Darkest Hour: Reasoning With A Tiger

If you’re looking for a thrilling character piece on one of the most influential and controversial leaders of the 20th Century portrayed by one of the most gifted and oft overlooked actors of this generation, Darkest Hour is going to do it for you. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers example of Oscar bait but not at all in a bad way, the performances all around are worth the price of admission but if you happen to be, as I am, a kind of WWII enthusiast that absorbs every thing from historical record to anecdotal testimony at every chance this film may leave you, as it did me, with an odd sense of disappointment in its finale. Not that it wasn’t powerful and well earned, but within the context of the rest of history it struck an odd note that wasn’t perhaps off-key as much as…a little bit too Hollywood for how grave the situation would continue to be for years after. But I’ll get into that later, first the good bits.

I was initially very skeptical of the prosthetics that went into turning a narrow jawed, sleek Gary Oldman into the famously jowly, overweight British Bulldog but genuine praise needs to go to both the makeup department and of course to the man himself, who disappears so convincingly into the role you forget who you’re watching on-screen. So effective is his performance that an Academy Award almost seems like an afterthought at this point and if I were any other potential nominee I’d already be looking for my next project. In terms of the history of the events portrayed Darkest Hour is admittedly not my favorite depiction of that timeline, there are two original HBO films The Gathering Storm and Into the Storm that provide a better, almost mini-series like approach to the bigger picture, however this new film is hands down the best character depiction of Churchill that’s been made yet, all credit due to Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s a good biopic that illuminates the character and flaws of a great historical figure but it’s a great one that also manages to provide an arc and in this it’s Churchill’s innate detachment from the common man, his inability to relate to the everyday people exemplified by an early offhand comment, “You know, I’ve never ridden a bus before. Ever.” This is a capable bit of foreshadowing of an idea, one that is firmly rooted in the ideals of the very country that they are trying to defend and antithetical to the coming fascist invasion: the concept that the common people’s voices can and should be heard, that nobility is not a quality exclusive to nobility, and that, frankly, in dire times, we’re all in this together.

Darkest Hour is primarily about the divisions and bureaucracy that continue to take place even as the world is burning down to its foundations. It’s simultaneously depressing and inspiring in the way it portrays not necessarily cowards as much as journeymen in history, men who served a function to other greater figures. Churchill was, by all means and measures and his own estimation, a failure up until his election to Prime Minister in the most troubling time for Western Europe in the last, or really any century. He was also a power alcoholic and an extremely divisive figure, only elected, as the film would portray, as a sandbagging tactic by his own party in an attempt make capitulation a more appealing option in the face of Nazi aggression and in this his foes failed miserably. Because in those trying times, when a demagogue had seized control of a world power, England elected an orator, a man who weaponized words in a way that didn’t inspire fear or resentment or hatred, rather, his words were eloquence. He wrote and spoke in a way that evoked a different feeling in his people, a way separate from the atavistic badgering of a madman stoking the worst instincts of a frustrated people. Instead of appealing to weakness, he suggested courage. He inspired dignity. He expressed hope. In his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” address, he didn’t ask those things of the people, he offered them from himself.

My problem with the finale of Darkest Hour is that it is a triumphant shouting of Churchills famous “We Shall Fight On the Beaches” speech to a newly energized and supportive Parliament. It’s a rabble-rousing, shake-the-rafters moment where the English people decide to reject potential subjugation by the Nazi regime and Gary Oldman’s Winston struts off gallantly, cue the ending cards, roll credits. But. This didn’t sit right for me. It’s possible that my recent rewatch of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk skewed my opinion but, to me, the elegant, subdued recitation of the same speech by a young soldier fresh from surviving hell on earth was exponentially more affecting in its framing. This speech was not a football coach reinvigorating his team at half time or a dramatic charge into the breech, dear friend. This was about resolve. It was about hold fast. It was about this far, no further. And the celebratory nature of the ending, while cinematically necessary to a casual audience, rings a few too many major chords, incongruous with the long, difficult, uncertain path ahead.

Darkest Hour is a fine film and I’ll admit to splitting some hairs with regard to tone but that issue I have with the ending is a recurring one, a shouting of things as opposed to a delivery and this is fine. We’re talking, again, about an actor who can make an entire scene with one single word (EVERYONE!) so see it for the performance alone but if an HBO GO profile is available, I’d look into those other depictions as well because while Winston Churchill’s leadership and character were polarizing and much debated, he was in nearly every interpretation absolutely as fascinating as advertised.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Space Oddity

Oh, what a time we live in. When I was a sprat the news that George Lucas was going to revisit the Star Wars franchise blew everyone’s minds. We were so ecstatic and grateful to get another look at that universe that it took weeks, almost months to realize how awful they were. Such is the effect of spectacle, which is the man’s real gift: the ability to make a thing that causes an audience to go “ooh” but then the feeling passes. And when the prequels came out it was mostly people like me with far too much disposable time on their hands who kept talking about the films after everyone else had gone on with their lives and significant others or whatever, instead we dissected and complained ad nauseam amongst ourselves. And 20 years later, in the no-longer-nascent era of the Internet, a film’s quality can be debated and debunked within seconds of walking out of a theater. Enter Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the series, that has polarized the fanbase almost instantaneously and in a way that brings a kind of evil smile to my face for a couple of reasons. For one, I am a Star Trek guy at heart, I have nothing against the Wars, they just never appealed to me the way the science and imagination of Gene Roddenberry’s creation does. And I’ve been watching his vision being steadily disassembled and destroyed for years now, ever since JJ “I never watched Star Trek growing up because it was too cerebral for me” Abrams got his big stupid hands on the franchise. So watching something I love die is an experience I’m familiar with and the fact that a lot of die hard fans of Lucas’ universe seemed to be experiencing that same sense of alienation from the The Last Jedi, well, amuses me. If that’s a little dark, well, shrug, at least Luke didn’t show up riding a fucking dirt bike for no particular reason.

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Anyway, it also makes me smile because the die hard fans, while not wrong in the sense that writer-director Rian Johnson disregarded every fan theory they had going into Episode 8, had such a level of entitlement and expectation that there was no way they wouldn’t be disappointed. It was an odd choice to go from Abrams and The Force Awakens with its reliance on what he refers to as a Mystery Box approach, i.e. the method of only telling one half of the story as a technique to get your audience invested, to a Rian Johnson, who is a gifted storyteller in an entirely different way, in that he actually tells a complete story and this presents a massive departure in style and approach. If the first works better for you, the open ended questions in The Force Awakens were probably enthralling and you had some expectation of resolution which is, sorry to say, entirely your fault. You probably also expected Lost to actually be going somewhere after six seasons but if you didn’t figure out after they got that hatch open that they were going to keep fucking with you to no end, you deserve what you got. My point is, The Force Awakens, regardless of your feelings about Rey or Snoke or Han Solo’s fate, is purely a fan-service movie.

I don’t believe you’re wrong if you enjoy it anyway, that’s what movies are for, so go nuts, but the fact that it is a paean to the Original Trilogy with a plot that is 100 percent recycled from A New Hope is beyond debate at this point. And if you went into The Last Jedi expecting the same tropes, some reveal about Rey’s parentage being somehow tied into the Skywalker clan, or Snoke being some kind of mutant holdover from an earlier trilogy, or really any of the same catering to the wants and needs of the Memberberries generation, I entirely understand your disappointment. Rian Johnson, much like Luke at the beginning of this movie with his lightsaber, hucked those fan theories and the desperate affection for nostalgia over his shoulder and made a movie that is admittedly incongruous with the rest of the Star Wars canon, which I am entirely cool with.

Now, I’m going to say some nice things about The Last Jedi because I unapologetically enjoyed it but I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s far from a perfect film. It somehow managed to feel both really long and really short at the same time. A lot happens in what is really only a few hours of time within the film’s context. Some of the subplots both felt and were entirely pointless except to pad the running time or to make an entirely unnecessary social/political statement. And most importantly, the two most important characters in the saga, Luke and Leia, felt badly mishandled. The former fell short of what should have been a by-the-numbers bad ass moment and the latter had the perfect opportunity to exit the story in a powerful sequence that was, inexplicably, immediately undone for no clear reason. These felt like tremendous missteps and are just a few of some issues that can be raised in all fairness.

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But those things aside where the film excelled, to me, was developing it’s new characters. Poe Dameron is by far the strongest of the bunch and doesn’t feel like the two dimensional dashing fighter pilot who only fighter pilots and dashes. Instead, he has something that Abrams will have to Google: an arc. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo was genuinely compelling and added some much needed depth to both of their motivations. Both are struggling to figure out a sense of identity and purpose. Both have been, in different ways, misled and deceived by parental figures and both will have to move out from under those shadows in the next installment. Although I’m sure the reveal about Rey’s parentage probably infuriated a lot of people, I found it to be deeply satisfying and even, to a degree, antithetical to the whole idiotic Midichlorian explanation from the prequels. This concept that the Force can come from anywhere and anyone, that anyone can be a part of this great power that surrounds everything is a lovely concept and reminded me of what was so special about the very first Star Wars. That before the big twist in Empire Strikes Back, even a poor, lowly farmhand from some backwater desert planet can stand up against an evil empire and make a difference.

This is why I believe the movie succeeds and I found it inspiring in that way, with it’s recurring themes of hope and a final sequence that sent chills down my spine. While it definitely has plot holes and unanswered question throughout, so did the Original Trilogy. So do the prequels. So does The Force Awakens. Random Twitter user: “ the closing minutes of Rogue One with Vader in the hallway is a million times better than this entire movie.” This guy right here makes my point. A lot of fans, in a lot a ways justifiably, really just want to see their favorite toys smashing up against each other on screen. And that’s cool. I understand you didn’t get that this weekend. Instead, we got a movie by a different auteur director, a movie about hope and identity, about new characters taking over an old franchise and while I’ll never blaspheme to the point of comparing it to Empire Strikes Back, a lot of people didn’t like that one when it came out either. You know what we loved right awayThe Phantom Menace. I’d be willing to bet with a little time and perspective some of this vitriol is going to die down and it can be appreciated sincerely for what it does right and if it doesn’t, well, at least JJ is coming back to save/recycle the day for the die-hards.

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Thor: Ragnarok- ‘Tis a Silly Place

The fascinating thing about Marvel, and the true key to their continued success as a studio, is their willingness and capacity to make adjustments, to continue to adapt through each phase of their Cinematic Universe to improve their films. It’s a remarkable ability in this industry, one that has been ruled front to back by marketing research and executive influence, an industry that so often tries to tell audiences what they want rather than sit back and listen to the angry nerd-mob. However, Marvel does listen. After making directorial choices that steadily improved in quality from the first to second phases, they encountered a new problem with their intricately interconnected Universe: homogenization. Safe, cooperative directors who would not rock the boat and stay within the motifs and established rhythms became the norm, best exemplified by the departure of auteur talent Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver from the mostly pretty good and surprisingly charming Ant-Man. While that movie was more fun than it should have been it was also more than a little shy of great and we’ll never know how weird it could have been. But the result of that aforementioned ability to adjust, in the face of a potentially squandered opportunity to bring real, unique vision to their storytelling and flagging enthusiasm towards the superhero genre and Marvel in general, brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, whose Freak Flag is flying from frame one.

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The odd thing about the Thor storylines in the MCU is that, logically speaking, they should be the most austere, even classical aspect of the comic book adaptations being technically based on Norse mythology, and while the first in the series absolutely is, with its Shakespearean struggle for a throne between two brothers, one selfish and entitled, the other deceptive and envious, Ragnarok lands so far on the other side of the spectrum that it’s difficult to consolidate all three films. This makes sense considering newcomer and relatively obscure New Zealand indie director Taika Waititi openly decided to ignore the previous films altogether and the Marvel Universe in general in order to focus on making his own movie as awesome as possible. And the result of Marvel letting Waititi completely off the chain is one of the goofiest, most self-aware, and ultimately spectacular entries to date. It’s pure joy from start to finish, it’s so adorable you want to climb up the screen and hug it, and, to recycle an exhausted but appropriate trope, it’s the reason we go to the movies.

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To say that the entire cast is hitting on all cylinders is also a bit of a trope but it applies. If I had to lodge a serious complaint about this movie, and the genre as a whole, it’s that the whole green screen approach to making movies genuinely robs the entire experience of a degree of fidelity but, in a film like Ragnarok, the fact that everyone is clearly having so much fun with the material it doesn’t really matter. This is one of those movies that you don’t want to end and, at no point, is there a dull interval or moment wasted. Cate Blanchett as Hela (pronounced like a Northern Californian, as in, “This movie is hella good”) is an absolute joy, Karl Urban is an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable side-arc, and Jeff Goldblum is distilled down to the purist, weirdest, most Jeff Goldblum-y version of Jeff Goldblum that has ever been committed to celluloid. Ever. At one point, he’s just making facial expressions and, somehow, because it’s him, it just works. Taika Waititi himself is also a great addition in the form of a giant rock alien with a clipped, New Zealand accent who manages to steal every minute he’s onscreen.

So immediately after the screening I texted a friend who was seeing Thor: Ragnarok later in the week and asked them to buy a ticket on my behalf so I could see it again. There are so many quirky exchanges and subtle digs at the rest of the Marvel canon, so many callbacks and wacky deliveries, so much fun being had at the expense of the source material while also managing to be an excellent fantasy action movie that I wanted to rewatch thing immediately. And there’s another thing about Ragnarok and the trailer and Marvel as a whole, lately: they know exactly what they are doing and if you watched the trailer like I did and assumed the film is going to end a certain way, you are wrong. But you’re just going to have to see it to find out what that head-fake was.

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Ever since the second Thor film I’ve been reminded incessantly of Heavy Metal magazine. For those not familiar, this magazine was a sort of uber-nerd periodical that featured contributor’s art and stories mainly made up of dragons, boobs, spaceships, elves, scantily clad women with boobs, warriors, aliens, monsters, monsters with boobs, pretty much everything that creepy kid in high school who sat in the back of the class drew on his folders. It was popular in the 70s and 80s and there was even a terrible R-rated animated film that was made at a certain point before American animation had really evolved or caught up with Japanese anime in terms of quality. Anyway, Thor: The Dark World could have jumped right off the pages of Heavy Metal with its Norse Gods battling evil space elves with fighter jets and laser guns. Ragnarok takes that strangeness and geekiness and imagination and doubles down, with action set pieces that tap directly into the part of the viewers brain that goes, “…fuckin’ sweet.”. And above all of that, it also manages to be hilarious. It’s easily the funniest Marvel offering so far and somehow, vaults itself into the top five MCU films of all time, with room to spare. So far, anyway, as much as they continue to impress after 17 films Marvel’s gotta run out of steam at some point. Right?

Maybe not any time, soon. 

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Gerald’s Game: To Have And To Hold

Gerald’s Game is a novel, like many of Stephen King’s work, that I read when I was far too young for the source material. As far as I could tell it was about sex stuff but not the fun, interesting type. The weird, scary kind that I had no comprehension of (still kind of don’t, I mean handcuffs? Where does that get fun…), so the story drifted off into the nether regions of my memory and I haven’t thought about it much, if at all. When a trailer popped up for it a few weeks ago, I dusted off what recollections I had and tried to remember if it was worth checking out and although surveys said, “Nah“, the strength of the casting alone sold me on checking out at least a few minutes of the film. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are two of my favorite actors that are somehow both incredibly talented and relatively unknown, but they get work regularly on a variety of different projects, so I don’t complain, their presences are usually a barometer of quality. And while I typically do not like scary movies at all, particularly the gory, slasher type, I have a great love for psychological horror. Films like The Descent or Jacob’s Ladder where the monsters on the outside may or may not be worse than the ones in the character’s heads. This is where that ten minute experiment with Gerald’s Game grabbed me by the metaphorical throat and held me hostage for the next two hours (HA! Because it’s a movie…about being trapped in a…. ahem….analogy…..). I’d forgotten one of Stephen King’s most underrated and underappreciated gifts as a storyteller in the afterglow (or not) of his big epic adventures like The Gunslinger or It and it’s subsequent grown-up sequel coming in 2019 and it’s that he’s a fucking master of tense, low-key, surreal narrative. It’s that hearing his characters talk and think and imagine and recall are all something he can do while making the reader or viewer feel like they are a part of the experience, it’s as if he knows these characters before he knows the story and that we are all, including King, along for the ride. Director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan is fully aware of this and does a spectacular job, possibly the best since The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile combo by Frank Darabont, of bringing King’s novel off of the page and onto the screen with such naturalism you’d forget which came first.

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Back to Gugino and Greenwood, without going beyond that first 10 minutes of film time or spoiling the situation as it unfolds from there, these two actors could not be more in their element, playing off each other with such a pitch perfect blend of tenderness and spite that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been working together for years. So affecting are the performances, and aside from a few practical impediments, a majority of this film could take place as a stage production. Writing like this, that is mostly dialogue and internal monologue (kind of), sinks or swims on the performances, this could easily have turned into a weak imitation of the Saw franchise and become a direct to DVD bore-fest, instead of the absolute clinic in character development and arc that it is. They are helped by the fact that veteran horror director Mike Flanagan knows exactly what the hell he is doing. Instead of trying to weird out or shock the audience with awkward angles or rapid cuts or the bane of my existence and sign of a cheap, lowdown, good-for-nothing hack, jump scares, he lets the actors create and build the tension. He lets the scene do the work, where the fear and horror comes from what might happen or what’s just out of view, rather than slapping the audience in the face with a loud noise or a piece of gore. If ever there was a genre that benefits greatly from effective suspension of disbelief, it’s this one and a director who knows how to keep stylistic flourishes or winks at the audience out of the picture is a smart one.

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Gerald’s Game, when not being a study in the simple, claustrophobic fear of being trapped alone in the dark, goes into some pretty dark subject matter in an intelligent, thoughtful way and King deserves more credit for depth than he’s usually given. For a good long while during his heyday, the writer was regularly mocked by so-called or self-described “serious” literary establishments for being a populist, no-talent shill, with no redeeming qualities or significance to speak of, and it’s not hard to understand why. But for all the books about cars coming to life and killing people or tractor-trailers coming to life and killing people or vending machines coming to life and killing people, there’s are some truly moving, exceptional stories that come out of the man’s head. Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, is one of the finest coming-of-age stories of this generation, The Shawshank Redemption is basically a perfect film but the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is just as magical and moving as the adaptation (a bit shorter, of course). And Misery is without a doubt one of the most terrifying, engrossing stories you’ll ever read and the thing that these all have in common, including Gerald’s Game, is how grounded they are in reality. When King sets down the supernatural element and focuses on the human one, he shows exactly how good he can be. The themes in this film, in anyone else’s hands, could have been an exercise in what horror and most mainstream film get wrong so often: objectifying and disempowering women with violence, sexual or otherwise. Instead, it does what great horror stories can do so well: humanize, redeem, and ultimately empower a victim. All credit to Mike Flanagan and company for understanding and realizing it so well, this is an adaptation that should not be missed, but a real tip of the hat also goes to the man himself for subverting the genre before it was cool. Long live the King.

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Star Trek: Discovery- Something Old, Something New

When it was first announced last year that the new Star Trek series would only be debuting on CBS’ fledgling streaming service, I was as pissed as the next guy, in fact more so, as I am a die hard fan of the franchise since I was a young child. I do not, however, identify as a Trekkie or a Trekker because I am a grown adult but I do support my fellow fans in all incarnations, if that’s how they want to identify. That said, I rankled at the departure in leadership of the talented, visionary Bryan Fuller to the inclusion of Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman in EP roles because they both, for the most part, completely suck. I scoffed in disgust (still do) at the ship design when it was released, clearly someone saw the hideous Ralph McQuarrie concept art and said “That looks like a good idea.” I rolled my eyes when the first trailer dropped and it looked… kinda good. And when the premier date rolled around I swallowed my stupid, bitter, salty pride and subscribed to CBS ALL ACCESS. Because I need my Star Trek. I need it and the last film was a hot pile of garbage. And it is with great relief and a wary but building feeling of hopeful optimism that I report Star Trek: Discovery is… pretty damn good. It’s not The Next Generation and it’s not quite the Abrams-verse, but instead straddles a line between the two, borrowing social commentary and allegory from the former and the scary, realistic space aesthetic of the latter. It’s something the film reboots emphasize emphatically, that this is not a bunch of folks in pajamas having debates on a studio set, this is people living in space, where a bulkhead shatters and there’s nothing but cold, unforgiving blackness on the other side of it. And the atmosphere, like this new incarnation, is fully alive with promise.

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So far, with only the first two episodes released, Star Trek: Discovery seems to be a different kind of animal than the earlier ensemble series. Instead, the focus is primarily on the confusingly named First Officer Michael Burnham, portrayed by the excellent Sonequa Martin-Green. By the end of what is obviously more of a pilot mini-movie, it’s clear that her journey is the one we’re going to be following rather than a large cast of personalities that hit reset every week like Voyager, DS:9, or TNG and this is fine. In fact, the finale of what seems to be a prequel to the first season’s events takes a very unique turn and I’m excited to see what the rest of the show has to offer, if also somewhat let down that the show is abandoning the tried and true formula established by Gene Roddenberry. It’s also nice to see Doug Jones, frequent collaborator of Guillermo Del Toro (he’s this guy), getting a nice solid role to work in where he actually gets to speak instead of just be lanky and creepy in a nice prosthetic suit. Michelle Yeoh is also, unsurprisingly, fantastic in the captain’s role and brings an undeniable gravitas to the whole experience.

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Discovery also does something that the films mostly failed to do beyond a brief spot in Into Darkness and that’s revive one of the most important and compelling alien species from the original series. Rather than portray them as laconic, brooding monsters in the dark, both of these episodes do an amazing job of setting up the Klingons as a fully realized, complex species with their own customs and personalities. In fact, there’s a ton of time spent with the characters rattling on in the completely real Klingon language, it’s cool to just sit back and watch them develop in a way that hasn’t been done since The Next Generation. There’s also a clear and unfortunately appropriate allegory going on with their leadership and motivations, one that is, in its roots, about racial purity and nationalism and this was, again as an old school fan of the franchise, incredibly refreshing and compelling to see. The Abrams-verse took a stab at some complex issues in Into Darkness and, in my opinion, fell flat on its collective face by creating what is on the surface an exciting action/revenge film loosely inspired by Wrath of Khan but turned out to be a thinly veiled metaphor for the false flag operation 9/11 “truther” and writer Roberto Orci believes the 2001 attack on the WTC actually was. On either side of that were two mostly mindless exercises in entertainment, one fun, the other directed by Justin Lin so it’s nice to see this series has woken up to the potential this Universe and that all good science fiction has, to be a reflection of our own.

I shared an interesting and inspiring post about this show earlier this week and a friend pointed out some of the amazing (moronic) conversations that were taking place in the comments section, with this gem of an exchange standing out among the others:

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I don’t know “Jed Evnull” personally, but he’s either lying about watching the Original Series when it aired or is confusing the show with something more casual-friendly, like Lost in Space. Artie has the right idea, however. Because the thing that has always separated Star Trek from other sci-fi shows has been the political and social allegory that takes place in a lot of those “well-told” stories. Take this episode, for example, where the crew encounters a race of aliens that are at war with each other over the fact that some of their species are all black on the left side and all white on the other, while others have this feature inverted. And that’s the only reason why, because of this arbitrary physical attribute. I guess Jed missed that episode or perhaps the metaphor was too complicated. Or this episode in The Next Generation where a species of aliens who all identify as genderless cast out one of there own for identifying as female. This character is being threatened with a ‘reprogramming’ to identify as androgynous and was the first episode of any of the series to broach LGBT issues. The point is, although I am as new to this new crew and new series as anyone else, and although I was already sold on the show from the first two episodes, I, for one, am now fully behind this show and its crew for clearly knowing what Star Trek, and Gene Roddenberry’s unique, optimistic, and inclusive vision, is supposed to be about. And I genuinely can’t wait for more.

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Game of Thrones: Season 7, Episodes 4-5

Last year, during the first season of Westworld, I made an attempt at writing episode by episode reviews which was a mistake. It was a great writing exercise, however, in the sense that I had to learn how to write about nothing, to stretch incremental narrative progress into a 1000 word piece but I ended up failing to complete the season out of sheer boredom. I wanted to avoid that mistake with the most recent season of Game of Thrones and only do a halfway point observation and end of the year wrap up, but after Sunday's episode Eastwatch, I felt the need to check in again. I came down pretty hard on the show a week or so ago, and I stand by that criticism, I still don't understand the need to rush through so many plot lines so quickly, but this weeks episode Eastwatch actually had shades of earlier seasons. It got me excited as it was more about conversations and setting the stage rather than wowing the audience and was surprise, surprise, the first episode of the series not written by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff in a long while. No, aside from the termination of House Tarly, who have gotten their comeuppance for betraying longtime ally House Tyrell quicker than is usual for Thrones, there was more maneuvering than anything else and it pleased me enough to share some thoughts.

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First, though, some complaints. One thing that used to be GoT's greatest strength as a narrative was the fact that it did not cheat the viewer. If a character was in a hopeless situation and the ax was about to fall….the ax fell. No one saved the day because like in real life, no one usually does. But as the seasons wore on and we moved away from George R.R. Martin's source material, the show started to feel more like conventional TV. Brienne rescues Sansa at the last second, Benjen rescues Bran at the last second, Arya gets stabbed and falls into a putrid canal….but is perfectly fine and there are no ill effects, even though Khal Drogo died from a scratch on his chest. And this week opened with a cheat. Jaime should be a roast kebab right about now, right along with Bronn, however, the ankle deep water that he had been sprinting his horse through a second earlier suddenly turned into a bottomless lake when he was tackled into it. And, fully armored, the two of them swam a half a mile underwater to escape Daenerys and Drogon and emerged unscathed. Really? I get that they are both fan favorites by now but that used to be what this show was all about: getting your heart broken/mind blown. I'm sure this is a 'careful what you wish for' situation but, come on, man. Game of Thrones used to trade in credulity but it's been nearly bankrupt in that category for some time now.

Aside from that, it's nice to finally get a glimpse of Littlefinger's gameplan: so far, creating a rift between Arya and Sansa. To what end? I have no idea but sewing chaos seems to be his weapon of choice and he's going to have the North off-balance in no time as the new Lady Stark seems to be unsure of her own intentions. In case anyone hasn't googled it or jumped on Reddit, the content of the message was Sansa's original message condemning Ned Stark and supporting King Joffrey which is going to make Arya even more wary. I don't know if everyone was nearly unsettled enough when Sansa admitted to learning a lot from Cersei in an earlier episode but that is cause for concern. Having recently rewatched much of the earlier seasons, one thing becomes perfectly clear and it's that she is a terrible human being with no sympathy or kindness in her of any kind. Other characters are more vile in overt ways but they almost always have some tenderness hidden away or understandable pathos about them, Cersei is simply coldness layered upon spite layered upon ego. She may currently be the technical winner of the game but she had to step over the bodies of every one of her children to get to the throne and if that isn't a Pyrrhic victory I don't know what is.

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As has been noted in other publications, young Gilly, who couldn't read when we first met her at Craster's Keep, has uncovered the bombshell secret that can flip the tables completely in this war for Westeros. If you aren't a lore junky or tuned her out for whatever reason, it sounded like while keeping Sam company she discovered an account of a marriage annulment between Rheagar Targaryen and his wife and a secret wedding to someone new. This is a huge deal because, up until now, we have all been thinking we were clever for figuring out that Rheagar and Lyanna Stark had a secret love child who turned into the most handsomest and bravest bastard to be crowned King in the North. BUT. If they were secretly married, this changes everything. It means that Jon is not, in fact, a bastard, but rather the ranking Targaryen and rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Over Daenerys. Now, I don't think he wants the throne and I do not think he'll take it but it remains to be seen how this is ever going to be revealed. So far only Bran is fully aware of this and we don't know if Gilly took the book with her when the two of them absconded from Oldtown so it might not be revealed at all. If only we had more than two episodes left in the season to find out.

The sparks are really flying between Jon and Dany, aren't they? I kept shouting "MAKE OUT" at my television, frightening my dog. As much as a dumb reference as this is, I know that silent exchange between the two of them when she discovers Drogon making friends with him. It's that same feeling when you start dating a girl and her cat, who usually hates people, curls up on your lap and goes to sleep. As a guy, you know you've just scored major points so you just sit back and enjoy it. And you can bet when Dany and Missandei sit up at night gossiping that's coming up first thing. Well. Maybe after the whole Grey Worm situation. I mean, shit I want to hear about that. And I don't like that they are trying to make Jorah seem like he has a shot. I like Jorah. I like him just fine. But there was definitely a weird love-triangle like thing that happened twice, where they had to stop talking and look awkwardly around and I don't like it one bit. Dany was clearly a little heartbroken when Jon decided to leave, major props to Emilia Clarke for that oh so subtle break and recovery that shows on her face. She may not love Jon yet but she undoubtedly has come to respect him in a very short time, as anyone does who hangs out with the guy but his bravery and insistence on leading the way beyond the wall has clearly given her the vapors. Speaking of which…

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What a stupid fucking plan Jon has come up with. This is like something out of a sitcom where the gang has really gotten themselves into a tight spot this time and only a desperate Hail Mary idea can save the day. Like capturing a wight/zambie and bringing it to court in King's Landing, instead of doing the smart thing and just kicking the ever-living shit out of Cersei Lannister and company. This whole desperate need to wear kids gloves while conquering the kingdoms of Westeros is absolutely going to bite Dany and her allies in the ass at some point. Just do the thing and then worry about the White Walkers. The major problem with that whole plot line is that those fuckers have been about to attack for six years now. There is zero sense of urgency no matter how many spectacular shots of undead hordes marching towards the wall they give us because they've been showing us that since the second season.

I am no fool, by the way. I can't also say it's not thrilling to see such a wacky line-up of characters walking off into the north together like some bizarre Medieval Magnificent Seven. It's nice to see Gendry again, even though he looks like Christian Bale's anemic little brother lately but the instant bonding between him and Jon was worth his rushed return back to the story. Over/under on who is making it back from the great white north? Beric Dondarrion? Nope. Thoros of Myr. Nope. Jon? Duh, of course. The Hound? Probably. He still has too much potential and seeing him alongside Dany and Jon against the Lannisters is too sweet of an idea to spoil. Plus CleganeBowl. Jorah Mormont? (casually averts eye contact) Gendry? Dude. You might as well have thrown on a red shirt before heading out. Who is left….Tormund? Don't you fucking dare.

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Game of Thrones: Season 7, Episodes 1-3

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I'm going to say what most other publications have been tip-toeing around while having the gall to hand out "B+" ratings (I'm looking at you, A.V. Club) to the current season of Game of Thrones: it's not very good. I won't go so far as to say it's bad, but it is not very good. Most of the characters who were once thoughtfully developed and three dimensional no longer appear to know what they are doing and a couple of characters who have no substance or depth to speak of are omniscient and magically teleporting around with gigantic fleets of ships, fully anticipating the moves of their adversaries because….no one knows. Remember when Game of Thrones was really that? A game? A strategic maneuvering of resources and loyalties? A chess match between cunning and vicious rivals? This ain't that anymore. Now that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are fully off book, we're watching a beautiful, talented ensemble cast with cutting edge special effects on an international stage essentially playing checkers.

Euron Greyjoy, as the apparent Big Bad of the season so far, is the worst villain of GoT and not because he's more hateful than Joffrey or more sadistic than Ramsay. It's because he's just annoying. We hated those other characters while at the same time desperately wanted to see more of them, eagerly anticipating the point when they would get their comeuppance but with Euron, as an audience, we just want him to go away. Never mind the fact that other, more capable publications have pointed out that the MacGuffin fleet built by the Ironborn would have taken decades in ideal circumstances and with near infinite resources to complete but seems to have come together in maybe a month or two, just enough time to be manned and deployed against Dany's now completely useless Iron Fleet. How is Euron such a masterful tactician and god of the seas? Because he was a pirate for 15 years somewhere. That's how. Just like being a fry cook for a decade or so fully prepares you to run a fast food empire.

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Daenerys, despite having a dozen or so awesome titles and the council of Tyrion, Missandei, Grey Worm, Olenna Tyrell, Varys, Yara Greyjoy, and the Dornish ladies, has gotten her ass kicked three episodes in a row, now. The only logical conclusion is that she has a traitor in her midst but if that's the case there has been zero allusion or foreshadowing of this, which would be frustrating but at least somewhat logical. In fact, if this is not the case that will be even worse because the absence of believable logic is reaching epic proportions of late. More so, the meeting between Jon and Dany, something fans (myself included) have been slobbering for for years now has finally taken place and it had all the fireworks and excitement of a weekly board meeting. If this is supposed to start out like some kind of When Harry Met Sally situation where they hate each other at first and slowly fall in love, I GUESS, but so far the absolutely tepid and stiff interactions are a massive disappointment. This is the center of my argument regarding the pacing of the season, or complete lack thereof, it strongly gives the impression that David and D.B simply don't give a fuck and are only sprinting for the finish line at this point. And if you're wondering, yes, I know Dany and Jon are technically Aunt and Nephew but you know what, I don't give a shit. Weirder things have happened in this show. Why can't we have ONE nice, if technically incestuous, thing?!

Sansa and Littlefinger are still hanging out. That seems like a fantastic idea, especially since he seems to have perfected his leering/conniving/shiftiness like it's his freaking job. Like, has no one gotten weary of how this dude is constantly leaning against walls watching everyone do shit with that creepy look on his face? And I may never forgive this show for almost getting me excited about a scene where Sansa is rushed to the front gate because it's (my thought process, "Please be Arya, please be Arya, please be…..ah, it's FUCKING Bran…") the Three Eyed Raven who is apparently full on Neo-in-the-Matrix-sequels now, full of cryptic weirdness and robotic delivery, has safely returned to Winterfell. Maybe it's the combination of the writing and the actor but I'm not buying all seeing, all knowing Bran here, he just seems like that guy in college who discovered Siddartha and LSD and decided he was Buddhist all of a sudden. How he's going to factor into the last ten (!) episodes of the show is anyone's guess but if I had to venture a theory, it's probably to ruin something/everything somehow. After all, none of this shit would have happened if he had managed to stay off the fucking rooftops in the first place. You killed your parents, Bran.

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I was a reader from an early age and, in waiting rooms, I occasionally skipped Highlights magazine and went straight for Reader's Digest. To anyone not familiar, it was essentially a stripped down cliff notes type periodical that shared random stories and biographies in the most efficient manner possible. Who/what/where/when/why and then onto the next anecdote. The closest contemporary comparison I could make is Wikipedia. Game of Thrones, in all of it's scale and scope and horror and beauty, has been reduced to the storytelling conciseness of a Wikipedia article, with no style or pacing or atmosphere. There's a reason GRRM's novels were so damn long, he was world-building, creating a detailed, living, breathing place that fans of the genre flocked to. It's why the show was so damned good in the first place, because it was faithful to the patient storytelling techniques of a novel. It was about interactions, Arya and Tywin Lannister unknowingly stalking each other throughout a scene,  Ramsay methodically destroying Theon Greyjoy's body and mind, Jon and Tyrion getting to know and respect each other on the journey to The Wall, and that's what is ultimately the problem since season six: the literal and figurative absence of the journey. The much commented on absence of travel time for, well, anyone at this point is why there is no meat on the bone anymore, no substance to what's happening. Weiss and Benioff have quite simply forgotten that, although we want to know what happens to these characters we have gotten to know so well, we also want to hang out with them. We like them. We like the way they talk and interact. And in their big ol' rush to get to the exciting bits, the journey itself has been all but forgotten. Which is a damn shame.

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