Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Brightest Star

The third installment of Short Treks was a substantial improvement over the previous two, focusing on Saru and his back story.

Saru is an outsider in Kelpian society, not content to wait for a sacrificial death like the rest of his people. His sister tries to understand him, but his father -- the village elder who conducts the sacrificial ceremonies -- doesn't sympathize at all. When Saru gets his hand on advanced alien technology, it becomes a lifeline to communicate with another world (in every sense).

There is, of course, plenty that's familiar about this simple little story. The daydreaming villager who just doesn't fit into their backwater town is a well-worn trope of fiction. This setup in particular is not so far from the Next Generation episode "Pen Pals," though its told from the alien side of the illicit communication and not the Starfleet side. Yet I think it may be to the advantage of these Short Treks to tell a familiar story: there's just not enough time to do justice to a more original one.

After a season of Saru describing his homeworld in bits and pieces, we get a full treatment of it here. Yet again, no expense is spared in making these mini-episodes, as we get filming on location and a dozen people all made up like Kelpians. (Their relative lack of expression compared to Doug Jones shows you what a freaking genius that man is at emoting through complicated makeup.)

There is new information here, though. I feel like we were never explicitly told before that Kelpians were a pre-warp society. (We were certainly never told that they willingly offer themselves in sacrifice to some unknown alien race.) Saru is hardly the first "only one of his kind in Starfleet" character we've had on Star Trek, but there is something about this particular context that really tells us a lot about him. He had to be more clever and inquisitive that every other member of his species to make it to the stars, and he had to permanently say goodbye to his family and everything he knew to do it. The specificity of this speaks volumes about his character that was only whispered in the hints we knew before. And it shows us how unique his perspective on life must be, while making me hope we see more of it in future episodes.

We also got a fun little twist at the end of the episode, as Saru was picked up in a shuttle by none other than Georgiou. I feel like this moment actually gives us a lot of background about her too, even if it's more by inference and less explicit that what we learn about Saru this episode. She's a lieutenant here, but her shuttle's markings are still from the Shenzhou. She'd "grow up" to be captain of the same ship she'd served on for years. It seems probable she requested command of that ship in particular, even though it was an old junker by then... possibly so that it would give her authority to be more selective about her crew (specifically, Saru and Burnham). It suggests that Georgiou is someone with fierce loyalty, and who forms lifelong attachments. It also paints Burnham's betrayal of her at the start of the series in much stronger terms.

By putting Discovery's characters into this familiar old story type, "The Brightest Star" was the first truly successful Short Treks episode for me. I give it a B+.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Rock Me, Amadeus

I've written on several occasions about going to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to watch them perform the score of a movie live on stage. (Hell, I did so just earlier this month!) Yet even though I've now attended a number of these performances, the one I went to this past weekend felt unique. That's because the film this time was Amadeus.

Amadeus won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1984. It's the tale of composer Antonio Salieri, a man who wishes only to honor God through music -- but whose own capacity for creativity falls woefully short in comparison to his brilliant contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Offended by Mozart's crass and irreverent behavior, Salieri seeks to avenge himself on the callous God that blessed the unworthy and mocks at every turn.

This is a movie near to my heart, by way of the original play by Peter Shaffer on which it was based. Back in my college days, I was in a production of that play. It was arguably the best work of my short and abandoned theatrical career; in any case, it remains a time I look back on fondly. Shaffer rewrote the play entirely for the screen, turning an award-winning play into an award-winning film. Both are triumphs in their own mediums, though it is my connection to the play that compelled me to seek out the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's screening of the film.

The musical score of Amadeus is comprised entirely of previously existing material -- works of Mozart and Salieri (with a smattering of other contemporary music). As a result, you'd expect this concert to be more akin to what you'd expect of a typical night at the symphony. But the soundtrack of Amadeus is hardly as simple as "now we'll play Don Giovanni; now we'll play The Magic Flute." The music is all very carefully curated and laid into the action just so, and the movie itself makes deliberate space for it.

Synchronization is important every time the symphony performs a film, but it's even more so here. Original vocals in the film were retained throughout -- for example, when we would see sequences from an opera performance. With only rare exceptions, the accompanying music was always performed live. Tom Hulce as Mozart would wave his hands on screen, furiously conducting his musicians, as Brett Mitchell of the CSO would just as intensely conduct the real ones in perfect unison.

Several key scenes in the movie really get inside Mozart's music and pick it apart, and seeing this happen live was a real treat. As Salieri would discuss the way a phrase on the oboe would hand off to the clarinet, you'd see and hear it happen right there on the stage. As Salieri would page through portfolio's of Mozart's music, the orchestra would turn in an instant and play samples of each new page. Whenever Salieri would monologue about what made Mozart's music so great, he'd point to things that you could witness right there in front of you.

A climactic scene at the end of the movie was as special a moment as I can ever recall at the symphony. Salieri agrees to take dictation for an ailing Mozart, writing out a piece line by line. It's a scene that frankly I'd say goes on a bit too long in the movie; it quickly makes its dramatic point about Salieri's emotional response, yet continues on for several minutes. But here, in this unusual concert venue, it was an extraordinary moment that ended all too soon. Mozart would name the instrument and speak the notes; Salieri would begin to write them, and the live symphony orchestra would take it up and play it. You very literally got to see how each component of a celebrated piece is layered together, bit by bit.

You also got to be chilled to your core by the power of a 140+ member chorus included for this performance. In past film score concerts, choirs have been routinely left out -- either the few bits of vocals in a score were actually omitted, or a substitution was made with a musician playing the part on a synthesizer. But they'd never dream of doing this to Mozart, of course. The choir made an already special evening that much more so with its raw power and raw emotion.

Every time I go to the symphony for a film presentation, I end up writing about it here, urging people to give one a try some time. I have never been disappointed. On this occasion, I was truly overwhelmed. So once again: give one a try some time, at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra or whatever orchestra performs near you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

New Eden

It's interesting that in the same week The Orville decided to serve up a classic Star Trek first contact story, Star Trek: Discover did the same, with "New Eden."

Seeking out one of the seven mysterious "red lights," Discovery finds a distant planet sparsely populated by humans who disappeared from Earth during World War III. The locals have stagnated in technology, and have cobbled together their own religion to explain their survival, a hodgepodge of various Earth religions. Without violating the Prime Directive, a landing party must discover how these humans came to be settled on a world so far from their real home. The ship also must deal with an imminent global disaster.

There's an interesting story at the core of this episode; interacting with primitive societies is a Star Trek staple. It's also a nice twist to literally encounter a planet populated with people descended from Earth for a reason (as opposed to the original series' hand waving that served up Earth-like planets on the regular without purpose). But there are also many elements of this story that don't quite work, as well as some missed opportunities.

For starters, the "blended religion" of the people of New Eden seems like a far-fetched idea. I would think a shared experience like the rescue by the "Red Angel" would either spark some entirely new faith, or start a small-scale holy war where different religions would try to claim the event for theirs within their existing frameworks. Building a new religion that's "one from column A, one from column B" doesn't seem like the natural outcome. I suppose it's possible that later information we get about the Red Angel as the season unfolds might help to explain this, but for now, it feels like there's explanation here we didn't get (or that the writers didn't craft).

The Prime Directive (or General Order One) is all over this episode... until it isn't. Despite Burnham's logistical aikido at the end of the episode, I really couldn't see how Pike went from unflinching support for non-interference to beaming down and revealing himself to the local, Jacob. Pike had other solutions in this moment, from going down and stealing the camera to copying its information and leaving it in place. Nothing seemed to necessitate or explain suddenly coming clean to Jacob.

It feels like a missed opportunity not to give Saru a bigger role in this episode. Coming off the Short Treks episode all about him (which we actually watched just after this episode, though it "aired" before), it would be really interesting to get his take on Starfleet's all-consuming non-interference policy with primitive cultures. Obviously, Saru did join Starfleet and thus must have espoused belief in the practice, but one has to wonder how supportive he truly is. At the very least, encountering any primitive culture ought to stir up feelings for Saru that are worth at least touching on.

Time lost by Saru was time gained by bridge officer Owosekun, who got to go with the landing party in a slightly beefed-up role this episode. It was nice at least to see some character getting fleshed out a bit. The story line for Tilly was also enjoyable. Though her decision to work alone in secret felt like a bell the show maybe ought to stop ringing soon, her encounters with the strange vision of an old school mate was a fun gimmick. Presumably this all relates back to that one spore speck we saw land on her shoulder back in season one. It may bring Stamets and Tilly, already close, even closer together.

Again, Discovery served up an action sequence that looked great but didn't necessarily make a lot of sense. Using the asteroid fragment's gravity to drag away the threat to the planet was a fun idea that looked amazing on screen. But I would also think that if its gravity is strong enough to do that, it will surely affect some other changes on the planet that might not be so pleasant. Oh well, we'll probably never see New Eden again, so problem solved!

This was a fun enough episode as it unspooled, but left me feeling less satisfied than the season's premiere. I give "New Eden" a B-.

Monday, January 28, 2019

All the World Is Birthday Cake

In the latest installment of The Orville, the series once again used Star Trek as a jumping off point for an original tale. The episode was all about making "first contact" (and even began, as The Next Generation's "First Contact" episode did, from the alien culture's perspective).

The Orville has picked up a transmission from an emerging civilization looking for other life in the universe. The crew is eager to reach out to them, pursuing the Union's primary mission of meeting new aliens. But first contact with the Regorians quickly turns sour when the aliens arrest Grayson and Bortus and send them to a concentration camp. Their "crime" is one of birth; they were born under a bad astrological sign, and there is nothing Mercer can do to appease their superstition beliefs.

Plenty of Star Trek episodes, particularly of the original series, have made a villain of religion, and have painted aliens as primitive for their religious attitudes. The Orville found an interesting way to twist that idea by not literally going after religion, but after a spiritual pseudo-science. It was a fun premise, though one that doesn't hold up as much more than a gimmick when you start to scratch at it. (Setting aside all the stuff internal to the planet itself, does the concept of "birthdays" even hold up between people from different planets with different rotations and orbital periods?)

Even more, though, I question the behavior of our regular characters this episode. I'm not sure it really worked to make this story play out over a month of time as it does. It's hard to believe Grayson and Bortus would try no escape sooner, that the crew aboard the ship would have no ideas worth showing us sooner, that any of this crisis would go on for a month. (Then again, whose months are we talking about? How long are they?)

The ultimate resolution to the problem, at least, is a bit more fun. After 50+ years of Star Trek, even casual fans have a sense of Starfleet rules governing alien worlds. The Orville is very like Star Trek, but the rules aren't quite as explicitly articulated here. And this solution feels decidedly un-Star Trek, conning the aliens with a technological deception.

This episode introduced the ship's new security officer, Talla Keyali. I found it odd that they've just put a new woman of the same alien species in the show. Yes, it seems she's more aggressive and self-confident than Alara. But until her personality develops more, there's very little difference between the two characters. And while the show has continued to keep mum about the reason why Alara was written off (and whether it's permanent), this seems to suggest that the writers at least were not looking to make a change -- they've decided not to use this opportunity to tweak the formula.

And speaking of cast members, we got another fun viewscreen cameo, this time in the form of an admiral played by Ted Danson. (I know Ted Danson has had many successful shows over his long career, but I found it impossible not to think of The Good Place, seeing him in a pristine office on a projected holographic screen.)

There were interesting ideas in this episode, but also a few kinks in how it was told. I give "All the World Is Birthday Cake" a B-. A fun enough effort, but not among the series' best.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Ain't No Thing

There are plenty of "hidden role" games out there, and my group of friends has played more than a few. We've hunted werewolves, outwitted Cthulhu cultists, fought in an underground resistance, and more. But we've never encountered a theme so perfectly suited to the "deceiving your friends" genre as The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31.

Inspired by John Carpenter's outstanding 1982 movie The Thing, this game casts each player as one of the researchers at an isolated Antarctic outpost. Someone in the group is secretly an alien "imitation" of a human, and will infect and replace more humans as the game continues. The humans are trying to gather the tools they need to get to the helicopter and escape (without any tag-along aliens), while the "imitations" try to destroy the station or slip out in the escape.

Of course there should be a hidden role game in this setting! And at first glance, this game does a lot to capture what you'd expect to see in such a game. There's tons of flavor from the movie, including characters with evocative abilities, memorable items and "plot points," and detailed plastic figures (that are sadly a bit difficult to distinguish due to lack of colors).

The rules set manages to weave in these elements without getting overly complicated. You proceed through a series of randomly drawn missions. Each one requires certain types of characters, and certain types of items (which players pledge -- truthfully or not -- to have in their hands of cards). It's quite easy to explain to a group of players what is going on at any given moment, and what needs to be done for each side in the game to succeed.

The problem is, the game isn't remotely balanced. There might be a narrow band through the middle of what is possible, in which the game actually functions well. But the "margins" are way too wide for you to ever stay in that zone. On the one side, it feels trivially easy for the imitation players to sabotage efforts and destroy the station. It is likely that they'll be "found out" in due course, but the alien ability to wreak havoc and destruction is great enough that it feels the station will almost always burn to the ground and cause a loss for the humans before that happens.

On the other side, imitation players could just opt to "do nothing." They could be completely helpful and honest for the entire game, and then get to the endgame moment when players must decide who is allowed on the helicopter. Only one imitation needs to get in the mix for that side to win the game, and if no one has done anything wrong, it will be impossible to know who is who. The odds are against randomly picking the humans and only the humans, so again the game is stacked against them.

There is so much potential to this game. I want to love it, and it would be great in theory if this became the go-to "hidden role" game in my group (for a while, anyway). But it simply isn't going to. It's fundamentally broken at the core, and it's hard to imagine any easy tweaks or house rules that would shore up the problems. I don't anticipate ever playing it again. I don't know if I can grade a "does not work" game anything other than an F -- though this feels like it comes so close to tapping into something cool that I feel like taking pity on it. Call it a D+, maybe? Perhaps there's really no difference; either way, I wouldn't recommend it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Calypso

The second installment of Short Treks, Calypso, was actually rather similar to the first episode, Runaway -- both were stories about two characters, strangers, coming to understand one another. But where Runaway featured one of the most popular characters on Star Trek: Discovery (Tilly), Calypso featured.... well... the title character.

A drifting escape pod is picked up by the Discovery, and its lone occupant, Craft, is revived. But in a sense, Craft remains just as alone. Discovery has been abandoned for a thousand years. Its now-sentient computer, Zora, sees to Craft's recovery.

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery sparked a debate among some Star Trek fans as to what, exactly, is Star Trek. After several spinoffs, many with different tones and premises, a lot of definitions one might have once considered don't quite work anymore. (And perhaps this is why you'll find a handful of people out there who, for example, claim that "Deep Space Nine isn't Star Trek.") I try to be pretty open-minded in what I accept as Star Trek. Yes, Discovery is darker. It's certainly hard sometimes to take it seriously as a prequel and square it with the original series. But I definitely recognize in it enough of what I'd call "Star Trek."

Calypso is not Star Trek.

This one-off episode features no familiar characters. No recognizable aliens show up. There's no Federation, no lofty moral ideals being explored. There's no tether here at all connecting this to any Star Trek that has ever come before, it just happens to be filmed on a Star Trek series' sets. It is a fully self-contained science fiction story with its own agenda, like an installment of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. And compressed down as it is into 15 minutes, I wouldn't even call it a particularly good one.

The rough shape of a compelling story arc is here. This is the tale of a lonely person who briefly experiences companionship but then must learn to let go. "If you love somebody, set them free." It's the tale of Zora, the Discovery computer. But there really aren't any obstacles between point A and point B of her journey. Zora kinda-sorta fibs about Craft's ability to leave Discovery and return home, but it's not a lie that metastasizes between the two characters. There's never any strain in their relationship, and Zora's decision to ultimately let Craft go doesn't feel like it comes at an especially high cost. Her lesson simply isn't that hard to learn.

The quibbles multiply if you try to logic out how this situation even came to be. Is 1000 years of AI evolution not enough for Zora to reach a point where she can override her own "orders" to hold position? She has to know the odds of anyone coming for her are slim to none -- especially after Craft arrives with news on the state of the galaxy outside. (He seems to be human, but he knows nothing about the Federation. So there you go.)

I think this story would have landed a bit better, as a Star Trek tale, anyway, if the computer had had any prior hint of a personality. It could be primordial compared to what we see in Calypso, but it would have been nice to give us some connective tissue. If, for example, this had been a story of a known character like Data, somehow trapped in isolation for 1000 years, that would have packed a punch. Here, it really didn't mean much. At least the idea was clear, though. Unlike the scattered and confusing Runaway, you could tell what was going on here.

Again, the production values on these Short Treks are top notch. There are great visuals surrounding the shuttlebay, and of course, the big set piece moment where actual 60+ year old movie footage with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn is rendered in 3D and built out into an interactive environment. It's all very impressive (even if the "get off my lawn" part of me would never actually want to watch a movie that way)

Still, I was underwhelmed by "Calypso." I'd grade it a C. I'm glad full episodes of Discovery are also back for me to watch each week, because the Short Treks thus far are leaving me cold.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A Bronx Cheer

Last weekend, I went to see the national touring production of A Bronx Tale, shortly before it packed up and headed on from Denver. Based on an earlier one-man-show of the same name by actor Chazz Palminteri, this was a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2016. It's a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical tale about growing up in an Italian community in the 1950s and 60s, falling in with the gangster element, and being torn between two father figures.

The poster for the show quotes a critic as saying it's like "Jersey Boys meets West Side Story." One assumes this was meant as a compliment in its original context. It is certainly accurate. But I think it sums up quite neatly what's wrong with the show. There isn't much here that feels compelling or original.

Act One of A Bronx Tale is the cliche presented in every movie that features a character trying to jump-start an acting career with a self-written one-man-show. ("You see, back in my neighborhood...") It's melodramatic, it's familiar, and it's... well... bad. The narration is hokey, the plot is predictable, the characterizations thin. There's a little bit of life injected in seeing the main character at age 9, the only child in a cast of adults. Even then, the child's performance is broad even by theatrical standards, and he's whisked away after 20 minutes when the story jumps "eight years later."

Act Two of A Bronx Tale is just microwaved West Side Story. A "lovers from opposite sides" subplot that dropped in late in the first act suddenly takes over the entire show, but once again offers nothing new and little that's interesting. The best part about it is the influx of new characters from the nearby "black neighborhood" -- the love interest Jane is more intriguing than the main character himself. She and her chorus (at least, in the production we saw) were more powerful and skillful singers than the leads in the cast. If the story was going to shift abruptly in Act Two, I'd rather it have done so to focus on the far more interesting musical that was apparently next door to this one.

What saved it from being a complete bummer of an evening at the theater was some decent music throughout. It comes from lyricist Glenn Slater and composer Alan Menken (both of whom have histories with Disney that everyone will know -- including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled). Nothing here is career-best work, but that speaks more to the long careers they've had than true shortcomings in what they've created here. There's everything from anthemic defiance ("I Like It") to clever wordplay ("Nicky Machiavelli"). Melodies are introduced in good songs, and often recontextualized in reprise later in the show. Plus there was that great burst of energy at the top of Act Two ("Webster Avenue") that made me wish we were watching that "other musical" inside this one.

Still, some decent tunes alone really weren't enough to save the show for me. I'd grade it a C. If the tour of A Bronx Tale works its way to your city, I'd skip it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes

The Orville tried to keep you guessing in its most recent episode, with a story that kept reconfiguring into something new with almost every act.

Captain Mercer is ready to "go public" with his growing relationship with Janel Tyler. The two decide to do it in a big way, with a vacation together off ship. But when their shuttle is captured by the Krill, Tyler becomes a pressure point for them to extract secrets from Mercer. An opportunity to escape comes when the Krill ship is attacked, but by this point, the situation between Mercer and Tyler has become very different. Meanwhile, aboard the Orville, Malloy expresses interest in pursuing the command track.

It's fun how many turns the plot takes in this episode. What starts out as an apparently light-hearted relationship story abruptly turns into a "captured by the enemy" story. It then becomes an even more direct sequel to the first season episode that introduced the Krill, when we discover (SPOILER!) that Janel Tyler is actually the alien Teleya, returning to seek vengeance on Mercer. And then the episode just as suddenly shifts into a sort of "Enemy Mine" mode, as the two are trapped on a planet together and forced to trust each other.

I do wish the episode could have delved a little deeper into the romantic angle here. It seems significant to me that as early as this season's premiere, Mercer was still trying to get back together with his ex-wife. Tyler was his first relationship after that, and it was no small thing for him to move on. So the truth about Tyler really ought to pack an emotional sucker punch -- an idea I feel only got a bit of lip service without really being explored. I'm not looking for Ed to declare vengeance back on Teleya (the Star Trek homage, of course, is the "show mercy to an enemy" route), but I feel like a greater acknowledgement of what Ed risked and lost was in order.

I thought the Malloy story line, light though it was, did the better job of getting at something deeper and true. The subplot started off as comic relief, with a character who has been used almost exclusively for comic relief in the past. It seemed like this was another joke, a scheme to (as Grayson put it) "pick up chicks." And it exactly the point that it seemed this way. Malloy is tired of being a joke, and was making a play to be taken seriously. The story line was hardly profound, but it was honest -- sometimes people don't want to be "typecast"; sometimes the "clown" gets tired of performing.

The episode was playfully fun in how it kept the audience guessing. I give it a B. It was a nice installment in The Orville's growing continuity, and I hope it's picked up on again down the road.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Brother

The second season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery was a high-intensity thrill ride with movie-caliber visual effects. But it also had many great moments for character throughout -- and it was here that the episode really shined.

Captain Christopher Pike assumes command of the Discovery after his ship, the Enterprise, is critically damaged. He's leading a mission to explore a strange transmission that appeared in space. Discovery finds a powerful gravity vortex and dense asteroid field -- but more importantly, locates a crashed Starfleet ship that has been missing almost a year. The crew must mount a rescue in this seemingly impossible situation.

Though Pike casts a long shadow in Star Trek lore, the truth is we've really never seen that much of him. The Jeffrey Hunter incarnation in Star Trek's original pilot is well over half the meaningful footage of the man; the version from "The Menagerie" had no personality to draw on, while Bruce Greenwood's take in the "Kelvin universe" movies was basically just there to mentor Kirk for two or three scenes. The truth is, large though Pike looms, he's sort of a blank canvas to paint on.

The Discovery writers and actor Anson Mount did just that, serving us up a fun loving and breezy captain, easily among the most laid back we've seen in all of Star Trek. Sure, you've gotta bridge a mental gap to get from the "ready to quit Starfleet" version we saw in "The Cage" to this -- but this is going to be a lot more enjoyable to watch for multiple episodes.

Another engaging new character was Reno, played by Tig Notaro. I already find myself wanting her presence on the show full time. It's great to see someone who is whip-smart and sarcastic without also being disdainful and cruel. Someone who is as dry as a desert without being robotic or inhumanly cold. She seems like the sort of person who'd either get along wonderfully or horribly with Stamets, and I can't wait to see either.

The character highlights weren't just limited to the new characters, though. The moments between Michael Burnham and Sarek played well, particularly the extended conversation in Burnham's quarters. I like how the scene leaned into Vulcan directness, and was a moment of revelation without being a bitter confrontation. Burnham challenges Sarek on having an ulterior motive with Spock when adopting her. Sarek readily admits it, and the two move on without... well, hurt "feelings." Very true to both characters.

As we've come to expect, every moment with Tilly was solid gold. The comic relief with Pike was fun, but the more poignant moments with Stamets were the ones I found more satisfying. I've heard some fans compare Tilly to Barclay from The Next Generation, but I don't find the comparison apt at all. Tilly wears her heart on her sleeve in a way no Star Trek character ever has, and it's great to see the writers use this new tool they have. Tilly and Burnham may have been the key friendship of season one, but it already looks like the focus will be moving to Tilly and Stamets in what we see ahead.

Though the episode cheekily denied showing us much of the inside of the Enterprise, we did get inside Spock's quarters at the very end, chock full of little nods to continuity. We saw meaningful props recreated from the original series, and an update to that ever-present metal grating we saw in all the crew quarters of the original series. Other fun nods to Trek continuity included a glimpse of a character in what looked like a precursory version of Geordi's VISOR, and Pike finding a fortune cookie fortune under Lorca's desk that meaningful nodded to the Star Trek pilot "The Cage." (It also seemed to tease a return of Lorca some day, in his Prime Universe version.)

While I applaud the work of the visual effects team, which delivered an action sequence as high octane and expensive-looking as any Star Trek we've seen on the movie screen (including recently), the nature of the action itself is really where the episode fell flat for me. The sequence in the asteroid field (and all the running and jumping aboard the crashed Federation ship) felt jumbled and unclear. It was action for the sake of action, and the logistics of it just didn't come across very clearly. Adding to that was the sense that it didn't really feel much like Star Trek, particularly with the podracer-style sound design that seemed to be dropped in straight from Episode I.

Had the action been more organic and not a clear indulgence to short attention spans, I think this episode could have contended for the series' best to date. As it was, it was a mark against an otherwise enjoyable hour that tantalizingly set up the season to come. I give "Brother" a B+.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Upgrade Grade

Somewhere between "officially" queuing Upgrade as a movie I wanted to see and actually getting around to seeing it, I managed to forget absolutely everything about the movie. What exactly it was, where I'd heard of it, whether anyone had told me they liked it -- all of that wiped away.

For my readers' sake, here's what to expect. Upgrade is set in a sci-fi near-future. Grey Trace is paralyzed in a violent mugging, left powerless and grief-stricken at the loss of his wife. A wealthy and reclusive inventor comes to him with a proposition. For the price of his silence, Grey can be the test subject for a computer implant named STEM, a device that will act as intermediary between his brain and body and allow him to walk again. The procedure is a success, but with unanticipated consequences. STEM is sentient, and while subservient to Grey's control, its abilities present Grey with dark opportunities for revenge. Soon Grey is hunting his attackers, evading police investigators, and trying to stay one step ahead of the inventor who doesn't want his technology misused.

Upgrade was a pleasant little surprise, an interesting hybrid of different elements. In some ways, it plays out like a superhero origin story (right down to the not-so-compelling "fridging" of a love interest as motivation for the hero). The gradual discovery of special powers may be familiar territory, but it's treated here with enough novelty and cleverness to entertain.

There are also some horror movie elements here. That's not surprising when you consider this movie was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the writer behind the early Saw films and the Insidious franchise. It's even distributed by a subsidiary of Blumhouse Productions, a studio noted for horror films. But Upgrade isn't concocted to make you jump or cringe. There's just something inherently horrific in the notion that your thoughts and actions might not be entirely your own.

There's also obvious horror in the incredibly graphic violence of the film. But the visceral thrills aren't limited to the viscera. Fist fights abound through this film, and each is top notch. The choreography is brilliantly conceived, the execution intense and effective, and the photography an integral part of the style. Indeed, there's great camera work throughout the film, full of strange angles anchored to people instead of the environments they're in, use of both long takes and quick editing in different moments, and a devotion to the effective use of shadow and light.

There are great performances too. Logan Marshall-Green has a perfect physicality as Grey Trace, creating a movement language that's clearly robotic without seeming overworked. Betty Gabriel (an underappreciated highlight of Get Out -- so underappreciated I didn't mention her in my review) gets to engage in noir-esque hard-boiled cop cliches that feel refreshed by putting a woman of color in the role. Simon Maiden is fun and chilling as the voice of STEM.

Fun as the ride often is, though, it's also completely nonsensical. The tone of the ending is great, but the logic is non-existent. Somewhere between five seconds and five minutes after the end credits roll, you'll say to yourself, "but wait... if that.... then this!" And the whole story will completely unravel. Things simply wouldn't have happened the way they do, and while it's possible to overlook that in the moment in favor of the movie's better attributes, it increasingly impossible to do so after the fact.

If you're up for a violent, vengeful thriller with sci-fi overtones, Upgrade is for you. Its heart is in the right place, even if not all its plot threads are. I grade it a B.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Playing Favourite

Even before it was making its presence known on the awards circuit, I'd heard critics saying good things about the movie The Favourite. It was a nasty bit of court intrigue, full of venom and humor, they said -- a Baroque period Mean Girls. I'd heard great things about the cast: Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone vying for the affections of a Queen Anne played by Olivia Colman. Yet I hadn't been in any rush to see it.

That's because of the movie's director, Yorgos Lanthimos. He's the man behind the incredibly odd and rather off-putting The Lobster, a movie I thought started strong but faded fast. On a film podcast I listen to regularly, the hosts seize any opportunity to praise Lanthimos, and whenever they do, it's clear that my reaction to The Lobster is what the director strives for. All of his films challenge you to accept them on his terms. And while I applaud the integrity of the artist, I personally just couldn't get into the art.

But then it seemed that The Favourite was going to be a constant contender in awards season. And, more importantly, I heard a bit of critique that actually turned me around: The Favourite was, apparently, Yorgos Lanthimos' most "accessible" film. This was said almost like a lament by some critics, like a hope that people might discover this more "normal" film and then go crazy for all the director's previous strangeness. I took it as hope that this movie would be more narratively coherent and honest than what I'd seen in The Lobster. And happily, I was not disappointed.

Set in the reign of Queen Anne, The Favourite tracks two women who use every bit of charm, cunning, and craft at their disposal to position themselves prominently in the queen's court. You might think it a stilted period piece, but the interactions feel quite fresh and modern throughout. Part of this may be the unvarnished way in which the story treats the lesbian relationships among the women. Some of it is the language, which mixes equal parts poetry and lowbrow cursing. But much of it is simply that the ambition to be close to power and leech off it is pretty much eternal.

The performances are a highlight of the film. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman are all exceptional. It is the nature of the awards season that we'll be told some of them are leads and some supporting players, but it is in truth a powerful triad of women making this movie what it is. Knock any leg off this stool, and it would surely collapse. Weisz is in turns menacing and sweet, Stone in turns cruel and masked, Colman in turns pitiable and forceful. Also worth mentioning: Nicholas Hoult gives a hilarious comedic performance as an ambitious man also in the queen's orbit. (There's great humor throughout, in fact... though it drops off noticeably in the second half of the film.)

But I do have some reservations about the movie as well. It's divided into "chapters" like a Quentin Tarantino movie, each introduced with an on-screen title. It's hard to say what's worse about this, the obnoxious typesetting or the inflated sense of cleverness on display. For certain, it adds nothing of value to the movie and serves only to kick you out of the flow of things as it screams "look at me!"

The music is even more off-putting. From what I can tell online, it's uncredited, perhaps in part because it largely draws on existing classical composers. But in several scenes, original "music" blares over quiet scenes. It's percussive and conspicuous, pulling focus to itself and away from the action. It's also repetitive, making you long for the moment when the orchestra finally shuts up so you can go back to watching the movie.

I'm also unsure of the ending. It certainly has a point about power and ambition, and what they can lead to. But it makes this point in an oddball, "artsy" way, with multiple superimposed images and unsettling sound effects. Its a presentation style that has little similarity to any previous moment in the film, and so it feels out of place and ineffective even as it's rather succinct and correct, narratively.

Still, the performances of the three lead women, combined with the wit of the dialogue, was more than enough for me to enjoy this movie. I give The Favourite a B. I think plenty of people who normally avoid "Oscar bait" would actually like it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Maquis, Part II

In "The Maquis, Part I," Deep Space Nine managed to do compelling things with its own characters even as it pursued the primary agenda of setting up Star Trek: Voyager. This careful balancing act continued in "The Maquis, Part II."

Sisko's longtime friend Cal Hudson has turned his back on Starfleet to side with a rebel faction against the Cardassian Empire. Torn between duty and friendship, Sisko tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a worsening situation. But his own position is challenged at every step of the way: there's truth to the rebels' accusations against the Cardassians, and rescuing a captured Dukat is hardly something he's eager to be doing.

Many Deep Space Nine staff writers regard this two-part episode as a key moment in the growth of the show. The Next Generation had set up a utopian vision of life on Earth and aboard the Enterprise, but the feeling was that such creature comforts could only realistically extend so far. Writer Ira Steven Behr noted that for years, he'd been waiting to use the line "it's easy to be a saint in paradise" in a Star Trek episode. Here he finally got to do it, as Sisko sympathizes with the struggles of Federation citizens near the Cardassian border. Writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe extended the sentiment even more, to this series itself, noting "it's easy to be a saint on the Enterprise, but it's a little bit harder to be a saint on DS9."

To help play up this contrast between the two then-running Star Trek series, the writers brought in a recurring admiral character from The Next Generation, Nechayev, to chastise Sisko for his handling of the situation. She thinks the Maquis can just be made to see reason, as simple as that. She really has no understanding or empathy for what life is really like so far from the heart of the Federation.

All this is a great setup for conflict, but it isn't paid off especially well in this episode. Sisko and Hudson talk past each other a lot. Each is impervious to the other's arguments, never giving an inch, so the entire hour feels like it's just marking time until they have a final clash. And then, they sort of don't. There's a bit of a dogfight between small ships at the end of the episode, but then Sisko just lets Hudson slip away -- and we never see him on the series again. It's not much of a reckoning.

This was apparently not the ending Ira Steven Behr wanted. His plan had been to kill off Hudson at the end of the story, a conclusion that show runner Michael Piller pulled rank on and changed. Reportedly, when Piller saw the finished episode, he decided Behr had been right, but it was too late to do anything. Nor could the writers later take advantage of the choice by continuing the Hudson storyline later; actor Bernie Casey apparently wasn't all that into Star Trek, deciding to take this role because he wanted to work with Avery Brooks. It seems as though once that box had been checked, he had no interest in returning to the show.

The story arc as a whole may be a bit flat, but there are some interesting character moments all the same. Quark, thrown in a holding cell with the Vulcan rebel Sakonna, manages to "out-logic" her on the relative costs of war and peace. (He fares better than Odo, who earlier gets a laugh noting the difficulty of interrogating a Vulcan.) Kira and Sisko each have a good moment when debating whether to mount a rescue for Gul Dukat; she's happy to let him rot, while Sisko notes that the Central Command leaving him for dead is reason enough to want him alive.

The writing of Dukat is a bit hit-and-miss in the episode. It seems arbitrary and silly that he's immune to a Vulcan mindmeld by pure mental discipline. But he lands a valid point when he mocks the Maquis for being too soft and Federation-minded in their reluctance to treat him harshly. On the bad side, seeds of a gross romantic pursuit of Kira are planted here, an ill-advised story line the writers would hang onto for years (and which Nana Visitor resisted as much as she could, saying that to Kira, Dukat will always be Hitler and that would never change). But on the good side, Dukat's explanation of Cardassian justice, casually thrown in here, becomes the basis of an entire episode before the season is done. (The verdict is always guilty. Trials are entertainment for the masses.)

Other observations:
  • Though Dukat was scoring the better verbal jabs on Sisko in the first half of this two-parter, Sisko catches up here. He thoroughly enjoys telling Dukat that he's been left for dead by his superiors. And when Dukat thanks him for the rescue, Sisko replies with a smirk "I'm sure you would have done the same for me."
  • When Odo comes after Quark, the Ferengi flips almost immediately on Sakonna. You would think Quark couldn't do this sort of thing very often before criminals stop coming to him to do business.
  • It's a small part, but Star Trek veteran John Schuck shows up as the Cardassian Legate Parn. (He played the Klingon ambassador in Star Treks IV and VI.)
While there are fun character moments sprinkled throughout this episode, there isn't a lot of tension in the story itself. I give "The Maquis, Part II" a B-. I do think the writers are right: this was a key moment in the emerging identity of the series, a necessary step toward the great things that would come later. But it's something of a tenuous, shaky step.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Runaway

The second season of Star Trek: Discovery begins this week! That meant it was time to reactivate my dormant CBS All Access access, which comes with a couple of side benefits. I'll get to watch the second season of the excellent The Good Fight. And I'll get to go back and watch the four Short Treks that debuted on the service over the last few months.

Short Treks were a transparent gimmick. Each was a 15-minute (or so) installment of Star Trek: Discovery, released at a rate of one a month in the run-up to season two. The hope was Star Trek fans would keep their CBS All Access subscriptions active from month to month to catch these slight bits of content. I didn't bite. But I am a fan enough to pay for the run of the series proper... and go back then to catch up on what I missed.

The first of the four Short Treks episode was centered on the character of Tilly, and was entitled "Runaway." Tilly encounters an alien stowaway that has sneaked aboard the Discovery. Out of empathy, she hides the alien and grows close to it, learning about herself in the process.

One thing I'll say in praise of these Short Treks (if this first one is any indication): they did not skimp on the budget. This short 15-minute episode was as fully produced as any 15 minutes of a full episode. It was loaded with great visual effects, it features an alien with a complicated and effective makeup, and from top to bottom it showed all the great production values you expect of modern sci-fi.

Also great: they chose to focus an episode on Tilly. I like a lot of the characters on Discovery, but Tilly seems to be a favorite with a broad cross-section of fans. There have been Star Trek characters with anxieties and odd personalities before (Reginald Barclay leaps to mind, but there are others), but never a main character we get to see every week. She's an especially human and relatable character that's great to have around, and great to feature in a short story like this.

But otherwise, "Runaway" is a bit of a mess. This mini-episode is a full 50-minute episode of story crammed into 15 minutes, and the result is total confusion about exactly what's happening. (SPOILERS follow... sort of. To the degree I understand the logic of the plot, anyway.) Tilly meets a strange alien with Jem Hadar-like personal cloaking abilities. And she talks! And she's in some sort of symbiotic relationship with her home planet? And she's a queen?! The story whiplashes around as if the sheer speed will stop you from asking questions. But without an anchor to grab onto, questions are all you have.

Why is this alien on the run? Is it because "the powers that be" are trying to oppress her technological discovery? But she's about to become queen, so is there really any threat to her? How close are we to her homeworld that Tilly can just beam her away at the end? How can she do this without alerting anyone to her use of the transporter? Why doesn't she get in trouble for trashing the mess hall? Why does the food dispenser freak out and start hurling dinners? (It's a lot more food than one invisible alien could be ordering and throwing.)

None of it makes any sense. All you really have is that Tilly is on a small personal journey to come to terms with her mother's overbearing expectations. And even that arc gets short shrift, as her mother is kind of a non-entity. We don't even get to see her face; the scene of Tilly's "phone call" home is all shot wide, as though the production is trying to preserve the option of casting a bigger name actor as Tilly's mom in a real episode somewhere down the road.

It feels like maybe there's an interesting story in here somewhere that, if built out (with other regular characters to support it) could have made for a decent episode. But as it stands, it's a confusing and disappointing effort, the worst installment of Star Trek: Discovery there's been.

I give "Runaway" a C-. I'm certainly glad I didn't pay for a month of CBS All Access to watch it. Perhaps the other three Short Treks will be better? In any case, they're not the main attraction I'm here for.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Home

There was something off about the most recent installment of The Orville -- and it wasn't the surprise ending they were working their way toward.

Alara's strength is beginning to fade. She's been away from the intense gravity of her homeworld for too long, and needs to return and reacclimate or lose her strength forever. Returning home means she'll have to deal with her disapproving parents, who never liked that she joined an alien military organization. Still, she does what she has to -- only to find herself in the middle of a mystery back at home.

Pieces of this episode do work. It's great to see Alara's parents back, and not just on a viewscreen this time like during their brief season one appearance. In particular, it's just fun to have Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Picardo back on screen, along with Molly Hagan. They both do a great job with the material, delivering passive-aggressive putdowns to one daughter as the praise the other.

The visual effects were top notch. I just recently read a book about the production of season one of the original Star Trek (blog post coming soon), and a recurring theme of that book is how expensive it was to produce even the cheesy visuals they achieved 50 years ago. Many grander ideas never made it past early script drafts because they just weren't feasible to achieve. This installment of The Orville gave us a gorgeous ringed planet, sprawling technological cityscapes, a wheelchair-hovercraft, gallops down the beach on the back of an alien animal, and more. And it all looked pretty great.

The more horrific elements in the episode worked well too. The scene in which we learn (SPOILER) that the neighbors are the ones to fear is great. John Billingsley (another Trek veteran, this time from Enterprise) gives a chilling performance as he forces Alara's father to torture himself. Kerry O'Malley is just as icy as she wields garden shears in a menacing way.

But these are strong moments amid a story that really doesn't work right. The whole episode is clearly set up as an arc about Alara finding more self-confidence. As she's losing her strength aboard the ship, she's told quite explicitly by Mercer that she's more than her strength, and she can keep her job if she wants it. She then finds herself in the middle of a mystery, where the obvious and logical conclusion would be that she saves the day with her smarts and learns for herself what Mercer was trying to tell her. We don't get that. Instead, Alara suddenly recovers her ability to walk for no stated reason, right at the moment she needs it. She saves the day and defeats the villains with brawn.

The second main arc is about Alara reconciling with her father. This element is bungled too, as logic is tossed aside in dogged pursuit of that outcome. After Alara's father is seriously injured (in that earlier, effective scene), he should be pretty well out for the count. Yet Alara asks him to perform heroics at the end when her mother and sister -- two other perfectly capable, able-bodied, and uninjured people -- are right there. Sure, the needs of the story say it has to be Dad, but then the other characters really needed to have been sidelined to justify that. It wouldn't have been hard; shift the soup scene from Dad to Mom, actually go through (off camera) with the garden shears moment, and you're there. Or lock the two of them in a room somewhere. Something. Anything.

The comedy involving Patrick Warburton was a bit off too. Oh, it was hilarious, to be sure (even if Orville's penchant to turn aliens into dude-bros is starting to wear a little thin). But it felt like a waste of Warburton not to have more of him. And at the same time, it was quite a disruption and distraction from Alara's story to cut away from it as long as the episode did.

Then there's the question of what to make of that ending. (SPOILERS again, of course.) Is that it? Is Alara (and actress Halston Sage) off the show now? Permanently? Temporarily? I do like being surprised and uncertain by this, unlike, say, any previous Star Trek show where I'd heard about all the major exits in advance. But it seemed rather odd to go to all the trouble of finding a technobabbly solution to Alara's problem (an obvious one) only to not use it.

And I wish the goodbyes had resonated a little better. It's hard, given that it's been so long since season one of the show, and we've now only been back a few episodes in season two. Your memory really has to be working for Alara's tearful goodbye to hit as hard as it should have. That final shot, for example, was kind of perfect -- calling back to Mercer always asking Alara to "open this jar of pickles for me." Except that, when I watched with friends, not everyone remembered back to those early episodes with that running gag.

It's definitely the first misfire of season two, featuring too many plot holes to be overlooked. I give Home a grade C. Perhaps, if The Orville runs for many years and this goodbye really is permanent, this episode will have more resonance when revisiting it. But for now, I think it's one of the series' weaker installments so far.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Bandered About

Netflix dropped two big zeitgeist-commanding movies at the end of 2017. One was part movie, part "experience" (and part gimmick), the latest installment of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It was billed as an interactive experience, a choose-your-own-adventure film in which your choices would dictate the direction of the narrative.

Set in the 1984, Bandersnatch is the story of a young programmer named Stefan. He is devoted to and obsessed by the desired to create a video game based off a beloved novel named (you guessed it) Bandersnatch. The epic novel was a choose-your-own-adventure tale that reflected and/or caused its author's descent into madness, and Stefan is determined to capture its full breadth and scope in his video game. This being Black Mirror, it does not go well for him. But the form of the "not going well" is dictated by your real time choices as you watch the movie unfold.

Before you even get into the "is it a movie, a game, an experience?" question of what Bandersnatch is, some might even challenge calling it a movie. It is, after all, just the latest installment of the ongoing Black Mirror series. But where those usually clock in at an hour or less (like a typical episode of dramatic television), Bandersnatch plays out at a more traditional movie length (depending on your choices). And since it's the only Black Mirror to arrive right now, it seems to me very much like its own thing -- say, perhaps like the X-Files theatrical movie that was made while the show was still on the air.

It honestly doesn't deliver too extensively on the concept of being a choose-your-own-adventure experience. You aren't faced with that many choices, and many of the ones you make yield only cosmetic and minimal tweaks to the story. On the other hand, not every choice one makes in life is of monumental importance, so perhaps even within the heightened framework of drama, a narrative with too many choices would feel manifestly fake. In any case, at the moments that truly matter, Bandersnatch does have you swoop in and push the story in distinct and often interesting directions.

The system is pleasantly seamless. You're never faced with pauses, staggers, or load times as you watch the movie unfold. That, combined with the relative light number of choices you must make overall, keeps you dialed into the story fairly well. If anything, it would be the writing itself that takes you out of the moment. Bandersnatch is loaded with meta-commentary on the nature of choice and self-control, to a degree I sometimes found just a little too cute. But on the other hand, it was a clever justification for why this particular story makes sense being packaged in this particular way.

And I did get pulled in. I went in imagining I'd pursue the most intriguing narrative angles, working it like a story. But I found myself engaging with it more like a game, even as shallow as it was on those terms. My husband and I didn't want to make choices we felt would lead to "bad" endings (however appropriate they might be for Black Mirror). When presented the opportunity to essentially "rewind" and select another avenue or "roll the credits" and complete the experience, we found ourselves hanging around for more. (And we were glad we did. The strange ending we ultimately found felt far more rewarding than, say, sticking around after the credits of most Marvel movies.)

This all works in large part thanks to the flexibility of lead actor Fionn Whitehead. This performance really asks for a lot -- a wide range of emotional intensity, tracking multiple continuities that vary depending on the scene being played, being totally in the moment one second and brushing against the fourth wall the next. Many actors couldn't have pulled this off, but Whitehead does.

If "interactive movies" are actually going to become a thing in the future, I do believe they'll need to aspire to more than this -- more clever, more intriguing, more... just more, generally. But I did enjoy this one well enough. I give Black Mirror: Bandersnatch a B. I don't imagine I'll go back to obsessively explore other possible avenues within it, but I think it was pretty fun to experience once.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Don't Warrior Pretty Little Head

I've blogged before about how, after discovering Terry Brooks in an impressible teenage phase, I've been unable to "quit" him, even as I've long since realized his strongest writing is now three decades old. He's always been a steady writer, publishing a new book each and every year. But 2018 was an unusually prolific year for him: he continued his current four-book set of Shannara books, tried his hand at science fiction (with a book I have yet to read), and released a novella, Warrior.

Warrior marks a return to Brooks' series "The Word and the Void," a pre-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy set in the real world. That trilogy itself was inspired by a 1991 short story called Imaginary Friends, in which Brooks tested out a new mythos with the tale of Jack McCall, a 12-year-old boy facing a cancer diagnosis and finding solace (and a second, external threat) among the fantastical creatures living in a park near his house. Though the ensuing trilogy told a story separate from young Jack's, Warrior circles back to his story, with him now in his 40s, a married man with a child. He's pledged himself to serve a magical force for good, and has been promised his service will be called upon one time only in his life. That day has come.

It's nice to see Brooks step away from the Shannara books that have dominated his career, and nice to see him attempt a short and simple little story. In this more compact format, he doesn't really have the space to fall as deeply into the cliche traps he often resorts to, the well-worn character archetypes he uses in most of his stories. At the same time, there's stronger visual imagery here than he's had in his recent writing. Perhaps because he's not describing a world he's defined so thoroughly in several dozen books, he feels the need to be more evocative with his language. In any case, Warrior is filled with many intriguing images, effectively painted in the mind's eye. (There are also a handful of illustrations peppered throughout the story, though these hardly seem necessary.)

That said, not everything Brooks tries here is successful -- particularly when it comes to character. Jack is a painfully patriarchal hero. His attitudes and choices make him hard to like, a throwback to much older fantasy writing and not the sort of protagonist you can easily root for today. His demonic nemesis, the story's other significant character, isn't really any more interesting. He's shallow and one-note. That note is "menacing," and I'm afraid it isn't even struck all that convincingly.

Also of note is that this story, published in e-book format, is conspicuously peppered with typos and grammatical errors. This is a knock more on Brooks' editor than on the writer himself. (I'm sure now to make typos and grammatical errors myself in this post, now that I've called them out.) When the work is, at most, a third as long as a novel, it feels especially shoddy to see such poor proofreading of the finished product.

All told, though I like some of the things attempted here, I'm no more impressed by Warrior than I've been of any other recent Terry Brooks writing. I give it a C+. Perhaps one or two more books at this level, and I'll finally be able to move on to other fantasy writers.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A Foul a-Roma

The 2019 Oscar nominations are due to be announced on January 22, but enough precursor awards are being handed out that certain nominees are considered at this point to be a "done deal." And since the current system allows for as many as 10 Best Picture nominees, it's best to get started early with the "sure things" if you actually care to see them all before the ceremony. One of the surest of the sure is Roma.

Roma is the newest effort from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, who last caught Oscar's eye with Gravity (he won Best Director, though the film itself lost Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave). Now he's turned in a semi-autobiographical movie, the story of a live-in housekeeper in Mexico City in the early 1970s.

There's a lot here that's catnip to Oscar voters. It's presented in and black-and-white (for reasons). It's topical, inasmuch as it focuses on a place and people much maligned in modern politics. It comes from a pedigreed filmmaker who has now cashed in the chips he's earned over time to make a "personal" film.

It is also, in my view, unbearably dull.

You may think me "virtue signaling" to say this, but I'll say it all the same: I'm all for diversification in film. I think there's more accomplished than just "ticking a box" when stories depict a wider range of backgrounds, races, nationalities, genders, sexualities, what-have-you. These films can be just as accessible as more "commercial" (straight white American male) efforts of the past. A film that lets you identify with a different kind of protagonist can be both enlightening and entertaining for anyone, and affirming and uplifting for those in a minority. They matter, whether they'll garner awards or not. (Exhibit A: Love, Simon.)

However, my taste in film is for narrative. There's a strain of film-goer (and certainly of film critic) for whom just "existing" in a place is enough to love a film. For whom cinematic technique is the most important attribute. For whom meticulously composed imagery is the draw. For whom there's little difference between art on a gallery wall and a "motion picture" on a screen. That's not me.

I tried to give Roma a chance. But it stalwartly refused any effort to find a plot. There was characterization aplenty (though as much of a large automobile and a defecating dog as any of the human characters), yet there was no story that pulled me into the film in any way. If anything, it felt carefully crafted to keep a viewer at arm's length. Meanwhile, pretentious filmmaking abounded. The true star of Roma is the camera, and how it slowly pans -- back-and-forth, in half-circles, full circles. Oooooo. 

Add to this the choice to present in black-and-white, and Roma came off to me less like a written film and more like an uncurated batch of old home movies (albeit made with an unusually artistic eye). After 45 minutes (about one-third of the movie's run time), I simply couldn't stand any more. I'd waited long enough, I felt, for something to happen. Nothing was ever going to, it seemed. So I quit.

This movie absolutely will get nominated for Best Picture. I don't know if it will win, but I'm sure it will enjoy enthusiastic support from a segment of voters. And in my opinion, it's the poster child of why many people feel such disdain for Oscar movies. They're not all like this, though many people think they are. This movie is Alfonso Cuarón's The English Patient. Glacial. Sterile.

I suppose it would be unfair to grade a movie I did not watch in its entirety. But I should also note that in my entire life, I've only ever failed to finish watching 7 movies (out of, as best I can tell, around 1800). So there you go. You probably know if you're the sort of person who'd enjoy a movie like Roma. I'm certainly not going to be the person to recommend it to you.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Primal Urges

I've often talked about The Orville as the never-produced "eighth season" of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's often lighter, sometimes more crass, but the tone it's trying to strike is very much like that first Star Trek spinoff, more than the darker, more morally ambiguous Trek series that would come later.

But based on the two episodes so far of The Orville's second season, their style is changing a bit. Instead of offering episodes that The Next Generation might have done, they're now remixing episodes The Next Generation did do. Remixing, not copying, because The Orville definitely has its own approach. Its characters are far from the virtuous paragons Gene Roddenberry insisted upon for The Next Generation. They're quite flawed and quite human (even the aliens), and so the results are very different even when a story jumps off from a familiar place.

Thus, The Orville's new season began with an episode (peripherally) about an annual urination ritual. And now, its most recent episode, "Primal Urges," touches on pornography. The Next Generation memorably took on the subject of "holodeck addiction," creating both a good episode and a recurring character in the process. But let's not kid ourselves; the fantasies of Reginald Barclay in that episode were implausibly tame. Give a holodeck to any real human and tell me what you think the Time to Porn would be. I'll take the under.

So would the writers of The Orville, it seems, who crafted a story in which Bortus' strained marriage led him to escape to holographic interactive porn. The line they managed to walk was impressive; the scenes of Bortus' fantasies played for laughs, of course, (to say nothing of how a Moclan divorce is declared) but the storyline as a whole played things fairly straight and serious. There was a legitimate splinter between Bortus and Klyden, following up on their most significant story from season one. Seeing this continuity, and the plausible behavior of realistic people, made for a solid hour.

Remixing The Next Generation didn't stop there, however. The episode's B-plot had to do with rescuing the last few survivors of a dying planet. You could name any number of Star Trek episodes (of any "generation") that covered this ground, but once again there was an Orville twist. This time, it was not to take the scenario farther, or to treat it humorously, but to treat it more dramatically. They weren't able to come up with a last-minute technobabbly solution to save the day. Half the people simply could not be rescued; the half-victory was the only victory possible. (Though I wish that shuttle had looked a lot more crowded as they were flying away. Or that they'd talked about a weight capacity that would have prevented their takeoff. Anything to make them not look needlessly callous for the sake of drama.)

It was another solid episode for The Orville, which seems to have found a steady footing so far this season. I give "Primal Urges" a B+.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Coming to Order

Odds are if you're the sort of person to be reading this, you could hum the theme from Harry Potter right now. ("Hedwig's Theme," as it's properly titled.) It's just one of the many indelible melodies created by John Williams for the many movies he scored. It's also one of the last he composed before dialing back his workload a fair amount; though he's hardly retired, he now writes only for Steven Spielberg and Star Wars films. (And even then, not all of either.)

Williams stepped back less than halfway through the creation of the Harry Potter franchise, his last film for it being Prisoner of Azkaban. From there, three other composers would take turns with the baton: Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, and Alexandre Desplat. Though each is known among film score enthusiasts, none are known as widely as the master who started the journey. Yet each is now getting a small moment in the spotlight.

I've written before (on numerous occasions) about a series of concerts by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in which a film is projected above the orchestra as they perform its score live for the audience. Many of these concerts are part of a nationwide "tour"; the music and movies are made available for orchestras around the country to stage their own performances. John Williams is understandably the composer at the center of most of these events. But one ongoing series of the past few years has been working through the entire Harry Potter series. And that series has now moved into the work of other composers.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is my favorite of the film franchise, and (at the risk of denigrating the great John Williams), it has my favorite score of the series as well. This was the first of two Potter films scored by Nicholas Hooper, and is full of gems. He provided a marvelous theme for the detestable Delores Umbridge, cloyingly sweet and overwhelmingly aggressive in turns (just like the character). He crafted a rousing and exuberant anthem for the Weasley twins and their spectacular exit from Hogwarts. And his soaring and swelling theme for the training of Dumbledore's Army boosts the emotion of the characters' most empowering scenes.

There's bracing burst of action for the flight to the house where the Order hides away. There's creeping dread for the scenes involving the centaurs and the Death Eaters. There's quietly moving support for Sirius Black's private talk with Harry. And throughout, clever (and smartly sparing) use of that iconic Hedwig theme by John Williams.

Watching this score performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, I was also very much struck by how much score there is. The commercially released album contains all the highlights, but the movie is actually filled with many other pieces too short to make that cut. The orchestra rarely sat still for more than a minute or two at a time, with at least 80% of the run time supported by music. And it's music that gives many different sections of the orchestra moments to shine. French horns star, honoring the tone set by Williams in the earlier films, but there are standout moments for clarinets and flutes, violins and cellos, isolated bass, glockenspiel and xylophone, trombones and tuba, and oboes with bassoon.

Once or twice during the concert, the crowd (which had been encouraged by the conductor to be raucous and enthusiastic) got a little bit too loud. I think the different sections of the normally unflappable CSO got a bit out of sync with each other during one the more technically challenging sections. But even if I'm right in this, it lasted only a moment -- and the spirited reactions of the crowd only seemed to fuel their performance at other times, more than enough to make up for any minor slips. It was, in short, a great concert.

The Harry Potter series will continue this summer with the Half-Blood Prince, so if you missed out on this show and wish you hadn't, you'll have the chance to hop aboard the moving train (to Hogwarts) soon enough. I've been to at least a dozen of these film/symphony performances now. I've loved every one and can't recommend them highly enough.

Friday, January 04, 2019

DS9 Flashback: The Maquis, Part I

As the second season of Deep Space Nine (and seventh season of The Next Generation) was winding down, Star Trek: Voyager was winding up. Though the fourth Star Trek series was still many months from the air, it was planned out enough to start planting the seeds for it in the shows already on the air. Thus was born a two-part DS9 episode, "The Maquis."

A treaty has been signed between the Federation and Cardassians, but it's a result that has left some unhappy on both sides. Federation colonies have been ceded to Cardassian space, and the inhabitants claim the Cardassians aren't honoring their agreement to leave the colonies alone. A rebel faction, the Maquis, has sprung into action to defend the colonies against a threat the Federation refuses to acknowledge. And when the Maquis destroy a Cardassian freighter at Deep Space Nine (which they claim was running weapons), our heroes are drawn into the conflict. Sisko must work with Gul Dukat to expose the truth. He also finds himself increasingly at odds with Cal Hudson, an old friend who sympathizes with the colonists.

This episode literally would not exist without the need to set up Star Trek: Voyager, and it peppers in a lot of details that would be used in that series' premiere: Gul Evek, the Badlands, and the nature of the colonists' grievance with the Federation. Yet the Maquis -- both this episode, and the concept itself -- works far better here on Deep Space Nine than it ever would on the next Star Trek spinoff. There's an inherent moral ambiguity in guerilla tactics for a noble cause, and Deep Space Nine would become increasingly good at exploring moral ambiguity over the run of the series. Plus, Deep Space Nine would have to live with the reality of the Maquis far longer than Voyager -- where on Voyager, the separate Starfleet and Maquis crew members would basically "make nice" with each other before the end of a shortened first season, Deep Space Nine would be telling compelling stories of the conflict between the two for years to come.

Deep Space Nine was building its own brand here, even as it was jumpstarting Voyager's. This was the first episode to really establish the important rivalry between Sisko and Dukat. That starts off as a slow burn, with Sisko trying to be diplomatic even when Dukat invades his quarters in secret. But Dukat is soon pushing buttons for the mere sport of it -- taunting Sisko with the idea that Cardassians are trained to develop photographic memories, and tossing off backhanded compliments like "joy is vulnerability" and that Sisko is the most joyless human he's ever met. Notably, though, Dukat isn't just the villain here. He seems sincere in claiming the Cardassians aren't running guns in secret, and shocked when he learns he was simply out of the loop. We also learn he has seven children (though being a parent doesn't inherently move the needle on his morality).

Another emerging part of Deep Space Nine's identity is how it sought at times to subvert established Star Trek tropes. We get a Vulcan gun runner named Sakonna, whose sense of logic has led to the conclusion that violence is best course of action. Her scenes with Quark (notably shot with long, unbroken takes) may play mostly for laughs, but there's a very subversive quality to this character that shades our notions of what Vulcans can be.

A lot about this episode remains topical today. The politics of the treaty feel current, as Cal Hudson bemoans the "bad deal" while Sisko argues it involved compromise on both sides. Treatment of enemy combatants is an issue, highlighted when the Cardassians appear to murder a prisoner in their custody. There's a spirited debate on the ideals of security vs. freedom, one that neatly pits Odo and Kira on opposite sides. (He says he could make the station safe if allowed to implement curfews and searches; she notes that it would be like the Cardassians never left Bajor.)

There's solid character work peppered throughout. Kira not only clashes with Odo, she voices an understandable sympathy with the Maquis -- she knows how the Cardassians deal with resistance fighters. There's a lot of development of Sisko, both opposite Dukat and his longtime friend Hudson (the latter to better set up part two of this story). On the lighter side, we hear more of Dax's open tastes in dating -- which makes perfect sense, both in that Dax has changed so often that she of all people should look past appearances, and in that she's lived so long that the conventional is probably boring to her now.

Other observations:
  • There's some great model work early in the episode, showing the debris of the sabotaged Cardassian freighter floating around the station...
  • ...but the money clearly ran out there. Later, a pitched battle between Maquis and Cardassian ships is depicted only as blips on a screen, narrated by Sisko and Dukat.
  • There's a screen-filling array of writing credits on this episode. Presumably, the creators of Voyager all get named for concocting the "story" here -- really, the back story of the coming series.
Though there's a lot to like here, the episode is also, obviously, incomplete. Vestigial tendrils leading to Voyager, and setups not to be paid off until Part II, all add-up to a story with some bloat. I give "The Maquis, Part I" a B.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

2018 in Review -- Movies

It's an annual tradition for me and the blog: talking about my favorite movies of the year just past. It's a post I always go back and update, particularly in the first weeks of the new year, as I watch more movies that find their way onto the list. This year, I delayed my post a bit so it wouldn't immediately need revisiting; I caught Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on literally the last day of 2018, and it managed to make the cut. I figured my review post of that should come before the Top 10 List.

I squeezed in just a few more movies in 2018 than in the year before, 64 in all. (Well, actually, 63 and 1/3. You'll find out more about that in a post soon to come.) Of those, 25 were out at the theater (with another three at the symphony).

Here's how my Top 10 of 2018 currently stands (with links to my original reviews):
  1. Hereditary
  2. Love, Simon
  3. Sorry to Bother You
  4. Deadpool 2
  5. Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
  6. Incredibles 2
  7. Ready Player One
  8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  9. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  10. Isle of Dogs
Fully half the movies I saw last year were actually released in 2018. As of right now, I'd say that it was a year that consistently delivered "good, not great." I've seen only one clear "A" movie so far (an A-, actually). The rest of my list is dominated by a wide band of B+s. But on the other hand, I could have gone with a Top 20 and still not dropped to any B- grades. My "next 10" is full of things I did enjoy, would recommend to most people, and wouldn't be surprised to hear others put on their own "best of the year" lists.

I still have catching up to do on the movies expected to contend in this year's Oscar race. But at this point, I'm not really going to be cheering for anything likely to be in the hunt. Maybe Black Panther, just for the refreshing shock to the system that would be? (Though while a nomination for Best Picture seems possible, an actual win seems... not.)

Another movie year in the books. Bring on more movies!

Updated 5/7/19:
  1. Hereditary
  2. Searching
  3. Love, Simon
  4. Sorry to Bother You
  5. Deadpool 2
  6. Mission: Impossible -- Fallout
  7. Incredibles 2
  8. Ready Player One
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  10. Green Book

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Chapter and Spider-Verse

I try to bookend most years with a movie -- I like to watch one on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. This year, my New Year's Eve entry was a trip to the theater to see the much-praised Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I think the well had been tainted for me a bit by all the "it's the best Spider-Man movie ever!" rhetoric that's been going around. But while I may not have thought that highly of it, I still certainly enjoyed it.

There's plenty of heart and humor in Spider-Verse. Even though we've seen the origin story of Spider-Man tons of times now (a fact the movie acknowledges), the emotional beats of the story are given effective space and weight. (They're different in any case, as our hero this time out is young Miles Morales rather than Peter Parker.) At the same time, even though this movie has a serious emotional throughline, it doesn't shy away from making laughs, poking fun at the franchise, itself, and more.

The idea of multiple Spider-characters from multiple parallel universes is perfect for animation, and there's a lot to love about how they realized it visually. The deeper we get into the movie, the more the Spideys each bring in their own wholly different animation style, disrupting what's been meticulously set up so far.

What had been set up so far, though? A decidedly mixed bag for me. I will say this: the makers of this movie made a strong choice and followed it through. This movie is designed to evoke a comic book in every way imaginable. At times, it's a choice that really works, like when they're doing panel layouts, putting text on screen (with or without bubbles), and staging the action from deliberately exaggerated angles.

But, for me at least, other realizations of this style crossed the line into distraction. The animation is often deliberately jerky. It's always presented as if it had been created by classic mass-produced four-color printing, complete with strong cross-hatching and visible dots in any wide patch of color. Most authentic to this approach, and most distracting, is the occasional deliberate "misalignment" of the color, moments when characters are given deliberate magenta or cyan halos to evoke moments in older comics where the four colors were misaligned for a page. I see what you did there. It looks like I walked into a 3D movie without the glasses, and I don't like the way it snapped me out of the fantasy every time.

Fortunately, strong voice casting was always there to pull me back in. Shameik Moore is a likeable and relatable Miles from beginning to end. Jake Johnson and Chris Pine are great as two different incarnations of Peter Parker. But it gets better from there. Hailee Steinfeld makes a great Gwen Stacy, and Mahershala Ali a great Uncle Aaron. Then there are the players who get to "cut loose" more: Liev Schrieber as a menacing Kingpin, Kathryn Hahn as a gleeful Doc Ock, Lily Tomlin in a wild take on Aunt May, and John Mulaney stealing the show as "Spider-Ham." And damn you, movie, for making me enjoy a Nicolas Cage performance -- Spider-Man Noir is hilarious.

The great mix of credible drama and fantastic comedy runs out of gas a bit when the movie reaches its visual climax. The final showdown is 10 minutes of whizbang nonsense. It's great use of the animation medium, I suppose, something you could never do in a live-action Spider-Man movie. But it's also just an assault of color and visuals and noise that barely makes any sense. At least the movie gets a solid emotional climax right before this kaleidoscopic frenzy.

And above all, there's way more to like here than not. Overall, I suppose I can see why some might declare it "the best Spider-Man movie," even if I think that a bit overstated. I give it a B+. I'm definitely glad I saw it new on a big screen.