The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gone Girl

I would like to begin this post by saying that I struggled trying to figure out how to review this movie. I struggled with this for almost a week. It's fantastic. It's almost as if David Fincher asked what kind of movie Alfred Hitchcock would have made were he alive today, because that's exactly what's on screen. But, to properly review this movie without spoiling anything is all but impossible. So, I'll skip over the plot.

First off, Rosamund Pike is unbelievably amazing in the role of Amy Dunne, the wife of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). Her character is complicated in a film full of complicated people. But she was mesmerizing. You can see why Affleck's character fell in love with this "cool girl". And you will wonder why anybody would ever want to hurt her, let alone kill her.

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne is amazing, but I've always been a fan of Affleck. So, rather than spoil the movie, I will talk about how we are in the midst of an Affleck resurgence. I'll even go farther and say this: he's perfect for Batman. Come on guys, "Daredevil" was eleven years ago, and even that wasn't his fault. He's a brilliant man. "The Town" was terrific, "Argo" was terrific, "Gone Girl" was amazing, and he'll be a great Batman (whether the movie will be good or not, the jury's still definitely out, but even if it's not, it won't be Affleck's fault). I've never seen Affleck play a role like this, detached, middle-aged husband in a marriage that's going through problems. It's so much more down to Earth than what we're used to seeing and yet, more fantastical at the same time. I've been a fan of Affleck since "Chasing Amy", "Good Will Hunting", and "Dogma". He is a splendid actor. Stop giving him crap because of "Daredevil" and his short relationship with Jennifer Lopez.

Even Tyler Perry was a revelation. When I first heard he was cast in this, when I was told he was GOOD in this, I was surprised. But his character is magnetic, and features some of the best lines in the movie. Likewise, Neil Patrick Harris is a lot of creepy fun in this movie. But if there is a true villain of this movie, it's the media. The Nancy Grace expy was so on point, it was terrifying... doing what Nancy Grace does, and what the media always does, sensationalize and terrify (take a look at the current ebola scare to see it playing out in real life once again).

"Who did it" movies are nothing new, but "Gone Girl" is a fresh, Hitchcockian approach to a very old concept. It's worth seeing, it was the best movie I've seen all year, and I recommend it. You will be surprised, your sympathies will transfer more than once, and you will fine yourself transfixed by a movie that depict marriage itself as scarier than any monster, serial killer, or supervillain you'll come across in the movie being played one theater over.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Animated Shudderings

Now it's time for a Hall of Shame. I'm disqualifying schlock like "Family Guy" because it's for an entirely different audience... and, quite frankly, it means nothing to me at all. My picks might not be technically the worst like "Gilligan's Planet", or  "The Punky Brewster" cartoon. But these are the five that personally make my skin crawl.

5. The Legend of Korra

What happened? This show had everything going for it. An astronomical budget, beautiful animation, and more good will than any series before it. But the most beautiful animation in the world, and well choreographed fight scenes don't mean a thing if I don't care about the people involved or why they're fighting.

The four leads are Korra, Mako, Bolin, and Asami. The latter three fail the Red Letter Media Character test that I mentioned in a previous post. I want to defend Asami and I find myself unable to, even though I kind of like her in spite of that. Bolin's only character trait is that he's stupid; but he's so stupid that I find myself having to suspend an ungodly amount of disbelief anytime he is shown to be capable of walking erect, feeding himself, and human speech. And as for Mako, I have never seen such a creator's pet be such a contemptible character outside of Chloe Bennet's character in "Special Snowflake and The Shit Squad". Take any villain from "Avatar: The Last Airbender" from Azula to Zhao to Fire Lord Ozai to Hama to the captain who murdered Katara's mother and all of them are still better human beings than Mako... and yet the narrative keeps rewarding him.

Okay, I enjoyed most of the first season, although I hated anything having to do with Mako, Bolin, and pro-bending. I enjoyed Amon, Tarlokk and the Equalist story. But I hated how the season ended, and I do not find it the slightest bit believable that the Equalists would disband just because Amon was revealed to be a waterbender... this was an organization that could not have come to exist if non-benders weren't being oppressed (because they were). But hey, their leader is a bender, a non-bender is elected president of the Republic and prejudice is over... just like how racism ended when Barack Obama was elected president. Yay?

The second season murdered the show for me. Flat out murdered it. Even the material I talked myself into liking just did not stand up under scrutiny. The original Iroh is brought back in an awful case of fan service, because the new cast is awful. It was desperate. And Unalaq was one of the worst villains I have ever seen in anything. He was so obviously evil even before the reveal, that this music could have been playing when he was around and it wouldn't have been less subtle. And when he said the words "Dark Avatar", I burst out laughing... it was an angry laugh because I could not believe this thing got past the idea stages, let alone the editing stages. It was like an awful fanfic.

Even the fan favorite "Beginnings", while beautiful to look at had... issues. I hated the reveal of Vaatu and Raava's existence. Hated it. What is the Avatar about? Balance. Not order. Balance. Both of these spirits should have been a part of the Avatar. And with that, I'm going to present what my idea would have been were I on the production team as a Story Editor.

1. Season one can run as is, but Korra doesn't regain her bending via the deus ex machina at the end.

2. Season two hits, Korra is on a spiritual journey to restore her bending when she is offered a shortcut. Maybe Unalaq is behind it, maybe not. But Korra jumps at this short cut, but her own spiritual balance is thrown off. We learn the origin of Wan, the first Avatar. We learn that both Raava and Vaatu exist within the Avatar, and the consequences of Korra making this bad choice cause Vaatu to drown out Raava within Korra, and Korra in essence becomes the Big Bad of the season herself, maybe Vaatu takes full control... the world is suffering from the destruction she is wreaking on civilization. And, it's a very spiritual and very internal battle, but Korra needs to really learn how to be spiritual so she can restore the balance within herself and save the world from herself. Which leads to...

3. Season three, the Red Lotus' plans to destroy the Avatar are a direct consequence of what happened in season two.

You see? The story builds on itself. The things that came before matter. It wouldn't solve all the problems. The biggest problems are still with the characters themselves. Develop their relationships. Make Bolin naive, not a complete asshole moron... I mean, Broadway on "Gargoyles" was illiterate, but he was never this stupid. Sokka was comic relief, and he had a lot of growing up to do, but he wasn't a moron. Develop Asami beyond her relationships with other people. And Mako, I don't know, but just about anything would be better.

It could have been so much better, it should have been so much better. But it was one gigantic pile of waste. I despise wasted potential. Especially when it was the sequel to one of the greatest TV shows of all time.

4. Captain Planet and the Planeteers

I almost feel bad for tossing this one on here, because it's such an obvious choice and while its heart was in the right place, it was handled in such a manipulative, heavy-handed, cretinous way that it deserves every bit of bile it has ever received. What can I say about this show that hasn't been said already?

3. The Goliath Chronicles

You all know about this one, I'll just link to this, because I can't think of anything else I can say that I haven't already.

2. Ultimate Spider-Man

This TV series is a mockery. It's made by untalented individuals under their overlord, Jeph Loeb (sound familiar) who have openly admitted that they are talking down to their audience. Don't believe me?

Man of Action lied. "Spectacular Spider-Man" did very well with the target demographic. The six to eleven crowd latched onto it, and that show was on a weaker network without the corporate support "Ultimate" is currently enjoying.

The Spider-Man they present is one who never learns. With great power comes great responsibility? Fuck that shit, I'll do what I want! It is so offensively stupid, and it has no right to be. But what offends me the most is the dumbing down to spoon feed it to an audience that is more sophisticated than they give it credit for. By not trying to challenge the target audience at all, by willfully spoon-feeding them this schlock, they are committing an atrocity, a crime against humanity...

Thank you, Man of Action. If I believed in Hell, I would be comfortable knowing that there is a special circle in Hell just for people like you. Congratulations on assisting in the downfall of human civilization.

1. King Arthur and the Knights of Justice

This is one of those shows that popped up in the very early 90's, around the time the 80's was fading, but before the great material really arrived. "King Arthur and the Knights of Justice" was about a college football team called the Knights who are brought back in time by Merlin to pose as the the Knights of the Round Table with their quarterback, Arthur King, posing as His Majesty. The real Arthur and his real knights were imprisoned by Morgana and her army of stone warlords led by Lord Viper were running amok in Camelot.

Okay, I know that sounds like standard stupidity, so what was so offensive about it? What places it in the #1 spot? The heroic Arthur King was raping Queen Guinevere. Yes, in the pilot, the queen is abducted by Morgana's minions, and Merlin tempts Arthur and his friends into staying by pretty much offering Guinevere to him on a platter. Guinevere believes this man is her husband, and I will never believe he's not playing the part in the bedroom... at no point does she ever get a clue that this isn't her husband and these aren't the knights. So, I'm going to assume Arthur's best friend, Lance, was playing his part as well. In fact, the pilot ends with Merlin bringing a large group of court ladies into the Round Table chamber and offering them to the knights like sheep are tossed to lions.

Now, if you read the Arthurian Legends, you'd realize this is not at all out of character for Merlin to do. It's basically how King Arthur was conceived in the first place. But to portray it on a TV show without a hint of self-awareness is pretty disgusting. Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Deep Space Nine

So, for the past few weeks I've been watching "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" on Netflix. A show I swore off almost twenty years ago due to a little controversy with another science fiction TV show set on a space station that aired at the same time. I apologize for starting my review off with this, but I can't properly review and discuss my experience with DS9 and what I took away from this watch without discussing this... it's part of my experience.

J. Michael Straczynski spent five years developing a TV show called "Babylon 5", he pitched it all over town. Paramount nearly bought it before deciding that a series set on a space-station couldn't work. After JMS successfully pitched B5 to Warner Bros and they announced it in Variety, a few weeks later, Paramount announced DS9, and there were a ton of dirty tactics and games played with the independent networks of the time to keep B5 off... but that's the nature of the business. JMS himself was always convinced the Paramount executives were shady, while always defending Rick Berman and Michael Piller as honorable men and genius writers. But after meeting JMS and conversing with him privately, he urged me not to boycott "Deep Space Nine" on his account. Yeah, studio executives suck, we've all known this for years. Did anything shady happen? Who the hell knows. Yes, the two shows sometimes had some very eerie similarities (and this went both ways), but both did things very differently. So, after nearly two decades, I decided that whatever happened or didn't happen, both shows were out there, both told their stories. It was time to judge "Deep Space Nine" on its own merits, because at the end of the day, that's how a work should be judged.

So why did I decide to watch it? Well, I was bored one day. I'm currently between gigs, and I decided I was in the mood for grumpy Picard and began watching some TNG episodes on Netflix. Then I got to "The Chain of Command" two-parter where Picard is tortured by the Cardassians... then I watched the TNG episodes that featured the politics between Cardassia and Bajor and decided I wanted more. Well, there was this entire spin-off being built off of that, so I figured, oh what the hell, and began the pilot.

Shortly before I began this entry, I finished the final episode of "Deep Space Nine" and.... *drum roll* I liked it. I actually liked it a lot. In the eyes of many, this is the best "Star Trek" series ever made. While I'm not sure if I'm in that camp, I think I still prefer the cast of "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine" definitely wins story wise. It hits a lot of the same notes "Babylon 5" does, but it does it in it's own way. And, well, both shows were following Campbell's "Hero's Journey" anyway... as sagas like "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" did long before them. "Deep Space Nine" is the Trek franchise doing an epic myth in a long established universe. It's a story that's been told over and over again throughout the history of human civilization, and I think the producers and writers of "Deep Space Nine" did a magnificent job.

Just because I prefer the TNG cast, don't take that as a slight against the DS9 cast. Without a splendid cast, no show can endure no matter how sophisticated and epic the story being told is. Avery Brooks plays Benjamin Sisko, a Starfleet captain that is thrust into a situation where he has to make the hardest calls since "Mr. Worf, fire." After an encounter with the Prophets during the pilot, he becomes a messianic figure to the Bajorans... a people who have only recently cast off the chains of occupation, whom Sisko is trying to bring into the United Federation of Planets.

Nana Visitor plays Kira Nerys, a former resistance fighter (though many of the Cardassians still call her a terrorist), whom much of the drama revolves around. It's her gods... her prophets that touch Sisko. It's her whom the former Cardassian prefect of Bajor, Gul Dukat wants to make his personal conquest. It's her who needs to learn how to trust the Federation, it's her who's the focal point of this broken people trying to rebuild. The story of the Bajorans is one we need only to turn on the news to see play out over and over again.

Rounding out the trifecta is Rene Auberjonis as Odo. A Changeling chief of security on board Deep Space Nine who seeks to learn about himself, and his origins. This mystery isn't dragged out for too long, as come the beginning of the third season, he finds his people... and the Alpha Quadrant quickly comes to regret it. His people are the Founders of the Dominion, a dark mirror of the Federation which represents fascistic order in stark contrast to the Federation's freedom and democracy.

The rest of the cast is terrific and were I to devote a paragraph to each of them, this entry would go on longer than I wish. I'd only be heaping praise on them. Quark is great. Bashir is great. Dax is great. Jake is great. Rom is great. Nog is great. O'Brien is great. Garak is REALLY GREAT. The recurring characters are great. They're all great.

I've been told prior to watching this that Mark Alaimo's Gul Dukat was the greatest villain in the "Star Trek" franchise and, after finishing it, I don't know... I think I still lean towards Khan, but if anyone says it's Dukat, I can't blame them. He's definitely up there. I definitely believe the Dominion is the greatest foil to the Federation that has appeared in the franchise. They're more three dimensional than the Klingons were in their villainous days, more exciting than the Romulans, and they haven't been ruined like the Borg were in every appearance following "The Best of Both Worlds".

Even the show's stand alone episodes were pretty strong. If I ever re-watch it, there isn't one episode I will say "Ugh, do I have to sit through that one?" and I can't think of another multi-season science fiction series I can say that about. But the arc episodes were where the show shined. Especially during the war, and the development of the characters. War is hell, and this series shows that in ways no previous "Star Trek" series did. This show was easily the ballsiest of the Trek shows, and the last time the franchise was any good. "Star Trek: Voyager" was the worst of the Trek shows, "Enterprise" was mediocre, "Insurrection," "Nemesis," "Star Trek (2009)" and "Into Darkness" are all awful movies. I'm perfectly fine with considering "What You Leave Behind" to be the ending of the franchise as a whole. It's a good one.

The best episode of the series, and probably the best single episode in the franchise is "In the Pale Moonlight". And, well, anyone who's seen this episode would know why. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who's not seen it. But, for a franchise who's history often involved the commanding officer always finding another way or a better way, well, what happens when there is no other way? When do you cross the line into doing the necessary thing, even if it's not the right thing. "In the Pale Moonlight" did this, without walking it back, without apologizing, without watering it down. I had to watch the episode a second time because, well, this is "Star Trek", did they just do that? The answer was yes. Yes, they did that.

If there is one flaw, the final arc with the Pah-wraiths could have been better. Don't get me wrong, it made sense. With the entire premise behind Sisko being the emissary of the Prophets, it needed to be there. But it felt a bit rushed, and it was definitely overshadowed by the Dominion War. I liked the idea of Dukat seeking out the Pah-wraiths, in order to become the Bajoran version of the Antichrist. It just needed more time, but I can't think of what I would have cut to devote more time to it.

What is this show's legacy? Within the Trek franchise, the answer seems to sadly be "non-existent." But I think it, alongside "Babylon 5" helped usher in serialized, long form storytelling on television. A format that began with "Hill Street Blues" back in the 80's, but didn't catch on with the network dramas until much later. I still prefer "Babylon 5" as a series, but that isn't a slight. Both shows exist, both are good television... but I'll give DS9 an edge in that it has no bad episodes, even B5 has several stinkers in the first season. The first two seasons of TNG are borderline unwatchable. So what's the lesson? For me? You can enjoy both Coke and Pepsi. Granted it's a lesson I've learned long ago, but it's a lesson that's worth revisiting.

I'm not too proud to admit I was wrong. In this case, I'm more than happy to admit I was wrong. It's a great show, even if it took me twenty years to find out. But like all great TV, it's timeless. I did not need to cast myself back to an earlier era and say "it's the times." Great show.