Thursday, December 25, 2008

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 1

Now that we've gotten the preliminaries out of the way, it's time to start reviewing. Our first fan film is Star Wars: Revelations, a 47-minute movie set between the two trilogies, courtesy of Panic Struck Productions.

As it was produced prior to the release of "Revenge of the Sith", the main purpose of "Revelations" is to explain how the Empire hunted the Jedi into total extinction by the time Luke Skywalker reached his teens. This is a fair enough question: it's a big universe, but even the Expanded Universe novels adhered to the idea that Luke had to rebuild the Jedi from scratch because none of the "old guard" survived the Clone Wars.

Insofar as that question is concerned, "Revelations" provides a logical answer by establishing the existence of a sub-group within the Jedi known as Seers - Jedi whose Force-related specialty is seeing the future. The Seers, led by a man named Sakal, were basically excommunicated by the Order because their predictions were thought to be unreliable (but as it turns out, they were all having visions of the Empire's rise to power, and no one believed them).

Taryn Anwar, the film's protagonist, is a Seer hunting for Sakal's Holocron, a cube-shaped data matrix that contains great knowledge (and, potentially, great power as well). Taryn hooks up with Declan, a smuggler, and another man named Cade who is either a defecting Stormtrooper or a fugitive Jedi (that part's a bit unclear). We also learn that Cade was the lover of Taryn's sister Raux, a victim of the Empire's purges.

But Taryn's not the only one looking for the Holocron. Zhannah, one of the Emperor's Hands, is competing with Darth Vader to find both Taryn and the artifact. As it turns out, Zhannah and Taryn have a history: the Emperor's Hand tricked Taryn into using her visions to find other Jedi, who were promptly exterminated by the Empire.

The backstory has a few minor timeline glitches - namely, we have no idea when Sakal and the Seers were cast out; sometimes it seems to have happened during Taryn's lifetime, but there are also references to the Sith Wars which happened thousands of years prior to the prequel trilogy. We're also not sure how long Taryn has been on the run, and whether or not Zhannah's been tracking her all that time. But as I said, these are minor distractions, not especially noteworthy given the pace and progress of the storyline. I'd say a bigger problem is that the distinction between Jedis and Seers gets pretty blurred by the time we get to the climax - Taryn's visions pretty much stop right before they could become relevant to the plot.

However, if the film's own internal continuity is problematic, it does manage some nice tricks with established canon: there's a scene around the midway point where the Emperor disbands the Senate. If you recall the first "Star Wars", this means the Death Star is complete. Now, the scene seems a bit tacked-on... until the epilogue of "Revelations", in which two characters decide to head to Alderaan. It's a sad moment, but only the viewer knows that.

While I said I wasn't going to talk about production values, "Revelations" merits a mention simply because it looks like a "Star Wars" movie. The CGI lacks the fluidity of professional studios, but is impressive nevertheless; the TIE Fighter chase through the shipyards and the lightsaber duels are surprisingly similar to the general look and feel of "Star Wars". Special props go to the actors who recreated Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader - they did so very convincingly.

Here's something I found interesting about "Revelations": both the main protagonist and the main antagonist of the film are women. And... okay, tangent time. I've had a problem with women in "Star Wars" for a long, long time. Leia didn't particularly impress me; Amidala even less so. The Expanded Universe isn't very accomodating either: Asajj Ventress had the makings of an interesting character but lapsed into 2D Land more often than not, Mara Jade is Timothy Zahn's Mary Sue, Mon Mothma's a bit player despite her supposedly legendary backstory... and then you have Admiral Daala, probably the biggest face-palm Kevin J. Anderson ever earned in the Star Wars universe. He makes a big deal about Daala being the only woman ever promoted to the Imperial admiralty, ostensibly on the strength of her impressive tactical skills, and then she turns out to be so incompetent she can't even score minor wins against the New Republic. I'll go so far as to say that if there's one decent, well-rounded woman in "Star Wars", it's Jaina Solo: badass Jedi, navigates her own love life without any help (*cough*Mara*cough*), swerves to the Dark Side and pulls herself out by sheer force of will, and basically becomes the greatest Jedi Knight of her generation.

Unfortunately, Jaina doesn't exist outside the projected future of the novels - a period no other medium or spin-off seems to want to deal with. So, perhaps as a response to that, "Revelations" gives us Taryn, a more compelling character than Luke or Anakin because of her redemption subplot (Anakin just whined a lot, and Luke... well, Luke's the Chosen One because he's born to it, not because of anything he actually does). Zhannah's an interesting counterpart to Vader, and "Revelations" does offer us a scene where they share screen time to highlight the contrast: he's this huge, booming, imposing presence, whereas Zhannah is ice-cold, detached and subtle - the role could have easily degenerated into one of those scene-chomping bits where you can actually see the teeth marks on the set pieces, but the actress playing Zhannah never loses her cool, never breaks character.

All in all, it's a rather enjoyable piece. The story's about average - standard fare for "Star Wars", really - and the cast avoids the sort of awkwardness you can sometimes get with amateur actors. Throw in some surprisingly good special effects, an overall length that's just about right (not too short that we're left unsatisfied with the results, not too long that it starts to drag), and what you get is a pretty decent justification of the genre.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Prologue

I've decided to start a new feature here at Sententia: fan film reviews. Much like fan fiction, it's a phenomenon that fascinates me both as a reader and as a student of literature.

There are a few "ground rules" I suppose I should get out of the way first: I'm not especially interested in comparing these productions to the source material in terms of visual quality. It's fair enough to do that sort of parallel with text-based fanfic when words - and how they're used - are the only tangible difference between a fan-author and the original author; I hardly think it's realistic to expect fan-level productions to match the CGI budget of Paramount or Lucasfilm (though, if tomorrow's subject is any indication, they can come surprisingly close).

I'm also leaving acting skills (or lack thereof) out of the equation unless it absolutely merits a mention - in a world where Hayden Christensen passed the first round of auditions for the role of Darth Vader, it's best to judge such things on their own merits.

The guiding principle behind these reviews relates to my overall concept of fan fiction as something that exists to address a gap in the source material - whether these are issues and themes the canon can't (or won't) deal with, or scenes and scenarios that didn't textually happen but could have (or, depending on the genre of the story, couldn't have) happened. But it's always a response to something within the original work.

I should note that I find fan fiction to be as valid and as legitimate an exercise as, say, the Expanded Universe novels of the "Star Wars" franchise. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the only difference between the EU novels and "Star Wars" fanfic is that the EU writers get paid and presumably have the parent company's seal of approval - not the most convincing argument, as these things have nothing to do with what's actually published.

In fact, it's interesting to see how EU novels of this sort can fall into the same traps as fanfic - Timothy Zahn is rightly praised for the creation of Grand Admiral Thrawn, but he also inflicted Mara Sue upon us. And it's just as impossible to achieve consensus with published novels: just because you get a rubber stamp from Grandpa George doesn't mean you're not working with your own interpretations of the characters, which may or may not correlate to other authors' interpretations, or even to what the original material (the two trilogies) present. Canon becomes just as malleable as it is in fanfic, and the only thing that matters is whether or not the writer convinces you that his version works.

And, of course, the EU novels were a response to what was likely the most common question anyone was asking at the end of "Return of the Jedi" - what happened next? (Or possibly "Did we really need all those Ewoks?"). Sequels are easy that way. But with fan films, it's a bit more complicated to figure out exactly what they're responding to with regards to the source material.

You may have noticed that I've been focusing on the "Star Wars" franchise pretty exclusively so far. That's because our first entry, to be posted tomorrow, will be a review of Star Wars: Revelations by Panic Struck Productions, located here:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fight of the Century

Laaaaaaaadies and gentlemen!

In this cornah, weighing in at an astonishing 925 pounds (ego included), the Fighting Fossil, John Byrne!

And in this cornah, weighing in at 101 pounds, the Suffolk Succotash, Tom Brevoort!

Just so we know where we all stand, John Byrne puts out a list of changes he'd like to see at Marvel - some of which are common sense, and some of which betray Byrne's hilariously outdated storytelling style; like his old partner Chris Claremont, Byrne is very much a man of his time who's failed to keep up. And unlike Claremont, whose kitschy histrionics are good for a laugh, Byrne takes himself so seriously - honestly, just look at his last projects for DC - that it's no wonder he's been pushed to the margins of the industry.

And then you have Tom Brevoort, who - bless his inefficient little soul - at least tries to tell stories with modern sensibilities. He fails, of course, and spectacularly so, much as Paul O'Brien and Al Kennedy pointed out: more often than not a Brevoort-edited comic will bear no sign of actually having been proof-read, to the extent that writers will go to Newsarama and talk about fairly interesting concepts and plotlines that never actually materialize in the published comic. Some of Marvel's most embarrassing fuster-clucks occured on Brevoort's watch, and while he may not have displayed the utter incompetence of Mike Marts during Chuck Austen's Reign of Error on the X-books, this is someone who I hold at least partially responsible for the utter mediocrity of Marvel's output at the moment.

In other words, I wouldn't trust either of these clowns to see us through a transition to products of a better quality, not from a writer who can't get with the times and an editor who can't seem to put his foot down and say "Uh, Brian, you're basically saying the invasion we've been building up all year ends with one fight?"

If you really want to "fix" Marvel, the first thing you need to do is ditch the fanboys. By which I mean Quesada, Bendis, Millar, the writers who are acting out their adolescent rewrites of '70s and '80s Marvel and who can't seem to let go of that period - whether it's Quesada not being able to "identify" with a married Peter Parker or Bendis bringing back that bloody Mockingbird as if anyone born after 1983 knows who the hell she is... that whole block of non-creativity has got to go. We need fresh ideas, fresh writers with the balls to rip out the damned rewind button on the remote and just press Play already. Enough retcons, enough revisions, enough rewrites. Leave the past alone and look ahead for once.

And we need editors with backbone. Editors who do their job and actually give the comic a once-over before hitting it with the rubber stamp. Editors who aren't afraid to take the star quarterback aside and give him the old UR DOIN IT RONG speech.

And maybe, just maybe, if we get that change, and the overall story quality rises, and superstar artists are penalized for not sticking to the damned monthly schedule after having months, if not years, of lead time... maybe then we'll get new readers. Because from where I'm sitting, I really can't think of a reason people would set aside perfectly legitimate avenues of entertainment - more importantly, story vehicles that can actually deliver more often than not - to hunt down these deeply flawed and overpriced 22-page comic books. I love comics, but I've got a foot out the door as it is because it's been... what, five years now? Six? Since Marvel stopped being even slightly experimental and just slid into a quagmire of continuity revisions, each more convoluted than the last? That's a long, long time to go without ever once feeling that things were looking up. And if I could get tired of things as they are, I reckon others will get tired too. Maybe even the hardcore zombies - who surely account for at least 80% of Marvel's overall profit off comics, because those idiots will buy anything - will get to move on with their lives.

Then again, maybe not. Who knows? All I'm sure of is that, if we ever do get there, it won't be because John Byrne Saved Comics. Or because Tom Brevoort Did It Right. It'll happen despite their presence.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Game Review: Dreamweb

Another DOS-era adventure game, but a bloody weird one where your interpretation of the plot basically depends on whether or not you read the manual addendum written as the diary of the main character.

The protagonist of "Dreamweb", Ryan, has been having constant nightmares about the impending destruction of the world; it seems that seven men and women - working individually - are seizing control of the seven nodes of the Dreamweb, the sum of humanity's hopes, aspirations and dreams. If they're successful, the whole world will descend into madness and evil. Ryan is contacted by the Keeper of the Dreamweb, and is told he must find and kill these seven before they complete their corruption of the nodes.

And that's more or less how the story goes: you move about a dirty city where it's constantly raining, hunting down one target after another and reclaiming the dream energy they leave behind when they die, returning it to the Dreamweb. There are a few twists along the way, but I don't want to spoil them. Or the ending, for that matter, which is... kind of an anticlimax on the one hand, but on the other hand it still makes sense in the context of the story.

So you have the whole Chosen One angle and it all seems pretty traditional. Now, in my specific case, I beat the game and then read Ryan's diary... and it added a huge amount of ambiguity to what I just played, because the story takes on a completely different context if you believe the diary.

So far all I've talked about is the story, mainly because there's not much to say about the game's visual dimension: it's a top-down perspective, and not a particularly good one - there's a smaller, separate window which provides a sort of "zoom" on objects you're pointing at. All dialogues are pre-programmed and your seven targets are put in a set order, so it's all quite linear. And yet, I think this is one of those cases where the interest in the story outweighs the predictability and mild clumsiness of the mechanical aspect. Worth a play-through for the story and the music alone.

Game Review: Gabriel Knight

In keeping with my re-exploration of old-school adventure games, I recently completed one of the few Sierra game series I never had a chance to play in their heyday: the "Gabriel Knight" trilogy, comprised of "Sins of the Fathers" (1993), "The Beast Within" (1995) and "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" (1999).

There are a few factors which set "Gabriel Knight" apart from its contemporaries, even within Sierra's own product lines. First of all, it's the only series in which all the games had voice-acting (apart from "Phantasmagoria", though that doesn't really qualify seeing as how they were two completely unrelated games that happened to have the same title). Granted, "Sins of the Fathers" came out relatively late in the company's life - in fact, "Blood of the Sacred" was the very last traditional adventure game Sierra ever released - but even in 1993 you had games like "Space Quest V" that never got vocal treatment.

And the cast for "Sins of the Fathers" is pretty impressive: Tim Curry as Gabriel, Leah Remini as his assistant Grace Nakimura, Mark Hamill as Police Detective Franklin Mosely, and Michael Dorn as creepy voodoo expert Dr. John. Everyone involved delivers a great performance, with the possible exception of Curry's ultra-cheesy attempt at a New Orleans accent that actually got more outrageous in the third game. But we'll get to that in a bit. You also had a hilariously sardonic Cajun narrator mocking Gabriel every chance she got.

Another odd thing about the "Gabriel Knight" series is that popular opinion positions the first game, "Sins of the Fathers", as the best of the three. To be honest, while I think "The Beast Within" has its charms, I'm inclined to agree - it's the most "traditional" game in the trilogy in terms of gameplay, graphics and the interface, something that fits in quite easily with other Sierra masterpieces like "Quest for Glory IV" and "King's Quest VI". It has a strong, broad mystery that takes you from Louisiana to Africa to Germany and back, and it takes a very clear-minded (and surprisingly non-Hollywood-pop-culture-educated) view on Voudoun as religion vs. Voodoo as black magic. Also, "Sins of the Fathers" depicts Gabriel and Grace at their best: they bicker, they banter, they come pretty close to admitting mutual attraction, but neither of them are particularly interested in acting on it. At least, not yet.

None of this detracts from the fact that the second game, "The Beast Within", is appealing in its own way. The format shifts to interactive movie, so obviously it's a lot more streamlined and offers the player less possibilities in terms of plot-branching. But Jane Jensen again earns points for doing the research, taking the historical tale of Ludwig II, last king of Bavaria, and throwing werewolves into the mix, and players get to alternate between Gabriel and Grace, each tackling the same case from very different angles (Grace's storyline involves a lot of historical research, while Gabriel goes undercover and confronts the danger head-on). And if Dean Erickson takes the "pretty-boy" angle a little too far, flipping his hair every time he sits down like a slimmer Fabio, he still fits the mold nicely. Joanne Takahashi, on the other hand... let's just say Grace becomes seriously unlikeable in her first few scenes, generally played as an attention-starved stalker obsessed with Gabriel and biting the head off anyone who gets in her way.

Kudos are due for Jensen's use of homoeroticism - I'm not even talking about the explicit stuff like "Louie" being Ludwig's lover, but von Glower caressing a half-naked Gabriel as he sleeps? von Zell getting all bitchy because his ex-boyfriend has a new (and prettier) toy? Wow. Not the sort of thing I would've expected to find in a 1995 video game.

Which brings us to "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned". And... it just doesn't live up to its predecessors. I mean, it's admirable that they try something new every game, and here we have a fully 3D environment in which the camera can move completely independent of the player character - refreshing at first, but you'll get tired of it very quickly when it comes to navigating and/or finding a specific item or person in a huge sprawling area. Fortunately, the camera moves swiftly, but still, it's an annoyance.

Tim Curry is back as Gabriel, and like I said, he's even more over-the-top here... So Bad It's Good? I honestly can't say. Anyway, after facing a voodoo cult and werewolves, Gabriel and Grace are up against vampires this time around. Sounds exciting? It would've been, if the game were actually about vampires. But that whole storyline gets sidetracked for most of the game so Gabriel can investigate - I kid you not - the Holy Grail. And it turns into a ridiculously muddled mess, with a bunch of scavenger hunters digging for treasure, some mumblings about alchemy, the 11th-hour appearance of the Wandering Jew and an origin story for the Ritter line that is so corny, so ludicrously and blatantly Christian-By-Numbers, that my eyes almost rolled right out of their sockets.

And if Grace and Gabriel didn't come off too well in "The Beast Within", they - and good old Mosely from New Orleans - are even worse here: Gabriel calls Grace a walking chastity belt while she's within hearing distance, and then he has a bad dream about a vampire attacking her and bamp-chicka-wow-wow, Something We Know Not What ensues. And the ending... abrupt, unsatisfactory, supposedly grows out of earlier events but I'm hard-pressed to see the connection. The whole Gabriel/Grace dynamic is just screwed to hell with this game, and that was a big part of the fun in the first game (and, to a lesser extent, the third as well). It doesn't help that "Blood of the Sacred" has some of the most obscure puzzles in the trilogy, especially towards the end with the whole "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" bit.

So, yeah, lousy ending to a great pair of games, for what that's worth. I'd say stick with the first two and give the third a pass - any closure you think you'll get from "Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned" will be disappointing to say the least.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Oy vey.

Oh, "Heroes". What am I going to do with you?

SPOILER ALERT, obviously.

1. So the ultimate outcome of the Big World-Changing Eclipse is... Elle dies? Mind you, she was getting ridiculously wishy-washy and I approve of hitting the reset button for Sylar, if only because it's marginally better than continuing the cockamamie redemption story... but on a show with so many problems, it's odd they prioritized getting rid of a genuinely talented actress whose character debut was one of the few highlights of season 2.

1a. And seriously, that's it? Mass power loss, everyone's vulnerable, everyone's expendable, and then the eclipse ends and we're exactly where we left off? This has driven home - with painful finality - a fairly horrible realization I've had about this show: it's not about the characters anymore, it's about the powers. It's not about taking risks, because the list of characters who could have died during the eclipse is huge, and most of those characters still have some S1 goodwill attached to them that their deaths would have meant something: Peter, Nathan, Claire, even Sylar. This was the best point to change something, and they didn't. Missed opportunity.

2. As I said, I'm happy about the Sylar reboot, despite feeling rather queasy at the whole Tilt-a-Whirl routine his character's gone through this season - seriously, in 12 episodes he got his powers back, was captured by the Company, became the Third Petrelli Brother (or is he?), teamed up with Bennet, sold out Bennet to kill Jesse, saved Angela, betrayed Angela, betrayed Peter, saved Peter, switched to Pinehearst, retroactively got a "hunger" added to his character makeup to make his redemption easier (in theory) to follow, retroactively got a love interest in Elle, became an empath, lost his powers and now he's gone back to his roots as the boogeyman serial killer (yeah, I vaguely remember a time when Sylar was genuinely scary). And I know I've been driving this comparison home ad nauseum, but it's really the foremost parallel that comes to mind: Spike, hanging around Sunnydale long after he doesn't have a purpose anymore, so he's evil and then he gets a chip and becomes Xander's pet and then he falls in love with Buffy and then he gets a soul, all these "grafts" that don't feel organic in the least because they're dictated not by the logical extension of the character arc but because the plot requires some kind of justification for keeping these popular characters around.

3. I like Breckin Meyer. I like Seth Green. Ever since it was announced that they'd be doing a stint on "Heroes", I was looking forward to it. My reaction to their role?

If I had any faith left in Tim Kring at this point, I might be charitable enough to attribute the total waste of brilliant guest-stars as some kind of quasi-meta commentary on how celebrities draw attention regardless of how substantial (or insubstantial) their actual screen time may be, much like Nichelle Nichols last season. Then again, Nana Dawson really didn't do anything and the sole point of Sam and Frack is to give Hiro the Uncle Ben speech, and so who are we kidding here?

4. It's a point of concern that there's been a substantial death tally so far (Adam, Maury, Elle, Niki [in that her death was made "official" this season], Bob, Usutu, etc.) and yet I honestly can't think of a single death that moved me like Eden's or Isaac's or even Simone's for all the eye-rolling that followed. All the S3 casualties were pretty much written off quickly, almost as an afterthought, and you know, it might have actually meant something if Claire had died during the eclipse, because Bennet would have been devastated to have missed the last minutes of his daughter's life while he was busy avenging her, and... okay, it wouldn't have been a heroic death, at least not in the sense that she accomplished much besides sacrificing herself for her father, but it would mean something to other characters. Similarly, Peter - a character I really enjoyed in earlier years who I now find insufferable - could have gone out in a blaze of glory in Haiti, finally being a hero without having any powers at all. It's not like Peter's the focalizer for the audience anymore, those days are long behind us.

CONCLUSION: If I was ambivalent about it before, I'm not anymore. I'll stick around to the end of the season for closure's sake, but... yeah, the shark's definitely been jumped here, folks. Time to cut and run.