10.22.2010

Journey to the Centre of the YouTube, Part 4

An older video, edited together by the absolutely great Everything is Terrible and featuring the amazing Maryjean Ballner, the creator of Cat Massage! Cat Massage! Cat Massage!

9.25.2010

Look Out: It is a Monster.

Last spring, the CW’s Supernatural closed off its fifth season with a move that really rubbed me the wrong way. Originally designed to be a capstone for the series, the episode was changed at the last minute to make way for a sixth season; tacking a couple of seconds worth of footage onto the very end that took the (in my opinion) best ending of a genre show since Babylon 5 finished up in 1998 and turned it into a cheap, cliffhanger twist-ending that only served to set up an unplanned continuation by manufacturing some unsatisfying drama.

I understand that there’s always a level of creator control that gets taken away when you have a successful, long-term property like Supernatural. Even dedicated series helmsmen like Eric Kripke and J. Michael Straczynski are almost expected to lose some control over the direction of the program to the suits as time goes on…it’s just part of the industry. But where Straczynski worked inside the system and still ended Babylon 5 as he intended to and when he wanted to, Kripke has apparently just bailed with little more than a little temper-tantrum and an “England soldiers on.” And while I have to respect the man for stepping down as showrunner when he was done with what he had to say, it doesn’t change the fact that his concessions to the network allowed the ending of that last episode to become unforgivably tacky and tonight it has launched a new season that, well, it’s got a bit of an odd smell about it.

Actually, the smell isn’t that unfamiliar. It smells like season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Actually, it reeks of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yeah. The one with the secret military organization and the college and the terrible cyborg-monster thing at the end and the endlessly stupid charisma-sucking vortex that was Riley Finn. The one where we lost almost all sense of narrative coherence and continuity. The one that the show never recovered from.

In case it’s not clear: No. I’m not really happy about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Supernatural is a show that has very, very rarely done me wrong. That’s an uncommon feat for a program that has gone on for as long as it has. It’s clever and inventive and cool and even when it misfires it usually does so in a way that you can enjoy. As such, I feel that it’s earned a certain amount of loyalty from me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who constantly says that “the fans deserve better” when he’s confronted with something that he doesn’t like from a series that he does. I very rarely feel that the performers or writers or creators owe me anything because I choose to enjoy the program that they produce, but this is a show that I have continually enjoyed since it premiered and as such I do feel an obligation to ride out a rough patch here and there. As such, I’m not going to be writing the show off after a lousy season opener and intend to give the newly continued Supernatural a fair shake before I start trying to pretend that season five ended a few seconds sooner than it did.

But oh man, was this ever a lousy season opener.

When last we saw the Winchester brothers, Dean had finally made it out of the family business of hunting monsters and killing demons by averting the Biblical apocalypse and seeing his brother Sam sacrifice himself in the process. After a parting of ways with the show’s other characters he returns to Lisa, the one still-living woman who he could be said to have a meaningful relationship with, serving as a supporter to her and her son as her recovers from the psychological trauma of the past few years and tries to build something like a normal life for himself. And while the show is focused on that thread for the first ten minutes or so of this episode I was really kind of digging it. For the first time in the show’s run we get to see Dean as what he has always wanted to be: a functioning human being. He goes to work, spends time with his surrogate family, has a few friends, and generally works his way through a little domestic montage that intercuts with him reflecting on past events, showing how even simple, everyday actions like using a hammer or locking a door were warped into something paranoid and wretched by his old lifestyle, all while showing how he has changed and adapted…just not so much that he doesn’t still keep a Devil’s Trap painted under the doormat and a shotgun and hex bag under his bed. This bittersweet series of shots was really one of the few things that I felt was missing from the previous season’s ending. Jensen Ackles even looks more the part, sporting a comfortable extra few pounds and a more grown-up haircut that really make Dean seem like he’s been living soft for the past year.

It’s all really quite lovely and I was pleasantly surprised, even as the show takes a turn toward old, familiar territory with Dean starting to see demon signs wherever he goes and begins to come to the conclusion that he’s going to have to do something about it; dodging around the subject with Lisa until she finally confronts him about it and gives him the okay to do what he needs to do. As an episode it’s really working so far, and keeps on doing so until the critter turns out to be none other than Azazel, the yellow eyed demon who served as the big-bad in seasons one and two. This was an intriguing turn for me, because even in his brief scene he gives some small explanation for how he has returned to life, a minimal explanation certainly (he was brought back as the result of some sort of end-of-the-apocalypse cosmic reset) but one that could be more fully explored at a later time and could also serve to explain how Sam was back on earth and no longer possessed by the devil (as those familiar with the cringe-inducing final moments of season five already know him to be).

I wouldn’t have objected to this so much, not because I like the idea of recycling villains after they’re dead, and not even because Fredric Lehne is so much fun to watch as the character, but because it actually is some kind of explanation. But, alas, when Sam shows up moments later to save Dean from the demon, the episode takes a serious turn for the worse. When we come back from commercial, Dean is waking up on a cot in a mysterious house with Sam sitting over him and his reaction is…less than stellar. It isn’t bad, per-se, it’s just exactly what you’d expect. He’s very upset for a moment, and then very angry for a moment, and then they hug. It’s the standard issue Supernatural emotional payoff/resolution scene, and while that gag may have worked up until this point, well, things are a little bit different this time, aren’t they? Shouldn’t there be some further exploration of emotion? Or even some further mistrust between the two? Sam even tells Dean during their conversation that Azazel wasn’t real but rather a lethal hallucination caused by a djinn. So what does Sam have to do to prove that he’s not a hallucination? He cuts himself on the arm with a knife and drinks some (holy?) water. Nothing that requires Dean’s interaction. Nothing that a hallucinatory character capable of physical murder shouldn’t be able to do anyway. It’s a shockingly lazy scene for a show that usually takes its time and tests its characters very harshly, and is indicative of the overly rushed tone of the rest of the episode.

So, ready for the next couple of minutes? Here they are: Sam is alive and has been alive since, well, since Dean thought he died. Also alive is the brothers’ grandfather Samuel, who died back in the seventies. They don’t know why and they don’t seem to care, and you can tell this because when Dean asks them they say “We don’t know” and change the subject so they can introduce a trio of characters whose names you won’t learn this week because they aren’t going to have their names used for the rest of the episode. These guys are Sam and Dean’s cousins on their mother’s side, and they are all professional hunters who the Winchesters have never met or heard of before and who have apparently never heard of the Winchesters before either, despite the fact that every other hunter we’ve ever seen has instantly treated Sam and Dean like monster killing royalty. One of these guys is also played by Corin Nemic and is, thus, almost guaranteed to be a complete slimeball/villain. Also, Bobby knows about Sam too (though I would have loved it if Bobby’s deadpan reaction to the brother’s resurrection was simply a result of how many dead people he’s seen up and walking around over the years) and didn’t tell Dean because he thought he was being nice. Also, there are djinn around and they’re gunning for Winchester blood. Also, Sam and the gang suddenly want Dean to join up with them again and leave his new family despite the fact that a couple of minutes before they were all talking about how they didn’t tell him that Sam was alive because they wanted to be all noble and let him have his normal life. They get very upset when Dean doesn’t like this idea, which is some serious bullshit considering what absolute dicks they’re all being.

You see what I did there? How I rushed through ALL of that pretty vital exposition like it meant absolutely nothing? Good, because that’s exactly how this week’s script handles it. This is several weeks worth of plot and exposition compressed into a slipshod second and third act. It would be way too much material even before the introductory first act and the monster-of-the-week djinn fight in the fourth and fifth acts. I think it’s pretty much needless to say that this is a completely preposterous way to tell a story, much less to set up the next chapter in a long-form serial production that I’ve always admired for its willingness to take its time and fill gaps in the chronology with fun adventure stories. This is a show that built it’s mythology and plot for five years at a pace that could sometimes seem glacial and ultimately produced one of the most emotionally effecting hours of television in recent memory, so what the hell happened to that notion, huh?

This episode is, to be perfectly blunt, amateur hour. Sera Gamble, who has written some absolutely stellar episodes of the show in the past, seems lost here as writer, executive producer, and new showrunner--turning in a sloppy script that got turned into a sloppy episode that goes absolutely nowhere and satisfies on no level after the title card comes up. The concept of the djinn could have been very interesting on its own, serving as it does as a callback to the season two episode What Is and What Should Never Be with the creatures coming for revenge against the Winchesters for the djinn they killed in that episode. Unfortunately, it seems that they are ultimately only in the episode to serve as a catalyst that brings the brothers back together and so that one may be captured by Samuel and the other Campbells for their undoubtedly nefarious purposes. It just gets turned into a lazy retread of a previous monster, so that it can be lazily captured by a group of seedy seeming characters who have obvious yet unobserved ulterior motives.

Actually, the bits that I liked best were mostly Dean’s interactions with Lisa. They’re believable, and understanding and pretty solidly written and they actually feel like things that the characters care about and mean when they say them. When Dean makes his final decision to spit in the face of his old family and stick with the one that he has adopted and found peace with, I was actually quite proud of the character. That family was intended as Dean’s reward for his trials, for all of the growth that he’s seen since the show’s pilot aired in 2005. Frankly, he deserves that, if only from the viewpoint of narrative closure. If I want to look at it that way though, (and I do because I like to look at things like that as a storyteller, and that doesn’t grant us another season of television featuring the established eye-candy that brings in the teenage girls) Sam also deserves to stay trapped in the cage with Lucifer for the rest of time because that’s his fate as a martyr and tragic hero.

So, with that in mind, it sort of pains me to bring this up: If this season is to succeed from a narrative standpoint, Lisa and her son Ben need to die or go away in some other, permanent way. This isn’t because I dislike them as characters, because I have liked them ever since they were introduced back in season three as the throw-away gag that Dean might have an illegitimate son--but because they’re noncombatants in a show that has a history of treating noncombatants like canon-fodder. If they’re allowed to continue to exist, they’re doomed to become the Wesley Crusher and Dawn Summers of this generation of television, if only by the nature of the conventions of the genre. If they survive and stick around they will become an emotional albatross around Dean’s neck: the loved ones who can’t defend themselves and are thus a constant target for murder and kidnapping by all manner of villain. Even if they aren’t brought along on the road as weekly characters there will be constant reminders of their existence; tired reiterations of how Dean is doing things for his girl back home now, emotional diatribes about how hard it is for him to leave them behind, panicked drives back to fight on the home-front as Ben gets into yet another monster-related mishap. The kid has been kidnapped by demons once already: that shit’s gonna happen again.

These are the kinds of characters that are appealing to a writer though. They seem initially intruiging, like they could be a good emotional front for the show—-something to counterbalance all of the fighting and mythology-—but that’s a mentality that usually wears off pretty quickly. The characters soon become annoying. The writer feels compelled to include them so that the viewer doesn’t forget about them, and the viewer just finds them obnoxious after a while because they get in the way of the plot. It’s an angle that needs to be cleared up ASAP if the writers really intend to get Dean back on the road in the next couple of weeks. Actually, I’d like to think that the writers have a lot more than that to do if they want to get Dean back on the road, because Dean has, up until now, proven to be far from a dumb character. He may not be overly bright, but he can smell bullshit coming and he’s suspicious as well, and I’d like to think that for the sake of continuity they’re going to have to do some pretty good explaining as they develop and launch us into this season’s plot.

I’m going to call a stop on this for now, because twenty-six hundred words is more than enough to dedicate to a single hour of television. I’ll try to keep covering the rest of this season though, because I have the feeling that Supernatural fans are going to either witness a serious turnaround in the coming weeks or the beginning of a massive television train wreck. Either way, it should be worth looking at from a storytelling perspective.

 

-Sean

 

PS. : Jesus, was the music in this episode ever obnoxious. Supernatural has a history of keeping things really quiet for the most part, only dipping into the horror-movie bag of musical tricks every once in a while and relying mostly on the visuals, but sound-manufactured jump scares were all over the place in this episode and there were a couple of scenes where the score was so loud that I could barely hear the dialogue over it. Just icing on the cake, I guess.

9.16.2010

Just putting this here…

…so I can remember to buy China Mieville a drink some day.

"I disliked Star Trek intensely. I thought it was terrible. And I think part of my problem is that I feel like the relationship between JJ Abrams' projects and geek culture is one of relatively unloving repackaging - sort of cynical. I taste contempt in the air. Now I'm not a child - I know that all big scifi projects are suffused with the contempt of big money for its own target audience. But there's something about [JJ's projects] that makes me particularly uncomfortable."
-China Mieville

Real content is coming sometime. I swear.

-Sean

9.05.2010

IN THE THEATER: Machete

Way back in the wild and heady days 2007, pop-culture princes Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released the amazingly unsuccessful exploitation double-feature Grindhouse, and at the very head of that experience was this:

That’s amazing isn’t it? It’s big and preposterous and perfectly, stupidly fun. It set the tone for Grindhouse perfectly, and then, better, Rodriguez came to announce that he had written the whole damn thing and intended to turn it into a feature. And then, with his usual style he spent several years dragging his feet as he put together a ludicrous cast and team and then shot the whole thing over the course of a couple of weeks.

So now Machete is here. It is a real thing. And in a surprise that will shock (SHOCK!) the pants off of absolutely nobody, it is—like the film that spawned it—not particularly good.

Now, when I say that, I don’t want you to take my meaning to be that the movie is bad. It is, but in that intentional and cheesy manner of the new wave of exploitation films. Machete seems to be striving, first and foremost, to be a lot of fun…it’s full of guns and knives and explosions and bad one-liners and blood and manly men and hot women who all end up naked at some point or another. As a prime example, here’s a rundown of the first few minutes:

1: Machete kills a load of dudes. He is a Bad Cop On The Edge. YEEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!

2: Full frontal female nudity.

3: Steven Segal is a Mexican drug kingpin who dresses like a European dictator and carries a bright red katana. Yes, this is the greatest cross-racial casting since Touch of Evil.

4: Blood and cursing and cheesy digital gore out the arse.

5: The naked woman pulls a cellular phone out of her vagina.

6: Terrible, terrible writing delivered with hilarious, scene-chewing aplomb.

7: A wonderful shooting style with an amazing sheen of artificial grit and scratches and hyper-saturated colors that you can’t look away from.

And it’s great. It’s over the top, it’s ridiculous, it looks great and it sounds great and it is JUST. SO. MUCH. FUN. And then the credits come up and they’re great too, and then the movie comes back and, well, it just never gets back to where it was…

When the credits end the film grain is gone. The color saturation remains, and it still looks spectacular, but without the grain it seems like more like a trick than an element. And just as suddenly all of the dynamic and cheesy cinematography disappears. And the bizarre, extreme gags. And the madcap way in which all of the characters just devour the friggin’ scenery. And when all of those things go, the fun kind of evaporates along with them.

And for a while the movie just slows to an absolute crawl. For the longest time, all it does is introduce characters and organizations and little flashes of story while Danny Trejo just kind of stands around looking like a meaner version of the rawhide chew your dog lost under the couch last year. Except for rare, brilliant moments, Machete is a fairly passive character until the last act, and it’s not just because there’s nothing for him to be doing—it’s because there’s just too much else going on around him. He does things, but there’s little evidence that he’s actually at the center of the story or that he’s really all that important. Hell, the whole crux of him being hired to assassinate the Senator is that he’s nobody important at all--and the movie keeps milking the idea that day laborers are nobodies for laughs for quite some time. Saying that Machete is the star of this show is like watching Syriana and afterwards claiming that it was all about Matt Damon’s character. He’s in it, but it isn’t about him.

It’s not that the story and the interplay is uninteresting; it’s this sort of coolly cartoonish false-flag/border war/drug cartel conspiracy plot. It’s not that there aren't outrageous gags and great moments. It’s not that there aren’t a half-dozen utterly fantastic characters who I would love to see movies about, because there are literally that many characters in this movie who get great setups and origin stories and are, like, perfect old-school grindhouse characters.

But that’s just the problem. There’s too much. There’s too much going on. It’s a movie that desperately calls for a simple, flashy approach and the script just does not accommodate that. It just gets bogged down in all of it’s own stuff and where it should be dreadfully entertaining it becomes…not tedious, but sort of pedestrian. Without the flashy cinematography and filters, the film looks like exactly what it is: cheaply shot on mid-range digital cameras. And without a tight, sharp script it becomes increasingly clear that Rodriguez approached this project like he seems to most of his children’s films: throw crap at the wall and keep anything that sticks.

And that’s so frustrating, because the last time Rodriguez ventured into this territory we ended up with Planet Terror, which is fun and sharply written and tightly over-directed into a brilliant play on exploitation and zombie movies. So we know that ol’ RobRod can do this kind of stuff and do it so well it’ll break you open laughing. But with Machete it’s more like Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse; Death Proof, which starts out just as strong as Machete does, and just as quickly devolves into tedious fucking about as the director plays around on set with his man-crush.

So I guess you can call me disappointed. Call me disappointed because most of this movie is boring and unfunny. Call me disappointed for not being able to forgive that just because it has some good kills and some cheesy sex scenes set to ‘70s porn music. Call me disappointed because I walked into a movie starring Danny Trejo--a performer who I normally feel is funny and lively in his smaller bits--only to find that he sleepwalks through a starring role. Call me disappointed because when the end credits came up and they announce that “Machete Will Return” in not one, but two other movies that might possibly (read: probably not) be made someday, I was less interested in that and more in the prospect of a spin-off about Lindsay Lohan’s character.

Lindsay.

Lohan.

I don’t think I need to say more than that.

 

-Sean

9.01.2010

Or Not…

It’s proving to be a bitchy little week. Trying to do a lot and getting very little done. Not even reading or watching anything. If I can I’m going to dedicate the weekend to getting ahead on writing columns. Until then, here’s something that I thought was pretty great—courtesy of Rogue Leader:

tumblr_l803ox1wh91qa64ma

Here’s a link to the original post.

And here’s one to a guide of where is where.

 

-Sean

8.29.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 08/01 - 08/28

As a way of easing back into the swing of things, here are some thoughts on the things I’ve been reading and watching in the past couple of weeks:

READING:

  • The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett, 1934.
    • Hammett is one of the grand-daddies of American detective fiction, and he was known for an economy of style that sort of breaks my brain when I read it, but in a good way. The Thin Man is fun, light reading but it works more as a comedy of manners than a detective story, and the setting, voice, and gender relations date it far more readily than most work in the genre. I enjoy the novel, but this is a rare case where I like the movie better.
  • The White Rose, Glen Cook, 1985.
    • The White Rose marks the end of the Black Company over-story referred to as The Books of The North and it does so with the sort of merciless competency that I’ve come to expect from Cook’s prose. The story jumps around in time quite a bit through epistolary machinations but it does so well. The book brings this chapter of the Company’s history to a close quite nicely and takes a couple of twists and turns that are satisfying if not always unexpected. Also a great “Weird Geography” book what with most of it taking place on the otherworldly Plain of Fear—an environment only mentioned in passing in the preceding Shadows Linger.
  • Shadow Games, Glen Cook, 1989.
    • And that brings us to the first of the two Books of The South, as Croaker leads the Black Company out of The Lady’s empire and back to the land that spawned their outfit four-hundred years prior. This one is a bit more melancholy than the previous entries, dealing primarily with Croaker coming to terms with his own advancing age and the personal inadequacies that are coming to bear now that he has assumed control of the Company. Cook handles that side of things very well though, and takes the opportunity to get us more in on the side of seeing how things come together in the Company. In previous books, Croaker has served primarily as Annalist and Physician, and now that he’s in a position of power and having to support the Company as he leads it to its disbanding in Khatovar, we get much more of an inside look at how the organization is run and a much wider view of how the battles play out. It doesn’t always work though; as Croaker is now writing and fighting from a position of command, the larger battles in the third act become a bit too large to really grasp due to Cook’s spare prose and sharp, isolated imagery. It’s something that works better when we’re seeing it from the perspective of the man on the ground, not the one watching the proceedings. That said, the book is still immensely enjoyable and Cook continues to be remorseless when it comes to tormenting and killing his characters. I could probably stand to sit down and read all of the other books in the series right now if I didn’t have things to look at for my thesis.
  • The House of Breath, William Goyen, 1950.
    • Lovely imagery and layering and some technically excellent writing. Otherwise I couldn’t stand it. There’s a bit where a river starts narrating the book mid-chapter that sort of broke my brain (in a bad way this time) for a little while. Even a big room full of writers couldn’t find much nice to say about it. I’d say dodge it unless you’re into that sort of thing.
  • DMZ, Volume 05: The Hidden War, Brian Wood, Others, 2008. (Issues #23-28)
    • Brian Wood’s DMZ is one of the best comics that I’m reading right now, and no joking. A very near future story where the Second American Civil War has been fought to a standstill and the burned out ruins of Manhattan have become a thinly populated demilitarized zone. The book has an thick air of probability to it, and I never cease to be amazed by the art and Wood’s ability to tell small, personal stories set in this world that are at once as sad as they are as proud and hopeful. This particular volume is made up of those little stories; one-shot tales about the figures who live in the DMZ and how they came to be where they are, from an aging graffiti artist, to a failed suicide bomber, to the gangster who runs Chinatown and aims to own the whole city by the time the war is over. It’s pretty great and, right now, it’s the comic book that I’m most likely to recommend to people who don’t read comic books.

VIEWING:

  • The Losers, Weed Road, Warner Bros, 2010.
    • This was one that I really enjoyed in theaters, but looking at it now my impressions have begun to cool. I still like it, but it doesn’t really much work as a cohesive whole. The villain is too goofy and blatantly villainous for the film that he’s been put in, and the weapons that he’s buying are like something out of the later Pierce Brosnan Bond films. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously to begin with, but it isn’t weird enough to accommodate a guy who shoots his assistant because she stumbles while walking next to him. I also still don’t object to all of the changes that they made in translating it from the comic. I wish that it had been more like the comic, sure. The comic is pretty damn brilliant. But I think that it comes into it’s own well enough for all but the most hard-core purists to find some merit there.

That’s all for now, folks. Look for a new COOKING COLUMN tomorrow afternoon some time, and another thing later in the week. I also sort of want to talk about television at some point, but we’ll see where that goes.

-Sean

8.26.2010

Journey to the Centre of the YouTube, Part 3

I’ve always been a big fan of The Kids in the Hall. You can tell that their stuff doesn’t always work the way they want it to, but there’s usually almost always something funny in their skits. The following is an example of them firing on all cylinders:

Also, I’m now back from my travels. Expect columns and the like to go back on broadcast next week.

-Sean

8.04.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 07/25-07/31

The observant reader may have noticed that posting has been very light lately. I’ve been tremendously busy with projects and prepping for school to start back up and you can expect things to continue like this for the next week or so. It’s unfortunate but I sort of have to do it. So please look forward to a resumption of regular broadcasts soon, and go now to this tatty list of things with my apologies:

Books Read:

  • Dragonforge, James Maxey, 2008.
    • I finished this one up and found it enjoyable if not as strong as the first entry in the series. There’s an awful lot of new exposition that is covered very quickly (so quickly that it seems almost as if it will not be touched upon again, and if that’s the case; why bother?), and there’s a tremendous amount of reliance on coincidence. Maxey pulls a lot from Christianity in his setting, using it as one of the three primary religions that shape the landscape of the world, and I’m a little bit concerned that he might be moving in the direction of a supernatural guiding hand. Still, a good, light adventure/fantasy read.

-Sean

7.30.2010

COMICS: “X-Wing: Rogue Leader”

NOTE: This column was originally supposed to run on Wednesday the 28th. It is running now because I A) Fail at auto-publishing, and B) Fail at checking my site to make sure things are auto-publishing.

It’s Wednesday, and that means new comics. But since I don’t really buy single issues anymore I’m going to start doing something else instead. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to recommend titles to people over the last month or so, and every time I’ve recommended Dark Horse’s old Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron monthly. Running from 1995 to 1998, this is a book that I absolutely loved when I was younger and I have always been ready to throw out a recommendation for it. It’s been a long time since I read so much as a single issue though, so I’ve decided to revisit this particular nostalgia factory in the interest of having comics to talk about on this site and, for the next few weeks, I’ll be covering this series on a story to story basis.

As we begin, I’m already going to have to amend myself. You see, back in the fall of 2005, Dark Horse ran a sort of revival X-Wing series without series mastermind Michael A. Stackpole. Going back to before the beginning of the original series, X-Wing: Rogue Leader ran for three issues that served as a follow-up The Return of the Jedi and a direct lead-in to the original first story-arc, The Rebel Opposition. As such, I’m going to have to start here if I’m going chronologically. Which is a shame, because Rogue Leader totally sucks.

And with that? Here we go, here we go, here we go:

Rogue Leader Cover

STATISTICS:

Script: Haden Blackman

Art: Tomas Giorello

Colors: Michael Atiyeh

Issues: 3

Run Dates: September ‘05 - November ‘05

BACKGROUND:

Oh my god, I barely even know where to begin. I mean…just issues out the ass. First off, I can’t even figure out what the rationale was behind it’s publication. It’s a prequel to the original series, taking up a week after the Battle of Endor, and leaving off just a few days before the mission to Cilpar that makes up The Rebel Opposition. It’s a very tight time-frame, the events of the story taking place over the course of only a couple of days. This is perfectly acceptable, I suppose, but I just have never gotten the why of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, the arc does highlight an important moment in the continuity of the series: the passing of leadership over Rogue Squadron from Luke Skywalker to Wedge Antilles. But why now? This arc was released in 2005, nearly eight years after the end of the original series and seven after the end of the series of novels by Mike Stackpole and Aaron Alston. And it was released a full year before Dark Horse started re-releasing the old series as part of their Omnibus project. So basically we have an isolated incident. A short-run series released without fanfare, which can have no chance of continuation because it would actively clash with the rest of the continuity. So we’re left with the idea of a quick cash-in; something that I’ve found Dark Horse to usually be above. I just can’t find the logic in it.

But who cares about that crap? Logic and commercial viability are for nerds. We’re talking about Star Wars comics, and that’s serious business.

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT THEN:

So, it’s a week after the Battle of Endor. The Emperor and Vader are dead, the Empire is in disarray, and the Rebel Alliance is running a clean-up operation in the forest moon’s orbit. Luke Skywalker is fresh back from the events of The Truce at Bakura (a novel I could have sworn took place over more than the span of two days) and is putting together a small group of pilots for a mission to monitor Imperial activity in the Corellia system because…there’s an absence of Imperial activity there? And this merits pulling pilots from firefighting efforts, funeral detail, and hunting stormtrooper guerilla squads? I guess if Luke Skywalker wants a mission then he gets a mission. Here are our Rogues:

Luke Skywalker

Luke Skywalker: Rogue Leader

He’s Luke Skywalker. Come on. I don’t need to explain this. He’s a Jedi, an X-Wing pilot and he’s also kind of a dick in this book. Just sayin’.

Ten Numb

Ten Numb: Rogue Does Not Have a Call Number

Ten Numb is the token alien in this series. He does next to nothing. And since he doesn’t appear anywhere else in continuity he is all but guaranteed to be dead by issue three. He also leads his own B-Wing squadron, so why was he chosen for this? Hell, why did he go along with it?

Tycho Celchu

Tycho Celchu: Rogue Prettyboy (Nine)

Tycho is usually a much better character than he is presented as here. The conflict and duality that are inherent in the character takes a backseat here to the, “Oh, ain’t he handsome,” factor. A-Wing pilot.

Wes Jansen

Wes Jansen: Rogue My, What a Comically Large Gun (Five)

I had a horrible time finding a decent picture of Jansen for this. He’s either obscured or in the background for most of this arc. His is a character who is also not quite there for this story. He does things, but he doesn’t feel like anything more than an extra. Also an X-Wing pilot.

Wedge Antilles

Wedge Antilles: Rogue Awesome (Two)

This book is pretty much Wedge and Luke’s show, which is fine since it’s a passing of the torch thing. He’s really the most thoroughly developed character in the book, but it feels like it was done at the expense of everything and everyone else. He also spends the entire book dressed like Han Solo. No excuse is ever given, but I’d like to imagine it’s because the artist and colorist thought that he was Han Solo. And honestly? The alternative is that all Corellian pilots dress the same, which is boring as hell. Our last X-Wing pilot.

After some perfunctory scenes wherein we are introduced to our characters and they are given their mission, the Rogues are quickly off to Corellia, and its capital city of Coronet. They quickly check into a bar, and Luke reveals that he has pulled everyone from their very important assignments so that they can take some shore leave! Yes! Wedge is no longer pulling Star Destroyer sized chunks of debris out of declining orbits, and Ten is no longer putting out fires on the surface of Endor’s moon because why? Because Luke Skywalker decided that he wanted to have a vacation in enemy territory! Why that’s perfectly okay! I don’t know why he didn’t just say so. He didn’t have to misappropriate Alliance materiel and personnel for that. I’m sure that they would have just let him go if he asked. He’s only Luke Goddamn Skywalker. It’s not like this is the first time. He’s the king of flaking out and going off to do whatever he wants.

So we get a little bit of exposition about Corellia, and a little bit of “I’m getting too old for this shit,” dialogue between Wedge and Luke (galactic heroes AND crotchety old men by age twenty-two?) as they set up kip at a cantina so Tycho can go be handsome at the ladies. Unfortunately, further tedious pleasantries are interrupted by the arrival of the plot, in the form of some stormtroopers launching a rocket into the middle of the cantina. Are they assassins? Crazy? Reactionary remnant forces acting out a terrorist plot? Who knows, they’re dispatched quickly and easily. But that’s okay, because as our heroes round the corner they come face to face with an entire army of pissed off Imperials who are more than willing to fight them for the opportunity to question one another.

And that’s it. That’s the first issue. Luke Skywalker shanghais his buddies and a complete stranger into going on vacation under false pretenses and then they get into a fight. It’s twenty-two pages of nothing interesting happening. Almost all of the dialogue is exposition, and it isn’t even decent exposition, and the sole other action sequence at the beginning (Tycho and Jansen fighting a giant Gorax on the forest moon) is handled so quickly and cleanly that it might as well only be mentioned in passing later. They don’t even bother to report on what happened when they radio in after the fight. It’s like nothing that anyone does matters, which is fantastic luck because it’s like none of them care.

But it has to get better, right? Not really, no. Things are probably going to get spoiler-ish from here on out, so skip ahead to the art section if you’d like to remain pure.

Issue two is mostly fighting and chase sequences, but as with the fights in issue one, everything seems too easy. Rogue Squadron is supposed to be sort of an elite force. In the future they’ll sort of be portrayed as a group of Marines; going forth and taking names in any situation or environment. That shines through here, but it’s kind of done in an effortless way. The characters are all just insanely competent and the writer either failed to come up with a challenging scenario for them or decided that it wasn’t necessary. (I’m not familiar with Haden Blackman’s other work, so I don’t know if laziness is his MO or not) As a result, we just sort of coast through the episode until about two-thirds of the way through when we’re introduced to our villain, General Weir.

And General Weir is a problem too. There is absolutely nothing about him that is interesting. He’s fanatical Imperial villain #3,698,425. He sneers and struts and tortures and hates aliens and he thinks that the Emperor is forever. No effort is ever made to develop him at all, and since he isn’t actually introduced until more than halfway (!) through the story, there isn’t any room to do so either. If this were the beginning of a new, larger series where he could serve as a recurring villain then he could have some potential, but since he never shows up in continuity ever again, then the dedicated Star Wars reader knows that, like Ten Numb, Weir will be dead or captured by the end of issue three. So in the end, all he is is another trite villain of the week, whose sole distinguishing characteristic is that he wears glossy black Scout armor with bright red bandoliers crossed over his chest. No, I am not joking.

lol

In This Picture: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

So we have weak action, weak characters, and a villain who looks like he dropped out of a remedial course for GI.Joe bad guys…dare we ask what happens next? Well, when confronted with the combined might of four guys, our fearsome villain and his army turns tail and runs, taking the time to quickly capture Ten in a moment of startling incompetence. The rest of the Rogues give chase as Weir pulls his men off planet and limps back home and, as the issue ends, Ten wakes up to find himself in Weir’s secret underground fortress, badly beaten and minus one hand. Such villainy!

And then issue three rolls around, and if you thought things were flimsy before, well, whoo-boy. Weir has amassed a huge subterranean storehouse of ships and walkers and gear, and he even has the men to run it all. He’s planning on starting his own COUNTER-rebellion, to avenge the destruction of the Empire which, as all of the exposition in issue one informed us, has not actually been destroyed. He’s totally rebelling though, and he’s going to do it with all of the information he has pulled out of Ten during off-screen torture/interrogation sequences. Apparently the little dude took all of three minutes to break.

Luke and the gang track Weir’s ships to his base but need to get inside. They enlist the help of the native Selonian population by promising them really, really hard that the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead and gone. The Selonians agree to lend aid, but are never seen again. Seriously. They just vanish. I guess the offer of aid only extended as far as the door. So, once again, four guys armed with handguns face off against a vast display of Imperial might. And apparently the Rogues just look so absolutely badass that Weir orders an emergency evacuation as soon as they show up. Weir runs in a TIE, Wedge and Tycho pursue in similar fashion, and Wedge gets to shoot the villain down and punch him in the face. Meanwhile, Jansen finds Ten dead on the interrogation table (called it) and Luke fights the entire Imperial force on his own off-screen.

It could have been a great, large action sequence but it’s all handled so ineptly you can barely keep track of it. Everything is over before you know it and all of the surviving characters are suddenly back with the fleet at Endor. Wedge asserts that he wants to keep fighting more now than ever, Luke hands over control of the squadron, and Wedge goes to meet his new pilots and give a terrible little speech about freedom and inspiration. The end.

I don’t really know what to say at this point. The whole thing is like a clinical case in completely screwing the comics pooch. I’m not sure that Blackman could have written anything more flat and uninspired if he had been trying to and was also suddenly Mark Millar. It fits into the continuity of the rest of the series, and I guess it’s an okay prologue since it’s all uphill from here…but really now. It’s just bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

A VERITABLE PARADE OF ARTISTRY:

So, I’m really not crazy about the art in this arc either. I guess that probably isn’t a surprise at this point, but there it is. And it isn’t that the art is genuinely terrible, it’s just wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it’s thoroughly middle of the road, sometimes it’s got that soft-edged, hyper-real John Cassaday look, and the rest of the time it looks sort of like the stuff that Cam Kennedy did on the Dark Empire series; all hard edges and weird crosshatching and deep, saturated colors. The comparisons aren’t exact, but on a page to page basis we’re seeing some very different looking work.

Further, characters lack consistency in their depiction--again, not badly, but enough to be noticeable. There are some serious scale and anatomy problems that crop up (Luke practices the Jedi art of not having any frigging bones several times), and Tomas Giorello has a fantastic knack for displaying some of the most flat and lifeless splash pages I’ve ever seen. There’s also a real lack in consistency in the way that Corellia is portrayed. We never really see enough of it to establish a good geography, but there are enough descriptions of the planet and her people for the art team to be able to put something together that at least holds up. The city of Coronet also has the tendency to look ridiculous; all silver-age sci-fi city spires, weird lights and shiny surfaces. It doesn’t look all that much like a city just shaking off the shackles of Imperial oppression. And the cast of extras is populated largely with humans dressed in silly hats, giant boots and puffy clothes, all done in mismatched neon jungle prints. In the end, Coronet looks like it belongs on Krypton and it’s inhabitants all dress like Vanilla Ice. It’s strange and kind of embarrassing to look at, especially given Giorello’s predilection to only using shadow for dramatic effect. A substantial portion of the second act is set at night, but even that all seems to be lit by an even, all-encompassing light source.

The book has some lovely technical art though. The arc’s one big dogfight is kind of flat and silly, but the ships look tremendous for the most part. There’s a lot of transition in the art department over the course of the Rogue Squadron book, and it isn’t always a pretty read, but the technical art is pretty steadily great throughout. So I guess Rogue Leader has that going for it.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of other little things. There’s some nice use of white-space and unconventional panel shapes in issue three, where Luke and Wedge stand on the bridge of a Star Destroyer and look out into space and the interior of the ship has been whited out so they are standing in a void staring out into a void. It’s a trick panel that isn’t really special in an average or better book, but it stands out nicely here. There is also a panel in issue two where Luke has an epiphany and the panel is shaped like an exclamation point. It’s a little bit of literalistic silliness that I can’t not include a picture of:

blz18

Finally, this book has what I think is the single most lovingly detailed likeness of venerable internet meme-machine Admiral Ackbar looking pleasantly surprised that has ever been put to paper:

blz22

A Hickory Farms basket? Why, you shouldn't have!”

LAST NAIL:

So Rogue Leader isn’t very good. That’s not really a surprise for me. I knew it wasn’t very good when I read it the first time. It was the revitalization of a beloved series though, so what can I say? I had hope. And because I still have hope, I’m going to forge on with the rest of the series despite this rocky start. Because, hey: It can’t all be nostalgia, can it?

Next week: The Rebel Opposition

-Sean

7.26.2010

Vital Statistics: 07/18-07/24

Coming this week on All Strange Places: A new COOKING COLUMN, something about television maybe, the start of a series on comics, a lot of Starcraft II (Which probably won’t actually appear here, the be honest. Unless I write up some thoughts.), and I might try my hand at liveblogging something. Exciting, right? No. Don’t answer. I already know.

You’re excited.

I think.

Here’s some crap:

  • Books Read:
    • Dragonforge, James Maxey, 2008.
      • James Maxey’s first fantasy novel, Bitterwood, was one of my most pleasant surprises last summer. I’m only about halfway through this sequel and despite its sort of doofy title, it’s an enjoyable and intelligently written fantasy story. I don’t usually go for fantasy stories that are set in a sharply retrogressed future world, but Maxey is up-front about the whole thing, and by not shitting around with the cliché he manages it give it a fresh and honest fell.
  • Movies Watched:
    • 2010: The Year We Make Contact, MGM, 1984.
      • For some reason this is a tremendously unpopular sequel, but I’ve always preferred it to Kubrick’s original. There’s almost nothing about it that I dislike (though Dana Elcar is woefully and hilariously miscast as a Russian) and it has some truly wonderful special effects work, much of which is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. If you’ve never seen it because of the nasty stigma that follows it, I’d heartilly recommend rectifying that.
  • Writing:
    • Fresh Pages: 03
    • Blog Posts: 02

-Sean

7.20.2010

COOKING COLUMN: Moroccan Lamb-Shank Meshoui

Welcome to the first official installment of Cooking Column! This is going to be a recipe week. But more than that, we’re going to be looking at a whole meal--main course, sides, desert, the works--and we’re going to be centering that around a traditional Moroccan dish; a lamb meshoui.

This is a fairly diverse dish, mixing a bunch of different flavors and elements into a whole that should be able to please or impress just about any group of diners. It also has the extra bonus of being kind of showy without actually being complicated to make.

100_2745In This Photo: Dark culinary mysteries which shall be revealed.

 


7.18.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 07/11-07/17

Just a few short things this week. Hope everyone is liking the new format and the new column ideas. I’m getting more into the swing of this, I think.

  • Books Read:
    • Another slow reading week. Started something but can’t really speak on it after so few pages.
  • Comics Read:
    • Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Leader, Dark Horse, 2005. (Issues #1-3)
  • DVD’s Watched:
    • Space: Above & Beyond, Fox Television, 1995, (Disk 6)
  • Films Watched:
    • Inception, Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures, 2010.
      • A solid science-fiction heist story. It is quite good all around and has a very slick concept/presentation, but it doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre.
  • Writing:
    • New Pages: 30
    • Old Pages Scrapped: 03
    • Pages Edited: 06
    • Personal Deadline Met: No.
    • Blog Posts: 05

-Sean

7.16.2010

IN THE THEATER: Inception

Over the next few days, you’re going to see an awful lot of critics refer to Inception as a challenging film. Viewers will walk away from their theaters calling the film complex and nuanced and spouting praise for writer/director Christopher Nolan. That’s if they like it of course. If they don’t then they’re going to call it confusing and boring and maybe even stupid. And walking away from this film, the question on my mind isn’t so much “Which party is right?” as it is “Is any party right?” And my answer?

Maybe a little of both.

Let me explain: Inception is a film that is only as challenging as you allow it to be. If you don’t accept what it is telling you and try to over-think things then you’re going to find yourself muddling through the plot, grappling onto statement after idea after statement in the interest of finding a way to ground yourself as an observer. Alternately, if you choose to let the film and the world wash over you and pay attention as you go, then you’ll very quickly find yourself deposited at the credits and find that you understood all of what went on.

The reason for this is that Inception falls into a category of science fiction that I like to refer to as Immersive Science Fiction. It’s a little sub-genre I have identified that is peopled with writers like William Gibson. Immersive authors write stories where almost all of the world and technical exposition is done in the background. As a style, it does not pander to the audience, it does not attempt to make everything crystal clear at all times, it does not care about telling you how the jetpack on page eighty-three works, or how the bad guys tracked the hero through space at the fifty minute mark.

Early on, Inception gives you the little bits that you absolutely need—-terminology, that the tech exists, how it effects the world—-and then it just lights out for the Territories, supplementing your reality for its own and trusting that you will be interested enough in the characters and the story to ride along. And as it moves it gives you more and more little flashes of how the world works; showing you how it is different and how it is the same and illustrating the rules that dictate this reality without taking much time to implicitly state them. As the film chugs along, the viewer is with the characters all of the way. We latch onto them because, as human beings, they are the most familiar facet of this world, and as they move through the plot we move with them and build up our own understanding of how things work.

I’m making this sound more complex than it is. Basically what you need to know is this: The movie shows you the world without really telling you about it, and then it tricks you into filling in whatever blanks you find the most pressing, and when it’s all over you feel more satisfied as a viewer because you played a role in the endeavor that was not completely passive. It isn’t something that works flawlessly on film, but it works well enough that you can still let yourself slip into the texture of the film and come away with an excellent feel for it. Which is something that can’t even be said about most books, so more power to Nolan for doing it.

So what about the rest of it? The acting and the action and the other stuff that people who aren’t writers actually care about? Well, there’s a reason why I included “spouting praise for writer/director Christopher Nolan” in my bit earlier on. Chris Nolan is, to my mind, one of the strongest and most consistent directors of the 21st century. The man is an unstoppable juggernaut of directing chops. He crushes faces and collects skulls and swims in talent like Scrooge McDuck swims in gold coins. And Inception really doesn’t do much to change that.

The film is beautifully shot. The visuals are crisp and clear and the digital effects-—while not always of the highest caliber—-are always integrated well into the film; serving as intentional representative imagery rather than flash for the sake of flash. There is also some really great stunt work going on, and some gigantic “zero-gravity” sequences that showcase some of the best fight sequences of their type. The film is just staggering to look at.

Things don’t hold up as well on the less technical levels, unfortunately. The plot is strong; presenting itself well and moving at a pace that is at once brisk enough to satisfy the story-driven viewer, but also lets in enough character work to let the actors really do their thing on a more personal level. But once you strip away all of the fancy lucid dreaming stuff, Inception is really just a heist movie. It’s Ocean’s Eleven, minus the jokes and a bunch of characters and inside Cillian Murphy’s head. And while I would go so far as to say that it is a very well made heist movie, it doesn’t ever take that notion anywhere you haven’t seen. The same basic sorts of things that you expect to go wrong in heist movies all go wrong, and they are all resolved in the ways that you would expect. It is all hidden under a very slick veneer, but when it comes down to it, the veneer is a lot thicker in other places.

There’s also some pretty clunky writing spaced throughout the script. Nothing that you’re likely to specifically remember by the time that the credits are over, but there are little conversations or lines that are just ham-handed enough to give you pause. They’re unfortunate little moments strewn across a script that is otherwise nice and tight. The film also just gets things over with early and has the characters constantly be willing to call each other on their bullshit. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb starts to show that he’s having a psychological meltdown, Ariadne (Ellen Page) actually does something and confronts him about it. Characters show concern for each other and act upon that, and it is a lovely change of pace from summer films where you often feel like the characters even know that they’re in a movie, where they’re just holding all of their emotional bits in check until the plot train coasts into the station where they’re supposed to unload. It is so remarkably refreshing to see people acting like real people that I can barely even express it.

And the cast is lovely, by the way. There are plenty of people on the cast list who you know are going to be there and be solid, like DiCaprio and Page, and then there are people who just kind of sow up as a matter of course and please you with their mere presence. Performers like Cillian Murphy and Tom Berenger and Michael Caine and Dileep Rao who didn’t get a single frame of attention in the trailers but bring a great deal of talent and presence to the table. Going into the film as a person who remembers performers and their work, the cast is like going out for dinner and a movie and then spending the entire time running into people who you are genuinely happy to see. Pretty much everyone is great pretty much all of the time, and it is hardly surprising at all.

So, in the end, Inception doesn’t really take you anywhere you haven’t been to before, but it gets you there in a car you’ve never been in. And it’s a really nice car. Flaws aside, the film comes highly recommended. Enjoy.

-Sean

7.13.2010

The Digital Tarkovsky Library

It has been brought to my attention that the entire feature-length library of director Andrei Tarkovsky has been made available on OpenCulture.com. For those readers who love film and are unfamiliar with Tarkovsky’s work, I have no choice but to give these films a serious recommendation.

Tarkovsky is not an easy director to watch. His films are not easy films. They are slow burns of image and idea. Like many directors who operated under the USSR, Tarkovsky was not afraid to take his time and tell his stories deliberately and without the excesses of flashier films. This is a man who Ingmar Bergman called “the greatest director” and sometimes I am inclined to agree.

So please—should the notion take you—watch and enjoy.

-Sean

(News shamelessly reposted from WarrenEllis.com)

7.12.2010

INTRODUCING: Cooking Column

When I was in college, I was surprised at how many people I knew who couldn’t cook. And I don’t mean that the were just bad cooks, I mean that they didn’t know the first thing about how to use an oven. Since then, I’ve gone on to discover just how many people in general don’t know an ounce about how to prepare food for themselves beyond the bare minimum. I always found this sort of baffling, because I was allowed and encouraged to cook as a child. I thoroughly enjoy a wide variety of foods, I like to prepare them, I like to eat them, I like to talk about them...the works.

So, I got to thinking that the majority of people really do enjoy food. There are some for whom eating and subsisting is a mechanical action, yes, and there are also the obnoxious “foodies” or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves now, but there are also those other people: The people who like food and are interested in it, but don’t really know where to begin. Something like Food Network seems like the obvious choice to start with, but that’s sort of deceptive. A lot of their shows either pander excessively, or cater specifically to people who already know the fundamentals and are into some fairly advanced prep techniques. Cookbooks aren’t always that much better, numerous and often poorly written as they are. So where does that leave the people in the middle ground?

Well, for those people I now introduce Cooking Column. This project, with its stunningly uncreative name, will update once a week with recipes, technique and tool guides, and little bits and pieces from my own cooking explorations. It won’t always be a new recipe every week, it probably won’t even be something that you personally will want or need every week, but it will hopefully be something like a comprehensive look at food and cooking that can be of help to the layman and the advanced cook. So if you’re into that, be sure to come back next Monday for a new column and probably some sarcasm. I certainly look forward to both of those things.

-Sean

7.11.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 04/04 – 04/10

Weird, busy week. Apologies for the lack of updates. I’ve made some minor formatting changes and applied them. If there are any display issues, please let me know. I’ve also got a couple of little columns starting up next week, along with the next installation in Working Through the Stack.

  • Books Read:
    • Didn’t really have any time for reading this week, unfortunately.
  • DVDs Watched:
    • Space, Above and Beyond, Fox Television, 1995. (Disk 4)
  • Writing:
    • Pages Written: 11
    • Pages Edited: 20
    • Blog Posts: 2

-Sean

7.10.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 06/27 – 04/03

Super late post on this. Things have kind of been a pain in the ass lately.

Books Read:

  • Pages of Pain, Troy Denning, 1996.
    • Still haven’t finished this. Kind of frustrating. I love the book when I’m reading it, but I can’t seem to focus on it for any amount of time. Just one of those things.
  • Shadows Linger, Glen Cook, 1990
    • Really great read if you can take Cook’s style. The brisk, war-journalist tone of the book could probably be quite off-putting for some readers, but I rather enjoy it. Follows up the story from The Black Company nicely, while also working as a more personal and character driven type of story, and it builds things nicely to the conclusion in the next book. I also have to commend Cook for taking the tired old fantasy archetype of the cowardly, downtrodden tavern master and turning it into something enjoyable and well developed with the character of Marron Shed. On the whole, a terribly enjoyable book and follow-up, even if Raven does go out like a total bitch.

DVDs Watched:

  • Slither, Universal Pictures, 2006.
    • Science fiction version of Evil Dead 2. Really fun casual viewing, with some really creative horror/comedy elements and effects. Great cast, well put together, and some fantastic special features on the disk. This is one of those movies that I’ll pop in for noise and will usually end up sitting down to watch regardless.
  • Space, Above and Beyond, Fox Television, 1995. (Disks 1-3)
    • Doing this one for the next Working Through the Stack Column, so keep an eye out for that.

Writing:

  • Pages Typed: 11
  • Pages Handwritten: 6
  • Pages Edited: 0

-Sean

7.07.2010

Work Week

Slow posting week last week, and expect this week to continue as such. I’m still looking at changes to the site layout to make thing easier to read and view, and I’m working on a season of television for the next Working Through the Stack post, so it’s taking longer than usual. I also have a couple of ideas for more articles and content that I’m exploring, and am writing regularly while trying to get ready for school to start up again next month. So yeah, little busy. Expect a Vital Statistics post for last week later today, and do stay tuned.

-Sean

6.28.2010

Journey to the Centre of the YouTube, Part Two

And we’re back, with a Steve Steven’s track that you might remember from 1986…

This, like Top Gun, might be one of the best worst things ever. Good night, everyone.

-Sean

6.27.2010

Vital Statistics: Week of 06/20 – 06/26

If I’m going to be perfectly honest then I have to say that these posts are kind of stupid. For some reason though, I find them very soothing. There’s just something nice about having a week-to-week record of what I’ve been reading and watching and writing. And besides; what the hell else is a blog really for? So, here is volume three of my weekly list of things you didn’t need to know. Now with little reviews!

Books Read:

  • Pages of Pain, Troy Denning, 1996.
    • The summer months always put me into a funk where all I really want to read is franchise fiction and pulp lit. It’s great, easy summer reading and can be a wonderful way to find more work by authors whose original stories and novels you really enjoyed. Troy Denning is one of those guys, but Pages of Pain is really anything but easy reading. The prose is fairly dense and the subject matter is rather dire. I’ve been working on this one for more than a week now, but I keep getting distracted. If I were to ever want to run a D&D campaign set in Sigil though, this is the book I would fall back on for locations and little details.
  • Star Wars: Hard Contact, Karen Traviss, 2005.
    • Traviss is another of those authors who I’ll usually track across the boundary between franchise and original fiction. Her original long-form military sci-fi series sort of petered out for me at the halfway point, but she remains an author that I really enjoy. This was her first novel in the Star Wars stable, and it kind of shows, but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable if you like that sort of thing.

DVDs Watched:

  • Outland, Warner Brothers/The Ladd Company, 1981.
    • I see you are interested in Outland. Outland is a wise thing to be interested in. Please see this post for more information about Outland if you would like to know more about Outland. Outland.
  • The Road, Dimension Films/2929 Productions, 2009.
    • Gorgeous scenery and production design and some really fine performances from some really fin performers. When I wasn’t drooling over the little environmental details and started paying attention to the film though, I will reluctantly admit to being nearly bored to tears. Post apocalyptic fiction may be great for allowing the players to moodily navel-gaze and lament the things that they have lost, but in a film it doesn’t really make for a solid viewing experience. I don’t mind watching a survival story, but at least have your actors behave in a way that lets me believe they’re actually capable of surviving. An extra dose of half-baked voice-over philosophizing makes this a beautiful but tedious film.
  • Edge of Darkness, Warner Brothers/BBC Films, 2010.
    • Welcome back, Mel.

Comics Read:

  • Star Wars: X-Wing, Rogue Squadron: The Phantom Affair (Series Issues #5-8), Dark Horse, 1996.
    • You may have figured out that I’m awfully fond of Star Wars. No matter how many times George Lucas may try to hurt me, I’ll still have some room in my heart for the franchise, especially when it’s focused on characters who either aren’t from the films or only played very small roles. The Phantom Affair is the second story-arc from Dark Horse’s ongoing monthly from back in the ‘90s (now the third, thanks to a botched semi-reboot a few years back) and it is where the series really hit its stride, I think, finding the balance of humor and action that Mike Stackpole established in his novels while also really nailing the vibe and look of Star Wars. Succeeds despite the truncated storytelling style of the medium, and some inconsistent art.

Writing:

  • Pages Typed: 9
  • Pages Edited: 0
  • Pages That Are Any Good: 5?
  • Pages Typed in a Barnes & Noble Cafe: 9
  • Electrical Outlets in that cafe: 1 (Seriously? Seriously? Just one, guys? That’s the best you can do?)
  • Number of Computers Being Used by the Girl Sitting in Front of the Outlet: 0
  • Number of People in Line for the Outlet: 4
  • Number of Times She Laughed When People Asked Her to Move: Many, that absolute bitch.
  • Excuse Given When Staff was Confronted with the Issue: “But we have free 3G Wireless!”
  • Number of Damns I Give About That: 0
  • Review of the B&N Cafe: Guys, you have great iced tea and scones, but I move around a lot during the day, and until more than one person can plug their laptop in to work, don’t expect me to come back.

-Sean

Working Through the Stack, Part 2

I love the 1981 Peter Hyams film Outland. It’s one of those quiet, serious science fiction films from the ‘80s that seems nearly perfect when you’re watching it, but is sort of hard to encapsulate properly when describing it. So, in lieu of a proper write-up, I’m going to present you with an equation I cooked up on GraphJam.com to better explain the film:

b242cd46-f183-4618-bcac-df0f61127142

Now armed with this information, I feel that those of you unlucky enough to have not seen this film should be tempted to seek it out. Because if the pure, unbridled power of Movie Mathematics can’t convince you, nothing can.

-Sean

(NOTE: Working Through the Stack is a multi-part project in which I have dedicate myself to exploring the lost and forgotten corners of my DVD collection. More information may be found here.)

6.24.2010

Working Through the Stack, Part One

Not long ago, I announced my intention to work my way through the forgotten and mislaid stretches of my DVD collection. Having set this goal for myself, I went ahead and started off with the Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall collection that Warner Brothers put out in 2005 as part of their Signature Collection series of releases.Bogie and Bacall  CoverWhat follows will be a series of short reviews; mostly comments and basic thoughts, with little technical bits here and there. So let’s begin:

6.21.2010

Vital Statistics, Week of June 13-19

Last week was pretty busy for me, so there was little activity here. I’m still not finished with the first Stack article as I still haven’t gotten a chance to watch Key Largo, and the site has gone unchanged because It’s been hard to find a spare minute. So, in lieu of actual content, here is more gibberish:

Books Read:

  • Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem, 1994.
  • Pages of Pain, Troy Denning, 1996.

Films Watched:

  • DVD:
    • The Boat that Rocked, Universal, 2009.

Writing:

  • Pages Typed: 2
  • Pages Hand Written: 6
  • Pages Edited: 0
  • Blog Posts: 1

Thank you for your patience during this trying…whatever. Normal broadcasting operations should be resuming shortly.

Finally, here is a photo I took of the stack of movies and television shows that I have made it my business to watch:

100_2631

-- Jesus Christ, how did I let something like this happen? --

-Sean

6.15.2010

Vital Statistics, Week of June 6-12, 2010

While I finish up the first entry of my “Working Through the Stack” feature, here are some things that you really do not need to know:

Books Read:

  • The Regulators, Stephen King (Writing as Richard Bachman), 1996.
  • Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem, 1994.
  • Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Allies, Christie Golden, 2010.

Films Watched:

  • DVD:
    • To Have and Have Not, Warner Brothers, 1944.
    • The Big Sleep, Warner Brothers, 1946.
    • Dark Passage, Warner Brothers, 1947.
  • Theater:
    • The A-Team, 20th Century Fox, 2010.
  • Television:
    • The Specialist, Warner Brothers, 1994.

Comics Read:

  • Serenity Float Out (Series Issue #7), Dark Horse, 2010.
  • DMZ: Friendly Fire (Volume #4, Collecting Issues #18-22), DC/Vertigo, 2008.
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Commencement (Volume #1, Collecting Issues #1-6), Dark Horse, 2006.

Writing:

  • Pages Typed: 7
  • Pages Hand-Written: 4
  • Pages Edited: 12
  • Blog Posts: 4

I would also like to take the opportunity to direct your attention somewhere offsite. The Outpost, is an in-development collaborative project that myself and a few others are hammering out. Most of my content there will mirror things that I post there, but our intention is to create a more comprehensive center for finding reviews and thoughts pertaining to all kinds of media. I’ll keep linking to the main page as the idea continues to evolve, and if it seems like the kind of thing that you would be interested in reading, then I would encourage you to bookmark it for future use.

In the coming days I’m going to try and institute a couple of format changes that have been suggested to me, and I’ll have my thoughts on the Bogart/Bacall box set up as well.

-Sean

6.11.2010

In the Theater: The A-Team

 

TheATeamI have a serious soft spot for Men-On-a-Mission movies. In a lot of ways they represent the sense of fun that I look for in an average summer theater-going experience. With that in mind, I was really pleased to discover that we had three such films coming at us this season, starting with The Losers (one of two films I’ve seen this year that I liked well enough to see twice), working through The A-Team, and closing with Stallone’s The Expendables later in the year. So, in the end, I may not be the best person to voice a wholly impartial opinion on The A-Team, but I’ll try to anyway.

The A-Team isn’t a smart movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, because it really isn’t a stupid movie either. It’s a summer movie and it knows that. It is also just smart enough to know that it isn’t smart. So instead of setting its sights on being an edgy or brooding reboot—that tries to impress by being a hard-edged version of a thing that the audience is already familiar with—it dedicates itself  to just being fun.

And it is fun. The A-Team is big, and it is loud, and it is one serious mother of a mover, and it is fun and over the top without ever becoming too cartoonish (I’m looking at you, Transformers) or offensive or stupid (I’m looking at you, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). The film very rarely takes a break during its runtime of an hour and fifty-seven minutes, moving rapidly from action sequence to exposition to montage to comedy set-piece with a sort of tirelessness that it commendable for being furious but never tiresome. The action sequences also work well for the most part, keeping with the pace and not relying overly on the use of digital effects. Some of these sequences do get a bit too frantic for their own good, unfortunately; pulling in too close and putting too much emphasis on shaky-cam style shooting and editing. The action also lacks the quietly extravagant style that Joe Carnahan brought into earlier efforts like Smokin’ Aces and Narc.

The film also does a nice job of modernizing the franchise and establishing itself, taking the audience from the team’s original coming together in Mexico to their last mission in Iraq quickly and efficiently without getting bogged down in the political situations prevalent in either country and maintaining a sharp focus on getting us involved/familiar with the characters as rapidly as possible. The story also stays enjoyable and pretty straight forward for the duration, but it does lose some traction towards the end of the second act when it tries to break out a couple of twists and double-crosses. It also never really establishes the stakes. Don’t get me wrong, the audience is told what is going on, and what could happen becomes quite obvious…but the film concentrates so wholly on the characters that it does tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s more at stake than the continued freedom of Hannibal & Company.

And speaking of the team: The casting here solid and occasionally inspired. Liam Neeson works very well as Hannibal, mugging and chewing scenery with the same enthusiasm as predecessor George Peppard. Sharlto Copley is excellent as well, dropping the drama from his turn in District 9 and dialing the neuroticism up to show some serious comedic range. Bradley Cooper continues to do a good job being Bradley Cooper, which is fine in the context of Face. Jessica Biel turns out a surprisingly solid performance that actually holds a decently hard edge. Patrick Wilson’s wannabe CIA Super-Spook/Villain is surprisingly manic and unpredictable. And Quinton Jackson does a good job of trying to put his own spin on B.A. Baracus, even if the script does seem to want him to just pretend to be Mister T the entire time.

So in the end, it isn’t a great film, but it is a good one. It works hard to provide a sense of momentum, giving up some good action and a few genuine laughs along the way, and it hardly even tries to set up a franchise at the end. So, if you like action films or buddy flicks, if you have a sense of nostalgia for the old show or if you just want to spend a good afternoon in the theater, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than The A-Team.

-Sean

Journey to the Centre of the YouTube

Back when I ran a crappy little blog called The Digital Litterateur I used to highlight YouTube videos that really stood out to me, not just for being funny in that YouTube kind of way, but for being genuinely clever or interesting or even just really ass-backwards and weird. Since I know that I’m going to keep doing that here too (it’s just part of who I am), I’ve decided to put up one of my old favorites.

Never before have I been so touched by the power of the human spirit. On YouTube.

6.08.2010

The DVD Collection That I Forgot

Since I finished my undergrad work a little over a year ago, my DVD collection has sat largely unused in a pile of boxes tucked away in a quiet corner of my living space. Recently I decided to pop those boxes open and do a sort of headcount—making sure that nothing had been broken or otherwise damaged—and I was surprised to realize how many of the cases had never been opened. When I counted, I discovered that at some point during my Senior year I had bought no fewer than forty-four movies and seven seasons of television that I had  just never even bothered to watch. Many of them were films that I had seen before, but all the same…I feel a need to rectify this (personally perceived) issue.

So, over the course of the next few months I am going to try and watch the films that I forgot I owned. As I work my way through them, I will probably do a short write-up on each one. These smaller articles will probably be posted in clumps that represent a week’s worth of viewing. In the case that a film inspires some larger analysis, then those will be posted on their own. I will also likely not discuss the season box sets, because that’s an awfully large amount of content to try and craft a short consensus on.

I’ll be beginning this week with the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall box set that Warner Brothers put out in 2005. I bought this one used because I of a sudden desperate need to own a copy of The Big Sleep, and I have never seen any of the other three films included: To Have and Have Not, Dark Passage, and  Key Largo. So be sure to look for thoughts on all four films by the end of the week.

-Sean