Sunday, July 29, 2007

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Jericho

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

SDCC Commentary

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

Does... not... compute...

Spock... will be sexy...

Porn star... writes for Virgin Comics...

This is the big one, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join ya!


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

Movie Review: Spider-Man 3




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

Movie Review: TMNT

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

Mo' money, mo' problems

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

Here's the thing about the Batgirl Showcase cover...

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

Shocking turn of events! (comments)

You see? Writers and reviewers can live together in harmony! :)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I'm coming up, so you'd better get this party started!


It's gonna be fun. :)

Friday, July 13, 2007

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Movie Review: Ratatouille

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

Book Review: "A Density of Souls" by Christopher Rice

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

Book Review: "Ithaka" by Adele Geras

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.