Monday, November 30, 2015

TNG Flashback: Attached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

Phantom Pains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'd grade The Phantom Menace a C-.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Games Have Ended

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Music for Another World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Many Heads, One Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Big Cheese

Chances are, you haven't heard of comedian Mark Jonathan Davis -- though perhaps you do know his alter ego, Richard Cheese. For the past 15 years, he's been releasing albums featuring swankified lounge singer versions of popular music. (Think Bill Murray's classic Saturday Night Live character... but decidedly R-rated.) If you saw the remake of Dawn of the Dead, you've heard his cover of "Down With the Sickness."

Back in April, I went to see Richard Cheese and his band, Lounge Against the Machine, performing at the Boulder Theater. I didn't make a blog post of it at the time, I suppose because there wasn't much point in me "recommending" it to my readers. It was a one-night only show, and part of an extremely limited tour. (Cheese has done only a handful of shows in the last few years, and has said he plans to stop touring altogether in the near future.)

So why bring it up now? Because he actually recorded a concert album at the very show I attended, and that album has just been released in the last few weeks. Bakin' at the Boulder (available at the Richard Cheese website) is an hour-plus of highlights from the two-hour show, and I've been listening to it almost constantly since I picked it up. I suppose my opinion is colored by having been there to see it in person, but I'm still laughing at the jokes and enjoying it immensely.

Richard Cheese gives a loose, unpolished show. Occasionally, this results in mistakes and forgotten lyrics (as in "Smoke Two Joints" and "Girls, Girls, Girls"), but more often it makes for hilarious banter with the audience (as in "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Chop Suey," and "My Neck, My Back," among others). Definitely there are parts of this album with a "had to be there" vibe. You won't get how hilarious the "Denver Airport Song" is if you've never traveled there. And you can't see the audience member who basically performed a stripper routine during "Baby Got Back." But the liner notes PDF does include a picture of the Boulder Theater ceiling mentioned in "Theater Notes" to bring you up to speed there. (The x-rays referred to in "To Lounge Another Day?" I got one!)

Still, if a few parts of the album play better for me that they might for most, the bulk of it should still work. There's a fun duet of "Love Shack" with the B-52s' Fred Schneider, a handful of songs not available on any other Richard Cheese album (such as Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off"), and plenty of jokes throughout. The real cherry on the sundae is the running gag that starts in "Brass Monkey," involving a couple who actually brought their one-year-old daughter to the concert, wearing headphones duct-taped to her head. (The PDF also provides her picture, and lists the baby in the credits.)

Basically, this is a heads-up to people aware of Richard Cheese. He's got a new live album, and it's hilarious. Correcting for my bias of being there, it probably merits a B+. But personally, I can't get enough of it right now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Dark Page

I remembered "Dark Page" being a particularly bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Re-watching it, though I certainly didn't think it a series high mark, I did find it considerably better than I remembered.

Counselor Troi's mother Lwaxana has been establishing diplomatic relations with the Cairn, a species which until now communicated only telepathically. Teaching them spoken language has been a demanding assignment, but the extreme fatigue Lwaxana feels has a deeper cause. When she suddenly falls into a coma due to a repressed memory deep in her telepathic psyche, Deanna must venture inside her mind to unlock the secret and save her life.

Episode writer Hilary J. Bader had been pitching the same general idea for years -- that of a telepathic rescue mission. And while the writing staff and producers had always been on board with that core concept, numerous attempts to implement it had fallen apart. Reportedly, there were multiple early versions of the idea involving Dr. Crusher (both with a female guest star and Counselor Troi) and LaForge. Even the first draft using Lwaxana had the roles reversed, with Deanna in the coma and her mother going into after her.

Because this core idea was always what was being chased, the finished product minimizes some other interesting ideas that probably deserved more exploration. The idea of a species with no verbal communication is a really intriguing one, but the episode gives only the barest hints of their culture. And Deanna's encounter with her father (inside her mother's mind) feels like it should have been much more monumental. Getting a chance to reunite with the father you lost at age seven and having to turn your back on it? That's a powerful idea -- but it makes for only a short scene in this episode.

I'm actually not even sure the core idea feels entirely like Star Trek to me. There's something about telepathy that strikes me more as "magic" than science fiction, and there are other series that I think could have presented this idea better. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example. And Supernatural in fact did have an episode featuring a "psychic rescue.")

But something about the episode won me over all the same this time, and it's the part that reportedly took the most effort on the part of the writers. According to staff writer René Echevarria (who did an uncredited polish on the final script), the story's real challenge was figuring out what Lwaxana's secret was. It had to be dark enough to justify the repression (and thus, the entire story), yet not something that would paint the character in too unsympathetic a light.

The loss of a child certainly meets those requirements. It's just a chilling, horrible idea, so powerful that even in the mere concept overcomes some shortcomings in the actual execution. For example, it's ridiculous that all the scenes in Lwaxana's mind would take place somewhere on the Enterprise -- but that's the reality of a television budget for you. And can you really believe that a child would die of drowning with the medical capabilities we've seen in this future? But ultimately, the idea that a mother would have hidden for decades the secret of a dead daughter hits you on a deep emotional level.

There are some interesting guest stars in this episode. Of course, Majel Barrett returns for her final Next Generation appearance as Lwaxana Troi (but without loyal valet Mr. Homn, due to the unavailability of actor Carel Struycken). Kirsten Dunst plays Hedril, appearing here less than a year before the movie Interview with the Vampire would launch her to fame. Amick Byram plays Troi's father Ian, and unfortunately does not make any effort to adopt an accent. (Thus, the question of where Deanna acquired hers is quite a mystery; she sounds nothing like her mother or father.)

The most unusual guest star of the episode was the wolf brought on set for some of the scenes inside Lwaxana's mind. The wolf was "trained" in theory, yet still thought dangerous enough that no actors were allowed on set with it. (Any appearance to the contrary was achieved with split screen photography.) Unfortunately, there are very few closeups of the animal (again, due to the danger), which actually serves to make it seem not very dangerous. It actually lopes around a lot like a dog.

Other observations:
  • It's pure coincidence, of course, but the revelation of Deanna's sister Kestra makes the fact that Lwaxana has always called her "Little One" quite interesting.
  • Show runner Jeri Taylor noted that everyone was reluctant to do this episode back to back with "Phantasms," another episode largely set inside a character's mind. But with no other story ready to go, they had no real choice in the matter.
  • A few deleted portions of scenes can be found on the Blu-ray collection of this season. Mostly, it excises some rather poor, soap opera caliber acting, but there is also an added layer revealed to Lwaxana's repression -- she forced her husband to go along with hiding the secret.
"Dark Page" could have been a better episode. But the core revelation hits at a deep emotional level that doesn't get bogged down in the technobabbly trappings of the script. I'd say the episode just edges into a B grade.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Napoleon, Blown Apart

I'm not taking on many unfinished fantasy series at the moment. My memory isn't what it used to be, and not up to the task of keeping straight all the particulars of the stories George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch have in motion. The more "next book"s I'm waiting on, the less likely I'm going to remember where I am in any one given series.

So you can probably understand why I responded with reluctance to my friend's recommendation: the first volume of the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. But there were points in its favor (besides the obvious, that a friend had recommended it). The series is projected to be nine books long, and eight of them are already published. That meant I'd be unlikely to catch up with the author before her saga was done.

Then there was the intriguing premise of the story itself. Part "alternate history," part fantasy, the Temeraire series is set in the early 1800s and chronicles the Napoleonic Wars from the point of view of a British captain. A captain of the air force. An air force that consists of dragons, in a world where dozens of breeds have been domesticated by many different countries. I have to admit, just the idea was enough to make me shrug any bit of "dragon fatigue" pop culture might have given me.

The first book, His Majesty's Dragon (published as Temeraire in the UK), sets the stage of this intriguing world. A naval captain, William Laurence, captures a French transport with a dragon egg among the cargo. When the dragon hatches and "bonds" to him, he must abandon the world he has known to join the royal air force. The book doesn't cover much beyond Laurence and the dragon's pairing and training, yet it doesn't really seem slow paced. It doesn't feel like Novik is parceling out details to make them last for nine books; instead, it's a rather effective tease for what might come. A solid "pilot episode" of a television series, if you will.

It also helps that the book manages to sidestep some obvious cliches and thwart a few others. This could have been a familiar "boy and his dragon" tale (well -- man, in this case), but the dragon Temeraire departs nicely from the expected. He is a deeply intelligent and articulate (yes, he talks) creature, with a personality that cleverly blends childlike innocence with philosophical introspection. This could have been a familiar "reluctant hero" story, but Laurence is determined to excel in his new role and not dwell on his lost naval career. He's already a man with a deep sense of duty, and that means any thoughts of giving up or taking an easy way out never enter his head.

The fantastical elements of the story help pull the book away from sometimes-dry historical fiction. But the real world elements ground the story, and also save time most fantasy epics must spend on "world building." I was pleasantly surprised by the concoction Naomi Novik brewed, and I plan to keep going with the series. This first volume, I'd grade a B+.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Backing Music

Saturday night, I had an outstanding evening at the symphony. And an outstanding night at the movies. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra put on a special screening of the movie Back to the Future. Like their Psycho screening from just a few weeks ago, they presented a special print of the movie with the orchestral soundtrack removed; the symphony then performed live all the music for the film.

I've previously gone on at length about how Back to the Future is my favorite film, and won't reiterate the many reasons why here. In the past couple of months, it's been made clear that many people share my affection. With the 30th anniversary of the original, and the celebration of October 21, 2015 (the future date to which they traveled in Back to the Future Part II), people all over have been cheering this great movie.

This symphony screening of Back to the Future is actually part of that anniversary celebration. Symphonies all over the world have been performing to this newly commissioned print all year long. The composer of the score, Alan Silvestri, worked personally on this project, adding an additional 15 minutes of music to be performed. This new material plays mostly over the opening portion of the film, which in the original didn't have a single note from the symphony until the reveal of the DeLorean in the mall parking lot. (A choice which gave a lot of extra punch once the music finally arrived.) With this added material, Silvestri also took the opportunity to weave in brief samples of the themes he created for Back to the Future Part III, just to give audiences a bit more for their experience.

But it was a thrill for me in any case. My favorite movie, one of my favorite movie scores, presented in this unique manner. Seeing the score instead of just hearing it made me appreciate it on even more levels. It made me realize what a real showcase this music is for the woodwinds section, which is seldom the star of modern movie scores; a great deal of Back to the Future's melodies are carried on flute, oboe, and clarinet.

Even the more commonly featured instruments aren't used commonly. The big brass fanfare, which most composers would always place on the trumpets, involves the french horns just as much. And as for those trumpet players, they're popping mutes in and out of their instruments every minute or two (the trombone players too), as Silvestri really toys with how a subtle change can twist an emotion a certain way. There are even a few odd accents in the score I'd never identified before, such as a percussionist playing a cymbal's edge using a violin bow.

These film-and-orchestra shows have been a real treat, and I can't recommend them highly enough if you're here in Denver (or if the local symphony in your city is doing them too). Back to the Future may have been a high water mark for me, but I still plan on attending more when the right movie comes along.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Empire Record

It's been about two months since I watched the original Star Wars. That was step one in re-watching all the earlier films, in anticipation of The Force Awakens. Yes, I realize I'll need to seriously step up the pace to get it done. But I have now taken that next step; this week, I watched The Empire Strikes Back.

Once upon a time, Empire was my favorite of the Star Wars films. I remember when I was younger, borrowing a VHS copy from the library and playing it again and again and again before we had to return it. (If every borrower used it like I did, the tape wouldn't have lasted for more than about four people.) I still consider Empire to be one of the best sequels ever released. (I'd say Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan edges it out just a hair; but then, we'd all prefer to pretend there was no Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wouldn't we?)

There are many ways in which Empire improves upon the original Star Wars. The dialogue is worlds better, by far the best of all the Star Wars films. This is because George Lucas only provided the story; the script is credited to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett died before the film made it to theaters, but she definitely brought a crackle to the script that all the other Star Wars films lacked (in varying degrees).

Not only is the dialogue better -- sharper, funnier, tighter -- so is the characterization. People were certainly well established in the first Star Wars, but they feel more real and natural in Empire. And there's more going on here than pure adventure. There's a touch of mystery, a touch of romance, even a touch of horror (in what happens to Han Solo), and it all fits well into the whole.

Because they had a good script, the actors are better here than in any other Star Wars movie. Thanks to the melodrama inherent in Luke's Dagobah training (and the big revelation from Darth Vader), Mark Hamill has the heaviest lifting to do -- and he does much better with it than he did with the often cheesy lines of the first Star Wars. Harrison Ford has mastered the space between smarm and charm. Carrie Fisher is prickly as Leia, but less nasty than in Star Wars; thoroughly likeable.

Also doing his best work of the franchise is composer John Williams. There is so much amazing music in Empire, from the Walker battle to the asteroid pursuit to the final hyperdrive escape of the Millennium Falcon. The new theme for Yoda is rich and moving. And it's all but impossible to imagine that Darth Vader didn't really have a theme until here, with the arrival of the iconic Imperial March.

Yet for all that, I think that today, I prefer the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back. And I think it's ultimately because while Empire's script may be better, its story is not. Empire feels like a loosely gathered collection of mini-episodes: the Wampa encounter, the Battle of Hoth, the asteroid chase, Luke's training (at least it's not a cheesy montage), the Cloud City betrayal and subsequent escape. Sure, Star Wars had you in a seedy bar one moment and a garbage compactor the next, but it still felt unified. Empire's "episodes" don't flow together quite as smoothly. And they keep all the characters we love apart for the entire movie. (Luke and Han have what, two minutes together in the whole film?)

And then there's the ending. It's novel and brave (particularly for 1980) to end the movie on a cliffhanger... and with the villains decidedly having the upper hand. Yet there also isn't much of narrative theme to hold this film together as its own entity, save the loose notion that the Rebels are losing and/or on the run for the entire film.

Don't get me wrong -- The Empire Strikes Back is an excellent film. I give it an A without reservation. But the original Star Wars has slightly surpassed it in my esteem. Still, whichever you prefer, we can surely agree they're both at a level which the next four films failed to reach.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Sketch on the Dark Side

Years ago, I reviewed Telestrations, a party game that combines "Telephone" with Pictionary. When you're forced to draw the "best guess" of what the person to your left thought was drawn by the person to his left, hilarity ensues.

Now, a new installment of the game has been released: Telestrations After Dark. Apparently, the publishers finally noticed that a large number of Telestrations drawings devolve into a phallic space already, and decided to make an entire game to help that process along. In After Dark, the clues you're given to draw are adult-themed (or can easily be taken as such by a dirty mind). The gameplay is otherwise identical -- you draw something, pass it on, guess what you were passed, pass that on, and keep on passing around the circle.

It may be I wasn't quite in the right frame of mind when I played this new version -- perhaps I wasn't in the mood for a party game that day, or perhaps I hadn't been plied with as much alcohol as the other players. But simply put, I just didn't find this version of the game to be as entertaining as the original. It's hard to zero in on exactly why, but I think the bottom line is that rude stick figure drawings are funnier when they accidentally turn out that way. They're certainly funnier when they come up more sparingly, as opposed to in a relentless torrent.

The laughs are still there, to be sure, and the game remains fun for a large group. But I can't help but feel like Telestrations After Dark exists for an audience that needs permission to be lewd. (From a game manufacturer?) In that regard, it's rather akin to Cards Against Humanity -- a game that has some detractors (whose arguments I can understand), but which ultimately struck me as more fun than this.

I'd still play Telestrations After Dark again, but my vote would be for the original. I give this edition a B-.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Chaos Theory

This week's Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. focused on Lash, and consequently fell a bit short for me. It didn't inevitably have to be like that, but some lazy writing decisions steered the plot that way.

In a nutshell, my big problem with Lash turned out to be the total lack of internal logic in how his character was written. Sure, in general, there aren't a lot of consistent rules where Inhumans are concerned. Yet Lash still managed to break the handful that exist. Andrew's is apparently a slow decent into madness, rather than the instant transition of every other Inhuman we've ever met. His compulsion to kill other Inhumans has no explained higher purpose -- he just needs to do it. Except for Daisy, for no reason.

The big showdown with Lash felt a bit lackluster too, given the confrontations in previous episodes at the hospital and the armored car. It felt like more inconsistency, really. Lash was not as super-powerful as early episodes made him out to be. And his ability to hide in plain sight wasn't part of some clever plan after all; just dumb luck. The one element of the Lash story line that played half decently to me was the emotional bind it put May in... but even then, it's not like that yielded a lot of fireworks, given how stoic her character is. (By contrast, the backstory of Bahrain, unveiled slowly as it was, felt like it had more of an impact on her than this revelation involving her ex-maybe-not-ex-husband.)

But other elements of the episode did pick up the slack. The Fitz-Simmons story continued to be excellent, and once again in large part thanks to the excellent performances by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge. The revelation of the "strange symbol" clue didn't mean a damn thing to me, but it also didn't matter to me that it didn't. Fitz's reaction to the videos recovered from Simmons' phone, their complicated emotions as they watched the sun rise together -- those moments resonated powerfully for me.

I continue to enjoy the rapport between Rosalind and Coulson, and I don't think the end of the episode tag with Ward and his new ally should be taken at face value. We just wrapped up one "enemy in our midst" story line in Lash (and far from the first such story line in this series), and I don't think the writers are out to instantly replace it with another one (even after the other missteps in this episode). My money's on "Rosalind doesn't know she's working for a bad guy." We'll see.

With the holes in the dominant plot of this episode, it couldn't help but be the weakest installment so far this season. I give it a B-.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

More Thoughts

After finishing Dima Zales' The Thought Readers a few weeks ago, I plowed right on in to his follow-up book, The Thought Pushers. It continues the adventures of Darren, a young man with powerful psychic abilities. This book shifts focus to a different power at Darren's command, and to the group of people who share it. It also puts him in the cross hairs of Russian mobsters, and of a powerful enemy who wants him dead.

The Thought Pushers feels like it's gone through something of a "distillation" process compared to book one. Both the good and bad elements of the first book are more refined and pure. The plot is intriguing, with a sufficient number of twists and turns. It does a decent job of upending the black and white morals laid out in previous volume, painting things in a more satisfying, grey manner. It also introduces a handful of new characters, one in particular having an interesting role to play in the story (which, thankfully, is not to create a trope-tastic love triangle).

But the sense of the protagonist being a form of the author's wish fulfillment is more pronounced too. He's not as suave under pressure as, say, a James Bond kind of character. But he's powerful, clever, sexy... too good to ring true. He's something of a Superman type of character, to a degree that a sort of "kryptonite" has to be introduced in the final act of the book to check his powers and keep tension in the climax. And it's not as satisfying a finale as book one either, saddled with a bizarre sort of epilogue that over-explains things that would have been fine to leave to the reader's imagination.

I give The Thought Pushers a B-. At this point, though I didn't dislike the book as such, I'm not planning to rush on into book three.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Spectre Vision

James Bond is back in the new movie Spectre. Many critics have been feeling a bit let down by it after their high praise for the previous entry, Skyfall. I personally didn't regard that film as highly as many seemed to, but I'd still agree that Spectre is a step backward. It's a quite workman-like action movie that does generally get the job done, but that won't likely leave much of a long term impression.

Actually, this movie isn't living in the shadow of Skyfall nearly as much as it's living in the shadow of the most recent Mission Impossible movie, Rogue Nation. The plot of this movie is quite similar. A long-running intelligence organization is closed down by a new bureaucracy, leaving the hero spy disavowed. With the help of a few rules-breaking allies, he works to bring down a massive conspiracy of evil that is actually pulling the strings of the replacement government organization. Add a dash of the "critique of mass surveillance" that The Dark Knight already covered well seven years ago, and voila! Spectre.

Familiarity didn't quite breed contempt in me, though. There are a decent number of good sequences throughout Spectre (even if you do have to sit through a sometimes slowly paced two and a half hours to get there). Most of the action scenes are quite fun, and depicted with reasonable realism by returning Skyfall director Sam Mendes. An extended fight inside a train car is particularly good for its visceral qualities, while the opening helicopter sequence is strong enough to leave you sated until the story has been set up fully.

As far as the cast goes, this is a film for the returning performers. Daniel Craig remains a worthy Bond (so long as you like your Bond broody); Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris are both fun as Q and Moneypenny; and Ralph Fiennes does a lot with a little to dignify the proceedings as M.

The new characters get shorter shrift. After all the talk about Monica Bellucci being the first "older" Bond girl (Daniel Craig has said that she's "age appropriate"), she actually has little more than a blink-and-you'll-miss-it rolein the film. Christoph Waltz doesn't get nearly enough time to build an intriguing villain; after Javier Bardem was so well received in Skyfall despite not appearing in the first hour of that movie, the writers apparently decided to go for even less this time. Dave Bautista makes far less of an impact here than he did in Guardians of the Galaxy. And a minor, weaselly government bureaucrat gets far more attention than he probably deserves thanks to the casting of Andrew Scott, Moriarty from the BBC Sherlock series.

I think by the time I'm talking about a C grade of some kind, I'm finding a piece of entertainment actively bad on at least some level. For me, Spectre wasn't quite that -- it simply wasn't particularly special in any way. So I'm going to give it an unenthusiastic B-.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Among Us Hide...

For those into milestones, this week's episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the series' 50th. I believe it was also the first one of the season in which every character in the main cast made an appearance. Because of this, it did feel a bit overstuffed to me.

The less effective parts for me involved Ward and the Hydra conspiracy. When Ward is in an episode to actually do something, I can mostly get behind the fact that he's still around and hasn't been handled by our intrepid heroes yet. When he just twirls his figurative mustache for a couple of scenes, he starts to feel played out. The introduction of Powers Boothe into this plot may help (is he supposed to be playing the same character he did in the Avengers?), simply because anyone who has ever watched Deadwood will surely be thrilled to have him around as a recurring villain. But we'll see.

The most effective parts for me involved Hunter and Bobbi, each on a different intensely personal journey. Hunter's "rage issues" are becoming more severe, and while they played well for comedy this week, they seem like they'll be fuel for some darker moments in weeks ahead. Meanwhile, seeing Bobbi back out in the field for the first time since her injury was everything I'd hoped for. Bobbi and May on a mission to boot heads is a win all by itself, but seeing Bobbi riddled with some doubts (and, realistically, not too riddled with doubts) added some nice dimension to the story.

Everything else fell somewhere in the middle for me. The realization that Andrew is in fact Lash could go either way. I like that the show didn't linger on this mystery long enough for viewers to figure it out. (I certainly didn't.) But it's hard to judge how credible a twist this is until we know exactly what's going on with him. There's a risk this plot line could just wind up playing very similar beats to Kyle MacLachlan's Jekyll/Hyde routine last season. But if there's a good reason behind it, and things stay focused on the emotional fallout for May, this could be good.

The Coulson/Rosalind story continues to work for me, in large part because Constance Zimmer's performance (and the banter between her and Clark Gregg) remains excellent. This story also built up in a way that will drive a wedge further between Coulson and Daisy, which I continue to support. It's a nice, slow burn that's believably eroding one of the relationships that's been strong since day one, and changing that up seems like a great thing for the show.

One relationship that remains rock solid, though, is that between Fitz and Simmons. I'm not surprised that their story barely moved at all after least week's showcase episode. I'm nevertheless disappointed it didn't. As I noted last week, I now feel more invested in that story thread than any of the others on the show. It's going to be hard watching it dangle for several weeks.

In all, a decent episode, though not as solid as the series has been managing so far this season. I give it a B.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

TNG Flashback: Phantasms

"Phantasms" picked up on the season six development of Data's ability to dream, presenting the dark side of that coin.

LaForge has a mystery on his hands as he works to calibrate a malfunctioning, recently installed warp core. But even more mysterious are the unusual nightmares Data has been having within his dream program. Persistent images of dismemberment -- of the ship, himself, and his friends -- grow more alarming when he begins to experience them in a waking dream state. The two problems are soon connected with each other, and to another discovery: the presence of interphasic creatures that threaten to destroy all life aboard the Enterprise.

From the moment Data first gained the ability to dream, it was inevitable that he'd experience nightmares. Indeed, the writers briefly thought that idea worthy of the sixth season finale (before settling instead on Lore and the Borg). Here, we get to see how wise a choice that was. It's not that Data's nightmares aren't interesting (they are), but rather that the idea is so simple and sparse that the episode is actually quite slowly paced.

Brannon Braga's script has a lot of material that really doesn't advance the plot. There's Geordi (not) dealing with the engineer who has a crush on him. There's Picard wishing for a way out of attending a boring admirals' dinner. There's a debate between Riker and Worf about Alexander's emerging interest in jazz music. We love the characters so well by this point in the run of the show that we don't mind seeing these personal vignettes... yet it also speaks to a plot that doesn't truly have the legs to fill out a full episode.

The script does oscillate well in tone from scene to scene. On the one hand, you have the chilling concept of invisible leeches feeding on the crew without their knowledge. There are a few truly horrific moments, such as Data hallucinating the "mouth" on Geordi's neck, or the scene in which he stabs Troi (which was so intense that it was edited down for broadcast in the UK). On the other hand, there's also a lot of effective comedy in the episode, most revolving around Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn. There's Data's pre-sleep ritual, his instructions to Worf for Spot's care, and Worf's hilarious appearances in Data's dreams ("with mint frosting!").

There's also a series of nice scenes between Data and Counselor Troi, on this rare occasion when the android actually needs the help of a psychologist. (A prospect at which he's excited.) I have to side with Troi in chastising Data for seeking help from a holographic Sigmund Freud. Data didn't actually think that five-century-old ideas on the human psyche would be helpful, did he?

But for all that, the people behind the scenes apparently referred to this as "the cake show," thanks to the tremendous difficulty in achieving the episode's signature visual: Counselor Troi in the form of a giant cake. Thanks to an uncharacteristically vague production meeting, it seems the writers, the production crew, and episode director Patrick Stewart all had different ideas on what this cake was supposed to look like. When the day came to shoot that scene, there was frantic scrambling to try to please everyone -- and even then, the final effect was said to be torturously uncomfortable for Marina Sirtis.

Other observations:
  • There's a gorgeous visual of the Enterprise leaving a starbase at the start of Act One. Decades later, and a lot of the VFX from this series still hold up.
  • Paving the way for a continuity error a bit later in the season, Data's cat Spot is repeatedly and prominently referred to as a "he" throughout this episode.
Perhaps this episode looks better next to some of the lackluster season seven installments so far. In any event, I appreciate the character accents here and would say that overall, "Phantasms" merits a B.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Shadow Play

Today I'm reviewing a movie I watched a while back, though with Halloween still fresh in people's minds, it feels appropriate to talk about now. What We Do in the Shadows is a movie about vampires, but it's quite unconventional. It's a mockumentary in which a New Zealand camera crew (protected by crucifixes, naturally) chronicles four vampires of various ages in their joint flatmate situation in Wellington. The vampires struggle with the modern world, their own vulnerabilities, and each others' personalities.

This quirky concoction comes from Jemaine Clement (one half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, who both wrote and directed the film, and each took a role on screen. Their comedic sensibilities are obviously all over the film, and you're either going to like them or not. The film runs less than an hour-and-a-half, but that's more than enough time for them to mine every nook and cranny of the premise. There are jokes about the different ways vampires have been portrayed over the years, jokes about the difficulty in finding prey (and even greater difficulty in finding good help), jokes about what it's like to live for hundreds of years, jokes about werewolves and vampire hunters.... if you can think of it, it's probably in there somewhere. And sometimes, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

But not all the time. It didn't occur to me at the time why I was "liking but not loving" the movie, but a probable theory has come to me upon reflection. The idea of treating horror with a comedy lens isn't exactly new, and some high bars to clear have actually been set in that not-as-niche-as-you-might-think genre. There's Scream, which playfully tweaked its nose at horror conventions while being a quite good horror movie itself. And even in the horror-mockumentary space, there's the wonderful Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. What We Do in the Shadows is funny, but falls well short of those marks.

Still, this movie does tick off a lot of "if you liked THAT, you'll like THIS" boxes. Fake documentaries. Flight of the Conchords. Classic horror movies. Cheesy horror movies. There's a lot of avenues into liking this movie. Though probably not into loving this movie. I give it a B-. But if you're looking for a break from your usual Halloween traditions, you might give it a try.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

One Final Look, at the Old Place

Years after I first began reading the Sherlock Holmes adventures (and after many breaks along the way), I have at last reached the end of the road -- the final Holmes short story, "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place."

The head trainer of a racing stable hires Sherlock Holmes to investigate his master, Sir Robert Norberton, fearing the man has lost his mind. Sir Robert's sister seems to have radically altered her daily routines for some unknown reason, but his response has been to give away her dog and engage in inexplicable behavior of his own. He's meeting a stranger at a crypt in the dead of night, burnt human bones have been found in the furnace on the grounds of the estate where they live, and he's especially manic about an upcoming race. What explanation covers all of these strange events?

It's appropriate that this final Holmes story represents a fairly classic Holmes type of mystery. There's not really much investigation to do, nor are there many clues to be gathered. Instead, the evidence is all essentially there, and it falls to Holmes to derive the scenario that brings together all the disparate facts. That truth behind this tale is a gimmick that subsequent writers have taken to extremes for comedic effect; it's interesting here to see it played straight.

There's certainly no indication in this story that Arthur Conan Doyle knew it was the last Sherlock Holmes adventure. He died just a few years later, so perhaps he'd intended to return to the character and never got the chance. Or perhaps, after serving up at least two previous definitive endings for the sleuth, he didn't want to contrive another.

"The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place" is not the grandest of finales, but it is a decent enough tale. I give it a B-. And with that, I bid farewell to the great detective... until he next graces my television screen in the personage of Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Mother Lode

This past Friday evening (Halloween Eve, if you will), I celebrated with a fun and atypical trip to the Colorado Symphony. They were running a special screening of the film Psycho -- a print with the original score removed so that the orchestra could play it live.

I've written here before about both the film and the music. If anything, I've come to enjoy the movie even more. It's fascinating how it puts you on the side of not one but two criminals, tense to know if they're going to get caught, and perhaps even slightly hoping they might not. There are very few false beats in the movie (that psychologist at the end who "explains it all for you" -- badly -- is still terrible). Seeing it with an audience also made me appreciate the surprising number of humorous moments scattered throughout.

As for the music? Well, that remains exceptional, and watching it played live only increased my enjoyment of it. It's a real case of getting to pull back the curtain and see how things work. As I noted in my review of the score, Psycho was composed just for the string section, and watching it performed live lets you see exactly how Bernard Herrmann achieved the effect he did.

Watching the live performance, you can see when a section of the orchestra drops out entirely -- the violas, the cellos, the basses -- and feel the impact that has on the sound. You can see when the players smoothly bow their instruments (or stab them, during the famous shower scene), see when they pluck the strings, and so much more. It was another dimension to the experience that I found wonderful.

I mention it all here for two reasons, despite it being a "one night only" performance this season. First, this isn't the first time the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has performed Psycho in this fashion. It's at least an every other year thing for them, and so I'd encourage anyone interested to keep an eye open for it next Halloween. But moreover, it's not the only film being presented in this way. In just two weeks, Back to the Future is getting the same treatment -- and as part of a globally touring effort, so my non-Denver readers could well have a shot at that one too.

If you're a film lover, the film/symphony experience is one I can't recommend highly enough. I suppose you wouldn't want to see a movie for the first time in such a manner, but for a personal favorite, you'll unlock even more layers of enjoyment. The Psycho experience was grade A fun for me, and I'm already counting down the days until Back to the Future.