Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Plus One

When I caught up to the third episode of this new season of The X-Files and saw that it was written by Chris Carter, I actually cringed. He was the writer responsible for that terrible season opener that almost made me bail on the show entirely. But get him back to self-contained stories, it seems, and he can still manage to pull out a decent episode of the show he created.

"Plus One" saw Mulder and Scully investigating a series of unusual suicides in which the victims claimed to be seeing dopplegangers of themselves before their deaths. The agents circle in on a pair of schizophrenic twins who seem to have some sort of supernatural power to have orchestrated the deaths. But before they can figure out exactly what's happening, the hunters become the hunted -- Mulder and Scully begin to see copies of themselves, an omen that they'll die next.

I was just talking about how a lot of television is opting for the big moment of surprise instead of showing us important character scenes. This episode got it right. It almost slavishly followed the classic X-Files formula. Mulder was spinning wild theories, some wide of the mark. Scully was skeptical, though just shaken enough for a little doubt to creep in. You absolutely knew that one of them was going to be targeted and seeing their own doppleganger by the final act; the only surprise is that you probably didn't expect it to be both of them. (I didn't, anyway.)

Instead of going for surprises (that wouldn't have surprised), the episode spent a fair amount of time on the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since the show never really got all that specific about their original transition to more than friends, it kind of works that we don't really know quite how they're back to just being friends again. But showing us how they interact with each other now is interesting. They get separate hotel rooms, but they're still there to comfort each other when needed (in a rather intimate way). I do wish that there hadn't been quite the gender-biased emphasis on Scully's aging (more so than Mulder's), but it was nice to see their conversation veer into this more personal and deep area than they ever used to venture.

The guest characters were fun too. It was all about pairs. Not only was there the sister and brother at the core of the mystery, but there were dual personalities residing within each of them. We also got comic relief from the paired nurses that interacted with Scully at the hospital. The characters who saw their own murderous dopplegangers were fun too: a hard-partying clubber and a sleazy lawyer. It was all a pretty fun little stew of quirky ingredients.

Compared to the last Chris Carter-penned X-Files episode, I was downright blown away. In the broader spectrum, though, I'd give "Plus One" a B. I might just be back to a point where I don't have to feel as embarrassed about watching The X-Files. (And I hear the next episode in my queue was a particularly great one.)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Best Laid Plans

There's a trend among many of the television shows I watch right now to value surprise over character. Rather than laying out in a clear way how a character is able to get from A to B (and maybe how they grow in the process), the climax of an episode just springs "B" on the audience for shock value. Generally, I'm not a fan of this approach.

Because of this, I'm wagging my finger a bit at the most recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D -- especially at the Mack and Yo-Yo storyline. Back at the Lighthouse, the two were trying to unify the oppressed humans into a resistance against the Kree, but stopped short when they discovered that bombs were planted throughout the superstructure of the base -- Kasius would use them to kill everyone without a second thought. In rather direct terms, we're told that there's absolutely no way all those bombs could be removed in the time they have, and that there would be no way to unite all the people of the Lighthouse on that task or any other.

Cut to the big showdown with Kasius, where Flint shows up at the last minute with nonsensical news. Somehow, off screen, all the people have banded together, and they have managed to remove and relocate all those bombs. What the hell? I didn't even fell like I got a real thrill of surprise out of this climax, because it flew in the face of what we'd been told. If Mack and Yo-Yo found a way to pull off the impossible, I wanted to see it! What words did they find to inspire everyone? How were they able to break through the "everyone for themselves" mentality drilled into these people from birth? It's not like it's actually a surprise that Kasius is going to lose in the end -- this is "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", after all. So how about showing how the heroes triumph and not merely that they do?

That wasn't the only nonsense infecting that particular story line. The Tess component of it had problems too. Not the actual return of the character; I actually found that an effective "unringing" of the bell that killed all the characters a few weeks back. Returning a character from death actually made more torment for Flint in a dramatic way. It was also compelling to have her more under the sway of Kasius, believing (as you'd expect she would, after being resurrected) that he was a god. But here again, we got surprise over character. What happened to break the spell over her? What was said to convince her that she should turn on a god and help? What convinced her that Flint, Mack, and Yo-Yo could actually win? It's all left for us just to imagine.

The rest of the episode seemed a bit more solidly built. I liked the echoes of last week's episode into this one, of May having to reckon with the notion that she had been/could be a mother. (Daisy's jokes about it were especially great.) I also like the increasingly fatalist outlook from Fitz, in the face of what he sees as the immutable flow of time. After everything he went through to get back to Simmons, he's now checking out, believing that nothing can be done to alter destiny. Both these story threads are making main characters double back on something core to their identities in a believable way, which is a great thing for a show in its fifth season to have found.

I like that we got one last big fight involving Sinara before her end... though I admit to some confusion here. Did she lose her flying balls of death at some point that I'm forgetting? I kept waiting for her to set them loose, but it never happened. Instead, with a little (very little) last minute help from Deke, Daisy got the drop on Sinara and we heard her ominous little theme music for the last time. But actually, here's another moment where surprise displaced character development. When exactly did Deke decide definitely not to kill Daisy? What made him do it? Has he made that decision with finality, or might he be revisiting it?

The episode advanced the story well enough, and did right by some characters. Still, the way it mishandled others put a definite ceiling on my opinion of it. Fun though it was in moments, I'd give the hour a B-.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What's Past Is Prologue

This week's installment of Star Trek: Discovery was all about the thrill ride. Some plot threads with intriguing potential were snipped quickly in service of delivering high octane action. To the episode's credit, though, the action was of a much higher caliber than Star Trek fans are used to getting.

Take the first big set piece, the huge phaser fight. There's never been anything with half that intensity in Star Trek, on television or in the movies. Hundreds of blasts, force fields, flash grenades, phasers set to "cinder," phasers set to "core sample" -- it was a jaw-dropping, pulse-pounding delight.

Or take the later big action sequence, the throne room fight. This one was a more hand-to-hand affair, making use of Michelle Yeoh's martial arts abilities and proving that Sonequa Martin-Green and Jason Isaacs have some stage combat chops too. Phasers, swords, knives, fists, and feet all swirled together in another thrilling concoction.

Is space action your thing? Well then, you got to watch the Discovery fly straight down the throat of the Charon, blow it up, and surf the shock wave out.

But all the action did sometimes come at the expense of personal drama. Having just had the truth of Lorca's mirror identity revealed to us, it seemed like there would have been a lot of mileage in having him remain in the mix as a villain for at least a little while. Every single main character had a relationship with him that would be worth re-examining in light of the revelation... but it seems we'll never get the chance. Just as we came to know the real Lorca, he's gone. (That was a hell of a death, though!)

Similarly, if the mirror universe hadn't been tied up in this episode, there were a few aspects of it that could have probably sustained further exploration. The Lorca/Landry relationship is one. The Landry killed earlier in the season was not from the mirror universe, it turned out, but Mirror Landry was nevertheless someone important to Lorca. Why and how? That's for fan fiction to sort out now, I guess. It also felt like more juice could have been squeezed from the duplicitous Mirror Stamets. To what degree were his experiments sanctioned by the Emperor, or indulging his own mad scientist instincts? Shouldn't he have had more of a plan than we saw? I guess not.

At the end of the day, Michael Burnham is the star of the show. With her, at least, the personal angles were explored. She knew all the right buttons to push with Lorca and Mirror Georgiou. But she's not done trying to use a doppleganger to atone for her betrayal of her old captain -- the last minute rescue of Mirror Georgiou means she's still around for more story. (There must also be a reckoning between Michael and Voq/Tyler, who was completely out of the story this week.)

It looks as though, once again, Star Trek: Discovery has reset its premise. They've found their way back to their own universe, but too late to prevent the Klingons from defeating the Federation. Unless your bet is that Discovery takes place from now on in a parallel timeline where the Klingons conquered everything (long odds on that bet), it seems the final mini-arc of the season will be a time travel story. To what degree things get reset is an interesting conundrum. Wind things back far enough, and you could have an original Ash Tyler (before Klingon capture and Voq replacement), an original Lorca (before the Mirror version took his place), an original Georgiou, the restoration of Dr. Culber, and more. But reset things too completely, and there's a risk of undoing the stakes of everything we just went through all season. Can the writers strike a satisfying balance between "righting history" and "making it all matter?" I'm curious to see.

I really enjoyed the visceral thrills this week, but longed for at least a little more meat on the bone. I grade the episode a B.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Bad? No, Just Average.

When A Bad Moms Christmas showed up in theaters a few months ago, I thought to myself: "Wow, has it been that long since the first movie? I kind of wanted to see that. Did I really let it slide so long?" No, it hadn't been that long; the original Bad Moms was a 2016 release. And on a night when I was looking for a few laughs and nothing deep, it seemed like just the ticket.

Bad Moms stars Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn as just what the title implies. That's how society at large is judging them, anyway. They don't have everything perfectly together like the Type-A PTA president and rival played by Christina Applegate. But the three form a tight bond to help each other through their self-recrimination and struggles. With humor along the way, of course.

What I'd seen about Bad Moms before watching it wasn't quite right. I was expecting a raunchy comedy. And while there are a few risqué jokes sprinkled in here and there, it really didn't feel to me like in went far enough for the raunch-com genre. Indeed, the laughs are thinner in general than I expected. There's really a lot of story in this movie, mostly centered around Mila Kunis' character, who is navigating the breakup of her marriage, loss of her job, struggles with being a single parent, stumbles at dating, and a spite-driven run for PTA president. It's a lot of plot threads that have to be advanced and resolved in between the jokes.

When the jokes do come, at least, they're pretty funny. Kunis, Bell, and Hahn make a great trio. In particular, if you're a Kristen Bell fan, this is a fun one for the chance to see her play against type -- she's not as sassy and put-together as most characters she's played. Kathryn Hahn is the broadest of the three, playing the one character I think actually lives up to the title (though, I admit, "Struggling Moms" or "Overworked Moms" aren't punchy titles). Kunis often winds up playing the comedy straight man setting up material for the other two, though the movie is smart enough not to squander her own comic timing completely -- it does give her moments to shine.

It's just that the whole thing is quite a lot thinner than I was hoping it might be. I couldn't say for sure, though, whether this is a matter of my own false expectations, the mark of an average movie, a symptom of Hollywood not giving women as funny a script, or me not actually being the core audience for this film. I just know that while I was entertained at times, I wanted more overall. I'd give Bad Moms a C+. It may still be worth watching if you're a fan of any of the stars, but I can't imagine it ever becoming a "wow, you haven't seen that movie?!" kind of movie.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Shapely Review

The Oscar nominations have been revealed, and the movie earning the most this year was The Shape of Water. I'd happened to catch it just the night before the Oscar announcement, and while I doubt I'd have praised it with more nominations than any other film last year (as the Academy did), it is nevertheless worth attention.

The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults, an odd blend of fantasy with Cold War period piece, a science fiction romance. It's directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, his most acclaimed effort since Pan's Labyrinth. There's a lot in common between the two films, too, though this one generally strikes a lighter tone.

The story revolves around Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor on the night shift at a secure military facility. Researchers at the facility have brought in a strange aquatic (but humanoid) creature, hoping that experiments on it will yield advances for the space program. Russians want to get their hands on it. The Colonel who captured it is a ruthless sadist who would just as soon kill and dissect it. Elisa sees in the creature a kindred spirit, and in secret forges a bond with it that begins as friendship before blossoming into something more.

The movie is meticulously crafted, with visuals as painstakingly composed as you could imagine. It's not subtle, with the dialogue calling attention (multiple times) to the color choices already obvious throughout the film. Everything is vibrant while being pastel, like an old photograph beginning to fade with age. The camera placements often suggest photographs too, or more accurately, a storybook page brought to life. The world is a little "more real than real" -- more detailed, more colorful.

The performances are great. Sally Hawkins earns her Oscar nomination for this performance as Elisa, conveying great depth and emotion without words. She's supported by an outstanding cast from top to bottom. Michael Shannon plays as intimidating and deplorable a baddie as he's ever played. Michael Stuhlbarg brings much needed nuance and empathy to a role that could easily not have been sympathetic.

Two other performances besides Hawkins also received Oscar nominations. Richard Jenkins does a lot to lift up what I'd say is the weakest character on the page. He's a struggling artist whose subplot sort of falls off halfway through the film, and whose character arc feels incomplete. Jenkins is good enough to make you see overlook the shortcomings. Then there's the wonderful Octavia Spencer. I'm tempted to say she's phoning it in a bit here, playing a similar character as she did in The Help and Hidden Figures. The thing is, though, even if this is easy repetition for her, she's just so damn good at it, funny and entertaining and warm throughout. I can't begrudge her the nomination.

If I'd been in charge of handing out the Oscar nominations, though, I would have made sure to give one to Doug Jones. He's the actor playing the "Amphibian Man," as the credits identify him, and it's hard to overstate what an accomplishment the performance is. He's covered head to toe in makeup that looks uncomfortable at best, and was likely just plain painful. He's in water most of the time. He has no dialogue to work with at all. How he could get any kind of performance at all through all those layers of difficulty is beyond me, and in fact he gets a very moving one. (Plus, I would have taken geeky pleasure in watching Jones play Saru over on Star Trek: Discovery, knowing that the currently running Star Trek series had an Oscar nominated actor in the cast. Alas.)

Though there's much to appreciate about The Shape of Water, it's also not a perfect film. The fairy tale nature of it occasionally swerves a bit into cartoonishness, becoming too light to mesh well with the primary romance or the secondary suspense. There are those dangling plot threads surrounding the Richard Jenkins character. Overall, though, it's an enjoyable enough movie.

I'd put The Shape of Water at a B+, though high enough in that range that it slides into the #5 slot on my list of the Top Movies of 2017. Having seen 6 of the 9 Best Picture nominees so far, there are two I'd put higher than this. Still, #5 on my list would be high enough for a "nomination" if I had awards to give.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

This

That crap-tacular premiere episode of the new season of The X-Files really took the wind from my sails. My husband (who basically missed the show in its original run) had no interest in continuing. Even when I found time on my own where I could keep watching it myself, I hesitated. But finally, nervously, I started up the next episode.

"This" (seriously, that's all they named the episode -- good luck Googling it) kicks off when the apparent ghost of one of the long-dead Lone Gunmen shows up on Mulder's phone to deliver a staticky message. Langly knows he's not actually alive, he tells them, but he needs help. Yet before Mulder and Scully can figure out what that means and how a dead man is contacting them, assassins arrive at the house to try to take them out. Soon the duo is on the run from everyone, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

There were some nice aspects to this episode. But there's also a big problem at the very core of how The X-Files is constituted in 2018. Sure, it was a predictable trope back in the day to have Mulder pitch some wild-ass theory and have Scully doubt it. Sure, at some point it strained credibility to have Scully keep reflexively doubt things after all she'd seen. But that believer/skeptic dynamic was necessary to anchor the bizarre stories in some semblance of plausibility. And in the original run, when Scully's "suspension of belief" could no longer be maintained, that's where the admittedly rocky characters of Doggett and Reyes at least served to help bring in a dash of realism.

Now it's just Mulder and Scully, and there's no skeptic anymore. That's the only way to be honest to Scully's character at this point, of course, but it also means that there's absolutely no tether to reality anymore either. Mulder and Scully just take turns spouting nonsense, which the other accepts immediately without question. They pluck exposition from nowhere, rocket the plot forward with impossible intuitive leaps, and generally avoid bringing any credible sense of "science" to the "science fiction." It's all a bit ridiculous now, at times such a silly parody of itself that it threatens to undermine the entire legacy of what was ever good about The X-Files.

But at least they're trying to be honest with how the two main characters would be after all they've been through. Poor Walter Skinner, and poor Mitch Pileggi, who has to play him. I can't even perceive a true core anywhere in that character anymore. He's just purposefully obtuse now, unable to say anything that might suggest he's clearly on one side or another, unable to serve as anything but a hackneyed plot device.

Still, even as the story trappings are unapologetically bonkers, at least there is some fun to be had this episode (unlike the premiere). That's the up side of Mulder and Scully being more on the same page than they've ever been. I don't think we've ever seen them work as a team as effectively as they did in this episode -- making an escape when triple-handcuffed together, tag-teaming an investigation with essentially no resources, making plans within plans, generally having each others' back.

I asked of the premiere what it was that could possibly have made David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson want to return to do more of this show. This would be it, I think. It looked like they were just having a hell of a lot of fun this episode. Their ruse to break in to the facility -- Scully calling Mulder a Lecter-type, and Mulder hamming it up with Anthony Hopkins' signature air sucking -- was no more tethered to reality than any of the rest of the episode, but it was at least funny. All the banter between the two throughout the episode was, really. So, that's something.

Is it enough? Hard to say. If I watch another of these X-Files episodes, I could easily imagine it taking another two weeks to get to it. If I reach some tipping point where the number of these piling up on me feels like homework more than entertainment, I might not ever finish the season. "This" was better than the premiere.... but I'd still only give it a C+. Fond feelings for the old days of The X-Files might carry me through in the fact of that, but let's be honest -- in this era of great television, who has time to waste on a C+?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Last Day

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tried for a really heavy emotional lift in its most recent episode, but I felt like it didn't quite get there.

The episode revolved around Robin, the Inhuman cursed with visions of the future. The sandbox the writers were playing in was one used by many other sci-fi shows (and particular Star Trek episodes that quickly come to mind). We've seen the conceit where one character lives a life that no others will remember. We've seen a dark reality play out (sometimes at length) even when it will ultimately be undone by the heroes. I have been made to care about this sort of story in other contexts. It just didn't work that well for me here.

I think the key is that Robin is just a guest character, and one we don't know all that much about. We'd barely seen her as a child, and had never seen her before as an adult. In every incarnation of the character, we were kept at arm's length by how her visions kept her from clearly communicating. She's been sympathetic to some extent, but ultimately unknowable. And yet, in the twisted-up timelines of the story now being told, her story has to matter to us for it to matter at all.

We got lots of glimpses of a terrible possible timeline for the main characters -- but none of them will ever actually experience it or even remember it by the time this whole story is wrapped up. We didn't even get to see many of the most impactful particulars. We hear about the deaths of Mack and Simmons, but they're off-screen. We see May tap some inner source of warmth to become a mother to Robin, but it's hard to imagine that the May we know will ever be affected by that reality without living it. If only we'd had a little more investment in the character of Robin, this all might have landed more effectively.

It also might have helped over in the Flint story line if any of the other recurring characters at the Lighthouse had been left alive in the big purge of over the last couple episodes. But at least in this story, Mack and Yo-Yo were as significant in the plot as their new young friend we're just getting to know. I may not be all on board yet with our new apparent savior of the world, but I can at least enjoy Mack's thrill at getting his hands on a shotgun axe, and smile as Yo-Yo takes out a room full of monsters in the blink of an eye.

Not that a guest star focus has got to be inherently bad. Take the story line for Deke in the same episode. We've had a little more time with him to get more behind him, or at the very least start rooting for him to really embrace his inner hero. Having his veneer crack at the possibility of reuniting with his father worked for me. And there a twisting of the knife by having Daisy get his hopes up with talk of meeting her own father. When the whole thing turned out to be a ruse, it was a meaningful low moment for both.

A bit of a stumble, I feel, in what's otherwise been a really solid season so far. Not a critical one, though. I'd grade this episode a B-. And there's no reason to think things can't pick up again next time.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Vaulting Ambition

With this week's episode of Star Trek: Discovery, I think we've at last come to the end of the plot twists which online fans had sussed out in advance. Now it's official: the Captain Lorca who has been so morally grey (at best) and so different from every other Star Trek captain we've seen before is really from the Mirror Universe.

Of course, the reason why some viewers have been ahead of the plot twists is that the series has been playing fair with them -- laying track that sets things up, taking their time in places, and generally abiding to a logic that earns the new developments. And just because you know the destination hasn't made the journey less fun. Gruesome and morbid fun, sometimes, but fun nonetheless -- such as the unknowing selection by Burnham of her Kelpian dinner, or Emperor Georgiou's violent mass execution by killer frisbee.

It wasn't all surface thrills, though. The revelation that the Mirror Universe Burnham was also adopted, but by the Emperor, set up for great interplay between the two women. Michelle Yeoh perfectly walked the line between hamming it up in a Mirror persona while expressing more real anger over her betrayal by her adopted daughter. Yeoh also played her scenes in a marvelously ambiguous way -- with some wishful thinking, you could imagine the Emperor might honor her agreement with Burnham; you can just as easily anticipate a double-cross in a coming episode.

The Voq/Tyler plot thread continued this week, with Saru prevailing on L'Rell to help resolve his situation. Her idea of "help" could mean a very different thing than what Saru is hoping for, though I'll say that the final moments of this story line in this episode sure felt to me like a good old-fashioned Klingon death yell. L'Rell seemed to be grieving the death of Voq... though even if that's true, it doesn't necessarily mean the death of who we've known as Ash Tyler. If they plan to keep him on the show next season, that certainly feels like the direction they'd take.

It's less clear how long Jason Isaacs' future on the show might be, though. The revelation that Lorca is from the Mirror Universe dredges up a long list of questions. Is Lorca (and Isaacs) meant to be one season and out? Is there any way the Prime Lorca is still alive somewhere? (Or did he die on the Buran? Or by Mirror Lorca's hand?) How did Mirror Lorca cross into the Prime Universe in the first place? Was his original security officer, Landry (who was mauled by tardigrade) from the Mirror Universe too? (She certainly seemed to fit the profile.) I'm looking forward to answers, and hope the writers cook up a way of delivering them that's worthy of the fun they've had with Lorca all season.

I wasn't quite as taken with the Stamets subplot this week. Mirror Stamets didn't seem nearly as manipulative or dishonest as he should have been -- I was expecting most of what he told Prime Stamets to be a lie, but by the end of the episode it seemed like just the opposite was the case. The plot also ended on a bit of a confusing note. Were we meant to assume by the editing that the two Stametses switched bodies when they awoke from their comas? Or was that just an unfortunately misleading ordering of scenes when they were just trying to say that "Mirror Stamets is awake now too, and he's going to be trouble?'" I guess we'll find out soon enough.

More than this, though, I wasn't nearly as moved by the reunion of Stamets and Culber as I'd have hoped. The scene tried to serve the masters of both plot and character, and didn't really excel at either. The weight of Culber's death felt brushed aside as they tried to make us care more about the mycelial network's sudden crisis, and bringing on Culber to dump that exposition rushed information the writers seemingly didn't have time (or a means) to convey in a more natural manner. The meeting ended on a note suggesting that this wasn't goodbye, I guess as a way of excusing how it didn't feel like a worthy goodbye. But I'm beginning to feel a bit strung along by how the writers have been treating this pair. I wish they'd never gone the route of killing Culber, but now that we're on it, I wish they'd just let us grieve the loss and move on.

Separating out that one element, though, I found it a pretty fun episode overall. I'd mark it a B+.

Friday, January 19, 2018

DS9 Flashback: The Storyteller

Going in to my re-watch of the Deep Space Nine episode "The Storyteller," I recalled it being one of the worst episodes of the season. (And the first season being the worst overall, that meant I remembered it being one of the worst episodes of the series.) But while indeed it wasn't what I'd call "good," my feelings about the episode were a bit more complicated this time around.

When a small Bajoran village asks for help, O'Brien pilots the runabout to take Bashir there (reluctantly, as he's not keen on spending time with the doctor). But the threat isn't what either man expects. The village spiritual elder, known as the Sirah, is in failing health. The villagers claim that if he dies, no one will be able to tell "the story" that keeps at bay the Dal'Rok, a monster that storms the village for five nights each year. Learning that the creature is in fact real is only their first surprise; the bigger one comes when, just before he dies, the Sirah names O'Brien as his successor. Meanwhile, aboard the station, Sisko hosts a summit between two feuding Bajoran factions. One of the leaders, a stubborn teenager, forges a friendship with Jake and Nog.

I think that much of what makes this episode look "bad" is how is how unenlightened and backwater it makes the Bajorans appear. Star Trek to this point had had only an occasional relationship with religion, and then only to denounce a religious planet-of-the-week as primitive and uncivilized. On this series, "Emissary" made clear that there was both a basis for Bajoran religion (the Prophets are in fact real entities) and benefits to it (it's a source of emotional strength that got the Bajorans through the occupation by the Cardassians). For religion to be an ongoing part of a Star Trek series, these positives would have to be there. This episode marks a regression. As personified by the Dal'Rok, Bajoran religion is still real and is still said to have a benefit, but now seems more dangerous than beneficial. (If you're village is going to be destroyed by something imaginary, it's time to reconsider.) I think this attitude is there because this core story idea came from a Next Generation pitch leftover from its season one that head writer Michael Piller happened to like.

The backwater depiction of the Bajorans infects the B-story too. Sisko must mediate a dispute between two Bajoran factions over what sounds like a rather small strip of land. In the original, pre-wormhole context of the Federation's plans for Bajor -- to groom the planet for Federation membership -- this kind of squabble makes the Bajorans seem too far from ready to ever have bothered. We're told of nothing significant about this land that would contextualize this as an Israeli/Palestinian or Jerusalem-is-holy-to-many-religions type of conflict. It's just a low stakes fight over "just some land." Weirder still is that one of the two factions is led by a young girl. So now, one more ingredient in the "Bajorans are unevolved" stew is that some of them at least have hereditary leaders, even when that means putting a kid in charge?

Now add to all of that the episode completely ignores its most intriguing aspect. We learn that the Dal'Rok was conjured by the villager's original Sirah (with help from a Bajoran Orb fragment) to unite the village around an outside adversary. If you stop to think about it, this is really some serious nationalist, xenophobic stuff. It's almost literally the "Two Minutes Hate" from 1984, gathering everybody together in one place to shout hatred at their common enemy. Maybe it's the times we're living in now, but I really want to see this episode dig into how you undo a hateful tradition like this. I find it shocking that the episode not only doesn't question it, it ends up perpetuating it in the end.

So now that I've sold this episode as thoroughly awful, how am I going to walk it back and tell you it's maybe not that bad? Well, for starters, what we see here of Bajoran society is so inconsistent with what came before (and what would come later), that it's clearly an aberration. That in and of itself is strange and wonderful for Star Trek, which routinely depicts all non-human cultures as monolithic. For Bajor to figure prominently in the life of the series, it also needs to be diverse, and for all its flaws, "The Storyteller" shows there is diversity in Bajoran culture -- a notion that would be almost immediately picked up on and presented far better at the beginning of season two.

Then there's the Jake and Nog aspect of the B-story. It's broad at times, but it continues in what Deep Space Nine has been doing well so far: letting kids be kids. Jake and Nog still figure into the plot, giving the young leader Varis Sul just the advice she needs to solve her problems, but they get into an adolescent rivalry along the way. There's a lot of great subtext in the story here. Nog really likes this girl, but is too uptight and awkward around her to connect. Jake isn't necessarily interested in her in that way, yet is so smooth around her that Nog gets jealous. So Nog comes up with a prank that in his teen-addled mind, will simultaneously impress the girl with its cleverness and take Jake down a peg by making him look foolish. This leads to the first appearance of Odo's bucket, in the actually-pretty-funny oatmeal gag.

But the best part about the episode, the reason not to excise it from Deep Space Nine canon even if you could, is because this where the friendship between Bashir and O'Brien begins. (It's also where the writers' fondness for torturing O'Brien began in its mildest form, an at-least-annual tradition that would yield some great episodes in the future.) The idea to pair Bashir and O'Brien as friends reportedly came from writer Ira Steven Behr, and couldn't have come at a better time. Bashir was the least developed character at this point, boorish by design, and creepy and misogynist by accident. Having O'Brien, the character we've known longest (since he was on Next Generation), warm to Bashir was a great first step in addressing the problems.

The turn happens without compromising anything of what we've seen about Bashir so far. He's still blissfully unmindful of social decorum, demanding his subordinate call him "Julian" and asking him point blank: "Do I annoy you?" (An impossible question to answer.) But then when O'Brien lands in hot water, Bashir does everything you'd expect a good friend to do: he finds great entertainment in O'Brien's struggles and laughs at his expense, while still being there to support and help when it matters and things get really serious.

Other observations:
  • Quark has only a small part in this episode, but it's a satisfying one for anyone who's been put off by his boorish behavior to this point: he gets a drink thrown in his face.
  • A few episodes back, I mentioned that Rene Auberjonois realized early on that Odo had a soft spot for children. You see that here, when Odo hassles Jake and Nog multiple times throughout the episode, and is clearly having fun doing it.
  • Let's face it, if you could throw a revival like the Sirah, complete with the demon cloud descending from the sky, lightning and wind whipping around, and magical "good feelings" lights saving the day, you'd have followers too. I think the costuming and staging of all this is quite deliberate in evoking serious "Moses in The Ten Commandments" vibes.
  • The Sirah checks Bashir first before declaring that O'Brien is his successor. The "common man" O'Brien is clearly the right character to build the story around. But what's the in-universe explanation for the Sirah shoving Bashir aside to pick O'Brien? Does he recognize that Julian is so un-humble that the villagers would never even temporarily embrace him? Or is he a batty old racist who wants the guy with lighter skin?
  • Cirroc Lofton hit a major growth spurt in the months just between the pilot episode and this one. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like the costume department did the best job tailoring Jake's outfits to keep up.
  • I don't know that it's really as funny as I find it to be, but I love how O'Brien begins his telling of the story: "Once upon a time, there was a Dal'Rok."
  • Some Deep Space Nine trivia: this is the first episode in which baseball player Buck Bokai is mentioned by name. (Though you can go all the way back to The Next Generation's "The Big Goodbye" for the first reference to him, "a shortstop for the London Kings.")
The plot of "The Storyteller" has plenty of flaws. Still, in how all the main characters are written and how they interact with one another, it feels quite authentic and interesting. So I feel like this episode just squeaks into B- territory.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Man Behind the Camera

Among directors with a huge body of work, there's probably no one whose movies I've seen more of than Steven Spielberg. (And I suspect that's probably true of many film enthusiasts of my generation.) Because of this, I both had to watch and was a bit hesitant to watch a new documentary about him, Spielberg.

The "had to watch" element is probably self explanatory. Spielberg directed some of the most beloved movies of multiple decades. Any chance at insights about what makes him tick would surely be interesting. Any tidbits about the making of a famous film in particular would be the kind of stuff movie fanatics live and breathe.

The "hesitant to watch" bit was the chance that there wouldn't be anything at all revelatory here. That, and the chance that the documentary would spend a couple hours just telling us what we all already know: that Steven Spielberg is a damn talented movie maker with countless great films to his name.

Spielberg (the film) existed a bit between those two possibilities, though ultimately (unfortunately) landing more on the latter. It talked a fair amount his family background and how he was raised, and while Steven Spielberg gave generous and candid interviews about it all, he really didn't reveal much that isn't readily apparent from his films (particularly the earlier ones). As you would guess, his relationship with his father was a defining one for him. As you'd also guess, the divorce of his parents cast a long shadow on his attitudes about family and love.

The documentary did have some interesting and surprising sections, though. Many of those came when the filmmakers tempered their understandable and deserved enthusiasm for the director to examine his less successful efforts. There's a section about the making of The Color Purple (which I myself have never seen), where Spielberg talks about how his desire to see that movie made may have blinded him to the reality that maybe he himself was not the best person to have made it. He talks about his decisions to scrub some of the original novel's more controversial elements from the film, and admits that he wished he could have been more daring.

Also interesting is to hear about how other people in the industry talk about the director. The documentary features pieces of interviews with a wide range of actors who have worked for him, and a number of directors whose careers blossomed around the same time. When they talk about what Steven Spielberg does and how he does it so well, the documentary makes great use of film clips to highlight exactly what they're talking about. As in any industry, it's interesting to hear how professionals talk about others in their field.

But, at the end of the day, this documentary isn't nearly as revealing or fascinating as I would have hoped for. It feels geared toward a more casual moviegoer, the sort who would recognize Spielberg by his ubiquity, but who doesn't usually like to glimpse behind the scenes. That's not me, nor do I suspect it's most of my readers. This is one you can probably skip. I'd give Spielberg a B-.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What's in a Name?

It's unfortunately not too rare a thing for a mostly good movie to have a weak ending. I feel like I've adjusted to that, and generally know how to process a move that stumbles at the finish line. (It generally works out like gymnastics scoring; you give a deduction for not sticking the landing, depending on how much it undermines what came before.) I'm having a much harder time sussing out my thoughts on a new movie that does the opposite, delivering 15 minutes of concentrated amazing right at the end, after a boring snooze of a story.

Call Me By Your Name is in the Oscar mix this year, said to be a likely Best Picture contender and certain to get a Best Actor nomination for its star Timothée Chalamet. Set in the Italian countryside in 1983, it's the story of Elio, the 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor. He's been brought to Italy for the summer as his father works, but he doesn't have much to do with his days but read and flirt. (Hard life.) When a graduate student named Oliver arrives to support his father's work, Elio is awash in confusing feelings. But over the next few weeks, things become much more clear -- he's utterly smitten with the man.

I think it's hard to know whether this is a movie that would be in the Oscar mix on its own merits were it not for the fact that Moonlight took home the Best Picture statue last year. It is nice that stories with LGBT protagonists can actually get noticed and appreciated now; I just wish this one weren't so relentlessly boring. Moonlight at least was narratively interesting in its three-act construction, and had a reasonable sense of stakes -- of risk -- because of the life its main character had built for himself.

Call Me By Your Name feels about as low stakes as you can get. Brought to Italy from America, Elio is quite free to explore whatever he wants in relative isolation; few consequences are likely to follow him home. His parents (particularly his father) are so consumed by their own day-to-day routines, it feels like he's free to do whatever he wants and they're never going to find out -- what they might think of his coming out to them (as gay or bisexual; the movie leaves some ambiguity on this) hardly seems like a concern either.

The movie's pace is as lacking as the stakes. I'd say it's a "slow burn" getting to the blossoming of the relationship between Elio and Oliver, but that would imply there was any sense of "burn" to it at all. The passion seems wholly absent for well over an hour, as the camera seems more in love with the scenery than in the prospective couple. To be fair, this movie makes Italy look gorgeous, but I don't think scenes need to linger on for 10-15 seconds extra just to pan over a vista.

Even once the relationship begins, there aren't many sparks in it for another long stretch -- partly due to the script and partly due to the casting of Armie Hammer as love interest Oliver. Hammer is charismatic, for sure, but he looks like he's in his 30s (though his character is meant to be in his early 20s); pairing him with Timothée Chalamet (who is in his early 20s, but looks like the 17 his character is supposed to be) makes for an uncomfortable age gap.

What passes for plot in this story is so thin that it has to be doubled up. The movie serves up two or even three scenes with exactly the same narrative purpose, again and again. It's as though the writer believes that this movie is being so subtle, so subtextual, that he thinks the repetition might be  needed just to make sure the audience gets it. He needn't have worried; we do. So little is going on that you're force to mine every tilt of a head for whatever meaning it might carry. It's work to stay engaged.

Put simply, the first hour and 55 minutes or so of this two hour and 10 minute movie are borderline terrible.

But then there's that last 15 minutes.

Call Me By Your Name concludes with a run of four scenes that all pack a stunning emotional wallop. First, there's a moment in which Elio's facade crumbles completely; you realize you only think his mask has dropped before this. Then comes what might just be the single best scene in any movie all year, between Elio and his father, where actor Michael Stuhlbarg absolutely crushes a moving monologue. Next comes an epilogue in which the recently exposed emotions of both the audience and Elio are buffeted again. Finally, as the end credits play, the camera lingers on Timothée Chalamet's face in an unbroken close-up that lasts several minutes and is a silent and powerful journey all unto itself.

Ratio-wise, we're barely talking about 10% of the movie. But pound for pound, it's the most brilliantly executed four scenes I've watched in quite a while. It's amazing, perhaps even more so for suddenly wringing a reaction from the audience after numbing it so thoroughly by what came before.

I've really wrestled with how to rate this movie, and I'm not even sure I've reached a real conclusion. But for the purposes of this post, I think I'm going to call the movie a B- overall. I'm not sure I can really recommend it; I'm not sure the juice is worth the squeeze, as they say. But I also think that all considered, I'm glad I did see it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Together or Not at All

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled a bit of a bait and switch. After the previous installment killed off most of the recurring players in the story arc and concluded with an escape attempt by Fitz, Simmons, and Daisy, it seemed as though our time on the station was imminently coming to a close.

Suddenly, things seem less certain. Mack had a perfect storm of do-gooding -- his need to help others to preserve his morality intersected with the need to protect young Flint as (perhaps deep down) a sort of proxy for his own twice-lost daughter. He decided to stay behind as the group fled to the planet surface, and so Yo-Yo decided to stay with him. So our days of cat-and-mouse on the station are not quite over.

Still, most of the group is moving on to the planet surface, where they'll presumably meet up with May in short order. The few scenes we got tracking May gave us the first taste of what we may be in for in the weeks ahead, as her life was saved by the handful of survivors still making it down there. Their leader appears to be the all-grown-up version of the little girl who glimpsed the future in Fitz's flashback episode, a fun and unexpected linkage in the story. Whether her modern coherence comes because she has lost her future visions or has simply learned to manage them may be an interesting plot point ahead.

But the episode arguably focused most of all on the villains, Kasius and Sinara. We'd already heard snippets of Kasius' back story before this, but this episode served up a heaping helping of "what drives this guy." His persecution complex finally wound up so tight that he broke, killing his own brother. Meanwhile, if you thought that last week's decision to force Sinara into the gladiatorial ring meant the end of the relationship between Sinara and Kasius, then you don't know them very well. (And hey, neither did I.) We learned exactly what binds them together, and saw that the bond was too strong to be broken -- strained, briefly, but not broken. Sinara was a cool badass in her non-speaking phase, but I'm glad they've now moved on to giving her dialogue so that she can advance from being a one-dimensional villain to the more well-rounded character the story needs now.

Perhaps this story arc is now moving (or at least drifting) in the direction of some answers? What is it our heroes are supposed to do here that made sending them into the future a necessity? The stealth and capers have been fun, but I'm ready for a little more meat on the bone next week. I give this episode a B.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Wolf Inside

This week's Star Trek: Discovery continued the "Mirror Universe arc" in fine fashion, with a story filled with both tension and emotional heft. It tracked parallel efforts by Burnham aboard the Shenzhou to complete her espionage mission and by Tilly aboard the Discovery to restore Stamets' sanity. The Mirror Universe continues to pay great dividends to the show. We got to spend just enough time with the characters before this story line began, enough time to establish who they all are so that we can fully appreciate what they're compromising to masquerade as murderous fascists.

It all took a particularly hard toll on Burnham. It began with her having to watch a trio of executions by about the grisliest means I could imagine in Star Trek -- spacing via transporter. (It makes you not want to trust being beamed anywhere by anyone in the Mirror Universe.) But the real torment was in carrying her relationship with Tyler farther, having her specifically articulate that he was the one tether holding her to reality, and then cutting the tether. (More on that in a bit.)

Even the good instincts people had in the Mirror Universe had dark streaks, as shown in that first communication between Burnham and Saru. Each lied to the other, Burnham withholding her encounter with Saru's doppleganger, Saru withholding the sudden and gruesome death of Culber. Each did it ostensibly to spare the other some pain, but ultimately both withheld information that could have been very useful to the other.

We got to meet the "resistance" of this mirror reality, and it was pretty great. First, there was more location shooting (supplemented by digital matte effects), creating another very credible alien world. Gone are the days of dressing a sound stage with ferns bought at the local hardware store, and it's great. More fun still were details for the fans, including an updated Tellarite and Andorian (though neither as redesigned as the Klingons), and the too-perfect goatee sported by Mirror Sarek.

This story line served for the best possible reveal of the Tyler-is-Voq story line that many fans had anticipated. Many shows and movies have done a Manchurian Candidate type of buried personality; only Star Trek could add the uniquely sci-fi twist of having the personality revealed by a confrontation with your own doppleganger. For anyone left who might have doubted that actor Shazid Latif was playing both roles, we got a last few technically sophisticated split screens to put two of him in the same scene (and have him fight himself!) before the big reveal.

That reveal served as a final twist of the knife for Burnham. Voq remembers everything he did as Tyler -- he just renounces it at all. Given Burnham's private confession of a few episodes earlier, that she'd never been in love before this, that makes it an especially painful ending to the relationship and a particularly horrible time for her. She's lived a life of repressing emotion, and can in no way be prepared for the ones now storming inside her. That said, though, if you pause for a moment to think about what Lorca is going through during all this time, you suddenly (however inappropriately) can't help but feel that Burnham needs to suck it up

One aspect of the Voq reveal rubbed me the wrong way a bit, though -- the flashback snippets of Voq/Tyler's memories spliced in. Showing us the gratuitous Klingon boobs again seemed unnecessary, while showing Culber's neck being snapped again just seemed cruel.


Stamets spent another episode lost in a semi-comatose state. Tilly tried to be sly slipping in the information that fungii are a mingling of death and life, but it wasn't sly enough for us not to anticipate "dead" Stamets being resurrected. One option would be for the same tech to somehow be used to revive Culber down the road, though I think another less far-fetched option might simply be that Stamets' access to the spore network somehow serves as a bridge for him to connect with memories of Culber at any time. But first, it's helped him connect with his Mirror counterpart, a development that intrigues me for the next episode.

At the very end came the reveal that the Emperor is Georgiou. It's of course the perfect choice to tighten the screws on Burnham, but a possibility I'd dismissed because of the gendered honorific "Emperor." Alright, Discovery, you got me on that one.

All together, a strong offering I'd mark a B+. I remain eagerly baited for what comes next.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trying Two Hard

After watching the original Die Hard on Christmas night, I followed up a few days later with Die Hard 2. This one I knew I'd never actually watched before, in whole or in part. I also knew I was in for a disappointment, from what most people have said. (It's from craptastic director Renny Harlin; that really says a lot.)

The truth is, Die Hard 2 isn't actually that bad a movie, it's more that it comes off quite poorly in comparison to the original. There are times it strays closer to remake than sequel; it's certainly operating from a place of "here's more of exactly that thing you liked." Though set at an airport in a blizzard, the plot still positions John McClane as a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind -- not terribly well-equipped to deal with the terrorists he finds himself pitted against, but far better for it than the inept cops (who are also his adversaries). Many characters from the first film return in the second, even when they're a bit tough to shoehorn in. The ones who don't return are replaced by identical archetypes who behave in pretty much the same ways.

Even if you're perfectly fine with watching "Die Hard, Again," the real problem is that this sequel doesn't do nearly as good a job as the original at maintaining the suspension of disbelief. It feels like the movie gets wrong every single detail about airport security and air traffic regulation, even without viewing things through a post-9/11 lens. With modern sensibilities, the whole movie feels like it's taking place in a ludicrous fantasy land that never existed and never could. Not that thrill ride action movies are usually beholden to reason, but part of what made the first Die Hard noteworthy is that it felt like it was being a bit more realistic than other movies (at least in regards to the vulnerability of the hero).

Die Hard 2 is the "cotton candy" version of Die Hard -- empty, sugary calories. It's so far over the top, you can barely see the top anymore. Planes empty of fuel explode in ginormous fireballs. Characters deliver the cheesiest of one-liners, most of which feel like first draft filler meant to have been punched up later. Do you like naked martial arts? We've got them too!

Yet even in the campy construction, the actors are giving it their all. They seem to be having fun, and thus it's hard for the audience not to have some fun too. Bruce Willis is at his most wry. Bonnie Bedelia exudes bemused cool under pressure. William Atherton is (as always) the consummate asshole -- though Dennis Franz does give him a run for his money here. And while Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is an irreplaceable villain, William Sadler does manage to make the hole seem not quite as gaping as it might have.

Still, the bottom line here is that there's really no need for Die Hard 2 in a world where Die Hard exists. Everything it can do, the first film can do better. I give Die Hard 2 a C-.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Battle Lines

While the Deep Space Nine episode "Battle Lines" does have its flaws, it might be the first instance where the series really approached the tone that would define the best episodes of its run.

The Bajoran spiritual leader, Kai Opaka, arrives on the station and convinces Sisko to take her on a trip through the wormhole with Kira and Bashir. When their runabout is attacked in orbit of a barely inhabited moon, the Kai is apparently killed in the ensuing crash. But soon a dark truth about the moon is revealed: everyone who dies there is soon resurrected by microscopic robots, a punishment engineered to torment two warring factions who've been marooned there.

I think the concept of this episode is one of the season's strongest. It came from outside writer Hilary J. Bader, who sold stories to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager throughout their runs. She says she was inspired by the "war is pointless" episodes of the original Star Trek to come up with this scenario where there was literally no point to the fighting -- the purpose had been long forgotten, leaving only the desire to inflict violence.

Once the writing staff started working with the story, however, it became not just a good Star Trek story, but a good Deep Space Nine story. That happened when they decided to replace the redshirt victim in Bader's pitch with a recurring character, looking to avoid an obvious trope. It was decided that Kai Opaka was the most expendable character (though technically, she only became "recurring" by appearing for a second episode here). The addition of Opaka made the story far more personal for Major Kira than it would have otherwise been. More importantly, this introduced what I think of as one of the core elements of Deep Space Nine: the endings don't always have to be happy. The Kai cannot be rescued at the end of this episode, and must remain behind to help the warring aliens. Not only does it make the story more impactful, it paves the way for future episodes about the vacuum of power in Bajoran religion.

Kira goes on a real emotional roller coaster ride this episode, and Nana Visitor commits wholly to the performance at every step of the way. Her anguish at the Kai's death is truly shocking, the most uninhibited emotion we've seen on the series so far. The monologue she then gives about what the Kai meant to her and Bajor is equally powerful for being so hollowed out, as though her emotional well has run dry. When the Kai returns, Kira is led to strong moments of self-examination -- is she nothing more than a violent person, incapable of change?

The story is great, but the episode is still lacking that certain oomph to lift it to the heights of the truly best Deep Space Nine episode. For this, I'm going to blame the director, Paul Lynch. This was only the dozenth episode of the series, but it was the fifth directed by Lynch. There's a certain "meh" (at best) quality to his previous efforts: "A Man Alone," "Babel," "Q-Less," and "The Passenger." Specifically, there's a sense that Lynch is only concerned with making the trains run on time, that he lacks a facility to actually direct his actors.

That's really apparent here. Nana Visitor is giving it her all, making choices and running with them. In this she all but stands alone. Avery Brooks appears not to know what to do; Sisko seems unimpressed even when he witnesses an actual resurrection. Guest star Jonathan Banks, who modern TV viewers will know is absolutely amazing on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul (or hell, on Community!) will be surprised at how flat he is here.

Lynch was so uninterested in directing his actors that he purportedly turned over two entire days of filming to stunt coordinator Dennis Madalone. In an interview, Madalone says Lynch told him:
"This is fights all day with the actors. Can you just direct it?" And "I kept going up to the director and saying, 'Do you like it?' and he would say, 'Yeah, just print it'. He was reading a magazine the whole time."
With a level of disinterest that pronounced, it's unsurprising that Paul Lynch was never hired to work on Star Trek again.

Other observations:
  • Gul Dukat gets a shout-out in this episode, though not by name. In the teaser, the files of "the last Prefect" are discussed, and Dukat totally negs Kira.
  • The moment where Opaka gives O'Brien her necklace to pass along to his daughter Molly is an interesting one. O'Brien so clearly does not believe in Bajoran religion, but just as clearly, Opaka seems to know more than she should in that moment. It's a shame the necklace gift is never followed up on in the future (though the next episode would center on O'Brien's relationship with Bajoran religion).
  • This episode gives us the series' first lost runabout, the Yangtzee Kiang. We'd go through several more rivers before finally getting the Defiant.
  • The moon set looks especially cheap, with fake-looking rocks and a generic black backdrop all around.
  • O'Brien gets to look quite smart in the hunt for the lost runabout. Unfortunately, this is done by making Dax look especially stupid. Not only does she do nothing to solve any of the problems, she has to have a lot of technology (which as science officer, she should understand) mansplained to her.
  • Kira makes a point of noting that the aliens have no sense of strategy or tactics. This is certainly true at the end, when none of them thinks of killing (or threatening to kill) Kira, Sisko, or Bashir to force them to stay on the moon.
I think "Battle Lines" is a very solid B+. Under better direction, I think it could have been the series' first A or A- episode, but it nevertheless feels like a foundational installment.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fun & Games

The latest installment of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. marked series star Clark Gregg's debut effort directing an episode of the show. Two things usually happen on a series when one of its actors tries the director's chair. One is that the episode is a restrained, dialogue driven affair to shield the director from any major complexities; that was very much not the case here. The other is that the entire cast, wanting to see one of their own do well, steps it up with great performances; that certainly did happen.

This was a jam-packed hour in which multiple recurring characters were killed, two extensively choreographed fights took place, and the narrative essentially declared "we're moving on now." Fitz's arrival facilitated a "jailbreak," with everyone dropping all pretense (or essentially being forced to) and making a run for it.

This somewhat sudden acceleration seems to be saying that the structure of season 5 might be similar to that of season 4: we look to be in for a handful of "mini-arcs" contained within one larger story arc. For season 4, three different 7-episodes-or-so stories were held under the Aida umbrella. Here in season 5, it seems like the broader container is "saving the future," but we're now likely coming to the end of the "imprisoned on the Kree station" mini-arc.

If so, it certainly went out delivering the "fun and games" promised by the title. The writers have long ago learned that Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet do great with fight choreography, and smartly gave them the two big set piece fights. Each was entertaining for a different reason. The fight with May did a nice job of giving her a triumphant moment or two even within a struggle that logic demanded she would lose. The fight involving Daisy was fun for putting her against the menacing (but no longer completely silent) Sinara. (Maybe logic was strained by Daisy punching so much and not Quaking more, but there needed to be a little meat on the bone.)

The writers also set up Iain De Caestecker to chew the scenery in Fitz's assumed character. It's a tiny slice of what's working so deliciously right now over on Star Trek: Discovery -- it's fun to watch good guys have to pretend to be evil. We also got a series of teases of the "curse" between Fitz and Simmons. Having him pour his heart out to her when we the audience knew she couldn't hear was a particularly delicious scene, though some of the other moments felt more forced. As reward for being teased all episode, though, we did get the marriage proposal and acceptance in the end.

Several of this story arc's recurring characters were killed off in the course of the episode. Ben's death landed with a nice emotional punch; after being caught lying to Kasius, he was summarily executed. Tess' death was more abrupt and not I think as emotionally effective. Just as we were getting to really know her and root for her, her role in the story was abruptly ended and handed off to a character we barely know, a young, freshly made Inhuman. Lastly, we had the death of Grill, the taskmaster who has had half the team under his thumb for most of the season so far. I want to say that that death wasn't quite satisfying either, though it did go probably the only way it could have. Given the moral ground staked out between Mack and Yo-Yo, our heroes couldn't kill him. But Grill had to die, to definitively resolve that he would no longer be hanging over their heads. That means some outsider had to do the deed.

With a brisk pace and plenty of great highlights, I was largely entertained. I'd mark this episode a very solid B+.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Planetary Perspective

It's the rare summer blockbuster that earns wide acclaim from film critics. It's rarer still that said blockbuster is the latest installment of an ongoing series. But that's exactly what happened last summer with War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the rebooted Apes franchise. Yet despite the praise, I didn't make it out to see it at the time.

This film picks up a couple of years after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as the ape leader Caesar is trying to lead his people away to a new homeland. But a particularly ruthless human colonel is leading attacks against them, seeking to capture them for forced labor. Meanwhile, the virus that began it all for the apes (or ended it all for the humans, depending on your perspective) seems to be changing, posing an all new threat.

I am not often one to be wowed by visual effects in a movie, but what's going on here in War for the Planet of the Apes is so impressive, it's hard to overpraise. This feels like a foundational movie that will one day be looked back on as a moment that CG in general -- and performance capture in particular -- ascended to another level. Every single moment presented on screen is so convincing that it's easy to be swept up and forget that you're not looking at something real. On the other hand, if you know even a little bit about computer animation, everything you're seeing is so well realized that it's almost impossible not to stop and think "I can't believe they can do that!" -- which does unfortunately pull you out of the movie at times.

It's the degree of difficulty here that's so impressive; it's so high that you almost wonder if teaching real apes to talk and act might have been easier and less expensive. CG characters with life-like hair physically interact with each other, with human actors, and with real objects (and animals!). The story takes place mostly in a wintery north, adding more challenges: you see the characters' breath in the air, and see how the snow reacts on their fur and clothing. Interactions with light and shadow are more complex than ever before, such that you never question that the characters are in a real environment. (In one particularly jaw-dropping moment, the reflection of a campfire can be seen dancing in a CG character's eyes. Incredible.)

But the most amazing -- and important -- aspect of what was accomplished here is in the fine details captured from the actors' performances. This movie is all about the apes, told from their perspective, and placing the sympathies of the audience squarely on their side. The number of ape characters, the depth of the emotions they convey, and sheer screen time they're given, would have been absolutely unthinkable not long ago. Without being able to capture truly subtle nuances from the actors and transferring them to the CG "puppets," this story simply could not have been told. Not in a way that an audience would invest in and care, anyway. In short, if this film doesn't win the Academy Award for visual effects this year, it's only because Academy voters are too stupid to realize what an amazing achievement this was. (Which I might not put past them.)

Of course, the technical achievement is just the flashier component of the performance. The ape actors underneath are doing incredible work here too. Andy Serkis has a long career of motion-capture triumphs, but his performance in this movie may truly be his best ever -- layered, nuanced, and believable. And still, good as he is, Steve Zahn practically steals the movie as new comic relief character Bad Ape. There's more great work from actors who have been part of the franchise all along, but who have never become noted faces of motion capture like Andy Serkis -- particularly Karin Konoval as Maurice and Terry Notary as Rocket.

Unfortunately, the script isn't quite as flawless as the technology. The pacing is a bit slow overall, particularly in the first act, and this gives the audience too much time to anticipate the plot developments. The human characters are lacking the depth of their ape counterparts; Woody Harrelson's Colonel in particular is left a cipher for much of the film (in deliberate homage to Apocalypse Now); his attitudes and motivations are exposed a bit too late in the narrative to save the broad caricature.

There are some fun ways in which this movie is made to connect with the original 1968 Planet of the Apes. Most successful is how the film explains humans losing intelligence and the power of speech by the time we see them in the original film. But more of a mixed bag are two characters that share the names of characters from the original film; I'm not sure if we're supposed to believe that these are those two characters (in which case the ship's estimated 1000 year jump into the future in the '68 film was dead wrong), or whether these are supposed to be sort of foundational/Biblical type names that just get reused all the time for the next thousand years.

Overall, I think this Apes film was a step up from the last one. If the narrative had worked for me as thoroughly as the visuals, it would easily be the best of the lot. As it stands, I think the first reboot edges this one out just a bit. Still, I'd grade this a B, and recommend it overall.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Despite Yourself

Star Trek: Discovery returned last night, with an episode that showed you don't necessarily need surprises to entertain the audience. Fans had been ahead of many of the plot developments revealed last night, but that didn't stop the episode from coming together wonderfully. (There was, of course, one big surprise no one saw coming, but I'll come back to that.)

As many expected, the Discovery has spore jumped its way into the Mirror Universe, that recurring Star Trek reality that gave us a goateed Spock, vampy Kira, and other joys over the course of three series and nearly a dozen episodes. Not for a moment did I feel a sense of "been there, done that" as the episode unfolded. Any sense of familiarity was more like welcoming home an old friend.

If anything, the Mirror Universe feels like a far more vital narrative device to engage with in this decade than ever before. It's a place where totalitarian, xenophobic, and violent instincts are allowed to run amok, and this feels like a very topical thing to explore in 2018. Moreover, Discovery seems poised for the most lengthy and introspective examination of the Mirror Universe than Star Trek has ever done before -- the original series addressed it, but only in a single episode; Deep Space Nine went multiple times, but mostly just for campy fun; Enterprise did a two-parter, but being self-contained in the Mirror Universe without having any "regular" characters go there really kept things from getting all that introspective. Discovery seems poised to be there for a while, and to be really engaging with the morass the whole time. It's a set up for serious moral exploration, what Star Trek does best.

There were loads of callbacks to thrill longtime Trek fans, from the return of the Terran Empire salute to a truly horrifying reimagining of the original series' agony booth. It's not all going to be grim and dark, though. There was plenty of fun throughout the episode, most of it courtesy of Tilly, who was forced out her shell to become "Captain Killy." Hilarious stuff, but also great for the arc of her character, to be forced into a situation where she must "defy every instinct."

Elevating an already strong concept and script was Jonathan Frakes, who returned to the Star Trek director's chair to helm this installment. The episode was full of great camera work and great performances. The biggest moments landed with their full weight -- particularly effective were the brutal turbolift fight involving Burnham, the disturbing new glimpses at Tyler's buried memories, and that closing shot of Lorca in the agony booth.

But one twist -- the big surprise I alluded to earlier -- didn't sit too well with me. (And in case I really needed to say it after you've come this far, SPOILERS here.) The death of Dr. Culber was a particularly cruel twist (pun not intended). The "Bury Your Gays" trope of television, in which LGBT couples are never allowed to have a happy ending together, it a sadly pernicious and insidious one. To be fair, there aren't very many couples in a long-term relationship on Star Trek, gay or straight, and most of the straight ones have met unhappy ends too. So I don't really think this is the darkest instance of the trope, punishing the gay couple while straight ones are left untroubled. Still, it's really toying with the emotions of LGBT fans to finally give Trek series a gay couple, finally show them kiss in a powerful and dramatic moment, and then kill one of them off in literally the next episode.

I'm seeing some talk this morning online that the After Trek show (which I don't watch) specifically addressed this, with the writers coming on to beg our indulgence. They say they're aware of the trope, and are telling the story the way they think it needs to be told. Have patience. Well, I'll give them that they certainly got shock value out of it. And certainly, this didn't enrage me to the point of dropping the show. But writers, I am truly and deeply disappointed on this one.

As I said, it's not like the straight couple here isn't having troubles. Burnham and Tyler slept together for the first time at the end of the episode, but in truly ghoulish circumstances, not long in the aftermath of each having killed a person. And Tyler, of course, is still wrestling with a revelation many fans saw coming, that he's really a Klingon sleeper agent. (Though the episode didn't specifically confirm it, he's surely Voq, the albino Klingon "torchbearer" from Discovery's early episodes.) In an earlier blog post, I noted that I'd heard about this twist (without specifying what it was), and commented that if true, it might be the dumbest plot twist ever. Fortunately, context has rendered that prediction wrong. Tyler doesn't know he's Voq, which keeps all the honest examination of PTSD and torture in play, and adds a provocative dose of split personalities to the mix as well.

I don't usually spend much time trying to predict where the story will be heading next, but a few things seem clear to me:
  • Stamets is seeing the future in his visions. He called Tilley "captain" when he began to lose his mind in the previous episode, and he tried to warn Culber of the "enemy" there in the room. So when he's warning them not to go to the "palace," know that he's right, and know that they're going to go there anyway.
  • The palace is probably that of the Emperor, alluded to enough times in this episode that it pretty much has to be someone we know, yes? I'm ruling out a woman, since when Hoshi Sato took the throne in the Enterprise Mirror Universe episodes, she called herself an Empress. So, what noteworthy guys could show up? Culber, "back from the dead?" One of the main cast? Some prominent guest star?
  • Another popular fan theory is that Captain Lorca is from the Mirror Universe originally. What we got in this episode didn't disprove it; indeed, it added a fun wrinkle to it by suggesting that if he is from the Mirror Universe, he could actually be one of the good guys there, a Terran rebel.
  • By specifically mentioning how the Defiant traveled through time to reach the Mirror Universe, they've set up that whenever Discovery returns to our universe, it might not return to the same point in time. This could certainly explain away some of the "continuity errors" that have been seemingly introduced by this series -- if Discovery returns at some future point, none of its tech or (heh) discoveries would have been a part of history.
I enjoyed this episode a great deal, and would grade it an A-. The "minus" is pretty much specifically for the gross and disappointing fate of Dr. Culber, so I suppose if there really is more context there yet to come, as the writers promise, I might feel differently down the road. We'll see.

Friday, January 05, 2018

My Struggle III

The X-Files re-returned this week after a two year hiatus (after a 14 year hiatus). And it did so with what may very well be the worst episode of The X-Files ever produced.

(pictured, at right: how I felt watching it)

Sometimes, this second paragraph of a review is where I summarize the plot. I can't even attempt to do that here. Something something Smoking Man something something William something something our answers are still in The X-Files. It was absolute nonsense. I suppose, in fairness, my memory of the details of the ongoing X-Files mythology story line range from murky to non-existent. I haven't watched any of those episodes since the show's original run, my memory isn't what it used to be, and I recall those episodes not making a whole lot of sense even at the time.

But it would also be fair to say that the episode should have provided us a "previously on" at the beginning that primed us with all the information we'd need to catch back up. Instead, we got a fever dream of images jumbled up like a music video, not even sufficiently reminding us what was going on in the show's revival season, much less what was happening two decades ago. Part of this seemed to be a desire not to refresh too much of what had last happened to Mulder in Scully because they were about to play out literally the most derided plot twist in the history of television: "it was all a dream." Mulder and Scully didn't find Bobby Ewing in the shower, but they did inform us that basically everything we saw in the last season finale all happened inside Scully's vision. (You might think that because that episode was terrible too, undoing it would be a positive thing. Instead, it doubled down on the "why am I wasting my time watching this?" of it all.)

The dialogue throughout the episode was embarrassing, both for the actors and for any fan of The X-Files who might have been forced to explain to a non-fan what it was about a show that stupid on its face that ever drew them in in the first place. It was like watching a contestant on the $100,000 Pyramid work a category of Things They Might Say on The X-Files. "Is this what you've been planning all along?" "The conspiracy goes much deeper than you realize." "Alien colonization." "The truth." Blah blah blah. It was cliche, felt made up as it went along, and didn't really serve to tell any kind of comprehensible story. Mulder's inner monologues were especially terrible, the sort of material that one imagines had David Duchovny calling his agents to find out if his contract might have any outs in it.

Adding to the feeling of this being bad X-Files fan fiction were the revelations in the plot itself. The Cigarette Smoking Man fakes the moon landings, we learn, even though this is a throwaway detail that has nothing to do with anything. Scully and Mulder's son isn't really Scully and Mulder's son, a twist that fails on any level you can imagine. Are we meant to believe that Scully knew this all along, thus eroding every ounce of trust we put in her and the relationship between her and Mulder? Are we meant to believe that she didn't know, in which case she's showing a shocking lack of curiosity about having been abducted by CSM that one time? I don't know. I really don't care either.

At this point, I only plan to be coming back under the assumption that the bulk of this season, like last one, will be made up of stand-alone episodes not written by Chris Carter (who I assume does his writing in red crayon, on the walls of his padded cell). If for a moment I had any notion that's not the case, that we're getting even one more mythology episode before the season finale, I would -- with all seriousness -- be done with The X-Files. This was every bit as bad (and more) as what finally got my friends and I to stop watching The Walking Dead -- a powerful display of how a once-great show has devolved into a self-indulgent parody of itself.

Several paragraphs later, I may be about out of ways to say it: this was terrible. "My Struggle III" is an absolute grade F. The only real struggle is to justify why you're an X-Files fan after watching it.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

2017 in Review -- Movies

With the start of each new year, I like to look back on the movies of the previous year -- how much I saw, what I liked, that sort of thing.

Though I certainly didn't plan it this way, 2017 was an exceedingly light movie viewing year for me. I saw the fewest movies in one calendar year since I started keeping track: 55. I suppose that's still better than one a week (and I'm nowhere close to those "if you see one movie this year" people they talk about in some movie trailers).

I do sort of have the sense that there was quality over quantity, though. By the time January rolls around, I always have catching up to do with Oscar hopefuls -- so when I issue the "first draft" of my Top 10 Movies of the Year, it usually ends up being around 5 movies I really enjoyed a lot and 5 other movies that were just "the best of everything else." The list is usually rounded out with placeholders, including some B and maybe even B- stuff. This time, this first version of the list is all B+ or better, and there are several more movies almost as good that just couldn't quite make the cut.

How my Top 10 of 2017 stands currently:

1. Get Out
2. Spider-man: Homecoming
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. Baby Driver
5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
6. The Big Sick
7. Dunkirk
8. Thor: Ragnarok
9. It
10. Blade Runner 2049

What to say about the list?
  • I cannot sing the praises of Get Out enough. It works on so many levels. It's the kind of movie that's supposed to win Oscars -- yet because it's in the form of a horror film, it's the kind of movie that never even gets nominated for Oscars. Normally. Recently, I've been reading think pieces from film critics about how it might actually have a chance at a Best Picture nod. I want very much to believe that, though I hope I'm not getting worked up like Charlie Brown running at the football. Get Out is so damn good.
  • There are currently 3 superhero movies on my list. (And two more decent ones, Logan and Wonder Woman, that didn't quite make it.) That feels odd for me, but in any case, it's not likely to last when I catch up with more 2017 movies over the next few months.
  • No, The Last Jedi didn't make the list. This isn't because I'm one of those fanatics dumping on it because "different scary!" I think my original review laid out my feelings pretty clearly: I liked it, and liked where it dared to be different most of all. But the movie did have its flaws.
  • Everything from #5 down on this list rates really closely to me. With a little more time and distance, I could see the order of them shuffling around a bit.
I'll be back to update the list if I see any more 2017 movies that would displace these Top 10.

I'm looking forward to more great movies in 2018!

Updated 7/18/18:

1. Get Out
2. Spider-man: Homecoming
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. Baby Driver
5. Coco
6. The Shape of Water
7. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
8. The Big Sick
9. Dunkirk
10. Thor: Ragnarok