Monday, February 25, 2008

Movie Mini-Review: Requiem For A Dream

Bloody hell, that was awful. Ninety minutes of utter misery. Whatever artistic merit "Requiem For A Dream" may have is totally lost beneath a black, miasmic depression so all-consuming, so complete, that enjoyment of any sort is practically impossible. I pride myself on being able to "take" hard-hitting dramatic elements, but when 100% of a story is human ugliness... to be totally honest, I just don't see the point.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Quick-Shot Movie Reviews

30 Days of Night: I liked it. It's always been the scratchy, confusing artwork that put me off the "30 Days of Night" comics, but the film manages a suitably creepy contrast of the vampires' warped, unearthly features and the realistic world around them. The acting was a bit sketchy, though ultimately tolerable. And I haven't seen many other horror movies that successfully depict mass slaughter (as opposed to individual kill-scenes): the overhead shots of Barrow being decimated were very effective.

Phoenix: Too cheesy for my tastes, though it deserves some points for getting a touch inventive with the standard "love triangle" formula, in which the person torn between two lovers is entirely absent from the story.

Spiral: On the one hand, there's an absolutely brilliant double-twist at the end of the movie. On the other hand, the middle act drags a bit mostly because of the lead character's laconic state; a lot of time is given over to Amber Tamblyn's ramblin' (take that, Stan Lee!) and the pace slows down as a result (though, as it turns out, the double-twist ends up linking to the whole verbosity issue). Zachary Levi cleans up surprisingly well - the curls were doing him no good in "Chuck". Definitely worth watching.

After Sex: An adorable series of vignettes with a common premise: each story takes place immediately after the two protagonists have had sex. It's basically a wide array of character moments, ranging from sweet (Kristy and Sam, Christopher and Leslie) to dramatic (Freddy and Jay, David and Jordi) to hilarious (Trudy and Gene, Marco and Alanna, Neil and Bob if only because looking directly at Neil opens a time-warp near your computer that sucks you into 1981). Clever at some points, anvilicious at others.

Slipstream: Not a single fucking clue. I prefer being eased into the weirdness as opposed to spending ninety minutes having no bloody idea what the hell is going on.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: Star Trek Double-Shot

Mirror Universe: Glass Empires
Mirror Universe: Obsidian Alliances

As I mentioned when I reviewed "Dark Passions", my interest in the Star Trek Mirror Universe outlasted my stay in that fandom - partly because I'm generally interested in parallel universes and doppelgangers, but also because I've always found the MU so much more engaging and dynamic than the mainstream Trekverse, where the status quo always found a way to reassert itself even after supposedly major astropolitical upheavals (ie: the Klingons are at war with the Federation! Oh, wait, they're over it. Never mind). With the MU, you have the Terran Empire overthrown by the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, providing two major "phases" in galactic history. Characters die all the time, or pop up in the most unexpected places.

So I'm always on the lookout for Mirror Universe fiction, and I was quite pleased to pick up "Glass Empires" and "Obsidian Alliances", a pair of anthologies collecting three novellas each, all set exclusively in the Mirror Universe. The six stories are based on six incarnations of "Star Trek": "Enterprise", the Original Series, "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine", "Voyager" and Peter David's "New Frontier" novels.

Before moving into specific reviews, I should note one potential flaw that might deter readers: both collections require more-than-casual knowledge of Mirror Universe history and Star Trek canon. This isn't totally unexpected, I know - any doppelganger story requires you to understand the difference between characters and their dark reflections - but accessibility becomes an issue in some places. On the flip-side, these two books are to be commended for the amount of internal continuity they share: stories from "Obsidian Alliances" reference "Glass Empires", and those stories set during the Alliance's reign indicate a growing schism between the Klingons and the Cardassians (which, if the Mirror Universe timeline ever continues forward, should provide an exciting backdrop for future upheavals). And while this duology contradicts "Dark Passions" and William Shatner's work in the Mirror Universe, I find the story they provide so cohesive that I'm comfortable granting it personal-canon status.

Glass Empires

Age of the Empress: And to demonstrate the accessibility problem, we have this "Enterprise" story by Mike Sussman, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Now, I've never watched "Enterprise", I had no idea who these characters were. As we'll see with a later example, though, this doesn't necessarily exclude me from enjoying the story. Except that "Age of the Empress" also seems to directly follow up on an episode of "Enterprise" in which a ship from the future and from a parallel universe is flying about, and... well, I was just totally lost. There was no effort made to reintroduce these characters and the situation for those unfamiliar readers, which left me outside the story for its duration. There's really no way I can give it a proper review, so let's move on.

David Mack's The Sorrows of Empire works much better, detailing Spock's rise to power and the eventual downfall of the Terran Empire. Despite a few plot clunkers (Spock's ultimate plan seems a bit on the iffy side, and the Insta-True-Love bit with Marlena isn't very convincing), Mack puts together a convincing tapestry of events only alluded to in the DS9 Mirror episodes, and his depiction of Spock as a logical - sometimes terrifyingly logical - entity makes his ascension all the more unnerving because it makes you wonder whether the "real" Spock, confronted with the circumstances of the Mirror Universe, would've acted the same way.

The Worst of Both Worlds by Greg Cox jumps about a century forward, into the time of Alliance rule. Jean-Luc Picard is an archaeologist modeled after Indiana Jones, scouring the galaxy for alien artifacts on behalf of his Cardassian patron. His routine is interrupted by his ex-girlfriend Vash, now a member of the Terran Resistance, who has uncovered evidence of a new alien race approaching the Alpha Quadrant: the Borg. As the title suggests, this is basically an inversion of "The Best of Both Worlds", in which the Borg target the Klingons, someone else becomes Locutus, and Picard - a lowly Terran slave - is the only one who can save the day. I liked this story mainly because, unlike "The Sorrows of Empire", the Picard featured here is very different from his mainstream counterpart. He's not at all noble, or interested in doing the right thing for freedom's sake, and he's only motivated to fight back when the situation affect him personally. But once he's goaded into action, we can see a glimmer of the Picard we know. Also, kudos for finding a way around the Borg problem (namely, that there's no way the Alliance could have beaten them) that doesn't seem like a cop-out.

Obsidian Alliances

Keith DeCandido takes on "Voyager" with The Mirror-Scaled Serpent, quite possibly the raunchiest story in the series. It's also, in my opinion, the most accessible: I knew next to nothing about "Voyager" but that didn't stop me from really enjoying the novella and getting a feel for practically every character. DeCandido adds some clever twists here following a common theme of inversion - the premise of "Voyager" is turned upside-down, and along relationship lines, friends in the main universe are lovers here, lovers are enemies, and the sexual restraint so enforced in the "Star Trek" franchise is totally evaporated. Overall, this was my favorite of the six stories, combining action, manipulation and sex into a fun ride.

I skipped over Peter David's Cutting Ties: like "Age of the Empress", it seemed primarily aimed at people familiar with the characters from the "main universe", and having never read "New Frontier", I thought it best to leave it be.

And finally, we have Saturn's Children by Sarah Shaw. Shaw's "About The Authors" segment reveals that she has a background in fan-fiction, which a) got me curious as to what work she's done in other fandoms, under which pseudonyms, and b) justifies my long-standing defense of fan-fiction as valid storytelling. "Saturn's Children" takes the Mirror Universe to the next logical place after its last DS9 appearance: the Resistance has grown to the point where leadership is splintered (Shaw opens the story with a quote from the French Revolution, neatly aligning the situation with human historical precedents), while Kira schemes to regain power and overthrow the new (yet familiar) Intendant of Bajor. Shaw arguably had the most challenging job here, because the DS9 mirror characters had a lot of screen-time and she's really the only writer who had to stick to pre-established parameters when writing her story (Mack's story goes so far beyond the Original Series that aligning his Mirror Spock with Jerome Bixby's Mirror Spock isn't an issue). Fortunately, Shaw rises to the occasion: Kira is every bit the manipulative seductress, Bashir the impulsive jerk, O'Brien the weary but determined leader looking for a better life. Like DeCandido, Shaw also doesn't shy away from using sex in an almost-explicit way, which is - in my opinion - thematically relevant to the setting.

"Saturn's Children" provides an excellent conclusion to the duology, though I'm hoping we'll see some of the loose ends (ie: Memory Omega, the growing discontent between the leading factions of the Alliance) picked up in later collections; apparently a third anthology will be published later this year. I'll be looking forward to it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wash The Soap Away

So, yeah, I'm pretty much done with "As The World Turns".

Mind you, I'd only been tuning in to the Luke/Noah arc anyway, but...

Here's the thing. It's never easy to back down when you make a big, grandiose PR move, especially if you do it in the name of progress. When Marvel folded on the X-Statix/Princess Di storyline, it pretty much killed one of their best series dead. Why? Not just because they backed down, but because they went and made so much noise about it, about how provocative and edgy they were, and they turned tail with the slightest hint of disapproval.

Now, the fact that the Luke/Noah storyline never progressed after their second kiss all those months ago could have been attributed to slow-burn, a tactic that has always served soap operas well. But when you do a Valentine's Day episode in which every single couple gets to snog except the boys, you're not slow-burning, you're excluding. And that's a big, honking red light.

I'd been optimistic about precedents being set in the soap genre, but if this is as far as they're willing to go, I'd say more conservative minds have prevailed here. Pity.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In which I make kazekage's head explode

I'm halfway through the first season of "Torchwood".

And I like it.

Bearing in mind that for the past few weeks, my esteemed and learned friend kazekage has been waging the sort of holy war usually reserved for Joe Quesada's latest fuck-up, I was quite surprised when I ended up enjoying the show.

Yes, I'll concede that the fairies episode was crap. But "Countrycide" was effectively creepy, and I really liked Suzie Costello's comeback, especially the idea that Gwen's whole Torchwood experience might simply be walking in someone else's footsteps, and we know how that story ends.

There'll probably be a seasonal review as soon as I finish off the remaining episodes, but I've found that most of kazekage's criticisms don't ring true for me: yes, the acting's awkward, but not a dealbreaker (though I suppose that after "Bionic Woman" and "Melrose Place", my pain threshold is way up there). The characters make some stupid choices, but unlike the last two seasons of "Buffy" (or the most recent arc of "Heroes", for that matter), mistakes aren't born of ineptitude but rather curiosity, self-interest, corruption and so on. I think I prefer it that way - it could just as easily have gone the other way a la "Men in Black" where they're so super-competent and so in control that nothing fazes them, there's no risk.

In earlier posts, kazekage had designated Jack Harkness as a Mary Stu: a walking mass of contrivance designed to be universally loved and so on. But to be honest, I'm not seeing it: sure, everyone loves Jack, but that's because John Barrowman is very pretty and he's got a bit of charm to him. That's justification for why everyone loves him, and justification (or rather, the lack thereof) is what defines a Mary Sue/Stu, because what makes such characters so annoying is that they're lionized for no visibly apparent reason. At least with Jack, I can see why half the team wants him.

And it's true that things tend to fall apart without Jack, but that's been the case with every protagonist-oriented series: the Scoobies never did well without Buffy, Veronica Mars' supporting cast could never solve a mystery without her, and Very Bad Things happen to the X-Men when Xavier's not around.

More to follow once I've finished the season and gathered my thoughts...

Monday, February 4, 2008

Movie Review: Beowulf

Despite taking substantial liberties with the source material, I've found the most recent adaptation of Beowulf to be one of the more thematically faithful interpretations.

Let's start with general comments first: the CGI is very impressive, closer to reality than anything I've seen before. At first, I was curious as to why the creators would bother with CGI, given how closely the characters resemble their actors... but the story of Beowulf is, at its core, a fantasy, and a world rendered entirely in CGI (as opposed to the sort of CGI/live-action hybridization you'd find in, say, the later Star Wars films) creates a seamless visual experience, where men and women are as real as the giants, dragons and demons that menace them. The voice-acting is also superb across the board, from Ray Winstone's bellowing, blustering Beowulf to Anthony Hopkins' weakened, decadent Hrothgar. The action sequences are flawless and truly epic in scale.

Neil Gaiman's rewrite of the epic poem makes some intriguing alterations, and yet I find that the story's heart remains unchanged: it's still pride and hubris that leads to Beowulf's downfall, in that pride leads him to make a bargain that ultimately destroys him. Gaiman's version also turns the story into a cyclical narrative, as we learn that Hrothgar has made a similar compromise in his past, and Wiglaf (Beowulf's successor) is tempted to do the same as well. Much like the poem, there's a comment here on the human condition as it existed in the pre-Christian warrior culture of the fifth century: at what point do the supreme values of honor and glory become too costly to maintain?

A key element of the film is humanization, or rather, a reduction of absolutes and ideals. The movie's Beowulf is not the perfect, archetypal warrior-king-hero that he was in the poem (where his only true flaw was growing old). In fact, one layer of complexity the film introduces has to do with The Legend of Beowulf versus the man himself, and it turns out there's a bit of a gap there: we, the audience, are privy to information that contradicts Beowulf's exaggerated tales of his own heroism. He becomes an unreliable protagonist, where in the poem you never really had reason to doubt what was said about his battles and his character.

Similarly, Grendel is more than just a vile hellspawn. In the film, he is depicted as a childlike creature, his attacks on Heorot a response to the physical pain the Danes cause him. I'm on the fence about this: on the one hand, Western literature has long since made the move from moral motivation to psychological motivation, so asking us to sympathize with Grendel, even to a slight extent, is understandable. On the other hand, this drains Grendel of his "evil" context, in the sense that he's no longer a foil for Beowulf. Of course, that shift moves Grendel's mother up the hierarchy and makes her the true villain of the story, rather than just another Monster of the Week as she appears in the poem, so that's a step up.

On a final note, here's something I found particularly clever: Crispin Glover, as Grendel, speaks Old English while his mother (Angelina Jolie) has a Slavic accent. Language is used not just to separate the demons from humanity but to separate Grendel and his mother as well. Grendel's speech pattern is archaic, but still native to the land he's in; his mother comes from Somewhere Else, a place that's altogether foreign. And it's little touches like that which elevate a pleasant action-fantasy film into something more.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Movie Review: The Nines

It's been a few days now since I saw The Nines, and despite the amount of time and thought I've invested, I'm still no closer to resolving my own ambivalent feelings with regards to this movie.

Broadly speaking, "The Nines" is a rubber-reality movie in the vein of "Jacob's Ladder", "The Machinist" and "Stay", in which the world seems to come unglued around our protagonist(s) and a final twist unveils the plausible and quasi-rational explanation, causing us to look at the entire film in a new light.

"The Nines" does this... after a fashion. It presents a series of three subtly-interconnected stories in which a trio of actors - Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis - play three different sets of characters, each with their own stories to tell. There's little point in analyzing each segment separately, because the pattern is the same every time: weirdness escalates until an abrupt ending materializes, at which point we're shunted to the next story without any real resolution.

When it comes to the rubber-reality sub-genre, the critical eye tends to fall most strongly on the denouement, the moment where the big twist comes into play and everything is meant to make sense. In "The Machinist", this was when Trevor finally recognized his "stalker"; in "Stay", it was after Henry's self-destructive guilt finally came to a head. Even "Donnie Darko" follows a sort of internal logic, provided you don't overanalyze the mechanics of time travel (that way lies madness and unhealthy attachments to websites promising you bigger breasts and penile enhancements).

But what happens when that ultimate explanation doesn't quite work? What if the denouement comes so far out of left field that suspension of disbelief - the mechanism that allows you to watch these movies in the first place - collapses? That's exactly what happens with "The Nines", in which the twist goes cosmic in, like, a Jim Starlin way, and I still don't know if I can accept the "truth".

Said "truth" is as follows: Ryan Reynold's character (we'll call him G for short) is "a multidimensional being of vast, almost infinite power" that has been creating, decreating and recreating the world, casting himself as a character in his own story. So Gary the actor, Gavin the writer and Gabriel the loving husband are all one and the same, and he's been doing this for so long that he doesn't remember where he came from. In comes Sarah (who is also Susan, who is also Sierra), another demigod who's come to break G out of his self-constructed prison and take him home. Unfortunately, he's become rather attached to Margaret/Melissa/Mary, a human woman who forms a connection with G in every incarnation (it's not clear whether he created this woman each time, or whether he just rewrites her identity after every "reboot").

And by the way, the film also establishes that koalas are weather-controlling telepaths, so now we know who's to blame for Hurricane Katrina. I just know that somewhere out there, Grant Morrison has woken up in a sweat, inexplicably feeling like he's missed an opportunity.

It's... a bit much, really. Setting aside the obvious question - if G creates both the world and his role in it, why is he so miserable each time? - this revelation isn't really contingent on the story that preceded it. I could've accepted a psychological explanation (because that's where the movie seemed to be heading), or even some kind of Matrix-ish "fake world" scenario... but cosmic godlings hooked on MMORPGs? Really?

On the other hand, the fact that the twist completely shatters my suspension of disbelief is partly because it's so unorthodox - I mean, of all possible explanations, I would never have guessed that particular one was the answer. And I have to admire the brass tacks it'd take to produce something so outlandish, regardless of the fact that it problematizes the film's final act - once the truth was revealed, I spent the rest of the movie in "Yeahbuhwhat?" mode and that was that.

This is what makes the rubber-reality sub-genre so frustrating: "The Nines" has a lot going for it, not least of which is its cast - Davis, Reynolds and McCarthy do a great job playing very different personalities in the space of ninety minutes. It'd be easier to write the film off had it been a complete dud, but it's not. At the same time, the denouement is so "out there" that, in my opinion, it derails the whole momentum of the story. Still, I suppose it's worth watching at least once, just for the severe head-trip that's sure to follow.