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There And There And There And Back Again

December 21st, 2012 No comments

Yes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is too damned long. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s made not by the Peter Jackson who ruthlessly and wisely cut Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire from The Lord of the Rings, but by the Peter Jackson who made his King Kong remake 83 minutes longer than the original. To this Mr. Jackson, more is more.

Yet, as someone who owns–and prefers–the extended editions of the three Rings films, I have no true cause for complaint. I like spending time in Middle Earth. I like seeing the “off-screen” parts of the story. So, if Jackson’s revised plan to split The Hobbit into three movies means that we’re seeing the equivalent of extended editions in the theater rather than waiting for the DVD release, so be it.

That’s not to say that An Unexpected Journey isn’t excessive in other ways as well. At times it lapses into video game mode, with on-screen antics resembling an action “platformer.” This isn’t new: even The Fellowship of the Ring had that damned swaying staircase. But both the stone giant and Goblin Town sequences in The Hobbit go far beyond the believable. (The collapsing Goblin Town platform is both ridiculous and oh-so-fake.)

It shares another trait with The Fellowship of the Ring in that it inserts a villain to provide a more personal threat. (A “mini-boss,” in video game terms.) While Fellowship’s Uruk-Hai captain Lurtz was wholly invented, Journey‘s  Azog the Defiler is at least a Tolkien character, albeit one who was supposed to have been long dead. While I don’t know that he’s entirely necessary, I don’t think he significantly detracts from the story. (Besides, “Azog the Defiler” is a pretty rockin’ name.)

One way in which it differs from Fellowship is that it goes out of its way to insert Tom Bombadil. Okay, he’s actually Radagast the Brown, an off-screen character from Tolkien’s novels, but like Bombadil he’s a quirky nature lover. It’s fun to see former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy up on the big screen.* Thankfully, he does not play the spoons.

Martin Freeman is simply terrific as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins. I wasn’t sure what to make of the casting at first, but he nails the fussy Englishman aspect of the character. He’s especially good playing off Andy Serkis as Gollum in the dead-perfect “riddle game” sequence.

The visuals are for the most part absolutely gobsmacking. I audibly said “wow” at least twice.** The 3-D is really good too, aside from a few early sweeping pans that my eyes were unable to process.

I cannot comment on the controversial 48-frames-per-second version, as I would’ve had to trek to either Chicago or Indianapolis to sample it. And, given what I’ve heard from people who seem like they’d be inclined to like that sort of technological advance, it sounds as if it’s better avoided.

Perhaps I would’ve been less inclined to enjoy An Unexpected Journey if my expectations hadn’t been tempered by the needlessly harsh reviews, but I found it a great deal of fun.

It’s not Tolkien’s The Hobbit, it’s Peter Jackson’s. I’m okay with that. People bitched when the early Harry Potter films hewed too closely to the books rather than offering freer adaptations. Jackson’s script even remarks on how tales evolve in the telling. And Tolkien himself wrote of the “Cauldron of Stories” that authors draw from for their own works. (Though, given what he had to say about the first guy who attempted to write a Lord of the Rings screenplay, I’m not sure he’d agree with my take.)

* This movie is geek heaven in that it features not only a former Doctor, but also Magneto, Arthur Dent, Ash (from Alien), Agent Smith and Dracula (or Count Dooku if you’re too young to remember Hammer horror films).

**Both times for establishing shots of fantasy environments, specifically the halls of Erebor and the vast catacomb of Goblin Town.

 

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

Spy Vs. Spy

December 9th, 2012 No comments

The older I get, the more I think that I understand the disappointment of the previous generation. They see the world slipping away from them. For good or ill, their time has passed.

Our popular culture is codified by demography. Marketers endlessly chase 18-34 year-olds. They might invite the 35-49s to peer under the tent, but once one hits the big five-oh, the circus packs up and rolls on to the next cow town.

Which is a long and melodramatic way of saying that I’m a grumpy, old man who doesn’t care much for your newfangled James Bond.

Now, I know that you didn’t truly enjoy Quantum of Solace either. But you thought that Casino Royale was the best thing since shaken martinis, and that the latest installment, Skyfall, was even better.

And what I have to resign myself to is that you and I just want different things. I want my James Bond to be less mopey. Ruminating about his mortality is something Bond should do on his own time, not mine.

I think that my dissatisfaction with what passes for a James Bond joint these days is exemplified by his meeting with the new Q. The young quartermaster hands him his gadgets for this adventure: a pistol and a radio. Granted that even Bond is disappointed. Q tells him that they don’t do exploding pens anymore.

Well, why am I watching, then? Bond isn’t Bourne, or that Mission: Impossible guy. What separates 007 from every other homicidal secret agent is that he’s the one with the magnetic wristwatch and the car that turns into a submarine. There are all manner of action heroes who don’t battle cat-stroking masterminds in volcano strongholds.

In their place, we get Javier Bardem as a former MI-6 agent gone rogue. He’s flamboyant enough to be a decent 007 villain, but his scheme is decidedly low-wattage. He wants to kill Bond’s boss, M. And…that’s it. Okay, he wants to humiliate her first. That’s something, I guess.

But everything else–exposing embedded agents, blowing up MI-6, getting himself captured–is all part of a needlessly-complicated plot with the sole endgame of putting a cap in Judi Dench’s ass. This isn’t a movie about a super secret agent saving the world. It’s about spies killing spies, with the rest of us caught in the crossfire.

The opening sequence–by far the best part of the film–is a thrilling chase through city streets, across rooftops and finally atop a speeding train. It’s endearingly over-the-top, climaxing with Bond recoupling the train using a convenient backhoe. For those few minutes, I had hopes that the franchise was at last emerging from the doldrums. Unfortunately, that was the action highlight.

Bond spends the next half hour or so being pissed off at M for ordering a fellow agent to take a risky rifle shot which hits him instead of the target. Pity he had none of that concern for the literally hundreds of innocent pedestrians and motorists injured during their damn-the-torpedoes chase.

The fact that (MAJOR SPOILER) Bond ultimately fails to save M renders even more pointless the lost lives of all those thugs, assassins, agent provocatrixes and unlucky security guards that fell along the way. (SPOILER ENDS)

Like the early Star Trek feature films, the major theme of Skyfall is age. I’m not certain that it’s a great idea to acknowledge that Bond is aging out of the moviegoing demographic. It’s not like there won’t be another actor in the role in five years or so. Besides, it begs the question of when in 007’s timeline this is taking place. On one hand, the beloved Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger comes out of mothballs for a final road trip, yet the film concludes with Bond being formally introduced to Miss Moneypenny, the secretary who appeared in every last one of the non-Daniel Craig 007 films, including four with Judi Dench’s M.

Perhaps James Bond is getting forgetful? He’ll be a grumpy, old man himself one day soon.

Categories: Movies Tags: , ,

Take My Angels, Please

October 1st, 2012 No comments

I was so excited when it was announced that Steven Moffat would be the new showrunner of Doctor Who. He was both a brilliant writer and an über-fan. Most important is that he appeared to “get” Doctor Who. Consider this dialogue from his spoof episode “The Curse of Fatal Death,” spoken to a dying Doctor by actress Julie Sawalha:

“Doctor, listen to me! You can’t die! You’re too nice! Too brave, too kind. And far, far too silly. You’re like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby-Doo! And I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!”

“He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it’ll never be safe to be scared again.”

Moffat had written several of the best episodes of nu-Who, including “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink.” The latter introduced the Weeping Angels, bizarre creatures that were akin to a living game of “Statues”: they could only move when no one was looking at them.

My glee began to turn to dismay by the start of his second full season as showrunner and head writer. The overarcing plot became so complex that not even a think tank of fanboys with a whiteboard could fully work it out. The show was less about the title character and more about Moffat’s pair of Mary Sues, Amy Pond and River Song, both of whom were so awesomely awesome we were repeatedly told. (Tip to writers everywhere: if you have to tell us how great someone is, they’re not.)

What bothered me most, however, was the sloppiness of the storytelling. Gaps in logic abounded. (Pretty much all of “Asylum of the Daleks.”) Major plot points were left unexplained. (A question still hanging from two years ago: how was the TARDIS destroyed by the Silence? Blowing up a TARDIS is supposed to be a very, very, very hard thing to do.) Rules were invented on the spot to fit the needs of the moment. (When the Weeping Angels returned in “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” their signature move–killing people by sending them back in time to live out their lives in the past–was conveniently ignored in favor of them simply snapping necks.)

Fast forward to this past weekend’s half-season finale, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the swan song of longtime companions Amy and Rory. All of the above came into play, and the result had me wishing that Steven Moffat might hand over the reins before next year’s 50th anniversary.

(Major spoilers ahead. Beware.)

Here again, the Weeping Angels changed to meet the dictates of the plot. They weren’t creatures that merely resembled statues, they actually possessed existing statues…including the Statue of Liberty, which was laughably able to walk across Manhattan without anyone looking at it. They returned to sending people back through time…except when they only teleported them a short distance away. And the whole “that which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel” bit (from “The Time of Angels”) didn’t result in Statue of Liberty posters coming to life.

Meanwhile, there was the nagging matter of the Ponds to contend with. Never mind that they’d been leaving the show since last year’s “The God Complex,” their relationship with the Doctor had become so codependent that a regular departure simply would not do. Even though they’d already had expressed a couple of perfectly good reasons for ceasing their travels (the inherent dangers of their adventures; their enjoyment of a “normal” life), it would have to be something Earth-shattering, Rose-trapped-in-a-parallel-universe-ish to get them fully out the door.

And so it was that a new rule about time travel was introduced…”Once we know the future, it’s written in stone.” The idea here is that once the Doctor learns the details of his own future, he cannot (or should not) change them.

Not only does this flatly contradict the entire previous season of Doctor Who–the Doctor wriggling out of the “fixed point” of his own death–it invalidates the core of the show itself.

Let’s now spin back to 1975, Who‘s 13th season, for the classic tale “Pyramids of Mars.” It’s frequently cited among the top stories of the old show, chiefly for the utter malice of the villain Sutekh, an Egyptian god/all-powerful alien who terrifies even the Doctor despite its inability to do so much as stand up from its throne.

One of the most remarked-upon scenes occurred when then-companion Sarah Jane Smith questioned why they needed to worry about Sutekh destroying Earth in the year 1911 when she herself hailed from the not-destroyed Earth of 1980. The Doctor responded by slipping forward in time and showing her the hell-blasted landscape that would result from their inaction.

Granted that it took 13 seasons to make this explicit, but the point here is crystal clear: knowing what the future is “supposed” to be by no means guarantees it will play out that way. The Earth exists throughout much of the Doctor’s personal history–he’s there at its creation in “The Runaway Bride” and at its final destruction in “The End of the World”–but that doesn’t make it “written in stone.” If it was, pretty much every storyline involving a threat to Earth’s past could be safely ignored. One of the central tenets of the show is that the future is something which constantly must be defended.

I could go on for awhile restating the massive logical flaws involved in keeping apart the Doctor and the Ponds, but others have done my work. Bad enough that the “written in stone” thing will from now on be cited as one of the “rules” of Doctor Who, but it doesn’t even truly serve its purpose within last week’s story. If the Doctor can cheat his own “fixed” death with a robot duplicate, there’s nothing final about a simple tombstone.

Barking Mad

September 4th, 2012 No comments

My viewing of Doctor Who‘s series 7 premiere, “Asylum of the Daleks,” was less than ideal. Remnants of Hurricane Isaac tumbled through Illinois that evening, intermittently knocking out my Dish Network signal. (All things considered, my Isaac-related inconvenience doesn’t rate.) The first two times I tried to watch, I missed large chunks of the middle third of the story. Fortunately, the 2am repeat came through fine, and I was able to fill in the blanks.

It made a lot more sense the third time. Though not as much as I would’ve liked.

Producer/writer Steven Moffat has a reputation for writing intricate, clockwork narratives, but for me, becoming showrunner for Doctor Who has thrown him off his game. In his effort to craft “timey-wimey,” paradoxical puzzles, he sometimes forgets the obvious.

To wit, the Daleks had created a planetary asylum for their most insane brethren.* When a crashing starship barreled through the facility’s force field, they were so terrified of the prospect of the inmates’ escape that they shanghaid the Doctor to “save” them.

Where were the only controls for the allegedly impenetrable force field? Inside the asylum. Because that’s what you do when you have a planet full of homicidal geniuses: give them the keys.

This won’t be the only thing that fails a simple test of logic. But more about that in the spoiler section.

However, before I get there, I will say that overall I enjoyed the episode. The scenes aboard the massive Dalek saucer and amidst the snow fields of the asylum planet (shot on location in Spain) gave it a grand feel. The exchange between the Doctor and the Parliament of the Daleks** was fascinating; I appreciate any attempt to make the Daleks more than merely lunatic conquerors. The dialogue crackled, especially that of the new gal, Os– wait…we’ll get to that.

The shout-out to various classic Who episodes were fun, of course, though anyone  hoping for a bit of action with the Special Weapons Dalek had to be disappointed. I liked that “intensive care” was reserved for the Daleks who’d survived their past encounters with the Doctor.***

The dreaded asylum itself seemed more like a haunted house walkthrough. With all of the vintage Daleks on display, I was reminded of my visit to the Doctor Who Experience. The scariest bit didn’t involve the pepperpots at all, it was the scene with the Dalekized zombies who forgot about dying.

Okay, at this point there’s not much I can write about this episode without getting into major spoiler territory. So, if you haven’t seen it, STOP READING NOW.

When Doctor Who was reintroduced in 2005, it centered largely around the lives of decidedly ordinary characters. Rose and her mom Jackie weren’t journalists, scientists or warriors, they were downtrodden women looking forward to little more than a lifetime of fish and chips. They were a safe point of entry for a mainstream audience who might be otherwise turned off by sonic screwdrivers and Cybermen. While the Doctor has claimed that he doesn’t “do domestic,” I think that these down-to-Earth aspects were responsible for much of the reboot’s early success. But the show ultimately wasn’t about their domestic travails; the doings at the Powell Estate were there mostly for contrast.

Much of “Asylum of the Daleks” revolved around the disintegrating marriage of Amy and Rory, the Doctor’s current travelling companions (and his in-laws, but that’s a long story). It was revealed that the reason Amy drove Rory away was because he wanted kids and she had been rendered infertile by the events of the past year (again, long story). So, rather than asking him what he thought about it, she made the decision for him and kicked him out. Speaking as someone who originally wanted kids and who (knowingly) married someone who couldn’t have them and didn’t want them, this gives me another reason to dislike Amy.****

Leaving aside real-life alternatives to infertility–adoption, surrogacy, accepting that you don’t get everything you want and that love is the thing that matters most–there’s the big, blue elephant in the room. The Ponds have a son-in-law with a magic box that can take them anywhere in time and space. Surely there’s a really awesome interspecies gynecological clinic out there somewhere.

The reality inhabited by these characters is one in which you can take a pill to destroy a terminal blood clot. In this very episode, there are “nanogenes” that can rewrite the DNA of any living or dead matter into a cybernetic organism complete with Dalek eyestalk.***** The problems that real-life marrieds have simply don’t apply here, so why are we wasting our time with them?

Now we come to the best thing about this episode, a gal named Oswin. She was played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, who earlier this year had been announced as the new companion that would be introduced in the upcoming Christmas episode. In a display of post-Twitter legerdemain, Moffat managed to keep her early appearance secret until airtime. And Coleman knocked it out of the cricket park in her first outing; fun, flirty and more than just a little bit sexy. Amy who?

Now, it’s unclear whether she was actually playing the companion-to-come here. Given that it turned out that she wasn’t really a smoking hot girl in a tight, red dress with a Carmen fixation,****** rather the maddest Dalek of the asylum, I’m thinking that there’s either some future timey-wimeyness in store, or else the Doctor’s new friend is going to have a hell of a time with stairs. At least she’ll never twist an ankle.

Perhaps we’ll be introduced to her distant ancestor or identical cousin Noswin. I kinda hope not, in that I really liked Oswin as presented. Though it would be awfully depressing to meet her knowing her eventual fate.

I do like where this episode ends, with the memory of the Doctor erased from the Daleks’ collective consciousness. Not only does it continue the idea of the Doctor lying low for a time, it allows for the potential of a different relationship between them when next they meet.

*When the Doctor inquires why the inmates aren’t simply exterminated, he’s told that the Daleks appreciate the divine beauty of their extreme hatred. The Dalek Prime Minister gets in a good dig when he suggests that this is the same reason they’ve never killed the Doctor.

**Really? The Daleks have developed democracy? DO-WE-HAVE-A-QUOR-UM?!?

***Okay, I know that the various reboots of reality have effectively rendered all attempts at reconciling past Doctor Who continuity pointless. But I thought that the Time War had retroactively removed all of the old-school Daleks from the universe. How is that these survivors of Kembel and Spiridon are still around? Not to mention the Dalek homeworld Skaro itself? (Granted, no one ever stated that Skaro was sealed inside the Time War as was the Time Lords’ planet Gallifrey, but it’s a reasonable inference.)

****Message to Amy: 2,000 YEARS WAITING OUTSIDE A BOX TRUMPS EVERYTHING.

*****And for Rassilon’s sake, let’s consider for a moment the ramifications of the Daleks having access to this technology. It’s game over for the rest of the cosmos; all the Daleks need do is seed these devices into the atmosphere of any planet they want to conquer. No exterminations required.

******Another thing that doesn’t make sense: why does everyone else hear Oswin as a woman? Are her delusions audible? And where did the recording of Carmen come from? Not from the Daleks, as it presumably wasn’t in their “pathweb.”

If You Keep Picking At It, It’s Going To Bleed

June 10th, 2012 No comments

My anticipation of the Alien prequel/not-a-prequel Prometheus was tempered by a nagging doubt. Did I really want to know more about the gigantic “space jockey” briefly glimpsed at the controls of the horseshoe-shaped vessel with its cargo of alien eggs? Much of what makes the first half of Alien so effective is its unfathomable otherworldliness. And yet, after five sequels of (mostly) diminishing returns, the only aspect of the Alien universe still worth exploring is surely this mysterious third race.

As information about the secretive Prometheus project trickled out, it was clear that–despite director Ridley Scott’s protests to the contrary–it really was an Alien prequel. The space jockeys and their horseshoe ship featured prominently in the commercials. And the spectacular crash scene seemed to promise that by the end of Prometheus the tableau would be in place for the later visit of the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo.

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. DO YOU WISH TO SELF-DESTRUCT? (Y/N)

Except…as the Onion’s A.V. Club points out, it drives right up to the edge and then veers off. This isn’t the same planet from Alien, even though it too orbits a giant, ringed world. And this isn’t the same ship, even if it looks identical and winds up in a similar state as the original derelict. It’s frustrating. If Prometheus truly wasn’t intended to set the table for Alien, then why does so much of it play out in exactly the manner one would expect from a direct prequel?*

These defeated expectations are only part of the reason I feel a bit let down by Prometheus. Some of this film’s mysteries seem less deliberately unexplained than not thought through. If the “Engineers” (the new name of the space jockeys) really were pointing us toward a specific star cluster, why was it one of their military bases and not their home? The Earth pictographs suggested a then-harmonious relationship between humans and their creators. If it was a trap from the get-go, why bother? Why not just drop a cargo of biogenetic death on us thousands of years before we achieved interstellar travel?

The actions of the scientific expedition were equally baffling. It’s one thing for the crew of a space tug to go around foolishly poking things with a stick, another thing entirely for a group of scientific experts. It’s not just that these people had never seen an Alien film, it’s that they lacked even a sensible hesitation about touching things that are literally oozing with dark portents. Look, I am not a biologist, but I’m pretty sure that if I encountered a snake with a vagina for a head that was rearing up and hissing, my first inclination would not be to try to pet it. And folks, just because the air is breathable does NOT mean that you remove your helmet and take in a big lungful of extraterrestrial pathogens. Really, these people simply could not leave shit alone.

I’m not going to be totally down on Prometheus. It was gorgeous to look at and full of foreboding.** The callbacks to the original Alien were appreciated.*** And Michael Fassbender was fascinating to watch as David the android. I’d likely see Prometheus 2 just for more of his character. But if you’re an Alien fan, temper your expectations and be prepared for a lot of idiotic behavior.

*I believe that the ties may have been much more explicit in early drafts. An alleged synopsis, leaked to the web and quickly denied by the studio, reads suspiciously like a rejected draft, going so far as to play up the “Paradise” angle that Ridley Scott has mentioned in recent interviews.

**So full of foreboding that it plays like the first half of Alien stretched out to feature length.

***The kidney bean-shaped corridors of the so-called “pyramid” recalled set designs from the original derelict ship. The pyramid itself appeared to be based on an H.R. Giger painting of an alien “egg silo” cut from Alien before filming took place. Oddly, it also resembled one of Giger’s designs for the aborted Dune movie of the 1970s.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: , ,

These Five Kids Walk Into A Cabin…

April 15th, 2012 No comments

The Cabin in the Woods, the newly-released movie co-written by producer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, is frustrating in that it both demands and defies discussion. Believe me, I very much want to dissect it, but like Fight Club the first rule of The Cabin in the Woods is that you do not talk about The Cabin in the Woods. The less you know the better.

So if you’re even thinking that you might see it–and if you’re at all a fan of horror films or even the idea of horror films, you should–log off the Internet right now and just go. We’ll catch up later.

(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

The Cabin in the Woods, from its generic title to its premise of five young people heading into the dark forest for a weekend of sin, sounds like every scary flick you’ve ever seen. Which is precisely the point.

But if you’ve seen any of its advertising you already know that there’s more going on. That’s not a spoiler. The very first scene features the office drones who are orchestrating the messy deaths of these doomed kids. That’s the what. The why is something else.

If this sounds more like the Scream franchise with its knowing winks at genre conventions, that’s closer to the truth. But not even Ghostface and friends are as “meta” as The Cabin in the Woods. This is a movie that wants to explain why those kids behave so stupidly and why we want to watch them die.

It’s worth saying that this is not all that frightening. Oh, there are jump scares and rushing torrents of blood, but as we start right off knowing that the scenario is artificial, it doesn’t grab you by the throat in the way that even the first Scream did. It’s okay, that’s not the goal.

I don’t want to oversell this as the best horror film ever. (“Apotheosis” is closer to the mark.) The characters are thin by design. The conclusions reached are not that deep. Still, it’s an experience I wholeheartedly recommend, and the sooner the better.

Okay, have you seen it yet? Good, because now I’m going to give away the whole thing. You have been warned.

(TOTAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

While there are plenty of obvious references to famous fright flicks–notably The Evil Dead and HellraiserThe Cabin in the Woods left me thinking of other possible influences. One was an old Doctor Who storyline called “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” in which the characters performed a never-ending cavalcade of deadly acts to appease an audience of evil gods. Here the suggestion is that the show has been going on since our world began, with movies about cannibal zombie rednecks only the latest iteration of our propensity for telling tales about the butchery of the young.

The Cabin in the Woods argues that we have become too inured to this sort of thing, and that perhaps it’s time to wash off the chalkboard and start fresh. Moments after the lead office worker remarks how he’s almost rooting for the spunky “virgin” to win, he’s obliviously popping the champagne in celebration as the monitors in the background show her being relentlessly attacked by a beartrap-wielding zombie giant.

There’s a boardgame called Betrayal at the House on the Hill in which the players enter a spooky mansion and start fiddling with stuff until they set off one of a myriad of random scenarios based on horror tropes. The Cabin in the Woods called to mind what would happen if the staff of Wolfram & Hart* sat down for a game of Betrayal. Sure enough, the halls would soon run red with their own blood.

The last 20 minutes of The Cabin in the Woods, in which literally all hell breaks loose, are monstrously entertaining. I want to go again right away just to get a better look at the vast menagerie of creatures slashing and swallowing the hapless salarymen. While the money shot of the movie might be the Cube-like image of the terrible underground zoo, my favorite moment is when all of those elevator doors open and every nightmare ever emerges.

*The demonic law firm seen in Whedon’s TV series Angel. Goddard contributed a number of scripts for that show.

 

That’s A Load Of Sith

March 1st, 2012 No comments

Whatever I may feel about the prequel trilogy and the ancillary stories that have clogged the arteries of Star Wars fandom since the publishing of Timothy Zahn’s post-Return of the Jedi novel Heir to the Empire back in 1991, I’ll admit that that particular fictional world continues to fascinate me. So it was that I was intrigued by James Luceno’s recent hardcover novel, Darth Plagueis. It details the backstory of the Dark Lord described by Chancellor Palpatine to young Anakin in the movie Revenge of the Sith.

While the movie only implied that Plagueis was the former master of Darth Sidious (Palpatine’s own Sith secret identity), the novel promised to make their relationship clear. I hoped that it might also clarify one of the nagging questions at the heart of the story, the matter of Anakin Skywalker’s parentage.

The first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, introduced a number of controversial elements. (I mean, besides Jar Jar.) Chief among these were the so-called “midi-chlorians,” quasi-scientific fictional organelles similar to our own mitochondria. They were said to provide a link to the mystical Force from which both the Jedi and Sith warriors drew their powers. Furthermore, it was suggested that these microscopic organisms had somehow impregnated Anakin’s mother, thus fulfilling the prophecy of a Chosen One who would bring “balance to the Force,” whatever that meant. (You know, I’m a little embarrassed just typing out all of this.)

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine’s retelling of “The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis” included a reference to the Dark Lord’s ability to influence midi-chlorians not only to hold back death, but to create life. Many viewers inferred that the off-screen Plagueis might have astrally knocked-up Anakin’s mom as part of the decades-long scheme to subvert the Republic and its Jedi protectors.

Here was Lucas doubling down on some of the sillier bits of The Phantom Menace. And yet I was kinda willing to go along with it, if only because it made the Sith Lords’ plan that much more devious. I liked the idea that Plagueis might have taken advantage of the old Jedi prophecy to plant an unwitting mole in their midst.

So it was that I voluntarily dove into 368 pages’ worth of Sithtastic history.

Darth Plagueis, the novel, is the literary equivalent of spackling. It’s an attempt to tie together disparate story strands from various Star Wars spin-offs and explain what was going on behind the scenes in the lead-up to the Clone Wars. I’m not well-versed in many of the comics and novels, but even I recognized elements from Heir to the Empire, Shadows of the Empire, the current story arc of the Clone Wars TV show, and even the old Droids Saturday morning cartoon. Passages of the book read like an accounting of random Wookieepedia entries. An example:

If any Jedi were present, they would be sitting in contemplation, as Maul knew he should be doing, as well. Or if not meditating, then completing work on the graciously curved speeder bike he had named Bloodfin or the droid called C-3PX, or perfecting his skill at using the wrist-mounted projectile launcher know as the lanvarok.

Personages such as Wilhuff Tarkin, Jorus C’baoth and Mother Talzin are name-checked, but play no actual role in events. An enormous cast of characters exist on the periphery, there mostly to suggest that one is reading the Grand Unified Theory of Star Wars.

As befits a story set in the decades before the prequel trilogy, there’s a lot of politicking and discussion of interstellar commerce. If you ever wanted to know more about the taxation of trade routes cited in the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, here’s your chance.

There’s also a surprising amount of gore for a universe in which people usually fall to cleanly-cauterized lightsaber wounds. Young Palpatine (no first name, he’s already that much of a douchebag) goes all serial killer on his family on his path to the Dark Side, and it’s pretty intense for a tie-in to what George Lucas keeps insisting is a property targeting 10-year-olds.

Your enjoyment of Darth Plagueis may depend on how much you like spending time around the unrepentantly evil. The Sith philosophy at times seems to be an especially noxious variant of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. But while the Dark Lords insist that they merely view the Force from a different perspective than the Jedi, they delight in cruelty. There are good guys in the book, but they’re off on the sidelines having adventures while our protagonists are front and center kicking puppies.

One objection that I have to the book is that some major events occur off the page. Luceno devotes an entire chapter to Plagueis’ hunt for those Force-sensitive individuals that his own former Sith Master had been grooming as potential disciples–a narrative dead-end–yet tosses away other actions of far more significance. More on this in a few moments.

Okay, I’m being hard on this book–which, objectively, is not very well written–but I won’t go as far as to say that I didn’t find it worthwhile. I came for the hole-filling, and enough holes were filled to leave me satisfied overall. But to talk about that I’m going to have to get into big-time spoilers. If you’re adverse to these, skip the following and rejoin me for the final paragraph.

One notable revelation is that Darth Plagueis is still alive and active throughout most of the events of The Phantom Menace. Whereas the movie tells us flat out that Darth Sidious and his own apprentice Darth Maul are the only two Sith Lords, Plagueis is there as well, observing events right up to the final few minutes. I suppose that this bit of retconning doesn’t really change anything, but I found it interesting nonetheless. (Sidious’ murder of his Master just prior to his own appointment as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic is a good scene, and I could easily hear actor Ian McDiarmid reading the dialogue in my head.)

The bigger deal was the long-awaited answer to the nature of Anakin’s baby daddy, and here’s where having things occur off-the-page left me confused. When Plagueis and Sidious learn of Anakin and his alleged virgin birth nine years earlier, both are shocked. Plagueis rushes (too late) to intercept the boy:

He had to see this Anakin Skywalker for himself; had to sense him for himself. He had to know if the Force had struck back again, nine years earlier, by conceiving a human being to restore balance to the galaxy.

Problem was that I couldn’t remember just what was the significance of nine years ago. Thanks to Wookieepedia, I found it buried back on page 280: a single paragraph devoted to Plagueis’ off-page attempt to influence the creation of a Force-sensitive being. The gist of this thread, apparently, is that Palpatine’s bedtime story from Revenge of the Sith wasn’t the whole tale. Plagueis didn’t slip a Force-roofie into Momma Skywalker’s blue milk; Anakin Skywalker’s conception wasn’t the direct result of the Sith’s machinations. Instead, he managed to piss off the Force, which in turn reacted by giving the universe actor Jake (“Yippee!”) Lloyd.

Got it? ‘Cause I didn’t. It might have helped had this plot point been treated as prominently as, say, Plagueis hunting down a Force-using gambler.

So, to sum up: Darth Plagueis is a book for hardcore fans only. If you want to know about Palpatine’s youthful troubles, or just who in the heck was Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, pick up a copy. But if you don’t know Hath Monchar from Gardulla the Hutt, you’re better off sticking to the films.

A Bloody Good Time

August 21st, 2011 No comments

Movie remakes. Like trailers that give away the plot, they’ve been around about as long as has the cinema itself, but people still love to bitch about them. They’re a symptom of Hollywood’s lack of new ideas, they besmirch the good names of the originals, and blahbity blahbity blah blah. Blah.

Me, I’ve made my peace with remakes. In the world of theatre, no one bats an eye when someone mounts a new production of Othello or Our Town. There’s an appeal in seeing how a fresh cast and director interpret a familiar work. So, what’s so awful about someone taking another crack at a decades-old flick?

1985’s Fright Night was a minor classic and a clear antecedent to the monsters-in-suburbia comedy-thriller Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Chris Sarandon* played Jerry Dandridge, a centuries-old vampire who moved in next door to a single mom and her teenage son, Charlie. To combat the menace, the boy called on the help of Peter Vincent, a washed-up actor and alleged undead-slayer stuck introducing old monster movies on the local UHF TV station.

Fright Night was a great deal of fun, but it’s very much a product of its era. It’s not just the disco scene, either. Horror hosts have all but disappeared from the airwaves–Chicago’s Svengoolie a famous exception–and the sort of Famous Monsters Generation kid personified by Charlie Brewster now would be obsessing about ’80s slashers rather than ’60s Hammer Films bloodsuckers.

The redux Fright Night changes some elements and ditches others. Gone is Jerry’s ghoulish live-in handyman, as well as most of the gay subtext of the original. Peter Vincent is now a Criss Angel-like Vegas magician with a massive collection of supernatural memorabilia. And Charlie himself has abandoned his nerdery; it’s his former friend Ed who is monster-obsessed and convinced of Jerry’s undeadedness.

For the most part, the changes work. While it’s somewhat convenient that Charlie just happens to live within driving distance of a man with an entire armory of vampire-fighting hardware, it’s no more unlikely than having a Peter Cushing-level actor slumming on local TV. I did miss the slow build of the original; in the new version Ed just shows up and tells Charlie that his neighbor is a vicious beast.

The script is by Marti Noxon, who was the showrunner for the Buffy TV series during its most controversial run of episodes and therefore should be something of a red flag. But honestly, I think Noxon nailed the frothy fun of the original Fright Night while allowing for plenty of bloodletting. Make no mistake, jokey tone or not, there’s a torrent of the red stuff on the screen.

I liked that the movie subverted some genre tropes. There’s far less of the “nobody will believe me” schtick than usual. And I was glad to see the old “vampires can’t enter a house without an invitation” wheeze addressed in the way it never was in seven years of Buffy.

David (Doctor Who) Tennant plays Peter Vincent as a cross between the Tenth Doctor and Jack Sparrow, and his manic energy is matched by Colin Ferrell’s creepy, menacing intensity as his vampiric foe. Anton Yelchin, who was an adorable Chekov in the Star Trek remake, makes a good Charlie. His girlfriend Amy is played by a young actress with the highly unfortunate name of Imogen Poots.

Also unfortunate is that it’s unlikely we’ll see the further adventures of Peter Vincent. The movie took a stake to the heart at the box office this past weekend. It seems that vampires are only a draw if they’re shiny abstinence metaphors. Not even Colin Ferrell in a wife-beater and David Tennant in next-to-nothing were enough to attract a sizable audience.

Too bad, because the new Fright Night is a worthy remake and a heckuva lotta fun.

*Sarandon apparently makes a cameo in the remake, but I somehow missed him.

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Damn You, James Franco! You Blew It Up!

August 7th, 2011 No comments

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching so many would-be blockbuster movies, it’s that an August release is usually an evil portent. If a studio is confident in a popcorn flick, they won’t wait until the summer is winding down to unleash it.

So why is it that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is pretty damned good?

It seemed that Planet of the Apes, the original sci-fi film franchise, was dead and gone. Tim Burton, the go-to director when you’re looking for someone to entirely miss the point, had taken a shovel to its simian skull in his 2001 remake. Which made it a bit of a surprise when Fox announced Rise of the Apes.*

Rise is simultaneously a sequel and a prequel, a remake and a reboot. It covers roughly the same ground as that of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which an intelligent ape named Caesar led a monkey revolt and set in motion the apocalyptic world visited four years earlier by Charlton Heston. However, it’s clearly establishing its own continuity, substituting genetic experimentation as the rationale for its evolved primates rather than the time-travel paradox of the original Apes cycle.

Renaissance man James Franco takes time out from his packed schedule** to appear as the scientist whose desire to cure his father (John Lithgow) of Alzheimer’s blinds him to ethical lapses in the creation of an intelligence-booster. A virus that makes super-smart monkeys? What could possibly go worng?

Of course, the real star of the show is Andy Serkis, who cements his reputation as this generation’s dot-covered Olivier in his motion-captured performance as Caesar. I make fun, but it really is a remarkable fusion of acting and technology. Whatever pathos the film has is entirely on his furry shoulders. A sideways glance here, a head tilt there, and the audience is under his spell, mentally urging the apes to win out over those horrid humans.

For a film that excels in large part due to its measured pace and its wordless passages–particularly in the primate sanctuary/prison section of the narrative–it’s decidedly less subtle in its frequent homages to the 1968 Apes. Some likely go unnoticed by all but the most devoted Ape-ophiles (for example, the orangutan named Maurice in honor of Maurice “Dr. Zaius” Evans), but when Draco Malfoy Tom Felton shouts “It’s a madhouse!” it’s a bit too on-the-nose. The most groan-inducing indulgence unfortunately undercuts what should have been the movie’s biggest shock. (I won’t give it away, but you’ll know it when you hear it.) I see what they were doing there, trying to turn one of the iconic moments of the original Apes on its head, but it’s just a quote too far.

Still, I don’t want to dwell on the occasional misstep. Rise is overall a very good installment of the venerable Apes series, and an entertaining, touching film in its own right. I suspect that we haven’t heard the last of Andy Serkis’ Caesar.

*I believe that it was of a reflection of the sorry state of the Apes franchise that the film was originally planned without a proper “Planet of the” title.

**During production, Franco achieved two more graduate degrees, composed an epic poem about the invention of the Linotype and created an Apes-based line of frozen confections. He is currently writing his 11th Master’s thesis and building a Mars rocket.

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When Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield

July 25th, 2011 No comments

I’ve always been a DC Comics kinda guy. Growing up, I preferred the square-jawed do-goodery of Superman and Green Lantern to Marvel Comics’ angsty superheroes. To this day, the sum total of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man issues I’ve read could be counted on the fingers of a single Infinity Gauntlet.

And that is what I find so frustrating about the current state of the superhero genre on film. It used to be that DC–which squats under the same corporate umbrella as Warner Bros.–enjoyed blockbuster adaptations of its books while Marvel suffered the indignities of grade-Z filmmakers.* Now DC founders, with flagship characters such as Wonder Woman and the Flash stuck in development hell, and the long-in-the-works Green Lantern feature film seen as a flop. Meanwhile, Marvel is engaged in an audacious, multi-year plan which will culminate in 2012’s The Avengers.

Some have criticized the Marvel movies for sacrificing too much of their own identities in service of the so-called “Avengers Initiative,” but I personally cannot help but be impressed with the way that the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America flicks have formed a single meta-franchise. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s all-star team-up.

In general, Marvel has been having a heck of a year at the cineplex. Thor was an entertaining summer opener which saw director Kenneth Branagh (Kenneth frickin’ Branagh!) reproduce comics artist Jack Kirby’s designs with extreme fidelity. Excellent central performances and a cool ’60s vibe made First Class arguably the second-best installment of the X-Men series. And Captain America may have been the most entertaining of them all.

Granted that Captain America was in the dead-center of my wheelhouse, what with its ’40s pulp feel and its awe-shucks heroics. I love this brand of period adventure.

Setting events during World War II was the best possible move. Not only was it faithful to the character’s idiom, it made the his intrinsic, over-the-top patriotism less risible for a modern audience. Even within the context of the story, the Captain America concept and costume was initially treated as ridiculous. It’s only Cap’s own earnestness and bravery that made it laudable.

Though I’m not much of a Marvel buff, I know enough about that particular universe to have gotten a kick out of appearances by such characters as villainous scientist Armin Zola and derby-wearing soldier “Dum Dum” Dugan.** It was a hoot to see the fictional terrorist organization Hydra in action, complete with its trademark salute, “Cut off a limb and two more shall take its place! Hail Hydra!”

Captain America wasn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it was one of the most enjoyable two-fisted, Nazi-fighting escapades I’ve seen. And when Cap joins up with Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye next summer, this staunch DC Comics fan will be there for opening weekend.

*The nadir was the 1994 version of The Fantastic Four. It cost a mere $1.5 million and was made for the sole purpose of retaining movie rights to the property.

**Though I mostly associate Dugan with his Godzilla-fighting days.