Thursday, June 30, 2016

Catching the Red Eye

Sometimes I find myself in the mood for a short movie not likely to demand intense concentration. That's how I recently wound up watching the 2005 thriller Red Eye. It centers on a hotel manager trapped on a cross-country flight as a man tries to coerce her into aiding a political assassination.

I didn't quite pluck the movie out of the blue; there were a couple of things about it that stirred my curiosity. One was whether it would be able to wring much of a narrative out of the inherently limited premise of being trapped on an airplane. The answer turned out to be "yes and no." The movie opens before takeoff, and spends a fair amount of time setting up characters before reaching the core conceit. And then -- at the risk of being a bit spoilery here -- the final act unfolds after the flight arrives at its destination, allowing for other scenarios to play out. The flight itself occupies only perhaps half the movie, and the movie's short run time means that the gimmick isn't drawn out past its expiration.

The other main point of interest to me was the movie's director, Wes Craven. This is the man who defined and redefined horror/thriller conventions again and again throughout a long career. I was curious to see what he'd done here, particularly since Red Eye came after he'd made the (first three) Scream movies and partially skewered some of his own techniques in doing so. Here, Craven keeps the tension drawn taut as the movie speeds along.

That said, there really isn't much room to play within this limited gimmick. And Wes Craven doesn't really pull any previously unknown tricks out of his hat. This is a case of a script and director proceeding rather workmanlike through all the expected beats. Nothing about the movie is truly harrowing (unless you're afraid of flying, I suppose), nor is anything about it truly surprising.

Rachel McAdams is at times compelling as the lead character, the terrorized Lisa. But the final act undermines some of her self-reliance and defiance, running her through some of the genre's more disheartening damsel-in-distress beats. Cillian Murphy is serviceable as the villainous Jackson Rippner (get it?), but it feels like the movie relies more on his unconventional appearance to convey "creepy" than on any particular aspect of his performance.

Overall, you could do worse with your movie choice, particularly in the often-schlocky horror/thriller genre. But I'd still say this movie merits a C+ at best. The odds are good that if you're the sort of person who would enjoy this movie, you've probably already seen it at some point in the 11 years since it was released.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

TNG Flashback: Preemptive Strike

With just one more episode to go, "Preemptive Strike" was the last one hour installment of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ro Laren has returned from advanced tactical training at Starfleet to a position on the Enterprise. But that job is shortlived when she's tapped to infiltrate the Maquis. Living under cover with these people (and their struggle against the Cardassians) awakens memories of her own fight during the occupation of Bajor, and her loyalties are soon tested. Will she betray Captain Picard and Starfleet, or the freedom fighters that remind her so much of herself?

According to show runner Jeri Taylor, this episode did not come as you might expect, from a desire to bring Ro Laren back one last time. In fact, after actress Michelle Forbes turned down the chance to take her character to Deep Space Nine (in the role that became Kira Nerys), her relationship with the show quickly soured. Taylor recalled that efforts to bring Ro back after her final appearance in "Rascals" had wound up with Forbes' agent saying, "Please leave us alone!" But yet again, the series found itself rushing toward a deadline with no other workable story idea but this one, which depended on getting the actress back. Taylor was able to get on the phone directly with Michelle Forbes, where she pitched an emotional story with Ro at the center. Forbes went for it.

I imagine it's because Forbes was promised an episode all about her that the main characters don't appear very much. Ironically, the one regular featured most is Captain Picard -- despite the fact that this episode was directed by Patrick Stewart. This was his fifth and final Star Trek episode, and the first one that didn't have Data as one of the focal characters. Given that the story is all about a character's inner turmoil, though, Stewart was a natural choice.

I'm torn on what to make of Ro's arc in this story. On the one hand, the writing is very carefully constructed to justify her final choice to betray Starfleet. She expresses sympathy for the Maquis even at the beginning. Her character history supports the choice. And she's given a father figure in the character of Macias, who not only reminds her so much of her real father, but who stands in opposition to the other father figure in her life, Picard. When Macias is killed by the Cardassians, Ro's decision is made -- she can't let down her father a second time. It all tracks.

On the other hand, does this at some level compromise Ro's character, her fierce determination, by reducing her to a little girl with lingering daddy issues?

Even with those doubts, I can be glad that the show did go for an "unhappy" ending like this. Classic Star Trek, and early Next Generation, would surely have had Ro choose Starfleet and duty in the end. (That's what they made Wesley Crusher do.) But factors had piled up here to allow for an alternative choice -- factors like the existence of the darker Deep Space Nine, the fact that Ro was an established character with moral ambiguity, and the fact that the show was ending.

As I noted, this is also a big episode for Picard, though in far more subtle ways than it is for Ro. The opening scene in and outside Ten Forward tells you a lot about how far Picard has come in seven years. He recognizes that Ro is feeling awkward at her own party, and gives her cover to leave it. Younger Picard would never have noticed her discomfort, much less have done anything to alleviate it. More than that, Ro in particular means a lot to him, as we see in the bar scene where he calls her by her given name, Laren. (That's a very interesting scene, by the way, in which the characters must exchange dialogue about one thing -- her second thoughts regarding the Maquis -- while portraying the physical actions of something else -- a romantic encounter.) In the final scene of the episode, we see Picard's loss, his quiet rage, when he doesn't say a word to Riker. To underscore the moment, the episode takes the highly unusual step of fading out on Picard's face, not cutting to an exterior shot of the Enterprise before the final credits.

Yet the episode isn't just about the character moments; it actually serves up some of the biggest action scenes of the entire series. The opening battle between the Maquis ships and the Cardassian vessel has some amazing complex visuals for pre-CG effects, putting the most ships on screen at once that ever appeared on The Next Generation. And the phaser shootout at the Maquis colony is similarly impressive, with many more visible phaser blasts than we normally get in a battle scene. It's also the only time the series ever staged a phaser fight at night, which required the use of interactive lighting on set during the filming.

Other observations:
  • Gul Evek and Admiral Nechayev get one last Next Generation appearance (though both would appear again later on another Star Trek spin-off).
  • Ro mentions her instructor in advanced tactical training, who defected to the Maquis. The writers intended this at the time as an oblique reference to Voyager's Chakotay -- though he would say later on that series that he resigned his commission years earlier than this.
  • Actress Shannon Cochran, who plays the Maquis character of Kalita, would reprise the character in the Deep Space Nine episode "Defiant" (which also saw the return of Thomas Riker).
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven includes a deleted scene and a scene extension from this episode. In the former scene, Maquis member Santos approaches Ro about Kalita's distrust; after Ro tells him a story from her time in the occupation, he invites her to the "inner circle" of the local Maquis cell. In the latter scene, Ro expresses concern to Picard that the Maquis won't surrender once trapped, as he expects they will. Both scenes provide good character moments for Ro, though neither feels like a vital cut from the episode as originally aired.
  • The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track for this episode, by Michael and Denise Okuda, and episodes writers René Echevarria and Naren Shankar. There isn't much insight there, though. They mostly just crack (lame) jokes and make lots of comments about hair. They also completely misremember the situation surrounding the availability of Michelle Forbes, claiming that she was in a signed deal for this episode where they had to use her or pay her anyway. (Jeri Taylor's version of the story, which I related above, is corroborated in several places.) The most notable aspect of the commentary is some discussion of the Blu-ray remastering process, and where the line was drawn between upgrading old visuals and honoring original artistic intent.
Though I might have wished for a penultimate episode that felt less like a "please watch Voyager" advertisement, Ro is a compelling enough character to make something more of this story. I give "Preemptive Strike" a B.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Goose Egg

The movie Goosebumps was never on any "to see" list of mine, but I did wind up watching it recently. Even allowing that it was aimed at kids, even going in with modest expectations, it managed to disappoint.

Goosebumps is inspired by author R.L. Stine's famous children's book series. Rather than adapting any one given story, the movie presents "Stine" as a character, whose spooky literary creations are all magically entrapped in the original manuscripts of the books he's written. Chaos reigns in the small town of Madison, Delaware when the books are opened and the monsters are released. It falls on Stine and a group of teenagers -- his daughter, the new-to-the-neighborhood protagonist, and the "wacky comic relief" -- to recapture them all.

I'm not sure the exact target age of the Goosebumps books, but I'd imagine you'd need to ask someone in that demographic what they thought of the movie. I have a hard time imagining that the movie hits that target. To me, it felt far too terrifying for a truly small kid, and already too silly and "kiddie" for an adventurous pre-teen looking to experience their first horror movie. Then again, it's certain that the truckload of random creatures littering the movie are references to various Goosebumps books; recognizing those connections would probably be fun for a kid who'd read them.

In any case, this is not one of those movies that offers even modest entertainment to a parent/aunt/uncle/babysitter watching this with a kid. If you like Jack Black, you'll be disappointed at how restrained he is here. (He gets most animated in the moments where his character is swatting away audience questions: "It doesn't work that way.") If you've ever seen a movie with the excellent Amy Ryan, you'll be disappointed that she's now been relegated to the thankless movie trope of the "Mom who doesn't understand." You won't be impressed by the lazy visual effects. You won't laugh at the lame jokes.

This is not Gremlins or Coraline, or even Monster House or ParaNorman. It's simply a dud, not even bad enough to be a watchable train wreck. I give Goosebumps a D-.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Winds of Winter

Last night's season finale of Game of Thrones was in many ways just as inevitable as last week's Battle of the Bastards, depending on how much you've been reading between the lines of previous subtext, checking out online fan theories, and/or reading (and re-reading) George R.R. Martin's books. Still, inevitably was far more satisfying this week (for me, at least) than last week, in large part because of the big emotions that accompanied all the big action. One thing's for sure, this season upended the show's tradition of the "more contemplative episode 10 to follow the bonkers episode 9."

Let's start in King's Landing, where Qyburn's strange talk of "rumors," Tyrion's pointed story about wildfire to Dany, and Bran's prior vision of wildfire casks all came to a head. Cersei went to a place even madder than the Mad King, setting off the wildfire to destroy the Sept of Baelor and all of her enemies. Well, she would say all... but Cersei being Cersei, she was thinking only of her immediate problems and not anticipating the fallout from her actions. The alliance of the Martells and Tyrells against her (and joined by Daenerys, thanks to Varys -- Cersei couldn't have anticipated that) will surely be more than even a great tactician could handle. And that's not Cersei in any case.

But this story line was about more than its flashy ending. First, we had a long opening montage setting things up, scored by conspicuously sparse music that really set the tone for something fateful and irrevocable to take place. We also had Loras' trial first, a sad ending for that character. I do like the moment when Margaery's mask of false piety fell and she cursed the gods in her efforts to spur everyone to leave the sept. It did confirm for us in those final moments that her recent actions have been part of a ruse -- though it's a shame we'll never know to what end. She allowed her brother to be mutilated and indoctrinated, though, so I'm not sure it was such a great plan.


We also saw that Qyburn's version of the "little birds" are not just information gatherers. They're a bunch of stabbing little psychopaths that carved up Pycelle into pieces and left Lancel to bleed out helplessly in the underground. Yikes.

In the morally complex world of Game of Thrones, where the tables constantly turn, it was hard not to enjoy the moment where Cersei got her revenge of Septa Unella. Objectively horrible as it was to tie someone to a table and hand her over to the Zombified Mountain (who we briefly got to see without his helmet), it was hard not to cheer Cersei on in that moment.

But her joy would soon turn to ashes with the moment Cersei could never have predicted. Tommen committed suicide, having lost his wife, the High Septon who had converted him, and countless lives he actually cared for (more than Cersei, for sure). Cersei wound up Queen on the Iron Throne, but having lost all of her children to the endeavor. And even if a combined group of foreign enemies weren't now solely bent on her downfall, it seems as though her methods would surely have left most of the people of King's Landing against her too. Look what she might do to you!

King's Landing didn't bring us the last of the episode's deaths. Over at the Twins, Walder Frey got the ending everyone has been so furiously wishing upon him since the Red Wedding. First, though, he got put in his place by Jaime, who told him off for the worthless ally he really is, a pretender to power. That scene itself was enough to put a smile on your face.

But later, of course, Arya got a hold of Walder Frey. And her idea of justice was even more twisted than the most of the audience would have concocted for him. Killing off all his children, baking them into a pie, and forcing him to eat it? Yikes. Then, and only then, did Arya unmask herself and give Walder a sendoff that made the warm feeling from the previous Cersei/Unella scene seem infinitely small by comparison. Good riddance to one of the shows biggest remaining villains, and hello to vengeful Arya and her list of names.

In a moment of joy that didn't require the audience to be glad about vicious murders, Sam finally reached Oldtown. Whether the maester thing works out for him or not, you had to simply enjoy the moment where he came face to face with all those books. (Though perhaps earlier developments in the show had tainted that a bit. I couldn't help but think as I looked at that vast cache of books: that's a serious fire hazard. Do they really want to keep those all in one building?)

In the north, we saw the fallout of last week's confrontation at Winterfell. (Whose symbol during the opening credits had been restored to the dire wolf.) Davos came at Melisandre with a full head of steam, but settled for seeing the Red Woman exiled instead of killed. But the way he promised to kill her if he saw her again carried the sort of import that usually Means Something in this story. Certainly, it doesn't seem likely she'll just ride off into the sunset never to be seen again. It seems unlikely that, having resurrected Jon Snow herself, that she'd ever change in her conviction that she's the Prince Who Was Promised. And yet it is notable that if she's now heading south (generally toward Dorne?) she might be on a path to encounter the other person who Red Priestesses have anointed as the chosen one: Daenerys.

Sansa and Jon's conversation was perhaps the one unsatisfying scene in the episode for me. Not because I wanted sparks to fly between them, because as Jon said, they can't be against each other now. But because Sansa apologized for hiding her secret army without providing any reason for doing so. So I hold to my assertion last week -- she let thousands die for the sake of her dramatic entrance. Sigh.

After six years, Littlefinger finally revealed his ultimate plans to someone else. And while his ambitions had been clear to anyone watching, hearing him say the words out loud, that he meant to seat himself on the Iron Throne, certainly carried weight. His twisted love/lust of Sansa may hold him in check for a short while, but watching him sit in the corner as the North crowned Jon Snow their king, you have to wonder how long that love/lust will keep him from enacting another betrayal. Sansa at least articulated it earlier: only a fool would trust Littlefinger. So we'll see what happens when he turns coat again.

And as for that scene in which Jon Snow was crowned King in the North, it was interesting that it came in the wake of the reveal of his true parentage (oh, we'll get to that), and yet that fact didn't play at all in his "coronation." Bastard and all, the North demanded him. That's patriarchy for you. Maybe I'm just sad that I'll never get to see the person I most want on the throne now, young little badass Lyanna Mormont.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daario said the words that fans have been thinking (or shouting) for years now: "Fuck Meereen." I'm curious where the need to have Dany leave Daario behind comes from -- is that how things will play out when George R.R. Martin writes the story? Was this some sort of deal worked out between Game of Thrones and Orphan Black over recurring guest star Michiel Huisman? ("Let us have him all this season, and you can have him all next season?") Are we meant to think that Dany is further growing up as a ruler by leaving him behind? I'm not sure what that all amounted to.

Well, other than the following scene, in which Tyrion once against became Hand, trusted advisor and executor to royalty. Tyrion's speech about belief was a powerful one, and made clear that he's behind Daenerys not out of mere opportunism.

And though I'm now jumping to the end of the episode, Dany's story finally took us to the moment we've all been waiting for, the heroic shot of her thousands of ships sailing the ocean, with three dragons flying high above. Here she comes to kick some ass.

I skip to the ending in order to get to one scene last: Bran's vision of the Tower of Joy. The theory of Jon's parentage has been so widely discussed among fans (book and show) that it even had a name, "R+L=J." I don't seek out spoilers myself, and yet I can't remember I time when I didn't know this theory (and I'm fairly sure that I didn't suss it out myself the first time I read the books). The theory seemed so inevitable, so right, that it only left people quibbling over details: was this a Return of the Jedi thing where Jon had a twin sister too? Was the promise Lyanna extracted from Ned something more specific that just to take care of her child?

I'm glad that the truth was simple, not trying to surprise people by adding some other twist. (And I'm sure there were some people out there for whom even this much was a surprise, a twist.) We can all finally move on together, though: Jon "Snow" is really the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark -- the legitimate heir to the iron throne, with blood of fire and ice in his veins. Of course, with his eyes on the real enemy, the White Walkers, it seems unlikely he'll come into any serious conflict with Daenerys over his claim to the throne. And that's even assuming Bran ever hooks back up with him and reveals this information. And if anyone believes Bran when he does. Or if they even care -- as I said earlier, the North seems to have no qualms seating a bastard on their throne.

So there you have it. Season six had a few ups and downs, but I think it punched out strong with their best episode of the year, a cathartic, wild ride. I give the episode an A. And now our watch begins... the long wait until next season.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cry U.N.C.L.E.

I'm not immune to the sensibilities of director Guy Ritchie, having enjoyed his feature film debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I've found many of his other movies average at best, and to that list I can now add his most recent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Based on the 1960s television show of the same name (which I've never seen, so I couldn't say how faithful the adaptation is), the movie centers on two Cold War super-spies, one American and one Russian, who are forced to work together for the greater good. I checked out the movie, hoping for something like a throwback James Bond sort of film -- spiked with some of Guy Ritchie's high octane action. There was plenty of the latter, less of the former... and less still of any real sense of fun.

It doesn't make for a helpful review, I know, but I'm hard pressed to identify exactly what was wrong with the movie. I can only say that it became really bogged down in between the action set pieces. After an eye-catching opening chase sequence to introduce all the main characters, the movie would plod along for long stretches, testing my patience, before arriving at the next action scene. Touches of macabre humor were occasionally entertaining, even as they seemed somehow jarring within the 1960s period setting.

Perhaps much of the problem rests on the shoulders of the two leads, Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill. I enjoyed the former well enough in The Social Network, and the latter well enough in the TV series The Tudors and the movie Man of Steel (my problems with that movie weren't about his performance). But here, the movie seems to find both men more charismatic and charming than they actually come across. The macho brinksmanship between their two characters wears pretty thin too.

The casting problems don't stop there, as the movie underuses Hugh Grant and Jared Harris in minor roles. But there is one performer who does stand out: Alicia Vikander, who appeared here in the same banner year she made The Danish Girl (which I have yet to see) and Ex Machina (which I loved). She has charm to spare, and drags the movie's more effective moments out of Hammer and Cavill. She's the one thing the movie has to offer beyond its exhilarating chase scenes.

Inoffensive but quite forgettable, I'd give The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a C-. It's no worse than many a big, dumb action movie, but I suspect true fans of that genre would prefer a bigger, dumber, actionier movie than this one.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Barenaked on the Rocks

Late last month, Barenaked Ladies released their latest album -- not a collection of new songs, but instead a new live album. BNL Rocks Red Rocks is notable to fans of the band for a few reasons I'll get into, but it's of particular significance to me: I attended this very concert in 2015. (In fact, it's the one I alluded to in my review of their then-new album, Silverball.) During the years they were on their own independent label (around 10 years ago), the band regularly sold their concerts on USB, on site after each show. This is their first live album since they ended that practice.

It's also their first live album since singer Steven Page left the band in 2009, which sets this release apart from previous concert albums. This is the first commercially available recording to reflect how the band now performs some of their earlier hits. In some cases, the new takes on old songs are definitely lacking without Page -- sometimes short on strength ("The Old Apartment") or heart ("Brian Wilson"). But in other cases, the band has tweaked the arrangements in ways that help refresh the music -- adding extended intros ("One Week") or new harmonies ("If I Had $1,000,000").

Much of the material here has never before been available on a Barenaked Ladies live album. In some cases, of course, this is because the songs come from newer, post-Page albums -- the punchy opener "Get Back Up," the uplifting "Odds Are," or the constructed-for-crowd-call-and-response "Gonna Walk." But this is also the first live album appearance of the "Big Bang Theory Theme" (which they've been playing at every show since the series premiered).

There are also a couple of non-BNL songs in the mix. Men at Work's Colin Hay was on this tour with the band, and leads them in "Who Can It Be Now?" (joined by Blaise Garza, the young saxophone player touring with Violent Femmes). Closing the album is a short snippet from Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," led in almost Jack Black-esque fashion by the band's drummer Tyler Stewart (freed to roam the stage by an instrument swap in the encore).

Also noteworthy -- this album has some of the better sound quality I've come across on a concert album. It's easy to pick out any given instrument in the mix (the bass stands out in particular as it jumps around the scale during the pauses of "Odds Are"), and each voice in the more complex harmonies is distinct (especially in the aforementioned "If I Had $1,000,000" and the new "Duct Tape Heart").

If you're a fan of Barenaked Ladies, this album is definitely worth picking up -- the completists will want it in any case, and those who haven't followed them much over the last decade can pick up most of their better songs in that time. I'd call it a solid B+.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

TNG Flashback: Emergence

With the final episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation focusing on various recurring characters, it seems only fitting that one episode, "Emergence," serve as a "finale" for the Enterprise itself.

What appears to be a handful of malfunctions aboard the Enterprise is discovered to be something else: a network of new system nodes are appearing all over the ship, and seem to be joined as an emerging intelligent life form. The crew must balance their respect for life in this strange new form with the risk the out-of-control ship poses to their own survival.

Though serving somewhat as an "Enterprise farewell episode" (with the ship's destruction just around the corner in the movie, Star Trek: Generations), "Emergence" was actually born from the desire to visit the holodeck one last time. After an early attempt at another Dixon Hill installment that the entire writing staff judged as "too familiar," Brannon Braga pitched "the ultimate holodeck show." From the desire to, as he put it, see "Dixon Hill crossed with King Arthur's Court crossed with the Old West crossed with Modern Day New York," he came up with the idea to give the ship a developing psyche that could be manifested on the holodeck.

That core concept is admittedly pretty fun. But the results are considerably less so. Part of it is the surprising lack of fan service in the final script. Had the episode literally shown us pieces of past holodeck episodes -- returning Dixon Hill villains, the Hollander brothers from Alexander's Western scenario, a character from Sherlock Holmes, a snippet from Barclay's holodiction archives, monsters from Worf's calisthenics program, and so on -- the episode could have been a "greatest hits" of seven seasons, and something truly memorable. Instead, we get a pastiche that gets most specific in elements we've never actually seen on the holodeck in any previous episode: the Orient Express and the streets of 20th century New York.

But to be fair, it's possible that those callbacks I was looking for were there in the original concept, which was greatly pared down before filming. With Brannon Braga busily working (with Ronald Moore) on the upcoming season finale, he wasn't able to develop his own script here. The story was instead given to staff writer Joe Menosky, and the result were reportedly what you'd expect when the show's two most "out there" writers (who gave us "Darmok" and "Masks," and "Frame of Mind" and "Timescape") finally collaborated on something. The first draft was reportedly an unproduceable beast that couldn't have been filmed with five times the allotted production time. So another staffer, Naren Shankar, did an uncredited pass to scale things down, a rewrite certainly driven by budgetary concerns.

Budget cutbacks are why the episode takes place mostly on a train: because Star Trek was able to rent the train car from the Paramount film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," saving over $100,000 in construction costs. They were even able to steal exterior shots of the train from another Paramount film in the archives: Murder on the Orient Express. Budget cutbacks are why there's a stop in 20th century New York: because Paramount had that standing outdoor set on their lot, and Star Trek had easy access to it. I certainly don't begrudge the cost cutting that left money for a bigger series finale. But here, it certainly diminished the presentation of "the ultimate holodeck show."

Another problem came from the conceit used to give us the holodeck mash-up, the idea of the Enterprise evolving an intelligence. The images presented on the holodeck are very much like a dream; Counselor Troi even says as much. That makes this awfully similar to the recent episode that delved into Data's nightmares. In fact, that episode also used the holodeck as a way for the main characters to interact with dream characters. So to me, this episode winds up engaging in bad recycling of ideas while avoiding good recycling (of past holodeck episodes) that could have happened.

There's plenty of other awkwardness in the episode too. There's the convenience of the Enterprise becoming intelligent just in time to save itself from a disaster the crew knew nothing about. There's the fact that no one seems to recognize the distinctive look of the ship's new nodes when they appear on the holodeck on the faces of the playing cards and in the puzzle being built. (Worf apparently doesn't even know how puzzles work, asking if it's done when it's clearly not.) There's a weird need to overcomplicate the metaphor by giving "Vertiform" City a different name than the "vertion" particles the intelligence is seeking out. And it caps off with some ham-fisted exposition about life that exists only to reproduce, just to quickly explain what we've just seen.

Still, the episode isn't a total loss. The mystery of the ship's malfunctions is actually intriguing (before the cause is actually revealed). The appearance of one last scene from Shakespeare is welcome -- and "The Tempest" is well-matched thematically to this story, with what Picard describes as a desire to complete "one final creative act." There's also some fairly interesting music from composer Jay Chattaway, who is given a lot of room to play here in several scenes that are noticeably light on dialogue.

Other observation:
  • Just one, actually. This episode was the last directed by regular series director Cliff Bole, his 25th installment of the show. That puts him at about one out of every seven episodes, enough that basically one entire season of the series (collectively) was directed by him.
"Emergence" is perhaps not bad as much as it is disappointing, a missed opportunity. I'd grade it a C.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Catching Up on Zs

After the hammering it received from the critics, I passed on seeing Zoolander 2 in the theater earlier this year. But since the first Zoolander was good for a surprising number of laughs, I had to give the sequel a shot once it arrive on home video. Though probably not as bad as its paltry Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate, it certainly fell short of the first film.

Plot not being of tremendous importance in either Zoolander film, I won't bother to summarize the sequel's story. It's a framework for jokes, and that's about it. Unfortunately, most of the jokes miss. The script feels very self-conscious, as though the writers have spent the last 15 years data-mining the most often quoted dialogue from the first Zoolander and are trying futilely to retro-engineer similar gags this time around. Derek's malapropisms, Mugatu's extended improv riffs, the callbacks to funny music cues from the original (Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood)... they all land with a dull thud.

But the movie is not devoid of laughs either. On-screen captions that identify some of the locations are quietly hilarious. There are plenty of good sight gags when Owen Wilson's Hansel kicks into super-spy mode. I never seemed to tire of Kristen Wiig's new character Atoz -- specifically, her bizarre accent. And a fake commercial near the middle of the film is a twisted highlight.

There are also entertaining celebrity cameos throughout. Revealing most would be spoiling the fun, particularly when you would never guess some of the people who show up. Still, I think it's fair to say that Kiefer Sutherland bringing his full Jack Bauer intensity and gravitas to this ludicrous material might be justification enough for the whole endeavor.

Overall, though, the movie never really gets to firing on all cylinders. If you enjoyed the first Zoolander and won't get too restless when the pauses between laughs get long, this could be worth your time. But I'd say it's a middle of the road C.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Battle of the Bastards

It's become tradition for the ninth episode of a season of Game of Thrones to serve up something special -- an emotional sucker punch, a major departure from a trope of fantasy fiction, or something visually arresting. This season? Well, we kind of got one out of three.

Visually, this is surely the high water mark for the series to date, eclipsing even "Hardhome" (an episode whose director was appropriately brought back to direct this). Game of Thrones has a budget and production schedule that would be the envy of an independent movie, but it is still TV (HBO's famous marketing slogan aside). So what was achieved here for television deserves praise. We got a "Battle of Helm's Deep" that surpassed the original, doing an excellent job of depicting the horrors of war.

Any number of incredible sequences could easily have been the sequence of the episode: the long single take that centered on Jon Snow in the chaos; the claustrophobic press of Snow being buried alive in corpses and having to claw out; the inexorable encroachment of the Bolton shield wall; or the shredding of that wall by the charging Knights of the Vale. And don't forget the opening battle in Meereen, which served up a galloping army of Dothraki warriors and dragons raining gratifying destruction of the slavers. These moments were all incredibly staged, wonderfully realized.

And the episode also did serve up several cathartic moments that have been a long time coming. Besides seeing dragons battle for the first time, there was Grey Worm dispatching the loathsome slavers, the fist-pumping "girl power" moment of Daenerys allying with Yara, and the many come-uppances of Ramsay Bolton. Jon Snow beat him senseless, Sansa got to toy with him, and he was finally and graphically mauled by his own hounds.

Having served up all that, I can imagine no way anyone could think of this episode as "bad." But I did feel there were several things that kept the episode from being truly "great."

It's been a long-running joke among fans that characters on the series travel the world in precisely the amount of time that narrative demands. It's a joke often ignored easily enough, as the show is usually vague about how many days or even months are passing, and each sequestered story line is allowed to unfold on its own timetable. But I found it hard to ignore this time, when Yara and Theon just showed up in Dany's throne room. There was apparently nothing noteworthy in their passage across the ocean, or their preparations to meet the queen. We didn't even get an establishing shot of their ships pulling into Meereen's harbor. Just a sudden, jarring cut to Tyrion smugly taunting them and poof! There they were. I'm not asking for the grueling chapters George R.R. Martin spent covering, say, Quentyn Martell or Jon Connington (two characters cut from the show), but really? That's it?

"That's it?" would also sum up my reaction to the death of Rickon Stark. After he was totally absent for two seasons, there needed to be something to restore the audience's investment in him. Unless I'm mistaken, he didn't even utter one word of dialogue upon his return -- he was mute when he was first brought before Ramsay early this season, and he was mute now as he ran across the battlefield (in a frustratingly straight line) to his death. I mean, Hodor at least gave us some "Hodor"s, and look how much we all cared about him. Rickon felt like nothing more than a plot device.

Some will debate Jon Snow's foolishness at falling into Ramsay's trap... and it's much easier to do that because Rickon was such a non-character this season. In my view, I believe Jon Snow's tactical error here not because a brother was in the crossfire, but because he has been foolishly led into traps before. It's how he died. Jon Snow may be visionary, but he's not exactly smart.

No, the character whose behavior I cannot accept is Sansa. I can't come up with any motivation for her to keep secret the fact that she had a reserve army on the way. The attack could have been delayed and replotted, many lives could have been saved. The only reason for her silence was to serve up a cliché -- something this series (book and show) are usually loathe to do -- the cliché of the last minute rescue when all hope is lost. Gandalf riding in at Helm's Deep. And I understand the desire to have that moment be about Sansa and not Littlefinger, but putting her there with the Knights of the Vale just further confirms: she must have known they were coming, and when. How else could she have been there? Sacrificing thousands of people for the sake of a dramatic entrance? That's cold, Sansa.

Because of the episode's missing emotional beats (and logic problems that impeded some emotional beats that were there), I can't jump on the bandwagon that will probably declare this the best episode of the season (or the series). It looked like a million bucks. (Several million.) It definitely had its share of great moments. But overall, I'd call it a B+.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Force, Re-Awakened

When I reviewed The Force Awakens last year, one aspect I dinged was the musical score by John Williams. I commented that it was barely noticeable, and speculated that soundtrack fan though I am, I might not be adding it to my collection. As it turned out, I happened to catch it marked down cheap one day at Amazon, and decided it was a gap in my collection I probably had to fill. And while there is more going on in this score than I'd originally perceived, I generally stand by my original assessment: this is far from John Williams' best work.

That said, I have two big criticisms of this soundtrack, and one of them is not about the composition itself. The recording of the music is actually the weakest part of it. You can feel it right out of the gate, listening to the album or watching the movie, when that first blast of trumpets kicks off the Main Title itself. Compare it to the opening of any other Star Wars film, and it seems diminished. That first note should knock you back in your seat, but on The Force Awakens soundtrack, it feels almost casually lobbed in your general direction.

There are weird sound levels going on throughout much of the album. Bass notes are muted in the mix (particularly in the brass), while treble notes are strangely crisp and in the foreground (especially among percussion, like snare drums and ratchets). It's as though the microphones were positioned too far away within the recording space... or like there's something a little off in the space itself. Or perhaps it's the performers. Every previous Star Wars score was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, but this film was the first to use a freelance orchestra. And while certainly, any one member of it plays their instrument better than I could with years of practice, I think the lesser results here aren't a coincidence.

As for the music itself, I have begun to appreciate it somewhat as I listen to it in isolation. But I've also come to feel that it's often more clever than it is effective. John Williams definitely put a lot of thought into this score, and you'll expose many layers if you mine it intellectually. I just feel it's not as effective in awakening emotion as past Star Wars scores -- even the prequel films, with which I have no longtime (positive) emotional attachment.

For instance, take Rey's Theme. It's certainly the strongest new element of this score. It's also a quite dense piece of music, combining multiple distinct elements: a flighty ostinato in the woodwinds, a bell-like progression of chords, and the melody layered over it all by a soloist (different instruments in different contexts). It also seems to me that the theme's chord progression and main melody were created to be compatible with the classic "Force Theme" (played most memorably in the original Star Wars when Luke watches the twin sunset). I'm actually surprised you never hear the two melodies played simultaneously on the album, because the new one is forged in perfect counterpoint to the other. (Perhaps it happens somewhere in the film itself, in a queue that didn't make the album?) I've definitely come to like this music, but more for its craft than how it made me feel during the movie.

Another prime example of the more cerebral nature of this score is the theme for Kylo Ren. It's just five notes blasted from the horns, so you won't find a full "Kylo Ren's Theme" track anywhere on the album. The note intervals are absolutely evocative of Darth Vader's Theme, the Imperial March. This is a massively stripped-down treatment of that classic music, which perfectly fits Kylo Ren as a character: he's in the shadow of Darth Vader, a deliberately pale imitation. Intellectually, I get it; it's very clever. But on a gut level, it's such a short and stunted burst of melody as to leave little impression. (And it didn't on me, when I saw the film. Only in listening to the album did I even come to realize that Kylo Ren even has a "theme.")

There are moments throughout the album where the music does more effectively appeal to the gut more than the brain. There's a solid action melody in the tracks "Follow Me" and "The Falcon" (possibly intended as a theme for Finn?) that uses an unusual time signature to create the feeling of movement faster than the orchestra's "feet" can carry it. "March of the Resistance" is another good queue, and well-suited to its subject for having less of a military feel than most of Williams' past marches.

But there are also plenty of tracks that just sort of amble around with no clear direction, not really appealing to the mind or the gut. "Maz's Counsel" is a strangely shapeless piece that only generates a sense of movement by how it passes through isolated sections of the orchestra -- yet that isolation makes the piece feel incomplete. The "Snoke" theme takes the idea of echoing earlier Star Wars music a bit too far, using a chanting mens' choir much as the Emperor's theme did (but with a less discernible melody).

And ultimately, it's telling that some of the most impactful moments of the score are the ones that use Williams' themes from the original trilogy. "Han and Leia" revives the two characters' love theme introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, "Scherzo for X-Wings" cites bursts of the Star Wars main title itself, and best of all is "The Ways of the Force" -- powerfully bookended by the Force theme.

I'd give The Force Awakens soundtrack a C+. Though it has one or two highlights worthy of an A, they're few and far between... and sadly swallowed up by an orchestra that doesn't seem to be giving it their all. More than anything, listening to the score has made me quite curious to see what another composer does with the upcoming Rogue One... even though for his previous work, John Williams would get my standing ovation as he left the Star Wars stage.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

X Marks the Filmspot

I've recently found my way to the podcast Filmspotting -- though it's actually been around for more than a decade, and is approaching its 600th episode. Two Chicago area critics, Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, host a weekly discussion of movies... and I've found them to be quite thought provoking.

Episodes regularly clock in around two hours, and I'll be honest and say I don't generally listen to them all the way through. Each installment usually begins with a lengthy discussion of a recent release, and I typically skip this section of the podcast. There are plenty of places to get movie reviews (thanks to those of you who at least pretend to care when I post them), and I rarely find this super-long form, sometimes spoilery format to be what I'm looking for. Perhaps as I listen more, if I come to feel like one of these two critics' tastes really aligns with my own, I'll put more stock in these reviews.

No, the thing that keeps me coming back to Filmspotting is what they do with the rest of an episode. Each week brings an interesting Top 5 List that definitely gets you thinking, because they're not always about expected topics. Sure, you'll get the Top 5 Movies of a given year, or the Top 5 Scenes of a given director. But the podcast also comes at movies from different angles: Top 5 Non-Kids Movies You Should Show Your Kids, Top 5 "Single Location" Films, Top 5 Ensemble Movies.... categories you can't necessarily toggle settings on your Flickchart (if you have an account there) to spit out an automatic list.

Another check on the "automatic list" is the hosts' creation of a Filmspotting "Pantheon" -- a collection of movies that were so often used in making past lists than they've been enshrined in the Pantheon and are banned from inclusion on future lists. No debating Citizen Kane's greatness or flaws; it's ineligible. Sometimes, this leads to one of the critics stumping for a pretentiously obscure foreign film you've never heard of.... but then, this is how you might find out about some awesome but obscure movie you've never heard of.

So most episodes of Filmspotting end with me mentally rifling through movies, thinking about which ones might have had been one of the Top 5 Movies About Writers, or who might be in the Top 5 Actor-Director Pairings, or where might be among the Top 5 Movie Locations You Wish You Could Visit. Getting people to think twice about art they've experienced, rather than just categorizing "good" and "bad," is the more noble aim of effective criticism. And so I often find myself looking forward to a new episode of Filmspotting. I'd say it rates maybe a B overall, but any fan of movies ought to give it a try.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

TNG Flashback: Bloodlines

The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation could be said to have two recurring themes: family, and tying up loose ends. "Bloodlines" is an episode that tries to bring both of those themes together.

Ferengi DaiMon Bok has spent his life seeking vengeance on Captain Picard for the Stargazer incident in which Bok's son was killed. Now he's found the perfect revenge: he's learned that Picard has a son of his own, and means to kill the young man. Now Picard must protect the son he never knew he had. But the young man wants little to do with a father who has never been there for him.

This episode's origins came from a visit to the set that show runner Jeri Taylor made during the filming of "Masks." She asked Patrick Stewart if he felt there were any unexplored aspects of Picard he wished they'd touch on in the few remaining episodes. Stewart recalled Bok from season one, noting that "it's always fascinated me that there is this creature running around the universe even now who despises me."

Sometimes, the aspects of a character that fascinate an actor are far less intriguing to an audience. For me, this is one of those times. Staff writer Ronald Moore thought so too, commenting in a later interview: "I wondered if the world knew or cared if DaiMon Bok came back again." (Probably not. Few even noticed that a different actor was playing the role of Bok this time around.) Even more astutely, Moore noted, "I didn't see the point of repeating 'Suddenly Human' where we really nailed an interesting arc with Picard having a sort of father/son relationship." And while I don't know that he's right that that episode "really nailed" much of anything, it certainly already covered this territory, the idea of Picard being a father to someone who is not actually his son.

Which brings me to a big problem at the core of this episode. The only way to really approach any new material with this story would be for Jason Vigo to actually be Picard's son, not a fake as it's ultimately revealed. But to do that, you would basically end up retelling Kirk's story line in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: having Picard discover an adult son he knew nothing about. Except that because the episode chooses to withhold this detail as a final act plot twist, it ends up playing out like a retread of Wrath of Khan anyway.

The timing of it all is lousy too. This comes at the end of a season overflowing with previously unseen family members, to a degree that even Nick Sagan, the writer of this episode, later joked: "Oh no, who's next? Is it Guinan's third cousin?" Adding to that, the script for the coming movie, Star Trek: Generations, was already set by this point. The writers knew that the film was planning to kill off all of Picard's family members. (As a rather throwaway plot point. What the hell?) So certainly in this episode, Picard can't get all that close to Jason Vigo -- whether they're biologically related or not -- lest that forthcoming "all alone in the universe" detail be compromised.

So the story certainly doesn't serve Picard -- or any character -- particularly well. Indeed, its primary value may have been therapeutic, for its writer Nick Sagan. After the staff responded well to his previous freelance submission, "Attached," Jeri Taylor gave him this idea to develop. Sagan drew on his then estrangement with his own father, Carl Sagan (yes, that one), as inspiration. Occasionally the episode brushes up against some interesting character-driven interactions, such as Picard having to deal with the revelation that his son has a criminal record, or the scene where he goes to Crusher for parenting advice. (Or, in non-Picard moments, when Troi has to rebuff Jason's flirtatious advances.)

But the plot twist undermines a lot of that. And it's a twist that scarcely makes any sense. We're to believe that Bok was able to mine Picard's personal history deeply enough to find a woman with a son that could be Picard's, that he could alter that man's DNA without his knowledge, and that he could do it without side effects a lot more severe than occasional shakes. It's so far-fetched.

And it's not helped at all by the casting. Actor Ken Olandt looks nothing like Patrick Stewart. Of course, that need not be a requirement. Yet if not for that reason, I can't imagine why they cast him. Jason Vigo is supposed to be 23 years old here, but Olandt looks every bit of the 35 he was when this episode was made. He doesn't act like he's in his early 20s either, delivering a quite restrained performance. (Wil Wheaton wasn't winning awards for his work on Star Trek, but at least "moody Wesley" of a few episodes prior actually conveyed some level of resentment.)

Other observations:
  • It strains credibility that Jason Vigo isn't more concerned about his shaking hands. With all the rock climbing he does, you'd expect that would have given him at least one close call in the last few months.
  • Nick Sagan chose the name Vigo from a bridge officer mentioned on the Stargazer in "The Battle." He intended for Miranda Vigo, Jason's mother, to have been that officer's sister.
  • A deleted scene on the Blu-ray collection of season seven shows Jason trying to bargain with Bok for his life. It's a good deletion, as the moment adds nothing to the plot and involves none of the main characters.
It ultimately falls on Patrick Stewart to sell this episode. Of course, because it is Patrick Stewart, he's able to lift the troubled script a fair amount. But even he can't save it single-handedly. I give "Bloodlines" a C-.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sun Screening

A strange short film has been making minor ripples in entertainment and tech news over the last week: Sunspring. It was created for a short film competition, Sci-Fi London's 48-Hour Film Challenge -- one of many worldwide contests in which filmmakers are challenged to create something in a short period of time.

Director Oscar Sharp took an unconventional approach to the contest. He contacted his friend Ross Godwin, an AI researcher at NYU, to see if a computer program could be crafted to produce a filmable script for a 9-minute short film. After all, there are plenty of tropes in science fiction, plenty of familiar techniques for a computer to extrapolate from in a manner akin to a predicative text algorithm. So they loaded several dozen film and television scripts into "Benjamin" (some of them questionably or definitely not sci-fi), and "he" spat out the script that became this movie:



Needless to say, computers won't be replacing humans in the field of creative writing any time soon. The script is a terrible, jumbled mess... but watching the film is also kind of an intriguing experience. On the specific end of the scale, it seems that a lot of characters in science fiction are asking each other "what do you mean?" and complaining that they "don't know what you're talking about." (Or maybe it's that a lot of X-Files episodes were fed into the algorithm. Mulder does spend a lot of time justifying wackadoodle theories to Scully.)

But far more interesting than anything so particular is what Sunspring might say about the human element in movies and art in general. For example, very little in Sunspring's actual dialogue implies science fiction; we have mainly just the knowledge of the movies that fed the algorithm (and the production's choice to costume the actors in sparkly clothes) to put that genre in our minds. Also, while the script is largely incoherent, the director and actors inferred from it a sort of love triangle between three characters, saying a lot about what subtext humans will seek as signal within the noise.

Most of all, Sunspring demonstrates the power of actors to do a lot with a little. There are only three in Sunspring, and by far the most recognizable one is Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch. But what Elisabeth Gray does in this movie is really off-the-charts amazing. The movie ends with her character delivering a lengthy monologue straight to camera. It's utter nonsense, introduces a lot of strange ideas telegraphed nowhere earlier in the film, and has no meaningful conclusion. But as an actress, Gray finds some way to make it personal and powerful. It's almost like watching a key dramatic scene from a foreign film without subtitles. You have little or no sense of what's being said, but you can plainly see the weight of it.

Don't get me wrong, Sunspring is all but unwatchable, and if I assigned a conventional letter grade to it, it wouldn't be kind. But in exploring the limits of what today's technology can do, the film does expose to some extent the wonderful things that people -- artists -- can do. For that, it might just be worth 9 minutes of your time.

Monday, June 13, 2016

No One

This week's Game of Thrones episode, though not "slow" in the grand scheme of television, did feel slow to me by Game of Thrones standards. I suspect that feeling comes from the fact that so much of the episode was tied up dealing with plot threads only recently introduced to the show, or that felt of little consequence to the story.

As an example of the latter, take the Tyrion plot line. Yes, it seems crazy to call a siege by fire-throwing trebuchets inconsequential, but as we've all known all season, nothing Tyrion does this season really matters -- he's just biding time until Daenerys returns. That's why he spent most of his screen time this week cracking jokes with Grey Worm and Missandei. (A fun scene, sure, but one that dragged on awfully long before the siege began.) Yes, Tyrion's scenes this week did give us a playful tease about Varys heading off on a secret mission (one I think book readers have a strong guess about), and it did give us the actual return of Dany at last... but both of those matters will wait until a future episode.

Lots more screen time was taken up by the siege of Riverrun, but it failed to engage me in the show just as it did in the books. Jaime's resolution to the conflict was suitably ruthless, but you have to believe that Edmure Tully would care that deeply for a child he's never seen (and conceived on the night nearly all of his family was slaughtered) over some of the only family he has left. I guess chalk it up to years of captivity wearing him down? The episode also deprived us of actually seeing the Blackfish go down swinging, as it made Brienne's mission of the last several weeks amount to nothing. So a lot of time spent on a not-terribly-compelling conclusion.

The Hound's quest, at least, was a lot more quickly resolved. It was expected that he caught up with the men who slaughtered the church builders. Less expected, he caught up with Beric Dondarrion. His immediate future seems uncertain, and book readers have nothing to hold over anyone here: The Hound has yet to fully return in the books, while Dondarion is actually dead there (and past being resurrected).

In King's Landing, Cersei has had the prospect of trial by combat whisked away from her by her own Sparrow-manipulated son. That puts a damper on fans who were somehow expecting a "Clegane Bowl" between Mountain and Hound as an officially sanctioned legal proceeding. We did get to see the zombified Mountain rip off a head though, so you get a bit of action there. The Mountain feels like a loaded Chekhov's Gun that we're being reminded of regularly. But exactly where Cersei will end up pointing it? We'll have to wait and see. (Though the episode did serve up another playful tease here. What rumors are Cersei and Qyburn talking about?)

The one story line with undeniable and compelling momentum was Arya's, in her final showdown with the Waif. As with the confrontation with the Blackfish, we were denied seeing the clash. Here, however, that served to show the audience what Arya takes away from this two season long arc: combat skills and smarts. I'm not sure if Arya's ability to fight blind will literally ever come into play again after this, but at least putting that on display here tells us that her time spent in Braavos did amount to something. Now she's planning to go "home," presumably with her list of names still intact. Now that's a prospect that should delight just about everyone.

But overall, I'd say this was the series' weakest installment of the season. Still entertaining, still a B... but the high bar the show  has otherwise set makes that a weak mark.

Friday, June 10, 2016

TNG Flashback: Firstborn

Continuing the "farewell tour" at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation's seventh season, the episode "Firstborn" is a pseudo send-off for Worf's son Alexander, and Klingons in general.

Worf, concerned that his son Alexander shows no interest in becoming a warrior, decides to take the boy to a festival at a nearby Klingon outpost. There, father and son are attacked by Klingon assassins, and rescued by K'mtar, a trusted advisor to the House of Mogh. Together, Worf and K'mtar work to rouse young Alexander's interest in Klingon heritage and tradition. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew works to track the culprits apparently behind the assassination attempt: the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor.

I feel there's a lot working against this episode. Much of it, I suspect, comes from how far the story was contorted from its original vision. The series first bought a story pitch from outside writer Mark Kalbfeld, about a Romulan ship that appeared from a future where the Federation and the Romulans had made peace. In the end, the ship (and the William Riker aboard it) were exposed as fakes, not time travelers at all and part of some nefarious Romulan plot. Even show runner Jeri Taylor couldn't specifically recount how they got from there to Alexander coming back from the future to pose as "K'mtar" and interact with his younger self. She recalled only that the idea was hit on during a brainstorming session.

But according to interviews, the idea that really excited the writers was that Alexander had come back to kill his younger self, and that notion is almost a footnote in the finished episode. Because the story instead chooses to make a surprise of K'mtar's true identity, it leaves just one post-revelation scene in which to truly explore Future Alexander's psychological state. That leaves the bulk of the episode as a retread of the same "Worf wants Alexander to be a warrior, but Alexander doesn't want to be a warrior" material already well worn in previous episodes. It doesn't bring much new to the table.

And it seems particularly stale, coming as it does immediately after the episode "Journey's End." Both episodes are an attempt to wrap things up for a recurring character who is feeling pressured to follow in his father's footsteps despite wanting something else -- there Wesley, here Alexander. Both have subplots that are meant to set up future iterations of Star Trek -- there Voyager, here the next Star Trek movie.

Lursa and B'Etor were about to be featured in the movie Generations. But someone probably realized that while the Duras sisters may have been somewhat interesting characters, they certainly weren't recurring. They'd vanished completely from The Next Generation after their original two-part appearance, resurfacing only once on Deep Space Nine (and failing to impress there). Their entire subplot in this episode seems intended to position them as villains of movie-worthy status. But they aren't actually behind the assassination attempt, their ore smuggling plot feels like Ferengi-level scheming at best, and the revelation here than Lursa is pregnant is never picked up on again (thus amounting to nothing).

The pursuit of the Duras sisters isn't particularly compelling either. Quark's cameo seems like one last plea to people who gave up early on Deep Space Nine: "won't you come back and try us again next fall when we're the only Trek show on the air for a few months?" The rest is a procession of wacky aliens, and some inexplicable behavior by Commander Riker: when he tracks down the stolen ore, he steals it himself and then has it destroyed rather than returning it to its rightful owners. (As for why Riker is leading this hunt instead of Picard, Patrick Stewart was given time off to go host Saturday Night Live during the production of this episode.)

But there are a few aspects of the episode that save it from being a total bust and elevate it into "average" territory. For one, there's a different take on Klingon society. Most Klingon episodes were written by Ronald Moore. Don't get me wrong, I generally like his writing -- but I also found the warrior mindset to be a bit relentless over time. This episode was instead scripted by René Echevarria, who injects a bit of art in support of Klingon culture. Moore himself praised Echevarria's inclusion of "mock opera singing, heroic fights and re-enactments of things in the streets." (Though the actual singing was re-recorded in post-production. The actors originally grunted their dialogue on set, and then composer Dennis McCarthy was asked to make it all sound more melodic.)

Most effective of all is the casting of actor James Sloyan as K'mtar, who conveys relatable anguish rather than just resting on the belligerent Klingon trope. Sloyan made multiple Star Trek appearances both before and after this episode, most notably on The Next Generation as Romulan Admiral Jarok and on Deep Space Nine as Odo's "father" Mora Pol. The latter role almost cost him this one; the DS9 episode "The Alternate" had aired only a few months earlier, making executive producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller reluctant to use the actor again here. Jeri Taylor lobbied hard for the man she thought best for the role, ultimately convincing Berman and Piller that James Sloyan would be unrecognizable anyway in the Klingon makeup. Certainly, the episode would have been worse without him.

Other observations:
  • Twice in two episodes, Picard comes out of nowhere with solid parenting advice. Here, he advises Worf on how he might jump start Alexander's interest in Klingon culture.
  • The universal translator is intelligent/considerate enough not to translate Klingon opera for any of the Starfleet spectators.
  • Because stories of Kahless have previously been positioned as religious allegory, Alexander's questions in this episode about the plausibility of those stories feel a lot like a budding atheist starting to question religious dogma.
  • Interestingly, this wasn't the first time the writers had considered putting Alexander at the center of a time travel plot. Earlier in the season, staff writer Joe Menosky had pitched a story in which Alexander fell into a time portal and returned having aged 15 years. Executive producer Michael Piller killed the idea, feeling that it was "a hideous thing to steal somebody's youth from them." But a few years later, Deep Space Nine would tell that very story with Molly O'Brien as the victim.
  • Where does Future Alexander go at the end of this episode? His time travel method is intentionally vague, but what little we get doesn't suggest the possibility of a return trip. Is he just kicking around, disrupting the timeline?
  • René Echevarria originally imagined that Alexander's mother K'Ehleyr would actually show up to rescue him at the end of the episode. We were spared any convoluted explanation of such time travel when actress Suzie Plakson, despite expressing initial interest in reprising the role, was unable to do so due to other commitments.
  • A pair of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray collection of season seven provide a preamble to Alexander's holodeck training session, and a heart-to-heart between Worf and Troi. The latter scene in particular could have added some needed pathos to the episode; in it, Worf expresses his fears that because of how he has raised Alexander, there may be no one to take over the House of Mogh after his death.
Being in so many ways a twin of the previous episode, each viewer's preference between the two is likely to come down to their love of Klingons. I tend to prefer Star Trek stories without Klingons, and so I prefer "Journey's End" to this episode. I give "Firstborn" a C.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Academic Musings

In my group of gamers, the story and theme of a board game takes a distant back seat to its mechanics. Whenever it falls on somebody to explain a new game, flavor-based exposition from the rulebook is rarely uttered, and comparisons to other familiar games are often made. I offer this as possible background on the game I'm reviewing today, Medieval Academy.

Perhaps it's due to my group's approach to games in general, but the story on Medieval Academy is tissue thin. Players are squires training to become knights, which means practicing jousts, courting a princess, picking a fight with a dragon, and more. At least, that's what the art suggests.

In practice, Medieval Academy is a simple but effectively clever little game centered around card drafting. There are seven different score boards in the center of the table, and each player has a marker on each. Different boards pay out at different intervals, with different effects. Some boards score a modest number of points each turn. Some boards score a larger number of points, only once or twice during the game. One board is just about jockeying for position on the other boards. And two boards are about avoiding negative points, by not falling into last place.

In each of the game's six rounds, you're dealt an initial five card hand. In a mechanism that fans of Notre Dame, Witches' Brew, and other games will know well, you take one card to keep, then pass the rest to the player seated next to you. One card at a time, you build up the actual five card hand you'll play for the round. Each card played advances you so many spaces on one of the seven boards. The strategy unfolds in which boards you value, which boards you notice your neighbors aren't valuing, and at what point during the round you reveal your plans by playing each card.

For a game that takes only 30 or so minutes to play (even with its maximum five players), there's a quite satisfying amount of decision making and strategy at play here. I haven't yet played enough to judge how well I think the game's different boards are balanced against one another, but it definitely has that hallmark of a good strategy game -- you have to focus your thinking, because there's not enough time and resources to do it all.

In the sub-genre of "short games," I might go as far as to call this game an A. It's certainly more satisfying to me by far than most time fillers. In the broader spectrum, I think I'd give Medieval Academy a B+. There aren't any revolutionary new mechanics at play here, but it's a satisfying blend of the familiar.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

TNG Flashback: Journey's End

As the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation began to wind down, each of the characters was featured in their own episode for the last time. This extended to recurring characters not in the main cast, and "Journey's End" was Wesley Crusher's turn.

Wesley Crusher is visiting the ship from Starfleet Academy, but he is not his usual self. Surly and standoffish, he has come to the realization that Starfleet isn't for him. Helping him sort through his feelings is Lakanta, a mysterious settler of Dorvan V, the planet at the center of the Enterprise's current mission. The planet has been ceded to the Cardassians in a recently signed treaty, and Captain Picard has been tasked with transporting them off the planet -- by force if necessary. Adding to the moral quagmire of the task is the fact that the people of Dorvan V are the descendants of North American Indians; the historical parallels of a forced relocation are not lost on anyone involved.

The resolution of Wesley Crusher's story arc is the more central part of this episode in the grand scheme of the series. Episode writer Ronald Moore had long argued that Starfleet didn't feel like the proper destiny for the character -- a controversial position, given that Gene Roddenberry had modeled the character on himself (even giving Crusher his own middle name, Wesley). To have Wesley turn his back on Starfleet was a notion that many on the writing staff resisted, for the simple reason that Roddenberry never would have sanctioned it.

But Moore was arguing from a very personal place. He himself had been expected to join the Navy and be a career officer; the decision to follow his dream of becoming a writer at the risk of disappointing his family had not come easily. And fueled by this personal experience, Moore eventually won the argument. As he would later explain it: "I felt that there was a built-in contradiction in a character that we'd said was like Mozart in his appreciation of higher mathematics and physics, yet was just on the same career path as any Starfleet cadet. I didn't get it – if Wes is truly special and gifted, what the hell is he doing at the Helm?" Executive producer Michael Piller also believed that Wesley deserved a more unusual fate, and he quickly threw his support behind circling back to the Traveler, and to the episode "Where No One Has Gone Before."

The resulting story is actually quite poignant and relatable: at any age, it's a hard thing to realize that what you've dedicated your life to thus far is the wrong thing. The problem is, the story doesn't entirely do justice to this core idea. For one, the issue isn't even articulated until very late in the episode; for more than half of the running time, Wesley is just kind of being a jerk without any hint as to why. And while it's understandable that he won't talk about it with his mother or Captain Picard -- the people he's most afraid of disappointing -- this puts the main characters on the outside of the plot. Wesley doesn't even approach Worf, the most logical person to give advice about the burdens of honoring a dead father and experiencing an actual vision quest.

At least when the episode does find scenes for Picard and Beverly, they're good ones. When Beverly finally does confront her son about his decision to leave Starfleet, her shock and resistance instantly vanish. She accepts his explanation, apologizes for any pressure she ever put on him, and immediately offers encouragement that he may have just taken his first step on the path to a greater destiny. Picard handles the situation well too, advising Beverly early on that whatever problems Wesley is having, he'll have to work through himself. (How he suddenly has this insight on parenting is unclear, but he is right.)

There could have been more solid character moments like this, but Wesley's story line is crowded out by the episode's other plot. And that exists to set up the next spin-off series, Star Trek: Voyager. The Cardassian/Federation treaty established here is where the Maquis originate (though the resistance group's name isn't spoken in this episode). Dorvan V itself, according to showrunner Jeri Taylor, was meant to be the home of the Voyager character Chakotay, though that was never made official with any on-screen reference. (But coincidentally, the actor who plays Dorvan leader Anthwara, Ned Romero, would later play Chakotay's grandfather in an episode of Voyager.)

The forced relocation story isn't "bad" as such, but it does at times feel awkward. It's awfully on the nose to populate the colony with Native Americans, sort of stripping the allegory out of the allegory. On the other hand, it does help further diversify a franchise that has always done rather well with racial diversity. On the other other hand, real-world sensitivities clash with the needs of the fiction; even in 1994, the more accepted term was "Native Americans," and while it would have been preposterous to call these centuries-removed people such, the repeated use of "Indian" becomes increasingly jarring as the episode unfolds.

Originally, the episode tried to draw on actual history. The first draft script made direct references to the Hopi tribe, and to Kit Carson's 1875 destruction of a Rio Grande village. But the tribe asked not to be depicted for fear of misrepresentation, and so many real-life aspects of Hopi culture appear here with fictional names. Perhaps the people who might have given their blessing were put off in part by the character of Lakanta, who fires off every mentor cliche imaginable. He answers every question with a question, avoids ever making a definitive statement, and insists that the protagonist must learn for himself.

What's most awkward about the Dorvan plot is how it casts Picard in the morally dubious position. Not long ago, he was lecturing Wesley about the importance of honor and greater truth, but here he's for following orders blindly. Anthwara informs Picard that his distant ancestor was responsible for an atrocity against Native Americans, but Picard swats aside that this has any relevance whatsoever. (And he's probably right. Why is this even mentioned?)

Still, even this compromised story line serves up some interesting moments. Picard's interactions with Admiral Nechayev are great, as he tries to warm her up, and she for once actually expresses sympathy for his position. The ultimate resolution to let the colony stay in place under Cardassian jurisdiction may seem a bit suspect, but it's totally a classic Star Trek kind of ending that feels right.

Other observations:
  • Eric Menyuk reprises his role as the Traveler, and he's not the only returning guest star. Doug Wert plays Jack Crusher again (as he has twice before). And while Gul Evek has not appeared on The Next Generation before, actor Richard Poe had by this point already originated the Cardassian character on Deep Space Nine (and would play him again on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager).
  • Another character who was briefly in line to return in this episode was Boothby. Ronald Moore originally considered that during Lakanta's morph into the Traveler, he'd first morph into the Academy groundskeeper. Michael Piller argued against it, saying that it would cheat Picard to reveal this about his mentor.
  • Still, Boothby was to have at least been mentioned in this episode. In a deleted scene that can be found on the Blu-ray edition of the episode, Picard talks with Wesley about his struggles at Starfleet Academy, and Wesley notes that Boothby has become more of an irritation than a mentor. This is exactly the sort of thing I wish there had been more time for in the episode.
  • In a late pivotal scene, Beverly reminds her son how the Traveler once confided in Picard that Wesley was a "Mozart" level genius with a great destiny. Clearly, Picard relayed that information to Beverly at some point. Yet the Traveler expressly told him in "Where No One Has Gone Before" not to repeat the revelation to anyone, "especially not to the mother."
I do feel like this episode could have been better if it had focused solely on Wesley's identity crisis. Still, the elements of the story that do work outnumber the elements that don't. I give "Journey's End" a B.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Inflation

Bouncy castles aren't just for children. That seems to be the subtext behind the Insane Inflatable 5K race, a nationwide touring event that stopped this past weekend here in Denver -- and in which I took part.

It's a 5K race peppered with a number of giant inflatable obstacles: towering slides....


...a "Mattress Run" booby-trapped with holes...


...the deceptively difficult "Wave Runner"...


...and more. "Racing" was very much optional in this event; the vast majority of people (like me and my group) walked the entire course. That made it just my speed. A good time was had by all.

That said, we only found out about the race a week beforehand, and even with a Groupon deal, I think we wound up paying "last minute prices" to get in. (Events like this tend to scale up in cost when you register closer to the actual date.) In other words, yes it was fun, but not entirely worth the price we paid. I'm still putting it out there though, in case advance warning helps anyone interested in hunting down a more reasonable ticket price. If we find a better deal when it comes back around next year, I could see us all doing it again.

Because bouncy castles aren't (or at least, shouldn't be) just for children.

Monday, June 06, 2016

The Broken Man

The title of this week's Game of Thrones, "The Broken Man," could well have applied to several characters in the episode. But the recurring theme that would seem to apply to everyone: "You should have known better."

It all kicked off with the first cold open the show has done in quite some time -- and I think the only one not to happen in a season premiere. The reason? To avoid clever fans spotting actor Rory McCann's name in the opening credits before the episode's big reveal: The Hound, Sandor Clegane, is still alive. Of course, to anyone who had counted that particular character as dead without seeing the body: you should have known better. (And book readers have been seizing upon any little clue pointing to where he might have ended up after Arya left him.)

This episode saw the Hound taken under the wing of Deadwood's Ian McShane in a brief but memorable one episode appearance. McShane's character here felt like the true form of the increasingly false piety projected by the High Sparrow. For a moment, Clegane started believing that he really could leave a life of violence behind. But no... The Hound should have known better.

In King's Landing, Margaery Tyrell was revealed to be playing a long con on the High Sparrow. She proved that she did not truly succumb during her captivity, by slipping a message of reassurance to her grandmother. But as a result of her masquerade, she really has delivered King Tommen as the High Sparrow's puppet. Still, at this point, I think anyone who doesn't expect she has a plan really should know better.

Cersei went to Lady Olenna with her figurative hat in her hand. In the most literal display of the episode's recurring theme, she got an earful of "you should have known better" as only the Queen of Thorns can deliver it. And every word of it was delicious, an illustration of why the show has used the character (and Diana Rigg) more than the books.

We watched as the trio of Sansa, Jon Snow, and Davos tried to recruit allies for their assault on Winterfell. There were some great moments in there, particularly in the form of the young, adorable-but-awesome Lyanna Mormont (and Davos' convincing speech to her). But ultimately, the plot thread came down to Sansa. She previously refused Littlefinger's offer of help, and now had to beg him for it. She should have known better.

In the Riverlands, Jaime arrived on the scene with a lesson to teach about making threats you won't act on. But he got schooling at the hands of the Blackfish, who seems quite beyond any form of intimidation. Jaime really ought to have known better. (Side note: is this now two weeks in a row of seeing Edmure Tully without him speaking a single line?)

We caught up with Yara and Theon Greyjoy, on the run. (Euron really should have known better than to leave a bunch of ships unguarded in his push for power.) Yara's big plan was revealed this week: to sail for Meereen and ally herself with Daenerys. In the books, it's an entirely different character on that mission, and he has visions of wooing/conquering in his head. Given how poorly I expect that to go for him, I can't forecast any greater success for Yara's plan. Perhaps she ought to know better. (Another side note: is this now two straight weeks without Tyrion? I might be disappointed, except that anything he does seems sure to be rendered irrelevant when Dany gets back to Meereen. So why waste time, I suppose?)

Then there was Arya. Clever as she is, she should have known better than to think she was more clever than the people she's been staying with in Braavos. The Waif found her, expressly violating Jaqen H'ghar's instruction to bring death swiftly and painlessly. I was moved by Arya's horrifying realization as she staggered bleeding through the streets: she can't trust a single face she sees. But if you think she's going to die of her wounds, you really ought to know better.

A week of setups, to be sure, but with clear promise of payoffs to come... and with plenty of engaging moments along the way. I give the episode a B+.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Way Out

A couple years back, actor Bryan Cranston won wide acclaim (and a Tony Award) for playing President Lyndon Johnson in the play All the Way. HBO quickly snatched up the rights to adapt the play to film, and that version recently debuted on the network. After all the praise (and given my appreciation for Cranston), I was eager to check out the results... and ultimately disappointed.

All the Way chronicles LBJ's efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the subsequent scrambling he had to do to secure his re-election as president. You'd sense that the movie was based on a play even if you hadn't been told beforehand, as there's a very clear break halfway through between the two story elements -- what would have been the intermission when the same story played at the theater. But what I really found myself thinking of as I watched All the Way was another movie, Lincoln. History is what it is, of course; the facts are what they are. But both films chronicle the efforts of a president to pass meaningful civil rights legislation over the intransigence of a racist Southern coalition. And for my money, Lincoln is the far superior take on that story.

I think my main problem with All the Way is that it can't quite tell whose story it wants to be. LBJ does take center stage, of course, but the film also spends an awful lot of time on other characters. A lot of focus is given to Martin Luther King Jr, which makes sense in the context of a movie about civil rights, but feels at times a stretch when things turn to Johnson's election campaign. There's a lot of material about J. Edgar Hoover's paranoid crusade against King, which makes sense in the context of a movie about King (as in Selma), but doesn't always seem to serve the narrative here. There are recurring threads about Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, but while they feel like they might have been put there to help form a "warts and all" portrait of LBJ, they instead often frustrate with their hints of other interesting tales that aren't this tale.

The result is an unfortunate jumble about what really should come across as a vital time. The movie feels oddly dry, and ponderous in its slow pacing. I thought I'd been watching for two hours when I came to the shift in the story, only to find I was barely halfway through. The cast is solid, but can't really lift the material up. Bryan Cranston is good, though his makeup is more transformative than his performance. Bradley Whitford might be engaging as Humphrey, if the political context didn't instead make you feel like watching him in an episode of The West Wing. Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo, Stephen Root, Frank Langella, Ray Wise... I mean, the cast is stacked. It's just that the results aren't that engaging.

I'd call All the Way an unfortunate D+. Perhaps something core was lost in the translation from stage to screen. But in any case, I can't recommend it.