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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/5/16) 5:53pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  Star Trek Beyond
TV:  Galavant [season 2]

Star Trek Beyond
This is the latest movie in the Star Trek film-reboot continuity. In it, the bridge crew has to match wits against a mysterious villain on a hidden planet.

I feel terrible saying this, but I can't remember the last time I was this bored in a movie theater. Star Trek Beyond wasn't offensively bad the way that Star Trek: Into Darkness was, so I didn't really have the mental escape route of "sit around and analyze why this is so terrible." Instead, I just sat back and watched it play out, hitting all the usual beats of a bloated 2010s action flick, and I realized that if had been watching it at home, I'd have brought in some laundry to fold or something, knowing that the film would neither engage nor reward my attention.

Maybe I'm just done with movies for a while. When the TV industry is busy churning out a good chunk of the best shows ever made, I don't really need to waste my time on the latest hollow, swaggering, effects-choked tentpole. But that's just me being generally jaded and probably more than a bit smug. Better to change gears and specify exactly what wasn't connecting with me here.

The bottom line is, there wasn't an emotional story for me to connect to. "But Peter, it's an action movie!" Yes, I do realize that. I don't expect the film to be all about people sipping tea and talking about their feelings. But it doesn't *have* to go nearly that far -- consider Die Hard, which uses a few deft and simple scenes to provide an arc about McClane reconciling with his wife. It's a total of maybe five minutes of screen time (out of a ninety-minute movie), but it's enough to provide an emotional through-line.

Here, the story is supposed to be about Kirk... feeling angst?

The film opens by telling (not showing) us -- first with voiceover (ugh) and second with expository dialog from Bones (ugh ugh) that Kirk is at loose ends for what to do next -- that he had lived up to his father's example and was uncertain, now, how to be his own man.[1]

Immediately, the film's in trouble -- that's an objective that's both out of character for Kirk (a man largely defied by his clever, swashbuckling decisiveness), out of keeping with an action movie (and more in keeping with, perhaps, a Wes Anderson character), and hard as hell to write a screenplay around.[2]

On top of that, the movie is afraid to make good on any threats. The film franchise is kind of like an 80s sitcom at this point, in that you know at the end of each installment they'll just hit the reset button and revert the characters to their familiar, unchallenging, and profitable starting point, with no lingering side-effects from this year's story. You could probably flip Beyond and Into Darkness with nothing lost, narrative-wise.

So this means that not only does Beyond have an objective that's hard to write to, but they can't establish meaningful stakes. The central question of the emotional story is, "Will Kirk give up on being captain, and take on a vice-admiral position instead?" And no audience member belives for a split-second that they'll actually pull the trigger on that. Having Kirk captain the Enterprise is the whole point of the (lucrative) franchise -- a threat to cancel that is (to use Alex Epstein's term) "schmuck bait".

So they've got an objective that's hard to work with, and they can't set up stakes that we can take seriously, and so, unsurprisingly, the movie doesn't have an emotional arc I can connect to. So that means that I'm not really invested in the story, I'm just watching the plot happen.

But "just watching the plot" can be okay. This is the 'action movie' iteration of Trek, which means that we won't have the thoughtful exploration of some mysterious situation or philosophical condundrum like we would see in the original series or Next Generation. Even without any sort of emotional stakes, an action movie can still succeed on its own terms. Sometimes a movie just blows up a lot of stuff, has some riveting fight scenes and some clever machinations, and that's enough.

But they get hamstrung with this, too -- they're trying to do an action movie, but they've got the playset from a TV series. This means they have to service a cast of seven central characters, plus whatever guest stars they're bringing in, which means that they quickly have a fairly convoluted, multithreaded plot going, instead of the straight-ahead "McClane tries to beat the terrorists" sort of thing. (Or even "Kirk tries to defeat Khan" [in the good iteration of that story].) And "convoluted plot" means we've got "convoluted-plot setup" -- a lot of shoe-leather and exposition that gets us from one action sequence to the next.

But at least we had action sequences, right?

To my astonishment, I was even bored during the action sequences. I watched the Enterprise get destroyed, and I mostly thought, "Jesus, how many of these ships are they going to go through?" I also thought, "Hey, look, the one piece of CGI is attacking the other piece of CGI! What a fun video game!" I watched the fistfights, and I thought back longingly to Avatar (the good one), where fighting style helped to define character, and to Terriers, whose pilot has one brief fistfight that is more visceral and terrifying than any drawn-out, tentpole-film slugfest I can think of. Instead, I watched a bunch of punches that don't land while all the usual weirdly-pneumatic-sounding "punch hits flesh" sound effects played, all of it done with the most anonymous of stunt personnel.

Well, hmph. That doesn't leave much. Maybe they brought in good guest stars?

No, not really. Jaylah is the stereotypical "strong female character", not particularly defined beyond flawless competence, vengeful anger, and the de rigueur skintight bodysuit. And Idris Elba is badly wasted as Krall. Elba is great at subtly playing a fiercely observant sort of intelligence. I have not, however, seen him convey characters with broad physicality or strong voice acting. And that means that, once you've piled up prosthetics on his face, there really isn't much there. (There's a reason Doug Jones is such a consistent go-to for these alien/monster types.)

I did really dig the twist that Krall was actually the captain of the Franklin. I was dopey enough to not see it coming, and it gave some depth to a villain that was, to that point, just a straight-up Snidely Whiplash type. It even introduced an interesting, relevant (if clunky and on-the-nose) theme, with the conflict between the sort of "kumbaya" cohesion of the Federation and the "kill all aliens" sentiment of the wars that preceded it. (Though that conflict is weakened by the fact that this is literally a conflict the Federation has already won, and it's hardly going out on a limb with its moral statement.) It did finally gave Uhura something useful to do, with her unravelling the entire mystery by (however improbably) recognizing Krall's voice in security footage.

But all of that was backstory. The character we saw onscreen was still "mu hu ha ha I am evil and I will destroy everything because of... y'know, reasons."

I also liked the design on Yorktown, AKA "Eschertown", the space station with multidirectional gravity. Like the upcoming Doctor Strange, it looks like they're aping Inception, whose BRAAAMP-filled score and sideways skylines will be kicking around big-budget cinema for decades to come. Unlike Inception, though, Beyond doesn't know how to handle shooting an action scene in shifting gravity. In retrospect, Inception was brilliant at making its action very clear -- okay, they're in a normal hallway; okay, now everyone is falling; now gravity has kicked back in. Star Trek Beyond hews closer to modern blockbuster action scenes, where the guideline is "who cares if the audience knows where things are in space FOR GOD'S SAKE JUST KEEP CUTTING". So in the climactic fight, Krall and Kirk float this way and that, and eventually expository dialog has to *explain* to us that Krall is following some broken glass to determine how to jump to the magical macguffin-unleashing spot. We don't feel much, beyond idly wondering how they CGI'd everything together.

Generally, *shrug*, it's an action movie. It's what you get if you turn the crank and extrude another blob of Big-Budget Action Movie Product. The big action sequences happen where you expect them to. There's the perfunctory, tepid attempt at an emotional through-line. There's the random Strong Female Character, whose job is to accompany the menfolks. And yeah, it has to come down to two dudes, and ooh, which of them can punch harder? Once this shows up on netflix, it'll be primo background material for preparing your taxes. (After all, it does look pretty.)

Overall, this movie made me very happy that there's a new TV series in the works. I have no reason to watch a generic action movie that happens to possess Star Trek branding. I'm eager to see real storytelling again in this world. I want to be surprised again.

Galavant [season 2]
This is the improbable second season of the ABC musical comedy about a heroic knight on a quest to rescue a kidnapped princess.

(It took me a long time to write that summary, because the storyline was in some flux. More on that in a bit.)

A good show listens to itself. The dailies come back. The edits come together. The ratings ebb and flow, and fandom rallies to this and rails against that. And through all that, over time, a good show listens, paying attention to what's working and what doesn't. And it carefully tacks towards making things better, leaning into sharp character dynamics, quietly jettisoning bad decisions, and upending parts of the show that become stale.[3]

In season one, Galavant was a solidly fun show. And, as I understand it, it was a show that *couldn't* course-correct very well through that first season. The logistics behind producing original musical numbers -- multiple ones -- week-in and week-out meant that they needed their scripts well, well ahead of time. But they did get the chance to course-correct from season one to season two.

And in that gap, they made some very good decisions, spotting problems that seem clear in retrospect but that *I* couldn't quite pin down at the time. Consider: season one had sort of an "A Team" and a "B Team". The A Team had Magdalena, Richard, and Gareth all bouncing off of each other at the castle. The B Team had Isabella, Galavant, and Sid on the road. And the B Team never quite worked because -- and I see this in retrospect -- it was three "straight man" characters. It was a combination of actors who are at their best -- and characters who naturally bend towards -- playing logical and nonplussed by other, more extreme characters.

Sure, they tried to find ways to squeeze comedy out of the road picture. They tried to exaggerate Galavant's clueless, self-absorbed heroism, but the actor never quite made that connect, comedically -- and besides, we-the-audience would rather have our story's hero be, well, heroic. (Game of Thrones this is not.) They tried playing out Isabella as a typical "woman who says no" TV character -- basically "stop being wacky, you guys! let's do things in a way that's competent and dull", ad nauseam -- but those characters are never fun to watch, and rarely seem fun to play. And they just had no idea what to do with Sid, so Luke Youngblood's charisma was left to twist in the wind.

So the reshuffle they did for season two made a lot of sense. Now Galavant acts as a foil for Richard, who acts like a six-year-old who's used to being able to have people killed, and gets an arc about growing up. Now Sid acts as a foil for Gareth and Magdalena, who get a love story between two violent, sadistic, power-hungry aristocrats. Now Isabella acts as a foil for, basically, the new guest stars who are intent on marrying her to a child prince, while her parents look on with shrugging practicality.

It gives them an unfortunate number of plates to keep spinning for a half-hour comedy, but it also puts each of those characters in a circumstance where they can do the most good. It also solves another problem: their romantic leads had zero chemistry. Galavant and Isabella are among the weaker characters in the show, and together they came off as polite work acquaintances who had an occasional bizarre obligation to kiss. So: excellent to put them on opposite ends of the mythical land, where they did a pretty good job of pining over each other.

To some extent, they were also refocusing the show on the characters that worked best. Richard was far and away the show's best character [4], so they push him into the foreground, shoving aside the barely-breathing Isabella/Galavant love story and focusing on a typical 'magical chosen one' narrative for Richard, who will overcome personal issues and become the One True King. It's a simple, well-worn story, and it locks solidly into place, with the writers giving Richard a pained backstory, and introducing Roberta as a credible and idiosyncratic love interest. And of course, both Gareth and Magdalena were working as villains, so pairing them off made perfect sense, and the main arc -- two people who are usually focused on violence and evil come to terms with falling in love -- must have pretty much written itself.

So now they had story arcs that were strong enough to build a season around.

And once the bones were there, they were free to joke around. They could tell their usual meta jokes poking fun at the show itself, and do their usual parodic-but-catchy musical numbers, and bring in whacked-out guest stars, and all of that would be fine, because the bones of the show were in place. Even when the jokes fell flat and the plot got a little lost, the basic story was in place and chugging along.

And let's face it, more often than not, the jokes worked solidly. It was delightful to see Weird Al return for the close of the series. I loved Roberta heading to "spinster island" with her island-issued cat and chocolate. The sassy meta-commentary on the show's dire ratings were fun. And when the show could move between that and genuinely moving moments with Richard or with the (wisely abandoned) cook and maid, Galavant was about as good as you could hope for.

So: worth checking out, especially in the second season, if you think it might be your thing, and I'm glad they're hammering out a reappearance on Broadway in the future.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, and finally checking out Master of None. Meanwhile, I'm reading Roadside Picnic, and listening to an audiocourse about climate change. I also have a huge backlog of video to write about, including Edge of Tomorrow, Howl's Moving Castle, Jessica Jones, and Great Teacher Onizuka.

[1] Side note: I saw nothing in this story at any point that made me think "these are writers working through issues they had with their fathers." There was just no ring of truth to any of it.
[2] There are many things to hate about Garden State, but I give it full marks for playing out a storyline around its protagonist's aimless angst. That's a bit of a magic trick, really.
[3] .... and often wisely ignoring fandom completely, but that's neither here nor there.
[4] I was shocked to learn that
the actor had nearly no experience in musicals.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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