddenly, the writers worried that they'd wound up in a place too similar to the then-recent film Basic Instinct, so they scrambled to resolve their mystery in another way. Dismissing Aquiel's crewmate Rocha and the Klingon character of Morag as "too obvious," they finally landed on the idea of making the killer be the dog.

By this point, the core idea that once motivated this episode was sufficiently lost in the weeds that no good episode could likely result. The finished script reflects a lot of these flaws. We don't get any sense of what it is about Aquiel's messages that rouses Geordi's interest in her. Consequently, he comes off as a bit of a creep in his pursuit of her, the way he sadly seems to be with every love interest he pursues.
The episode works too hard trying to present Aquiel as a potential femme fatale who might be out to kill Geordi. It doesn't work hard enough to make credible suspects of the people the writers had dismissed, especially the only-seen-on-camera-in-a-blurry-computer-photo Rocha. The ending awkwardly writes Aquiel off to some other adventure, so as to specifically not leave Geordi a recurring love interest.

The already shaky story got even worse when it went before the cameras. Actress Renée Jones is woefully flat as Aquiel, stilted and unnatural. Worse for the romance angle, she has absolutely no chemistry with LeVar Burton. You get the distinct impression that the script played faster than anticipated, because there are lots of awkward pauses in the way the episode is edited together -- gaps in dialogue, and odd silences at the ends of scenes. Plus, the visual effects are pretty terrible. The quivering jell-o that kinda-sorta attacks Geordi in the final act was subcontracted out to another FX house, who delivered their work too late for some much needed touchups that might have better integrated it into the environment.

Other observations:
  • In all the machinations to be like Laura and not like Basic Instinct, the writers wound up aping another movie possibly without even realizing it. The "coalescent organism," which copies living beings and devours the original, is essentially the monster from John Carpenter's The Thing. It even hides as a dog! Interestingly, more than a decade later, episode co-writer Ronald Moore wrote the first draft for what became the 2011 prequel film The Thing. (Though his script was completely re-written, and he ultimately received no credit on the finished film.)
  • Ronald Moore acknowledges the poor result here. In a 1997 AOL chat, in response to being asked what he would have done differently while working on Star Trek, he answered that he would not have written "Aquiel."
  • In the version of the episode where Aquiel was to have been the killer, Geordi was to have ended up owning her dog. A final scene would have had Data visiting Geordi's quarters, noting the dog's bad behavior, and declaring, "Geordi, I think I am a cat person."
This episode is narrowly better than some of The Next Generation's worst. It has a great scene, for example, where Picard manipulates Klingon Governor Torak into helping him. But overall, "Aquiel" is a clear disappointment. I give it a D+.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Winner, By a Nez

In "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez," another Scotland Yard detective, versed (though not as skilled) in Sherlock Holmes' methods, comes to the great detective with a challenging murder mystery. He has done an exhaustive sweep of the crime scene and come up essentially blank. But he has one piece of evidence with deep ramifications: a pair of glasses snatched by the victim from the face of his attacker.

This Sherlock Holmes short story is distinct in at least two ways. First, his "client," Stanley Hopkins, is not a complete fool. Though he is of course no match for the super-sleuth himself, he is not the bumbling idiot that the Scotland Yard inspectors invariably are in the Holmes canon. Hopkins has applied many of Holmes' methods; he's just missed some important details. Moreover, he's not willfully advancing an outlandish theory of the crime. Instead, he simply admits he's stumped.

More interesting about the story is the way that Arthur Conan Doyle has stuffed as much as he can into a single clue, the titular golden pince-nez. Most Holmes tales present three or four details that prove key in cracking the case. A few stories have even more. But this story revolves around just this one pair of glasses, and a rather clever set of deductions that derive from it. Not only do the glasses tell Holmes a great deal about their owner, but the fact that they were taken -- thus seriously impairing the attacker's vision -- puts limitations on just what the attacker could have done after the deed.

Along the way, Doyle serves up a few more character details than he usually includes. We see Holmes put on an unusually charming demeanor during a few suspect interviews, and indulge in some furious chain smoking in the name of investigation. Watson is a bit ahead of his normal game too; instead of being utterly amazed and confounded by Holmes' analysis as he so often is, this time he at least follows the clues to a point -- if not to an ultimate solution.

In all, I was rather pleasantly taken by this story, and give it a B+.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Not-So-Grand Finale

The Battle of the Five Armies was the lackluster end to the mostly underwhelming The Hobbit trilogy. As it was the least effective of the three films, I probably shouldn't be surprised that its soundtrack is similarly disappointing. Composer Howard Shore, after a brilliant start with An Unexpected Journey, and a still-reasonable effort on The Desolation of Smaug, stumbles at the finish line.

The big problem with the score is its lazy reliance on the material established in Shore's five prior Tolkien film scores. Not on specific leitmotifs, mind you; a bit more of that might have actually been welcome. (For example, Shore's themes for Hobbits and the One Ring, established in the original trilogy, make only a few brief appearances.) Instead, much of the music for The Battle of the Five Armies leans on established chords in established keys, without actually finding any melodies to lift them from an often-bland symphonic swamp.

There are moments of interest, here and there, but they rarely last for more than 4 to 8 measures amid otherwise mediocre tracks. The aftermath of Smaug's attack, for example (in "Shores of the Long Lake") seems to make a point of not taking an emotional view at a time the music ought to do exactly that. Are the people of Dale sad at their loss? Happy to have at least survived? The music doesn't want to say, nor does it convey a convincing blend of the two.

Smaug's faintly Middle Eastern theme, introduced in the prior film, is interesting for a while -- in tracks like "Fire and Water" (where it represents the dragon himself) and "Mithril" (where it personifies the corruption of Thorin). But in perhaps a reflection of how long the movie holes up under the Lonely Mountain without much actually happening, Shore runs out of ways to reinterpret that theme in interesting ways.

Fortunately, the battle material itself is more compelling. And as the movie devolves into what feels like an hour-long action sequence, there is at least a fair amount of that kind of music once you've made it through the first half of the soundtrack. "Bred for War" is an attention grabber where different sections of the orchestra seem to engage in a shouting match with each other, building a wonderful din of menace. "Battle of the Mountain" is full of energy, particularly in its bombastic final minute. "Ravenhill" is the all-out pinnacle of the album; the brass virtually scream at the listener, relenting only when the choir steps in.

Actually, it's the use of choir -- throughout the score -- that is the best thing about Shore's work on this film. He plays a lot with the different feelings evoked by male and female voices, from the bass martial cadences of "Sons of Durin" to the apocalyptic creepiness of sopranos in "To the Death." There's also some fun experimentation in the one new theme he creates for this final film, "Ironfoot." No doubt inspired by the casting of Billy Connelly in the role, the character's theme has a distinctly Scottish flavor. In the film itself, I actually found it a jarring break of the fourth wall, in how strongly it evoked a Braveheart vibe. But listening to the music in isolation, I find it to be some of the most inspired work of the soundtrack.

I'm not as moved by "The Last Goodbye," this film's end credits song. Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, sings the vocals. But the way it's all crafted feels like it's trying too hard to trade on fond memories of a great sequence in a far better film -- The Return of the King. When Pippin sang in that movie (as Denethor stuffed his face and soldiers perished), it was a haunting and jarring scene. Here the song is inert, trying to express a vague melancholy about the journey's end. I imagine that sentiment was felt by the people who worked on the films, but few audience members actually did.

In all, I'd say The Battle of the Five Armies soundtrack rates an average C. There is a sprinkling of standout moments, but most of it feels like music you already own if you own any of Shore's previous Lord of the Rings or Hobbit soundtracks.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Unleash the Fury

This past weekend, critics and fans alike were tripping over one another in a rush to heap praise upon the new Mad Max: Fury Road. In what perhaps was an overreaction to disappointment in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, they created another situation where a movie couldn't possibly live up to its incredible hype.

There is a lot to like about Fury Road. Artistically, it's an absolute triumph. The designs of characters, locations, and vehicles are all powerfully evocative. Each image in the movie seems as carefully staged and framed as movies like Sin City, which try much harder to look painterly (often sacrificing the human touch in the process). Peppered throughout are indelible images too fun to deny: the skeletal appearance of the War Boys, the apocalyptic "fife boy" with the flame-throwing guitar, porcupine-spined cars, the crazed Cirque du Soleil quality to the warriors who attack from swinging poles, and so much more. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the majority of these action sequences were achieved in camera, without resorting to lifeless CG.

The protagonist of the movie is a charismatic and likeable character. I'm referring to the new Imperator Furiosa, played with bold intensity by Charlize Theron. Mad Max may be the title character, but he's really a glorified supporting player. (And Tom Hardy here lacks the personality to overcome this.) Furiosa is the one character whose motivations seem explicit and relatable, and the movie generally works best when it's following her

The War Boy character of Nux is played with crazed conviction by a barely recognizable Nicholas Hoult, but the motivation behind changes in his character aren't made nearly clear enough. Beyond him, characters are so much meat for the slaughter. A handful get a personality quirk or distinguishing physical feature, but when they start dropping like flies in the high octane climax, you're hard pressed to care about them, or even distinguish who is still alive and who is dead.

I found myself longing for a bit more strategy in the action. There are certainly moments to get the blood pumping, but rarely does an attack involve anything more sophisticated than driving fast with weapons blazing. Villains with superior numbers, superior resources, and superior terrain never make effective use of those advantages. Indeed, the entire climax of the movie hangs on the main villain having made an unbelievably stupid tactical error.

But while the movie doesn't make sense all the time, it's effective at silencing any doubts at other times. The amazing visuals, the earth-shaking soundtrack by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg), and the all-out performances of Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult count for a lot. Don't let the sky-high Rotten Tomatoes score set your expectations unreasonably high -- but you might still consider giving it a shot. I give it a B-.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

This week's Game of Thrones was a deftly managed blend of stories close to the books and others wildly diverged from them, of stories about character growth and others more action-centered.

For Arya, the episode was all about learning to lie convincingly. But there was perhaps another layer of depth to it than that -- she also learns to kill not out of anger or for vengeance, but as a kindness. The books made very much more explicit that these worshipers of the Many-Faced God see death as a gift, only to be bestowed on those who deserve it (be that the victims themselves, or those who seek death for others). I think it's important that the lie that finally impresses Jaqen H'Ghar revolves around Arya achieving a greater understanding of death.

The Jorah/Tyrion pairing took a turn straight from the book this week, with the two captured by slavers. But there was a welcome addition before that happened: a conversation about Jorah's father. In the books, George R.R. Martin seems to take a sadistic delight in keeping characters apart. (More even than in killing characters, as many would have it.) It seems obvious in retrospect that Tyrion, who met Lord Mormont of the Night's Watch, should have exchanged a few words with Jorah about it at some point along their journey. But it never happened in the book. And while it probably serves little purpose in propelling the narrative (Jorah is already quite far down and in need of no more kicking), it was a much appreciated bit of character development.

Littlefinger returned to King's Landing this week -- something he has yet to do in the books. It led not only to a wonderfully fun verbal sparring match with Lancel, but to the reveal of another layer in his plan. He wants Cersei to send soldiers to take Winterfell from whoever holds it after the clash between Stannis and the Boltons. At this point, Littlefinger has told so many plausible stories to so many people, it's hard to know what he really intends. Whether this latest version is his real plan, or just another reasonable explanation of it to satisfy people in power, this is exactly the clever character from the book I'm glad to see remain intact.

An even more welcome return to King's Landing came in Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns. Though only a very minor character in one of the books, she popped off the page for a number of readers. On the show, the wonderful performance by Diana Rigg made her an even more potent presence. The showrunners saw fit to give us more of her, and I for one am thrilled. The withering barbs she traded with Cersei were a delight. And I eagerly await learning if Olenna can find a way to extricate Loras and now Margaery too from their precarious positions. In the books, Cersei is our only viewpoint into events at King's Landing, and she is a predictably self-absorbed narrator. We really don't get to learn much of what's going on with Margaery once the Faith Militant seize her. It's all the more interesting on the show, where we know that Loras and Margaery are in fact guilty and complicit. (The show has scoffed as much about the criminalization of homosexuality as I reasonably expect it to.)

The adventures of Bronn and Jaime, and their big fight with the Sand Snakes, was probably the least interesting aspect of the episode for me. It was a well choreographed battle, and fun to watch. But this is basically why the Sand Snakes didn't work for me as a subplot in the books. Time was spent building up them and their awesome fighting prowess, only for them to be quickly captured and sidelined. I suppose here at least they did get to fight (more than I can say for the books), and one of them did escape with Myrcella. We'll see where it leads.

Finally, we had Sansa's story up at Winterfell. I love that before plunging her deep in the darkness, the show gave her one last chance to hold her head up high. Myranda tried toying with her, and Sansa boldly threw it all back in her face and refused to be frightened. Of course, Ramsay is one of the most wicked characters in the story (and that's saying something), so the attempt to frighten was at the same time a legitimate warning. Not that there was much to be done in any case. The episode ended on a violent rape, perhaps made more uncomfortable in that it was left largely to our imaginations -- through the horrified eyes of Theon Greyjoy. Nope, weddings in the world of Ice and Fire are never a good thing.

I give this week's episode an A-. It continued this season's excellent trend of condensing the quagmire of Martin's least effective two books into a compelling, visual narrative.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Novel on the Rails

The bestseller Gone Girl whet appetites not only for the big screen adaptation that soon followed, but for more novels with similar elements: an unreliable narrator, marital strife, a flawed female lead, and crime. Coming along to fill that role is the new book The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Alcoholic Rachel lost her London job months ago, but still rides the train in to "work" every day to deceive her overbearing roommate. At a particular point along the route, she stares longingly at the street where she used to live with her ex-husband -- specifically, at the house a few doors down, where a young couple is living what she imagines to be a perfect life. But when the woman goes missing the very night after Rachel spied her kissing a strange man, Rachel the voyeur becomes Rachel the investigator.

With so many similar elements, comparisons between The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl are inevitable. In truth, the comparison would be rather superficial; the two plots really have no more in common with each other than say, The Lord of the Rings does with A Song of Ice and Fire. Besides, for the most part, a comparison would just reflect unfavorably on the inferior The Girl on the Train.

Written in the first person from the perspectives of three different women, the novel does best with its main character, Rachel. She's a complete mess, at the mercy of gin-and-tonics and wine, and wallowing in self-pity over the life she still hasn't come to terms with losing. She's not "likeable" in any conventional sense, but she feels like a real person. But the novel's two other narrators, despite having very different personalities than Rachel, "speak" in an almost identical voice.

The Girl on the Train is more of a mystery than Gone Girl. Still, it isn't a particularly elaborate one. The story has a rather insufficient number of suspects to engender real uncertainty about events. There are at least enough plot twists along the way to keep the journey interesting, but the ultimate destination isn't particularly shocking.

It's a breezy enough read, if you're looking for something pulpy. But all told, an intriguing premise doesn't result in the most satisfying novel. I give The Girl on the Train a B-.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Burnt Wick

Though action movies are quite often summer blockbusters, those two kinds of films aren't always one and the same. A recent example of this was last year's John Wick -- a full-tilt action film released well outside the summer season.

Keanu Reeves stars as the title character, a former hitman/cleaner/boogeyman that got out of the game when he met and married the right woman. His life has recently changed again with her death to disease, and his grieving process is rudely interrupted by a chance encounter with the weaselly son of a Russian mobster Wick used to work for. Suddenly, Wick has a purpose again: a scorched earth quest for vengeance.

I've been deliberately vague in my description of the movie's plot, as there's very little plot to it. There's only the bare bones needed to get the thrill ride started. While that might be a detriment for most movies, it works well enough for this one. There are no lofty ideas or motivations here to fill the spaces between fight scenes, nor would they feel fitting if they were here.

The problem is, for a movie that aspires only to be a collection of kickass fight scenes, there's not nearly enough variety in those fight scenes. You'd certainly think the film had the right people for the job; it was directed by Chad Stahelski (and an uncredited David Leitch). Though the two are first time directors, they've worked as stunt coordinators on numerous previous films. In particular, they've worked in the past with Keanu Reeves, even doubling for him on The Matrix films. They ought to have a deep bag of tricks built up over decades of experience.

Instead, you see the same handful of moves reordered in fight after fight after fight. I found myself getting particularly bored of "the hero maims one guy with a shot at close range, then holds him while he shoots some other guy, before finishing off the first guy with a shot to the head." Seriously, they showed that move so many times, I feel like you could point a camera at me and I could do it. Thanks to the repetition, the not-actually-long hour and 40 minute movie winds up feeling too long by about 15 minutes.

But the cast does pick up the slack a bit. It's a surprisingly big roster of recognizable faces. Besides Keanu Reeves (not talking much, and he's pretty good at that), there's Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, and a gallery full of "I know them from..." actors. There's Michael Nyqvist, from the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. There's Alfie Allen, Theon from HBO's Game of Thrones. (He gives good weasel.) There's Dean Winters, guest star in many TV series and "Mayhem" in those goofy Allstate commercials. (Ditto.) There's Adrianne Palicki, Bobbi Morse from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (She gives good asskick.) There's Lance Reddick, Broyles from Fringe. There's Ian McChane, Swearingen from Deadwood. But unfortunately, while each actor has fun with their sprinkling of scenes, no one person other than Reeves has enough screen time to really do much heavy lifting.

So it's not the simple aspirations that make John Wick a disappointment, it's the average execution. There are certainly worse action movies, but there are certainly better ones too. I give it a C+.

Friday, May 15, 2015

TNG Flashback: Ship in a Bottle

A product of the late 80s and early 90s, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a predominately episodic series. Still, it did occasionally present continuing storylines and follow-ups to earlier episodes. One of its more effective sequels was "Ship in a Bottle."

When Lieutenant Barclay is assigned to repair a glitch on the holodeck, he happens upon the program of Professor Moriarty, the Sherlock Holmes character given sentience in a misadventure several years earlier. Frustrated that no progress has been made in finding a means for him to live outside the holodeck, Moriarty rashly leaves its confines, discovering that in fact he can exist in the real world. Soon he seizes control of the Enterprise, coercing the crew to search for a means to bring his love, the Countess Regina Bartholomew, off the holodeck as well. But not all is as it seems. In truth, Moriarty's miraculous entrance into the real world has been faked inside his own holographic simulation of the Enterprise -- where he has trapped Picard, Data, and Barclay in his efforts to commandeer the real thing.

Everyone on the writing staff was fond of the episode "Elementary, Dear Data," and was keen to make a sequel. But Paramount Studios had reportedly upset the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the film Young Sherlock Holmes, and confusion as to whether the copyrights on the characters had expired. (An issue which was sparking lawsuits in America as recently as last year.) When this legal feud forced a late rewrite to excise Holmes from a third season episode, a moratorium was declared: Sherlock Holmes would never appear on Star Trek again.

But Jeri Taylor wasn't around during the third season. And by the time she took over as showrunner in season six, she wondered if the problems with the Doyle estate were really as bad as she'd been led to believe. She decided to inquire about the situation, and quickly learned that the dust had settled; the Doyle estate was willing to license the characters to Paramount for a quite reasonable fee. Immediately, the writers went to work crafting a new Sherlock Holmes episode.

...and failed in the attempt. Jeri Taylor was discussing with Michael Piller (now over on Deep Space Nine) how their first idea had fallen through, and Piller had a suggestion. Back when writer Rene Echevarria had pitched his first episode ("The Offspring"), he'd followed up with three other ideas that never took off at the time. One, Piller recalled, involved characters being deceived into taking a holodeck scenario for reality. Perhaps that could be a means to bring Moriarty back for another episode? Echevarria, just recently made a staff member on The Next Generation, was shocked that Piller had remembered the idea after so many years, but was eager to pick it back up and adapt it for a new Holmes adventure.

One of the first decisions made was to bring in the character of Barclay. And while it seems obvious to use him in an episode centered on the holodeck, the idea to include him was actually for different reasons. The writers felt that a character who wasn't around for the first Moriarty episode would need to be involved in this one -- perhaps to explain the accidental "unleashing" of the villain, or perhaps just as a means for delivering exposition to anyone in the audience who'd missed the prior episode. In any case, Barclay slips very well into the story -- though this episode features him far less than any of his prior appearances.

Michael Piller was right: the scheme of a holodeck-inside-a-holodeck is perfect for the character of Moriarty. It's a fiendishly clever scheme, worthy of the real Doyle character. Not only does he force his unknowing prisoners to work on solving his problem, he cons Picard into giving him the means to take control the real Enterprise.

In fact, the only part of the episode that really doesn't track for the character of Moriarty is his love for the Countess Bartholomew. That character is a Star Trek creation, without basis in Doyle's original writings. As such, if the writers want to say that this Moriarty is deeply in love with her, that she was made for him, fair enough. But a better ruse, worthy of the "real" Moriarty (you know what I mean) would have been for even his love to be a fabrication -- for him to have pretended to care for a woman he'd invented, just to play on the sympathies of the Enterprise crew. (Though I admit, it would have made for an unsuitably dark ending, with Moriarty discarding a woman he cares nothing for rather than riding off into the sunset with a loving partner.)

Other observations:
  • It's interesting how this whole episode turns on Moriarty's inability to leave the holodeck, when the originally planned ending for "Elementary, Dear Data" was that he in fact could have done so.
  • It's also interesting how, a few years later, Star Trek: Voyager would introduce a means for the Doctor to leave the confines of his holographic environment.
  • There's a very subtle clue pointing to the falseness of the holodeck scenario. Most episodes of The Next Generation include shots of the outside of the ship to transition between scenes. In this episode, the exterior of the Enterprise isn't seen from the moment Picard, Data, and Barclay enter the holodeck, until the scene after they discover the ruse (right before Moriarty contacts the real Commander Riker).
  • While Moriarty's version of Counselor Troi is shown wearing a uniform (continuing formality even after Captain Jellico's departure), the real Troi seen at the end of the episode wears one of her off-duty outfits.
  • There are a few minor scene extensions offered as deleted scenes on the Blu-ray version of this episode, but neither really amounts to much. The first attempts to explain why Moriarty remains active even when Barclay tries to shut him off. The second prefaces Moriarty's exit from the "holodeck," with justification of alien species who really do have mind-over-matter powers.
The very clever conceit of this episode may be blown after the first viewing, but it's still great fun even once you know the twist. Indeed, I think it surpasses the original Moriarty episode. I give it an A-.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Urban Jungle Music

Every once in a while, I add a film score to my collection despite never having seen the movie for which it was composed. Most recently, I added Predator 2 to my library, a soundtrack which Varese Sarabande re-released not long ago in an expanded 2-disc version.

While I haven't actually seen Predator 2, I certainly had an idea what to expect of the music even before I listened to a few samples from the album. That's because the score was composed by the same man who wrote for the first Predator movie, Alan Silvestri. That soundtrack was some of his best work outside of Back to the Future, the perfect music to accompany the action and suspense of cat and mouse in the jungle.

Predator 2 may have been less of a movie by all accounts I've seen, but its music is much more, on virtually every count. It starts with an orchestra that sounds notably larger than Silvestri received for the original movie. He takes two of his powerful themes from the first score and incorporates them into the new -- without relying on them too much and overusing them.

His most interesting choice is not to change out the tribal sensibilities of the first score. Instead, he doubles down on it, with percussion that's even more loud, urgent, and chaotic. The city setting of the second film simply becomes an urban jungle. And while I'm not sure how well it works in context, it certainly makes for a kick-ass listening experience.

I definitely have my favorite tracks, though I don't really know the scenes that explain their names. "Welcome to the Jungle" opens the album and sets the stage like a re-mix of the first film's main title; a mournful hunting horn over sacrificial drums ushers in just a hint of the main melody. "Chat" accelerates the tempo while bringing in the string and brass sections more fully. "Subway Predator" is an inexorable four-minute assault by timpani, capped by one minute of dread as the orchestra withdraws as a whole and lets individual instrument sections occasionally disturb the silence.

The result is a soundtrack I enjoy just as much as that from the first movie, a clever sequel to the original work. I give the album an A-. Any fan of Alan Silvestri should definitely pick it up.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

S.O.S.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used up all the remaining periods on television, naming its two-hour season finale "S.O.S." But it was a solid wrap-up, and a tantalizing springboard for what may come next.

One thing the episode did exceptionally well -- better than most action movies including, sorry to say, Age of Ultron -- is tell a story through its fight scenes, rather than pausing story for a fight scene. Take the very first confrontation, where Skye takes on May. The way May casually fended Skye off at first, one-handed, told you everything you needed to know about who was really in control there. Only by using her powers to swing the battle did Skye win out.

This sort of turning the tables continued throughout the episode. Even after grisly torture, Bobbi seemed more than a match for Ward. Only when the odds went against her, with Agent 33 joining the fight, did she fail. When Skye took on multiple copies of the self-cloning Inhuman (in another cleverly staged single take), her superior training kept her in it for a time -- until sheer numbers won the day. Then there was Mack's hopeless stand against Gordon, until Coulson and Fitz (and Fitz's tech) showed up to swing the outcome.

The story between these clever conflicts was fairly engaging too. Despite (I hope not because of) the discomfort of the torture, the Bobbi storyline was the most effective to me. And that's even though we knew that neither she nor Hunter was going to end up dead at the end of it (because they were just talking about a possible spin-off for them). Morse never backed down from being all-business, never apologized for making the strategic call. She managed to endure, escape once, and then still save Hunter's life despite being chained to a chair. A rather thorough thwarting of the damsel-in-distress cliche.

The Cal storyline didn't work nearly as well for me. I understand the writers' choice to take killing Jaiying out of Skye's hands, but I have a hard time with giving Cal a redemptive story arc. He was responsible for a lot of death and destruction this season, and I'm not sure one moment undoes all of that. It's the Darth Vader redemption arc (which I don't buy either), except Vader ends up memory wiped and working as a veterinarian.

What did work for me is pushing Ward deeper into villain territory. I feel like any other show would probably have tried to redeem him and get him back with the team. Putting him in charge of HYDRA certainly seems to take him past redemption. (Indeed, it seems to set at least a general expiration date for his time on the show.) He got a nice jolt of personal motivation at the end too. May's trick that led to Ward killing Agent 33 himself was both brilliant and cruel.

It was hardly the only change for the main characters. Some of the changes likely won't take, once the show spins up again in September. Bobbi surely won't leave SHIELD as she threatened, nor will May stay away (though she could soften up in demeanor). But other changes seem built to last.

Mack cutting Coulson's hand off was to me the episode's biggest shocking moment. Even if he ends up with some kind of prosthesis, it still made me recoil to see it. The prospect of putting Skye in charge of an emerging group of supers certainly seems like it's pushing the show in a very different direction next year -- one that hopefully doesn't marginalize the existing non-super characters too much. Ah... but then perhaps that's changing too. Who knows what Simmons will be like when they get her back from that morphing obelisk? (The one thing I'm guessing is: fundamentally changed enough not to pursue the romantic relationship with Fitz that they again teased us with.)

Whatever the show is next season, several good guest stars for the show won't be around to see it. Raina was probably the greatest loss, a villain since season 1 who had only managed to get even more interesting. Still, she had a good send-off, walking into a death she knew was coming. Jaiying had run her to me inconsistent course, as had Cal and Agent 33, but Gordon felt like he might have still had some life in him. Maybe this makes room for Lincoln to get more interesting if they keep using him. (You'd think Skye would look to start her new team with him.) And it seems like Mack might bump up to series regular status next year.

In all, I found S.O.S. a satisfying wrap-up to the season. I give it an A-.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

TNG Flashback: Chain of Command, Part II

The conclusion of the "Chain of Command" two-parter has a backdrop of imminent war, but it's a personal drama between two men that dominates the storytelling.

Captain Picard has been captured by the Cardassians, and is now in the hands of Gul Madred. Madred's questioning of Picard for military secrets soon gives way to intense physical and psychological torture. Meanwhile, aboard the Enterprise, Captain Jellico's leadership style continues to clash with the crew, particularly Commander Riker. It seems they can prevent a war with Cardassia or rescue Picard, but not both. And perhaps not either.

Writer Frank Abatemarco wasn't working out on the writing staff of The Next Generation (keenly visible in his dreadful episode, "Man of the People"). But here he made one worthy contribution to the series before soon leaving the job. He did intense research for this story, including meetings with Amnesty International, to learn about the psychology of torturers and survivors in preparation for this script.

But despite being the sole credited writer on the episode, this ultimately wasn't Abatemarco's script. Showrunner Jeri Taylor stepped in to do a complete rewrite from the ground up -- no doubt the final straw leading to Abatemarco's departure. Patrick Stewart, a supporter of Amnesty who'd been delighted by the first draft, was concerned to hear about the rewrites. He was afraid that the stark reality of torture would be dulled, that the episode might become more of a lecture about the subject rather than a portrayal of it. But Taylor shared his desire, and crafted a final script that didn't pull punches at all. Indeed, some viewers still wrote complaints over the graphic nature of the episode, while the BBC edited one of the scenes for re-broadcast in the United Kingdom. Taylor agreed in a later interview that the episode was intense, and wished that it could have carried a disclaimer -- but she had no regrets or apologies for it being exactly what was intended.

It's actually remarkable how powerful the episode is without being truly, overtly violent. A number of movies and TV series have depicted torture in the 20+ years since this episode was made, and nearly all of them resort to truly horrific bloodletting and maiming to make their point. Picard is essentially physically intact at the end of this episode, but is no less scarred by the experience. And there's no question that we the audience understand that.

The script reflects all that background research, as Madred comes at Picard in a variety of ways. The episode begins with the more legitimate approach of using a truth serum to extract information from Picard -- the only true information he has to provide. And though Madred says point blank that he believes Picard has told him all he knows, he then begins the torture -- apparently just because he wants to, just to see if Picard can be broken. Madred strips him of identity, refusing to call Picard by name. He plays a mind game with the infamous "four lights," reminiscent of a "how many fingers am I holding up?" scene from Orwell's 1984. He teases Picard with freedom, getting him to choose imprisonment out of fear that Beverly Crusher will be next in the torture chamber. He feeds Picard disgusting food just to watch him devour it in desperation.

Picard's attempts to preserve his humanity are equally varied. He tries appealing to Madred's better nature, commenting on the Cardassian's interactions with his daughter. He tries different levels of defiance, from steadfastly replying there are "four lights" to flippantly asking "what lights?" He holds on to thoughts of home. He nurses an image of his torturer as a helpless child, motivated to cruelty by a squalid upbringing. But ultimately, Picard is broken -- reduced to desperately trying to smash the torture control device with strength he doesn't have.

The message of it all is expressed starkly in the final scene between Troi and Picard. The captain confesses that in the end, he would have told Madred anything he wanted to hear, admitted to any lie. Moreover, he wouldn't have thought he was lying in the moment; he truly believed the falsehood Madred had forced upon him. Torture can produce no information but that which the torturer implants.

The powerful script is only amplified by two powerhouse performances. David Warner had worked for Star Trek before, playing a minor role in Star Trek V, and the Klingon chancellor in Star Trek VI. He took this role on just three days' notice, in large part to work with his "old colleague" Patrick Stewart. He struggled with learning his more technobabble-centric lines, and admitted to ultimately reading much of the part off cue cards -- not that you can tell from the finished episode. Warner makes Madred an absolutely despicable villain... with a personality that seems all too real.

Then, of course, there's Patrick Stewart, possibly doing his finest work on the entire series. (And I say "possibly" only because he is so excellent in so many other episodes.) Like the script writer, he too prepared for this episode through research with Amnesty International. It's an intensely physical performance, full of perfectly calibrated details. After hanging in agony overnight, Picard is unable to lower his arms. When Madred first uses his implanted torture device, Picard's reaction is exactly what Madred warned it would be, a complete lack of preparation for the intensity of the pain. As the ordeal wears on, even speaking takes a clear effort. Stewart even insisted on actually performing the earliest torture scenes in the nude.

These performances were supported wonderfully by the production team. The makeup department shows us the scar of Picard's implantation, and the way his wrists have been rubbed raw by restraints. Set designer Richard James built a dramatically lit, stark room for the battle of wills, an environment that intriguingly plays against expectations -- where you might expect a cramped dungeon of a room, it in fact seems quite spacious.

Michael Piller, showrunner on Deep Space Nine by this point (but still involved to some extent with The Next Generation) thought this was the best episode in the history of the series, and praised David Warner and Patrick Stewart for that. In the run-up to Emmy nominations the following summer, Piller himself paid for a full-page ad in Variety, campaigning for Stewart to be nominated -- which he absolutely should have been. Jeri Taylor put it quite aptly: "It is not possible that there are five better male actors in this town than Patrick Stewart!"

In all this (understandable) fixation on one part of the episode, I'd be remiss not to point out that the action back on the Enterprise is quite compelling too, if less intense. Jellico continues to be an abrasive character... though not always necessarily wrong. He's likely correct not to allow a rescue mission to be planned. He certainly justified in relieving Riker of duty, given the disdainful way Riker calls out his "mistakes." The only point in the episode where you could possibly argue Jellico is wrong is when he dismisses the notion that the Cardassians could have peaceful, "scientific" intentions in the nebula. His duty as a Starfleet officer should be to avoid war at all costs, and certainly not to provoke one as he risks doing. But even in this decision, Jellico is nevertheless proven correct in his doubts. Plus, he saves the day and secures Picard's release. He's really not all bad.

And neither is Riker all good. He disrespects Jellico at several points in the episode, most of all when the captain comes to his quarters to ask him to take part in a critical mission. Riker refuses to come to his feet for a superior officer, and ultimately makes Jellico "ask" him to help, with a smirk on his face. We the audience, knowing Riker as we do, can certainly side with his indignation. Still, in the context of a military command structure, he's almost certainly in the wrong.

Other observations:
  • It's hard not to compare Picard's experience in this episode with his treatment at the hands of the Borg in "Best of Both Worlds." Ultimately, it's that experience that stays with him more (as we see in the film First Contact) -- possibly because there he could do nothing to resist, where here against Madred he can at least attempt to retain his humanity. Nevertheless, I think it's this experience that resonates more strongly with an audience, as it's less removed from reality behind a veneer of science fiction.
  • It's fun getting to see Data don a red uniform in this episode, taking over as Jellico's first officer. And I especially like that no comment on this is made at all. The audience is trusted to infer what has happened.
  • The only place where the episode lets you down a bit is in the rather simplistic conflict with the Cardassian fleet -- which isn't even shown. A bigger confrontation was originally envisioned, but it was taken out in the rewrites. This was meant to be a money saving episode, after all.
I remembered this as a strong episode, but in watching it again, I found it even better than I remembered, surpassing even a long time favorite of mine like "The Best of Both Worlds." Where the passage of time hurts some episodes of The Next Generation, it has only improved this one. In today's world, where our political figures have condoned torture -- and gained no useful intelligence from doing so, just as this episode promises -- this seems like a more immediate and topical story. It's right up there with the most profound parables Star Trek has to offer. "Chain of Command, Part II" deserves an unconditional A.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Kill the Boy

This week gave us another episode in which Game of Thrones generally managed George R.R. Martin's story better than he himself did in the books.

Dany's plot, the quagmire of A Dance With Dragons, improved by the show making her much more of an agent in her own story. In the books, the character of Hizdahr continues to nag Dany with both the request to reopen the fighting pits and a marriage proposal. He seemingly wears her down until she finally believes she has no other option to turn to. But in the show, both decisions come from her; indeed, the idea of a marriage is her idea entirely in the show. The entire audience might still be screaming "NO!" at her, but at least this way she feels more in charge, like the queen she is.

As an added bonus, the show also gave us the awesome visual of dragons dining. A character and subplot from the book, Quentyn Martell and his story, has been excised, which generally seems like no great loss -- save for the fiery climax of that thread in the book. The show writers lifted that one great moment and found a way to still present it to us in some form.


Another way of covering up for a cut character came in the final sequence of the episode, where Jorah and Tyrion were attacked by the Stone Men. It played out almost exactly as it does in the books, save with Jorah Mormont in the role served in the books by a different character. The visuals of the ruins, not to mention the staging of the attack and the work both in the boat and underwater -- it was all presented with particularly impressive production values. (Not that the show often skimps on those.) And now we see the reason why the series has been talking so much of greyscale for the last several episodes: Jorah's shot at redemption now has a ticking clock of disease on it.

Up at the Wall, there were a number of interesting developments. First, there was a lot of talk around Sam about the vast library at Oldtown, a hint that perhaps a storyline that appeared to have been cut from the show might actually just be a bit delayed instead. Second, there was the departure of Melisandre along with Stannis' army. That leaves no apparent way for the show to deliver a bunch of implication Martin scattered throughout the last half of A Dance With Dragons, nor for the show to continue the story in the next book/season in the way many readers (myself included) expect. I'm quite curious to see how that all develops.

A big improvement in the story at the Wall was a simple matter of changing perspective. In both the show and the book, Jon concludes that he must make peace with the Wildlings. In the books, we really only get chapters in Jon's own head about this storyline. As a character, he's so focused on what needs to be done -- and so generally blind to how other people are having a hard time accepting it -- that it doesn't seem like the Big Deal it really is. By being out of Jon's head on the show, viewers are better able to see how the other characters are taking the news. And the addition of the young boy, who saw his family and village slaughtered by Wildlings just two seasons ago, is particularly useful in driving the point home.

Then there was the story at Winterfell, full of uncomfortable moments. There were several scenes to build up Ramsay's character. He was given a love interest, which delicately rounded him out without softening his creepiness in the slightest way. And later, when his father told him the story of his mother, we not only felt little sympathy for Ramsay, we saw that Roose is as bad or worse a person.

The scene where Sansa was engaged in talk of memories was set perfectly, at the base of the broken tower that in fact carries no good memories at all. It's the spot where Bran fell, almost to his death. And the dinner scene was a nightmare, another one of Ramsay's twisted games. Sansa gets her doctorate in concealing her emotions as she listens to Theon apologize for killing two Starks -- a dastardly deed for which he is actually innocent, while Roose Bolton is actually guilty. (The Red Wedding never stops hurting, people.)

I never thought I'd say this, but I missed the Dorne storyline this week. Why bother adapting such a tedious chunk of the book for the series if it's only going to appear in two out of five episodes? I suppose we'll see what they have in mind soon enough, as we're halfway through the season now already! I give this episode an A-. The show continues to make lemonade from the relative lemons the books gave them.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Three Student Monte

"The Adventure of the Three Students" is an odd but entertaining story in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Set at an unspecified England university, the case involves the theft of answers to an upcoming exam, and a professor who doesn't want to compromise the university's public image with any official investigation. He is able to furnish Holmes with three suspects, and leaves it to the detective to identify the guilty party and quietly deal with the situation.

Among all the cases Holmes ever tackled, this one has to be among those with the lowest stakes. The crime is minute -- and might not even be seen as such outside academic circles, since nothing was physically taken. What's more, the changing times in the century since Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it has blunted what little impact there might have been. It's hard to imagine today any truly serious university scandal arising from the stealing of answers from one part of one professor's one exam.

But with the matter so trivial in nature, full focus can fall on the investigation. And here, Doyle has crafted a rather intriguing puzzle. In the story itself, Holmes compares the situation to a game of Three Card Monte (though he doesn't name it thus); the target is one of three students, it's only a matter of picking the right one. Other Sherlock Holmes stories present false suspects, but I can't think of another one that so straightforwardly identifies them to the reader. And there's no twist here; the culprit is not revealed to be any fourth individual that wasn't under suspicion.

So here, more than in most Holmes stories, the reader has the chance to pit himself against the detective -- or, if not to solve the case, to at least spot the clues that are crucial in the solution. I've criticized the way Doyle hasn't "played fair" in past stories, so it's only fair to praise him for doing so here. If the case had a bit more heft to it, this might well be my favorite story from the collection. As it is, I still give it a respectable B.