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.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Punisher: War Zone

Directed by Lexi Alexander

Ray Stevenson (the Punisher/Frank Castle)
Dominic West (Jigsaw)
Doug Hutchinson (Loony Bin Jim)
Wayne Knight (Micro)

Punisher: War Zone is half a good Punisher movie. It's fantastically violent, with a body count that would make Stallone and Schwarzenegger proud. It also has the grimy look and casual sadism of an 80's action flick. Whenever the characters shut up and start shooting each other, it's pretty damn entertaining.

But, alas, the screenwriters (at least three) feel the need to make Frank Castle doubt his mission after killing an undercover FBI agent. And they feel the need to remind the viewer, repeatedly, why the Punisher is killing gangsters. And they feel the need to throw in practically every supporting character from the Punisher's comic book history: older characters like Micro and Jigsaw, and then there's Detective Soap from Garth Ennis's Marvel Knights run, and even some obscure characters from Ennis's run on Punisher MAX. Perhaps most ridiculously, they feel the need to make the Punisher topical by throwing in a subplot involving bio-weapons and Muslim terrorists. There's a lot going on, but almost none of it is interesting. And the supporting cast is simply not given enough to do to get the viewer to care about them.

Most tiresome of all are the numerous scenes where the Punisher questions whether he should continue to punish. Presumably, the writers were worried that the Punisher might not be entirely sympathetic, so they wanted to assure the audience that Castle really is a good man who's doing the right thing. But that completely misses the point of the character. The Punisher is fucking nuts and he likes killing bad guys. It's the total disregard for the squeaky-clean rules of a superhero story that makes the Punisher so entertaining to begin with.

The cast is a mixed batch. Stevenson is decent as Castle/the Punisher, but the role doesn't demand much of him other than scowling on cue. West as Jigsaw comes across as nothing more than a half-baked knock-off of the Joker, while Wayne Knight plays Micro like he plays every other role: annoying, fat guy.

So far, the 2004 Punisher with Thomas Jane remains the closest thing to a good Punisher movie. But, at the very least, fans of mindless violence will find plenty to enjoy here.