Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Strike Three, You're Out!

Okay, so... "Wonder Woman".

First they signed up Allan Heinberg but revealed (months later) that his would only be a five-issue run, followed by another five-issue run by Jodi Picoult.

Then they put Donna Troy in as New Wonder Woman for a grand total of one issue before switching things back and exposing Diana's "secret identity".

And now, the final nail of the coffin: it's going bimonthly as of issue 4.

You know, I wasn't looking for reasons to drop the book, but if DC is so adamant to just drop them in my lap...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beowulf Had It All Wrong

Matt Wagner's "Grendel" is blowing my mind so hard my neighbors are getting migraines. :)

I'm not done with it yet - just finished "God and the Devil" last night - so I'll probably have more to say about it later, but my God, it's such a sublime, intricate work of literature. Why don't more people know about this? Why hasn't the entire saga been collected in TPBs and reprinted and set up on the top shelf with "Watchmen", "V For Vendetta" and "Sandman"?

Because IMO, it's that good.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Game Review: Phantasy Star

At the suggestion of kazekage, I picked up Sega's "Phantasy Star" series a few weeks ago, and completed the first game yesterday.

The big surprise for me, right on the intro screen, was the fact that the main protagonist of "Phantasy Star" is a woman. Bear in mind that this was made in 1987: sure, Samus Aran pulled her big reveal the same year, but for a woman to brandish a sword and lead a team in a role-playing game? Practically unheard of, and it's not exactly common today either. To top it all off, Alis Landale is assigned a motive traditionally reserved for male heroes - vengeance. That's a nice bit of gender equality where I didn't expect to find it, so props for the forward thinking, Sega. Of course, all this is a bit diluted by the fact that Alis is practically a non-entity - characterization throughout is at a bare minimum, and party members barely interact.

That's more or less my take on the game: a bit of a see-saw between innovation and formula. The plot is textbook RPG - evil king, band of rebels, dark spirit behind it all - but the story (such as it is) plays out on three different planets, which is definitely new for me. Gameplay is similarly hit-and-miss: the typical overhead view is combined with a three-dimensional first-person perspective for exploring dungeons, and that's a nice way of alternating styles to keep things interesting. But the EXP system is absolutely horrific, because the game starts you off at a level with stats below the most basic combat situation. Consequently, you have to spend a lot of time getting into random fights for EXP, right at the beginning of the game (thank God for turbo speed). And that's just so you can set foot outside the first town - every character that joins you later starts at level 1 and needs to be beefed up as well. It probably extended the gameplay for another few days, but didn't strike me as contributing anything particularly useful to the experience.

The music is above average; most of the themes are a bit shrill and tend to grate after a while, but I loved the Towers melody and the Final Boss track is catchy too.

Well, obviously there's no comparison to today's RPGs; it doesn't even rate with the RPGs of yesterdecade. However, once you jump the hurdles, "Phantasy Star" does prove entertaining on some level of "retro gaming", enough so that I fully intend to pursue the sequels and see what happens next.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Movie Review: Silent Hill

When I first learned about the "Silent Hill" series, I was quite intrigued by the general premise; unfortunately, the first game pretty much killed that stone-dead. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but when your everyman protagonist faces and kills an enormous split-mouthed lizard monster, he should be the slightest. bit. perturbed. I know I would be. That, and my less-than-adequate skills at third-person shooters, led me to stop halfway through the first game.

I was nevertheless looking forward to the film adaptation, even though successful game-to-movie translations are extremely rare: amidst such horrors as "Doom", "Mortal Kombat", "Wing Commander", "Street Fighter" and "Alone In The Dark", one should feel extremely lucky to find "Tomb Raider" or "Resident Evil" (the originals, of course; video game films seem even more suspectible to the Sucky Sequels rule than most genres).

Fortunately, "Silent Hill" turned out rather well; better, perhaps, than the games it's based on. I think part of it has to do with the difference between active and passive participation: as a gamer, you can't really afford to take in the environment because you're too busy running/fighting for your life. And a big part of the Silent Hill experience is the town itself and the horrors within. It's much easier to appreciate the intense atmosphere when you have the luxury of watching things unfold.

Plot-wise, the movie offers a relatively streamlined story (certainly in comparison to the jumble of mismatched threads in the first game) - Rose DaSilva takes her adopted daughter Sharon to Silent Hill, to investigate Sharon's mysterious connection to the town. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding with a police officer results in a car crash, and when Rose regains consciousness Sharon has disappeared into the mists of the town. Meanwhile, Rose's husband Chris tries to follow his family only to end up on a completely different track (both figuratively and literally). There are quite a few twists and turns along the way, and it all comes together very nicely - Chris' subplot seems pointless at first until it suddenly, chillingly underscores Rose's situation, and that's the sort of careful thinking I find extremely praiseworthy.

One major difference between the games and the film is how the backstory/mythology is used: while the games dabble in various vague references to gods and demons and fake demons and such, the film chooses to offer a scenario that's much more heavily rooted in concepts we as Western viewers can understand. As such, it's easier to comprehend, and perhaps more plausible because of that. I largely approve of the decision to ultimately explain what's going on in Silent Hill - the games went the other way by emphasizing the utter, inexplicable chaos, and that works when you have a series of open-ended narratives, but for a self-contained story it's often best to go with partial or full disclosure.

The acting is pretty consistently good across the board - Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden (Rose and Cybil Bennett, respectively) don't have that much to do by virtue of their role requirements, but Jodelle Ferland is amazing as Alessa/The Demon, and Alice Krige steals the show as the intimidating Christabella.

I don't know if "Silent Hill" can really be considered a successful adaptation as such, given the liberties it takes with its source material. But it stands as a very good and very atypical horror movie, and that counts for a lot.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Freaks and Geeks

I can see why this series didn't last longer than a season - it's brilliant and subtle and masterfully written, but it could be bloody depressing at times. And I'll grant that's more the result of my generic expectations: much as I despise the teens-on-prozac model you'd find in such travesties as "Saved By The Bell" or "Sweet Valley High", it's so pervasive in all modes of fiction that a genuinely different entry, such as "Freaks and Geeks", threw me for a loop.

What I like here is that "Freaks and Geeks" doesn't purport to sell that same idealized fantasy of high school life, but it doesn't hit the other extreme by depicting Kindergangstas either. Rather, the show offers a surprisingly mimetic representation of reality: relationships are awkward, nobody sticks entirely to their stereotypes, the authority figures aren't infallible or inherently malevolent, and even the most sympathetic characters are capable of terrible errors in judgment. There's no unifying quality among the cast of characters - some may share similar qualities but refrain from being completely interchangable. It's refreshing to see such an honest approach to the subject matter - depictions of high school life tend to skew rather wildly depending on the creative team's agenda.

The seasonal arc largely revolves around Lindsay Weir's quest for identity: as the series begins, she finds herself in the final stages of a transformation that has moved her from overachieving geek to fringe misfit. But there's no rigid linearity to her journey: at one point she finds her situation to be unbearable, and tries to go back to what she used to be, only to realize she'll never be happy playing that role. The catalyst of Lindsay's change is never really explored, though her grandmother's recent death is cited as a possibility; one of the more interesting moments in the series comes when the hilariously pure Millie (a former friend of Lindsay's) loses her dog, and starts playing out the exact same process Lindsay underwent. Lindsay finds herself desperate to stop Millie from throwing her life away - a reflection of the protagonist's own internal conflicts.

Of course, Lindsay isn't the only one who goes through a developmental process: though the main characters are initially divided into two groups (the aforementioned "freaks" and the "geeks"), they quickly become individualized, rounded-out and very well-characterized. It really becomes the story of a group of people, not labels with random "pretty faces" attached to them.

I'm not quite sure why the series is set a decade earlier, given that the main themes haven't exactly gone out of style; while it adds a quaint little anachronistic touch to the setting, it doesn't seem like the '80s are used in the way that "That '70s Show" made use of its respective era.

But any such quibble is dwarfed by the sheer high quality of this series - its subtleties, its wit, its authenticity. This is the high school drama.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: The Prisoner

Forget head trips, this was like watching Alzheimer's in fast-forward.

"The Prisoner" turned out to be of the type of surrealism I don't enjoy: very odd things happen and many mysteries are built up, but no explanations are ever given. Indeed, no one ever intended to answer any questions. I have difficulty appreciating that kind of abstractism; it leaves me feeling like there's no anchor, no starting point through which I can interpret the weirder aspects of the story. I also find it to be a bit sloppy: anyone can just throw out inexplicable plot devices with the vague assurance that really, it'll make sense if you think about it.

But if I'm expected to devote so much time and energy to achieve basic comprehension, there has to be some kind of hook. And what "The Prisoner" does is create the opposite effect: complete detachment. Number Six isn't a particularly sympathetic protagonist - he might have been, if we knew a little bit more about him, but he's basically a cipher throughout the series. The viewer is basically put in a position where you know nothing and understand nothing... in which case, there's not much reason to keep watching.

To make things worse, the level of incoherence gradually increases, with the final episode resembling a twisted brainchild of David Lynch and Chris Claremont. I must have paused and rewinded five or six times trying to understand what the hell was going on, and why everyone suddenly contracted Tourette's and started dancing in circles. Maybe someone pulled a Brandon Lee and put real nerve gas in the canisters or something, I don't know.

Just not for me, then. I don't mind a bit of work when being confronted with an unorthodox story, so long as I'm given a valid reason to press on. Sadly, "The Prisoner" offers none.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Ultraviolet

I stumbled onto this British production purely by accident - compared to most of the other series on my summer list, it's rather low-profile. It's also quite short-lived: only six episodes were filmed, though this seems to be deliberate since the loose ends that remain aren't the type that require further closure.

Detective Michael Colefield's life gets turned upside-down when his best friend disappears, and reemerges as a blood-drinking fiend. Michael (played by the very attractive Jack Davenport) is then drafted into a covert organization that hunts these creatures, dubbed "Code Five" (the Roman numeral, of course, being V). Unofficially, they're simply called "leeches".

Well, it's vampires, obviously. But that specific term is never used by any character, at any point in the series. This indicates three qualities that, in my opinion, set "Ultraviolet" apart from its peers. First, it refuses to spell anything out. Michael only understands what happened to his friend by assembling clues, and the viewer must do the same - this is where "Supernatural" and "Charmed" would frequently go wrong, with the constant doses of exposition to explain the monster's M.O. and weaknesses. Second, the supernatural context is stripped away in favor of a largely scientific approach. Reactions to crosses and holy water, for example, are psychosomatic rather than instruments of divine will. It's a bit similar to Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend", which also demystified vampirism through modern technology. But in Matheson's story, there was never any question that these creatures were evil - and "Ultraviolet" makes no such concession. The third quality is that we're gradually called to question whether Michael's on the right side: is this a legitimate war or a modern re-enactment of the Inquisition? Are vampires really a threat, or has the Church found a new scapegoat? You're kept guessing until the very end.

Due to the obvious limitations, the main cast isn't explored at any great length, but that actually works out here: just as the conflict with the vampires is shrouded in mystery, so too are the people Michael works with. Angela and Vaughan have edited backstories that unravel towards the end, and Pearse is a complete enigma. We don't even know the size of the organization or who else works for it, but these are things we're not supposed to know anyway, since our point of view is attached to Michael's and he's the new guy.

What I find so appealing about "Ultraviolet" is its sophistication, the fact that it doesn't dumb anything down and doesn't shoot for a low common denominator. Granted, that's probably why it didn't last more than six episodes, but those six make for pretty good TV.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Here Comes The Bride, If Only She'd Died

Paul O'Brien delivers a scathing criticism of the Black Panther/Storm wedding as a gimmick stunt:

Jeff Lester over at "Savage Critic" takes a much more feministic and character-centric approach, which both surprises and delights me: "Say what you will about Chris Claremont, but for many years (before the psychic-rape fixation really kicked in) he made a African (and American) woman a popular figure in a genre that didn't exactly boast a surplus of such characters (or a surplus of such readers, for that matter) and she commanded, for quite a while, a lot of dignity and respect. And say what you will about Reginald Hudlin, but in making Storm a perfect mate for the Black Panther--she's now a princess, she now has family, she now has a love of her life for which she's always pined--he's stripped the character of anything recognizable apart from superpowers and physical appearance. [Diana notes: "Yeah, and most of her clothes have disappeared too."] Feminists looking for examples of the whole 'marriage as slavery' argument will find a lot of interesting metatext in this issue as, despite Storm being a popular character in the most popular comic book of the last thirty years and the Panther being a cool character who can barely keep a book for the last six, the achievements bandied about by the BET presenters (and what a creepily self-serving plug that is, coming from the President of Entertainment for BET) are nearly all the Panther's, and all of the famous friends--'Reed and Sue Richards, Captain America, Iron Man'--are the Panther's, as well as it being the Panther's rules by which they marry, the Panther's country, the Panther's god which Ororo must appease, etc., etc., etc. In short, the book is creepy, cynical, self-serving, patriarchal and--seeing at it forgets that Ororo already received the approval of the Panther God in that recent X-Men Annual that ties into this story--sloppy. No, sir, I didn't like it. It was Crap.."

Bravo, boys. Bravo.