Wednesday, August 31, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x10)

"You can be whoever you want at camp. Or...pretend to be," says evil, pathological, sadistic and sociopathic ax-wielding Amy in this season (series?) finale episode, "She Talks to Angels." Everyone came to Camp Stillwater pretending to be someone they really were not. These masks could be obvious (Jessie, Blair and Cricket) while some were opaque, needing to be exposed slowly through character exploration and flashbacks (Drew, Alex, and Amy). Whatever the case, Camp Stillwater was not just about the hot dogs and marshmallows; a summer at this camp, in reality, is about shedding those masks, showing the world your true face and letting those around you decide whether or not to stick around. We've got a long and dark run through the woods and while, hopefully, there's no homicidal maniac following, it's a dangerous trek. Grab a friend and let's go! 

The season finale goes about how one would expect; there's a decent amount of bloodshed, an unfortunate amount of running hither and tither and one final look back in time to see how far all our various campers have come. The finale doesn't quite live up to last week's shocker of an episode, but it doesn't make any seriously egregious mistakes that erase some good will the show built up. The most grievous error the writers made is that the mythology was never fully fleshed out so that this world--this Camp Stillwater--and its dangers felt real and lived in. I need to be immersed in the world, to be drawn into it to the point of almost total erasure of my surroundings. That's what good narrative does--it takes you out of your present and launches you into the fictional, blurring those pesky lines. The demon, his followers, the magical powers of the lake and general region are left unclear and talked about in very loose, broad strokes. Trying to explain the ins and outs of what exactly happened this summer and why it happened causes tongue trips and knots, so it's better left in the shadows, though the intangible nature of the mythos of this show does speak volumes about its overall quality and the ability of the writers. This show was, at its root, a character show. During the course of a character-based show, the audience should see natural evolution, a change--either for good or for bad--from one stage to the next. These stages can be archetypical (from a Boy to a Man; from a Girl to a Woman; from a Nobody to a Hero; from a White Hat to a Black Hat) but the progress must be a reflection of the inner psyche and the outer environment, working in tandem to move the character. With that in mind, our real question is whether or not Dead of Summer achieved a character driven goal.

I know I've been harsh on the show this summer, and not undeservedly so. My criticisms have been warranted, but, at the same time, the character progression hasn't been as dreadful as I might have imagined once upon a time (like what I did there?) Amy went from the good girl to the evil monster, though this was less through character work and more through a surprise about-face; the monster was always there, hiding behind the gentle Amy-mask. Alex went from an uber selfish pseudo-American playboy to selfless, proud Russian willing to die instead of go off and live his so-called American dream. While Cricket's character was killed too soon to fully develop or progress, her one flashback episode did help illuminate why she acted the way she did, creating myths around her own selfhood. Drew and Blair are....oddities. The show (and I) struggled with what to do with them. They were clearly brought in to emphasize diversity and appease the LGBT community (which is fairly repugnant, though Drew's episode was incredibly solid) but beyond their "otherness" they contributed nothing to the plot line. Blair never even got a flashback outside of his friendship with Cricket and neither of them played any significant role in the finale events. With that said, though, Drew's character shines as unique, interesting, well-played and one that moved into a new space by series end--from a scared loner to a proud man, ready to take on the world (and rock out to David Bowie). The biggest surprise here is honestly Jessie, a character I loathed--and, to be perfectly honest, still don't like. She's the actual heroine of the series; her vapid and deplorable nature finally illuminated as a way to anger her equally vapid and deplorable mother. The real Jessie is selfless, kind, smart, and willing to stand up for the Light against the Darkness. I may not like her at the end of all this but there's no denying that her development was brought about because of her own psyche (which, in reality, lacked all the "mean girl" qualities she presented initially) and enduring her torturous environment.  Joel was just plain useless as evidenced by his lack of dialogue and lack of flashback in this finale (no, really. Did he serve a point?). All of this taken together signifies that there were good elements of Dead of Summer. It had some interesting takes on friendship and nostalgia and at least a handful of worthwhile character development moments. Where it fell flat was in the mythology. But, honestly, my dear readers, are you surprised by this? I won't snark at OUAT just quite yet (3.5 weeks and counting...) but is it any wonder that the characters on this show are more solid and rewarding than any kind of mythology or story? No. I didn't think so.

Miscellaneous Notes on She Talks to Angels

--Drew and Blair probably got back to the camp via bus but how did they figure out that Amy was actually a murderer and not just possessed by a demon?

--So all the parents came and picked up their children but didn't bother to ask why their children were dropped off in a blood soaked van by two campers instead of licensed driver? Or, you know, why camp ended early?

--All the child acting in this show was pretty bad but nothing beats Anton turning around and telling Drew and Blair in a flat, monotone voice, "Go back..."

--"It's going to be me and you forever." Cricket and Blair really did have a special friendship. I'm sorry we didn't see more of it.

--Blotter's head swinging from a tether pole. That was a sight.

--So much for any kind of answers about Deb! I've heard rumors that should there be a second season, the show will become more of an anthology and move back to the 70s to visit Deb's stay at Camp Stillwater.

--RIP Garret and Alex. Oh, and Amy, I guess.

--Well, barring any movie reviews, that's it for the summer! The next time we talk, dear readers, we'll be staring down another 22 episodes of Once Upon a Time. See you then.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x9)

Cages get a bit of a bad reputation. Here in the post (post?) modern 21st century era, we tend to romanticize the concept of freedom. Out there, beyond the confines of people, society, law, and order, we are free to be you and me. Here's the problem; what if this freer version of you is actually a homicidal maniac who delights in blood, mayhem, and dismembering your peers? Would you really want someone like that free and exposed? Probably not. In fact we built cages--euphemistically called prisons--to house and contain such peoples. But sometimes, oh but sometimes, they get out. In this week's episode, "Home Sweet Home," we are given good, sound reason for the advancement of cages and keeping doors locked. It's when we open those doors, when we unlock the bolts, when we free that which is contained within, that we are met with untold horrors and unspeakable bloodshed. Grab an ax, grab a mask, and grab some holy water---we're in for an exorcism! 

Sweet little Amy Hughes, she of the soft smile and simpering demeanor, is a cold blooded thug and ruffian who would bathe in the blood of untold millions in a heartbeat. I have made my dislike for Amy and, running in tandem with that, the way Elizabeth Lail plays her, quite well known. Amy has consistently comes across, week after week, as having no discernible personality, no oomph in her performance, and no hook to her character. She was simply a haunted girl looking for a fresh start and hoped that it would come about at a idyllic lakeside camp full of friends and marshmallows. Unlike last week's lack luster reveal that Holyoake was a white hat and not a proverbial black hat (yes, in spite of him actually wearing a black hat...) the denouement that Amy is a murderous psychopath who welcomed the demon called Malphas as part of her being, was actually an eyebrow raiser and a stunner. You see, that's not quite how the cliche goes. Amy is the good girl who gets corrupted and then is saved by her own purity of soul, her friends, and--most often in these early pseudo-feminist pieces told through the male perspective--a boyfriend or love interest who battles the forces without to save his lady love. Amy, in the true nature of the trope, would awaken from her possessed demonic slumber a shinning virginal princess who can now cross safely through the world because she was tested, tried, and ultimately survived the wilderness. Usually there's a sunset involved--literal and metaphorical. But in this week's episode, Amy isn't our good girl gone bad and she's not the princess locked in a tower. Camp Stillwater is Amy's life, uncaged. There were a lot of clues--both visually any through dialogue--that we should be thinking about cages and their importance to the idea of safety and security. Amy/Malphas straining against the ropes; the bus driver opening the bus door, only to be feasted upon by bloody rain; the specter of Deb thanking the campers for "opening the door" before her eyes flashed black; young Amy locked away in the garage while her family died of carbon monoxide poisoning and young Amy insisting that freedom was the best thing for the gerbil, even if freedom meant the garbage disposal and a swift death for the rodent. The cage, in this episode, is equated to safety and security. As long as Amy/Malphas stays locked up in the tiny cabin, everyone is safe. It's as soon as those ropes are cast away, as soon as the door is unlocked, that Amy and her demon buddy can hack up camp counselors with an ax (side note--holy gory visuals, Batman!) What I think I like most, though, about this turn of events is that the hope for Amy and her recovery--back to the simpering girl we thought she was--is next to nothing. Amy isn't in danger; her soul hasn't been tarnished and is not being held hostage (in a cage!) by Malphas. Amy really is this deranged; she really is this dark. This is what freedom is for Amy; Malphas isn't the warden holding Amy in a cage; he's freed her to be her best (worst?) self. And Amy...well. She has no intention of going back into her conformist cage. Look out, left over campers. Something tells me you're in for a rough season finale.

Miscellaneous Notes on Home Sweet Home

--This was easily the best episode of the season and certainly the best since Drew's centric. Does this episode make up for the blah nature of those that came before? Not really, but it's a step in the right direction.

--RIP Deb? But I'm guessing we haven't seen the last of her yet. And I bet there's more to our camp leader than meets the eye.

--Really wonderful (and wonderfully cheesy) special effects with the bloody rain.

--Garrett's Latin needs some work.

--So do Drew and Blair play any part at all in the actual story or were they just there as part of some diversity quota?

--Final death predictions? I suspect one more camper will die (Alex) and I think Amy will bite the dust, both her dark soul and the demon Malphas going down to the watery depths of Camp Stillwater to wait for another opportunity to rise. Jessie and Garrett will marry, move on to the camp property and keep a watchful eye for anyone who might awake the demon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x8)

Oh I get it. The writers assumed they'd subvert everyone's expectations by having the purported bad guy really be the good guy. Gosh, the wool sure was pulled over my eyes in this week's episode "The Devil Inside." Sarcasm! I won't deny that there was some shock value to Holyoake being a white hat instead of a black one, but it's marginal at best. If you know that the writers are setting out to shock the audience by way of overturning their expectations--and the show has been screaming that sort of thrust since the get go with Russian Alex, transgender Drew and death by bear trap Cricket--then the only way to subvert the dichotomy of good and evil is to make the ghostly specter into a helpful being. In other words, by subverting expectations you still fell into an expected mold. But hey, nice try; really, A for effort. I mentioned some reviews ago that the writing on this show feels as though it's a junior level screenwriting class where the authors are trying so hard to be innovative that they end up being perfectly, horribly cliche. That sounds like this show is a lose-lose however we slice it, and maybe it is, but either way my expectations were met and I remain unsubverted. Grab a friendly ghost and let's go!

Jessie has been the worst counselor from the start. Everything she has said or done has invoked a great dislike--from her jealousy over Garrett and Amy, to lying about her grandmother dying, to her initial treatment and blackmail of Drew, to Jessie's less than stellar advice to Cricket about boys, Jessie is the former ugly duckling turned beautiful swan who was about as deep and interesting as a shallow puddle of muddy water. I have no time for people who believe their intense outer beauty somehow makes them more worthy of my attention, but it was hinted at from the start that Jessie's "hotness" is sudden and shocking. In other words, our expectations (hot counselor, shallow personality, no trouble in life ever) were about to be subverted--or were they fulfilled by way of subverting? Hmm, ponder that. Like everyone else, Jessie is haunted by her past, specifically by her horrible mother, whose own fear of abandonment leads her to abandon her only child. It's not actually that uncommon; people who constantly fear being left tend to, in turn, abandon those they love. What Jessie's mother fails to realize is that emotional abandonment hurts just as much and does as much damage as literal abandonment. Instead of encouraging her daughter to follower her college dreams, Jessie's mom drunkenly admits that she never fully believed in her daughter and hoped Jessie would never make it into Northwestern. If Jessie never goes to college, then she never leaves home and she become as much a failure as her mother. It's a terrible reality, but that's what it is: reality. Sometimes parents are upheld in a saint-like light and we forget they are human. Jessie's mom is despicable, her dirtiest deed being between her drunken confession and forcing Jessie to switch seats with her after their intoxicated car accident, but she's also grounded in a realism that serves as a counterbalance to the bonkers magical shenanigans going on at Camp Stillwater. That balancing act between the mundane/real and the fantastical/otherworldly is usually a hit or a miss on this show; one aspect taking center stage while the other falls to the wayside, but Jessie's story about trusting herself and believing in herself, even when others doubt her, is nicely played out in both the past (she was smart and good enough for college) and in the present (she was right that Holyoake was not playing a trick on her).

What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the magical nature of the show can reach anything other than absurd cringe worthy moments. We still don't know why anyone is doing what they are doing--why exactly do the men in masks worship the demon Malphas? Why are they under the impression that their lives will be different or better with him around? How did they even learn about the demon in the first place? With Holyoake being a good guy, we now need to question why exactly he set up a church/place of worship in the exact space where a demon was living and why he allowed his followers to bathe and purify themselves in the demon's abode. I mean, honestly, that just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Amy's possession, which I've been calling since about episode two or three, makes her a far more interesting character--or at least one with a measure of personality--but it still doesn't answer any of the big mythology questions in regards to the demon, the motivations of the masked men or Holyoake's less than candid and upfront manner. Nor does it answer any of the smaller questions like why it could only be Jessie to dump Holyoake's bones into the river or whether or not Blair and Drew have any sort of storyline outside of being "otherized" and being markers for a supposed progressive story. The show, as a whole, needs better balance. The entire supernatural and slasher feel of the show could have been left by the wayside and just been an exploration of character and what a childhood utopia can do to a haunted spirit. Sure, it means no horribly tragic CGI demons rising from a lake, but I think it'd be a far better (not great, but better) show.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Devil Inside

--So no one ever taught the counselors and kids of Camp Stillwater to not stare into an eclipse?

--The eclipse apparently made Deb remember a bunch of stuff from her time at Camp Stillwater in the 1970s. Anyone wanna place some money on Deb being a member of the masked group but better at hiding it?

--"What they know for sure is..." "...that Stillwater sucks at vetting cops?" Drew needs more to do.

--Seriously, where was Blair this entire episode? And why did Cricket choose to appear to Jessie of all people?

--Sympathy for Jessie doesn't erase the fact that she was a stuck up bitch for the first 7 episodes or so.

--Malphas is an actual figure in demonology. The writers did research (or at least looked at Wikipedia!)

--So is Joel really dead? The show was pretty explicit when Cricket died. Also, should we talk about how out of the three counselors to have died thus far, two were people of color?

--"But I don't want to be saved" Sorry, Amy. But that's not how this narrative works.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x7)

I DVR'd this week's episode of Dead of Summer, "Townie." You see, the Olympics are on and tonight I watched Michael Phelps win his 20th Olympic Gold medal. The wonders of humankind. Why am I bringing this up? Mostly to remind myself that there is still quality TV out there, even if it's sportsball related--sometimes those stories have more drama and heart than your average scripted hour long program. Look, let's be real. This isn't a very good show; neither was my previous summer review show, Under the Dome, but at least it could be charmingly stupid in its own gibberish way. Dead of Summer is tedious, silly, and cringe inducing with bad dialogue, terrible acting, and over wrought platitudes about teamwork, being a man, and--this week--contemplating how far you are willing to go to get even. Spoiler alert! You'll go as far as murder. Grab a severed tongue and let's go!

My introduction was a rather long winded way of saying that I don't have much to say this week. I just have one question: why is anyone doing what they are doing? I know that sounds like a fairly simply question, but I honestly have no clue. Some writers keep their characters opaque to add mystery or because they are doing a deep exploration of the human psyche (cf: Don Draper). But for this show, the characters are simply ill defined and are granted no internal motivations. All the counselors, and baddies, are painted in the broadest of strokes with the dullest of colors. Amy, Joel, Alex, Garret, Damon, et al are "loners" and "haunted" and while their backstory tries to flesh out the whys for their emotional situations, it is so fleeting that I might as well be grasping at straws. Why is Garrett so determined to figure out what's happening at Camp Stillwater? Because his father died one summer there and it has haunted him ever since, especially given that Garrett and his cop father had a tense relationship. That's a perfectly fine launching point for a character but the problem is that Dead of Summer goes no further; it lets the character of Garrett rest there on just those bare bones of a story. Why was Garrett's relationship with his father so bad? Authority issues? Typical teenage angst? That answer is the root of Garrett's personal story, but the show doesn't bother to go there, to show its audience what's Garrett's damage truly is. And speaking of ill defined motivations, let's talk about Damon and his cronies, with their masks and ritual suicide (yeah, that happened). It really doesn't come as a major surprise that Damon and the rest of the Teacher's pets are those who feel powerless, alone; believers that the world "sucks," they sought power and agency in the realm of the magical and mystical. It's not uncommon; people turn to religion/spirituality for those reasons all the time. The problem, like with Garrett, is that the show doesn't nuance any of these experiences. Damon is simply "evil" (with his head to toe black clothing) and willing to go to murderous and suicidal extremes because he feels like the world doesn't understand him. No exploration is given to Damon's home life except a throwaway line about his father not being around; we don't get inside his head to understand his complex motivations--and complex they need to be if he is willing to slit his throat and believes it will allow him to "live forever." To put this into modern parlance, suicide bombers are not simply "evil" for the sake of "evil." Their culture, their upbringing, their societal instructions and a host of other factors like the entire span of human history and interaction inform their very being. Reducing complex people and complex situations to their most base and simplistic terms is how we get poor narratives and one dimensional characters. And in good (bad?) old fashion, the most one dimensional character on the show turned out to be the Teacher (Supreme Bad Guy). The old cop, who's name is apparently Boyd--a detail I did not know until Garret made sure to say it three times this episode--was apparently behind everything and, I kid you not, when I say that even Scooby Doo mysteries made more sense than this denouement. Boyd's screen time has been minimal and his influence on the narrative has been nonexistent. There was little to no obvious forshadowing or clues for this revelation and, in keeping with tonight's theme or being sans-motivation, I have absolutely no idea why Boyd took up with the Holyoake movement, how he even found out about it and the demon that lurks beneath the shores, or how he came to be the leader of a band of mask wearing men. Huh. Look at that. Turns out I had more to say that I imagined. Too bad the show didn't follow suit.

 Miscellaneous Thoughts on Townie 

--Amy, after she dressed herself in a traditional white gown, cut her arm to allow her blood to flow into the bottomless lake. It bled so much that it trickled out into a stream deep enough to wade in. And she neither died nor passed out and was able to scream in her increasingly irritating voice. This is not how the human body works.

--Blair and Drew were the only good thing about this episode and the show, to give credit where it's due, is actually trying to explore the complexities of relationships that have many hurdles to over come, both personally and culturally.

--Actual line of dialogue: "I heard your call and I am ready." This was said while a guy blew into a ram's horn that had been bathed in tongue blood.

--"You want to bring violent criminals into a camp? With kids?" Oh saints be praised, someone remembered that there are little kids at this camp and maybe we need to get them off the property! But no, they'll be fine. The color wars start today!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x6)

There is something inherently meta in an episode that focuses on Elizabeth Mitchell's character and is called "The Dharma Bums." Yes, it's a LOST joke. The meta textural reference to LOST has made me seriously nostalgic for one of my all time favorite shows, which I suppose was rather the point. Not necessarily nostalgia for LOST but nostalgia for the past, the perfect past in all its golden and gilded glory. The past is always seen in such paradise-lite terms, and those feelings are captured in the setting of our show--the childhood camp where you can relive your perfect past. As Nick Carraway intones, "you can't repeat the past." The great tragedy of the Great Gatsby is learning that you can't repeat the past no matter how hard you try to line up all the right pieces; in trying to do so, Jay Gatsby dies and lives are ruined. But what if you had magic? Not metaphorical, gin-smuggling monetary magic but actual cosmic-changing, life altering magic. Then could you repeat the past? Or maybe better yet, if you were capable of repeating the past, should you? Grab your time capsule and let's go!

Deb Carpenter is not a happy woman. This comes as little to no surprise since everyone who arrived at Camp Stillwater is masking a particular pang or pain from the past and, let's be real, a woman who sinks her entire life savings into reopening a children's camp is probably not a ball of sunshine and rainbows. If everyone at Camp Stillwater is metaphorically haunted (and also being literally haunted), Deb's own ghostly specter is the perfect past and the choices she made (or didn't make) that took her further and further away from that glorious yesteryear. I find that I am disturbed, as long time readers of my reviews would suspect, that Deb's entire story revolves around a guy and a romance that did not pan out as expected. Sure, Keith gives some mumbo jumbo about how Deb's mission has never been about him, not really, but instead about Deb finding and becoming who she is truly meant to be. But, if that's the case then, one, why did it take a dead former lover who represents Deb's version of the perfect past to make that clear and, two, who exactly is Deb suppose to become because even after an entire centric about her, I have no idea. Is the show saying that Deb needed to reopen Camp Stillwater, a move that has resulted in several deaths and nothing resembling normal, happy camp past times? Is the show hinting that Deb is somehow imbued with magic that may help stem the tide of whatever is coming our way; maybe she's the one who can rid Amy of her possession (called that one!), a move that would be remarkable given that thus far Deb has been shown to have absolutely no magical powers, abilities or inclinations other than talking to her dead boyfriend after "summoning" him through the power of her sadness and self doubt (and yes, I am bothered by that). Deb's story could have been fairly interesting; maybe she lately discovered that she does have some sort of magical power that summons all manner of dead folk and she could help the campers (and us, the audience who is still stumbling around in the woods avoiding bear traps) understand what Holyoake wanted and how Camp Stillwater came to be the center of a demonic entity, energy, or what have you. But, instead, Deb's story doesn't get me any closer to understanding anything about Camp Stillwater and really not even to Deb. Her destiny is opaque and confusing and even if she ends up as some sacrificial lamb to save Amy or another camper, the act will fall on deaf ears (so to speak) since Deb's relationship to all her campers in tenuous at best and totally nonexistent at worse.

Centrics like this are supposed to help me care about a character and get inside their head space--and yes, oh woe is Deb, the Harvard graduate lawyer who got fast tracked to a partnership and married a handsome, supposedly caring and intelligent man, when she could have been gallivanting across Europe with her beatnik poet ex. And for the record, that kind of lifestyle is perfectly fine; go forth and be Sal Paradise, but Deb also made her choices and furthermore also chose not to leave her situation. Deb's choices might have been hard and resulted in some self reflection and melancholy, but at least she made them. Everything post finding Keith, dead on the hotel floor, reeks of her decisions being made for the sake of another, no matter what Ghost Man tries to say before vanishing into a cloud of smoke. Does it make me care about her? No not really. I'm empathetic to feeling the weight of your decisions crushing you under, and that seems to be a running motif for all our characters, but Deb's decisions did not result in her being bullied (Drew) or used (Cricket). In other words, Deb is coming across as a bit of a privileged woman who is lamenting that she can't go have sex in the woods every night like when she was a teenager. This is to say nothing of the fact that apparently Deb can conjure up her former flame for a tryst and some hand holding any time she's moved emotionally enough. The more I write about this, the angrier I get because the writers could have really done something more interesting with Deb (again, another theme that abounds, with the exception of Drew who really gave us something to sink our teeth into). We have four episodes to go and while I accept that this is a summer show and was never going to be must-see TV or anything beside a teen drama and all that genre carries, Dead of Summer needs to buckle down, get to work, and try for a plot that doesn't feel like filler, totally underwhelming and largely unnecessary in its flashbacks.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Dharma Bums

--Possessed Amy is 100% more interesting than Normal Amy.

--Why is Amy the Doorway? Why is she so important? Again, we've got  4 episodes to go and still need to see episodes centered on Blair and Jessie and perhaps Garret so I suspect answers might not be forthcoming anytime soon.

--The Ouija Board scene was actually well shot, if slightly cheesy in that quaint 1980s way.

--To contact spirits on the other side, you need ginger and chicken blood. Check!

--Who is in the mask helping out the bad guys? It's obviously a camper but which one? My guess in on Possessed Amy. We've already seem that she has a connection to the Lake Demon and loses time while under its influence.

--Keith really did walk backwards into a massive cloud of smoke/smog. There are quaint 1980s visuals and then there are cringe worthy ones.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In Which I Review Dead of Summer (1x5)

So, how do you stay alive in the woods? Easy; by not going into them! Obviously none of the campers in this week's episode "How To Stay Alive In The Woods" know this very basic rule that is made apparent in every horror movie made. If you suspect your childhood camp of housing Satanic rituals, murderers, and possibly demonic entities then Common Sense 101 means you stay in a public, well lit area with lots of witnesses. But of course, the gang ventured into the woods for "reasons." This show is one inorganic plot point after the next; it pushes its characters into situations for no logical reason other than the writers need something to happen to advance their plot. It's a shoddy writing practice because it means I can't trust what the writers tell me about a character from week to week. Cricket decided she wanted a mix tape type of relationship and had moved past Alex, accepting that a one night stand wasn't in her deck of cards. But this week, after this revelation and coming to terms with it, Cricket is persuaded to go meet Alex in the woods--not because it made sense for her character (she's barely interacted with Alex since their almost tryst) but because the writers needed to kill a character and her number was up. Oh, and Joel got a flashback this week. Grab your trusty video camera and let's go!

Do you feel like you know and understand Joel as a character? I don't. Very early on it was established that Joel is the "watcher" type; his video camera is never far from his hands and he delights in movies, direction, and trying to tell a story. All of those characteristics are intriguing enough to get a character off the ground but from there you need to flesh him out; you need to show me why videos, movies, and capturing the narrative through the medium of a lens is so important to said character, and that's where the flashback comes in. The narrative device of the flashback is a tricky one; often times they are vital and thus far "Dead of Summer" has actually tried to make the flashbacks relevant to their character work. Amy is a loner who lost her only friend; Alex is a con artist; Cricket is insecure and Drew cannot find acceptance for who he is. All of that works to explain their present day situations. The story for Joel should have added some much needed weight to his character but it simply failed to deliver. I still don't know why Joel likes to film as much as he does. Sure, you could argue that he was simply into movies and decided to give it a whirl, but for a kid to decide on their career path that early on--he was roughly 9 in our first flashback and already talking about Oscars--to the extent that he begin to film everything around them, there has to be more than just a passing curiosity. Joel's love affair with film and shooting his reality is given the rather dubious explanation in the present day that his camera is the only way he could know the truth after his brother Michael died via suicide but we already know that Joel was filming everything long before Michael died and Joel himself began to see the Tall Man. Instead of highlighting who Joel is at his core (maybe romantic artistic, maybe obsessed with perceptions and how people present themselves both when someone is looking and when someone is not and thus somewhat cynical of the world around him) we get a half-hearted truth that feels like an afterthought for both the writers and the character. There is nothing to grasp onto with Joel other than a love of film making, that goes woefully unexplored, and a bout of paranoia over visions that we, the audience, already know are very real because the first scene of the entire series is the death of Holyoake at the hands of the villagers. There is no narrative tension; we are not left wondering if maybe Joe has some sort of psychosis because all the episodes leading up to this one have already solidified the mythology that Holyoake as real and ever present. As for why Joel is seeing Holyoake, I have no idea but it's not a far leap in logic to notice that both Holyoake, Michael (who was seeing the Tall Man before his suicide), and Joel have one thing in common that no one else shares: their skin tone. Anyone wanna place some money on Joel being a distant relation to the Tall Man and thus linked to him because of blood? Don't really need a fancy video camera to find the truth in that; it seems all but inevitable.

 Miscellaneous Notes on How To Stay Alive In The Woods

--Why does the Tall Man want Amy to die? I don't really know but it could have something to do with her needing to read a manual to roast a marshmallow.

--It is interesting that neither Amy nor Deb seem to remember their romantic encounters from the night before, though I suspect Deb is faking and Amy's confusion is genuine.

--So there are bear traps in the woods but these campers have been running around, in the dark, since day one and Cricket is the first to fall victim to it? Also, parents are letting their kids go to a summer camp that has bear traps cleverly hidden in the woods?

--"Have fun pitching Deb's tent." Ew.

--Garrett finds a ring in the cabin with the initials JS and instantly deduces that the ring had to belong to his father and was there because his father was investigating the mystery of Camp Stillwater. Sure, Garrett. Whatever gets you through the day.

--God bless those ugly 80s prom dresses. Oof.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In Which I Review Star Trek: Beyond

Time; it marches on. Three years ago, one of my very first blog posts and, really, first review, was of the second modern Star Trek movie, entitled Into Darkness. I was pretty harsh, reading the review again for the first time in a long while, but deservedly so. It remains a lackluster remake of The Wrath of Khan, easily the most beloved and well made of the original Trek films. My anticipation, then, for the latest installment, "Beyond," was mixed. On the one hand, this is still Star Trek and since I was eight years old, I have loved Gene Roddenberry's world. I have loved its characters, ships, themes, morals, philosophy, heart, and meaning. From the Original to Voyager, there are few science-fiction franchises that mean as much to me as Star Trek. On the other hand, the second movie demonstrated that the writers and directors have only a passing understanding of what made Trek, Trek. If the second movie had been a standalone, no fifty year history with which to grapple, it might have been a more solid film, but the fact is that this movie, and all subsequent ones, are going to be judged by the vision, writing, talent, and views of Roddenberry. There are two questions we need to examine when viewing any new Star Trek film; first and foremost, is it a good movie? And second, does it live up to what Roddenberry envisioned when he pitched a TV show about space exploration many years ago? Grab your favorite red shirt and let's go!

General Thoughts

Can you get lost in space? I suppose, in a literal sense, yes of course you can. You find yourself on the wrong end of a magnetized polar variation and bam, you're stuck in the Delta Quadrant for seven years (no offense Captain Janeway). But what Star Trek: Beyond wants to tackle is whether a person's identity can get lost in the vastness and sameness of space; whether it's possible that the day to day living aboard a vessel can leave people questioning their own purpose and general direction in life and whether the solution is a new tactic or the same shtick ad nauseum. In other words, when things begin to feel a bit episodic (pun intended), what keeps us, and the fearless crew of the Enterprise, going at warp speed toward the next horizon? Those types of questions are explored in Star Trek: Beyond. There is a throughline in the movie that should the crew of the Enterprise break up, the individuals of the ship would cease to be the people they need to be. Uhura tells the main antagonist that there is strength in unity and the film goes to many great lengths, via both intense action sequences of everyone working together and quiet musings, to demonstrate that the team, the crew, and the sum total are greater than the parts. But what happens if individuals were to carefully remove themselves from the equation? Take away the linchpins and slowly people lose themselves. Kirk contemplates taking a Vice Admiral position; Spock wonders if he should aid in the re-population of New Vulcan. As fans of the Original Series, and just Star Trek generally, we know, of course, that Kirk and Spock (and Bones, Sulu, Checkov, Scotty, and Uhura) all belong with each other aboard their beloved Enterprise. We know that in another timeline Kirk did achieve the Admiral status and gave it up because his true love, passion, and reason for being is Captaining the Enterprise. In another life, Spock left Vulcan (twice!) to be with his friends. However, the crew members themselves are not privy to the same history that we have; they are living it, making the history we already love. They have to figure out for themselves that there is beauty in the episodic, a sort of mundane glory in wearing the same shirt day after day and recording the same sort of stories time after time; that while chaos gets the blood thrumming and the heart racing, it's the day to day adventures, twists, turns, and sometimes negotiations gone horribly wrong that are their first and best destiny. With that in mind, it's easy to see how Star Trek: Beyond is a coy wink and a nudge from the writers to the fans. This "episode" might be on a much grander and more blockbuster scale, but the script and plot could have come, broadly, from any individual episode of Star Trek (take your pick for series; they all have episodic one-offs). While the crew of the Original Series Enterprise never engaged in this many space battles, the crew landing on some far off planet and dealing with someone who's own ideas stand opposed to the Federation, but is dealt with by Kirk and company, feels all too familiar. The broad strokes of the story could have played on a smaller screen and been a perfectly fine episode and that's what we're dealing with here. The writers want us to love the episodic, to embrace the formula that their Star Trek series is going to stick to. Just like Kirk accepts the glorious mundane, so too we accept and love the comfort of the known. It may not be fresh, innovative, or groundbreaking, but it will feel like the Star Trek you watched as a kid. Even with the many space battles and inexplicable lens flairs.

While the interpersonal relationships between the crew and the broad strokes of the plot might be served by this episodic approach, it fairs less well with its main villain, Krall. So far, in all three new Trek movies, the villains have been fairly uncomplicated, barely fleshed out baddies with a penchant for growling lines, quick sob stories, and in every case, a Magical MacGuffin weapon that simply must be stopped before it destroys the Federation, the ship, the crew, ect. This is where the new Trek runs aground; the villains in the many TV series tend to be much more complex than simply "bad guy;" this is usually because their villainy is couched in some sort of understandable humanity. They worship a computer thinking it a god because they do not know better; they were chemically poisoned by a flower to experience euphoria and forget their Starfleet or scientific mission; they are trying to save their race; they are trying touch their creator and feel that humanity stands in the way. There are "bad guys" who do what they do fully understanding that they might take a life or harm another, but their motivation behind said action is sympathetic if not empathetic. The Cardassians are bigoted nationalists who colonize other races, but is their spread through the galaxy, trying to instill their way of life, all that different from humanity's; is Gul Dukat nothing but a black hat baddie? That's the nuance of Star Trek. To bring this back to Star Trek: Beyond, Krall is about as rote and transparent as it gets. He wants to destroy the Federation because he's a solider and because he's angry. Going into details would constitute a major spoiler, but having a villain that is like all the other villains that came before him only makes him fall even flatter than would have on his own. The episodic nature might be great for some parts of Star Trek: Beyond, but I wish the writers would have pushed themselves in the Krall-regard. Why might someone loathe the Federation? In Roddenberry's world, the Federation was akin to a utopia; everything worked in harmony because humanity learned hard lessons from its past--slaughter, eugenic wars, famine, greed were all overcome--and had made a better place that the Federation wanted to share with everyone else among the stars; that is all well and good when you're inside the system but for those outside looking in, the Federation can seem insidious (like Root Beer, if you ask Quark and Garak at the DS9 station) and just as much a colonizing swarm of insistent bees as any other. Here in 2016, it's great to have a classic Trek episode to watch when it comes to the how the crew understand themselves and each other, but it's past time that this new franchise begin to explore villainy in all its complexities. A person's reasons for wanting to destroy a race or an organization should never be boiled down to just one root cause; it's a disservice to the complicated and multi-layered reasons and psychology behind not only conflicts but the people embroiled in them and to be perfectly blunt, Star Trek is better than that.

What I Liked And Did Not Like

--If this movie did one thing exceptionally well, it was mixing up the normal pairings of crew members to allow those not often seen together a chance to play off each other. The heart of the franchise will always be the incomparable trio, but too often the other crew members are sacrificed for the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and Bones--and quite often even my dear Bones gets the short stick. The movie took a chance by having Kirk working with other people and keeping Bones and Spock together for a change. It worked! One of my favorite episodes from the Original Series is "Bread and Circuses" in which Spock and Bones have some time apart from Jim and you really see that while they might be wholly different in terms of philosophy, they still care for each other a great deal and would die for one another if they had to.

--"You gave your girlfriend a tracking device?"
"...that was not my intent."

--The moment when Spock opens up Spock Prime's belongings and finds a picture of the Original Crew tore my insides up and it was all I could do not to cry in the theater. It keeps with the throughline of being your best self with others but it was also a very nice acknowledgement of the past history.

--Modern day science fiction has a nasty habit of thinking that it needs big battle sequences in order to be classified as Science Fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth and if you go back and watch many episodes of Star Trek (again, any series) you'll see that big battles in space are few and far between. Star Trek is more philosophical and introspective than constant torpedoes. While I understand that a big summer blockbuster is going to have at least one action sequence, having more than 4 in a two hour movie wears on the eyes, the ears, and patience.

--Props to Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the movie, for putting the humor back into Star Trek. There have always been witty exchanges among the Star Trek crew; in the last film that felt decidedly lacking.

--I suppose I need to address the Sulu controversy. Yes, in a very brief scene it is established that Hikaru Sulu is gay and has a husband and child. This was done to honor George Takei, the original Sulu and outspoken LGBT advocate. I have no problem with Star Trek having a gay character and, frankly, it's really about time. But I don't think, in this case, it was done for the right reasons. Star Trek is all about progressive views on society, showing the audience how humanity could be if it could just overcome its pettiness concerning religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. While having a gay character is progressive (sort of, it is 2016 after all) it wasn't done as a demonstration of progressive attitudes but to honor one man and his lifestyle. It's not supposed to be about Takei, but about Roddenberry and his world view. Next time, create a whole new character, gay and fleshed out, so that we might see the progress.

--I think the film writers want me to be impressed with the Jaylah character but while she's a "tough female character" she's also in the mold of what men think a tough female character should be. In other words, they give them hallmark male characteristics--fighter, handy, intrepid, tough--and expect us to applaud their feminism. While women are certainly all those things, feminism isn't about taking male characteristics and simply putting a vagina on them. It's about who controls the female's agency--her or a man. Jaylah might be a pretty tough fighter and she certainly plays a part in the grand plan to get off of Krall's planet, but she's heavily reliant on the male Starfleet officers to progress her story off the planet and, in the end, into the academy. Cool makeup, though.

--Some nice canon touchstones like reference to the Xindi wars and Jim Kirk not wanting to celebrate his birthday (but Bones really should have presented him with some Romulan ale and Spock gifted him a copy of A Tale of Two Cities).

--I honestly have no idea why this movie is called "Beyond."

--For the next Star Trek film, should there be one, I'd like more exploration before the problem falls into Kirk's lap. One of the best things about the franchise is the creative imagination that spawns brand new worlds, new races, and let's us traverse a new landscape. Going along with this, please stop destroying the Enterprise. It doesn't have the same emotional impact as when Kirk blew it up in "Search for Spock" because unlike that ship, this rebooted one doesn't feel like one of the main characters. The original ship, in all its NCC-1701 glory, was "a lady. You treat her right, and she'll always bring you home."

Final Ratings for Star Trek: Beyond: B

It's very much a summer blockbuster but because the story feels more like a classic episode of a most beloved franchise, it evens out all the very tedious fight scenes and dull villain. It's still Star Trek, after all, and that will always mean something.