Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bird Is the Word

Earlier this week, I continued my progress through the list of likely Oscar contenders by seeing Lady Bird. Chances are you haven't heard of this movie, though if you have, it's probably as the movie being advertised as having a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (That held for several weeks, until one critic gave the thumbs down and spoiled it.) But what is the movie, other than universally well received?

Lady Bird, quite simply, is the story of a high school student in the early 2000s. The title of the film is the nickname she's chosen for herself. Her father is out of work and her mother is working two jobs to try to keep the family going. The movie tracks Lady Bird over the course of her entire senior year, dealing with teenage trials like applying for college, dating, trying out for the musical, falling in with the popular kids (and falling out with her best friend).

This is, as you can tell, real "slice of life" stuff. It's all portrayed with tremendous realism and honesty (and dry wit), and I think that's what all the critics are responding to. Rotten Tomatoes, remember, is just the aggregate score of distilling reviews down to "thumbs up or thumbs down," not capturing any of the nuance. It's hard to point to anything bad about this movie, so that sky high score reflects everything from tepid enjoyment to enthusiastic praise.

Count me in the former category. There simply wasn't enough of a narrative here to really get me engaged. This is the diary of a teenage girl in cinematic form. It's a little bit too shapeless; things happen, and yet it's easy to feel like "nothing happens." It's not even particularly illuminating, so long as you had a female friend in high school (or were female in high school). People who would "learn something" by watching this movie would never watch this movie.

On the other hand, I can clearly see that this movie isn't meant for me. This is 2017, a year in which demand for stories about women, by women, is higher than ever before. (Or perhaps more accurately, as high as its ever been, but being more acknowledged than ever before.) Wonder Woman was both rather conventional and something never seen before, by virtue of its star character. Lady Bird is both not new and entirely novel in the same way,: a high school coming of age story, centered on a character that doesn't often get to be the focus of movies like this.

I didn't love the movie, but I can easily imagine the people who would. For some people, this is going to be a celluloid "spirit animal" that speaks straight to them. I thought very particularly of a good friend from high school, who I imagine would love this movie with all her soul. There will be women who see this and say "this was me and my mother when I was a teenager" or "this was me with my first boyfriend" or "high school was exactly like this."

But my reaction was muted. I thought the movie was alright, though a bit aimless. Saoirse Ronan is great as the title character, giving a wide ranging but nuanced performance that will get her award consideration. Laurie Metcalf is wonderful as her mother, trying to do what's best for "Lady Bird" even when that sometimes means she'll be hated for it. There are also two fun supporting performances from Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet. In his young career, Hedges seems to find his way only into Oscar-caliber films (having appeared last year in Manchester by the Sea and now in this and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Chalamet is being talked about as a possible Best Actor contender this year for Call Me By Your Name (still to come on my Oscar to-do list). It's actually a solid cast all the way around, though without many recognizable names.

As the credits rolled, I knew I thought Lady Bird was okay, but knew I didn't love it. I figured it was worthy of something like a B or maybe B- grade. When I went to Flickchart it, ranking it against other movies I've seen, I was a bit surprised to find that it actually fell in among movies I'd call C+. I think that means the reaction I've been talking about is really pronounced: I recognize the movie as something well made, something many people will love... and I'm really not one of those people.

Hopefully, I've given enough detail here that you'll know if you are. Maybe you'll want to take a daughter to see it, or a best friend. Maybe it's one for you to skip entirely. I'll be truly shocked if this somehow wins the Best Picture Oscar, but I won't be surprised at all if its a nominee.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Disaster Unfolds

I've written on two past occasions about the pinnacle of "so bad it's good" movies, The Room. It's the gift that keeps on giving, entertainment-wise. So naturally, I was going to see the new film about its creation, The Disaster Artist.

Based off the memoir by The Room's co-star Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist actually isn't primarily about the making of the "Best Worst Movie Ever." If it were, it would be little more than a re-staging of a car accident for people to come rubberneck at. It's actually an examination of the friendship between Sestero and The Room's enigmatic auteur, Tommy Wiseau. How strong must that bond have been for them to see such a train wreck through to the end, or not recognize it for what it was at the time? (Small spoiler: the movie makes clear it's more the former than the latter.)

Because the movie has this relationship as its emotional core, it's more than a mockumentary, and more than a character study of Wiseau. It certainly paints a compelling picture of how Sestero was drawn into the orbit of "Tommy's Planet," and just as compellingly demonstrates what kept them together so long. I'm not entirely sure that it makes me understand what kept them together all the way through to the end, but it's still an accomplishment that the movie makes such sympathetic figures out of people that anyone who has seen The Room might otherwise react to quite differently.

The brothers Franco star in the piece, Dave as Greg Sestero and James as Tommy Wiseau. Both are fully committed to telling a story of struggling to make a mark in Hollywood, never winking at the camera or mocking the material. For Dave Franco, this certainly makes for the most earnest and accessible character I've seen him play (though admittedly, I haven't seen lots of him). Because the character of Wiseau is so impenetrable, it's up to Dave Franco to be the emotional window into the narrative, and he serves ably in this.

But of course, the focus will all be on the meta-performance of James Franco as Wiseau. It's a spot-on impersonation that transcends simple impersonation. On some deep level, the audience is meant to know, James Franco is Tommy Wiseau -- an actor who sometimes makes confounding choices, and who on this occasion decided to act in, direct, and produce his own movie. But it never seems like an impersonation. Hell, there are times where I found myself truly forgetting it was James Franco; I'd just recently re-watched The Room as "prep" for this, and it just seemed like in The Disaster Artist, I was watching Wiseau.

The Room has a lot of celebrity fans, many of whom helped push it into the zeitgeist to begin with, so the movie is full of recognizable faces. A few have somewhat substantial parts, including Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Josh Hutcherson, Ari Graynor, Jackie Weaver, and Paul Scheer. Many more show up for cameos, including Megan Mullally, Hannibal Buress, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Zac Efron, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow, and more. Still other "boosters" of The Room appear right at the start of the film as themselves, in talking head interviews, explaining their obsession: Kristen Bell, Keegan-Michael Key, J.J. Abrams, Kevin Smith, and more. There's a deep bench on this movie, and everyone is there to contribute their own bit of fun to the whole.

All that said, I think any murmurs you may have heard about the "movie about the bad movie being Oscar worthy" are overselling it a tad. It's good, no question. It's even insightful while it entertains. But I personally didn't find in it that extra jolt that makes me certain it will stick with me for a long while to come. It's definitely worth seeing, especially if you've seen The Room, but I think I'd limit it to about a B+.

And if you do go, be sure to stay all the way through the credits for a great scene at the end.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Life Spent

Much of last weekend's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focused on Simmons and her new duties as the new attendant/toy of the Kree villain Kasius. Not the newest toy, however. That was the newly minted Inhuman that Simmons was tasked with whipping into shape. On the one hand, this was a story line with no surprises: Simmons befriended her, helped her, and then was somehow shocked when the evil baddie did what evil baddies do in the end -- exploiting the Inhuman (in this case, by selling her into slavery). On the other hand, though the story was predictable, it still hit effective emotional beats along the way. Elizabeth Henstridge is always able to make you feel for Simmons.

Meanwhile, Coulson, Yo-Yo, Mack, and May worked together with their reluctant ally in ore processing to track down the mysterious radio signal out in the debris. I liked seeing that Coulson's boundless optimism has its limits, as he and May had a masks-lowered talk about how there may not be a way back to "normal" from this situation. It was also great seeing how Yo-Yo, separated from the others, cleverly used her powers to steal from her captors.

That story line had a lot to do with morality, trying to demonstrate virtue by example. The idea there was good, but I'm not sure I buy exactly where the line was drawn. Killing the henchman so he doesn't rat you out = immoral. Got it. Planting a gun on the henchman so that the villain kills him for you = okay? Not sure I see the distinction. Then again, Yo-Yo was separated from everyone when Mack staked out the moral high ground. Maybe this might even be a point of friction between the two later on?

Daisy had been the last character with full mobility, running free on her own and running scared from the idea that she could have caused the destruction of the Earth. She was, in fact, so focused on ignoring everything Deke said that she also ignored the clear signs that he could only take so much and would double-cross her. Now Daisy is a prisoner too, putting all the future heroes in their own specific peril within the larger jeopardy. It's a "problem nesting doll" now.

Not the most mind-blowing episode of the series, but it kept an interesting story line moving along. I give it a B.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Mad Idolatry

The Orville wrapped up its first season this past week. (And amazingly, FOX has seen fit to renew a science fiction series without blockbuster ratings for a second season.) It went out on a strong note with "Mad Idolatry."

The ship discovers an unusual planet that spends half its orbit in our universe and half in another. Commander Grayson explores the surface as her crashed shuttle is being repaired, and accidentally interacts with the local primitive population before the shuttle can depart. But when the planet vanishes and reappears, the full import of what has happened becomes clear. Time passes differently in the other universe, and 700 years have gone by during the 11 days it was gone. And in those centuries, and entire religion has sprung up around that one chance interaction, deifying Grayson and altering the entire culture.

Star Trek has played around with some of these ideas before, of course -- the culture that experiences time faster than humans, the culture that perceives a crewmember as a god figure. They even mashed these two ideas together a bit in a Voyager episode called "Blink of an Eye," which I now vaguely remember as being decent, but didn't actually remember at all when I was watching this episode of The Orville. And that, I think, may be because The Orville managed to put the parts together in its own unique and interesting way.


The emphasis here was more personal than the clever sci-fi trappings: it was squarely on Grayson and the guilt she felt over the interference she'd caused. It's one thing to feel badly about violence carried out in the name of a religion, and quite another to feel it's being done in your name. I liked that the story wasn't principally about the series' substitute for "the Prime Directive," it was about the emotional toll on Grayson.

The episode also cleverly used Isaac in the story by sending him down to the planet to spend 700 years in its alternate universe. The Voyager episode did something similar with the Doctor, I recall, but on a far less extreme time scale. That makes a difference -- or, at least, it will if the writers actually allow Isaac to be a different character after this. If the passage of 700 years doesn't change him in any way, then it's basically saying he's a character beyond any capacity for growth or change at all, which is a rather big dramatic liability.

The ending sort of out-Star Trekked Star Trek, in a way, as the now-evolved aliens came to deliver the moral message to our heroes, rather than the other way around. Religion is going to spring up around something, they wisely noted, so Grayson should not feel responsible that their planet's centered around her. It was an interesting tweak of the Prime Directive's nose, putting the notion out there that maybe the heroic explorers we follow in these shows can't really change things as much as they think.

And it all played out against the backdrop of Mercer and Grayson exploring whether or not to renew their romantic relationship. I liked seeing this story addressed. The Orville is, of course, most similar to The Next Generation among all the Star Trek shows, and that show was notably stingy about this sort of material. It had meaningful character back stories in place pairing Riker and Troi, and potentially pairing Crusher and Picard, but generally pulled away from dealing with them. The Orville dived right in, and when at the end of the episode the decision was reached not to pursue any relationship, it made sense for the characters. "Doing nothing" was the consequence of something, rather than simply ignoring a potential story.

I'd give this installment of The Orville a B+. Though the series never really rose to truly lofty heights during its first season, it did serve up enough "pretty good" episodes to be worth the time. I'll be back for more when it returns next season.

Friday, December 08, 2017

You Raise? I Fold.

At the kernel of the game Raise Your Goblets is a really fun idea: let's play out the old "poisoned drinks" game with friends.

Each player has a "drinking goblet" in front of them, and a screen behind which a fixed number of glass beads begins, marking "poison," "antidote," or "wine." On each player's turn, they have an array of actions available. They can add a bead to any goblet without anyone seeing it. They can rotate all the goblets in play clockwise or counter-clockwise one position. They can swap the goblet in front of them for one in front of any other player. Or they can look inside their own goblet to learn its contents.

Once a player has played all the "wine" tokens from behind their screen, they gain another option for their turn: they may propose a toast. Every player gets one final action (including them), and then everyone "drinks" from the goblet before them. If they end up with at least an equal amount of antidote and poison, they're fine. More poison, however, and well... you know. Each round, you get a point for surviving, a point for assassinating the player you're "targeting" (as selected by a random card draw at the beginning of the round), and a bonus point if you achieve both goals.

It's a great idea for a game. In practice, though, it simply isn't very fun to play. The problem is that chaos reigns supreme -- or, at least, it does when you play with as many players as the game claims to accommodate. The game takes up to 6 (and up to 12, if you play with supplemental "wine taster" rules we did not have to use). We played with the full 6, and it stripped all sense of control from the proceedings. With just two actions on your turn, and a whopping 10 opposing actions in between, it was simply impossible to know what was going on in any goblet. You'd peek when you could, but then too many beads would drop in too many places between, and uncertainty would encroach.

In the end, the person who actually called the toast each round had the supreme advantage. You'd get the final action. And if you could track just one goblet and be reasonably certain of its contents, you'd just swap that one to be in front of you at the end of the round. Everybody else, leave to random chance. Even then, there was really no telling who would be safe -- often yourself included. The game felt like an elaborate random number generator.

I'd consider trying the game once more with a more manageable number -- three or perhaps four. But it seems like there's a razor thin edge here, between it being too easy to have information and too impossible. And that advantage of taking the last action is always going to be there, in any case. I don't have high hopes that a different player count would yield more satisfying results.

It's a great concept, but in a way that perhaps makes the game deserving of even lower marks, for bungling the potential so thoroughly. I'd give Raise Your Goblets a D. Even under the umbrella of "chaotic group games," there are far better choices.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

DS9 Flashback: The Passenger

Many Star Trek fans (including me) think that "The Inner Light" was the best episode of The Next Generation. So on paper, having the writer behind that story, Morgan Gendel, contribute an idea for Deep Space Nine seems very exciting. Unfortunately, that episode turned out to be "The Passenger."

Bashir and Kira come to the rescue of an alien ship in distress, but fail to save the life of a criminal on board, Rao Vantika. That's how they see it, at least. Vantika's escort/hunter/jailer, Ty Kajada, insists that Vantika has somehow faked his own death -- a notion that begins to look plausible when things start going wrong aboard Deep Space Nine. With some digging, Dax arrives at an explanation: Vantika may have found a way to transfer his consciousness into another living being, creating a Jekyll/Hyde duality in someone who doesn't even know it.

Gendel's original pitch for this episode was to tell the story of a cop who didn't know she was chasing herself -- Vantika's mind would be hiding in Kajada's body. Bashir would have become romantically involved with Kajada, and would then be forced to decide how much he could trust her in race against time to find a bomb planted on the station by Vantika. As a freelancer, Gendel admitted he was open to any feedback given so long as he sold his pitch; he recalls a bunch of back and forth meetings where the writing staff tweaked his story, waffled on whether they wanted a villain in the mold of Hannibal Lecter or not, and more.

It feels like the least interesting of all story options was the one chosen. Even if Gendel's initial pitch sounds too centered on the guest star, turning Bashir into a guest star by having him be Vantika's host doesn't seem like the best solution. No consideration is ever given to the idea that Kira -- who was also there trying to rescue Vantika at the beginning of the episode -- could also be his host. Instead, the closest the episode comes to being a true whodunit is in offering up previously unknown security officer Primmin as a red herring who might be in league with Vantika. (In actuality, his subplot was reportedly crafted to cover for the absence of O'Brien for a second straight episode, as Colm Meaney was off shooting a movie.)

The Primmin B-plot actually works better than the Vantika A-plot. It takes the series' inherent culture clash, Federation values vs. the "wild west" of a Bajoran station, and makes it an explicit conflict between Odo and Primmin. There are some great moments here, many using Sisko as the pivot between them. Sisko talks Odo out of a hot-headed decision to quit, and slaps down Primmin by reminding him the Federation are only invited guests here. ("If you want my opinion--" "Actually, I don't." Snap!)

But just about everything in the episode involving Bashir is bad. It starts right in the cold open, with him bragging more than ever before about his medical skills (which Kira takes in surprising stride, by her standards). And while Bashir goes on to be not nearly as pervy or egotistical as usual through the rest of the episode, the sad fact is that it might not be him in the rest of the episode. The episode lays out that the Vantika consciousness is dormant while Bashir is "awake," and vice versa, but there are some moments here and there where Bashir effectively blocks Ty Kajada and her investigation in such a way that you have to believe it's Vantika pretending to be Bashir. That means at this point in the life of the show, a horrifying killer is a more likeable Bashir than Bashir. Yikes.

And speaking of pretending, actor Alexander Siddig makes some unfortunate choices in his portrayal of the villainous Vantika. He plays really broad, and reportedly used a strange, "Bela Lugosi-like" voice on set, which was judged to be so distracting in post-production that they had him redub over all his lines. The result is a bizarre.... almost... Kirk-like... pattern... of... slow... speech that can't possibly be any less grating than what they replaced. (But it's not the worst acting in the final act. When Vantika and his goons board the alien ship, everybody there freezes and waits woodenly to get shot, each performing their cheap fall stunt in turn.)

The mystery doesn't even work. Besides having a lack of suspects for who Vantika could be, the episode's editing actually gives the game away. In the scene where a "mysterious whispering figure" accosts Quark, the voice totally just sounds like Bashir whispering. And when the figure throws Quark, the camera pans unfortunately and actually shows Bashir on screen, for enough frames that you don't even have to pause to recognize him! (This error was much to the disappointment of producer Michael Piller, though there was apparently no way to edit around it.)

Other observations:
  • Even Quark is portrayed to respect boundaries more than Bashir in this episode. Quark and Odo have an extended conversation about wanting something (ahem, Dax), but knowing you can't have it. Bashir hasn't learned the second part of that, as shown when he stalked Dax last episode.
  • Staff writer Ira Steven Behr spoke negatively of this episode in interviews. He felt this was another story that didn't distinguish itself from what could be done on The Next Generation, noting this could have easily been about Geordi. I find it interesting that his mind went from Bashir, the most romantically "problematic" DS9 character, to Geordi, who the writers saddled with similar romantic hangups.
  • While it makes perfect sense that you'd be able to lock the door of Odo's security office, I had a brief mental flash of the creepy stories about Matt Lauer in the moment where Odo had to push a button to let Ty Kajada out of his office.
  • I love that Sisko doesn't take chances and just stuns Bashir/Vantika at the end of the episode. It would have been even more potent if he hadn't waited for "Bashir" to claim "wait, it's me!"
  • There is some crazy technology on display here, even for Star Trek. First, we have the transporter being used as a miracle cure once again, somehow beaming Vantika's consciousness out of Bashir's brain. Then there's also the fact that since we know the Trek universe has cloning (from just a few episodes ago), that combined with this ability to transfer consciousness basically means they've invented immortality.
  • When Ty Kajada shoots the container holding Vantika's consciousness, it's a good thing she doesn't miss. She's got her weapon set to vaporize, and the container is just sitting there on a big computer console.
This episode rates around the bottom of the C- range for me, with the Odo subplot being the element that saves it from falling even lower. It's the weakest episode of Deep Space Nine yet. (Though a famously terrible one is just around the corner.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Outside: Looking In

Although the Oscar nominations haven't yet been announced (and won't be for some time yet), the race is essentially already on. A number of critics organizations have begun handing out their prizes, the Golden Globes nominations are coming next week, and movie fans are eagerly reading the tea leaves. A few movies are already rising to the top, and some of those are making their way to theaters.

One of those is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It's a new effort from writer-director Martin McDonagh, the maker of Seven Psychopaths (which I haven't seen) and In Bruges (which I have; meh). Like Seven Psychopaths, this new film is a large ensemble piece; like In Bruges, it's dramatically taking on some very dark subject matter while leavening the proceedings with a streak of wry comedy.

It's been many months since Mildred Hayes' daughter Angela was brutally raped and murdered, and she thinks the local police haven't been doing enough to find justice. To bring attention to the case, she buys ads on three local billboards, highlighting the brutality of the crime and calling out the police chief by name. She gets more than she bargained for, with not everyone in the town supporting her provocative stance -- particularly since the police chief is dealing with a rapidly advancing form of cancer.

Last year, there was another movie in the Oscar hunt (though in a distant third place) that told the story of a mourning parent unable to cope with the loss of a child. Manchester by the Sea was relentlessly bleak and doggedly one note. In some ways, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells the same story without being so rigid. Mildred is trapped in grief and can't find a way out, and you get to really learn why when added context around the loss of her daughter is revealed in the middle of the movie. But this film isn't afraid of having fun along the way.

Neither is the cast. Mildred's grief has only served to sharpen her irreverent, biting wit, and the performance by Frances McDormand never gets locked into one emotional place. She's not dark all the time, though you never lose sight of the fact that her character's humor is usually gallows humor. She's not constantly at loggerheads with the police chief. He really is a sympathetic man, and he really does respect her plight. Woody Harrelson plays the role with humor and dignity of his own, and provides a great look at someone who holds their head high as they face down cancer.

There are plenty of other characters in the mix to bring variety to the story. A rage-driven man-child working in the police force is a vehicle for examining police brutality and racism -- and often in funny ways, believe it or not. The character has enough of a story that you might consider him a co-protagonist in how it unfolds, and he's played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell. Lucas Hedges plays Mildred's surviving son (and he also appeared in Manchester by the Sea, which is perhaps how I made that thematic connection). He's processing grief in his own way, with a jagged brand of teenage angst. John Hawkes plays Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Peter Dinklage plays a sad sack local, and many other recognizable faces pop up in tiny one-scene roles.

One other thing that really elevates this film in my mind above the relentless sorrow of Manchester by the Sea is that there is another message here besides "grief consumes." Layered in the background throughout, and then made explicit in the final act, is the notion that hate only engenders more of the same. It all resolves in a wonderfully ambiguous ending where you have to decide for yourself -- have characters really turned the corner on their lives and changed, or will they fall back into the same patterns they had a chance to snap out of?

I have many Oscar contenders left to see. (And we can't even really say for sure what those even are yet.) But if this season overall stands anywhere near the quality of this movie, I have a good run of movies ahead. I give Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri an A-.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Orientation, Parts 1 and 2

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has begun its new season, and a new premise, with the two-part episode "Orientation." I'm trying not to read too much into ABC unceremoniously dumping the show on Friday night, the killing field of science fiction television. For years now, the thing that has kept this show on the air has been its so-called "Live+3" ratings, the number of viewers who catch up with the show within three days of its first airing. But I suppose 5 years is a good run for most shows, so I'm beginning the season-long process of preparing for this year to be the show's last.

It certainly starts in a fruitful place. Over the course of the two-parter, we learn that our heroes (minus Fitz) have been transported across both time and space, to an alien station of the far future, orbiting a dead Earth. Someone, yet to be identified, sent the agents there in the hopes they can save the day. But in the concentration camp atmosphere of the alien station, they're hard-pressed to get the revolution started.

The meta-commentary throughout the installment was perhaps the most delicious part of it. There was constant joking on the inevitability of being placed in this situation ("the only thing we haven't done"), the plots of alien/horror movies, and more. With such a dark story, the humor was all the more important, and landed well throughout.

There was also good work done in starting individual story lines for different characters. Simmons has been conscripted into the inner circle of the Kree ruler of the station, and it's already clear that the "pampered life" will have dangers of its own. Daisy has been paired with Deke, a defeated entrepreneur of the future that she'll have to whip into a hero. (She also learned, in the episode's final moments, that she is responsible for the end of the world. If true, she's got a truly incomprehensible amount of guilt to reckon with.) Coulson, Mack, and Yo-Yo are all consigned to a slavery within slavery, caught working for a "middle man" human who has them under his thumb. (Played by one of the creepiest, best "working actors" in the business, Pruitt Taylor Vince.)

There were a few misfires for me. The degree of May's injury conveniently came and went, depending on how much ass she needed to kick. I would have liked to see them play her wounded leg as truthfully as possible; it would be a nice turn for May's character to see her have to work without one of her strongest assets, her ability to beat down enemies with her bare hands. (But I also hope that ship hasn't yet sailed, depending on the time scale in which this season unfolds.)

I also was disappointed at the contrived separation of Fitz and Simmons once again. The writers hung a lantern on how the couple is, as always, cursed, but this obstacle thrown between them feels unnecessary to me. There's already the fallout of the Framework to deal with, and Jemma now being a servant of the Kree. Separating them by time travel is just one more obstacle on top of all that, and actually prevents the thoughtful exploration of the other two obstacles. Perhaps my opinion on this will shift if the story bounces back to the present and gives us an episode showcasing Fitz, but for now I'm just missing his presence of the show.

Overall, though, the episode(s) kicked off a promising arc to come. I'd give the two parts of "Orientation" a B+.

Monday, December 04, 2017

New Dimensions

The Orville has always been a loving homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation. In their most recent episode, they actually did an episode that The Next Generation should have done, but didn't. In a re-tooling between seasons one and two, TNG moved the character of Geordi LaForge from his job at helm to the role of chief engineer. It was a creative decision that definitely helped the character and the show, but came with absolutely no explanation -- how does one even make that job transfer?

The Orville, in an episode centered on LaMarr, showed us exactly that. After Commander Grayson is looking through LaMarr's personnel file and learns he's been hiding extraordinary intelligence, she pushes for him to be promoted to the recently vacated position of chief engineer, which doesn't go over well with Yaphit.

I wonder if there was always a "plan" in place to make this character move with LaMarr, or if the creative team behind The Orville went through the same discovery process as the staff of The Next Generation -- learning that the chief engineer is actually someone you'll want to feature a bunch, so you might as well have that be one of your main characters. It's not the first time The Orville has explored putting a character in charge who feels ill-equipped for the job (they did that with Kitan already). Still, the different character traits made for different stories. Kitan is ambitious and doesn't want to let anyone down. LaMarr wants to fade into the background.

LaMarr's explanation of his background and behavior was quite interesting. The sort of person who doesn't want to speak up in a meeting, doesn't want to come across as pushy, doesn't want to rock the boat, is absolutely a person you see in the real world all the time. Rarely do you see that dramatized on a science-fiction show. And there's extra resonance in giving this story to a person of color, as too often the sort of person this describes is a minority or a woman, someone choosing not to make waves for very strategic (unfortunate) reasons, to safeguard themselves in a professional environment that doesn't recognize their talents. From that standpoint, LaMarr coming out of his shell and into his own fuller potential was a real wish fulfillment story line that felt good to see.

The B story had Mercer questioning his own potential after learning that Grayson pulled strings to get him the captain's chair on the ship. Mercer's whining self-doubt didn't play so great for me, though I did appreciate how this story line was really only possible on this show, with its more "normal" humans. (You'd never see something like it on a Star Trek, of any generation.)

As for the C story that went along with it all, The Next Generation also did a "two-dimensional creatures" episode. This installment of The Orville bore very little resemblance to it, though; besides, the episode made sure to have Mercer explain to us that another source (a 19th-century sci-fi story) was more of an inspiration here. The Tron-meets-Galaga visuals of two-dimensional space seemed perhaps a bit cheesy, but better I think to risk that and show something visually striking rather than have everyone ooing and aahing at something that wasn't that unusual.

Overall, I'd give the episode a B. It was a nice study of LaMarr's character, even if the other elements weren't quite as strong.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Darkness Falls

Though I wouldn't call myself a Stephen King fan as such, I've read a fair number of his books -- enough to know that he generally doesn't "stick the landing" with good endings to his stories. That's part of what makes The Dark Tower series stand out in my mind. I thought it had a strong, memorable ending (and lots of other good elements too), and thus I regard it as my favorite of King's works.

This is why I was disappointed to hear that the recent movie adaptation was no good. Critics dumped on it for being non-sensical, fans dumped on it for straying so far from the books. Yet something made me throw it in the Netflix disc queue anyway to check out if it was as bad as everyone was saying.

At first, I didn't think so. When the short 90 minute movie ended, I thought, "well, that wasn't good, but it wasn't really as bad as everyone was saying." But by an hour later, I was thinking maybe it was. By the next day, I was questioning whether it was actually worse than everyone was saying. This movie has a hell of a half life, and not working in its favor.

The fans are closer to the mark on this one. The Dark Tower (the movie) isn't especially complicated or confusing. It's actually distilled down to the stories most formulaic elements. (Not its most essential elements; many of those were actually excised!) An evil villainous villain wants to destroy the universe, and needs to find a special kid to do it. The special kid is dreaming of the hero who will save him, and soon discovers those dreams are real. Action beats ensue.

So much is cut from the book that it's not even worth detailing. Instead, I have to ask why even bother to adapt material if the adaptation is going to be so faithless to the source? Sure, a 7-book epic was never going to fit into one film, and doing a straight up adaptation of the dull book 1 as movie 1 would not have been the right approach. Still, the movie tampers with everything from removing vital characters to actually changing the motivations of the ones who do appear. Nearly all the things that distinguished the tale get sanded off, leaving a generic fantasy adventure different only in that in partially takes place on Earth.

It's really a shame, because the core cast is pretty good. (Let's not stray beyond the core; no one else gets anything of substance to do.) Idris Elba plays gunslinger hero Roland Deschain, and does a remarkable job of layering a performance in a script that isn't very deep. He buries a long-forgotten nobility beneath a battered and world-weary exterior. He's every inch the hero you want to watch rise to the occasion, and he's thrilling when he does.

Matthew McConaughey is great as the evil Man in Black, Walter. There's a meta level to the performance, as he's quite mannered and restrained much of the time here. Yet we know that's hiding both real-life craziness and craziness that has leaked out on the screen before (ahem, The Wolf of Wall Street). You really do get the sense of a mask obscuring something awful, and when it does crack in moments, the sparks and menace are among the few compelling things about the movie.

Newcomer Tom Taylor plays young Jake Chambers, the kid at the heart of the story. The movie chooses to shift the books' perspective entirely from Roland to Jake, and only the consistency of Taylor's performance keeps me from adding that to the long list of changes that seem like a bad idea. It's pretty boilerplate "kid discovers he has powers" stuff, but the performance isn't lax or bored, it's making the best of what's there.

Three good performances aren't enough to save an otherwise paint-by-numbers snoozefest. Nor are the superficial details like gunplay sometimes substituting for magic, world-hopping back and forth to New York City, and so forth. People who aren't fans of The Dark Tower will wonder what the big deal is. Fans will just be disappointed. I give The Dark Tower a D+. Steer clear.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Questioning Podcast

Though actor Jonathan Groff's most recent work was in the Netflix series Mindhunters, he's best known for musicals -- from Hamilton and Spring Awakening on Broadway to Frozen in the movies and Glee on TV. And he's followed that thread of his career to an unexpected place: podcasts.

36 Questions is a three-part podcast from the creative forces behind Limetown. It's a sort-of stage play rendered in audio form, about a couple who have reached a major bump in their marriage: Jace has discovered that his wife "Natalie" is really Judith, and has been lying about her identity since they first met years ago. He's fled to a cabin in the woods, while she's pursued him in a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship. She wants a do-over of one of the first things they did together: taking a quiz of 36 questions that lead to love.

And, as I mentioned, it's a musical.

Written and composed by Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter (and produced by the Limetown duo Skip Bronkie and Zack Akers), 36 Questions is a cleverly constructed little piece. It's like a play in its level of intimacy, in how it focuses on just two characters in a tight and impossible situation. It also adapts to the unconventional medium of a podcast by not being limited to what could be produced on a stage. The action does move around, through a raging thunderstorm, inside a moving car, and into a crowded restaurant. Clever foley work always grounds the sense of place, making it easy to imagine watching the performance in your mind's eye -- it's just that sometimes you have to imagine sitting in a theater while other times you might imagine it on your television.

Two performers have to carry the whole enterprise essentially on their own, and do so wonderfully. I've already mentioned Jonathan Groff, the "heavy hitter" who will pull many musical fans to the podcast. The other is Jessie Shelton, a lesser-known performer who actually has more of the heavy lifting to do in the story -- her character Judith is the one desperate to save a marriage Jace has already given up on, she's the one who has been lying and must explain why, she's the one narrating her crazy plan into a cell phone recording (the framing device for the entire show). This piece wouldn't work if both performers weren't 100% dialed in, and both rise to the challenges.

In any musical, the songs have to click to make the whole thing work. They do here. Like the project itself, they're often unconventional tunes, playing with discordant notes in unusual keys, toying occasionally with dropped beats and weird rhythms, and layering the performers to provide their own harmonies. But the songs are quite memorable. It's been nearly two weeks since I finished listening to the third and final part, I only listened to the podcast once through, and yet some of the songs still pop up in my mind from time to time.

My one slight reservation about 36 Questions is that, in setting up such a difficult situation for the characters, the bar to get them out of it is quite high. I'm not entirely sure how I felt about the ending. It was unexpected, though, like the podcast itself, I suppose -- so not necessarily a bad thing.

At roughly 50 minutes per "chapter," you're not looking at a deep time commitment here, certainly not compared to a typical podcast or even a fully-produced audiobook. I'd grade it an A-. If you're up for something experimental and different, I'd give 36 Questions a try.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Dax

Though all of the Deep Space Nine characters would grow to be layered and compelling in time, Jadzia Dax was arguably the one with the most built-in potential. With multiple past hosts of experience and back story to flesh out and play with, the character inherently contained multitudes. The writers, just as curious as the audience about that, decided to explore things in the episode "Dax."

After a group of Klaestrons attempt to abduct Jadzia Dax, their leader Ilon Tandro switches to a direct route and presents Sisko with a warrant for her arrest and extradition. 30 years ago, her former host Curzon allegedly committed murder and treason, and now Tandro wants to extradite Jadzia for trial and capital punishment. A trial ensues to ascertain whether the current Dax can stand accused for the crimes of a past host, while Odo investigates the decades-old case to try to exonerate her.

Among the die-hard Star Trek fans who followed all the series, this episode may be most notable for one of its credited writers: D.C. Fontana. The veteran of the original series and early Next Generation was invited by staff writer Peter Allan Fields (who'd worked with her before) to come in and write this script from a rough outline the staff had generated. The character-heavy premise played to her strengths, but she found the assignment difficult all the same. Her ideas on the voices of the new characters of this new series didn't necessarily mesh with those emerging from the staff. Fields would end up re-writing her draft (and splitting episode credit), and this would be Fontana's final Star Trek contribution.

The episode could be seen as a loose repackaging of an all-time great Next Generation episode, "A Measure of a Man." But while both episodes put a main character's very identity on trial, the allegory there (of slavery and the Dred Scott case) was stronger. Perhaps you could consider this episode analogous to the story of criminal who lives a straight-and-narrow life for decades only to be caught later for high crimes? Or perhaps there's no real analogy here at all -- it's simply an exploration of a sci-fi concept without being a lens to examine a real-world dilemma.

Notably, the episode doesn't even resolve its moral question: Dax is exonerated before we ever get an answer to the question of whether she can stand accused for the crimes of past hosts. And while the episode does have fun with the back-and-forth arguments over the question, it's odd that we never get the "official" Trill answer to this. Surely their society must have laws governing this exact situation, so what's the legal culpability in their minds?

Then again, perhaps the omission of the Trill perspective isn't so odd, when you consider that this episode about Dax isn't much of a showcase for Dax. Terry Farrell has surprisingly little to do in the episode, her character remaining stoically silent through most of it. It's good for many of the other characters, though (save O'Brien, who for some reason is specifically written out at the top of the episode). We get a lot more back story on the friendship between Sisko and Dax, of Sisko's admiration for (and acceptance of the faults of) the "old man." Odo gets into full investigative mode, and unlike last time gets to see it through to the end. (Though you'd think being recently framed might make him initially less flippant about the situation.) There's a delicious scene in which Sisko steps aside and Kira goes full-tilt at the "annoying" Ilon Tandro.

It's also a pretty solid episode for the guest stars, a mix of solid working actors and Star Trek veterans who turn in good work here. Gregory Itzin has had a long career of weasels and lawyers (and weaselly lawyers), perhaps most memorably playing Charles Logan on 24. He imbues Ilon Tandro with enough strength that his arguments at the hearing actually seem credible. Fionnula Flanagan plays the widow Enina Tandro, delivering a good scene with Odo and an even better one at the end of the episode with Dax. You can see in their farewell that Enina still recognizes something of her former lover Curzon in Jadzia. (Though even a chaste kiss on the cheek would have been nice here. It would take a few seasons before Trill romance would be explored in that way in an episode.)

Stealing the show, though, is Anne Haney as the Bajoran arbiter Els Renora. Striking an entirely different tone from her role as Rishon Uxbridge on The Next Generation, she's crusty and stern, yet in a truly fun way. There's a subtlety to the performance too -- watch for the withering look she gives the "unfaithful" Enina as she makes her final exit. I was reminded throughout the episode of a much more recent show, The Good Wife, which routinely presented similar judges with memorable personalities (and brought them back in multiple episodes, too; sadly, there would be no repeat visit by Renora).

Other observations:
  • There are worse things than being left out of an episode (like O'Brien and Jake) -- like being in one, but horribly written. Bashir crosses over into true ickiness here in his pursuit of Dax. After she shoots down his skeezy flirtations at the start of the episode, he basically decides "no doesn't really mean no" and stalks her. At this point in the series, his character needs some serious rehabilitation. (But by my memory, it's a long way off.)
  • This episode brings the first mention of Klingon coffee, a.k.a. raktajino.
  • Klaestron assault gear includes some truly impressive gloves.
  • Though this isn't primarily an action episode, the opening act featuring Dax's abduction is fairly well staged. There's a satisfying amount of strategy/counter-strategy between our heroes and the Klaestrons.
  • The notion of holding the hearing in Quark's bar feels pretty flimsy. I would have said it was to save money on building a new set, but producer Michael Piller specifically denied this, saying they just liked the bar and wanted to use it. It does make for another fun Odo/Quark scene, at least, watching the former strong-arm the latter.
This would have been a better episode if it had really pursued all the interesting issues it raised to some dramatic completion. Still, it did at least raise the issues, in the mode that would ultimately come to define Deep Space Nine. I give this episode a B.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Photo Opportunity

In some board games, the theme is a fairly light gauze draped over a mechanical framework. Sometimes, though, the theme is such a compelling fit that you can't imagine the game existing without it. Photosynthesis is the latter kind of game.

Each player is custodian of a group of trees that they're cultivating for points inside a forested grove. Seeds grow into small trees, which can be grown larger and larger, until they can finally be harvested to increase your score. In each of their intermediate stages, the trees generate the energy that become your action points -- the means by which you spread new seeds, grow existing trees, or harvest.

But the real nugget at the heart of it all, locking all the flavor and mechanics into a compelling place, is the sun. The board is a large hexagon, and every round, the sun shines in from one corner, spreading in straight lines down two edges of the board. Your energy is only generated by trees that can see the sun. If a taller tree stands in the way, it casts shadow that blocks other trees in the line from doing anything. Every round, the sun rotates to a new point, so while one round could be very powerful for you, the next round might change fortunes entirely.

While I was playing Photosynthesis and trying to plan my next moves, I found myself thinking about the story wrapper of it all. The strategies you have to contemplate here feel very mechanical. There are a lot of ideas of area control at play here. Every space on the board has three things you have to account for -- how it will generate energy for you, how you might use it to block energy from opponents (through the casting of shadows), and how an eventual harvest in that location will score you points (as different spaces on the board are worth different amounts). You also have to think about how each space might play for you on future turns as the sun comes around to new locations.

On down time between turns, I found myself thinking about how much it all played like an abstract strategy game, something from the GIPF Project series, perhaps. And yet, without the metaphor of sun and trees and shade, the whole thing would hardly make sense. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a designer would ever even think to craft a board game this way without first having that story to underpin it all. And the components are really well made -- large, interlocking cardboard pieces that form a colorful "army" of trees.

The rulebook isn't quite as explicit on a few points as I think it ought to have been. In particular, the rules around spreading seeds from an existing tree into an empty space have been clarified in multiple threads on BoardGameGeek -- and getting them wrong (which we did, the first time) leads to a quite imbalanced way of exploiting the game. Still, there was much to appreciate here.

Provisionally, I'd give Photosynthesis a B+. But with multiple (correct) plays, I can only imagine that inching upward, not down.

Monday, November 27, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Q-Less

Among Star Trek fans, the character of Q was widely loved. It was inevitable that he would put in appearance on Deep Space Nine. That this would occur only a few episodes into the life of the series was not only a surprise, but I think a misstep.

A runabout returns from the Gamma Quadrant with a human archaeologist aboard, the roguish Vash. Though at first no one can understand how she got halfway across the galaxy years before the discovery of the wormhole, the answer becomes apparent when her former traveling partner, Q, arrives on the scene. Vash is looking to make a quick buck, and clean break from the troublesome entity. Q, of course, has other ideas.

According to series writer Ira Steven Behr, the staff was under a directive to "'show that we're still part of the Star Trek universe' by bringing over people from the other series." Hence, the appearance on Deep Space Nine of Lursa and B'Etor, and now another Next Generation pair. According to show runner Michael Piller, though, the original pitch from writer Hannah Louise Shearer was for Vash only.

To me, crossing Vash over makes some sense. Her role on The Next Generation was to clash with the show's sensibilities in general (and Captain Picard in particular). It was like oil and water over there -- intentionally, and to good effect. Bringing her into the world of Deep Space Nine, where she would blend easily with the show's sensibilities in general (and where she'd get along with Quark in particular) is a logical way to highlight the differences of the spinoff series.

But Piller was looking for a way to bring Q to Deep Space Nine. He knew enough to admit (in an interview) that "if you just have him come on and say "Look, is this the new show?,' it's silly." But he wanted to have Q all the same, and since Vash had last been seen in Q's company, Piller thought he'd found a natural opportunity. When he assigned script duties to staff writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe, it was with the directive to add Q to the story.

Wolfe was a veteran of The Next Generation who had made the jump to Deep Space Nine. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, he speculated that this actually worked against him on this episode. The Deep Space Nine characters were still largely unknown at this point, but "Q was familiar to me ... and he was so fun to write." The two familiar characters, Q and Vash, gobbled up all the screen time, resulting in a guest-star-centric episode.

It's questionable how true this episode is to the character of Q in any case. Sure, he's funny here. I laughed, even re-watching it. But his motivations for wanting to stay together with Vash are unclear. She should be so far beneath him as to be completely uninteresting after their time together. Actor John de Lancie said the behavior he was asked to play here amounted to "skirt-chasing," and though he could imagine Vash's connection to Picard being some kind of motivation for Q, it's not part of the script. (And rightly so. This episode is already enough of a sequel to an episode of an entirely different television series.)

The Deep Space Nine characters really are bystanders in their own story. Odo, Kira, and Dax are barely in the episode. (Jake is absent altogether.) Bashir's role is to creepily chase two different women (having given up on Dax for the moment?), before literally sleeping for the back half of the episode. O'Brien's job is to provide exposition for anyone who hasn't seen the Vash and Q episodes of The Next Generation. Sisko's one meaningful scene is to punch Q in the face, but it hardly makes Sisko look daring since Q is rather de-fanged in this episode -- he doesn't even retaliate with "Qpid" level playfulness, much less "Q Who" level deadliness.

Quark is the one regular character that gets anything of substance this episode -- and it isn't necessarily great. His bargaining skills fly out the window the moment Vash molests him. (Oo-mox puts the sexual harassment shoe on the other foot. Hooray for equality?) He's ostensibly better at pimping merchandise at an auction than Vash, but his actual technique doesn't provide the strongest evidence.

There are at least a couple moments dropped in that, while not paying off well here, do set up some good things for future Deep Space Nine episodes. Bashir tells his story of confusing a preganglionic fiber with a postganglionic nerve for the first time. O'Brien's there to hear it and roll his eyes, too, the beginning of the "frenemy" phase of their relationship. And, in a purely flavorful tidbit, this episode marks the first mention of "gold-pressed latinum."

Other observations:
  • This episode is so guest-star oriented that it even makes room for a boring scene in which Vash interacts with another guest star to stash items into a deposit box. I can only imagine that the scene is so long because the writers think they're cleverly hiding the episode's "Macguffin crystal" amid other items. It's a tissue-thin pretense that fails to conceal anything.
  • Speaking of that crystal, the fact that it turns into a giant space alien at the end of the episode is a worthless, out-of-nowhere twist that only serves to make the episode feel like a spiritual sequel to another Next Generation episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."
  • Q actually says the word "technobabble" out loud, making it canon of a sort.
  • What the hell is going on with Vash's weird necklace-that's-also-earrings?
  • It's still too early in the series for the Morn to be a source of fun. But we still get some mirth from a non-speaking character when the six-fingered alien raises his hand to bid at the auction.
I'll be honest. Because I have of course seen The Next Generation and I do know Vash and Q, there's a part of me that enjoys this episode. As an installment of Star Trek, it might even rate a B-. But as an episode of Deep Space Nine, it's a C at best.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

This Movie Is Sick

The "rom-com" is a much-maligned movie genre. (Hell, I don't think much of them myself, most of the time.) But sometimes a movie comes along the shakes up the formula and does something different and special -- a movie like The Big Sick.

Starring comedian (and Silicon Valley star) Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick is a story inspired by real life. He and his wife Emily V. Gordon teamed up to write a script based on how they actually met. A short span of dating led to a break-up, and then immediately went into upheaval when Emily became suddenly and mysteriously sick and was placed into a medically induced coma. "Film Kumail" must suddenly interact with the parents of "film Emily," whom he's never met, all the while trying to deal with his own overbearing family.

Rom-coms are a predictable genre, and of course this one is too, despite the radical change-up in narrative. Gordon lived, and she and Nanjiani married, and that's how we get this story. (Also, not too many "coms" would dare to kill the love interest.) But it's not surprise or suspense that makes this movie tick. Instead, it's all about the performances, and about seeing obstacles to a relationship seldom portrayed on film.

The coma would seem to be the biggest one, on paper. But the real emotional spine of the film is the clash of cultures. Nanjiani's parents (the fictional ones, but one can assume the real ones too) are all about maintaining a cultural connection with Pakistan, and that includes trying to arrange a marriage for their son. Nanjiani can't bring himself to stand up to them for what he wants; this leads to the breakup, and the ensuing guilt when tragedy strikes. This strain between heritage and the "melting pot" feels very real and specific, while at the same time quite universal -- almost everyone has a story about hiding a truth from their parents, being unable to stand up.

The cast is really great. Nanjiani plays his own role; anyone who's watched Silicon Valley or his stand-up would have known he could nail the funny, but he's also quite potent in the dramatic moments too, and easy to root for. Zoe Kazan plays Emily, and rises to two interesting challenges in the film -- first, she has only a short time at the beginning to win the audience over to both her and the relationship; second, she has to be sympathetic after the coma when circumstances have changed wildly for everyone else but not for her.

Emily's parents are played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Both bring great shades of emotion to surprisingly nuanced roles. These two characters are said not to be too closely based on real life, but they feel just as real as everyone else, thanks to the honest portrayals. The three who play Kumail's family -- Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, and Anupam Kher -- are a lot of fun, and while they don't have to do as much of the "heavy lifting," they do get their own more dramatic moments to shine.

The Big Sick is more than a simple, fluffy rom-com, and yet remains a fundamentally "feel good" movie even as it dares to dig deeper. I enjoyed it a great deal. I give it a B+.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Firestorm

No Star Trek: Discovery this week, but The Orville is still finishing off its first season, and this week served up a spooky episode centered on Alara Kitan.

When Kitan freezes during a crisis, she blames herself for the death of crewman and questions whether she's fit for duty. But soon there's a new problem to face, as a series of bizarre and terrifying events begins to occur aboard the ship.

All episodes of The Orville have a Star Trek vibe, and some feel like they're re-mixing one episode in particular. "Firestorm" feels like more of a cocktail, mixing the scariness of "Schisms," the am-I-going-mad elements of "Remember Me," the self-doubt of "The Loss," and a few other elements as a garnish. It turns out in the end that what's really being played on is a good, old-fashioned "danger on the holodeck" episode.

Up until that final turn, I found the episode pretty good. Alara's self-reproachment was perhaps a bit over the top, but within the bounds of setting up a typical episode of television. All the various scares were well delivered. It was fun to speculate at what sort of fear demon/space monster might be at the heart of it all.

Contributing a lot to the atmosphere was a fantastic musical score by John Debney. He's actually a Star Trek alum, and you got to hear what a big difference it makes when an executive producer (Rick Berman) isn't tamping down any attempt at interesting music. This score was brazen, energetic, and tense. And scattered throughout were a number of phrases that seemed carefully curated to evoke particular movies -- the cargo bay search conjured Alien, the fight with Isaac seemed to mimic Total Recall, and more.

Unfortunately, the idea that everything we saw was all just hologram nonsense really undercut the whole thing. It did actually explain why the fears were so scattered and random -- the scenario was itself stitched together in a manner with internal logic. But the lengthy scene in which everyone gathered to explain what we'd just seen was too long and laden with exposition -- mind wipes, special regulations, who contributed which fear. On and on it went, retroactively sapping more and more of the fun out of what we'd just seen with each line.

One last bit of fun worthy of comment was the cameo appearance of Robert Picardo as Kitan's father. So far, two Star Trek main cast members have been by to direct The Orville (Robert Duncan McNeill and Jonathan Frakes), but none had found their way in front of the camera. It was inevitable that eventually someone would put in an appearance. My money would have been on Patrick Stewart, who voices a regular character on American Dad and would have been an easy phone call for Seth MacFarlane to make. But Robert Picardo got there first.

Though it didn't stick the landing, I liked "Firestorm" overall. I'd give it a B.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Thor Thubject

I was pretty down on the first two Thor movies. I didn't even see them in the theater, in fact. But the new, third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, was said to be different. It was funnier, less self-important. More like Guardians of the Galaxy. And directed with comic sensibilities by Taika Waititi, the man behind What We Do in the Shadows. Okay, then. But fool me three times, shame on me indeed.

Thankfully, I wasn't fooled this time.

I will say there isn't a whole lot of originality on display here. The plot is essentially the same as the first Thor movie: cast out of Asgard, Thor must climb back from the depths to save the day, without the use of his hammer. But this movie is a far better take on that, the movie they should have made in the first place, really.

It is funny, in part because of the script, but in larger part because it's clear that everyone involved with the movie was actually having fun this time. Chris Hemsworth has been slowly revealing himself to be a skilled comic actor, after getting some of the better jokes in the first two Avengers, then stealing the show in Vacation and Ghostbusters. Here, the movie makes use of this, alternately letting Thor command the humorous moments and taking the wind from his sails.

Tom Hiddleston, of course, has been having fun as Loki from day one, and this movie is no exception. And the Loki fun extends to Anthony Hopkins; we saw from the end of the previous Thor film that Loki had disguised himself as Odin, and Hopkins' scenes of Loki-as-Odin are really great. You feel like he's really savoring a kind of acting he almost never gets to do. Mark Ruffalo is getting to branch out in different ways too, spending as much time or more as Hulk in this movie than as Bruce Banner, and infusing a lot of character into his motion capture performance.

The new characters are fun too. Jeff Goldblum is brought in to go full Goldblum, blending all the craziness of his wildest performances (including batty commercial pitchman) into a form of self-parody that's actually quite hilarious. Cate Blanchett seems to revel in getting to play the villain, chewing the scenery so hard in every scene that it's a good thing lots of the scenery is computer generated. She really doesn't get enough screen time for how fun she is in this movie, but I still appreciate what we do get. Then there's Tessa Thompson, who after playing tightly wound and severe on Westworld, here gets to cut loose and kick ass. I love Natalie Portman in general, but sorry, Thompson is a much better fit for this franchise.

The actors making cameo appearances are perhaps having the most fun of all. Benedict Cumberbatch's brief appearance as Doctor Strange is fairly well known, and a hilarious highlight of the first act. There are some other even briefer appearances early in the movie that have also been widely reported -- though if you haven't heard about them, it's better to be surprised. Suffice it to say, all these cameo appearances effectively take Thor (the character and the franchise) down a peg, a recurring theme of the movie that works great.

Third time's a charm, I guess. I give Thor: Ragnarok a B+. It's already been displaced from the biggest movie screens by the arrival of Justice League, but it's probably still worth getting out to the theater for in the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

DS9 Flashback: Captive Pursuit

The production schedule of broadcast television is a merciless, inexorable beast. Sometimes, bad episodes get made even when everyone knows it at the time, because something has to get in front of the camera to make the air date. Later on, with perspective, the creative forces behind a show recognize their "less than best" efforts. Not so with Deep Space Nine's "Captive Pursuit."

The first visitor from the Gamma Quadrant arrives through the wormhole, a secretive reptilian alien who calls himself Tosk. (Name? Species? Job? He's secretive about that too.) O'Brien tries to befriend him and draw him out, but things grow more complicated when more Gamma Quadrant visitors arrive, hunting Tosk for sport like an animal.

There are a surprising number of people behind the series who regard "Captive Pursuit" as one of the best episodes of the first season. It's understandable actor Colm Meaney would feel this way, since it focuses on his character, O'Brien. (Though he cited less personal reasons in an interview, noting that the question of whether to interfere with an alien society's patently barbaric practices was a "classic Star Trek story.") Producers and series co-creators Rick Berman and Michael Piller also called this a favorite from year one.

I think perhaps the good feelings stem from the way this show marked a big step forward in establishing the identity of Deep Space Nine as a separate thing from The Next Generation. It's a problem that comes to the station, not a "new life form" the crew "seeks out." And the resolution is more morally ambiguous. For one, O'Brien cheats the straight and narrow rules to help Tosk in the end. Moreover, it's really not lasting help; Tosk goes free only to be surely captured somewhere down the line, and certainly without any change to the society that engages in this bloodsport.

All that is great on paper, at least. The problem is that on screen, it's not very engaging. To my mind, it comes down to problems with pacing and urgency. No one seems particularly bothered that Tosk is withholding information... though you could argue that almost makes sense, given that Tosk doesn't really act like someone being hunted. He should be running for his life, afraid he could be caught any moment, but gives only lip service to the idea that he's in a rush. Perhaps the current depiction of Saru on Star Trek: Discovery casts a shadow here; Saru has learned to live with the feeling of being hunted, yet still comes off more credibly like "prey" than Tosk does here.

The pacing remains lax even when the hunters arrive. There's a fire fight on the promenade that includes plenty of phaser shots and even a loose sense of tactics, but it all feels less kinetic than a laser tag or paintball match, never mind a situation where lives are actually on the line. And the action suffers even more from Rick Berman's edict that the musical scores of his Trek shows never do anything flashy. There's no tension or sense of stakes at all.

It also doesn't help that Tosk plays like a first draft of a later element of Deep Space Nine that here hadn't been thought out fully. So much of Tosk ended up a part of the Jem'Hadar -- existing only to serve a more powerful race, the reptilian appearance, the ability to cloak. Even the actor who plays Tosk, Scott MacDonald, would wind up playing a Jem'Hadar in a later episode.

There are a few decent character moments scattered throughout that do pull the episode back to middling. Because O'Brien doesn't know his new commander well enough yet, he can't confide in Sisko his plan to set Tosk free. (Even though Sisko implicitly approves of it in the end with a sly "I guess that one got by us.") This is the also episode where Odo makes explicit the fact that he never carries a weapon, a detail that actor Rene Auberjonois then dutifully safeguarded going forward any time someone tried to hand him a phaser prop.

However, the one element of the episode that plays worst today is the opening scene, in which a dabo girl comes to Sisko to complain that Quark has been sexually harassing her, and has even made accepting such harassment a condition of her employment. It's quite timely to be watching this scene now, when similar allegations are cropping up daily, and being taken seriously. On the other hand, how dated the scene appears, in that it's played just as a comedic slide whistle, a cold open to start the episode that has no thematic connection to the plot and is never brought up again. Still, it could have been worse. According to episode director Corey Allen, an early draft of this scene actually had Sisko flirting with the vulnerable dabo girl and trying to land a date. Whoever saw fit to cut that, bless you.

Other observation:
  • Just this one, really: how bonkers is it that anyone can just ask the computer where the weapons are stored on the station (whether they're in a "secure" area or not)?
The weakest episode of Deep Space Nine so far, I give "Captive Pursuit" a C. The show had been hitting better to this point than The Next Generation in its early days, but it had to stumble eventually.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

It All Works Out

After our group was humbled the last time we attempted an escape room, we got together again recently to try another room. It was also a new company for us, EscapeWorks Denver, in the heart of downtown.

There were 9 of us, planning to split up into two groups. We got a call from the company an hour before, though, that one of the rooms had a broken element that would make it unplayable. Already being in the area, we decided to combine into a "super group" to take on a Casino Heist: after planning a caper with an absent "partner" who double-crossed us, we had one hour to enter the vault and then escape the trap before the "police" arrived.

This room was meant for a maximum of 8, but they did let us all go in because of the technical difficulties on their end. We did learn, though, that the escape room experience is awfully crowded when you play at the max (much less above it). It's just hard for everyone to find a way to contribute. Any puzzle you look to already has two or three people working it who seem to have it well in hand; leave them to find another puzzle and you'll just find the same thing.

Still, we did manage to avoid stepping on each other's toes too badly, and almost everyone had their moment to shine on one puzzle or another. I was particularly glad that I did, as I also had a "poisoning the well" moment on an earlier puzzle. I'd misinterpreted a particular written clue in a way that was leading me to a wrong answer, and had successfully infected the thinking of several others with my wrong assumptions. It definitely cost us some time and effort.

EscapeWorks has an interesting solution to the problem that plagued us last time we went to an escape room: being too proud to ask for a clue. We swore to ourselves going in that we weren't going to be like that this time, but it turns out that wasn't how clues worked at this place. There was a TV screen inside the room, and clues appeared at the observer's discretion. If they felt you'd been stuck on something too long, a clue would appear on the monitor after a while. Not everyone was a fan of this approach; there were a few cases where some people wished we'd been given more time to figure things out for ourselves before getting even a small nudge. (But no one could quite bring themselves to ignore the monitor altogether.) In any event, it did keep us moving forward.

We were successful in our escape, with just under 12 minutes remaining. As further apology for the problems with the second room, we were given some passes to return, but we almost certainly would have planned to go back anyway. The production values felt much higher than Colorado Escape. The puzzles were varied and clever. And they've got four other rooms available (when working, anyway) for you to take on.

We'll be back for more...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Cupid's Dagger

When a TV show builds a major event into a character's back story right from square one, it's inevitable that some episode will delve into it deeper. The Orville is no exception, building an episode around Darulio, the infamous "squirting blue alien" that came between Mercer and Grayson. Less expected, perhaps, was seeing that alien embodied by none other than Rob Lowe. Seth MacFarlane seems to have an exhaustive Contact List, though, and a crazy makeup job wasn't enough to deter Lowe from coming to play.

This was the silliest episode of The Orville by far; all aspects of the plot were handled lightly. That included the ostensibly serious subplot of the alien diplomatic negotiations, and Yaphit's pursuit of Dr. Finn. The actors seemed to be having a lot of fun with it, from Lowe enacting a full charm offensive to MacFarlane being dopey and smitten, to Penny Johnson Jerald going for broke and trusting the CG artists not to leave her hanging. (They didn't.)

I admit, I laughed quite a bit. Then afterward, I had second thoughts. Attitudes about consent and sex are undergoing a titanic shift right now, and this episode is airing in a world radically more aware than even the one in which it was filmed only months ago. This episode was meant to go down light and easy, and at times it did; nevertheless, taking a wider view of it, there are elements that really shouldn't read as so funny.

Darulio knows fully what he does to others while he's "in heat," but has no problem exploiting their compromised ability to give consent. This is probably now the second time he's done it to Grayson -- I'm going to go with yes; she's long been unable to fully articulate why she did what she did with him. He's now done the same to Mercer too (who, thankfully, at least wasn't "horrified" at having had a same-sex encounter). He's broken up a marriage. He's basically a walking rufie, which, when you stop to think about it more than what the episode gives space for, is kind of terrible.

The Yaphit/Finn story shows the dark side of the glamorized Hollywood "keep chasing the girl until you wear her down" trope. Yaphit has always oozed near the border of taste, and it's been just "Yaphit being Yaphit." He can hardly be blamed for what happened here, having no way of knowing that Finn was not voluntarily giving into his "charms" at last. Still, he took advantage of her, and likely would never have been in a position to do so if the prior rebuffing of his constant "background harassment" had been received seriously.

So, yeah, ugh. Hard to like this one. Hard to completely like how I reacted to it, thinking about how hard I laughed at some of it. The Orville is trying to be Star Trek (I mean that in the best way), and Star Trek tries to make you think. So you could say that this episode was a triumph; I am certainly thinking now. But it's abundantly clear that none of these issues were actual authorial intent here. It was supposed to just be a fun romp.

This one's hard to place on the scale, but I think I'm going to call it a C+. Examining the Mercer/Grayson relationship and trying to bring more closure on their past was a good instinct. The cast was game to have fun here. Not all the jokes were inappropriate (though not letting us hear Bortus sing "My Heart Will Go On" was cruel.) But the rest of the episode was simply not okay.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Into the Forest I Go

It's crazy to think that Star Trek: Discovery had ever planned to go on hiatus with last week's episode rather than this week's. This was the tense, dramatic, action-packed note the show needed to go out on, and it certainly has me anticipating the series' return in January.

If you're going to nitpick, there are certainly some details in the episode that don't quite bear scrutiny -- the idea that Tyler would be tasked to board a Klingon ship in the first place (given his history), the character shift that Lorca is suddenly good at pep talks, Burnham lasting for even a moment in hand-to-hand combat with Kol, and of course the you-can-see-trouble-coming-from-light-years-away "one last jump" Stamets decides to take in the final moments. But these lapses in logic felt small to me, and at least in service of good moments for the characters.

Burnham got some closure (or at least, some vengeance) over the death of Georgiou, confronting Kol and reclaiming her captain's badge. There were some aspects of this confrontation that I wish had been set up a long time ago -- the "Hunt for Red October" style treatment of the Klingon language (finally sparing us from reading the worst font ever), and truly positioning Kol as a villain, but the payoff generally led to the right place. Burnham's Vulcan-cultivated exterior cracked, and then crumbled entirely later, in the quiet scene with Tyler. It was a potent journey for the character.

Tyler was brought face-to-face with his torturer, L'Rell, and the experience shattered him. There was some debate in fandom about whether "Star Trek on streaming" properly utilized its lack of language restrictions a few episodes back; I am in any case much more impressed here with how they decided to incorporate nudity -- not to titillate, but to horrify. The images of Tyler's torture and rape were truly disturbing, even as fleeting and scattered as they were. (Or perhaps because of it.) It tore down Tyler's veneer, for an emotional reckoning that's been inevitable since the character's arrival.

You're going to want to skip this paragraph if you're not up on the internet's big theory about Tyler. This episode seemed to confirm it, given L'Rell's behavior toward Tyler once she was captured. Tyler is Voq, rendered human by surgery and inserted as an agent in the Federation. Based on what we saw, Tyler doesn't actually know he's Voq, a development that certainly saves it from being the dumbest plot twist ever. If you assume there was a real Tyler, and that his brain was picked clean by a Klingon mind sifter (original series shout-out!) you can reason how Voq-Tyler was "made." Moreover, by making him being a sleeper, the emotional arc of this story isn't compromised. Tyler's experiences are still valid and not play acting. And now he'll also have to reckon with the differences once he learns the truth -- that his sexual encounters with L'Rell were no doubt consensual and loving, and that his memories of mutilation are no doubt of the surgery that transformed him.

The best character arc of the episode was for Stamets, who chose to risk it all (and/or who got manipulated into it by Lorca) on a dangerous plan to use the spore drive to pierce the Klingon cloaking technology. Prickly to noble in 7 episodes sounds like an awfully compressed character arc, but it did feel like we got to see every important step on that journey. More importantly, we got to see it culminate in one of the most loving romantic moments ever portrayed on Star Trek, which also happened to center on a gay couple. The kiss with Culber was a powerful enough moment, but the exchange "I love yous" -- which sure felt in context like saying goodbye forever -- was wrenching. Stamets may have survived that moment, and we may have even been fairly confident that he was going to, but the moment still felt honest and potent when they played it.

A second online fan theory seemed to get some love too, the one regarding Captain Lorca. But for now, I'll keep vague on this one. Suffice it to say, the evidence in this episode remained somewhat circumstantial, though the correlation felt much stronger.

Between emotional payoffs and post-hiatus teases, this episode felt to me like one of the strongest yet. I give it an A-. See you in January, Discovery.

Friday, November 10, 2017

To the Manner, Bored

I'm now seven episodes into what's been announced as a ten-episode, limited-run podcast, and I'm pretty sure I don't like it. Yet I've come so far, I'm also pretty sure I'm going to be seeing it through to the bitter end.

The podcast in question is Deadly Manners, a fully-cast work of fiction about an upper crust 1950s dinner party that devolves into a murder spree. It was the cast that drew me in, which includes Kristen Bell, Denis O’Hare, RuPaul, Timothy Simons, Anna Chlumsky, and is narrated by LeVar Burton. It's a potent lineup for a medium that in most cases hasn't figured out yet how to make money, and it definitely got my attention.

You can also tell from that lineup that this thing is probably meant to be funny. The movie Clue, as a radio drama. Maybe that was the first problem, because Clue is a bit of lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance that seems difficult to recapture. But the second, bigger problem, is that it seems the podcast isn't always on that page.

Kristen Bell is playing a ludicrously self-centered socialite (think of her character on The Good Place, but rich). Timothy Simons has all the bluster and insensitivity of his Veep character, swapping obliviousness for drunkenness). Anna Chlumsky adopts a weird accent and just chews the imaginary scenery. But the script isn't feeding them material that works for how broad they're all playing.

Meanwhile, RuPaul is playing as though just being there is enough of a joke, and Denis O'Hare is actually playing it pretty straight (even though everyone who saw True Blood or American Horror Story: Hotel knows he can serve up a joke with tongue planted firmly in cheek). Then you've got LeVar Burton holding court over it all; it sort of sounds like now and then, he's got a twinkle in an eye you can't see, but he's generally reading with such gravitas as to throw another weird gear into the mix.

I suspect part of why it doesn't all gel is that it wasn't all recorded together. That's just the bizarre way of doing things when it comes to animation, audiobooks, anything that involves standing at a microphone in a studio. That would go doubly so for a low-budget enterprise like a podcast, which surely could never actually get a cast this big standing together in a room all at the same time. But it's the core of comedy (and in particular, of something like Clue) to feed off the energy of the other performers. Here, when no one really knew how anyone else was doing it, the results are a jumble.

Weirder still are the sound effects used throughout each episode of the podcast. LeVar Burton often narrates a noise about to be made when we wind up hearing it anyway a moment later. The sounds are always maxed out in volume and jarring -- a breaking champagne glass sounds like a shattering window, a slamming door sounds like a crypt being sealed. And several times an episode, character dialogue is inexplicably panned from one speaker to the other, implying movement even if the character isn't logically moving.

I really don't like it, to be honest. But before I had really figured that out, I was already enough episodes in that I knew I was going to have to see it through. It's a whodunit, after all... and now I've got to know whodunit. New episodes are released each Tuesday, so I guess I have 3 Tuesdays to go before I'm released from my self-imposed prison.

Alright, it's not that bad. (If it were, surely I'd be able to pull away.) There are moments where the different performers are clearly having so much fun that it pushes through the mess and puts a smile on my face. But I still wouldn't recommend it; this review is more to wave anyone off that may have heard of this thing. I give Deadly Manners a C-. (Though I suppose that could adjust up or down, depending on how worthwhile the mystery's resolution ends up being.)