Thursday, February 22, 2018

Unlucky Clover

The first Cloverfield was a sort-of-fun but also kind-of-forgettable monster movie. The second movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was an exceptional suspense thriller that completely redefined my expectations of what this "I guess this is a franchise" franchise could be. Now comes The Cloverfield Paradox -- directly to Netflix -- and my expectations have been redefined again. Not for the better.

Set primarily on a space station in an unspecified near-future, a group of scientists are working to perfect a new power source that will solve a global energy crisis on the Earth below. Their mission has gone on four times as long as expected, and has been a long string of failures. But when they finally succeed in powering their device, it isn't good news. A series of inexplicable and horrific phenomena unfolds, and it becomes increasingly apparent they may have done something terrible that they can't undo.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a schizophrenic movie that doesn't seem to really know what it wants to be. I'm not talking about its place in the "franchise," such as that is; the now-established pattern says that each Cloverfield movie can jump to whatever subgenre of science fiction it wants. But this movie can't stick with one thing and do it well. It's apocalyptic fiction, but also monster horror. It packs psychological thrills, but then trades the desire to unsettle the audience with brief aspirations of making it cringe.

The problem with it being such a mess is that you can perceive in it a solid framework, a spine that runs through the narrative. At the core, this is the story of Ava Hamilton, an astronaut who we come to learn is compartmentalizing a personal tragedy in the hopes of averting a global one. The best parts of the movie -- moments that actually are good -- are grounded in Hamilton's torment, testing just how much she's willing to sacrifice. Her regrets are sometimes thrust front and center, and she's forced to ask if she'd make different choices, given the chance.

Some other tantalizing drama is playing at the margins too. As the story unfolds, the astronauts aboard this Cloverfield Station are made to question the very nature of reality. They question each other, and even themselves, as paranoia sets in. This material generally could have used a bit of a polish, but it too has its moments.

Unfortunately, there's also a ton of nonsensical bullshit grafted onto the good stuff. The film offers up a reason why all this random weird stuff is happening, but it's hardly an explanation. Instead, it's a flimsy excuse to say that apparently anything can happen, and so we get loads of illogical Event Horizon type silliness. B does not follow A in this story, and it seems that any random one-off horror set piece someone could think up was welcomed into the script with open arms. Also welcome was every sci-fi movie cliché about ticking clocks and noble deaths. All of this completely overwhelms anything good at the story's core.

Competing with both the nonsense and the substance is a wholly unnecessary subplot set back on Earth. Even though all the dramatic tension is clearly on the station generally and Hamilton in particular, the movie finds it necessary to track what's happening to Hamilton's husband on the planet. It doesn't reflect on the drama or echo what's important; it's 10 to 15 minutes of time wasted trying to force this movie into a much narrower concept of what the Cloverfield franchise is (or should be).

Perhaps most disappointing of all is that a really talented cast is being squandered here. Starring as Hamilton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw constantly brought me back from the brink of truly hating this movie. Whenever the story really tracked that character and gave Raw something human to play, she hit a home run, every time. Chris O'Dowd is really funny as comic relief the movie doesn't quite know how to deploy correctly. David Oyelowo plays the mission commander, striving to bring all the gravitas and charisma to this fictional leader that he brought to playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (which is to say, a lot more than this script deserves). Daniel Brühl and Elizabeth Debicki stand out in moments too, working hard to imbue the story with subtext that really should have been "text."

About one-third of this movie actually feels really good, a tantalizing hint of what might have been. So.... what's one-third of a good grade? A C-, perhaps? A shame, for sure. 10 Cloverfield Lane, this is not.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Darkest Thoughts

With a few weeks to go until this year's Oscar ceremony, I've now seen the last of the Best Picture nominees.*

* The last that I expect to see. I just don't think I can muster any interest in Phantom Thread, so it seems this will be the first time in several years that I haven't seen all the Best Picture contenders.

The movie I checked off is Darkest Hour. It's a tale of Winston Churchill, set in the first few weeks after he became Prime Minister. Primarily, it's coming at the same story as another of this year's Best Picture nominees, Dunkirk. But where that movie is all action, immediacy, and raw thrills, Darkest Hour is all politics, maneuvering, and intellectual gamesmanship. The two really could be seen as companion pieces to one another. But if I'm going to pick only one, it would be Dunkirk.

Continuing the comparison to other Best Picture nominees this year, Darkest Hour has a similar flaw as another film, The Post. Both films recognize the need for a character arc to focus the drama and frame the narrative, but don't do a good job of presenting one beyond chronicling the raw historical facts. Here, the arc is the question of how Churchill learns to trust his own judgment, and how to motivate others to follow his leadership. (Actually, this is much the same journey as that of Meryl Streep's character in The Post, albeit on a different scale.)

Here, we do at least see scenes that seem to depict Churchill learning and growing. (A particularly "packaged" one near the end of the movie has him interacting with common Londoners to take in their opinions.) But the movie doesn't do a great job of making you believe that other minds are being changed. A key relationship in the movie, for example, is that between Churchill and King George VI (the focus of a past Oscar movie, The King's Speech). It's a rather adversarial relationship throughout the bulk of the film... until the king has a sudden change of heart that seems completely unmotivated by anything we've seen dramatized.

If anything, it's possible the film will make you like Winston Churchill less. This is a warts-and-all portrayal that presents the man as ill-tempered, stubborn, and insensitive. He also embodies much of what is hated in politicians: lying straight to a person's face, telling them what they want to hear, and then immediately turning around and doing the opposite. Historically, of course, Churchill was correct here, and the context does matter a great deal in this case. The enemy he's opposing, after all, is Hitler. And yet there's a quiet background question this movie could be seen as asking: is Churchill only great because we compare him to Hitler?

The truth is, no one is credibly looking at this movie to have any chance of winning Best Picture. All the talk is about actor Gary Oldman, who is thought to be a shoo-in to win Best Actor for playing Churchill. The issue of whether it's okay to even like Gary Oldman these days is a bit tricky, as stories of spousal abuse have been floating around for a time, and are being re-examined by many in this overdue age of #MeToo. The allegations don't seem to be hurting his award chances; I couldn't say whether that's because of where domestic abuse falls on a scale in people's minds, whether an interview given by one of Oldman's ex-wives praising his acting talent has had a mitigating effect, or something else. Suffice it to say, if none of that were in the mix, it would probably be safe to say that few other actors without an Oscar would be more deserving than Gary Oldman.

When he does win, it's going to be one of those "he's due" awards, more than for exceptional work here. Certainly, it's impressive how Oldman vanishes into this role. There's also something to be said for a more restrained performance like this movie calls for. Still, it would be ludicrous to claim that Oldman has never been better than this. Or, to come at it from another angle, I think if another actor somehow given this exact performance, without the need for prosthetic makeup, and without decades of other excellent work having been overlooked by the Academy, that actor would not be nominated for this.

Indeed, I'm not even convinced Gary Oldman gives the best performance in this movie. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Winston's long-suffering wife Clementine Churchill, and is truly wonderful. Her work is just as finely calibrated as anything else here, and yet still manages to engender more empathy, still manages to sneak a few subtle emotional jabs in under your guard. She does it with far less screen time, too. If I were handing out an award for this movie, it would go to her.

Still, I'm not sure I'd hand out any awards for this movie. There are great moments here and there, but the whole is a bit too slow, a bit too matter-of-fact, a bit too quiet, to elicit from me a very enthusiastic response. But as I also don't think it would be fair to call it a "bad" movie, I'd grade it on just the right side of a B-.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


With the episode "Ghouli," the new revival season of The X-Files grabbed firmly back on to the third rail that is its ongoing story line, a lethal (to engaging storytelling) tangle of cliché and confusion.

Mulder and Scully investigate an incident in Norfolk, Virginia, where two teenage girls viciously knifed each other, each seeing the other as a terrifying monster. Scully is having visions similar to those the girls had before the attack, but it's not because she's to be the next victim. Instead, she's convinced that it's because the son she gave away, William, is somehow involved.

Fortunately, this episode was written and directed by James Wong and not Chris Carter. That meant it was not the travesty-in-multiple-parts that the "My Struggle" series of episodes have been. Still, being forced to pick up where that story left off, there's only so much Wong could do here.

Ordinarily, I love it when a largely procedural, episodic show finds ways to reflect on the main characters by involving them in the story. (Among current genre shows, Supernatural may be the best as this.) But this episode was exactly the opposite. During the opening minutes of the episode, when we were teased with the weird premise of people seeing monsters and attacking each other, I was intrigued. When Scully began to have visions too, I worried about getting another "Scully's in danger" episode hot on the heels of the last... but I still had hopes they could take a left turn that would surprise me.

But then we learned the context, that this all had to do with William. Part of me applauded Gillian Anderson for her emotional, tearful performance in the morgue. Most of me dreaded that it was all going to go south. And sure enough, The X-Files then tried to do the X-Men. The back half of the episode became about a young teenager trying to cope with emerging mutant-like powers, but without any of the social commentary that underpins the most effective X-Men stories. The story didn't even really seem to take a stand on whether William was an emerging superhero or supervillain. (And if you're going to do a comic book, commit!)

As for Mulder and Scully, the episode ended just when it actually got interesting. They finally get confirmation of William's strange powers, soon after having confirmed that he is indeed their son (well, Scully's anyway, according to that horrible season opener). But we don't get to see them reckon with the knowledge at all. Roll credits.

There were some effective and moody moments peppered throughout, and that great performance I mentioned by Gillian Anderson. But overall, the episode fell flat for me. I give "Ghouli" a C-. Great by "X-Files Mythology Episode" standards, but dangerously low on the "Keeping Me Interested in This Season" scale. Can we just have nothing but Darin Morgan episodes from here on, please?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Panther on the Prowl

Marvel's newest movie, Black Panther, is a huge success -- judging by its box office, anyway. Creatively? Another worthy entry in the franchise, I'd say, though my reaction is a bit more muted than some. There's a lot to like here. Foremost, I do feel like they finally gave me the "something different" I've been asking for of the last several Marvel movies. The narrative of this movie isn't radically different overall, but there are some change-ups; more importantly, it definitely strikes a different tone.

My favorite 15 minute stretch of the movie, for example, feels more like a James Bond movie than anything else. (Though you could make the argument that James Bond kind of is a superhero of a kind.) When the characters go to South Korea for a spy mission, they "gadget up" with help from a Q figure before getting into a fantastic fist fight (featuring a visually stunning single take) and a car chase through the busy city streets.

Other parts of the movie really sideline forward momentum in the narrative in favor of some intense world building of the country of Wakanda. In terms of pacing, these sections do drag a little bit. But in terms of making the film feel like something different for Marvel, they're a rousing success. Writer-director Ryan Coogler does a great job of serving up a cultural stew that blends African cultural heritage with sci-fi futurism. It's a feast for the eyes and tantalizing for the brain.

The script isn't rock solid, though. (Some minor SPOILERS in this paragraph. I'll keep it vague, but skip ahead if you're being extra careful.) Before we learn the villain's real motivations, his activities in the first act don't really make a lot of sense. (Why is he playing around, and not working more directly for his goals?) An act two fake-out in which we're supposed to believe something bad happens to the hero falls totally flat. And the climax of the movie loses the human thread in favor of a classic, emotionally weightless CG showdown.

My biggest "problem," though, is the main character himself. Black Panther is, far and away, the most boring thing in his own movie. Chadwick Boseman gives a game performance at what is provided for him, but he just doesn't command the screen. Partly, it's because his character of T'Challa is such a goody-goody stick in the mud, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, that he just isn't that fun. But moreover, it's because everyone else in the movie is so fantastic.

Black Panther is surrounded by a very deep bench of very compelling characters. His sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, is a runaway favorite, that smart gadgeteer Q figure I alluded to above, with a razor wit to match her intelligence. She's an easier-to-like Tony Stark, sharp and smart without being an egomaniac. Danai Gurira is wonderful as Okoye, leader of a sort of Wakandan Secret Service. She kicks ass, is often the voice of reason, and by 30 minutes into the film has made a fairly compelling case that she deserves her own spinoff movie.

Those two are standouts, but as I said, it's a very deep bench. Lupita N'Yongo is an intriguingly complex foil and love interest. Daniel Kaluuya has a compelling supporting role that illustrates how politics (and a charismatic outsider) can erode a friendship. Winston Duke brings fun comic relief (that doesn't belabor the funny) as the leader of a rival tribe. Forest Whitaker embodies the wise mystic, while Angela Bassett brings her regal bearing to the role of the Queen Mother. Sterling K. Brown brings all his considerable emotional gravitas to an important role I dare not spoil anything about for people who haven't seen the film. Andy Serkis, not hidden behind motion capture for once, serves up a baddie with verve. And Martin Freeman has a lot of fun with a role that is very cleverly and conspicuously written as a token supporting character with little agency of his own.

Then, stealing the movie, is Michael B. Jordan as N'Jadaka. Spider-man: Homecoming represented the first decent villain in a long while for Marvel, as Michael Keaton's character had compelling and understandable motivations. N'Jadaka has a point. Methods and authoritarianism aside, the character could be seen as having a more direct claim to the moral high ground in this movie than the protagonist. What's more, Jordan gets to give an unrestrained performance, louder and more boisterous. He's so charismatic as to almost tip the scales of sympathy against the fuddy-duddy main character, and it's really something to watch.

All told, I'd give Black Panther a solid B. I hope its success encourages Marvel Studios to continue taking bigger risks with their films than they seem to have been willing to so far.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Deadly Experiment

James Gunn has been working as a director for some time, and as a writer for longer still, but it wasn't until the Guardians of the Galaxy movies that more people came to know his name. That recognition may have had something to do with MGM contacting him to see if he'd still be interested in making a script he'd submitted years earlier and then (for a variety of reasons) walked away from. He was. And that's how we got the twisted The Belko Experiment.

At a secretive office building in Colombia, 80 American employees show up for work one morning to find all the locals absent. Impenetrable shutters abruptly slam down to block every door and window, and an ominous voice suddenly comes over the loudspeakers: they are all now part of an experiment. If two of the workers aren't dead by the time 30 minutes have passed, there will be consequences. It seems like a cruel prank that no one takes seriously... until explosives embedded in the heads of four employees are suddenly and violently detonated. The next time the voice demands deaths, the trapped workers have no choice but to take it seriously. What follows is a warped melding of Office Space and Battle Royale, Die Hard by way of The Hunger Games.

James Gunn chose not to direct himself, handing off those duties to Greg McLean. But the script has Gunn's fingerprints all over it; this feels like a movie you'd expect from the guy who made Slither. In all the right ways, it's simple and it's gross, and filmed in as fantastically violent a manner as it needs to be for maximum impact.

Part of the fun is that this isn't cast like an action movie; it's cast like an office dramedy, with an ensemble including John Gallagher Jr. (of The Newsroom), Tony Goldwyn (of Scandal), John C. McGinley (of Scrubs), and Josh Brener (of Silicon Valley). Arguably, the only actor you'd expect to see in a movie like this is Michael Rooker, here because he's in most of James Gunn's movies, though this time not playing the tough sort of character you'd expect. As you move down through the ensemble into actors you probably won't recognize right away, there's a satisfying diversity, including Adria Arjona, Melonie Diaz, David Del Rio, James Earl, and more. And everyone is giving a solid performance, committing to this wild premise.

There's a great economy of storytelling here. The movie comes in just under an hour and a half, getting straight to its premise and not dragging things out longer than it could be sustained. That said, it also doesn't seem like the movie has much of an agenda other than horror. There could be an opportunity here to express a point of view on the true nature of people, but the movie isn't interested in being profound. Yet at least in its pursuit of visceral thrills, it's strong.

I am left a bit conflicted by the ending. This is one of those stories where the idea itself really is everything, and I suspect there aren't very many compelling ways to conclude it. I certainly don't have a better idea on how I'd have ended it. Nevertheless, there's something sort of inevitable to the conclusion that I'm not sure amounts to much.

But I think you know what you're in for when you sit down to watch a movie like this -- people are going to beat each other to death with office supplies. You get exactly what you sign up for, and horror aficionados will find it delicious most of the time. It's a solid B movie, which I mean here as a grade, not a putdown. I think most fans of the genre would enjoy it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Progress

In the first half of its first season, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine struggled to find a different voice that would set it apart from The Next Generation. In the back half of the season, the series was beginning to find that voice, though it still struggled to present the best versions of its ideas. "Progress" is an example of this.

The Bajorans are undertaking a project to tap one of their planet's moons for energy. But this will require the evacuation of the surface, and a crotchety old farmer living there refuses to leave his home. Kira is tasked with trying to convince him to evacuate, but it soon seems like he's the one doing the convincing, as Kira feels sympathy for his plight. Meanwhile, Jake and Nog embark on a series of unusual trades, trying to earn gold-pressed latinum from worthless goods discarded by Quark.

There are some strong ideas at the heart of this episode. This is essentially a story about eminent domain, of the power of a government to seize property for "the good of the many." On a personal level, it's the story of Kira realizing a major shift in her own sense of identity; she used to fight the power, but now she is the power.

These ideas are stronger than the way they're explored by the script. The cranky old man who wants you off his lawn was a worn-out trope long before this hour of television, has continued to be a worn-out trope since, and nothing presented here really makes it stand out from that large pack. Writer Peter Allan Fields said in an interview that he thought the character he'd created here, Mullibok, was more prickly than he came across in the finished product. He saw Mullibok as manipulating and conning Kira.

Whether that was on the page or not, Fields is right that that Mullibok, as played by actor Brian Keith, is pretty much the stereotypical angry old coot with a secret heart of gold revealed in the end. Don't get me wrong -- it's a natural, authentic performance. It's just also a bit boring because we've seen this schtick before. Mullibok is more folksy than thorny, and even though at this point in the show we don't know anything about Kira's father, you automatically assume she sees something of her father in this old man.

The story line does end in a compelling, Deep Space Nine kind of way. Unable to persuade Mullibok to see reason, Kira is forced to destroy everything he loves and burn his house to the ground to get him to leave. Yet that ending does lack some punch, perhaps because The Next Generation actually got to this kind of Deep Space Nine-y story and ending first. This plot, and the particular way it wraps up, shares many similarities with the season 3 episode "The Ensigns of Command."

Weirdly, the plot involving Jake and Nog -- clearly meant to be a light B story -- is almost more compelling than the A story. According to staff writer Ira Steven Behr, this episode (and "The Storyteller" before it) marked the beginning of  "an intense period of trying to turn Jake and Nog into Laurel and Hardy." (Or, as Nog actor Aron Eisenberg saw it, "a futuristic Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.")

The comedy mostly works. It's fun to watch the boy's turn trash into treasure. It's interesting character development for Jake to be the one who sees the value of trade more than Nog; I guess it makes sense that Nog wasn't learning from a good example in his father Rom. (Or even his Uncle Quark, who here doesn't see any potential in the worthless "yamok sauce" he gives away to start this whole adventure.) It's amusing to watch the boys puzzle over what a "self-sealing stem bolt" does, and for not even O'Brien to know. But it is a bit of a letdown that Jake and Nog sell so cheap in the end, and that we never find out what they'll use the money for.

Oddly, the moments that work best in this episode are a little removed from the core narratives. One of the best scenes is when Sisko comes to talk to Kira at Mullibok's farm. He sympathizes with the underdog too, he tells her, but she's got a job to do. You see him using tactics with Kira in an interesting way, and because it's Avery Brooks in the role and not William Shatner or Patrick Stewart, there are intriguing racial brush strokes at the margins of it all when he talks about siding with the little guy. Also entertaining is a moment when Sisko is challenged briefly by Dr. Bashir over the commander's request that he file a false report. "Make it true, Doctor" is Sisko's curt, effective reply.

There's also a fun scene early on between Dax and Kira, in which Dax talks about being asked to dinner by Morn... and being oddly attracted to him. Most fans just read this as fun with the emerging gag about how Morn doesn't talk. Actress Terry Farrell read the scene in a more interesting way, deciding that Dax wasn't being serious. She saw it as an effort to rattle Kira and draw her out. As she put it: "[A]s Jadzia, I think that Kira puts too much emphasis on what a guy looks like, so I'm teasing her about her youth, and her naivete about what people are really about. I'm trying to be funny, but I am also trying to get Kira to laugh at herself." I think these moments feel integral to Dax's character, letting her be more whimsical because she's really centuries old and has seen it all.

Other observations:
  • In a fun bit of world building, the front door of Mullibok's home is just super weird, an odd hexagonal shape that's hinged in an even weirder way. (It sort of opens downward a bit.)
  • Not to be outdone in unusual world building, the prop department hands out Bajoran phasers that seem to be color matched to the uniform of the characters carrying them.
  • I know why the two other Bajorans living with Mullibok don't speak; the production was cheap and didn't want to pay them. But why have these characters at all? Does it really make a difference whether Kira is morally conflicted about relocating one person or three? Especially when it comes down to just Mullibok in the end anyway?
Even though this episode falls short of where it could be, I think it shows what a strong performer Deep Space Nine found in Nana Visitor. (And this isn't the first time she's been the best thing about an episode, either.) Her heavy lifting brings this episode up above average, to what I'd grade a B-. It's not one of season one's best, but it's far from one of its worst.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A Post on The Post

Looking at its "stat page," the movie The Post seems as though it could have bred in a lab to win Oscars. It stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It's directed by Steven Spielberg. It's about the Pentagon Papers -- specifically, the decision by the owner of Washington Post in the early 1970s to stand up for the First Amendment, by publishing leaked information harmful to the Nixon administration and executive branch. Star power. Timely subject. Oscar please.

But something happened on the way to being anointed. They neglected to get top writing talent.

To be clear, The Post is a perfectly fine movie. It's worth seeing (later, on home video, at the least). But it's missing that certain extra oomph to make it Best Picture worthy in my mind. The script does have a perspective on things, one even more timely and capital-I Important than the "free press" and "truth to power" elements; the clear arc of the story is that of a woman blazing a trail in a male-dominated environment, and proving as tough and capable as anyone.

Yet the movie also amounts to a somewhat dry recitation of events. There are a lot of characters here, and vanishing few of them have much of a personality. The film cheats on this by casting lots of actors "you love from that thing," inviting you to graft your goodwill onto these ciphers. They do what the story (and history) requires of them, but writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer really don't give much explanation of what's motivating them. The backbone of the movie, for example, is about the lead character, Katharine Graham, transforming from pushover to leader, yet it never really offers evidence of key moments in that transformation. (I guarantee you that Meryl Streep made decisions about what motivated the change; it's a shame the rest of us didn't get to see it.)

The film also falls short on keeping sight of the personal stakes in all this. Being the second major "Newspaper Movie" in two years (a fact Seth Meyers recently joked about in a viral clip from his late night show), it's easy to want to compare. Spotlight did a much better job of reminding the audience why this fight was "worth having." The principles of The Post feel squishier and loftier, not in as easy reach. It's a much more intellectual endeavor.

But if I seem too down on the movie, it's only because the people involved here are capable of better. The truth is, even if they can't spin straw into gold here, they can spin it into something perhaps like silver. Steven Spielberg can direct a movie like this blindfolded, and it's not that it seems like he isn't trying, it's that he can make it so naturally and effectively that you aren't always even aware of the work. There are plenty of tricky camera moves throughout, from long push-ins on moving cars to elaborate single takes that weave through crowded houses. Framing and staging always subconsciously reinforce the power dynamics. It's really quite clever, and I suspect if I were to watch it again, I would notice plenty more great directorial decisions that slipped by me the first time.

Meryl Streep is excellent. As I said earlier, she clearly made choices about the arc of her character, and the change shows even if the audience can't fully track the reasons. We've seen her portray plenty of "force of nature" women over the years; this performance is notable for the bulk of the story in which her character isn't that self-assured. Halting, doubting, and timid, it's compelling to watch Streep inhabit someone like this, and helps the audience cheer her on to glory all the more when we know what she's capable of.

Tom Hanks is great too. He's a rough, barking "newspaper man," and because he's Tom Hanks, this man never comes off as unlikable. You want to charge into battle at his side. And the list of other great actors here is impossibly long: Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jessie Plemons, Zach Woods, Michael Stuhlbarg (in his third Oscar nominated film this year!), and more. Some of them are only here for one or two scenes, but they're seemingly happy to do even that little to work with these other actors, and for Steven Speilberg.

At the end of the day, The Post is a fine movie from which I expected much more. I understand why it's in the Oscar hunt, and I understand why no one seems to be calling it a serious contender. I grade it a B.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Will You Take My Hand?

Overall, I liked the story that Star Trek: Discovery told with its first season. Despite many twists and turns, and apparent resets of its premise along the way, it really was all of one piece, building to this conclusion. I'm just not so sure they stuck the landing.

I get what they were going for here. Though there were moments throughout the season where some people doubted the sincerity of the writers' devotion to female empowerment, this final episode really showed us where they stood. It all came down to women in every important role in the story. Burnham had to thwart the evil plot of Mirror Georgiou. She had to stand up to Admiral Cornwell. She had emotional support from Tilly. And in the end, it was L'Rell who stepped up to force the Klingon Empire to fall into line. It's a fantastic construction.

But the logic was strained. How exactly could they know that L'Rell would behave as they wanted if they let her go? Why would she not prosecute a campaign against the Federation to its ultimate end, once they'd shown her their weakness by releasing her? How about the rest of the Klingons? L'Rell is a nobody who served for a defeated and disgraced leader. Why listen to her? She shows up at the High Council waving an iPad and saying she has the power to blow up the world. What possible reason would anyone have to believe her?

We knew the season wasn't going to end in the destruction of the Klingon homeworld -- but then, that wasn't put out there until part way through this episode. Still, I at least needed to feel like the twist that ultimately happened was at least as dramatically satisfying as the plan they'd put on the table in front of us at the end of last episode: that Discovery was going to map key locations from inside the planet to set up a possible offensive strike. But the twist with L'Rell was lacking for the reasons I mentioned above, and the substitute "big showdown" between Burnham and Georgiou wasn't nearly as dramatic as advertised. Nor, again, very logical -- Mirror Georgiou is literally Hitler, on a galactic scale. No principle of "honoring one's word" justifies turning her loose to terrorize the universe. (Similarly, how could you justify letting go an intelligence resource like Ash Tyler/Voq?)

But at least some little moments along the way were satisfying. Having L'Rell open the episode by giving us the "Previously on Star Trek: Discovery" in subtitled Klingon was amusing. The barbs traded between Georgiou and Saru over her desire to eat him were wonderfully pointed. The confrontation between Burnham and Cornwell was great, where Burnham stood up to assert what Star Trek is for both the whole bridge crew and the audience. (Her speech at the end was also quite inspiring.) The short appearance by Clint Howard as an Orion druggie was another great moment for long time Trekkers, who will recall that as a child, Howard appeared in one of the very first episodes of the original series. (That wasn't the only way the show came full circle, but I'll get to that shortly.)

It was a fantastic episode for Tilly, arguably the show's best character. Sure, there were laughs in her being chastised for half-heartedly saluting the Emperor, and later falling into a drug haze, but her dramatic moments were even better. Her assurances to Burnham that she had her back really meant something, because of how far Tilly had come as a character over the season. We saw that she was watching out for Burnham too, in every action. (I loved as they walked down the corridor, early in the episode, and Tilly positioned herself deliberately between Ash Tyler and Burnham.)

The writers also set up for next season in the most tantalizing way. Without making a total cliffhanger of things (the season's story did resolve, after all), they gave us room to speculate on all manner of things that might be ahead. First, we're getting a new captain. Who it might be, what actor they might get to play him or her, is prime for conjecture. (What if they took inspiration from having Jason Isaacs as captain in season one and embraced a Harry Potter approach? What if Discovery starts going through captains like Hogwarts goes through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers? You could conceivably attract some real A-list talent with the promise of single seasons or less.)

Then, of course, there was the tease of taking us back to where Star Trek all began by ending on a rendezvous with the Enterprise. (And a full, new performance of the original series theme song -- soprano, bongos, and everything.) This is very much "where it all began," as we're talking about the Enterprise commanded by Christopher Pike in the original series pilot "The Cage." So not only can we spend the hiatus waiting to hear who they'll cast as Pike, we can wonder about whether the other crew members of that episode will make an appearance -- do we get a new Number One, a new Dr. Boyce, a new José Tyler? (And will they get more of an actual personality than they had before?)

Then, of course, there's Spock. He was there in "The Cage" too, and judging by the surreptitious look between Michael Burnham and Sarek right at the end of the episode, showing him is something the writers know they can't cheese out on here. Seeing the actual dynamic between brother and sister is something that needs to happen. And is there any chance of coaxing Zachary Quinto back to television to reprise the role, or are we going to get Spock #3?

Those last few minutes of the episode really kind of overshadowed the episode that came before, in many ways. Overall, I was satisfied by this season of Discovery, and though we can expect the break to be long, I'm very much looking forward to the next. But for this episode itself? I'd mark "Will You Take My Hand?" a B-. Great character work with Burnham and Tilly, but the rest was a rather nonsensical and anticlimactic end to a fun ride.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Discover Something Great

This weekend, Star Trek: Discovery will be wrapping up its first season. It seemed like the time to talk about the Discovery podcast I've been listening to throughout the show's run.

A while back, I blogged about The Greatest Generation, "a Star Trek podcast by two guys who are a bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast." It's a fantastic and hilarious podcast that went through every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, offering commentary and comedy. (They've now moved on to Deep Space Nine, and the show is as funny as ever.) When Star Trek: Discovery spun up, their podcast spun off; every Tuesday after a new episode of Star Trek, they served up their own new episode of The Greatest Discovery.

The tone is the same: they're looking to make jokes, but not to poke fun. These guys love Discovery -- indeed, they might even like it a bit more (and a bit more consistently) than I do. But that doesn't mean they can't laugh at it. Sometimes this revolves around pointing out when the show has food on its figurative chin, but more often it's about running a riff about taking a serious scene not-so-seriously, or pulling out a running gag from their ever-increasing stable.

The two hosts, Adam Pranica and Ben Harrison, actually work in film and television production for their "day jobs," so occasionally the show can get educational too. If there's a particular camera set-up being used to achieve a particular effect, certain lighting, certain movement, you name it... they'll notice it and comment on it. They have "favorite directors" who work on Star Trek, and when they point out those directors' signatures in an episode, you'll come to understand why, even if you're not the sort to normally take note of how the entertainment you watch is put together.

Of course, the key difference between The Greatest Discovery and The Greatest Generation is that they're watching these Star Trek episodes for the first time, like we are. This is no nostalgic look back, but a look at whether Star Trek as a franchise has brought what it takes to be noticed in this era of prestige television. (The hosts' answer: generally yes.) Speculation about what would come next has added to the Star Trek: Discovery experience; once or twice, it's made me wish the writers of the show had zagged where they zigged. (How fun would a whole episode of the Mirror Discovery in the Prime Universe have been?)

In a podcast queue that's always bursting, I always drop everything Tuesday morning to listen to a new Greatest Discovery (even switching away from something I was halfway through the night before). For season one of Star Trek: Discovery, at least, it's too late for you to "listen along" as I did. Still, I'd recommend the podcast. It'll give you a way to keep Discovery in mind over the coming hiatus between seasons. The Greatest Discovery gets an A in my book.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Casting in a Different Light

As the new year rolled around, I was confident I'd at least heard of all the movies thought to be in the hunt for an Oscar nomination. But "Oscar bait" and "critically praised" aren't always quite the same thing. When critics published their Best of 2017 lists, one movie that popped up here and there was one I'd never even heard of before: Casting JonBenet.

Casting JonBenet is an unusual documentary film that hit on the film festival circuit and was picked up for streaming on Netflix. The "JonBenet" of the title is, of course, JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old pageant queen whose 1996 death was a tabloid sensation. The documentary is essentially the real story of the making of a fake movie. Under the pretense of filming a dramatized movie about the case, the documentary makers call in dozens of actors to audition for a variety of roles. The documentary is made up of their read-throughs, and of Q&A with them in the audition room, where their thoughts about the case and its major "characters" are probed.

Despite the fact that the Ramsey case occurred nearby in Boulder, Colorado, I took almost no note of it at the time. While it certainly ticked the "true crime" box that should have interested me, the tabloid/sensationalist aspect of it was a big turn off. (I didn't follow the O.J. Simpson trial either. Maybe when they make a season of American Crime Story about JonBenet, I'll take an interest.) What I mean to say is that there was a fair amount of information in this documentary that was new to me that won't be new to many people.

But the film is barely even about the death of a little girl. It's much more about the preconceptions with which people judge others. It's even more about an actor's process. It's actually fascinating at times to see what the auditioning actors think about the people they're jockeying to play. One after another, each tells a story about his or her own past that they're convinced is THE window into their character's mind. Sometimes, you can see exactly how this informs their performance. Other times, you marvel at the Jekyll/Hyde transformation that good actors undergo, behaving as one person one moment, and someone completely different the next.

There are some fun moments scattered throughout the short documentary. Often they come in the form of cheeky editing, as the damning comments of one actor are juxtaposed against the more forgiving comments of another. A real highlight (though an especially ghoulish one) is the group of young kids auditioning for JonBenet's nine-year-old brother Burke -- seeing how they come out of their reserved shells when they perform, and how some access a shocking inner source of psychopathy.

The problem is, the documentary really doesn't stick the landing. Mainly, it doesn't seem to be saying much of anything. Squint hard, and you can glean from this film a sympathetic view of actors in general: people who make a living pretending to be other people seem to inherently have more empathy than average, an ability to see the good in anyone. But I think that's really forcing some subtext in.

Ultimately, I really don't know what it was about this documentary that compelled many critics to put this on their Best of 2017 lists. Maybe those critics were all obsessed with the original case to a degree I never was. Maybe they love looking behind the scenes at the making of a movie -- but since it's the making of a fake movie in this case, I'm still not sure I see the appeal.

I give Finding JonBenet a C+. At a brisk 80 minutes, it won't demand too much of your time. Still, I'm not really sure it's worth even that much.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat

Among the writing staff of The X-Files (and among fans who pay attention to who writes their favorite episodes), Darin Morgan has always been a standout for his lighter, comedic take. Perhaps realizing how ridiculous "mythology" X-Files had become, he turned the dial all the way up on making the show a parody of itself and literally wrote episodes that were a parody of the format. His latest effort (aired two weeks ago, that I'm just now catching up on) was "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat."

Mulder is contacted by a skittish, weird man who insists that They have the power to alter memories. His theory and his demeanor both equally outlandish, Mulder is ready to dismiss him entirely. And yet this would explain erroneous memories in an intriguing way... why the episode of The Twilight Zone he loved as a kid doesn't seem to exist, why the strange self-separating gelatin Scully remembers from her childhood can't be found anywhere, and why the world seems to remember a non-existent movie starring Sinbad as a genie. Increasing contact with this weird man reveals a conspiracy deep enough and weird enough to keep up with modern times.

Just as Darin Morgan's effort in the last X-Files revival season was the reason to justify doing it, this episode felt like the reward for making it through this season's terrible premiere. It was laugh out loud funny, and repeatedly so. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson again got to show that they've got comic chops this show is rarely able to tap. The series lovingly mocked itself with slapstick (a mirror take from a multi-armed alien), sight gags (child Mulder watching TV with adult Mulder's head), weary comments about whether anyone needs another Twilight Zone/Outer Limits type show, and an extended montage that served up fake opening credits with a new character retroactively inserted into beloved episodes.

Where the episode excelled with subtlety was in bringing the weirdness to Mulder and Scully. As with classic comedy episodes from the show's original run ("Jose Chung's From Outer Space," "Bad Blood"), it was actually the way that an outsider talked about Mulder and Scully that made them and their work seem so ridiculous. They themselves weren't actually behaving that far outside normal. (That "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster" episode from the previous season was not as pure on this front.) The strange man of this episode, Reggie Something, brings almost all the weirdness (with the hilariously named Dr. They contributing the rest)... though there is a meta-commentary here in that Reggie is just Mulder turned up one or two notches (and They the same for the old character of Deep Throat).

Of course, this wasn't the only commentary the episode was offering, and the bulk of it wasn't subtle. The episode had a lot of fascinating things to say about how the mission statement of The X-Files, the search for the Truth, has taken a punch in the gut in the modern age of truthiness, alternative facts, and bald-faced lying in the face of actual evidence. And as the perfect grace note to it all, the climax of the episode featured an obnoxious alien parroting the words of Donald Trump back at our heroes. Fantastic. And hey, isn't it more fun to blame Donald Trump rather than Chris Carter for why The X-Files isn't as good as it used to be?

In a weird way, this is the second time this season that The X-Files has made me want to stop watching it. The first time was out of frustration and disgust. This time, it's out of an odd satisfaction. This episode could almost serve as a finale for the series. An odd note to end on, some would say, but far more satisfying than what we thought was the actual finale back in 2002. It was entertaining, thoughtful, and actually did tie up things in a bow of sorts. (A screwball, enormous novelty bow, but still...) We'll see if I can muster up the will to keep going once again in this second revival season.

Even if I do, I can't imagine another episode surpassing this one. I give "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" an A. An enthusiastic round of applause for Darin Morgan.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Past Life

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is now taking a hiatus for a month, but before they went away, they resolved the "future" arc of the season's ongoing story line.

There were some sudden big moves in the narrative that felt a little too "out of nowhere" to me to really work effectively -- the sudden introduction of a suicidal Kree PCP being the most conspicuous example. Kasius has always been a scheming villain, not a physical villain, but it seems the pressure to have a big sendoff for him led to this bizarre turn that had him behaving completely unlike himself to fight... Mack? There was another unearned moment, as no real rivalry between the two characters had ever previously been established (unlike, by contrast, Sinara and Daisy). At least Simmons was there to get in a vengeful lick by slipping the "silencer" bot into Kasius' ear at the pivotal moment. (And at least in the first part of the episode, we got a Kasius we were more used to seeing, carrying on a one-sided conversation with Sinara just as he always did, death being no real obstacle to that.)

Future Yo-Yo was another untelegraphed plot development; out of the blue, Kasius reveals he also has a "seer" able to give him intel on our heroes, which for vague and unexplained (and unexplainable) reasons he wasn't using before this moment. But this development at least made for a much more impactful scene than the Kasius/Mack throwdown. It was chillinging to watch Future Yo-Yo struggle against her own sense of futility to give her past self knowledge of what's to come (and it was sold well by Natalia Cordova-Buckley). The late reveal that the Future Yo-Yo's arms had been amputated was one more creepy detail. And of course, the scene gave us new information to tease the back half of the season, revealing Coulson's disease, and Yo-Yo's belief that he has to die to save the future.

It wasn't just the Yo-Yo scene speaking to the cyclical, "you can't change the future" message in the narrative. The fact that Flint (nor anyone else from the future) traveled back to the present with our heroes speaks to that too. Entertaining though this whole future arc has been for the audience, what was the point (within the narrative) of bringing the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to the future if they weren't going to leave with anything more than they came with? If they weren't going to return with some particular tool that would suggest they could change their fate? I guess even though the audience of course knows the world won't be destroyed, the writing can't tip its hand on how that will be avoided too soon here -- we still have half a season to go.

Other fun accents in the episode included Coulson comforting Tess about the emotional strain of resurrection, Simmons being taken aback by Fitz's gruesome improvised beheadings of three Kree, Daisy doing the right thing (if she really believes she destroys the world) by at least trying to stay behind, and the little coda with Flint and Tess that suggested Flint's Inhuman power might allow him to literally rebuild the Earth.

A pretty fun episode, overall -- though it would have been better still if they'd stayed true to Kasius' character all the way through to the end of his arc. I give "Past Life" a B.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The War Without, The War Within

As Star Trek: Discovery (the show) is about to wrap up its first season, Discovery (the ship) has returned to its own universe. And it seems clear that no temporal antics are going to unwind the dire straits in which it finds itself after all. This is the timeline they'll live in now, and the quest resumes for fans to connect it to what we know of the original series, set less than a decade later.

While the Federation is on the ropes, it's not really quite as "finished" as last week's episode led us to believe. The "war without" part of the title was about searching for a way to punch the Klingons in the nose hard enough to end the open destruction phase of the conflict (turning it more into the Cold War sort of situation between the Klingons and Federation we saw in the original series). To that end, they're going to need more spores. That set up a cool sequence about terraforming a planet to serve as a spore haven. This is what a decent budget and modern visual effects can give you; this was actually a super technobabbly scene, but it was so loaded up with eye candy that it didn't feel like it.

But it's the "war within" part of the title that served up the more satisfying elements of the episode. There were interpersonal reckonings all throughout. A few were glossed over without sufficient commentary. (Sarek's forcible mind meld with Saru could be construed as a form of rape; L'Rell wasn't really given a chance to process either the death of Voq or the realization that T'Kuvma's dream of uniting the Klingons had utterly failed.) Mostly, though, they dug right in to the most vulnerable parts of the characters.

Ash Tyler is a wreck, back to "himself" in a way, but fully possessing the memories of Voq and everything he did as a Klingon aboard Discovery. That led to a somewhat satisfying scene with Stamets, a limited form of therapy for the audience in which Stamets just let Tyler have it with the most cutting things he could think to say. "Limited" therapy, I say, because I still don't think the writers fully appreciated the icky submessage they were sending by showing Star Trek's first prominent LGBT relationship just to immediately end it. But at least they are playing the death for all the drama it's worth.

There were plenty of other great Tyler scenes. Tilly, once an outcast herself but now much more at home on the Discovery, took it upon herself to reach out to him in a touching moment in the mess hall. Much later, there was the scene between Tyler and Burnham, where she confessed a Gordian knot of emotion -- she knows on one level that the man who attacked her is gone, but he wore the face in front of her now, the face of the first man she ever loved. Greater still was the scene near the end where Burnham got some fatherly advice from Sarek: not to regret opening herself up to love. The sentiment would sound wrong from probably any other Vulcan, but this of course is the man who reconciled marrying a human woman with maintaining an emotionless exterior. He knows of what he speaks.

Admiral Cornwell had a potent emotional ride of her own. Nine months of losing the Federation -- really, of losing everything -- led her to the brink, and the loss of Starbase 1 pushed her over. Her quiet reverie in the captain's chair spoke volumes, and became the moment where she was willing to do anything to turn the war around. She went to the Emperor to make a deal, and the terms were not going to be small. On a (wink, wink) completely unrelated note, not long after, Cornwell showed up on the bridge with Captain Georgiou, back from dead and ready to take command of the Discovery.

I do hope that the writers aren't looking to play this for surprise, because it should be abundantly clear to everyone that this Georgiou is really the Emperor dressed up to lead the sheep as the wolf she is. But the far more compelling question is, which of our characters know or suspect the truth? Having just gone through their mirror universe ordeal, it seems quite unlikely that many would be taken in by the ruse. Does that matter? Are they willing to sign on to the lie to win the war? In particular, what does this mean for Burnham and Saru, the people closest to the real Georgiou? Is this a desecration of the original's memory, and if so, is that an acceptable loss in this moment? What happens when "Georgiou" has finished this mission and has saved the day? Will Cornwell honor her deal? Will Burnham and Saru think she should? What would that even look like, letting another Lorca wander around our universe subverting the Federation's ideals?

It's all a compelling set-up for more than Discovery can probably resolve in a single remaining episode -- even at the breakneck pace they often move the plot. But hey, there is a season two in the works, and you gotta leave something for that. I give "The War Without, The War Within" a B+.

Next week, the season finale!

Friday, February 02, 2018

Slow and Steady

It seems like more and more often, I'm made to feel a bit "old" by some particular bit of history I remember being there for. But one bit that's being mentioned more frequently these days, and that came just before time, is the Watergate scandal. With current presidential scandals and talk of possible cover-ups in the news, people are actually referencing Watergate in less superficial ways than simply tacking "-gate" onto the end of something.

My knowledge of Watergate might be better than some, but feels patchy at best to me. I know the broad strokes, and the version of what happened according to All the President's Men. But anything beyond the most top shelf details were really out of my grasp. Appearing in timely fashion to address this was a new podcast called Slow Burn.

Courtesy of the web site Slate, Slow Burn takes deep dives onto smaller details of the Watergate scandal. It's a tight 30 minute (at most) podcast, but host Leon Neyfakh is able to pack a lot in. He helps you really understand each tiny part of the story in a complete way, making it feel vital and worth knowing. The episodes are filled with modern interviews, archival audio -- it's all very well researched.

The meta-thesis behind Slow Burn is to draw parallels between Watergate and the current election scandals surrounding Donald Trump and Russia. Smartly, the podcast never tries to one-to-one this stuff by actually mentioning modern events. Instead, the first episode lays out the thesis: If we were actually living through a real Watergate right now, would we know it? What did the people then know as they were living through it? The podcast doesn't have to spell things out, as it's impossible not to recognize how closely the events of the 1970s track with events of today -- the shifting nature of the explanations, the efforts made to divert or tarnish the media, and more.

My only complaint about Slow Burn is that its magnifying glass is sometimes so focused, and its overall narrative not obviously linear, that it's sometimes hard to fit the pieces into a larger whole. There perhaps ought to have been a "Watergate 101" here -- though I suppose you can read up on that any number of places if you need it. (Perhaps you'll respect the podcast more for not spoon feeding you in that way.)

An 8-episode season of Slow Burn has recently wrapped up, but the podcast was apparently enough of a hit that they've already announced another season to come at a later date -- to be based around the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

If you like some historical distance from your political horror show, I recommend Slow Burn. I'd grade it a B+.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

A Towering Achievement

It's not just 2017 movies I'm trying to catch up with. There are still a handful of movies from 2016 that I put on my list some time ago. I finally found the time to catch up with one, an interesting documentary called Tower.

Tower is a film about the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. It serves as a reminder that while the frequency of gun violence in the U.S. may be a tragically modern development, mass shootings are sadly not anything new. (Indeed, for the moment at least, this incident still ranks in the top 10 deadliest shootings in U.S. history.)

What makes this documentary distinct is how it presents its subject. There's very little actual film footage from the incident to work with, and only a little more in the way of photos and audio recordings. Some of the survivors gave interviews at various points in their lives, but as these were spread out over a 50 year period, unifying a documentary's sense of time was going to be a real challenge.

Director Keith Maitland decided to ground the story by casting actors in the major roles -- not just for the purpose of recreating the incident, but to actually perform interviews (both archival and new ones) for the camera. Yet even then, he couldn't get the footage he needed to do justice to the story, because he was unable to film a reenactment at the actual location. (He either decided it would be in bad taste, or believed he'd never be given permission in the first place, and reportedly never asked.)

His solution? Animation. The vast majority of this documentary is rotoscope-style animation, painting over both the interviews and the reenactments (which are placed on still backgrounds of the real location). It's a surprisingly effective technique, somehow weaving a magic that makes these events from five decades ago feel current and urgent.

Occasionally, dropped into the animation are brief moments of live-action, and these land like gut punches. The news and home video footage from the day are, interestingly, not even the most impactful moments. Instead, those come when interview subjects, animated as the actors cast to look their age in 1966, are intercut with clips of the actual people, now in their 70s or 80s. If my description is making it sound confusing, be assured that it's crystal clear and potently emotional in context.

It's fascinating to me how such a seemingly artificial construction can lead to a documentary that feels like it puts no artifice at all between the viewer and the emotion. It's quite a trick, though I feel like even to use that word cheapens it a bit. I only wish that the documentary had dared to take more of a point of view beyond just retelling the events. Only in the very final minutes does it dare to brush against the politics of gun control by including footage of more recent mass shootings. If any of the interview subjects had anything to say about how little things have changed over time with regard to guns in the U.S., those comments didn't make it into the film.

Nevertheless, Tower stands as an effective preservation of a dark moment in history. I give it a B+. If you're interested in watching it, it's available to stream from Netflix -- making it easy to get a hold of, though not "easy to watch."