Posted without comment:
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Another "almost-but-not-quite" effort by Israeli filmmaker Eitan Fox, who - bless his little activist heart - keeps bringing up social issues in the most anvilicious and preachy ways imaginable.
Fox's movies are particularly frustrating, though, because he has a great knack for creating sympathetic and believable characters, and he always starts off so well, but his three most noteworthy movies - "The Bubble", "Walk on Water" and "Yossi and Jagger" - all implode during the final act, collapsing under the weight of the Issues (and I use that term in the Winickian Beat-You-With-A-Stick-Until-You-Get-It sense here) piled onto them.
The titular Bubble refers to Shenkin, a small area of Tel-Aviv where teenagers spend their time totally isolated from reality. This is something Fox actually depicts very well: Noam, Yali and Lulu see themselves as activists, lobbying to support the Palestinian cause and the desire for peace, but they don't actually do anything beyond staging raves which only they and their friends attend. This isn't to say that they're insincere, far from it - they just have no idea what they're talking about, because they're cut off from the real world.
The trouble starts when Ashraf, a Palestinian from Nablus, penetrates the Bubble by falling in love with Noam. It's a doomed relationship, of course - Ashraf finds acceptance and comfort in Tel-Aviv, but he doesn't belong there and he knows it, and Fox is basically using this as a vehicle to blame society for putting that wall up between them. There's no way Noam and Ashraf can have a happy ending, through no fault of their own.
Now, if that were the sum total of the plot, "The Bubble" would've actually turned out to be a much stronger movie. The problem is that, as with his previous films, the third act and the climax veer almost completely away from what had been going on up to that point. For most of the movie, we're concerned not just with Noam and Ashraf but with the colorful and interesting secondary characters (just what was Golan's deal anyway?), and suddenly we're moving into political tensions and suicide bombers and characters making decisions that don't really gel with what they'd been doing before.
I can sort of see Fox's point here - bursting our own "bubble" by interrupting the love story with some harsh reality - but while his social agendas are admirable, the resulting thud as you're beaned in the head with a bag full of Issue Bricks only leaves you with a migraine. Once the storyline turns to Ashraf's sister and her terrorist husband, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted to fast-forward through that part: again, Fox does such good work with the set-up, it makes the eventual derailing all the more annoying.
That said, I have to give the man props for finally overcoming a specific stumbling block: I'd always felt that "Walk on Water" and "Yossi and Jagger" lacked any kind of emotional impact at the end, because the Issues ended up pushing the characters to the wayside, so when they do reach some kind of psychological/dramatic climax, you don't much care anymore. But "The Bubble" ends with an especially poignant flashback narrated by Noam, and... I don't know, I thought it was genuinely touching. As though, for once, Fox managed to let the characters dig themselves out of the Issue Pit just long enough for one last glimpse.
And that'll do, I suppose. That'll do.
The name pretty much says it all: "Enchanted" is an adorable Disney film that may not breach any standards of cinematic excellence, but is nevertheless a solid, entertaining movie and a great way to spend a few hours.
I think what I liked most about "Enchanted" is the way it plays with the fairy tale formulas. Unlike the "Shrek" movies, which had fairy tale characters responding to their environment with realistic perspectives, "Enchanted" drops your stereotypical naive songbird, vapid prince and evil witch right into the heart of New York City (a transition that also moves the film from animation to live-action). The twist is that they arrive with their native qualities intact, so when Giselle, our Snow White-esque heroine, starts singing, animals respond as they do in her homeland... except, since she's in New York, she gets cockroaches, rats and pigeons rather than deer, bluebirds and chipmunks. And when Prince Edward valiantly slays a "steel beast" with his sword, he has to deal with a pissed-off bus driver.
I also appreciate the fact that the relationship between fantasy and reality is a two-way thing; the "Shrek" films were, in my opinion, wholly iconoclastic in that, by design, Shrek and his companions are always overturning and lampooning the age-old shlock Disney's been foisting on us for decades. But "Enchanted" takes a different approach: yes, we're certainly meant to find Edward's empty-headed preening amusing, and Giselle's blind faith in true love and innate goodness get her into plenty of trouble... but on the other hand, urban characters such as Robert, Morgan and Nancy don't really benefit from their realistic, sophisticated points of view. These are people who've taken practicality to its extreme, and find themselves stuck because of that choice.
It's rare to find a movie that doesn't ask you to choose sides in an ideological conflict: "Lord of the Rings" is pretty strongly biased against industry, and I can't see anyone agreeing with the Fairy Godmother that Shrek doesn't deserve a happy ending just because he's an ogre. "Enchanted" manages to pull off a nice balance between the two worlds it depicts, all the more impressive given that it's a Disney film.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
I may earn the wrath of my peers for saying this, but I'm not particularly fond of "The Lord of the Rings". By which I mean Tolkien's novels, because I do enjoy the Peter Jackson films despite their numerous flaws. But I read Tolkien's original trilogy once and never felt any compulsion to repeat the experience.
I'll give the man credit where it's due: yes, in many ways "The Lord of the Rings" is the seminal fantasy text. It's also extremely long-winded, remarkably obsessed with minutiae (is there any particular reason I need to know the entire genealogy of a tertiary character?), it's horrendously gender-imbalanced even for a pre-feminist work, it features massive tangents completely unrelated to the main thrust of the narrative (to this day, I have yet to be convinced that the Tom Bombadil section is of any relevance at all), and it commits dramatic self-sabotage at practically every turn. This was something Peter Jackson actually improved on: it's much more climactic to see Boromir's last stand against the Uruk-Hai, rather than be told about it after the fact.
So, all in all, I prefer Peter Jackson's interpretation of the text to the text itself. Granted, said interpretation has its own flaws:
And I'm not even going to talk about the subtext:
But in terms of plot, dialogue, pacing, characterization and so on, Jackson's contributions only elevate the source material.
And yet, paradoxically, I find that I'm quite partial to "The Silmarillion", a pseudo-Biblical novel pieced together by Christopher Tolkien after his father's death. "The Silmarillion" details the creation of Middle-Earth and the formative events which take place in the pre-history of "Lord of the Rings". Oddly enough, the fact that "The Silmarillion" is a patchwork text sewn together from the fragments of Tolkien's notes seems to make it more readable than Tolkien's would-be masterpiece itself. Whereas "The Lord of the Rings" is frighteningly overextended as a quest narrative, the structural scope of "The Silmarillion" allows for simultaneous exploring of the macro (cosmic wars between good and evil) and micro (the tragic tale of Turin Turambar) levels. That may in fact be what makes "The Silmarillion" so much more engaging to me than its predecessor - the fact that it's able to tell all these different stories without feeling like it's straying from the one it's supposed to be telling (well, that and the fact that unlike Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings", Morgoth is an active antagonist who actually participates in the story, and that goes a long way).
This is all a very long pre-amble to what I'm actually reviewing, "The Children of Hurin". It's basically the complete version of a fragment originally presented in "The Silmarillion", expanding one of the sub-stories - the tale of Turin Turambar, a tragic hero in the ancient Greek tradition. Tolkien the younger has done an excellent job of combining the text originally featured in "The Silmarillion" with expanded material both drawn from Tolkien's unfinished notes and from his own imagination as well: the result is a narrative that reads well and presents a consistent, enjoyable fantasy tale that stands on its own, something accessible to people who enjoyed the movies but find the heavy, laborous reading of the original novel too daunting - "The Children of Hurin" offers an alternative glimpse at Middle-Earth's pre-narrative history. Not just for Tolkienites!
I really should've liked this one a bit more than I did.
"Empress" is a quasi-fictional autobiography in which the author, Shan Sa, attempts to reconstruct the life story of Wu Zetian, the only woman ever to rule China as emperor. Now, Wu is a controversial figure: on the one hand, she was - by most accounts - a scheming, manipulative bitch who could be quite brutal when she needed to be, and for a very long time she was held up as an example of how women can't handle power (because, as America has proven so nicely over the last eight years, men always do a bang-up job in the driver's seat). But on the other hand, the fact that she managed to achieve the impossible, especially in a culture so strongly oriented around tradition, is noteworthy, and there's a case to be made that her more extreme actions were a product of (and response to) her environment.
We'll never know if that's true of the real Wu or not, but I imagine that'd be a good starting point for a sympathetic depiction. Unfortunately, Shan Sa's version of Wu isn't very sympathetic. In fact, it's a bit difficult to know where Sa stands with regards to Wu at all because, having adopted Wu's identity (the novel is written in first-person), what Sa actually gives us is a thoroughly detached narrative, obsessed with lists and names and ice-cold, almost robotic categorization. She never really gets into Wu's head, her thoughts and feelings; Wu herself is almost a bystander in her own story.
Now, I'll grant that it's a very tricky thing to fictionalize a real person's biography to the extent that you presume to speak with their voice. But if you take that plunge, you might as well give your readers some sort of internal access, rather than spout a string of encyclopedic entries one could find on Wikipedia with much less effort. Who was Wu Zetian? What motivated her to do the things she did? How did she feel at those key moments in her life that defined her in the history books? Sa offers us no answers... in fact, Sa doesn't even ask the questions. The whole novel's written a step removed from the actual action (towards the end, Sa hints that Wu is telling us this story from beyond the grave, which drains what little dramatic impact might yet have survived the endless litany of specific details). As a story, "Empress" failed to engage me, because it's not actually about Wu Zetian at all. It's about the world Wu lived in, and while I'm sure that's of interest to a great many readers, it's not the story I could reasonably expect to find from a novel titled "Empress" that claims to tell Wu's tale.
Friday, October 26, 2007
The article is way overdue: my time's being eaten up by the "Command and Conquer" series, which I recently discovered. More on that once I've completed the Tiberium trilogy...
Anyway, slight change of plans: I want to talk about first impressions today. Four new shows caught my attention when the fall season started: "Reaper", "Chuck", "Pushing Daisies" and "Bionic Woman". Originally, I was going to hold off evaluating them until mid-season, but after watching a few episodes of each, a pattern started to reveal itself and I want to explore that.
In a way, the big wave of premieres can be daunting if you're like me, on the lookout for entertaining material but unwilling to totally submerge yourself in crap to find it. But looking back, I find that most of the series I've enjoyed in recent years - "Heroes", "Veronica Mars", "Joan of Arcadia", "Rome", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", etc. - started off with strong pilots and largely maintained that level of quality, at least for the first season. Conversely, series like "Supernatural", which vacillates from "eh" to "good" on a weekly basis but never quite reaches "great", had a thoroughly above-average series premiere. It's not so much that a pilot is the grand summation of everything the series will ever be... you have to make allowances that things will improve ("Buffy") or go completely downhill ("Lost"). But it's probably a fair indicator of a series' potential, of what it can and can't do.
With that in mind, let's turn to our first entry, Bionic Woman. I'll confess that my expectations for this one weren't high to begin with: with all due respect to Michelle Ryan, I've never seen her as lead material. She's a very limited actress who can't emote well and has no dramatic range to speak of, and that's a huge problem with character-centric series - "Heroes" could afford to drop the ball with Niki because there were plenty of other protagonists who were much more interesting, but "Bionic Woman" has to depict Jaime Sommers in a way that makes us want to learn more about her. I'm not feeling that way.
And the same can be said for the rest of the cast, none of whom are even marginally appealing: Jaime's sister is a brat, her boyfriend's dull as paste (and quickly becomes irrelevant in the overall scheme of things), the Typically Shadowy Figures of Authority are... well, typical shadowy figures of authority, and while Sarah Corvis has the potential to serve as an interesting antagonist, it's way too early to pull the "mirror rival" card - you're supposed to use that relationship to learn more about the protagonist, but Jaime's a piece of mechanical cardboard. And that, for me, is what kills my interest: I'm willing to wade through perfectly formulaic plots and premises if the characters stand out enough to overwhelm that tedium. "Bionic Woman" offers no such thing, so it's dropped.
Now, this is where Chuck got it partially right: the title character is an endearing computer nerd, and each of the supporting characters has at least one quality that makes them instantly likeable (well, except for Morgan). The issue I had with "Chuck", aside from the pattern I've noticed (which I promise we'll get to in a bit) isn't so much that I wasn't interested in the characters, it's that I wasn't interested enough. I mean, to be fair, the three episodes I saw had plenty of amusing moments, so the comedic aspect of the series was successful, but... I don't know. Even as I decided to stop watching it, I didn't actively dislike it - I still don't. Maybe it's the premise I have a problem with: as unique abilities go, having an NSA/CIA database in your head which causes you to spout secret facts like a covert op with Tourette's doesn't feel... spectacular enough, I suppose.
Oddly enough, if Reaper didn't have that aspect of flashy spectacle, it'd probably be an exact duplicate of "Chuck" in terms of format and cast configuration (more on that pattern I'll be talking about shortly). Broadly speaking, it's the same character - wage-slave loser with a touch of wit suddenly finding himself empowered and stuck with a new set of responsibilities, through no fault or initiative of his own. You have the supportive but ignorant family, the snarky mentor figure (Ray Wise vs. Adam Baldwin = scorched earth all around), the obnoxious best friend, the unattainable love interest, the intolerable manager... I think the only real difference is that the premise comes off a touch better here than in "Chuck" (and it's saying something that I find soul-selling and Satanic bounty hunters more plausible than having a computer stuck in a guy's brain), although the trade-off is that, with "Reaper", the characters lean a bit more towards stock qualities than having that individual charm Zachary Levi and his co-stars possess. To be totally honest, it's kind of a problem when the only character I genuinely like is Ray Wise's weirdly affectionate version of the Devil; my fondness for "Brimstone" also does "Reaper" no favors as far as comparisons go.
Which brings us to Pushing Daisies, the only new show I'm still watching. As I told my pal Tink the other day, "Pushing Daisies" is like having late-era Tim Burton throw up on my TV: bright colors, quirky weirdness a-plenty, impromptu musical numbers, and the kind of urban fantasy style straight out of "Edward Scissorhands" (minus the Gothic imagery). Of all the new shows, "Pushing Daisies" made the most positive impression on me, mainly because it's not like anything that's currently on TBV. Comparisons have been made to "Wonderfalls", Bryan Fuller's previous project, but I think "Pushing Daisies" is superior to its predecessor by virtue of having all the elements necessary for a successful run - in fact, one could say it combines the individual qualities each of the aforementioned shows has, possessing all their strengths and none of their weaknesses. The characters are instantly loveable (Lee Pace as Ned just breaks my heart on a regular basis, but Chi McBride's bitchy rendition of Emerson is just as captivating), the writing is quick and witty, the general weirdness is just obvious enough to get our attention without completely overwhelming the story, and if it seems to lack a general direction... well, that's the sort of thing I don't mind waiting for, especially since the show's doing everything else right.
And now, let's move on to the pattern. Is it me, or do all these series revolve around the premise of a completely ordinary person granted some wildly outrageous superpower, through no fault of his or her own, which ends up redefining their life? There's a definite post-"Heroes" trend here, IMO. Of course, we can also ask whether these entries constitute homages to the superhero genre; it's pretty much the same formula as Spider-Man's accidental genesis, or the mutant scenario where you hit puberty and become a freak of nature. It's interesting to analyze what lies behind the trend: there's an implicit suggestion that when accidents elevate people beyond the level of humanity, they're going to do good deeds with it. They'll become heroes, and they'll take that "great power, great responsibility" equation seriously, and while they may be tempted to misuse their abilities, they never will. It's a comforting notion, perhaps aimed at re-establishing the image of the Self-Sacrificing Hero (which, in the last decade or so, took a bit of a step back in favor of the Anti-Hero).
But as with any trend, the great danger is collision between all the individual series following the guidelines: with the exception of "Pushing Daisies", which takes Ned's unique talent in an entirely different light, pretty much all the shows are typical and derivative of each other. The protagonists of "Chuck" and "Reaper" are virtually identical in terms of their primary characteristics; the angle skews towards "Monster/Threat of the Week" more often than not; antagonists are cookie-cutter figures with no real depth of their own. In this situation, it comes down to charisma: which actor can keep me watching the show in spite of its unoriginality? More importantly, is it the right actor? Like I said, Ray Wise is fabulous as the Devil - but he doesn't score nearly enough screen time to justify watching "Reaper" for his scenes.
An underwhelming season for debuts, then; of course, as I said, there's still plenty of room for improvement, and it's altogether likely that one of the them (well, probably not "Bionic Woman") will reel me back in. Until then, "Pushing Daisies" joins "Dexter", "Supernatural", "Heroes" and "Weeds" on my list of must-see TV.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
This was originally going to be a full-length review, but I don't have anything interesting to say about "Latter Days": it's a hokey, over-the-top flick that falls way short of fulfilling any romantic aspirations; like "Brokeback Mountain", it's so fixated on sex that when we, as viewers, are asked to believe that the lead characters have fallen in love, my first response is "Whoa, when did that happen?" Pretty much "meh" all around, IMO.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Trying to reassume some semblance of normal posting again... let's hope it works. :)
My movie club tends to designate certain months as Theme Months - we did Horror in June, and Psychodrama in January. October is Gay Cinema Month: over the next four Saturdays, we'll be getting together to watch gay-themed films from all genres. Technically, we were supposed to start this Saturday, but Daniella's going abroad so we bumped it up a bit.
This week's entry was a charming indie film called "Luster". Like most gay films, it's primarily centered around a mixed group of friends in an urban setting; I'm not sure why that format is such a solid mainstay of the genre, though I guess it's to do with an inherent, implicit social agenda. The gay character starts off with a pre-existing social network that already accepts him or her, so being gay - that dreaded categorization which usually overshadows all other character traits - isn't really the issue at hand.
"Luster" actually reminded me quite a bit of "Heights", in the sense that my appreciation of both films is largely due to their proper use of the slice-of-life drama. As in "Heights", there aren't any over-the-top dramatic situations here, no outrageous moments that strain our suspension of disbelief. It's about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, and if some of them (Billy) are much more fucked-up than we might initially expect, it's still within the bounds of normalcy. As with the best slice-of-life tales, the characters make the story.
That said, what makes this film particularly interesting is that the plot takes its cues from the way the characters define themselves. Jackson, our protagonist, is a blue-haired twenty-something aspiring poet who kills time in a record store that only sells albums by bands no one has ever heard of. Jackson, and his friends, are classic "alternative" archetypes (in other words, virulently opposed to the mainstream), and as a result the storyline makes a point of twisting around mainstream plot conventions. A character commits suicide for reasons that are never fully explored, even though the rules of drama necessitate closure (despite the fact that, in reality, suicide doesn't always make sense). Derek's infatuation with Jackson is this huge, looming cliche - love at first sight, opposites attract, constance and patience bring reciprocation, etc. - but the cliche gets cut off at the knees before it can fully play itself out.
"Luster" demonstrates its desire to be different (or, at the very least, to be perceived differently) through every aspect of the movie: visually, the film has a very unpolished look, decidedly unglamourous, with fresh-faced actors who straddle the line between awkward and genuine. Narratively, character development is a touch erratic - we're probably not supposed to understand Jed's motives, but he has such a profound impact on the people around him that it seems a bit odd we never get into his head. Then again, if we are to see "Luster" as a conscious rebellion against the Hollywood formula, I assume the point is to break that tradition of "endings" in film - whether happy or sad, practically the entire cinematic medium is geared towards the notion that when the credits roll, you can safely walk away with "The End" of the story. But it's unclear whether Jackson's fate gives us closure: things just seem to go on after the plot climaxes, and while our protagonist does get to make a final choice, it's pretty obviously not the choice he would have made under different circumstances. It's a very ambivalent and ambiguous conclusion, and yet it's so appropriate to the story that I can't see it ending any other way.
All in all, I enjoyed "Luster" as a sort of momentary departure from the more tired trends of mainstream film - you don't have to know the conventions to get the point, but if you do, it makes for a much more interesting viewing experience.
Next week's film is "Latter Days", review (probably) to follow.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Saturday, September 15, 2007
It's saying "DAMN, THAT'S AWESOME!"
Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream is finally out - quite possibly the most ambitious remix project ever conceived and executed, and very much worth the wait. If you liked the music the first time, or didn't and thought it could've been done better, this is the place to go!
Friday, August 31, 2007
I love OverClocked Remix. As a fan of video game music, it's always fun when a homemade remix turns up and completely changes the way you think about the original piece.
My favorite type of remix is the type that includes vocal work; lyrics just add that little extra something that can make an already-great remix even better. So I thought I'd share the ones that rule my playlist:
The Ken Song by jdproject: This one caught me completely by surprise - what could you possibly do with a Street Fighter 2 theme? But Joe Darwish transforms it into an energetic, ultra-catchy pop-rock affair, and I just adore it.
Dreaming Still by pixietricks: Jillian Goldin is one of OCR's best vocalists, and her remake of Noriko Mitose's "Radical Dreamers" is a huge improvement over the placid original theme. The last thirty seconds or so always confuse me, because the sudden swerve up-tempo comes out of nowhere, but it's still excellent.
Dragon Song by Harmony: Despite being unfamiliar with the source material, I find I can appreciate Brandon Bush's solid vocals and masterful piano/guitar work on their own.
Journey's End by pixietricks: Another one by Jillian Goldin, this time remixing the Gagazet theme of "Final Fantasy X" into a love song that perfectly captures post-game Tidus and Yuna.
Smooth Steel by malcos: A while back, OCR held a Vocal Remix competition - the "Metal Man" theme from "Mega Man 2" was revamped, and various vocalists submitted their own lyrics/vocals. Though Jillian Goldin won the competition, I've always preferred Stephen Malcolm-Howell's version; he does a lot more with the arrangement.
Summoner's Love by DragonAvenger: There's something delightfully appropriate about DragonAvenger remixing a "Final Fantasy X" song; her voice reminds me quite a bit of Rikki, the Japanese folk singer who performed "Suteki da ne" for the same game. DragonAvenger takes the Besaid theme - a very laid-back melody to begin with - and threads her voice through it quite seamlessly. It does get a bit repetitive towards the end, but I like it nonetheless.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Sorry about being MIA lately... I've started a new job and the training schedule is insane. It hasn't left me much time to blog, read or do just about anything that isn't work-related, though I'm trying to post at least once a week at the Savage Critics (most recent review was DD #99; Brubaker continues to infuriate me by being consistently good enough that I have nothing constructive to say about him).
Some comments about movies I saw over the weekend:
Disturbia: Does what it says on the tin, I suppose. It might be that I've grown accustomed to mindfucks, but this came off as a little too straightforward, in that the killer is so obviously the killer. Still, it has some nice moments, and the cast is comprised of actors who aren't so high-profile that their presence damages the atmosphere (this being one of the reasons "Scream" did as well as it did).
As an aside, I find Shia LeBeouf intriguing; a few days after "Disturbia", I realized LeBeouf had played Chaz in that horrible, horrible Keanu Reeves version of "Constantine", and was pretty much the only bright spot in a two-hour miseryfest. If I had to narrow down his appeal to a single factor, I'd say it's the way he projects both vulnerability and rage, so that you don't know whether to cuddle him or hit the deck. Like I said, intriguing.
The Joy Luck Club: I'm planning a double-shot review of the film and the original novel at a later date, but suffice to say, I loved it. The format, the way the tales intertwine across two (sometimes three) generations of women, the sharp contrasts drawn between the Chinese mothers and their American daughters... it's a very powerful, very moving tapestry of stories.
The Simpsons: Honestly? I never expected it to be so funny. IMO, the show's heyday had come and gone, and suddenly this movie comes out and nails every single humorous and parodical moment. I laughed my ass off, and left the theatre hoping the movie would give the show a shot in the arm. Who knows, maybe it will.
And finally, some notes about the upcoming TV season. I'm waiting until early October to do the big premiere round-up - "Weeds" has already started airing, but "Heroes", "Supernatural" and "Dexter" aren't scheduled for another month or so, and "Jericho" doesn't even have a relaunch date. The plan for mid-season will be a little different this year, as I'm going to focus on the following new series: "Chuck", "Burn Notice", "Reaper", "Bionic Woman", "Pushing Daisies" and "The Sarah Connor Chronicles". Basically, I don't want to get attached to series destined for premature cancellation (fans of "The Dresden Files" and "Drive" probably understand where I'm coming from), so it's "wait and see" for the lot of them.
Damn. They did it. They actually went through with it.
Kudos, ATWT. One small step for Van Hansis and Jake Silbermann, one Star Jones-sized step for network television!
EDIT: I just have to reinforce Hansis' closing statement, because he's so right: if you're going to do a gay storyline, just do it. Don't dumb it down, don't be condescending, and don't kowtow to conservative throwbacks who find it "inappropriate". Just make a proper go of it. And I think - regardless of the somewhat-cliche twists the plot's taken (this is, after all, a soap opera) - that that's exactly what's happening.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Saturday, August 4, 2007
With nothing interesting on TV at the moment, no noteworthy comics coming out this week, and unbearable humidity screwing up my thought processes, I haven't had much to talk about.
Fortunately, idle web-trawling almost always brings up a gem or two. To wit, superherofan has gotten me interested in a plotline currently running on "As The World Turns", an American soap opera.
The show doesn't air here (I'm following the relevant scenes via online clips), and truth be told, I'm not much interested in soap as a genre. But what drew my attention to the Luke/Noah storyline is... well, the fact that it's a Luke/Noah storyline. For context's sake, this is reportedly the first time two boys have coupled up on a mainstream soap opera.
That got me thinking about homosexuality in fiction - specifically, on how the inclusion of a homosexual couple in an actual relationship is considered a Very Big Deal. It used to be that having one gay character, male or female, was a Big Deal (I recall my days as a "Melrose Place" fan with deep shame), so I'm cautiously optimistic that this development represents some kind of progress; at the very least, we've left behind the archetype of the Celibate Gay Man who can't get to first base without the heads of network execs exploding in unison.
(Comics analogy: "Young Avengers" got a lot of press just because Hulkling and Wiccan were in a relationship, but the deepest connection Northstar could have with another man in the early '90s was a firm handshake.)
There's a bit of a dilemma here. On the one hand, this is a major development, because soap operas purport to deliver a mimetic representation of our world (setting aside the obvious absurdities in terms of plot and character development), and yet they're content to blissfully ignore any representation of homosexuality that isn't being used as a Very Special Episode platform. So for a soap opera - a rather old one, at that - to commit itself to a Luke/Noah pairing is significant, because it's acknowledging such things to be a part of our reality.
At the same time, by acknowledging it to be a Very Big Deal, by calling so much attention to the mere fact of its existence, the implicit suggestion is that it's abnormal. There's something deeply problematic about depicting two same-gendered individuals in love as a taboo-buster, because 1) the audience, and the writers, end up defining the characters by their sexuality and it can easily devolve into a Midnighter sort of thing, where the only thing you know about them is their orientation; and 2) the more you point to what you're doing and say "TABOOOOO!", the more you reinforce the very thing you're trying to break down. Can't cross a line if you keep redrawing it.
I have to admit, I'm intrigued to see where this is heading. The skeptic in me tends to doubt that "As The World Turns" can successfully break free of the stigmas, pitfalls and cliches attached to this particular paradigm... but if they can do it, and if they can maintain Luke and Noah as a couple on the same level as any other heterosexual pairing in the series, they could conceivably open the door that much wider for equal representation. And maybe someday having gay characters around won't be such a Very Big Deal anymore.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
I missed "Jericho" during its initial run, but with the summer hiatus reducing the number of TV series I watch to a neat round zero, I figured I might as well give it a shot. By the time I finished the season finale, two things became clear to me: I understood how the show had gained such a passionate, active fanbase, but also why it would never break out of its cult status.
"Jericho" has a lot going for it: appealing characters (even three-time Show Killer Sprague Grayden pulls off decent chemistry with Skeet Ulrich), a premise that twists the usual cliche (the tendency with post-nuclear fiction is to exaggerate into full-out Wasteland of the Damned and Mutating territory), some decent mysteries that don't outstay their welcome, the adorable romance of Stimi... there's certainly enough to create a solid, loyal audience, and strictly in terms of episode quality, there's really no reason for things to have gone south as badly as they did.
Except... well, look at the shows that, unlike "Jericho", had no reason to fear the axe this year. "Heroes", a series built on a juxtaposition of "ordinary people with extraordinary abilities". "Lost", ostensibly a realistic story except you've got Locke's Magical Mystery Tour and Smoke Monsters running around. "Smallville", still alive despite the fact that its ridiculous soap antics have long since passed the point of farce. What do they have in common? Each of them has a touch (or more) of fantasy to them.
"Jericho" doesn't offer that. Neither did "Drive" or "Veronica Mars", now that I think about it, but what "Jericho" does is deliver a relatively straightforward depiction of the worst-case scenario, a town in America's heartland that survives a nuclear attack by terrorists and has to deal with the fallout, both literally and figuratively. It's a reality that may have been a bit too plausible for the American audience, especially when the theme of people surviving hardships by banding together turns sour, and the uglier side of humanity rears its head, dominating the second half of the season (Dale, initially a sympathetic character, really goes off the rails in terms of becoming the very essence of obnoxiousness). I don't know that the overall message of the series is a positive one, and I can see how a large portion of the demographic would have trouble with that.
However, I can't fault the creators for telling an unpopular story, especially if it's a good story. And since it is a good story, I'll most definitely be tuning in when "Jericho" returns, because this tale deserves a proper ending.
Friday, July 27, 2007
From Newsarama's coverage:
* I don't know if this is a good thing. I've heard of Terry Moore, and it certainly seems he's the right person for "Runaways" based on his past work. But I'm troubled by the fact that his interpretation of every character involves some new retcon (ie: Nico's really into Old Earth Magic, Chase is secretly Uber-Hero, Victor's "sekrit ebil density" is still an issue, etc.) I don't know. It bothers me somewhat. But I'll give it a fair shot when it comes out.
* Never heard of Madame Xanadu, but Matt Wagner on a Vertigo ongoing? SOLD.
* Warren Ellis on "Astonishing X-Men": Oh, Marvel. You're like that Paula Abdul song with the cartoon cat - two steps forward, eight steps back. Ellis? Really? Isn't his Year of Whoredom over yet? Honestly, they're setting up a writer with no love for superheroes to succeed Joss Whedon, who's all about the superheroes, and who himself followed Grant Morrison - not your daddy's superheroes, but still firmly entrenched in the genre and, more importantly, enjoying the genre. I can't think of someone less suited for this book than Ellis, who has zero enthusiasm for the job - it's rather telling that, rather than discuss reasons for taking over this book that have someting to do with the actual book, Ellis just goes on and on about how he needs the money and how he wants to tackle a big franchise and yes dear we get it spandex makes the baby warren cry have a biscuit and go away please. Add that to the fact that, like our newest comics entrepeneur Ms. Jenna Jameson, Ellis hasn't got anything we haven't already seen, and things are looking bleak for the alleged flagship of the X-books. Better luck next run, eh?
* After the ridiculous fun of "Jack of Fables", Matt Sturges and Bill Willingham team up again to revive "The House of Mystery", and it sounds wonderful. Admittedly, I have my doubts as to whether it can survive on the market for very long - comics about myths and stories (ie: "Crossing Midnight") fare rather poorly, as a rule - but I'm on board, however long it lasts.
* So Grant Morrison is writing "Final Crisis". Hmm. On the one hand, I've always believed that had "Infinite Crisis" been written by Morrison, rather than Jones, it might not have been the clusterfuck of continuity porn that it actually became (and one might argue that, as DC's Big Event at the time, it set the tone for all the circle-jerks that followed). I'm inclined to believe JG Jones when he says that Morrison has a story to tell, rather than a mandate to obey. On the other hand, this is still a Crisis, and you can bet DC will milk it for every cent it's worth. Proceed with caution, DC fans.
More to follow...
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
I've switched from Blogger comments to Haloscan, let's see if it works...
EDIT: Yep, it's all good! :)
EDIT 2: Except that all prior comments seem to have become invisible (though Blogger says they're still there). I managed to save Kinbote's most recent one, the one for "Lessons Learned" (still working on my reply), but as for the others... well, tabula rasa, I suppose.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
As I was trying to break down why "Spider-Man 3" left me so unsatisfied, I suddenly had a sense of deja vu. So I looked back, and discovered that I'd said all this stuff before. When I saw "X-Men 3".
It's rather discouraging to see that the same idiot mistakes were made all over again. To wit:
1. Under the mistaken assumption that "more is better", the film's primary characteristic is going over the top with pretty much everything - too many subplots, too many villains, too many battle sequences placed too closely together, too many faux-dramatic or melodramatic moments stacked so that there's no opportunity to really process what's going on - and the end result is uncomfortably reminiscient of the way Anna Nicole Smith used to try and squeeze herself into those tiny dresses, with all the wrong body parts spilling out at inopportune times.
1a. With multiple villains running around, the spotlight goes to the one who's least deserving of it. Don't get me wrong, I love Ian McKellen, I really do, but we'd already seen Magneto dominate two previous X-Men films. The Dark Phoenix completely overshadows him in "The Last Stand", but she's kept in the background for most of the film. Likewise, "Spider-Man 3" is divided between Harry Osborn's transformation into a Days of Our Lives character and Thomas Haden Church's moping Sandman, a glorified CGI effect. The bad guy who should have been given the floor is Topher Grace's Venom; the casting was perfect, not just because Grace puts a dark twist on his usual comedic tone but because he's so physically similar to Tobey Maguire (bright blue eyes, pale, soft-spoken, very much rocking the geek chic) that the theme of mirror images becomes that much stronger. If properly paced, Peter's conflict with himself and subsequently with Eddie would have been enough for the whole film, just as the X-Men's struggle against one of their own would have done the job nicely without pointless distractions (the Cure, the Brotherhood, the insipid Rogue/Bobby/Kitty triangle).
2. Because more thought is put into the spectacle than the story, you'll usually get massive quantities of contrivance to roll the movie along. With "Spider-Man 3", Alfred comes out of the Batcave to tell Harry "the truth" about Norman (you know, Alfie, you just might have gotten a raise out of the boss if you'd mentioned that before he got half his face blown off!). With "X-Men 3"... wow, take your pick, but I'll go with Wolverine being the only one who can survive the Phoenix's power despite the fact that, as a telekinetic, there's really no reason why she doesn't just pick him up and throw him into the ocean.
3. Any genuinely emotional moments are undermined by the fact that we, as the audience, are not allowed to dwell on them. Ten minutes after Xavier's death and nobody's feeling the loss (Cyclops who?). Peter comes to the realization that he murdered a man for absolutely no reason and oh look he's been possessed by John Travolta's Body-Thetan and it's making him relive Saturday Night Fever!
4. These films are at least partly perceived as conclusions to their respective trilogies, but they both end on rather sour notes. "Spider-Man 3" has this whole poignant moment where Peter and MJ try to rebuild their relationship, which might have worked if the script gave us any reason to care about the relationship beyond the "our wuv is like a wuving wiver of wuv!" bits. "The Last Stand" has Halle Berry taking over the X-Men (and boy, if that isn't metatext...), with a lot of interesting characters left dead, marginalized or just plain ignored.
I've also lost interest in Maguire's depiction of Peter Parker; bearing in mind I haven't seen the first movie in quite some time, I don't remember Maguire being so... well... femme. He spent a lot of time in this film alternating between falsetto whispering and shrieking like Rosie O'Donnell when the latter is denied her fifty-sixth twinkie. Now, I'd probably be quite tickled if this were a conscious choice, because that'd certainly put a unique twist on the whole Eddie/Gwen/Peter/MJ/Harry situation (not to mention, I think it'd be quite good to have a hero and a paragon who isn't and doesn't have to be the Alpha Stud of Ultimate Manliness), but I kind of doubt Sam Raimi told Maguire to channel his inner Gothic Bimbo. I mean, hell, they actually did a shower scene - if he'd buckled down crying under the water stream, it would've provoked laughter instead of "Huh?"
All in all, it's a film that suffers from a colossal lack of subtlety: musical cues for various characters are insanely overwrought just so you know who's good and who's bad, the dialogue is corny and cliched beyond belief, characterization exists more in terms of what could be than what is... it's just terrible, the result of carelessness more than any real inadequacy. I mean, we can always blame "The Last Stand" on Ratner's idiocy; what possible defense could Sam Raimi have?
Monday, July 23, 2007
Even taking into account the revival of certain '80s properties such as the Transformers, I could never have anticipated the Turtles clawing their way out of the grave. Here was a franchise that had been pronounced dead, autopsied, cremated, its ashes buried at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Surely any attempt to bring them back would result in nostalgic mush, at best.
Imagine my shock - and delight - when Kevin Munroe's efforts produced the best Turtles movie to date, genuinely entertaining and a powerful reminder of why I liked them in the first place.
It's not just the new look, though the CGI is a major improvement over old-school animation or rubber suits: fight scenes are graceful, fast-paced and exciting, the Turtles are more expressive (Raphael's rage is particularly well-communicated) and the human characters such as April and Casey have a touch of the cartoonish to them without being huge-eyed anime monsters.
But the visual aspect is secondary to the movie's real strength: its script. Let's face it, virtually every adaptation of the Turtles has been campy to some extent or other - the '80s animated series was watered down (for obvious reasons), the live-action films better defined the four as separate individuals but still erred on the side of being a little too wacky (not to mention, Vanilla Ice? No. Just no. DO NOT WANT). Munroe's script balances humorous situations like Splinter's certainty that "Cody is going to break up with Donna" or Raphael's battle with the adorable demon imp with real drama that comes from within the family, from the complicated relationships between the four brothers. I think that really grounds the movie even while dealing with an A-plot about living statues and monsters running amok in New York City.
The voice acting's quite good all around - if anything, I'm surprised by how toned down Sarah Michelle Gellar and Chris Evans are, given their more dominant tendencies in live acting. Patrick Stewart is awesome in anything, of course, and Zhang Ziyi's heavy accent lends a stronger air of credibility to her portrayal of Karai (not to mention her deadpan delivery of "You've got to be kidding me" right before the climactic battle). The Turtles themselves are flawless.
What really pleases me about this movie is the feeling of authenticity - that this is what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would have been all along had there been no need to dumb things down for the kiddies or rely on slapstick and celebrity cameos to break the box office. So while "TMNT" may not be the definitive, be-all end-all Turtles' Story (in fact, there's a pretty blunt sequel set-up during the final minutes), it's still a good and proper example on how to do this franchise right. And if this marks the start of a Turtles revival, it'll at least have kicked off on the right foot.
In a recent interview with Michael Ausiello concerning the third season of "Supernatural", Eric Kripke once again proves he's of that rare breed of TV writer that learns from past mistakes:
"I know people weren't thrilled about Jo last season, but we feel we've learned from that mistake. I love the actress [Alona Tal], but the problem was, we conceived the character wrong. She was the girl next door, she was the little sister, and her attitude was, 'How can I help you?' And, [exec producer] Bob Singer and I always said to ourselves in Season 2, if we were to bring girls into the show, the way to bring them in is to make trouble for the guys, not to be helpful. To introduce them as their own fleshed-out characters in their own right, who are raging pains in the ass, and trouble, and dangerous, and then sort of see what happens."
He's named that tune in one, really, and he goes on to report that Bela and Ruby, the incoming new characters, were not pre-conceived as love interests for the Winchester brothers. That's another mistake they made with Jo, in terms of being blindingly obvious that she was being set up with Dean. The whole thing was handled so clumsily that Kripke had to shut it down before she became the Second Coming of Poochie.
So far, so good... now if he could just promise us a wee bit less Angst this season, I'm thinking it could be the show's best year.
Avi Green, the Four-Color Media Monitor, has put together an interesting list of problems he feels are responsible for the overall poor quality of comics lately.
I strongly agree with some items on that list - the "zombie" portion of the fanbase is most certainly to blame for enabling, via blind purchasing, the sort of stunts and gimmicks that would make any other rational business cringe in embarrassment - but I stop short of accepting his claim that these people will be responsible for destroying the Marvel Universe someday. It's true that their presence allows the publication of some pretty horrific comics, but I don't think that they're actively blocking good comics at the same time, nor do I feel that zombies should shoulder all the blame - these people exist, and they buy what the companies tell them to buy, and if "Crossing Midnight" gets cancelled due to low sales it'll mostly be because no one at DC thought to divert zombie attention from books that will sell well regardless to books that could use the extra cash to stay alive.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Much as it pains me to admit it, Beau Smith has a point when he says that the "Joker's Bomb Must Wait Because My Lipstick's Smudged" cover is more or less indicative of the content; female characters in comics may not be where I'd like them to be today, but they're certainly doing marginally better now than in the '60s, when a woman had no other purpose besides trying to trap men in marriage (Lois Lane) or acting as weaker foils ("Sue! Now's no time to behave like a woman!").
HOWEVER, for the purpose of justification, historical accuracy isn't enough. Times have changed. You can't toss things out into the market just because they were totally appropriate before most of us were born: the reality is that in the here and now, that cover is offensive for the same reason African-American readers might find Ebony White offensive. It's playing to a stereotype that is not acceptable, certainly not in the 21st century when we're all supposed to know better. The notion that DC has no sensitivity to this, no ability to discern what images and tropes have passed their expiration date, is an unsettling one.
Monday, July 16, 2007
You see? Writers and reviewers can live together in harmony! :)
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Friday, July 13, 2007
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Not much to say about this one; it's a standard feel-good CGI movie along the lines of "Madagascar" and "The Ice Age". Amusing, with some funny scenes and feel-good moments (and the tiny sous chef was totally based on Peter Lorre!), but not necessarily worth rushing to the theatres.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
I should preface this review by noting that I knew two things about "A Density of Souls" which colored my reading: first, author Christopher Rice is Anne Rice's son, and while biology isn't destiny, it's kind of hard to avoid the question of influence. Second, this is Rice's first novel, and that goes a long way towards explaining certain awkward aspects of the book that would have been much more difficult to forgive, had said blunders been committed by a more experienced writer.
"A Density of Souls" can perhaps be best described as a novel of contradictions. It's an inter-familial drama which includes explosions, shoot-outs and bloodshed. It's a realistic story that, at one very uncomfortable point, attempts to inject a supernatural angle that just doesn't belong. There's a certain flatness to the individual characters, but the tapestry of lives that Rice creates is surprisingly compelling. It's a personal story, but it's also very much concerned with the community and its buried secrets. It's about a bunch of kids yet their parents have storylines too. It's a book that's clearly influenced by the works of the author's mother - occasional lapses into the violet end of the writing spectrum, overwritten and hyper-detailed descriptions of beautiful men, etc. - and yet I feel that Christopher touches upon a kind of emotional realism that Anne, with her pompous and overblown fixations on vampirism and Jesus, may never achieve.
The first half of the novel is primarily centered around four New Orleans kids - Stephen, Meredith, Greg and Brandon - whose childhood bonds are distorted by their passage into teenhood. Rice sets this up nicely, starting things off with a brief glimpse of the four at their closest, only to immediately leap ahead into high school after the damage wrought by time (and other factors) has been done. As each of them deals with somewhat-typical high school issues (bullying, sexual identity crises, peer pressure and the like), tragedy strikes, the full scale of which is not immediately apparent. We then move five years forward into the mind of Jordan, Brandon's older brother, whose return to New Orleans after a long exile starts a chain reaction that gradually unearths the community's darkest secrets.
Characterization is a bit of an issue here. The cast of "A Density of Souls" aren't fully rounded, but they're not two-dimensional either. At first I thought Rice was trying to convey something deeper but didn't quite have the words for it, but now I think it's more because this type of story - dealing with a network of interconnected histories rather than any one person's tale - wouldn't benefit from scooping out the insides of an individual's head for the purpose of deep introspection. In that sense, what we get is enough, especially considering that we're simultaneously exploring two generations of each family.
Rice's status as a novice is more apparent in some places than in others; on a purely technical level, his sentence structure leaves something to be desired, but that's more irritating than genuinely disruptive. The mercifully brief suggestion of the supernatural is indicative of the book's larger struggle for identity - it's part "Dawson's Creek" and part "Blue Velvet", and to Rice's credit he reconciles these aspects seamlessly, but then you get accusations of witchcraft in the middle of a completely realistic narrative, and that comes off as Rice invoking tropes associated with his mother's novels not because they have any functional purpose, but because they make for a useful crutch. I also can't deny there's an element of artificiality when it comes to the weepy gay guy becoming the object of everyone's affections - that's more about wish fulfillment than maintaining credibility.
At the same time, I was captivated by these characters, by their lives and their secrets, by Jordan's quest for the truth, by the shocking twists that pepper the book all the way to its very last page. And that's no small feat for a beginner. "A Density of Souls" has its flaws, no question, but it does quite a bit right as well.
Monday, July 2, 2007
After enjoying Adele Geras' earlier novel, "Troy" - a female-centric "alternative" depiction of the Trojan War - I finally had a chance to sit down with "Ithaka", her reinterpretation of "The Odyssey", following the same line of inverting the traditional focus of Homer's stories: rather than follow Odysseus on his fantastic journey, Geras' entire novel is set on Ithaka, focusing on the women left behind to fend for themselves while their king is away. However, this particular book turned out to be much more uneven than its predecessor.
On a technical level, "Ithaka" shows Geras applying some interesting devices. For example, one recurring sequence features Penelope weaving images drawn from her dreams. What she doesn't know is that her threadwork is actually telling the story of the Odyssey, snapshots of her husband's encounters with the Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Calypso and so on. It's actually very effective if you're familiar with the source material, because you realize that Odysseus is getting closer and closer to Ithaka. Geras also makes the occasional aside into the mind of Argos, Odysseus' ancient hunting dog, whose thoughts are presented in a stream-of-consciousness narrative that stresses the neverending cycle of day and night as Argos waits for his master to return.
But Geras' techniques can't quite cover up the true failure of "Ithaka": an astonishing lack of depth. I say astonishing because, for all that the main protagonists of "Troy" (Xanthe and Marpessa) were naive girls, their hopelessly limited perspectives were balanced out by characters such as the kitchen gossips and Helen, whose interpretations of the events around them were decidedly different (and, arguably, more informed). In this book, there's no font of wisdom to counter protagonist Klymene's overwhelming naivete; her twin brother is an invisible cipher whose ultimate fate is kind of moot, given that he's never around anyway, and her only real foil is Melantho, an over-the-top hoochie who goes out of her way to pony-ride every guy she can grab. She's a Chuck Austen character. If she were living in the 21st century she'd be a pop princess and "unwitting" participant in a sex tape scandal. In fact, Melantho is a perfect microcosm of what's wrong with the entire cast of "Ithaka" - they're so exaggerated, so blown out of proportion that we just can't take them seriously. And it's a dismaying step down from "Troy", where even the most cartoonish characters had some degree of depth to them (ie: the obnoxious Boros and his shockingly heroic attempt to save Xanthe when the Greeks invade).
And because the characters are so flat, there's very little emotional resonance here. Geras only allows us access to the inner thoughts of Klymene and Penelope, with everyone else seen through their eyes, but at the same time the events of "The Odyssey" (which are, after all, still unfolding in this narrative despite the alternative point of view) are affecting everyone. Why should we care about Telemachus if we can't get into his head? How can we be invested in Klymene's relationship with Mydon when we only ever see her side of it?
In fact, this restriction deeply undermines Geras' one major change to the story of "The Odyssey" - she rewrites the character of Leodes as a love interest for Penelope. They become involved even as Odysseus makes his way home, to the point where Penelope is almost convinced to just run away with him and leave Ithaka behind. Now, from a modernist/feminist angle, what Geras does makes sense. Penelope is, after all, probably the biggest doormat in Greek mythology, defined by her unbreakable fidelity to a husband who's humping every woman, demigoddess and inflatable dryad who crosses his path. I can certainly see why women writers, especially today's women writers, would be reluctant to follow Homer's lead quite that closely. And indeed, Geras completely breaks down the supposedly-happy ending of "The Odyssey", because even as Odysseus gets everything he wanted, including a wife who (he thinks) has remained exactly as he left her, Penelope will never really be as happy as she once was; robbed of her ability to make her own choice, she'll forever remain locked in an internal conflict that can't be resolved.
That's a poignant conclusion. Or it would be, if we had any real sense of the love Leodes and Penelope share. For us as readers, there's never any real doubt that Odysseus won't come home to reclaim his family and kingdom; Geras knows we're "in on the joke", and tries to take it further by creating this relationship that we know is doomed, but the characters don't. It might have worked if Leodes had been better-defined; as it stands, the only thing you really know about him in 350 pages is that he loves Penelope and that he's probably the only suitor on Ithaka who isn't a complete bastard. That doesn't make for powerful drama.
I also think Geras missed an opportunity to tie this book in with her earlier novel, as one of the supporting characters introduced at a later stage is a survivor of the Trojan War. This would've been a great oppportunity to revisit, even in passing, those characters from "Troy" whose fates were left uncertain. In fact, Homer used that exact type of intertextuality in the original epic; one of Telemachus' voyages takes him to Sparta, where he learns what became of Helen after the Greeks reclaimed her (referring to "The Iliad").
As with "Troy", the gods of Olympus appear throughout "Ithaka". However, this time they're active participants; characters see and remember them, and they even physically involve themselves at key moments in the story. On the one hand, this is preferable to how they were written in "Troy" - a god would appear and offer important information to a privileged character, only to be forgotten moments later. It made them completely useless because nothing they said affected the course of events or gave any insight into characters' motives and desires. On the other hand, when directly intervening, the gods end up deflating tense moments prematurely. For example, when Odysseus finally leads an attack against the suitors, Pallas Athene informs Penelope (and the readers) that a certain character is going to die, moments before it actually happens in what would normally be considered a surprise twist. Except it's obviously not much of a twist since we knew it was coming. Similarly, Poseidon makes some threatening comments early on, only to disappear completely in the second half of the novel, but it's enough to give away the fates of several characters.
Overall, it's a very clumsy effort on Adele Geras' part, and I honestly don't know how to reconcile this with "Troy" at all. It's a below-average novel on its own, but looks all the poorer in comparison to its predecessor.
Friday, June 29, 2007
I'd like to say that "Shrek the Third" is every bit as successful, as well-written, as hilariously delightful as its predecessors.
I'd like to say that. I probably would say that, except that the film has this teeny, tiny flaw:
Oh lord. Ohhhh lord. It's probably my fault for thinking Justin Timberlake couldn't possibly be any more irritating in movies than he is with his music; that sort of blind optimism just screams out to be punished.
As far as I'm concerned, it really is Timberlake and his character Artie who send things awry. Here's a series that derives its primary comedic and dramatic strength from its ability to invoke and undermine cliches - Shrek both is and isn't a typical ogre, Fiona is and isn't the princess-in-distress, the Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming aren't quite as benevolent as their names and appearances imply, etc. And at first, "Shrek the Third" continues that proud tradition of subverting expectations: you have the possibilities of Shrek as a father and Shrek as a monarch being put forth, and it's pretty much the Anti-Princess Diaries. Meanwhile, Prince Charming's scheme to usurp power hinges on a rather unorthodox appeal to his fellow fairytale villains.
All well and good... until we meet Artie. An unpopular high-schooler with daddy issues who's in love with the most popular girl in school and gets picked on by the jocks, only to be revealed as a figure of great destiny - a destiny he initially rejects only to come around at the last minute and grow into the role.
Could there be a bigger walking cliche?
It's all the more jarring because the rest of the cast - Shrek, Donkey, Puss, Fiona and the various supporting characters - are very much in step with that irreverent, iconoclastic tone that made them so endearing in previous films. Artie, by contrast, is a two-dimensional cutout (and Timberlake does us no favors by playing the role painfully straight, without the slightest bit of affectation), so utterly predictable that you can literally guess the entire span of his storyline after five minutes of screen time.
Without giving away the ending, I should also add that said ending is heavily sabotaged by Artie's character in what may have been an attempt to break the pattern of the previous films in terms of climactic showdowns, but ends up becoming an ill-advised and unsatisfying resolution that's at odds with the narrative thrust of the entire story - in other words, an hour and a half is spent building up towards an event that never actually happens. "Disappointing" would be putting it mildly.
On the other hand, there are quite a few amusing moments strewn throughout the movie: Shrek imagining fatherhood, his catastrophic attempt at playing the part of king, the "baby shower", the addled Merlin offering our heroes hugs, Lillian's surprising talent, Prison Break Starring Fiona and Friends, and much more. As a story, it pretty much falls apart towards the end, but taken as individual sketches, the comedy is every bit as solid as the first two films. And for that alone, it's worth a look. Just don't expect it to hold together quite as well as its predecessors.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Kristofer Straub's "Starslip Crisis" makes for an interesting parallel to Brad Guigar's "Evil Inc." in that, while they share certain generic, thematic and format-related aspects, Straub's series has that one critical component that "Evil Inc." lacks: variety.
There are certainly enough similarities to sustain a comparison: both strips poke fun at a specific genre (superheroes in "Evil Inc.", sci-fi in "Starslip Crisis"), both are littered with simple yet tremendously funny characters, both are well-written, and both use the daily punchline technique within a larger structure of ongoing storylines.
The main point of divergence, I think, is the way each series runs those storylines. For the most part, "Evil Inc." has a singular focus; all storylines are tethered to the company and its employees. The arcs aren't necessarily contingent, but Guigar typically has one narrative unfolding at a time while everything else is on hold.
"Starslip Crisis", by contrast, bounces back and forth between a number of plotlines all running simultaneously - earlier in the year, one of the series' protagonists went off to military school, and Strauber started alternating the focus between the school and the rest of the characters. Going further back, a war that had been discussed in the periphery suddenly took center stage as the cast blundered right into the battle. Events are constantly occuring outside our field of vision, and that has the added effect of broadening the scope of the story. It also allows Straub to stray from the A-plot from time to time, and that helps break up any tedium that might set in over an extended period of time.
The fact that Straub is able to milk the science-fiction genre for every drop of parodical comedy will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work; truly, the best thing about "Starslip Crisis" is that it manages to take the most basic aspects of science fiction and make them funny. You don't even need to be familiar with the genre to "get" the jokes; there's no direct appropriation of, say, "Star Wars", that would require insider knowledge. The humor is for everyone. :)
Anyone who samples Straub and finds him to their liking would also be advised to read "Checkerboard Nightmare", Straub's previous series which chose, as its subject matter, the very medium of webcomics itself, and managed to be every bit as amusing.
Friday, June 22, 2007
I'm not quite sure why I'm still reading this; lack of a proper jumping-off point, I suppose, coupled with the fact that I'm more bored with it than genuinely displeased or irritated. It's not that "Evil Inc." has changed for the worse, far from it; if anything, Brad Guigar has remained remarkably consistent since spinning this series off from "Greystone Inn" two years ago.
And that's really my beef with it; it's too consistent. The humor just feels less effective to me these days, and I find I've lost interest in the storylines and characters. Inertia's keeping me going at the moment, but I doubt that'll last much longer.
Still, it's worth reiterating those traits that drew me to "Evil Inc." in the first place; a lighthearted parody of the superhero genre, executing the gag-a-day format very nicely. If it rocked the boat a bit more often, I'd still be aboard.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Down to the last two, and believe me, I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with more. Either I'm not quite as well-read as I like to believe, or there really aren't ten notable, obvious picks for important women in mainstream comics. I went ahead and bent the rules for the last entry, just because.
9. Barbara Gordon (Batman, Birds of Prey, etc., DC): I'm very ambivalent when it comes to good old Babs. On the one hand, she's a sidekick who made good, graduating out of the male identity she co-opted to create her own entity, Oracle, a far more formidable and distinctive force than Batgirl ever was. On the other hand, Barbara is very much the typical woman victim at DC: crippled as an afterthought in a story that had nothing to do with her, for purposes relating solely to the motivation of the male protagonist, and she was left in that state permanently while other heroes (read: men) bounced back from similar or worse injuries on a regular basis. I fondly remember her animated counterpart becoming Commissioner of the GCPD in "Batman Beyond" (since "The Killing Joke" never took place in the Timm&Diniverse), but overall I still have trouble reconciling those two aspects of her character, Perpetual Victim and Self-Defined Heroine.
10. Gail Simone: Granted, being the most prolific female writer in the Big Two isn't saying much (who's her competition, Devin Grayson? Fiona Apple?), but it's my hope that Gail Simone's continued success and high visibility in the industry opens the door to many other female writers in the future. Also, as lolcomics would say, she can rytes teh komiks gud.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Sunday, June 10, 2007
"The Order of the Stick" started out as a hilarious D&D parody that spoofed the conventions of the genre (ie: six diverse adventurers enter a dungeon in search of treasure and monsters). Over time, it evolved into a more ambitious story, and yet despite the larger scale - the current storyline featuring a war that would put Peter Jackson to shame - the strip has never lost sight of its humorous nature. Rich Burlew has a knack for creating characters we either instantly love (Elan, Haley, even Xykon) or instantly hate (Miko!), and he has a strong sense of pacing, always aware of exactly how long a subplot can run before it wears itself thin.
Some readers might be turned off by the stick-figure artwork, but to be honest, I feel it adds an extra layer to the series: the simplicity of the visual imagery makes for a great contrast to the complexity of the storylines.
"The Order of the Stick" is pure fun, one of the best fantasy/adventure webcomics around. Definitely worth a look.
I hate summers in the Middle East. The heat just squats on your head and refuses to leave, and any act of mental concentration becomes a real chore...
7. May "Mayday" Parker (Spider-Girl, Marvel): This one practically explains itself - the daughter of Marvel's most recognizable and popular icon, consistently depicted by Tom DeFalco as being equal, if not superior, to the original (the cover of Spider-Girl #100 remains one of my favorites). At first, DeFalco made every effort to catapult Spider-Girl out of her father's shadow and make her more than just a distaff clone: she acquired her own enemies, had her own life, and often devised solutions to problems that Peter couldn't quite crack on his own. This direction was rewarded with an unshakeable fanbase that, while comparatively small, kept the series alive for so long that Spider-Girl became Marvel's longest-running female-centric series. Unfortunately, both the character and the series started getting bogged down with debris from Spider-Man's history (the return of the ill-conceived Scriers being a recent example), and as a result, "Spider-Girl" has become more of a continuity patch than a vehicle for the next generation.
8. Jenny Sparks (The Authority, Wildstorm): Kevin Church recently referred to Warren Ellis as "one of the most casually feminist writers in comics". I disagree with that assertion, primarily because Ellis uses stock characters in a way that neutralizes gender - yes, Jenny Sparks and Miranda Zero are examples of strong women, but their femininity means nothing because they're variations on the same trope Ellis always uses: chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, booze-swilling cynics who, in their heart of hearts, want to be heroes and do what's right. There's no real distinction between Jenny Sparks and Spider Jerusalem in terms of characterization, so the best thing I can say about Ellis is that he negates chauvinism by depicting women exactly the same way he depicts men (which misses the point, IMO, but it's better than the dominant trends these days). For this reason, Jenny Sparks almost didn't make the list, but unlike most Ellis protagonists, she actually got a send-off that was noble and poignant and self-sacrificing without being cliche. A far cry from being chopped up and stuffed in a refrigerator, Jenny Sparks goes out on perhaps the highest note a superhero has ever achieved, and that counts for something in my book.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Here's a question I often ask myself when con season rolls around and panel reports start coming in: where the hell are the women? I'm not talking about female creators like Colleen Doran and Gail Simone; I'm talking about women in the audience, women like Ragnell, Kalinara and Karen Healey, who have a lot to say about certain practices by the Big Two. Why is it that when Frank Miller holds court, there are no women with rotten tomatoes handy to show him what they think of Vicki Vale's ass?
It's sort of an extension of what bugs me about WizardWorld con reports, where EIC panels are so banal, so heavily involved in mutual masturbation (Joe Quesada: "Hey, kids! We've got a new 80-part crossover coming!" Audience: "BOOYAH!"), and if someone does step up to the plate, it'll usually be some incoherent fanboy who embarrasses himself by, I don't know, screaming that Brian Vaughan is a racist (based on... what?). In effect, Marvel and DC go unchallenged at the one venue where they're on equal ground with their readers and the comics press. And because there's no backlash, because no one contests the assertion that yes, we really need another weekly series to tie-in to other books that set-up the next crossover, the companies keep doing wrong what they've been doing wrong, and nothing changes.
What's so shocking is that there's an entire blogosphere of intelligent people like Lea Hernandez, Paul O'Brien, Graeme McMillan and Heidi McDonald - people who see the flaws, and can express themselves in a way that can't be ignored or laughed at by company administrators (see above, re: "BKV's a racist!"). So why do we never see such clear-headed individuals at cons, stepping up at a Cup of Joe hype session to announce "Joey, you've gotta lotta s'plainin' to do!"?
You just know that Paul O'Brien would reduce Quesada to tears and possibly seppuku in under five minutes; we'd all be better off.
Monday, June 4, 2007
Apologies for lateness; my pal Tink got me hooked on Showtime's "Weeds" (review to follow), and I scored a huge cache of 2000AD progs, so things have been a bit busy. :)
5. Pearl Penalosa (Ultra, Image): Neanderthals of the comics industry, take note - this is how you write women in the 21st century superhero genre. I don't think many people expected Joshua and Jonathan Luna to debut as strongly as they did with this Image miniseries, which depicts the everyday lives of three superheroines looking for love. The Lunas reportedly pitched their story as "Sex and the City meets Powers", and there's a degree of truth to that, except that those two templates tend to focus exclusively on one theme: with "Powers" it's violence, with "Sex and the City"... well, the name says it all, really. "Ultra" goes beyond that restriction, while keeping the problems Pearl and her friends face very true-to-life and genuine, without the reverence (or, in defiance of that, irreverence) that accompanies mainstream spandex stories. They were women first, superheroes second.
6. Edie Sawyer (X-Force, Marvel): Edie Sawyer was not a good person. She and the other members of Peter Milligan's X-Force were mutants, but Claremont would have a seizure if he'd seen them - loud, obnoxious, amoral celebrities who drank, used drugs, and had a turnover rate higher than just about any Marvel series. Edie stands out, though; despite her outrageous behavior, there was something accessible about her,especially when we'd catch glimpses of her life before she became a member of X-Force. And her death - a meaningless accident - resonated with the team long after they'd supposedly moved on. I put Edie on this list because, to me, she represents a certain breakthrough in female characterization; she's a very flawed individual, but she's not vilified for those flaws, as Jean Grey was, nor are the unhappy circumstances of her life exaggerated to make her a whore or an unsympathetic bitch. I should probably note that this place was originally occupied by Jessica Jones, an even greater representative of the notion that women can be imperfect without spiralling into madness or evil (or both), but as much as I loved her in "Alias", this list would require me to take "The Pulse" into account, and I'm more comfortable disavowing anything Bendis did with the character once "Alias" concluded. Edie wins out by virtue of consistency.
Friday, June 1, 2007
3. Christine Spar ("Grendel: Devil's Legacy", Dark Horse): You've heard this story a hundred times before. Tragedy strikes a family, leaving a sole survivor who dons a mask and stalks the streets, seeking vengeance. Batman. Punisher. Daredevil. The Crow. Here's the thing, though: women don't usually get in on that action. Oh, there's no lack of vengeful women in comics, but that urge for payback is usually expressed in subtler (or more over-the-top) forms. It's very, very rare for a woman to pick up a sword or a gun and actively avenge herself; how fortunate, then, that Matt Wagner has provided us with Christine Spar, heir to the mantle of Grendel in "Devil's Legacy".
A bit of backstory is needed for this one: Christine was the granddaughter of Hunter Rose, a highly intelligent socialite who, out of boredom, became the criminal mastermind Grendel (oftimes referred to as "the Devil"). When his adopted daughter, Stacy Palumbo, learned who he really was, she went mad and orchestrated his demise. Christine was born to the unstable Stacy and spent her life trying to extricate herself from her bloodstained legacy... until her son was kidnapped. Frustrated by the failure of law enforcement, Christine did the unthinkable and stole Rose's mask and signature pitchfork, becoming Grendel herself and wreaking mayhem on her enemies' lives.
Christine is a rare example of a legacy character who sidesteps the archetype of the weaker, distaff ripoff. Her identity is, on the one hand, inherited from Hunter Rose, but she quickly establishes herself as the antihero Hunter Rose never could have been. What's more, every Grendel that follows her in the line of succession inherits Christine's rage at the corrupt society around her and is motivated to change it, rather than indulge in the sort of playful scheming that made Rose a master criminal. It's ultimately her legacy, not Rose's, that shapes the destiny of the world.
4. Anne Merkel (Why I Hate Saturn, Vertigo): Anne doesn't break any paradigms. She's not the first credible female lead in a sci-fi magazine, she's not the first woman to lead a superteam, and she's not the first legacy character to overpower the shadow of her template. Anne Merkel is just a snarky, witty, down-to-earth lady who reacts to atypical situations in typical ways. I know women like Anne; I see myself in Anne. And even as Kyle Baker draws her into an adventure that can best be described as "wacky", she retains that sense of normality, of being an average real-life woman. There's nothing special or unique about her at all, and that's the whole appeal of her character.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Okay, I've reached a point where I just can't deal with the sexist bullshit that's been infesting the comics industry lately. The Nymphet thing was seriously the last straw. So this is how I'm coping: over the next few days I'll be posting my picks for the ten greatest female characters in mainstream comics.
1. Halo Jones ("The Ballad of Halo Jones", 2000AD): I think I'll let the master, Mr. Alan Moore, explain this one himself: "I didn't want to write about a pretty scatterbrain who fainted a lot and had trouble keeping her clothes on. I similarly had no inclination to unleash yet another Tough Bitch With A Disintegrator And An Extra Y Chromosome upon the world. What I wanted was simply an ordinary woman such as you might find standing in front of you while queuing for the check-out at Tesco's, but transposed to the sort of future environment that seemed a pre-requisite of what was, after all, a boy's science fiction comic." And that was exactly what we got: a normal teenage girl dissatisfied with her claustrophobic life and determined to go "Out" into the vastness of space. What I love most about Halo is her determination; it's really all she has, but it's enough to pull her through her darkest moments, take her across the universe and turn her into a legend.
2. Ororo Munroe/Storm ("X-Men", Marvel): My very first experience with comics was reading the Dark Phoenix Saga TPB when I was 14. It got me curious enough to follow the X-Men for a while, both in the current (at the time) Lobdell/Nicieza run (early '90s, so it wasn't quite boingy-boingy insane yet) and in back issues. And there was one character who caught my attention and wouldn't let go: Storm. What a heroine; not only did she lead one of the most diverse and interesting superhero teams in comics, she was incredibly powerful (and didn't hestitate to use that power), she took shit from nobody (even Wolverine follows her orders), and she was consistently depicted as being a better leader than golden boy Cyclops. She was independent, graceful, noble... a true role model. And that's setting aside what I, as a more mature and experienced reader, see in her today: a female heroine who dodged the usual cliches when she found her dark side, and got tougher rather than becoming an enormous slut; a female heroine whose sexuality was a primal aspect of her character rather than an act of pandering to deprived troglodytes; a woman who was both a firm leader and a surrogate mother to the younger girls at the Institute. A shame that she's been sacrificed on the altar of a Hollywood writer's lagging sales, but no matter how many retcons Quesada approves, the past is set in stone, and I will always remember Storm as the single best woman Marvel ever created.
Last, but not least - not by any stretch of the imagination - is Heroes, which divided its season finale into three episodes: "The Hard Part", "Landslide" and "How To Stop An Exploding Man".
Of all the series I've reviewed this year, "Heroes" was the one that had the most potential to succeed - and with that, the most potential to fail. There's no middle ground with something this ambitious.
Fortunately for all involved, what we ultimately got was some of the most spectacular television in years, and nitpicks aside, the first season did everything right. Structurally, the storylines were well-paced and balanced so that you never had too many plates spinning simultaneously, while allowing the occasional flashback/flash-forward. Practically every member of the cast was developed and fleshed out to some extent (though there was an obvious hierarchy among the protagonists). The cliffhangers were edge-of-your-seat material. Continuity was highly consistent, and foreshadowing always paid off while allowing for the occasional use of misdirection (ie: in Peter's original dream of the explosion, Simone is running towards him only to be pulled away by Isaac - that turned out to be symbolic rather than literal, but it still happened). Most importantly, the first season constitutes a complete story. Beginning, middle, and an end that brought all the separate threads and characters together. That's how it's done.
"Heroes" probably had an advantage right out the gate by virtue of being relatively unique; the closest TV equivalent I can think of is "The Tomorrow People", and that was a children's show. It's certainly true that Kring wore his influences on his sleeve - many of the series' themes (evolution, persecution of "special" individuals, dystopian future, serving "the greater good" through acts of evil) came from comics, while the decision to employ a large cast of attractive-but-talented actors likely derived from "Lost" (which, for all its faults, should at least be commended for assembling a group of pretty people who, astonishingly enough, could play a role rather than rely on their looks). Of course, in another sense, "Heroes" represents lessons learned from "Lost" and "X-Files" - establish your villain clearly, don't base your entire premise on a yes/no answer (Will they get off the Island? Do aliens exist?), and for God's sake, never forget that your audience's patience is limited and they don't owe you anything you don't earn.
The finale was particularly enjoyable: there were some unexpected deaths, some surprising revelations about the past, satisfying resolutions to several subplots, and best of all, the underlying "message" ended up being a positive one - as Charles Deveaux predicts, the world is saved not by strength and moral ambivalence but by love and purity, and there's a very strong counterpoint there to all the cynical Countdown/Civil War nonsense going on in comics nowadays.
Refreshing, exciting, containing all the strengths of the superhero genre without the inherent excesses; a story about people with powers instead of powers with faces attached to them. This was the breakout star of 2006-2007.
What I'd like to see next season: This being NBC, I suppose any request with the word "nekkid" attached to Adrian Pasdar, Milo Ventimiglia or Zachary Quinto is about as likely as me singing the praises of Chuck Austen. So how about this: more women, please. Claire's great and Niki has her moments, but it'd be nice to have someone a little more formidable turn up - someone with an active power, perhaps? It's an uncomfortable coincidence that every superpowered woman on the show so far (Claire, Niki, Charlie, Dale, Molly and Eden) has had passive abilities.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Sung to the tune of the Andrews sisters (or Christina Aguilera if you prefer):
He was a famous comic writer from Chicago way
He had an awesome style that no one else could play
He was the top man at his craft
But then his number came up
And he was bought in a draft
He's in Avengers now, both new and Mighty
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!
They made him write a crossover for Uncle Joe
It really brought him down and he became a schmoe
But no one seemed to understand
Because the next day the boss
Went out and played in the sand
And now the company jumps when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!
A root, a toot, a toodlie-a-da-toot
He's blown assignments so far in awful rhythm
Can't write a note if the book's just a mote
And now the company jumps when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!
He puts the boys to sleep with comics every week
And makes 'em cry for mercy when they're feeling meek
They're screaming mad and writing posts
'Cause they know how it goes when you're the host with the most
Whoa whoa he makes 'em mad when he says "Golly gee!"
He's the Mighty Mega Marvel Moron Crossover Bee!
Here's an ironic twist for you: while "Veronica Mars" was axed with no fanfare and no proper ending, the season finale of Supernatural could have easily doubled as a series ending, though a third season has been confirmed. Eric Kripke took the preparatory step that Rob Thomas wouldn't; as soon as danger was on the horizon, he designed the two-part episode "All Hell Breaks Loose" to serve primarily as a climax not only to the season but to the entire show, while leaving a thread or two open just in case things worked out (these being the sorts of threads that, if push came to shove, could leave you with a sense of "And their adventures continued" rather than "And then they did this really amazing thing, but you'll never know what it was").
When I reviewed the second-season premiere, I thought it probably should have concluded the first season instead, because you had all these plotlines winding down in the wrong place (the Colt, John's relationships with his sons, Dean's ambivalence towards death). Part of what's so surprising about "All Hell Breaks Loose" is that it doesn't just tie up loose ends from the current season (the Roadhouse, the Crossroads Demon, etc.), it also brings first-season subplots to a head: we finally learn the truth about Sam and the other psychics, the Colt is back in play, the Yellow-Eyed Demon's endgame is revealed, and everything leads up to an intense, explosive showdown, a battle that had been building up over forty-four episodes.
Now, this season wasn't perfect. Overall, I'd say there were two major missteps, the first being Jo and the second being Angst. Jo was initially set up to be a female counterpart to the Winchesters, and a probable love interest for Dean, but unfavorable fan reaction sent her rocketing to the Cornfield. While I was fond of Jo at first (or rather, what she represented - we haven't seen any real huntresses on the level of John or Gordon), I do think Kripke pushed her down our throats a bit too hard, to the point where gagging was the only possible outcome. Add that to the fact that Alona Tal's availability is sketchy at best, and it just wasn't going to work out.
The Angst is a whole other story, and might serve well as a cautionary tale of "be careful what you wish for". One of my criticisms of the first year was that the boys weren't quite three-dimensional enough for my tastes; Sam had some pathos to keep his character arc going, but Dean was flat as a kitchen tile. This season, they overcompensated. There was a lot of crying. A lot. A LOT. And unlike James Purefoy and Polly Walker, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles aren't the caliber of actors who can convey profound emotion convincingly; Padalecki proved as much by acting out a death scene as though he were falling asleep. While looking really bored. I don't know. It was awkward. Kripke did try to balance the Angst out with standard "case" episodes such as "Roadkill" and "Hollywood Babylon", humor episodes like "Tall Tales", and the FBI storyline in "The Usual Suspects", "Nightshifter" and "Folsom Prison Blues". But you just couldn't get away from all the (bad) crying and morose brooding.
On the other hand, the Angst actually had an appropriate cause - John's death, among other things - and more to the point, it served a purpose, that being character development for Dean. Granted, it's the cheap sort of development, where tragedy upon tragedy is piled onto a protagonist until he cracks, but structurally speaking it took him to the precise place he needed to be in the season finale, where he gives everything up for Sam. Sure, devotion to his brother has always been a consistent aspect of his character, but Dean's actions gain a lot more credibility in light of how ground-down and world-weary he's become. That, I think, is what ultimately justifies the overwhelming pathos this season, though it's no less exhausting to go over in full.
As payoff, then, "All Hell Breaks Loose" is more than adequate, and if the season as a whole tilted a bit too far in one direction, it was still consistently entertaining.
What I'd like to see next season: A greater emphasis on folklore would be nice. While "Supernatural" has appropriated and adapted many urban legends, I think they could do more in that department, given the series' backdrop. Obviously, I'd also appreciate a reduction in Angst-related storylines, though the brothers' interaction has been much more solid this season. My hope, in terms of storylines, is that they won't spend too much time on Dean's death curse; it's the sort of thing that could potentially be dragged about for way too long.
Part 3 (last one, promise!) to follow! :)