Sunday, December 26, 2010

Game Review: Dragon Age - Origins (Part 1)

Note: This review has grown to the point where I've decided to split it. Part 1 is Introduction/Setting

Well. It seems my plans to resume a more regular review schedule have been utterly derailed, as I spent November and some of December in an intense playthrough of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins.

Make that two playthroughs, actually.

So... where do I begin?

I actually had "Dragon Age" installed on my PC about six months ago; I'd put off playing it because I couldn't risk distractions during the concluding phase of my graduate project. But BioWare games have intrigued me for quite some time, specifically RPGs such as "Knights of the Old Republic", "Mass Effect" and "Dragon Age" where the player's ability to determine various courses of action supposedly leads to a more immersive role-playing experience.

In fact, one thing I enjoy about these "Western" RPGs is that, in theory, I'm able to formulate my character before starting the game: if I want to play the part of an honorable hero or a self-serving prat (or something else altogether), I can make those choices consistently throughout the game and emerge with a coherent character arc. It all depends on the extent to which the game world and the plot accomodate my decisions.

My first experience with a BioWare game didn't quite produce the desired result. I saw "Knights of the Old Republic" as a way to resolve an old beef I have with the "Star Wars" franchise: my player character would be a powerful, intelligent female villain. The Anti-Daala, as it were.

Unfortunately, being a "Star Wars" game, choices in "Knights of the Old Republic" are largely based on a simplistic moral binary: you're either roleplaying the Jedi equivalent of Mother Theresa or the Sith equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. And the game practically requires you to embrace one extremity or another, since the efficiency of talents such as Force Lightning and Healing are directly proportionate to your position on the Light Side/Dark Side scale. As a result, playing a villainous character meant making truly despicable decisions - appropriate for the cartoonish Emperor, perhaps, but not for the type of character I wanted to play.

"Dragon Age: Origins" is a much more subtle and flexible creature. I should note that I'm doing a great injustice to a very complex and intricate story by summarizing, but for brevity's sake it goes something like this: the kingdom of Ferelden is on the brink of destruction following a disastrous defeat at the hands of the vile darkspawn. You and another survivor are the last remnants of the fabled Grey Wardens, and you are tasked with assembling a new army and stopping the darkspawn incursion before they devour the entire realm. Naturally, every possible source of aid is currently neck-deep in its own troubles: the forest-dwelling Dalish Elves are under constant attack by a mysterious clan of werewolves, demons have overrun the Circle of Magi, the dwarves are a breath away from civil war and the human knights of Redcliffe have scattered across the land seeking a mystical cure for their dying leader.

Broadly speaking, that's all par for the course with RPGs: you have to solve other people's problems before they'll help you. But what's truly great about this game is that there are multiple solutions to the major quests, and unlike "Knights of the Old Republic" these options aren't based on morality per se, but rather a sort of cynical pragmatism versus idealism. For example, after a long trek through the underground ruins of the dwarven empire, you discover the Anvil of the Void, an ancient artifact capable of forging powerful golems. The Anvil's creator begs you to destroy it, as it requires a constant stream of living sacrifices to do its work. What's more, you may have a golem in your party that has described to you, in vivid detail, what basically amounts to an eternity of servitude. On the other hand, preserving the Anvil means the golems' raw might will benefit both you and the long-term survival of the dwarves. There may very well be a moral component at work, but it's not at the heart of the dilemmas you face.

Exploring Ferelden (and, by extension, the world of Thedas) was something of a marvel to me, as it's a world that defies the preconception of fantasy as simplistic literature. Unlike Middle-Earth or its derivatives, the existence of evil is treated more like an incurable disease than a tangible threat: the darkspawn and their corrosive Blight are beaten back again and again, but can never truly be eradicated. Ethereal demons from the dreamlike Fade can possess anyone with the slightest magical inclination, at any time, for any purpose. And there is no traditional solution to any of these problems, no keystone that instantly results in the enemy's destruction. This lends much credibility to the moral ambiguity permeating every aspect of the storyline: the thought of executing innocent mages should seem absolutely reprehensible, until you realize that there are no preventative measures that can be taken against possession. And since mages are arguably the most powerful class, both in story and game terms, the possibility of wiping them out "just to be safe" isn't something that can be set aside so easily. But is their current situation - a lifetime of virtual imprisonment within the Tower, under constant guard by the templars - any better? There are no easy or "right" answers, which ultimately means that the player's choices really count.

Ferelden's rich history is communicated to the player primarily through various Codex entries scattered across the world. Even the apocryphal material makes for pleasant reading, though some pieces of information (ie: the more detailed summary of Andraste's crusade and her death, or the profile on high dragons) can prove unexpectedly vital. You can certainly understand the plight of the elves better if you learn what really happened to them, and one of the major villains in the game becomes somewhat sympathetic in light of what the Codex reveals about his past. It's not an ideal scenario, since you're not likely to pause the game in the middle of a fight to read five paragraphs about the creature trying to crack your skull open, but it's far superior to twenty-minute infodump cutscenes.

The player is actually able to experience a part of the world before the story properly begins: character creation includes a choice of five possible backgrounds, depending on race/class. These serve as "prologues" to the main narrative, and are set in various regions across Ferelden, some of which you'll revisit during the major quests. Aside from informing how your character is perceived by others (a human noble is treated differently than a city elf or a dwarf commoner), these prologues also help root your character within the setting. You'll recognize NPCs who participated in your first adventure, who may have even fought at your side. While the world itself isn't much changed by your decisions, you may still find yourself more emotionally invested and immersed in the game. It's a clever device, and it works well enough that you'll probably find yourself creating new characters just for the different initial scenarios.

It's also worth noting that various DLCs add new locations and sub-stories, most of which are seamlessly integrated into the overall narrative, but I'll be reviewing those in a different segment.

Ultimately, I think what I most appreciate about the world of "Dragon Age: Origins" is that it actively resists many of the tropes and conventions that have become overly familiar and stale. The foundations are the same: humans and elves and dwarves learn to set aside their differences and unite against a common enemy, one that just happens to be a faceless horde of monsters. But once you're drawn in, the subversions become more and more evident, and what you're left with is an incredibly compelling world that breaks the right rules and upholds others.

Thedas: a great place to visit. But you wouldn't want to live there. Seriously. Everything wants you dead. Yes, even that. Especially that.

Next segment: Characters/Gameplay

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard From Thedas

Playing "Dragon Age: Origins".

Much to say.

Can't stop long enough to write.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

And apropos of "Mad Men"...

Sometimes I could swear that CollegeHumor is reading my mind...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Mad Men

This one's been on the to-do list for a while now: the show everyone's talking about, the show kazekage has been urging me to watch for months - and that counts for a lot, given how much I enjoyed the last series he recommended (Gargoyles).

So, just to start things off properly: sorry, love. Couldn't make it past six episodes.

I give the creators of "Mad Men" due praise for their recreation of 1960's New York: every detail radiates authenticity, even though I'm sure some liberties have been taken in terms of historical accuracy. And, as predicted, I've developed a major crush on Jon Hamm.

(Take note, CW bleach-babies - this is what a real man looks like!)

But frankly, my problem with this series has less to do with style and more to do with substance.

I'll preface the following review by admitting that my standards of evaluation aren't what they were a year ago; back then, if a somewhat-flawed series caught my interest, I'd stick around for at least a full season to see if things got better. I'm still watching (and enjoying) "The Vampire Diaries" because it's improved significantly since its initial mediocrity.

Unfortunately, I find myself sitting on a rather intimidating pile of books, movies and games at the moment, all of which I'd like to check out (and possibly review), which means I have considerably less patience for stories that don't hook me after a reasonable amount of time.

So I gave "Mad Men" six episodes. Is that fair? I'd like to think so - six hours is more than enough to present one of the two things I need in order to stay invested in a narrative: interesting characters or an entertaining story. (Years of substandard television have taught me never to expect both at the same time, but to be highly appreciative if they do show up hand-in-hand.)

Part of the problem may be hype backlash - more than any series I'm currently aware of, "Mad Men" has gained near-unanimous praise from critics and viewers alike. And yet, the one word that springs to mind when I try to describe this series is "joyless": taking into account that the whole point seems to be ridding its viewers of any nostalgic idealization of the period, there just isn't any fun to be had here.

It's the story of an ad agency, at a time when advertising was on the cusp of transforming into what it is now. And the entire cast is deeply screwed up, somewhere between Jackie Peyton and Nancy Botwin on the Arkham Asylum Scale of Batshit Lunacy.

Except that with Jackie and Nancy (and Tara Gregson, and Dexter Morgan, and Abed Nadir) there's so much more to the characters than just their idiosyncratic craziness. Dexter has his sardonic narration, Nancy has her equally crazy family and so on. With "Mad Men", there's no getting away from all these unhappy people being unhappy. There's no humor, no adventure, nothing but a sense of gravitas so immense and overwhelming I can practically feel myself being pulled towards the screen. For example: watching Pete squirm in episode 4 probably would've been gratifying if I found Roger or Don to be even mildly likeable. But of course, they're as miserable as everyone else.

On a final note, I don't think this problem has anything at all to do with the writing per se - the dialogue is crisp, story developments make sense, and there's enough characterization to give me a fair-to-decent grasp of the main cast in a relatively short amount of time. It's a well-told story, but that story doesn't appeal to me as a viewer. And while it's entirely possible that the atmosphere becomes a bit more balanced at some later point, I'm not going to drag myself through the depths of abyssal angst to get there.

A Few Words on Comics

Yes, stop the presses, Diana has something to say about the funnybooks again.

I'm at a point where my monthly reading list is down to almost nothing: I've got Mike Carey's "X-Men: Legacy", "Fables" and "Jack of Fables", and Peter David's "X-Factor", and to be quite honest, I could probably drop the latter three without feeling too badly. It's been a year, almost down to the day, since I quit the Savage Critics out of sheer apathy for the mainstream. I don't even bother with the news websites anymore.

In short, I've lost faith in comics. There was a time, not too long ago, where it seemed like a more mature, sophisticated kind of storytelling was on the rise; talented and unorthodox writers were pulling various properties out of stagnation and telling new, interesting stories. Instead, the past six or seven years have been spent in rapid regression across the board, with Marvel and DC degenerating into a distressingly-warped fraternity mindset that panders not to its audience but to itself. I've seen instances of bad judgment that utterly confound me: Batman pissing himself, Spider-Man selling his wife to Satan, Superman reconnecting with America by walking around, rage kitties, radioactive sperm, costumes with spikes on the inside, and more contrived writer's fiat than the Bible.

The days of "X-Statix", "Runaways" and "Alias" are long gone.

But every once in a while, I get curious and pick up a new miniseries, just to see what's being done. Nine times out of ten I find nothing of interest, but sometimes I catch a real gem like "The Umbrella Academy" or "Iron Man: Noir". It's worth the effort.

This week I picked up the second issue of "Neonomicon", written by Alan Moore.

Now, I have a complicated relationship with the works of Alan Moore. On the one hand, his stories have changed the way I perceive comics - and I'm not just referring to the obvious ones. No, I'm talking about "Miracleman", "The Ballad of Halo Jones", "Top 10" - stories that have nowhere near the level of recognition you'd find for "Watchmen" or "V For Vendetta", but are powerful and brilliant works nevertheless. On the other hand, it's no secret that Moore's apparently gone mad, content to publish lesbian slashfic and utterly impenetrable odes to Victorian literature.

I should also note that "Neonomicon" is published by Avatar, which I'll admit should've set off some warning bells. But still, I thought, it's Alan Moore. Surely he's got something clever up his sleeve - or at the very least, something worth reading.

What I found was a nonsense plot that aims for Lovecraft and hits Uwe Boll, concluding with a horrific gang-rape scene that goes on and on for five pages. It's explicit, it's vile, it's gratuitous, it's something Garth Ennis would've claimed as his own with great beaming pride.

Brought to you by Alan Moore.

The fact that I find myself physically disgusted by the work of a creator I once idolized is rather depressing. The thought that I can no longer distinguish between an Alan Moore story and a Garth Ennis story seems even worse. Like a death knell for... not the glory days per se, but the hope that the glory days could come around again. Instead, the old titans have gone mad and their replacements are puerile twats, and right now, as I desperately struggle to forget this awful, awful book, I can't help but feel like it's just one more justification to be done with the mainstream once and for all.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Andrew Garfield Being Adorable


If I had any doubt that he'd be perfect for the role of Peter Parker, I'm quite certain of it now. That smile, that laugh... we're looking at a possible King of All Woobies here!

And how might Tobey Maguire feel, being replaced by a younger, cuter actor?

Well, honestly, Tobey. It was your own damn fault.

Friday, September 10, 2010

This Just In: Water is to H2O...

... as Carlie Cooper is to Anthony Caine.

Bravo, Mr. Box.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Game Review: Star Wars - Knights of the Old Republic

It's been quite a while since I've had time to play video games, let alone review them. Fortunately, my summer workload is finally starting to break up, which hopefully means a lot more content starting next month. In the meantime, let's have a look at a game from the "Star Wars" franchise: BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic.

Admittedly, my expectations for this game may have been slightly unrealistic: I've always imagined the distant pre-narrative history of "Star Wars" to be so much grander and more interesting than the "present" of the Lucas films, but what happens in the very first scene of the game? A small Republic transport comes under fire by the warships of the Sith Empire; the last few survivors crash on a fringe planet without hope of rescue; one of them carries a secret which can change the course of the war. Oh, and the Empire has a mysterious superweapon.

It's a rather blatant reiteration of the set-up to the first "Star Wars" film. In itself, this is hardly a major offense - if the idea is to instantly place the player in a familiar context so you can get to the actual story without further delay, that's fair enough. However, the overt similarities don't end there. When the opening scroll mentioned a Sith Empire, I imagined an army where even the grunts could use the Force. Instead, Sith Troopers are basically Stormtroopers with shinier uniforms, and this Empire is ruled by Darth Malak, a Sith Lord whose lower jaw has been cybernetically replaced. More machine than man, perhaps? Hmm.

It may seem strange for me to castigate a game because it strongly resembles its source text... but again, I chose "Knights of the Old Republic" assuming that it would tell a different story within that framework. Instead, it turns out that things haven't changed much in four thousand years.

Theoretically, the player's ability to influence the plot via various choices throughout the game is meant to counteract the overly familiar plot elements. And it could have worked - I've heard enough about "Dragon Age: Origins" and the "Mass Effect" series to know that BioWare has almost perfected that aspect - but in practice, "Knights of the Old Republic" falls short of the ideal. To demonstrate, I'll explain a bit about the character I created and why I ultimately lost interest in the game at a very early stage.

I went into "Knights of the Old Republic" determined to create and roleplay a character neither Lucas nor his successors have ever really provided: a competent, powerful female villain. Someone who wields the Dark Side of the Force without degenerating into a moustache-twirling caricature, and whose evil acts serve a higher purpose than self-indulgence.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Alia Sha'tir:

Bonus points if you can figure out the significance of her anagrammed last name. And yes, those are a pair of lightsabers she's wielding.

So Alia begins as a soldier in the Republic, and pretty soon the game starts offering those morality-based choices to determine where she is on the Light/Dark scale.

Said choices are utterly ridiculous.

My greatest disappointment with "Knights of the Old Republic" is the way in which it takes the Jedi/Sith binaries beyond even the simplistic extremes of Lucas' films: playing a dedicated Dark Side character will force you into courses of actions that are not simply evil, but obnoxious as well. It's one thing to be ruthless in achieving your goals, it's another to act like a prat "for the evulz".

Moreover, your actions will draw constant criticism from your companions - and since their alignments never change, you can either put up with a neverending stream of disbelief and outrage (forgotten as soon as the conversation ends) or play the entire game with characters whose position on the moral scale is closer to yours, and who probably won't be as helpful as a Light Side Jedi who can heal the party.

The most problematic aspect of this particular mechanism, though, is the fact that the game practically requires you to be consistent in your approach. I tend to be more aggressive than defensive in RPGs, which suits a Dark Side character just fine, but abilities such as Force Lightning and Life Drain become more costly and less effective the further you get from the Dark end of the morality scale. So to get the most out of my chosen set of powers, I had to sink to the utter depths of depravity for the first eight hours of the game, at which point I detested Alia so much that I stopped playing.

And more's the pity, really, because from a purely technical standpoint I could have enjoyed "Knights of the Old Republic" - the game allows you to pause during battles and arrange attack patterns and sequences for each party member (adding a bit of tactical thinking to otherwise-straightforward fights), the environment and character designs hold up despite somewhat antiquated graphics (what a difference half a decade makes) and the voice acting is mostly solid, if lacking in real standouts.

But no other video game genre is so dependent on sympathetic protagonists as western RPGs. Twats like Kratos, Prince Arthas and Duke Nukem are tolerable because we control them from a distance, and never really think of them as extensions of our own selves; Western RPGs like "Fallout" or "Knights of the Old Republic", on the other hand, present tabula rasa protagonists whose appearance and personality are determined by the player. And if the end result is a character so reprehensible that the player can't stand her... well, there's something fundamentally wrong with that process, isn't there?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Diana: 1, Dramaddicts: 0

And now, a personal entry.

I'm rather proud of my conduct today.

A few days ago I was acquainted with someone whose criticism of "Twilight" amused me, who admires Storm - and sees the problems in her current incarnation as Mrs. Black Panther - as I do, and who generally seemed like a nice person. We chatted a bit on his LiveJournal, it was all well and good.

Things took a rather ugly turn this evening, resulting in him attacking me for politely disagreeing with his rather unfortunate generalizations about straight women as authors of gay fiction.

(Cliffnotes version: he believes straight women fetishize gay characters to the point of misrepresenting them - I certainly accept that this is true for specific writers such as Laurell K. Hamilton, whose lack of talent goes hand-in-hand with using the medium to foist her kinks on unsuspecting readers, but I do not agree that it's true of all heterosexual female writers, or even most of them. Because the implication there is that if you're a straight woman you flat-out can't depict a normal gay relationship, and that's exactly the same line of strawman thinking that leads people to believe that if you're a man, you can never create well-rounded female characters - it's a convenient notion that just isn't true.)

After being told in no uncertain terms that as a heterosexual woman I had no right to an opinion on the matter, that I was "privileged" and had to sit down and shut up... well, I apologized for upsetting him and walked away.

And when I did that, I realized that I really have changed.

Six months ago, I might've engaged in a long, tiresome war with this person on his own blog; I'd have taken the accusations of "privilege" and "racism" to heart instead of recognizing them as easy outs when you're losing an argument (because when everyone's "privileged" except you, you automatically win), I'd have gotten upset and the whole thing might've dragged on for days.

Now, though, I just stepped away from the whole mess, quietly took him off the Friends list and let matters lie. Maybe it's just me getting older, but the prospect of an extended fight with this person I barely know doesn't interest me at all. I'm past the point where I need online vindication - and in the history of Internet Drama, I very much doubt that many opinions have actually changed as a result of flame wars.

Unlike your typican Old West town, the Internet actually is big enough for the both of us. So I'll bid him adieu and get on with my own business.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Movie Review: Batman - Under The Red Hood

There's a rather unfortunate trend going on when it comes to Batman: as the song goes, "can't read his, can't read his, no you can't read his poker face." Whether it's comics or direct-to-DVD animated movies like this latest WB offering, Batman has become a complete and utter cipher in recent years; beyond secretive, beyond unexpressive, beyond stoic. And, in my opinion, this has stripped away the character's most endearing quality: his humanity.

It's certainly true that Batman has never been the kind of superhero who wears his emotions on his sleeve. But what made him so appealing to me was precisely the fact that every now and then, the mask would slip. (Can't find any clips, but basically, any early episode of the Timm/Dini series that featured Two-Face demonstrates this quite nicely.)

That doesn't happen anymore. And "Under The Red Hood" is a perfect example of the result. Spoilers ahoy.

On paper, this should've had an emotional payload that would put "Mask of the Phantasm" or "I Am The Night" to shame. Jason Todd, Batman's second sidekick (and his self-proclaimed "greatest failure") was brutally murdered by the Joker. Five years later, the titular Red Hood emerges to wage war against Gotham crimelord the Black Mask, as well as Batman himself. He's fast, he's smart, and he knows every move Batman makes. A DNA sample just confirms what Bruce already suspects: Jason, his lost Robin, has been resurrected. And he's out for blood.

In terms of straight-up action, this one does quite well for itself, much like the previous "Crisis on Two Earths": the best and most effective scenes are the ones where the Red Hood effortlessly evades Batman's standard attempts to capture him, showing an awareness of the Dark Knight's tactics that's beyond even his oldest enemies.

The voice talent is a bit uneven - I'll admit my difficulties in accepting anyone other than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and Joker, respectively, but Bruce Greenwood acquits himself quite well. John DiMaggio's Joker is quite different - the manic edge is intact, but there's a much darker and threatening undertone to this version, which suits the plot and atmosphere perfectly. I'd say the only real weak link is Jensen Ackles' Red Hood/Jason: he just doesn't reach the emotional high notes that the dialogue demands, especially in that pivotal scene where Jason finally reveals his real motives.

And that actually leads me to the biggest problem with this whole movie: there's no emotional core. The setup is there, and there are some very poignant flashbacks (the very last scene is the only one that moved me, as it really drove home the underlying tragedy of the whole story), but Batman doesn't react - at all - to the impossible return of his surrogate son. He's not horrified, he's not upset, he's not the slightest bit grateful that Jason's back. Even that critical moment where he explains why he didn't "avenge" Jason's death is delivered in the same flat monotone used when analyzing clues at a crime scene.

Bearing in mind that I haven't read the original storyline, I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that that utter lack of emotional response to the situation is something that was drawn from the comics themselves; if that's the case, then more's the pity. The failure of "Under the Red Hood" is that it promises a story that cuts to the heart of Batman the person, rather than just Batman the superhero, and it doesn't deliver any of that. So much more could have been done on that level, and instead we get explosions and shoot-outs and violent physical combat. Exciting, yes... but dramatically satisfying? Not even close.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Ladies and gentlemen, today is a day of great victory for both geek culture and the human spirit.

Both Ethan and myself were dumbstruck at the news that SDCC attendees organized a counter-protest that chased Fred Phelps and his hate-spewing cult away. No violence, no police intervention, just enough utter conviction in a message that's infinitely more powerful than "God Hates (Insert Victim of the Week Here)".

And you know what instantly popped into my mind when I saw the photos?


So we raise our glasses to you, people of Comic-Con. Well done.

For the bloody WIN

Courtesy of deadwalrus, on the matter of Joe Quesada's "One Moment in Time":

Wait just one fucking MINUTE now.

Peter missed his wedding because a fat, Hispanic man fell on him, suffocating him, trapping him under his bulk, and restricting his movement?

...Isn't that, like, what happened in real life?

Bravo, good sir. Bravo!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Much Rejoicing in the House of Diana

Nickelodeon has just announced a sequel series to "Avatar: The Last Airbender".

My reaction was more or less this.

Here's what we know:

The Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender and follows the adventures of the Avatar after Aang – a passionate, rebellious, and fearless teenaged girl from the Southern Water Tribe named Korra. With three of the four elements under her belt (Earth, Water, and Fire), Korra seeks to master the final element, Air. Her quest leads her to the epicenter of the modern "Avatar" world, Republic City – a metropolis that is fueled by steampunk technology. It is a virtual melting pot where benders and non-benders from all nations live and thrive. However, Korra discovers that Republic City is plagued by crime as well as a growing anti-bending revolution that threatens to rip it apart. Under the tutelage of Aang's son, Tenzin, Korra begins her airbending training while dealing with the dangers at large.

Now, the cynical part of my brain was distressingly quick to point out the many ways this can go wrong: what if the creators fail to meet their own standards? What if the network demands that Korra be Chickified? Oh, they were comfortable enough with Katara, Toph and Azula being progressive female characters, but then, they weren't the titular protagonists. What if the future world of the Four Nations is just a faded xerox of the original? What about the loose ends from the original that couldn't be covered in a 70-year gap (ie: Ursa's fate, to name just one example)? And worst of all, what if this new series takes cues from the Shamayawningalready movies?

And yet... and yet. There's something about this that feels right to me, like it could be another "Batman Beyond" in terms of the relationship between the parent and spin-off series; even based on the preliminary information, Korra sounds like a very different protagonist than her predecessor - she's already most of the way through her training, and I'd never use the words "passionate" or "rebellious" to describe Aang. The fact that the world has moved from medieval to steampunk makes a lot of sense given that the War has been over for a century, and the Fire Nation under Zuko presumably shared its technological advancements with the rest of the world. Even the central conflict is different this time: it's not a war story. Maybe it's what comes after a war story. I don't know... and I can't wait to find out!

So I'm going to be optimistic about this. And overjoyed at the possibility of revisiting one of my favorite stories.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Does Whatever a Spider Can

Andrew Garfield has been chosen to play Spider-Man.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an excellent choice.

I've mentioned before that Garfield's performance in "Boy A" broke my heart into little pieces; he's the woobie to end all woobies, instantly sympathetic, and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" shows he's got comic timing as well. And, of course, he's adorable, which certainly helps.

All in all, he's perfect for the role of Peter Parker. And yes, I'm actually going to see it when it comes out, thanks to this bit of news.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why I'm Skipping "The Last Airbender"

Much has been made about the controversial "whitewashing" of M. Night Shyamalan's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" film adaptation.

Valid arguments have been made against the casting process and its unfortunate implications, and many have called for boycotts of the film.

However, my reason for sitting out "The Last Airbender" is much simpler, and specific to this particular series:

There's nothing the movie can offer me that the series hasn't already done better.

I usually enjoy adaptations for two reasons. The first has to do with the whole concept of "dream casting" - yes, he was extremely disappointing in the sequels, but for that first "Spider-Man" movie I honestly can't see anyone pulling it off as well as Tobey Maguire. And I wanted to see Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier at least a decade before Bryan Singer, so there's that.

The second reason is more to do with narrative distillation: the best adaptations are the ones that appropriate the source text's best qualities and apply correctives to the flaws. On that note, thank you again, Peter Jackson, for deleting Tom Bombadil from "Lord of the Rings", the book that has more fat than Homer Simpson.

But "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is quite possibly the most meticulously-plotted, well-acted, elaborately-designed, narratively-exquisite series I've ever had the pleasure of watching. There isn't a single thing I'd change, or even want to see differently. I don't need to see a live-action Aang when the animated one was so charming and endearing; I don't need to see a live-action Appa when "Appa's Lost Days" still moves me to tears; I certainly don't need to see some talentless Hollywood tweener fail to fill the shoes of Azula, one of the greatest female villains in the medium's history.

There's nowhere for Shyamalan to go but down - why would I pay money to watch that?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh David

I just saw the 2009 BBC adaptation of "Hamlet" starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant.

It's one of the best versions I've ever seen.

And there's really no elegant way to say this, so:

David Tennant? Extremely fuckable.

That is all.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Creative? Really?

This just in: the George W. Bush Award for Most Ridiculous Promotion of a Village Idiot goes to Marvel and its brand-new Chief Creative (pause for snickering) Officer, Joe Quesada. To paraphrase Sheryl Crow, there goes the bloody neighborhood...

Edit: The cast of "Futurama" weighs in.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Gargoyles

Note: This review refers specifically to the first two seasons of "Gargoyles" - since series creator Greg Weisman has taken surprisingly drastic steps to disavow the third season, I might as well do the same.

First, my thanks to kazekage for introducing me to this series.

The basic premise of "Gargoyles" is as follows: a thousand years ago, humans enjoyed a peaceful (if uneasy) relationship with Gargoyles, stone warriors that came to life after sunset and protected their shared homes. In 994 AD, one such home - Castle Wyvern in Scotland - is invaded by a horde of Vikings during the day. The helpless Wyvern Clan is decimated, leaving only six survivors. These survivors, including clan leader Goliath, are then frozen by a magic spell "until the castle rises above the clouds".

A millenium later, "eccentric" millionaire David Xanatos transplants the entire castle, brick by brick, onto the top of his corporate headquarters in Manhattan. The skyscraper's added height puts Castle Wyvern - and its Gargoyle statues - above the cloudline, and when the sun sets Goliath and his clan are released into a very different world.

As might be expected, the first season (13 episodes) deals with the Gargoyles orienting themselves in the modern world: they befriend Eliza Maza, a police officer, and make quite a few enemies as well. Goliath ultimately decides to declare Manhattan the Gargoyles' new home, and dedicates them all to defending the city from criminals and supernatural threats. And plenty of both emerge in the much-lengthier second season (52 episodes).

To better explain why I find "Gargoyles" so impressive, I've put together a little list of Things I Never Thought I'd See in a '90s Disney Cartoon (in no particular order):

1. Blood. Characters don't bleed often, but when they do, it's a significant moment, like Demona clawing Gillecomgain's face (thus giving birth to the endless vendetta of the Hunters) or Broadway accidentally shooting Elisa in the back with her own gun.

2. Character development. For everyone. Take a look at this "group photo" for the Disney Afternoon: "Tale Spin", "Darkwing Duck", "Gummi Bears", "Ducktales" - all amusing series in their own ways, but they all followed very strict status quos. Not so with "Gargoyles": the protagonists evolve, as do most of the antagonists.

2a. Most of the villains have a rather surprising amount of depth and growth. Demona is completely axe-crazy (and how's this for cognitive dissonance: she's voiced by Marina Sirtis, who probably only raised her voice two or three times throughout the entire run of "Star Trek: The Next Generation") but once her backstory is revealed, it's hard not to feel sorry for her, even though she refuses redemption at every opportunity. Xanatos seems to be the Gargoyles' archenemy (and i now understand why it's called the Xanatos Gambit: he's a brilliant Thrawn-level manipulator) but by the end of the second season he becomes a husband and a father, and finds common ground with Goliath (the one Gargoyle who hates him the most). Even Macbeth manages to let go of his hatred during his last appearance.

3. The Gargoyles are frozen in 994 AD and wake up in 1994; the natural assumption is that we're focusing on the present day. For the most part, this is true... until we discover that two storylines unfolded during the interrim, both of which have major ramifications on the present. The "City of Stone" arc flashes back to Demona's life after the fall of Castle Wyvern - a fittingly tragic tale that continues to reverberate throughout the second season. And then, later in the season, we learn what happened to the human Wyvern survivors and the Gargoyles' unhatched eggs. The series makes excellent use of its timeline.

4. Halfway through the second season, Goliath discovers he has a daughter, Angela... and he rejects her. Granted, it's more to do with how Gargoyles view family: children belong to the entire clan, so it doesn't really matter who the biological parents are. But it's still a shocking moment that taints our hero, especially since Angela does see him as her father. Of course, when he finally comes to love and accept Angela as his own, she's injured by the newest incarnations of the Hunter. Skip to 5:10
here and tell me you don't get the chills.

5. Much has been made of the series' surprisingly high number of loans from "Star Trek": Nichelle Nichols, Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Kate Mulgrew, Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn all had recurring roles, while others such as Colm Meaney, LeVar Burton and Avery Brooks turned up for guest-spots. So for someone who's even moderately familiar with the Roddenberry franchise, it's pretty much a constant string of "Hey, I know that voice!"

5a. But that tends to overshadow the fact that the rest of the cast were excellent as well, particularly Keith David, John Rhys-Davies, Tim Curry (brr!) and Jeff Bennett, who totally channeled his QFG4 Ad Avis voice for Owen.

6. Various episodes take turns exploring Scottish, Irish, English, Native American, Nordic and Greek mythologies, with a line of dialogue summing it up perfectly: "All legends are true." But it's Shakespeare who gets the most love from the series' writers: Puck, Oberon, Titania, Macbeth and the Weird Sisters are all major players in the mythology, while Coldstone and his companions were apparently once known as Othello, Desdemona and Iago. Shakespeare and Disney - not a partnership I'd have anticipated.

Which isn't to say that "Gargoyles" is entirely without flaws. Pacing is a bit problematic throughout the series: for example, Puck is introduced very early in season 2 and doesn't turn up again for almost forty episodes; nothing much comes of Demona's ability to withstand daylight; the Illuminati are built up as major players but fizzle out towards the end; and the King Arthur subplot is practically an afterthought.

Also, while the World Tour arc had some great out-of-Manhattan adventures, the payoff was surprisingly lacking: almost twenty episodes are used to establish characters such as Cuchulainn, Natsilane, the New Olympians and the Gargoyle clans of England, Guatemala and Japan, but once the dust settles they never appear again. Granted, there were only six episodes left in the season once the World Tour ended, but I kept expecting Goliath's new allies to turn up during the Gathering or the Hunter's Moon - both major crisis points for the Manhattan Clan - and they're not even mentioned. Apparently the World Tour was meant to springboard an entire array of spin-offs, but to my knowledge none of them ever materialized so it all comes off a bit moot.

Time travel is another headache-inducing issue here: the series takes the familiar stance that history has already been written, so whenever Goliath or someone else goes back in time, they only end up doing whatever they were meant to do all along. This becomes especially frustrating once the Archmage makes his comeback, because his future self saves his past self from death and tells him he knew how to do it because his future self told him, etc. It all gets a bit too recursive for my tastes.

Still, there's a lot to love about "Gargoyles": solid writing, a cast without a single weak link, bold (and successful) attempts to push beyond the standardized limitations - both technological and "moral" - of animation at the time, and a rich, consistent mythology that holds up under scrutiny. All of this from a mid-'90s Disney cartoon.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quoted For Ultimate Truth

"And most of all, I want to know why in the FUCK these people who want the Silver Age back SO DAMN BAD seem to want everything BUT the essential optimism that characterized the fucking Silver Age brought back. I can't be the only person who's noticed this, can I?" -kazekage

Hardly a surprise, but...

"Heroes" has been cancelled. So has "Flashforward".

I very much doubt that the demise of "Flashforward" comes as a shock to anyone - any series that needs a three-month hiatus to stabilize itself, after losing two showrunners in rapid succesion, after only nine episodes, is utterly doomed. Still, it had a rather interesting premise and solid, capable actors.

Why, then, did I lose interest in it so quickly (along with the rest of America, it seems)? I suspect the main reason was the overabundance of irrelevant subplots: there were about a dozen storylines introduced (again, in nine episodes) and few of them had any meaningful connection. Yes, our FBI protagonist's investigation and his potentially-doomed marriage are worth following, not so much the tale of his AA sponsor's war-ravaged daughter. The cancer-stricken doctor is certainly sympathetic, but the babysitter? Not really. And the writers throw in so many red herrings and dead-ends that it just turned into a confusing jumble after only a few months. With cast members jumping ship even before the official announcement, it's probably best to quietly turn out the lights and call it a day.

"Heroes" is, of course, another matter altogether. At one time occupying the top spot on my must-see TV list, its downfall was a far more protracted and painful affair.

In many ways, it was a series that comic book aficionados like myself had been waiting for: an original, live-action superhero drama that took itself seriously while tossing the an occasional wink to the old conventions and tropes. It was the X-Men without giant robots and spandex; it was "Watchmen" without the overwhelming pessimism; it was "Astro City" set in New York without the pre-arranged public acceptance of superhumans.

(The fact that they had Milo Ventimiglia, Zachary Quinto and Adrian Pasdar, sometimes on the same screen? Well, that was just a bonus for me personally.)

And despite various hiccups along the way, the first season managed to tell a good story, with a great villain in Sylar. There was suspense, romance, a few dramatic deaths, a fair amount of action (though I'm sure the Kirby Plaza showdown could've used a bit more flash) and more; all in all, an excellent start.

Then the second season came, and... well, that's where the decline started, though it was gradual enough that you might not notice it without hindsight. Of course, Tim Kring's defense is that the WGA strike brought an abrupt halt to the season - technically true, since the second season lasted 11 episodes rather than the traditional 22-24.

But even if you take those eleven episodes on their own merits, they're not particularly good, largely because they just reiterate the first season's strengths in a lesser capacity: another apocalyptic threat, another trip to a dystopian future, another Mystery From The Past (and wow was that revelation a letdown) and so on. Characters started doing very foolish things simply because the plot demanded it. Guest stars such as Nichelle Nichols, Joanna Cassidy and Nicholas D'Agosto were utterly wasted despite being built up as significant figures in the storyline.

The real turning point, in my opinion, was showrunner Tim Kring's decision to abandon his original plan for the series, wherein each season would feature a different cast of characters. It was a daring plan and one that could have worked quite easily: if you can create six popular characters, there's no reason why you can't create six more further down the line. And by the first season finale most of the characters had wrapped up their individual subplots: Sylar was defeated and probably killed, Hiro completed his quest, Nathan and Peter saved each other, the Hawkins family was reunited... all nice and neat, minus a few loose threads.

And instead of leaving well enough alone, Kring preserved the cast in the second season... and then dumped a whole batch of new characters on his viewers. Some, like Dana Davis' Monica Dawson and Kristen Bell's electrifying (in more ways than one) turn as Elle Bishop, were instant darlings; others, like Mexican twins Maya and Alejandro and seasonal Big Bad Adam Monroe (played by David Anders), were... less successful. To put it both mildly and politely.

The problem was, of course, that having these second-stringers around only demonstrated how poorly their storylines were being handled in comparison to the ones who'd been around for a whole season already. It didn't work because the writers simply didn't have the time to develop the new characters while formulating new storylines for characters they'd already established.

Then the third season lapsed into utter nonsense: more new characters, hopelessly entangled subplots, and a loss of anything even remotely resembling coherence. Notable guest stars such as Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, John Glover, Francis Capra and Dan Byrd were kept from making any significant contribution (indeed, most of them just stood around and talked for a while before disappearing into the ether and never returning).

Of course, the end result of this increasingly rapid degeneration was painfully clear: rather than embodying the best aspects of the superhero genre, "Heroes" came to represent said genre's worst excesses. Characters who'd long since outlived their purpose were maintained, without being given equally compelling new directions. Storylines became convoluted beyond comprehension, with retcons becoming more and more common. Plot dictated motivation, even when the plot made no sense to begin with. It became, for lack of a better term, a hot mess (literally so: Sylar may have devolved into a useless, whining prat but good lord Zach Quinto is still a poster boy for snu-snu).

Getting axed at this point is more a mercy-killing than executive meddling. I can't even say I'm particularly sorry to see it go, since I said my goodbyes to "Heroes" while it was still on the air. As with most spectacular TV flops in recent years, I can only hope that the right lessons will be learned here...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Defense of Fan Fiction

Author Diana Gabaldon has problems with fan fiction.

indigo_5, herself a fanfic writer, responds. She is joined on her LJ by yours truly, even as many more reply on Gabaldon's own blog in response to her rather poorly-informed views on what fan fiction is. There are many, many intelligent discussions currently going on at these two sites regarding the issue, and I don't want to duplicate or cut-and-paste excessively, so go, read.

This flare-up got me thinking about my own stance on fan fiction. No surprise, I've long been a defender of this phenomenon - even tried my hand at it once or twice, just to see if I could - and I've often taken the rather extreme position that fan fiction is as valid as the texts it's based on.

Why? Because the concept of "intellectual property" gets a bit wobbly once you consider how character archetypes and plot conventions work in literature: any tree-hugging Elf can be traced back to Tolkien, figures like Achilles and Arthur have appeared hundreds (if not thousands) of times in practically every genre under the sun... I don't know if I'd go so far as to reiterate the old cliche of "No New Ideas", but there's some weight to the argument that the execution is what counts - that you can take the familiar and shuffle it around until it becomes new and interesting again.

And I think that's what has writers like Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon so downright terrified of fan fiction, to the point of decrying it as both illegal and immoral (the former, not even close, and the latter is such a subjective value judgment that there's no point debating it): if "intellectual property" goes the way of the dodo, and literature becomes a meritocracy where the only credit you earn for authoring a work is based on the actual stylistic, aesthetic and thematic quality of said work... well, that'll be when we separate the best from the rest, won't it?

Because you can go ahead and write a novel and make the New York Times, but then some amateur on the Interweb spins a tale that outshines you on every level, using your own characters. That's when we'll see where the real talent lies... and authors who've coasted by on atrocious writing (why yes, Stephenie Meyer, that is my fiery gaze you're feeling on the back of your neck) will find themselves in very awkward positions.

Monday, April 19, 2010

TV Review: The 10th Kingdom

On paper, this really should've worked better than it did.

"The 10th Kingdom" is a ten-hour TV miniseries adopting the same subversive, iconoclastic approach to fairy tales that's become both popular and common over the last decade, from "Shrek" to "Enchanted" to "Fables". Broadly speaking, the premise is that all those tales really happened, but in the distant past - the common realm shared by such figures as Snow White, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and so on has been split into nine kingdoms, ruled by the descendants of those legendary women. This is a world where, as one character puts it, "Happy Ever After didn't last as long as we'd hoped."

When a new Evil Queen escapes her imprisonment, Virginia Lewis and her father Tony - a pair of thoroughly ordinary people living in New York (the titular Tenth Kingdom) - are drawn into this fantasy world, dodging trolls, dwarves, gypsies, the Queen's Huntsman and all sorts of stock fairy tale types. Accompanied by the Big Bad Wolf and Snow White's grandson (trapped in the form of a dog, naturally), Virginia and Tony must stop the Evil Queen's plans and save the nine kingdoms.

That's an excellent premise, especially for such an extensive series. And to its credit, "The 10th Kingdom" makes the most of its fantastic settings without becoming a Tolkienesque travelogue. Since the plot hinges mostly on the Queen's machinations, our protagonists are constantly moving from one exotic location to the other, trying to stay ahead of her. The effects are pretty impressive for a TV miniseries: the opening montage deserves special attention, as New York transforms into a fairy tale kingdom. It's absolutely stunning, even if that particular scene never actually happens in the story.

Unfortunately, the casting is a bit... off. Which isn't to say there aren't some superb performances: Scott Cohen's Wolf is a neurotic mess who can't decide whether to court Virginia or gnaw on her bones, and despite initially coming off as a squicky pseudo-rapist, he actually ends up becoming one of the most sympathetic cast members largely due to Cohen's endearing tics. And Ed O'Neill as the Troll King? Wow. Of course, the real surprise is Dianne Wiest as the Queen. After seeing her in movies like "Edward Scissorhands", "Practical Magic" or "The Associate", you could be forgiven for writing Wiest off as a typical "Nice Mom" actress... but I had a feeling she could go further, especially when she went nuclear on Gabriel Byrne at the end of "In Treatment". And that's exactly what happens here: Wiest seems like she'd be more suited for a Fairy Godmother type of role, making her more imperious moments even more shocking and commanding. When she tells her stepson he'll be begging at her feet for food, she does so in a very pleasant tone - which makes her even scarier.

Sadly, the series is also saddled with two protagonists who are utterly wrong for the roles: Kimberly Williams is painfully limited as Virginia, playing her scenes in a dull monotony to the point where she can't muster enough real emotion for the film's most climactic revelations. Williams seems completely out of her element, even before the fairy tale aspects come into play: as the series' main focalizer, we spend time with her before she becomes involved in the adventure, and there's just nothing interesting about her. And then there's John Larroquette as Virginia's father Tony: a mere annoyance at first, Tony's character just gets more and more grating and abrasive as the series progresses, and since he's a protagonist there's no getting away from him.

It's no exaggeration to say that Williams and Larroquette derail the series: at first, they're generic fish-out-of-water adventurers, but midway through the storyline their characters become personally involved in the plot, except both Virginia and her father are so flat and unengaging that the whole thing falls apart.

And that's a shame, because the story has some rather surprising feminist overtones: traditional victims like Snow White and Red Riding Hood are rewritten as powerful, beloved monarchs whose contribution to the realm went beyond just getting their own Happy Ever After. Camryn Manheim has a cameo as the spirit of a grown-up Snow White: older, flawed, but still adored and respected - not because of how she looks but because of who she is and what she did. And her advice to Virginia deserves to be quoted verbatim: "Lonely, lost girls like us can rescue themselves." Also? One of the three trolls chasing Virginia and Tony is female, and no one says a word about it.

"The 10th Kingdom" is exactly the kind of postmodern fairy tale I want to see. There's nothing wrong with parody per se - "Shrek" certainly did it well enough - but weaving together all those fragments into a coherent whole is impressive, even moreso when clear efforts are made to put a fresher spin on the moral and gender issues inherent in the classic fables. But once Virginia and Tony take center stage, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain interest in the unfolding events. This is one instance where bad casting decisions really bring the whole thing down a notch or two.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Expanding on my Feb. 12 post

Because I don't think I've ever talked about my affinity for MTV's "Daria".

I was fresh out of high school when I first "met" Daria Morgendorffer. It was a second-season episode - I forget which one specifically, but I remember that it dealt with Daria's feelings for Trent. I remember that because I'd gone through the exact same thing a few months earlier, developed a huge crush on someone who couldn't have been more wrong for me. And I handled it the way Daria handled it: miserably. A few months later, I ran into him and had this... epiphany that it never would've worked anyway. And that was it.

It's not that "Daria" is a completely accurate rendition of my (or anyone's) high school years; I would've loved to have her gift for deadpan sarcasm, we didn't have a Fashion Club to mock relentlessly, and while our teachers could be a bit sadistic, they weren't quite as far gone as Lawndale High's staff.

But we did have a Kevin and a Brittany. (Come to think of it, we've had Kevin and Britney too.) And I had a maladjusted best friend who spent most of her time drawing in a little notebook which she'd never let me see.

So when "Daria" comes out on DVD, I'll be there. Because it actually offers two pleasures for the price of one: nostalgia for my fonder memories of high school, and absolutely scorching satire of the parts I could've done without. The fact that it's one of my favorite coming-of-age stories of the '90s is, of course, an added bonus.

TV Review: "Dune", "Children of Dune"

Once upon a time, a 17-year-old girl saw David Lynch's adaptation of "Dune". She did so at the behest of her boyfriend at the time, a hardcore Trekkie who also worshipped at the altar of Frank Herbert.

Three hours later, she came to the conclusion that there probably weren't enough drugs on Earth that could make her understand what the hell was going on.

To be fair, that's a problem I usually have with David Lynch movies, and since I lacked the time (and the disposition) to read Herbert's novels, I was content to let matters lie for a while. And up until a few weeks ago, that was that.

And then my dear kazekage brought up "Dune" in relation to "Avatar", and as is usually the case in our dialogues, he got me thinking. I realized that I'd never gone back to Herbert's creation as an adult - I do that from time to time, going back to stories I dismissed as a teenager just to see if my perspective has changed over the years. Sometimes I find myself developing the opposite opinion ("Sliders" seems so much more formulaic now than it did fifteen years ago), and sometimes... well, I still can't think of a single figure in the DCU pantheon who remotely interests me.

Of course, with my graduate thesis still circling over my head like a vulture, reading the books is still out of the question, so I decided to settle for the "Dune" and "Children of Dune" TV miniseries, written and directed by John Harrison. With a combined length of just over 9 hours, and a reputation that credits Harrison with being more faithful to the books than Lynch, I figured it'd be enough to get some idea of what Herbert was doing.

To my surprise, I really liked the first part of "Dune". Oh, it's slow, but it does an excellent job setting up the various worlds and people within. The actors mostly do well with the material, especially given how flat most of the characters really are: Alec Newman's Paul is just whiny enough to sell his aristocratic background without being obnoxious, Ian McNeice is marvelous as Baron Harkonnen, and Matt Keeslar is exactly the kind of pretty it takes to play the vapid and treacherous Feyd. I also enjoyed the complex political maneuvering between the three Great Houses. Part 1 ends with the climactic Harkonnen attack on House Atreides and the death of Duke Leto.

And then, in part 2... the Desert.

In a word? Oy.

I don't know, maybe it's me. Maybe I'm being unrealistic when I expect science-fiction to avoid the ethereal metaphysics of religion. Of course, I've never seen that combination work well, or at all: not with Kara Thrace, or Neo, or John Henry the Terminator talking scripture with a religious FBI agent. It always comes off as facile tripe, a cheap way of raising suspense by asking impossible questions that ultimately don't "require" an answer. And it completely takes me out of the story.

So after a fairly interesting and engaging first part, imagine my dismay when we spend ninety minutes exploring the Fremen culture, a wafer-thin metaphor for other "desert people" you may or may not have heard of right here on Earth. And then everyone gets high on homegrown drugs and gains superpowers. Paul, of course, is the Chosen One, the Messiah, etc. And he has visions of the future. Of course. By the time the third act started I was rather disengaged; it doesn't help that the story becomes rather predictable at that point, in that the Fremen defeat their Harkonnen tyrants, Paul becomes Emperor, et cetera. Everything is framed in prophecies and dreams and rituals, none of which I find even slightly coherent.

And what's especially frustrating about "Dune" is that, if Harrison had cut out the religious context, he might've been left with a great sci-fi political thriller. The most intriguing sequences in the second and third parts include Princess Irulan's investigation into the Atreides massacre, the Baron's scheme to glorify Feyd at his brother's expense and so on. Paul's ascension to the throne works on that level too. I even loved the various accents and the weird hats (seriously, there are some weird hats in this miniseries). But by the end of the miniseries, the damage had already been done.

Still, I was determined to see this through, so I continued to "Children of Dune". In some ways, it's an improvement; the political storyline is much more engaging from the very start, as Paul's reign has quickly degenerated into a senseless (and apparently meaningless) jihad against the rest of the universe. Paul himself is trapped by his position, while his own people conspire against him with the help of his defeated enemies, including Irulan and the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother. Meanwhile, Irulan's older sister Wensicia (played to perfection by Susan Sarandon) has a few schemes of her own.

Of course, by now I'd come to expect getting my hopes dashed, and sure enough, Paul spends most of part 1 having the same vision over and over again, about something called the Golden Path. I'll get to that in a bit, but let's just say right now that Path leads nowhere you'd want to go.

To both Harrison's and Herbert's credit, I have to say that "Children of Dune" takes some bold turns: Paul, our protagonist and focalizer since the beginning of "Dune", is written out at the end of the first act to make way for his children, Leto and Ghanima (with Leto being played by the absolutely adorable James McAvoy). Paul's sister Alia takes over as Regent, but her mental instability - long foreshadowed if poorly set up - leads her to become increasingly oppressive and violent. As it turns out, she's having hallucinations of the long-dead Baron Harkonnen, who may or may not be possessing her. That was a nice twist. Alia starts seeing the twins as a threat to her power, they go on the run, and... well, that's when I hit the next metaphysical pothole.

See, throughout the first part of "Children of Dune", Paul has the same vision over and over again, where Leto tells him about a Golden Path that holds the key to humanity's salvation. What is the Golden Path? Damned if I know: no one ever explains it. Oh, Leto undergoes a significant (and similarly ill-explained) transformation at the end, but still, as he's standing there declaring a new dawn for mankind, I'm utterly mystified as to the question of just what in the name of Gregor Samsa he's talking about.

Again, it's a situation where the best parts of the story are overshadowed by vague mumbo-jumbo about space heroin. And unlike "Dune", where the characters' relatively flat nature allowed their own arcs to continue despite the religious interruptions, "Children of Dune" seems to lose track of various characters, skipping over significant developments so we can spend more time on Paul and his kids tripping out. What happens to Wensicia's plan to steal sandworms? What happens to the Bene Gesserit after the Reverend Mother's execution? Why does Irulan switch sides after her conspiracy fails? Why don't we get to see characters reacting to major deaths such as Duncan and Paul himself in part 3? Because of drugs. So remember, kids, drugs are bad and will not give you superpowers. They may bore you to the point of utter frustration, though.

And that's it for "Dune". Unlike the Lynch version, I could definitely see a lot of potential in Harrison's adaptations... but at the same time, they're guilty of the same weak, wishy-washy use of pseudo-religion as a way to push the story forward without really thinking it through. And on that level it's no different than something like "Battlestar Galactica", which - despite having a tremendously talented cast and a brilliant story - ended on a note that still pisses me off, a year after the fact. If that aspect hadn't been so dominant, I think I would've liked "Dune". I think I would've liked it a lot.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I've been waiting for this moment...

... for a very, very long time.

May 11, 2010.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Since Haloscan's shutting down and I have no intention of paying someone for the right to talk to people on my own blog, Sententia 3.0 is switching back to the default Blogger comment system. Unfortunately, this means any ongoing dialogue will have to start from scratch. I've saved all the comments, I just need to see if they can be imported...

EDIT: This also means I've been forced to change the RSS feed - please update accordingly!

Friday, January 15, 2010

On the matter of Spider-Man

While I'll admit that Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst deserve all the credit for making the Spider-Man film franchise a success in the first place, they're also responsible for
"Spider-Man 3" - and after that debacle, I can hardly blame anyone looking for a change.

Now, the mere idea that Robert Pattinson may assume the starring role has been met with the expected wailing and gnashing of teeth - again, not without justification. Personally, I much prefer the possibility of Michael Cera, if only because I've thought for some time now that Cera has the potential to pull a Heath Ledger and break type...

At any rate, I submit that as horrible as a Pattinson-led "Spider-Man" would be, there are a few pop culture icons Sony could've chosen that would be even worse:

And who'd play Mary Jane? Take your pick of these pop culture viruses:

Bottom line? Yes, the situation's rather bad at the moment. But it could be so much worse, so easily.