Monday, December 14, 2009

Half-Blood Prince Spoiler Alert!

Dumbledore dies and Harry Potter is an incredibly overrated franchise.

Don't get me wrong, there are some good ideas, but they're dragged down by tedious plots and a third rate hero. The most recent film in the series, The Half-Blood Prince, is a prime example of everything wrong with the franchise. Too long, too slow, and the story doesn't have an ending so much as it just stops. I suppose Half-Blood Prince works just fine as a chapter in a longer story, but not as standalone film. And if Dumbledore dropped the aloof and mysterious act and just explained his plan at the beginning like a normal person, the film could have easily trimmed half an hour off its runtime.

And on top of that Harry still sucks. Self-centeredness is to be expected in a kid who's constantly being referred to as the Chosen One, but it would be much more tolerable if we were at least shown why Harry's so damn special. As far as I can tell, he's a reckless idiot who's constantly in over his head. And if not for Dumbledore and his dear dead parents, Harry would have been killed long ago.

I know I'm in the minority on this. I know wizard high school is the second most beloved concept in fiction after virgin vampire. But, in my opinion, Harry Potter is just one more story where the execution falls far short of the concept.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Guns, Guns, Guns!

Having spent most of my productive hours last week playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I can confidently say that it's a great, if somewhat flawed, game.

The single-player campaign continues the storyline from Call of Duty 4, with our hero, "Soap" MacTavish, now an officer in the top secret Task Force 141. As with the previous Call of Duty games, the player controls multiple characters, including an Army Ranger and Soap's subordinate, "Roach." Without giving too much away, the fighting takes you from Afghanistan to Siberia and all the way back to Washington, D.C. Most of the levels consist of standard first-person shooting, but there are a decent number of new bells and whistles, including a snowmobile chase, breaching and clearing rooms, and calling in airstrikes from a Predator drone.

The campaign clocks in at a lean 6-7 hours, so some players may feel that they're not getting their money's worth of content. Another problem, which has been persistent throughout the Call of Duty franchise, is the rather obvious manner in which enemies are spawned whenever the player crosses an invisible barrier. Especially on higher difficulty settings, the game degenerates into a slow war of attrition as the player advances just far enough to trigger the next batch of enemies, kills them, then advances just far enough to trigger the next group, repeat ad nauseum. If Modern Warfare 2 was judged entirely on its single-player campaign, it would hardly be worth getting excited over.

But there are two more game modes besides the campaign. Special Ops is a collection of 23 short missions with varying objectives. There are more snowmobile chases, a re-imagining of the Pripyat mission from Call of Duty 4, and a mission where one player backs up another with the firepower of an AC-130. Most of the missions can be played solo, though many of the later missions will be quite hard even on lower difficulty settings. Spec Ops mode really comes into its own when played cooperatively, as two players can back each other up and revive their fallen ally.

Modern Warfare 2 also has a multiplayer mode that's essentially the same as the deservedly praised multiplayer from Call of Duty 4. Not much more needs to be said here: if you loved the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer then you'll love the multiplayer here. There are a few new features, such as new air support options, new weapons, and of course plenty of new maps.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2009

World's Finest Crap

I originally posted this on the Hooded Utilitarian blog.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies

When I learned that DC was releasing another animated movie, this one starring Superman and Batman, I was intrigued. When I learned it featured the triumphant return of Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tim Daly (Superman), and Clancy Brown (Lex Luthor) from the Batman and Superman animated series, I was excited. And when I learned it was based on a comic written by Jeph Loeb ... well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

There are some people who will claim that Jeph Loeb wasn't always a bad writer. Do not believe these people! Make no mistake, even Loeb's "good comics" weren't actually any good. But despite the fact that every comic he writes is worse than the last one, Loeb remains one of the most successful and sought after writers in the industry. Depressing as that may be, it comes as no surprise then that DC would turn one of his stories into an animated feature. Though it's strange that DC picked the opening arc of the "Superman/Batman" comic rather than one of Loeb's more famous works.

But saying Jeph Loeb is a terrible writer is like saying the sky is blue; no aesthetic judgment is actually being made. What about the animated movie itself? The animation style combines the simple line-work of previous DC cartoons with the character designs of Ed McGuinness, the artist of the "Superman/Batman" comic. The unpleasant result is that all the characters look puffy. Not in a puffy fat way, but as if they all have air pockets right on top of their muscles. They remind me of those inflatable muscle suits that people wear on Halloween.

If the animation is a little off-putting, the writing isn't any better. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies has a very simple story. Lex Luthor is President of the United States, having run successfully as an independent candidate. He's like a better looking, slightly less crazy version of Ross Perot. Things are actually going well for Luthor until a giant kryptonite meteor is spotted heading directly towards Earth (if I remember correctly, the meteor in the comic was a chunk of Krypton that brought Supergirl to Earth. No reference is made to Supergirl in the movie, which begs the question why the filmmakers decided to include this plot). Rather than swallow his pride and ask Superman for help, Luthor concocts a sure-to-fail scheme to destroy the meteor and frames Superman for murder. Batman gets involved because he's got nothing better to do, and the dynamic duo are forced to fight off both supervillains looking to collect a bounty and superheroes who blindly follow the President's orders. Quick synopsis: Awkward man-flirting between Superman and Batman, fight scene, more flirting, fight scene, Luthor goes crazy, fight scene, Luthor makes out with a morbidly obese woman, fight scene, more flirting until Lois Lane shows up and ruins the moment, the end.

While the plot is easy to follow, the movie is needlessly packed with cameos. Villains like Mongul, Grodd, Lady Shiva, and Banshee Babe (that's probably not her name, but it should be) show up out of nowhere with no introduction and are quickly dispatched. Then comes the parade of heroes, including Power Girl, Captain Atom, Black Lightning, Starfire of the Teen Titans, and the descriptively named Katana. The character selection is so utterly random it feels like they were chosen by drawing names from a hat. And at no point does the movie explain who these characters are, how their powers work, or what their relationship is to Superman or Batman. I actually have a great deal of familiarity with the DC Universe (or at least I thought I did), but I had a hard time figuring out who everyone was and an even harder time caring. Of course, most superhero comics do this sort of thing all the time, but those books are marketed to a fanboy audience that presumably has an extensive knowledge of, and affection for, Z-list characters. One would think an animated feature would at least try to appeal to a slightly broader audience.

Out of all the superhero guest stars, Power Girl is the only one who gets any significant screen time. Now, if I'm going to talk about Power Girl, let's get the obvious out of the way. Even by superheroine standards, Power Girl is famous for being well-endowed. I'm saying she has a big bust, mammoth mammaries, jumbo jugs. But there's no reason she has to be solely defined by her humongous hooters. This is 2009. Power Girl could be written as a strong, intelligent, and courageous woman who just happens to have brobdingnagian breasts. Unfortunately, Power Girl doesn't really do much here except look meek, follow other people's orders, and validate the moral superiority of our heroes. In other words, she's "The Girl" of the movie, including the obligatory moment where she's rescued by the strapping male lead. By the end of the story, the only thing remotely memorable about the character is emphasized by the hole in her costume. Like everything else in the movie, the filmmakers simply didn't put much thought into her. Power Girl only appears in the movie because she appeared in the comic.

The last point I want to make deals with age-appropriateness. Compared to the animated Wonder Woman movie, Superman/Batman is remarkably tame in its violence. There are quite a few fight scenes, but they consist of typical superhero punching and smashing. The onscreen deaths are bloodless and one of them involves a robot, and we all know that robots don't count. There's no sex either, unless you count Superman and Batman occasionally eye-fucking each other. But the filmmakers must have really wanted that edgy PG-13 rating, because they threw in some profanity. Nothing too hardcore, but Lex Luthor calls a woman a "bitch" at least once. Apparently, that's how you separate the grown-up cartoons from the silly kid stuff.

It's an odd movie. Far too much fan-service to be accessible to anyone who isn't religiously devoted to DC Comics, but the decision to make it a stand-alone story removes the continuity elements that were important to fans (like the re-introduction of Supergirl). Who is this movie for? And why this particular story? Surely there are better Superman/Batman adventures to pick from. There are probably better Jeph Loeb stories too.

In case you want a comparison to other DC animated features:
Superman: Doomsday < Superman/Batman < Wonder Woman

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I see the future, and it is in MOTION!

Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD, Episodes 1-3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev
Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew – Nicolette Reed

In my first foray into comics blogging, I thought I’d discuss something that doesn’t even technically qualify as a comic. Paper is for Luddites, motion comics are the future, so what does the future look like?

Short answer: a really cheap cartoon with an impenetrable plot.

Long answer:
After her solo title was canceled in 1983, Jessica Drew vanished into character limbo while the Spider-Woman name got passed around to various heroines, none of whom found any lasting success. In the mid-2000s, Brian Michael Bendis pulled Drew from obscurity and placed her on his high profile revamp of the Avengers. Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is the first serious attempt at a Spider-Woman ongoing in more than 20 years, as well as Marvel’s first go at motion comics.

Considering that motion comics are sold through iTunes rather than the Direct Market, you’d think that Marvel would target the casual “I liked Downey, Jr. in that movie” fan. But Marvel is nothing if not predictable, and instead the story launches out of the last mega-crossover, Secret Invasion (also by Bendis). Jessica Drew was apparently kidnapped by Skrulls, a shape-shifting alien race, and replaced by the Skrull queen. So the Spider-Woman that readers had been following for the last couple of years in New Avengers was a fake. Now the real Spider-Woman is back and she’s understandably pissed. Lucky for her, Abigail Brand, director of S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department), offers Spider-Woman a job hunting down Skrulls, thus allowing her to work out her issues and beat up illegal aliens at the same time. Spider-Woman’s first assignment takes her Madripoor, the crime capital of Asia. As these things always go, her mission quickly goes to shit and she’s on the run from HYDRA (like G.I. Joe’s Cobra, but no ninjas). And just when you think things can’t get more complicated, in episode 3 Spider-Woman is targeted by the Thunderbolts, a super-powered hit squad run by Norman Osborn, the Big Bad of Marvel’s current Dark Reign mega-crossover. In other words, it’s a story only a hardcore superhero fan could love.

Thankfully, Alex Maleev’s artwork is easier to appreciate. His penciling is fairly realistic and detailed, but he applies multiple layers of color to his work, causing every image to appear dark and washed-out. While the coloring can make certain details hard to see, it effectively establishes the mood and atmosphere of an espionage thriller.

The main attraction though of Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is neither the story nor the art, but the format. Each motion comic episode runs about 10 minutes, and consists of three types of visuals. The first type is a sequence of still images accompanied by dialogue and other sound. During conversation scenes, the same images are frequently re-used. The second slightly more sophisticated visual involves moving an image in the foreground while keeping the background still. The third type of visual, which is used for the vehicle chase scenes, is just low budget computer animation (which seems like cheating to me).

Many critics have accused Spider-Woman, and motion comics in general, of simply being low budget animation, and there's a pretty strong case for that. But comparing motion comics only to animation ignores their biggest flaw, namely that they sacrifice the communicative aspect of comics without replacing it with the advantages of actual animation. While it probably goes without saying, comics are a sequence of artistic panels accompanied by text. But there’s more to reading a comic than just proceeding from top-left to bottom-right. Artists can influence the pace at which the reader progresses through panels, sometimes by encouraging the reader to linger on a single panel or to move swiftly through a sequence. The layout of panels, their size, the level of detail, and the amount of text are all part of the communication between creators and readers. Motion comics take most of that away. Every “panel” is now just another background that fits the aspect ratio. And the pacing of the story is set by the motion comic producers rather than the artist and readers. Motion comics, in short, are something less than comics AND something less than animation.

Of course, motion comics do have one element that comics can never have: sound. The music and sound effects in Spider-Woman are used quite well, adding to the atmosphere of the story but generally remaining unobtrusive. The dialogue and Spider-Woman’s inner monologue are another matter. Bendis has a peculiar approach to the English language, which seems to consist mostly of repetitions, redundant statements, and pointless asides. Presumably Bendis is going for realism, but I can happily say I’ve never talked to anyone who speaks as strangely as the characters in this comic. I feel pity for the voice actors who had to read his lines and try to make them sound like something non-assholes would say. Nicolette Reed, who voices both Spider-Woman and Madame Hydra, doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with her lines, so Spider-Woman comes across as flat (and British?) while Madame Hydra quickly becomes obnoxious. But her performance seems Oscar-worthy compared to her co-stars. Particularly shameful are the “actors” who voice the Madripoor police detectives, who seem to take the Breakfast at Tiffany’s approach to portraying Asian men.

So the execution of Marvel’s first motion comic is not so good. Maybe a better example would change my opinion of the medium, but I doubt it. Still, it gave Marvel an excuse to come up with another corny character theme song. Behold, the Spider-Woman music video!

Update: the entire first episode is available for free for a limited time on Youtube. Check it out if you're interested.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In the old days, we called 'em expansion packs...

Halo 3: ODST

The fact that they called it Halo 3 colon blah rather than Halo 4 should tell you everything you need to know about the game. It's more Halo 3, with the same gameplay, weapons, vehicles, and story. The plot, drop troops in occupied New Mombasa, basically amounts to a footnote in the Halo mythology. And playing as a non-superpowered helljumper is no different than playing as a SPARTAN. Sure, you don't have shields, but your character is still pretty damn tough on normal difficulty.

It's also really, really short. To compensate, the developers included a second disk with Halo 3 multiplayer, but there are only a few new maps.

There's no way in hell this game is worth $60, but hardcore Halo fans will find more of what they enjoy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Jesse Eisenberg
Woody Harrelson
Emma Stone

Another month, another zombie apocalypse. Zombieland doesn't break any new ground so much as cast a more humorous slant on the genre's tropes, much like Shawn of the Dead. But whereas Shawn preferred to riff on classic films, Zombieland is more directly influenced by zombie video games like Dead Rising or Left 4 Dead. The rules of surviving a zombie apocalypse (don't use public bathrooms, double tap in the head) are displayed prominently for the audience's benefit. And unlike most video game-to-movie translations, Zombieland works precisely because it understands what gamers love about zombie games: brutal carnage as the heroes slaughter the undead in creative ways.

The story, unfortunately, is fairly predictable. Jesse Eisenberg (doing his best Michael Cera impersonation) plays Columbus, a sad-sack nerd who survives the first outbreak of zombie flu because he's so isolated. Like all Hollywood leading men, he has to learn the values of love and manly courage. To help him with the former, he meets the lovely but devious Emma Stone. But most of the film follows Columbus as he hitches a ride with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a borderline lunatic who's become a zombie-killing artiste. And there's a very funny cameo by a former Ghostbuster.

There honestly isn't much more to say about Zombieland. If watching Woody Harrelson beat zombies with a baseball bat appeals to you, you'll probably enjoy this flick. The rest of the film amounts to a reasonably entertaining diversion.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

True Blood Finale

Been a while since I posted, but I thought I'd yak a bit about the season finale of True Blood.

The season started off with so much promise, with copious amounts of blood and nudity. But about midway through, the show completely ran out of steam. It didn't help that the slightly more interesting plot in Dallas ended first, meaning that the last few episodes focused entirely on the interminable maenad story. I could have gone without scene after scene of Jason being comic relief, or Hoyt's fat mom dancing around like an idiot.

The season finale somewhat redeemed the show by killing off the maenad early and spending the rest of the episode setting up more interesting plots for next season. But True Blood needs to get back to its first principles. And by first principles, I mean T&A. This is HBO damnit!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Two Games Worth Getting

Shadow Complex

I've never had much interest in the content of Xbox Live Arcade, but Shadow Complex completely redefines what gamers can expect from downloadable content. At first glance, it's just a two-dimensional shooter (like Metroid) with some very nice graphics. But the game is superbly designed, with a variety of weapons and items, inventive use of three dimensions in an 2-D game, and a surprisingly well-written story. Not to give too much away, but you play as an average joe with an above average amount of training in combat, who finds himself trapped inside the massive headquarters of a shadowy group determined to overthrow the United States government. By the end of the game, you've become an unstoppable bad-ass in power armor.

There's a number of different ways that the player can beat the main story, and also a challenge mode where players can test their skills getting through various obstacle courses. And the entire thing costs only $15.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

A licensed game based upon a comic book that doesn't suck! That alone would probably make Arkham Asylum worth checking out, but it isn't just a great comic book game, it's an outstanding game period. The story is straightforward: Batman captures the Joker and brings him back to Arkham Asylum, but Joker's pals have already seized control of the prison and are in the process of using it as a base to launch an all-out attack on Gotham City.

The gameplay is quite varied. You can get into fistfights with dozens of Joker's goons, using a combo system that seems facile but actually allows for some remarkably complex combat. Or you can stalk your enemies as a silent predator, leaving them dangling from gargoyles or knocking them out with your batarangs. There's also an investigation mode that's simple but helps break up the monotony of the fights. And there are a ton of collectibles, as well as clues left by the Riddler.

And the game looks gorgeous. If you're a fan of Batman, this game is a must get. Even if you couldn't care less about Batman, it's worth checking out.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined Halo, apartheid, and Peter Jackson? You'd get a fairly entertaining action/sci-fi romp set in South Africa.

Produced by Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 follows the story of alien refugees who arrive on Earth for reasons never entirely explained, and settle in South Africa for reasons never entirely explained. Initial enthusiasm for aliens quickly gives way to weariness as South Africa is forced to carry most of the burden for housing and feeding millions of refugees. The humans come to detest the alien settlers, who are derogatorily called Prawns because of their shrimp-like appearance. All Prawns are forced to live in a ghetto called District 9, where they're exploited by both the private corporation that runs the camp and by Nigerian gangsters who operate the black market. Both groups are trying to unlock the secret of alien weaponry, which is genetically keyed so that it can only be used by Prawns.

The first half of the film follows the decision of the South African government to move the aliens to a new concentration camp that's further away from any cities. Wikus van der Merwe, a stereotypical middle manager, is tasked with informing the Prawns that they're being evicted and obtain some sign of assent, thus providing a legal pretext for what is essentially a forced relocation. Footage of Wikus (who's an interesting mix of cheerfulness, ambition, and racism) doing his job is mixed with "documentary" footage that provides the audience with necessary background information. Things fall apart when Wikus discovers an alien liquid that everyone wants to get their hands on.

The second half is a straight-forward action film, as Wikus is pursued by both the Nigerian gangsters and the military contractors who work for his employer. There's quite a bit of gun porn, as Wikus gets to play with all the fancy alien weaponry. It's worth noting that the filmmakers responsible for District 9 were originally tasked with producing the movie adaptation of the video game Halo. Presumably, the impresive action scenes in the second half were fuck you to whoever shelved that project.

Unfortunately, the two halves of the film never quite come work together as they should. The first half is clearly an allegory for apartheid, but it also references the massive refugee crisis that currently affects large parts of Africa. The "documentary" footage works fairly well here, as it gives a realistic weight to what is ultimately a very silly premise. However, the filmmakers don't bother trying to make the aliens sympathetic, and only one of them ever exhibits anything resembling a personality. Instead, the viewers are meant to feel sympathy through a process of allegorical morality. In other words, apartheid was bad, so doing the same thing to aliens must also be bad. Despite its rather obvious moralizing, there's something appealing about the film's earnestness. It reminded me of Star Trek, back when Star Trek was all about morality plays in space.

But, if the first half is a riff on Star Trek, the second half is all Star Wars. The alien liquid becomes the MacGuffin that all the characters fight over. As the movie shifts into summer blockbuster mode, the plight of the alien race is ignored in favor of the plight of Wikus and the one friendly alien. Even the heavy-handed apartheid allegory gets lost in the gunfire and obligatory male bonding. Not surprisingly, the "documentary" footage is used less and less, as it would just get in the way of the action.

District 9 has been praised by a few critics as the return of intelligent sci-fi after years of Star Wars clones (which ironically includes the recent Star Trek remake). But District 9 is little more than a low budget blockbuster that makes a few stabs at political relevance. At the end of the day, it just isn't all that smart. But battle mechs and grav guns are really, really cool.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Red Faction: I like it and so should you!

Red Faction: Guerilla seems to be one of those games that came and went without much interest from the gamer community. This surprised me a bit, since it's actually a great game that's part of a fairly well known franchise.

Are people tired of open sandbox games? Or are games set on Mars just too cliched? I think one significant criticism is that the multiplayer was somewhat unambitious, especially in comparison to the vast, open world of the single player campaign. And a game without a good multiplayer just isn't going to have much staying power in today's market (except for big RPGs like Fallout or Oblivion).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

So there's this guy with a ring...

Green Lantern: First Flight

Green Lantern, the red-headed stepchild of DC Comics, finally gets a movie. Of course, it's a direct-to-video animated feature, so don't get too excited.* For those not in the know, Green Lantern is Hal Jordan, a test pilot recruited by an intergalactic policing organization called the Green Lantern Corps. The Corps is run by little blue men from the center of the universe called the Guardians of the Universe. Each Green Lantern is equipped with a ring that can manifest any shape or weapon that the bearer imagines.

The movie breezes through Hal Jordan's origin story and immediately jumps into a plotline centering on a disaffected Corpsman named Sinestro. Lots of minor characters from the Green Lantern comic get cameos, but most are given only token characterization. The Star Wars influence is palpable, as the characters jump from location to location with a minimum of dialogue to get in the way of the action. And as action movies go, Green Lantern isn't half bad.

The movie uses the cartooning style and simplified character design pioneered by Bruce Timm. If you've seen an episode of Justice League or Superman: The Animated Series, the style will be immediately recognizable. While it may lack the detail that some animation enthusiasts crave, the characters move smoothly and the ring effects are particularly well done. The voice acting is also uniformly good.

But for anyone who isn't already a diehard Hal Jordan fan, the main character will feel very insignificant. In comic circles, Green Lantern occasionally gets grief as the epitome of the personality-free superhero of the 1960s. In fairness, the movie's Hal Jordan does have a personality, but it's the personality of a very dumb guy who's exceptionally lucky. While scenes at the very beginning hint at a character with a decent sense of humor, most of the movie consists of Hal looking confused while other characters explain the plot to him.

Overall, Green Lantern: First Flight is a decent sci-fi action flick. Just don't expect much more from it.

*Apparently, there is a big budget live action film in the works, starring the guy who played Deadpool.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Going to the Moon isn't worth it

Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Sam Rockwell

Moon is the story of an astronaut (Sam Rockwell) who spends 3 years alone on the dark side of the moon while he monitors a mostly automated mining operation. In the future, the moon will provide all the helium-3 we need to meet our energy needs. Of course, spending that much time alone, except for an AI voiced by Kevin Spacey, causes the astronaut to go a little batty by the end of his three-year contract. But he soon discovers that he may not be alone on the moon after all. I can't really say more than that without spoiling the whole story.

Moon is a really frustrating film. A lot of thought and care went into its production despite its low budget. Sam Rockwell's performance is great. And it's one of the few science fiction films in the last 30 years that didn't involve people shooting at each other with lasers. But it just doesn't work.

Most of the problems are due to the script. Moon is one of those movies that thinks it's much smarter than it actually is. But every twist and turn is telegraphed well in advance, and the audience is forced to sit and wait while the movie slowly crawls toward the most obvious outcome. To make matters worse, it's hard to identify what distinguishes Moon from all the other anti-corporate, 'what makes a man?' type stories. It ultimately amounts to something very forgettable.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Communism = Fail

I'm currently reading The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown. Prof. Brown has clearly put a lot of research into the book, but his straightforward writing style, and lack of academic jargon, makes the work accessible to the average adult reader.

One of the more interesting things that Brown explores is how Communist regimes could last so long in so many different countries despite their many political and economic shortcomings. So long as the people believed their current hardship would lead to a better future, they were willing to put up with oppression. But over time, that utopianism became harder to sustain in the face of a harsh reality. The book quotes a joke from Khrushchev's time that perfectly captures the problem with Communism:

"A certain lecturer, speaking about the future communist society, concluded with the following remarks, 'The breaking day of communism is already visible, gleaming just over the horizon.' At this point an old peasant who had been sitting in the front row stood up and asked, 'Comrade Lecturer, what is a horizon?' The lecturer explained that it is a line where the earth and the sky seem to meet, having the unique characteristic that the more you move toward it, the more it moves away. The old peasant responded: 'Thank you, Comrade Lecturer. Now everything is quite clear.'"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

This just in: Heroes still sucks

In a bid to reverse its declining ratings, Heroes is embracing the gay! Actually, just lipstick lesbians, a.k.a. the gays that don't scare straight men.

Apparently, Claire the Cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) will share a Sapphic smooch with one of her college roommates. And if fans like it, there could be more! Read about it here.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy a little lezploitation every now and then. But it'll take more than PG softcore to convince me to watch a show that is TERRIBLE. And the palpable desperation of the producers is far more entertaining than the series could ever be.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday the 13th: The Not So Final Chapter

My real-time blogging of the Friday the 13th franchise continues with Part 4: The Final Chapter. Apparently, it was meant to be the last sequel. But then it made a ton of money and Paramount changed its mind. False advertising aside, let's see how this one holds up...

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
Directed by Joseph Zito
Special Make-up Effects: Tom Savini
Starring Corey "Goonie" Feldman and Crispin Glover

Prologue: recap central! I actually like how the movies recap the major plot points from the previous flicks. Of course, there's only about 3 plot points worth recapping. In case you missed the 3D spectacle that was the last film, Jason was left with an axe in his head courtesy of the Final Girl. Let's all pray that he gets better. And then the credits explode! (3:00)

We start off immediately where Part 3 ended. Once again, a Friday the 13th movie does not take place on Friday the 13th. Apparently the story has moved on to Sunday the 15th. Jason honors the Sabbath while lying on the floor of a barn, apparently dead from an axe wound to the head. Police are all over the place, bagging up the bodies of his latest victims. The "corpse" of Jason gets taken away in an ambulance. (8:25)

Hospital: the EMTs pass off Jason's body to the local coroner, Axel. Like all movie coroners, he's a creep, and he makes a necrophilia joke about one of the dead girls. It must be a crappy hospital to work in, because apparently they store bodies in the staff lounge. Axel and his nurse girlfriend watch the news in the lounge while Jason lies there on a stretcher. Axel and his gal pal then start making out right next to the "dead" body. Classy. Of course, Jason's hand falls off the stretcher and ruins their moment. Nobody gets laid while this guy is around. Axel's gal pal freaks out and leaves. She then heads into a large supply room to calm down or something. (12:40)

Axel brings Jason down to the morgue. He then endears himself to the audience some more by gawking at a TV aerobics show. While Axel is distracted, Jason sneaks up behind and cuts his neck with a bone saw! Then he turns his head completely backwards! Gratuitous! Jason then sneaks into the supply room where the nurse is cleaning up and guts her with a knife! Double kill before the fifteen minute mark. I approve. (14:30)

Cut back to Crystal Lake, where Trish Jarvis is having a peaceful morning jog with her mother. Considering that there have been two mass murders at the lake in as many days, and yet neither Trish or her mother seem particularly worried, the Jarvis family is clearly not the brightest gene pool. We then jump to Tommy Jarvis, played by 1980's child star Corey Feldman. Tommy is coded as NERD, because he's playing a video game (I don't recognize it, but it's definitely some Atari crap), makes monster masks, and wears glasses. We learn that the family lives on Crystal Lake (like I said, they're dumb) and that the house next door has been rented out by the next group of victims. (16:15)

Speaking of whom, the next batch of dumb kids drives down a country road towards their impending doom. The group includes pretty boy Doug, the attractive brunette Samantha, her unremarkable boyfriend Paul, the pretty wallflower Sara, obnoxious jerk Ted, and the lovable loser Jimmy, played by Crispin "George McFly" Glover. Ted is giving Jimmy a hard time because he got dumped. Ted explains that Jimmy can't get laid because he's a "dead fuck." Jimmy doesn't beat the shit out of Ted right there, because he's kind of a pussy. The kids pass by the gravestone of Pamela Voorhees, conveniently located right next to the road. They then pass by a hitchhiker, who can best be described as Fat Hippie. So Fat Hippie is pissed that she didn't get a ride, and starts eating a banana. Jason hates hippies, so he sneaks up behind her and stabs her through the neck with a hunting knife! She never got to finish the banana. (20:00)

The kids finally arrive at the lake, and there's the tedious meet-and-greet with the Jarvises. Unlike the previous films, this movie actual devotes some time to character work: there's a quiet scene between Sara and Samantha that establishes that Sara is a virgin while Sam is the town bicycle. Tommy then gets a free sex show thanks to a well-placed bedroom window. (25:20)

The next day: Monday the 16th! The kids are walking to the lake when they meet the twins, Tina and Terri. It was only a matter of time before Jason got to kill some sexy twins. One thing I love about Crystal Lake is that it always leads to skinny dipping. Samantha shows off her drop-dead gorgeous body, but Sara turn out to be a prude. Tommy, who is one lucky pre-pubescent, once again catches an eyeful of naked hottie. Samantha wins me over by screwing with Sara and dragging her into the lake. It's all fun and games until someone gets stabbed. (31:25)

But that's not gonna happen again soon, because first there needs to be one last introduction. Tommy and Trish's car dies on the road. While Tommy is fixing the engine he gets interrupted by Rob, who's clearly set up as mysterious. Rob helps Tommy get the car started and they give him a ride back to their house. Rob clearly knows something about Jason, but he pretends to be a hunter. Tommy bonds with Rob pretty quick, and brings him up to his room where he shows off his collection of masks. I call bullshit to the scene, because most of the masks are way too sophisticated to be made by some dopey kid living in the middle of the woods. However, the scene does set up the fact that Tommy is a little creepy. (35:00)

Sexy co-ed shenanigans. Jimmy tries to dance with one of the twins while listening to really awful glam rock. Jimmy's dancing looks like a grand mal seizure. Ted tries to get friendly with the other twin, but she blows him off to flirt with Paul. Paul kinda sucks, since he happily flirts back right in front of Samantha. Upset, she wanders off to the lake to do some late night skinny dipping. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I'm starting to like this girl. Sam swims out to a rubber dingy in the middle of the lake, showing off her great body as she does it. Jason, spoil-sport that he is, has to go ruin my fun by stabbing Samantha from beneath the dingy (how long was he hiding there?). It's a cool scene though, as a machete slowly cuts through her body. (43:40)

Paul redeems himself a little by going to look for his missing girlfriend. Now that Paul's gone, the sluttier twin (I don't know which, and it doesn't matter) decides that Jimmy of all people is a decent consolation prize. She and Jimmy go upstairs, while Ted is left with the cold fish twin. Back to Paul, who swims out to the dingy and discovers that his girlfriend is dead. Panicking, he swims back to the pier but Jason is waiting beneath the water (he can hold his breath a long time). Paul gets one of the most painful looking deaths ever: Jason impales him with a harpoon gun near the groin, then he lifts Paul out of the water with the gun, then he fires the harpoon into Paul's body! That kill deserves bonus points. (47:40)

Rob, who's camping out in the woods, hears Paul's scream and goes to investigate. Jason takes the opportunity to sneak into Rob's tent and break his rifle. So Rob, who knows that Jason is out there, went to investigate a scream without his gun? So we're all clear that Rob has no chance at all of surviving this thing, right? (49:10)

Upstairs, Jimmy gets some. Downstairs, Ted discovers a projector, a white screen, and an old porno reel. Ted, Doug, Sara, and non-slutty twin watch the completely unsexy movie until the twin gets fed up and leaves. While she is getting on her bicycle, Jason sneaks up behind her and stabs her with a spear. The kill is actually shown in silhoutte, but it's nicely done, so I'll give the filmmakers a pass. (51:50)

Ted starts smoking pot, guaranteeing his death. Sara and Doug go upstairs to have sex, guaranteeing their deaths. Mrs. Jarvis goes outside of her house to look for her dog, and apparently that's enough to guarantee her death. Sadly, it's off-screen. Weak. Trish and Tommy get back from wherever it is they went, and find the lights out and mom gone. Trish goes outside to investigate and eventually finds Rob's tent. Rob sees someone in his tent and hacks at the tent with his machete until he realizes his mistake. Rob is fucking dumb. (58:25)

Jimmy is happy because he's no longer a dead fuck. He heads downstairs for some post-coital snacking, and finds stoned Ted still watching the old porno reels. Jimmy then goes to the kitchen to look for a bottle of wine. Having some trouble in the dark, Jimmy loudly asks Ted where the corkscrew is. Jason, who has a wonderful sense of timing, pins Jimmy's hand to the counter with the corkscrew! Then he chops Jimmy's face with a cleaver! I guess Marty McFly will never be born. (1:01:00)

Jason starts offing 'em left and right now. While slutty twin is looking for her sister from an upstairs window, Jason busts through the window and throws her out of the house so that she crashes onto the car. I guess she's dead, but it doesn't get any gore points. We cut back to Rob and Trish, where Rob gives the obligatory backstory on Jason. We also learn that Rob is the older brother of Sandra, the girl who got speared along with her boyfriend back in Part 2. Continuity! Cut back to the rental house; Sara and Doug are doing it in the shower while Ted is still watching old pornos. Ted walks up to the screen after the reel ends. When he turns around, Jason stabs him in the head, through the screen, with a butcher's knife. Thank God, that guy was annoying. (1:05:30)

Sara heads off to bed, while Doug continues to shower. Jason decides to do an homage to Psycho, and kills Doug in the shower by crushing his head against the wall! Sara finds Doug's body and starts freaking out. She runs for the front door, but Jason is waiting for her on the other side. He throws an axe through the door and nails her right in the chest! Most slashers would have just chased after her with the axe. Jason, however, is an artist. (1:09:00)

Trish and Rob go to the rental house to warn everyone. It doesn't take them long to figure out Jason is there, what with the big hole in the front door. Rob decides that he might as well get himself killed now, and goes down into the basement alone. Come on, man! You never go into the basement alone. Trish finds some bodies, and runs downstairs just in time to see Rob get killed with a garden rake. Trish is a little indecisive, since she runs away and then decides to come back for Rob. Kinda pointless though, since Rob is dead, and Jason bust throw the bottom of the stairway to grab Trish's ankle. Fortunately for her, she's the Final Girl, and she cuts Jason's arm with a machete before running away. (1:16:00)

Trish tries to run out of the house's front door, but Jason has left a dead body right in front of it. Rather than step over the body, Trish runs to the back door. Awesomely, Jason has left Paul crucified to the door frame! Because dead bodies are totally gross, Trish breaks a window and jumps through it rather than slide past the body in the doorway. Jason, however, has no problem just ripping the body out of his way. Stupid Trish runs back to the Jarvis house and starts locking windows. Jason isn't terribly impressed, and chucks Rob's corpse through one window, then busts through another to grab Tommy. Trish fights him off with a hammer claw. Tommy and Trish then do the least sensible thing anyone can do in a horror movie: they run upstairs. They attempt to hide inside Tommy's bedroom, but Jason simply chops the door apart with an axe. As Jason enters the room, Trish bust a TV over his head! And it's not a little flatscreen either, it's one of those big, old-fashioned CRTs. (1:20:00)

Trish manages to sneak past Jason while he's unconscious, but he wakes up and almost gets her with an axe. Jason is now between Trish and Tommy (who has no other way out of his bedroom). Trish manages to get Jason to chase her, which lead her all the way back to the rental house, where she runs upstairs (she never learns) and then jumps through a second floor window to escape! Jason takes a moment to look at her, like he can't believe she did something that crazy. Trish is okay though, and she makes her way back to the Jarvis house. Tommy, in the meantime, has decided that Jason is his idol, and starts cutting his own hair. Jason follows Trish back to the Jarvis house, but Trish holds him off for a while with the machete. This includes cutting his left hand in half between the middle and ring fingers. It's nice and gory. but Jason hardly seems to mind. (1:23:00)

Trish hits Jason across the chest with the machete, but it's just a flesh wound! As she drops the weapon, Jason grabs her and begins to choke her on the floor. Tommy runs down, having finished his self-haircut. He's completely bald except for random patches of hair. Corey Feldman looks like a big, ugly baby. But then again, Jason is a big, ugly baby, not to mention dumb as a post, so he's completely confused as to what's going on. While Tommy distracts him, Trish grabs the machete and strikes Jason across the face, knocking off the hockey mask. Jason seems to get uglier with each movie. He's got an underbite so massive I'm not sure how he could actually take in food. Trish is grossed out and drops the machete like a klutz. But while Jason is distracted with her, Tommy grabs the machete and hacks it into the side of Jason's head! But Jason's death isn't going to be so prosaic. He falls forward onto the ground and the machete handle hits first, causing Jason's head to slowly slide down the blade of the machete, making the wound bigger and gorier. (1:25:20)

Victory! But Jason's still twitching, so Tommy goes apeshit and starts hacking Jason apart with the machete, all while screaming "die!" Jason ain't getting up from that one. The movie goes all white, and then we cut to Trish lying in a hospital bed. Tommy, still bald and freaky-looking, enters her room and they hug. But over Trish's shoulder, Tommy gives the audience the evil eye. Jason may be dead, but someone must carry on his work. Horny teenagers in the woods aren't going to kill themselves. (1:28:00)

Classic Friday the 13th formula, this film doesn't break any new ground. But it does do everything better than its predecessors. The deaths, in particular, are gorier and more creative. Much of this is due to the superb special make-up effects of Tom Savini. The acting is also a notch above most slasher flicks. The filmmakers find a nice balance between getting you to feel sympathy for the characters, which makes the stalking scenes more suspenseful, and yet the viewer is still allowed to enjoy the vicarious sadism.

The most intriguing part of the film is the implication that Tommy Jarvis may follow in Jason's footsteps. Jason, the embodiment of anger and blind vengeance, is just a role, one that anyone can assume if they have a hockey mask and a disregard for human life. This theme will be revisited in the next film.

And of course, there is a next film. Final Chapter my ass.

Future War!

China apparently plans to build a helicarrier. Check it out. Someone in the People's Liberation Army is a big fan of Nick Fury and SHIELD.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Vampires vs. Minotaurs: WTF!

I'm a big fan of HBO's newest series, True Blood. It has just the right mix of strong writing, acting, and depraved sleaziness that makes HBO series so much better than anything else on TV. I've gotten accustomed to a series about vampires, shape-shifters, and psychic southern belles. But the most recent episode threw me for a loop when Sookie, the main character, was attacked by a freakin' minotaur. Even by the standards of this show, it was pretty fucking weird.

I haven't read any of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, so I have no idea how weird this show is going to get. Hopefully, we'll get to see Sookie fighting a griffon while riding a unicorn in season 3.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's been confirmed: Maryland is evil

I just finished playing Point Lookout, the new DLC for Fallout 3. Set in a post-apocalyptic version of the actual Point Lookout State Park in Maryland, the DLC sends your character on a main quest involving a missing girl and a crazy fruit-worshipping tribe. There are also about five side quests, including a hilarious one involving a failed Chinese spy mission. Story-wise, this has nowhere near the epic feel of the last DLC, Broken Steel, but it does compare favorably to Operation: Anchorage or The Pitt.

Point Lookout is fairly big, and there's a lot to do and explore besides the main quest. Along with some familiar adversaries, the primary new enemies in the map are the Swampfolk, who look like mutated hillbillies. They're quite scary-looking and reasonably tough. There are also, as usual, several new weapons, including the axe, lever-action rifle, double-barreled shotgun, bio-canister grenades, and the microwave gun.

If you have 800 Microsoft points burning a hole in your digital wallet, this is worth playing. At the very least, it'll provide a Fallout fix until Mothership Zeta comes out.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran: Everyone has an opinion...

So the current debate is whether or not Obama should "get tough" with Iran. I'm not a fan of sabre-rattling for the sake of appearances, and I doubt making threatening statements toward the Iranian regime is going to help the protesters in any practical way. Daniel Larison of the "American Conservative" makes the most compelling argument I've read for why the President should just keep his trap shut. Read the editorial here.

To his credit, Obama has, so far, limited his statements to generic condemnations of violence directed against protesters and his "concern" over the election results.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Friday the 13th: now with one more dimension!

How does a filmmaker go about distinguishing a sequel from its predecessor? Theoretically, you could try to write a better, more sophisticated story that challenges your audience and defies all expectations. Or you could not be a total douche, and just film the thing in 3D . So it was with Friday the 13th Part 3, the next film in the slasher franchise that I plan to blog through. Sadly, I don't have the 3D version, so I'll have to settle for a measly 2 dimensions. As always, I'll include minute marks with my comments for anyone who plans to watch the movies on their own.

Friday the 13th Part 3
Directed by Steve Miner
3-D Supervisor: Martin Jay Sadoff

Prologue: Once again, a Friday the 13th movie recaps the final climactic minutes from the previous installment. The producers must believe that the audience is too stoned to remember anything without visual aids. Given the target demographic for these flicks, that's probably a fair assumption. So the heroine of the previous movie dresses up like Jason's dead mom and drives a machete through his left shoulder. Of course, Jason doesn't die. The funkiest music of 1982 starts playing as the credits zoom toward the viewer ... in 3D! (6:00)

The movie opens on a road-side market near Crystal Lake, run by a delightfully white trash couple. The husband sticks a pole toward the camera for no apparent reason, the first of many gratuitous 3D shots that I won't be able to enjoy because Paramount DVD is run by cheap bastards. A news broadcast discusses the murders of last night, which means that this movie takes place on Saturday the 14th. Not quite as ominous as Friday the 13th. On the other hand, why shouldn't Jason kill over the weekend? Anyway, the white trash husband gets attacked by a snake (in another gratuitous 3D shot in less than 3 minutes!) and then Jason drives a cleaver into his chest. White trash wife, who has a dozen curlers in her hair, so you know for sure she's white trash royalty, gets a knitting needle jammed into the back of her head. Not bad movie, two kills in the first fifteen minutes. (16:25)

Improbably attractive teens drive down a suburban road in a Dodge Ram van, a.k.a. the pedo-van. The driver is Chris, the heroine of the movie. Next to Chris is her attractive friend Debbie and Debbie's boyfriend, Andy. We learn that Chris and her friends are heading down to her lakehouse (guess which lake!) and that Chris was attacked there a few years earlier. Because she's crazy, Chris wants to go unwind in the place where she was attacked. We're also introduced to Shelley, the fat one. He's also the "funny" one, in that he thinks it's funny to stab his friend in the back with a fake knife. We also meet Vera, an extremely attractive girl who's Shelley's date, though I'm guessing nobody mentioned this to Vera. Finally, we meet Chuck and Chili, two glorious stoner stereotypes. (18:45)

The pedo-van heads down a country road. We learn that Debbie is pregnant. I'm sure the filmmakers will spare the pregnant chick, right? And in the best use of 3D ever, Chuck passes a joint to Andy, but it's filmed so that Chuck is passing it to the viewer ... in 3D! (21:20)

In my last post, I expressed surprise that they killed off Crazy Ralph, the resident crackpot who ineffectually warns the teens to stay away from Crystal Lake. The filmmakers seem to have realized how essential a character Ralph was, because they've replaced him with Abel, another drunk that the kids almost run over because he fell asleep in the middle of the road. Abel thanks the kids for not killing him by showing them an eyeball he found (clearly one of Jason's previous kills). He thrust the eyeball out toward the camera ... in 3D! He warns the kids not to go to Crystal Lake, but they ignore him because if they listened to him the movie would suck. (22:20)

So Chris's lakehouse is in a place called Higgins Haven. The pedo-van has to cross a rickety bridge to get there, which I'm sure won't cause them trouble later. When Chris walks into the house to check around, she gets surprised by her sort-of boyfriend, Rick. Chris is nervous because of the previous attack, and Rick is horny because, well, this is Friday the 13th. But Rick made the mistake of falling for the virginal heroine, so the poor bastard isn't getting any. We head outside and Chris runs into Shelley, who's missing out on some skinny dipping because he's embarrassed about his weight. Crass attempts at sympathy aren't gonna save you, Shelley. (26:20)

Rick and Chris flirt while they bail hay in the barn. Is it bailing whey they load hay in the upper area (I don't know barn terminology)? Ladies and gay lads take note, Rick is shirtless for the entire scene. Let it never be said that Friday the 13th only exploits women (just mostly). Their flirting is interrupted by a scream from the house, and Chris finds Shelley with a hatchet in his head. Except it's fake, because Shelley is an immature ass. Vera decides to head to town for a bit, and despite Shelley's general suckiness, she agrees to take him with her. (30:10)

Shelley and Vera are at a store where they're harrassed by a gang. Not a real gang mind you, but one of those multi-ethnic movie gangs that use chains rather than guns. Can you dig it? So jackass Shelley digs himself in deeper by accidentally backing over their motorbikes, and they attack his crappy VW Beetle with chains. CHAINS! Shelley mans up briefly and runs over their bikes again. What will the consequences be? (34:15)

3D yo-yo! Rick, who's slightly peeved that Shelley got his car fucked up, heads off with Chris to cool off somewhere. More importantly, Jason is hiding in their barn. Then the biker gang shows up and siphons the gas from the pedo-van (it's like Fate wants these kids to die!). So the female biker goes into the barn and gets pitchforked by Jason. Then the white biker goes looking for her, and he gets pitchforked too! It'd be great if Jason just had an endless supply of pitchforks, but when the last biker goes looking for his homies, he gets clubbed with a piece of wood. So the gang was introduced solely to inflate the body count? I approve. (43:45)

3D juggling! That confirms it. I'll have to get the damn 3D version on Blu-Ray. Andy and Debbie go upstairs to do it, but poor Shelley gets shot down by Vera. We cut to Chris, who tells Rick about the infamous attack two years ago: apparently Jason attacked her while she was wandering around in the woods. Chris doesn't explain how she got away or why Jason didn't kill her. I guess it wasn't Friday the 13th. Dumbass Rick left his carlights on, and now the battery is dead. Rick and Chris have to walk back to the lakehouse. (52:10)

Chuck the stoner heads out to the outhouse to take a dump and get high at the same time. He's a multitasker, that one. When he's done, he runs into Chili and they go off to get stoned somewhere. Vera hangs out on a dock on Crystal Lake until Shelley, dumbass that he is, scares her with his harpoon gun(?) and hockey mask. Yup, Shelley is responsible for giving Jason his iconic look. Vera yells at him, and Shelley wanders off to feel sorry for himself. He sees something in the barn and goes to investigate. Meanwhile, Vera is going thru Shelley's wallet (he gave it to her in the store) but then drops it in the lake. As she wades into the lake to pick it up, a familiar figure with a hockey mask walks out onto the dock. Jason has Shelley' harpoon gun, and fires a harpoon right into Vera's eye! In 3D! Jason keeps it hardcore. (1:00:30)

Debbie and Andy are post-coital, so of course they have to die. Debbie goes to take a shower, but sadly, it's rather light on T&A. Andy starts walking around on his hands, because it will make his death all the better. Jason agrees with me, and cuts Andy balls-to-torso with a machete. Debbie finishes with her shower, and goes to lay back down. In classic Friday formula, she notices drops of blood and looks up to see her boyfriend cut in half and stuffed on the support beam above. It's pretty damn gory. Jason, who takes after his mom, is hiding beneath her bed and shoves a knife through her. So the filmmakers were nasty enough to kill the pregnant girl. Good for them! (1:05:10)

Chuck and Chili are hanging out downstairs, cooking popcorn ... in 3D! The power goes out, and Chuck goes to investigate alone. Come on, Chuck! It's the oldest trick in the book! Chili hears some noises and finds Shelley with a cut throat. Chili naturally thinks that Shelley is faking, except this time, he ain't. Shelley never read "The Boy Who Cried Slasher." Meanwhile, Jason deals with the electricity problem by throwing Chuck into the fuse box, which naturally explodes into a shower of sparks. Chili finally figures out that something's wrong, and starts freaking out when she realizes that Shelley is really dead. Jason, being extra nasty, stabs her with a red hot poker. That's what you get for smoking pot! (1:09:25)

Rick and Chris arrive back, and quickly figure out that something is wrong. Rick goes outside to investigate but is ambushed by Jason. Jason then squeezes his head until his left eye explodes out ... in 3D! If this movie isn't the perfect advertisement for 3D filmmaking, I don't know what is. (1:12:10)

And now the official Chase of the Final Girl begins. Chris goes upstairs to investigate and finds some bloody clothes in the bathtub. Jason is apparently a very clean killer. When she goes outside, one of the dead bikers almost falls on her. She runs back into the house, and starts locking windows. What Chris doesn't yet realize is that Jason opens windows by throwing dead boyfriends through them. Once Jason educates her on that, Chris runs upstairs. Just as Jason is about to follow she drops a bookcase on him. I feel sorry for the stuntman, since some of those books look pretty big. And their hardcovers. Jason follows her upstairs, where Chris has locked herself in a closet with the corpse of Debbie. Jason starts hacking through the door with an axe, but Chris notices that Jason left a knife in Debbie. Jason's gonna regret being too lazy to take the knife out, because Chris stabs his hand and then his leg. Chris escapes out a second floor window and then clobbers Jason with a log when he runs outside. She then runs to the pedo-van. (1:18:50)

Chris revs the van and almost runs over Jason, but when she reaches the rickety bridge the van stalls out. Of course, it's out of gas because the biker gang siphoned it. Then the van starts sinking through the crappy bridge, and Jason shows next to the van and grabs her throat. Awesomely, she traps Jason by cranking up the window. If she had power windows, she would have died. As Chris escapes through the passenger door, Jason face-butts the window, proving the hockey mask is as functional as it is cool. (1:20:30)

Chris hides in the barn and Jason follows her in, barring the door so she can't sneak out. Chris has climbed onto the rafters, and pulls a Splinter Cell move when she drops straight down on Jason's head. But she can't get out, so she climbs up to the loft. When Jason follows her she clobbers him again with a shovel. Then she wraps a rope connected to a pulley around his neck and throws him out this big opening on the second floor of the barn (is there a name for those things?). Jason is hung right outside the barn door. Chris is pretty damn capable, I gotta say. But Jason ain't dead, and he pulls the rope off from around his neck and in the process briefly removes his mask. Chris sees his ugly-ass face and realizes that Jason was the one who attacked her two years ago. Now she's pretty much a hysterical mess, and Jason's finally got her ... but wait! The biker that Jason clubbed isn't dead and he attacks Jason from behind. But Jason ain't fooling around anymore, and he cuts the guys hand off with a machete. Then he chops the guy up, but Chris takes the opportunity to grab an axe and bury it into Jason's head. Jason shambles toward her like Frankenstein's monster, but he finally collapses with the axe still sticking out of his head ... in 3D! (1:27:00)

And now the part where the film cannabilizes it's predecessors. Chris rows onto the lake in a canoe and falls asleep. When she wakes up, she sees Jason's ugly mug in a second floor window of the lakehouse. As she tries to row away, the rotten corpse of Mrs. Voorhees jumps out of the lake and drags her under. Of course, it's just a dream, and Chris is okay. Well, not entirely okay. As the police take her away, it's pretty obvious that Chris has gone completely insane. Jason's body is still lying on the floor of the barn. And we're out! (1:32:00)

Part 2 may have defined the franchise, but Part 3 is just a lot more fun. The filmmakers seem to have grasped that they're really only making a horror film in theory; in practice, Jason is the hero, and the audience takes sadistic pleasure whenever he gruesomely kills someone. While many people feel uncomfortable admitting it, this sadism has a powerful appeal. There are few things as genuinely satisfying as seeing obnoxious people get killed off in gory ways. Stoners, nerds, jocks, hippies, bikers, rednecks, yuppies, anyone and everyone who's ever pissed you off. Jason will kill them.

The lasting appeal of the Friday franchise is partly due to this viewer participation in framing the story. Even while Jason has evolved into an anti-hero, the franchise remain resolutely commited to the formula of B horror movies. They still have all the cheap scares, and the viewer is still expected to feel for the Final Girl. As long as the filmmakers pretend that Jason is the villain, the viewers get to secretly root for him. This conflict between the "intended" story and the "real" story that viewers create gives the franchise an interactive, as well as subversive, appeal.

As for the 3D elements, it's hard to say much without having experienced them in 3D. There are quite a few goofy scenes that exploit the 3D concept in ways that must have delighted the original audiences.

Next up, Part 4: The Final Chapter (not really).

Monday, June 8, 2009

Friday the 13th: this time with more Jason

My real-time blogging of the Friday the 13th franchise continues with Part 2, the first appearance of Jason Voorhees (excluding dream sequences). As before, I'll include minute marks for my comments. Spoilers below...

Friday the 13th Part II
Directed by Steve Miner

Prologue: the film starts with a mysterious figure approaching the home of Alice, the Final Girl of Friday the 13th. Alice has a nightmare that conveniently recaps the last act of the film, including the backstory on Jason (he drowned) and the beheading of crazy, old Pamela Voorhees. Is everyone caught up? Alice wakes up and putzes around her house for a LONG time. The director does a decent job of building up some tension, and then pulls the classic "cat jumping out from nowhere" gag. Just when the audience starts to relax, Alice opens the door to her fridge and finds Mrs. Voorhees's severed head! The mysterious figure (obviously Jason) then jams an ice pick into Alice's head. Now that's how you start a horror sequel. (12:00)

Five years later: A couple of teens arrive in the small town near Crystal Lake, and we get the first product placement of the movie (I don't give out brand names unless I get a cut). They're being watched by the good ole Crazy Ralph, who appeared in the last movie. And he's still riding a girl's bike! The guy, Jeff, wears a newsie cap, which is why he has to die. His girlfriend, Sandra, has a fantastic rack. While Jeff is using a pay phone, his truck gets towed away. Jeff chases after the tow truck for a few blocks until he runs into his friend, Ted, who hired the tow truck as a prank. Ted is, without a doubt, the biggest dork to ever appear in the Friday franchise. He looks like a cast member of Revenge of the Nerds. (16:45)

So the teens are all camp counselors at another summer camp on Crystal Lake. I'm not a parent, but I think I'd be reluctant to send my kid to any camp that was within walking distance of a place called Camp Blood. On the other hand, maybe the rates are cheap? The viewers are introduced to Paul, the head counselor, who looks like he walked straight out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. And then there's the counselor in the wheelchair, Mark, and the girl who has a crush on him, Vicki. Then we meet Terri, who's a knockout, and her little dog Muffin. Lastly, we meet Scott, who looks like a male model. He demonstrates his affection for Terri by shooting her in the ass with a slingshot. Paul gives a tedious speech to the other counselors that's interrupted by the arrival of our heroine, Ginny, who drives a beat-up Beetle. We learn that Ginny is studying to be a child psychologist. (24:20)

Ghost story time! Paul tells the story of Jason: he didn't actually drown in Crystal Lake, but has roamed the woods as a wildman for decades. He witnessed the decapitation of his mother, and took his revenge on Alice. Of course, Paul doesn't believe a word of it, and it's all just setup for Ted to scare everyone while dressed as a caveman. Apparently Ted is a method actor, because he brought a real spear. (27:00)

Later in the evening, Ralph is sneaking around the camp, and starts peeping on Ginny and Paul as they make out. Jason sneaks up behind Ralph and strangles him with barbed wire! That kill surprised me. You'd never think a character like Ralph would get killed: who else is going to ineffectually warn teens to stay away from Crystal Lake? (31:50)

Next morning we get some boring scenes with the counselors, and a few POV shots to establish that Jason is stalking them. Sandra and Jeff head off to Camp Blood to do some sight-seeing. That doesn't sound like a good idea, but who cares, because Sandra is wearing a bikini top. The two idiots don't get very far before they stumble upon the mangled remains of Terri's formerly cute dog. I guess Jason isn't a dog lover. A chubby cop then shows up out of nowhere and chases the kids away. (39:30)

As the cop drives away from the camp (he's driving a Pontiac, but I don't recognize the model. It's an ugly POS though) he sees Jason dart across the road. Rather than drive on like a sane person, the cop chases Jason through the woods. Jason never runs, of course, but he has no problem staying way ahead of Officer Tubby, who probably wishes he'd laid off the donuts. Eventually, the cop arrives at a freaky-looking shack in the middle of the woods and goes inside. He sees something in a back room that startles him, and just then Jason drives a hammer claw into his head. This movie needs to pick up the pace: we're nearly halfway done and there's been only three kills so far. (42:40)

Evening. Paul invites most of the counselors to one last night on the town before the camp opens. He says some other stuff, but I don't pay attention because Terri is wearing a really tight shirt. All that matters is Paul and Ginny head into town while the other counselors with speaking lines stay in the camp. Terri heads off to the lake and goes skinny dipping. This movie knows its audience. (46:30)

Vicki and Mark flirt while playing with some old, handheld video games. They look like gigantic calculators and are probably about as fun. Scott amuses himself by stealing Terri's clothes while she's swimming. On the one hand, that's an ass move by Scott; on the other hand, we get to see more of naked Terri. I'm torn. Terri then chases Scott through the woods until he steps into a snare. Scott is left hanging upside-down while Terri goes to look for a knife. Jason takes the opportunity to slash Scott's throat. Kill number 4! (50:35)

Unfortunately, Terri then gets bumped off-camera, which is weak. We cut to the bar in town, where Ginny does a little amateur psycho-analysis of Jason. Quick version: he's a man-boy who loves his dead mother too much. (54:30)

Sexy shenanigans at the camp. Sandra and Jeff go upstairs in the main cabin, while Vicki goes back to her cabin to get some things for her special night with Mark (the wheelchair guy). Vicki takes a long time, and Mark goes outside to look for her. Big mistake on his part, because he gets a machete right to the face! He then rolls down a staircase with the machete still stuck in his head. It's a fantastic scene, thanks in large part to how just plain nasty it is to kill the crippled guy. (1:01:05)

Jason heads inside the main cabin and grabs the spear that dorky Ted brought. I should have mentioned this earlier, but Ted is in town with Paul and Ginny, so he doesn't end up getting killed. I want to like this movie, but it's an epic failure when the obnoxious dork gets to live. The filmmakers almost make up for it in the next scene when Jason runs the spear through Jeff and Sandra while they're making the sex. Two-for-one! (1:02:40)

Vicki, after taking her sweet-ass time, finally gets back to the main cabin and goes looking for Sandra and Jeff. What she finds instead is a crazy hillbilly with a bag over his head. The filmmakers use a Jason-POV shot where the audience actually looks through the killer's eye as he slowly brings a butcher knife towards Vicki. It's a genuinely unnerving scene. You can guess what happens next. (1:05:30)

Paul and Ginny arrive back at camp. Apparently, it's not a summer camp at all, but a Counselor Training Center. Do camp counselors really need that much training? Anyway, Paul and Ginny start looking for people and it doesn't take long for Jason to attack them. Paul gets the shit beat out of him, and Jason goes after Ginny. The official Final Girl chase sequence begins and it's quite well-done. When Ginny tries to lock herself in the kitchen, Jason responds by breaking through the door with a pitchfork. Ginny flees to her car, which won't start (of course). Jason starts shoving his pitchfork through the cloth-top, and Ginny runs off into the woods. (1:13:00)

Later, Ginny hides under a bed in one of the cabins as Jason looks for her. In an absolutely hilarious moment, Ginny pisses herself when a rat gets close to her, and Jason notices the pee right before he's about to leave the cabin. Ginny looks around and no longer sees Jason's legs, so she crawls out from under the bed. But Jason was being all sneaky: he was standing on a chair ready to jab her with the pitchfork. But in another hilarious moment the chair breaks out from under him before he can kill Ginny. While Jason is getting up, Ginny runs over to a closet and grabs a friggin' chainsaw. She manages to slash Jason's arm and knocks him down before running away. (1:15:50)

Ginny wanders through the woods and eventually arrives at Jason's shack. She sees Jason following her and barricades the door. Then she notices what's in the back room: a shrine with the head of Pamela Voorhees in the center, the sweater she was wearing the night she died, and a few corpses artfully arranged around it. Luckily for Ginny, she's a child psychologist and Jason's an overgrown child. While Jason breaks down the door, Ginny puts on Pamela's sweater and the crazy man-boy starts hallucinating that is mother is alive again. Ginny has Jason at her mercy, and is about to bring a machete down on his head, when Jason notices the shriveled head of his real mother behind her. Oops. Jason slashes Ginny's leg with a pick axe, but Paul comes to the rescue. Yeah, apparently Jason forgot to kill him. So Jason beats the shit out of Paul again, but this time Ginny is ready to drive a machete right through his left shoulder. (1:21:00)

Paul and Ginny return to one of the cabins. Paul helps Ginny onto a bed (with a huge window behind it) but they then hear scratching at the door. Turns out its only Muffin. So Jason killed an entirely different dog of the same shape and size? Or was it killed by a bear? Or am I giving this dog way too much thought? Anyway, just as Ginny is about to pick up the stupid dog, Jason bust through the giant window and grabs her. We get a look at his face, and he is ugly as fuck. His right eye looks like it's slowly melting off his face. (1:24:15)

Flash forward to the next day. Ginny, still alive, is being wheeled away on a stretcher by some paramedics. Paul is nowhere in sight. We end the movie with a close-up of Pamela Voorhees's dried up head. (1:25:10)

In a lot of ways, Part 2 is simply a remake of Part 1: same woods, same setup, they even repeated the scene where Jason comes out of nowhere and grabs the heroine at the end of the film. No one will ever accuse Part 2 of being too original.

However, Part 2 is superior to to Part 1 in almost every respect. Despite a slow middle, it has better pacing, as well as a better cast. Though it doesn't have Kevin Bacon with an arrow through the neck, the kills in Part 2 are generally more creative. Finally, Part 2 abandons all pretense of being a whodunit, and instead tells the viewer from the very beginning that Jason is the killer. Even within the context of just this film, Jason has already been transformed into a legendary figure, an unstoppable force of vengeance and punishment. In hindsight, Part 1 feels like a trial run before the "real" beginning of the franchise.

Part 2 perfected the formula of the Friday the 13th franchise, and perhaps for that reason, it's the easiest Friday film to forget. The later movies would rely on the same crowd-pleasing formula, but always with a twist. Like say, Jason ... in 3D!

Next up, Friday the 13th Part 3.

Caprica ... now with more boob

Anyone else watch the pilot for the upcoming Caprica series, a.k.a. the unnecessary prequel to Battlestar Galactica? Some quick thoughts: it was well acted and generally well-written. Also, the producers took advantage of the DVD format and threw in some gratuitous nudity just to spice things up. Overall, the show has potential to be an interesting exploration of class structure, racism, and the rise of monotheism.

That being said, it was too long for its own good, and the philosophical discussions never really rose above the level of a high school debate club. In other words, it's just as silly and self-indulgent as The Matrix, but without the guns and kung fu.

And if the early Christians were as annoying and self-righteous as the monotheists in Caprica, it's no wonder that the Romans persecuted them. Still, the show deserves credit for trying to approach religion in a nuanced manner. It doesn't fall into the "monotheism is inherently better" or "all religion is violent" camps. Instead, the writers seem to be using science fiction to re-tell the history of Christianity, as well as touch upon the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in modern times.

For all the flaws of the pilot, Caprica is an interesting idea, and I hope SyFy picks it up.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Friday the 13th: Blogging thru the body count...

I recently bought the Friday the 13th boxset from Paramount, which includes all eight original flicks. This is one of my favorite horror franchises of all time, which is why I plan to post real-time to the blog while I watch each movie. I'll include minute marks for each comment, so anyone who watches them on their own will know what I'm talking about. Needless to say, these posts will contain many spoilers. Now, let's start at the beginning...

Friday the 13th (1980)
Directed by Sean Cunningham
Starring Kevin "The" Bacon, Betsy Palmer, and some people you don't know

Prologue: Camp Crystal Lake, 1958. First use of the famous "chi, chi, chi, wa, wa, wa" sound effect. Two camp counselors decide to take a break and have some naughty premarital sex. A mysterious figure follows them into an unoccupied building and murders them with a knife. The camera operates from the killer's point-of-view, so the audience is unaware of the killer's identity. Also worth noting is that the deaths are relatively bloodless. In the bonus material, Sean Cunningham said that he wanted the first deaths to be simple so as to trick the audience into thinking that this film wouldn't be too gory. People in 1980 were very gullible. (5:20)

Present: Friday, June 13. A teenaged girl named Annie walks through a small town, trying to find directions to Camp Crystal Lake. She talks to a dog like it's a person. I can't wait for her to die. She manages to find a guy in a diner who's willing to give her a lift part of the way there, but on the way to his truck she's accosted by the town drunk, Ralph. He warns her that "Camp Blood" has a death curse. Annie is a dumbass, and heads to the camp anyway. Despite the fact that her ride informs her of the 1958 murders and multiple acts of sabotage that prevented previous attempts to re-open the camp, Annie insists she can't quit. Don't feel bad for Annie: this is just Darwinian law in action. (11:45)

Three more camp counselors drive down the road listening to old-timey country music. The music is annoying, so they deserve to die. But I'm slightly torn, because the Bacon is among them. When they arrive at the camp, we meet Steve, the owner of Camp Crystal Lake, who looks like a 70s porn star. Words alone can't do his outfit justice, which consists of a kerchief around his neck, no shirt, and jean cutoffs. We also meet Alice, the Plain Jane of the group. Everyone is busy because the camp opens in less than two weeks. Steve heads into town for supplies. (10:20)

Another girl, Brenda I think, is setting up an archery target when one of the guys, Ned, shoots the target with an arrow to scare her. For pulling such an incredibly jack-ass stunt, Ned must die. We cut to Annie, still hitch-hiking, who gets picked up by a jeep. We don't see the driver, so we know instantly that it's the killer. Annie yammers on about her love of children, which makes her impending death all the sweeter. When she realizes that the driver isn't going to drop her off at the camp, she gets scared and jumps out of the jeep. The killer pursues Annie into the woods and cuts her throat with a hunting knife. Nice. (22:20)

The other nubile teens (all played by actors in their twenties) frolick by the lake. The Bacon wears speedos. We get more POV shots from the killer, watching them. The teens then kill a snake in one of the cabins with a machete. According to the director, the snake was real. Some shenanigans involving the local police. Then crazy, drunk Ralph sneaks into the dining hall and delivers another death curse warning to the counselors. Ralph rides away on his bicycle, which looks something he stole from a little girl. (31:30)

More boring scenes with the counselors. And about a dozen establishing shots of the rain. I forgot how slow this movie is. Finally, the Bacon gets some, unaware that dead Ned is lying in the bunk directly above his bed. I hate off-screen kills. (40:15)

We get our first bare tits at the 40:40 mark. Bacon's lady lover wanders off to the bathroom (in a different building), while the other three counselors play strip Monopoly in another cabin. While the Bacon is lying in bed, the killer, who's been hiding under the bed the whole time the Bacon was getting some lovin,' grabs his head and then slowly drives an arrow through the back of his neck and out the front. It's fantastically gory. (42:50)

The Bacon's girlfriend gets an axe to face in the bathroom. Good make-up effects, but there's an obvious edit to hide the fact that a real axe didn't actually hit her face. (46:45)

On his way back, Steve's shitty jeep gets stuck in the mud, but he gets a lift part of the way back by a local cop. Brenda is reading in bed, when she starts to hear someone say "help me." She wanders out into the woods, eventually reaching the archery range. The killer gets her off-screen, which is pretty damn lame. (57:25)

Alice and Bill, another counselor, start to look for the others, without luck. They do, however, find an axe in Brenda's bed. Being a dumbass, Bill is only mildly perturbed. While Steve is walking back to camp someone shines a flashlight in his face. Steve recognizes the person right before he gets a knife to the gut. (1:03:50)

The killer turns off the generator, and dumb Bill heads off to investigate by himself. We get a very long scene of Alice making tea. Then she finally goes looking for Bill and finds his body impaled on the generator cabin door by multiple arrows. Some nice make-up effects, especially the arrow through the eye. (1:11:45)

Alice tries to barricade herself in her dining hall cabin. That is, until someone throws Brenda's corpse through a window. She then sees car lights, and runs outside to find a familiar jeep pulling up. Out walks Mrs. Pamela Voorhees. It's pretty damn obvious she's the killer, which raises the question of why they waited to the last act to introduce her. (1:15:25)

Crazy, old Pamela gives the backstory on Jason: he was her son, and he drowned in 1957 because the counselors weren't paying attention. That's why she killed two of them a year later, and made sure that Camp Crystal Lake got closed. In flashback, we see that Jason looks like the Elephant Man's son. Of course, now that Pamela's identity has been revealed, she loses all of her slasher superpowers and gets knocked out by a scrawny teenaged girl. (1:18:45)

Alice makes a break for Pamela's jeep, but finds Annie's dead body in the passenger seat. She's become far less obnoxious. Then she run's into Steve's body, which Pamela somehow found the time to hang upside-down. These slashers are always so efficient with time management. Crazy Pam starts talking to herself, just to make sure that the audience gets that she's crazy. Pam pursues Alice into the tool shed and they start fighting like two people who've never gotten in a fight before. Alice gets the upper-hand (again) but rather than finish off the crazy lady, runs away (AGAIN). (1:22:00)

More chasing follows, and Alice gets cornered in the pantry. Pam goes after her with a machete, but Alice knocks her out with a frying pan and AGAIN runs away. Alice runs to the canoes, and just sits there like a lump until Pamela shows up with the machete. They wrestle in the way that only an old lady and a skinny chick can. As fight scenes go, this isn't exactly Bruce Lee territory. Alice finally wises up chops off Pamela's head with the machete. It's another really impressive gore effect. (1:28:00)

Alice paddles out to the middle of the lake in one of the canoes and falls asleep. When she wakes up the police have arrived, the music is tranquil, and everything seems resolved. And then the half-rotten corpse of Jason jumps out of the water and drags Alice underneath. It's extremely well-done, and I imagine that audiences in 1980 crapped themselves at that moment. (1:30:30)

Alice wakes up screaming in a hospital. When a cop shows up, she asks about the boy who pulled her underwater. The cop informs her that they didn't find any boy. The movie ends with a shot of Crystal Lake, as something makes bubbles below the surface. (1:32:45)

According to Sean Cunningham, the producer/director, Friday the 13th was a small movie that was released at just the right time. I have to agree with him. As slasher films go, it's not bad, but there's nothing in particular about it that sets it apart. It is very gory, thanks to the work of the legendary Tom Savini, but it would soon be outdone by a dozen copycat franchises.

The Ten Little Indians style of killing off the cast one-by-one resembles the slasher films to come, but it actually has more in common with the Italian giallo thrillers of the 1970s. These films combined the whodunit storytelling of crime fiction with psychological themes and excessive gore. Friday the 13th has quite a bit of gore, and Pamela Voorhees has clearly been driven insane by the death of her only child. But Friday fails as a mystery, largely because Cunningham doesn't even introduce the killer until the final act. There's no whodunit because the audience is never given any clues, or even red herrings.

Some feminist critics have asserted that Friday the 13th (and the slasher genre more broadly) attempts to reinforce traditional social values by punishing teenagers who engage in premarital sex. It is true that the teens who have sex get killed. But then again, teens who don't have sex also get killed. The killer in Friday the 13th doesn't seem very picky. But I'll talk more about subtext on the next couple movies.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ending on cliffhangers is lame

Spoilers below...

So this seventh season of 24 ends in fairly obvious fashion; Kim Bauer volunteers for some experimental treatment so that Jack can be cured through phony-baloney stem-cell medicine (stem-cells must be a godsend to sci-fi writers, nobody knows what they are or what they do, so you can make up any crazy shit you want). President Whats-Her-Name sends her dumbass, killing-federal-witnesses daughter to jail and in the process drives away her husband. Tony's master plan is predictably ridiculous and he gets caught. Plus, Agent Walker decides that, since the season is over, she might as well throw her career away and torture the main bad guy. Just another day in the 24-verse.

The show still suffers from not being able to sustain its central conceit: namely that all this lunacy could happen in 24 hours. Also, as per usual, the plan of the bad guys was needlessly complicated and ideologically confused. And the personal drama surrounding the President felt like a tedious distraction from the real story rather than a worthwhile subplot.

Still, this season was a marked improvement over the last, if only because it didn't suck horribly. Setting the action in Washington, D.C. was a nice change of pace from the usual location in L.A., and it made the interactions between Jack, the FBI, and the White House more plausible. And the writers made much better use of supporting cast members who, unlike Jack, could potentially be killed (and several of them were). There was even an effort to confront the issue of torture in a slightly more nuanced fashion.

For all its many faults, 24 remains one of the few TV shows dedicated to fast-paced, non-stop entertainment. It isn't a CSI knockoff or yet another show about lawyers or doctors; it's an action movie every week. So will the next season build off the improvements of this one? Only time will tell, but I'll be one of the viewers who sticks around for Day 8.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Boldly going where several franchises have gone before

Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams

Chris Pine (Kirk)
Zachary Quinto (Spock)
Karl Urban (McCoy)
Zoe Saldana (Uhura)
Simon Pegg (Scotty)
John Cho (Sulu)
Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekhov)
Eric Bana (Nero, a.k.a. the bad guy)

Hollywood continues to cannibalize itself, and another franchise gets remade. This month, it's Star Trek's turn, and the end results aren't bad.

On an entertainment-for-your-dollar level, Star Trek is a decent summer blockbuster, with a lot of action, comedy, and sex appeal. Hardcore Trekkies will complain (correctly) that the movie doesn't tackle the usual themes of Star Trek. There isn't even a token effort to deal with a social issue other than the not exactly controversial position that genocide is bad. Some critics have complained about the Star Wars-ification of Star Trek, and there is some truth to that. The movie places much greater emphasis on conflict, and doesn't display much interest in the traditional themes of exploration and cultural exchange. However, there is plenty of goofball comedy that seems in the spirit of the original series.

The first half of the film is the strongest, as Kirk, Spock, and the other characters get introduced. Scenes are well-paced, and each character gets a few decent moments that help explain who they are to non-Trekkies. The bad guys come across as suitably formidable, and the special effects during the space battles are superb.

Things begin to fall apart in the second half, as the movie starts getting tongue-tied in continuity issues and technobabble. Without giving too much away, there's time travel, alternate realities, and Leonard Nimoy. Other than appeasing the un-appeasable Trekkies, there was no real need to explain how this movie ties in with previous installments of the franchise. A clean reboot would have been preferable. Ultimately, the movie does set a new direction for the crew of the Enterprise, but we'll have to wait for the inevitable sequel to see it play out.

Another problem with the film is the obnoxious pimping of Captain Kirk as the BEST CAPTAIN EVER. The first half of the film does a good job of illustrating how Kirk has the potential to be a great officer, but he's arrogant and impulsive. Unfortunately, the movie needs to position young Kirk in the captain's chair by the end of story, and it doesn't have the time to demonstrate why Kirk is better for the job than Spock (or anyone else, for that matter). Time and reality must be warped and Leonard Nimoy must deliver treacly speeches so that Kirk gets to be the leader. This occurs despite the fact that the heroes' victory owed more to Chekhov, Scotty, and above all Spock. To borrow a term from fan-fiction, Kirk is a Mary Sue of epic proportions.

On a more pleasant note, the casting is well done. Pine does an excellent job of channeling William Shatner's macho bravado and self-effacing humor. Quinto is outstanding as Spock, and Simon Pegg steals every scene he's in. Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy is hit-or-miss; while he does a good job of capturing the character's temper and biting sense of humor, he tries too hard to replicate DeForrest Kelley's manner of speaking, and it comes across as affected.

Despite its problems, I'd recommend Star Trek. Just keep your expectations on stun (which is nerd speak for low).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What if you built a universe and nobody came?

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos

Rhona Mitra (Sonia)
Michael Sheen (Lucian)
Bill Nighy (Viktor)

In the first Underworld, Lucian explained the origin of the centuries-long conflict between vampires and Lycans in about five minutes of exposition. But what would happen if you took that five minutes and expanded it into a feature length film? Well, you'd end up with an incredibly boring exercise in "universe building."

Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien invented two dialects of Elvish, fantasy and scifi writers have shown a keen interest in building a comprehensive universe around the adventures of their characters. The fan-ish appeal is obvious: fans of The Lord of the Rings want to know more about the Elves or the Dwarves, fans of Star Wars want to know where Boba Fett came from or where the Empire gets all its Star Destroyers. From a narrative perspective, universe building can be useful when it adds needed context. But it's a narrative tool that can easily hi-jack a creative work, as filling in minor parts of made-up history gradually becomes the entire point of a story. And no matter how intricate a universe is, any story that's more interested in its context than its characters is going to be tedious, at best.

Rise of the Lycans is, at its core, a self-indulgent expansion on a backstory that was never very interesting to begin with. There may be someone out there who's curious about the origin of the Lycans, but that doesn't make a two-hour history lesson involving made-up races any less pointless. And how many people actually care about any of this vampire vs. Lycan stuff? The primary selling point of Underworld was always Kate Beckingsale in skin-tight leather, and this flick doesn't even have that.

The pointlessness of the story is made only worse by its glacial pacing, a bleak and derivative art design, uninspired action sequences, cheap-looking special effects, and dinner theater quality acting. Bill Nighy, in particular, chews up the scenery like its made of chocolate (dark chocolate, judging from the universally black sets).

In short, don't see this movie. You're only encouraging Hollywood to churn out more unnecessary prequels and origin stories. Let's leave the universe building to the professionals: obsessive nerds and fan-fic writers.