Thursday, January 30, 2014

No movie tonight. Sorry folks. I'm calling in sick.

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Bond-arama: No. 005 Thunderball (1965)

When he strikes, he strikes like Thunderball. Heck yeah, he does. Of all the original James Bond films, this one is probably the most action-oriented. This thing is a rollercoaster ride of murder, chases, and near escapes. Nobody gets out alive. It also set a standard for underwater action scenes that few films have ever lived up to. That has earned this film its place at No. 005 of 0023.

Plot Quality: The plot is top notch. The story begins with Bond observing the funeral of a SPECTRE agent. He is here to make sure the dead man is indeed dead. He’s not. Bond realizes this and finishes the job. He then escapes with a jet pack. Way cool. That opening scene tells you the film is going to be violent, and it is. When next we meet Bond, he’s been sent to a rehab center for treatment of several wounds. While he’s there, he notices a Count Lippe, who just happens to have a criminal tattoo. Bond searches his room, but finds nothing. Bond is spotted, however, and Lippe makes an attempt on his life.
Meanwhile, we meet François Derval. Derval is a French pilot scheduled to fly as an observer aboard a NATO flight, an Avro Vulcan loaded with two atomic bombs. Derval is having an affair with a hot, but evil, Italian woman named Fiona Volpe, who just happens to be a SPECTRE agent. When Derval leaves to make his flight, he is surprised to find a double of himself at the door. The double kills him. This is Angelo, and he’s been surgically altered to take Derval’s place.

As Angelo boards the flight, Bond comes across the body of Derval at the clinic. Bond doesn’t know what this means. Angelo, however, does. Halfway through the flight, he kills the rest of the crew by turning off their air supply. He then pilots the Vulcan to Nassau, where he lands it on the water and it sinks to the ocean floor. A SPECTRE crew is waiting to remove the bombs... and kill Angelo.
Bond is called to MI-6 along with every other 00-agent in the world. They are told about the disappearing Vulcan and the bombs and a ransom note NATO has received from SPECTRE, who want £100 million in diamonds in exchange for the bombs. Bond is assigned to search Canada, but as he looks through the briefing package, he realizes that he saw Derval’s body the prior night, which means he couldn’t have been on the plane. Derval’s sister is in Nassau, so Bond asks to be given that assignment.

Once in Nassau, Bond finds Derval’s sister Domino, who happens to be the mistress of Emilio Largo, the number two man in SPECTRE. Bond begins a cat and mouse game with Largo, Largo’s henchmen, and Fiona Volpe, as he tries to locate the bombs. The story ends with a massive underwater battle between Largo’s crew and special forces.
Not only is this a truly solid plot, with no filler and no dead ends, but the story is exciting. The tension ratchets up scene by scene. The film is packed with tense chase scenes, witty dialog, and near misses. More importantly, the film includes a tremendous number of cold-blooded killings. This film is not for the faint of heart. Both good and bad people die, die hard and die quickly. All of this gives this film a real edge which makes it perhaps the most exciting Bond film ever. The film also sports the usual requirements for quality Bond: strong characters, the travelogue feel, and exciting visuals. He even does a lot of quality spying.

There are three things that let this film down, though they are minor. First, Volpe and Largo both fail to kill Bond when they should have. It is understandable why they didn’t, but it adds a hint of cartoon to the film. Largo should have shot Bond rather than relying on his sharks – even if it made sense that Bond would drown or be eaten. And Volpe should have shot him in the car, or the hotel, or the car a second time. Her failure seems to be that she was following orders to bring Bond in, but it still feels like stupidity.

The second problem is that once it becomes clear that Bond is right about the bombs, you would think Nassau would be flooded with agents, but MI-6 leaves this all up to Bond. That feels a bit like movie logic.
Those two problems, however, are minor and easy to overlook. The third problem is a little different. The third problem is actually the ending. Throughout the film, the script sets up this cat and mouse game between Bond and Largo personally. They are constantly running into each other. There are several near misses where Largo almost gets Bond. They even toy with each other verbally. This suggests a build up to a Clash of Titans Ending so to speak between Bond and Largo. And this film is violent enough to do that. Yet, when the ending comes, it really turns into a battle of color-coordinated henchmen as Bond chases the fleeing Largo (with some bad effects hurting the film), only to have Domino kill him. This is disappointing and deflates the ending a good deal. It’s still a good ending, but had this film delivered the mano-a-mano ending it builds up to, it would have been a good deal stronger.

Bond Quality: This is Connery’s fourth film and he’s got it all down at this point. His suave is fantastic and he’s super charming. His brutal is truly brutal, and is helped by a script that lets him kill several people indifferently. His delivery of the one-liners is perfect. His fierce loyalty is perhaps lacking a bit in this one, but the film is more about trading murders than it is about loyalty. All told though, Connery is just about perfect in this one. He’s at ease in the role and really hitting his stride.
The Bond Girl: Wow! This film has two Bond girls and they are both amazing. First, you have Claudine Auger as Dominique “Domino” Derval. A former Miss France and the first runner-up in Miss World 1958, Auger is amazingly beautiful. She’s also a great character. She is Largo’s mistress, who learns that Largo killed her brother. She then helps Bond find the bombs to help avenge her brother’s murder. Interestingly, her character is one of the more complex in the series. Despite being Largo’s mistress (she pretends to be his niece), she clearly has a great deal of shame about this, yet she’s not willing to leave him and what he offers her. None of this is ever said, but she manages to imply it all with her eyes and what is never said. That’s impressive. She’s also the first Bond girl to get to kill the villain. She will become the model for Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only.

As an aside, both Domino and Largo had to be dubbed.

The other Bond girl is Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe. She’s a ruthless SPECTRE agent who mixes sex with murder. At least, she uses sex as a trap and then becomes the ruthless killer. Normally, when you have one solid Bond girl, the other is kind of a waste, but not here. Volpe is the polar opposite of Domino and both are fantastic. Whereas Domino is scared or reserved, Volpe is aggressive and bold, and Paluzzi makes her a fascinating character. Paluzzi presents Volpe as an amazing mix of adorable, sexy, and deadly, and she moves effortlessly between the three. She truly comes across as a real psychotic. In fact, like many real psychotics, she is so compelling that, even knowing she is evil, it wouldn’t surprise me if men still flocked to her. And her death is one of the most memorable in the series too, coming as a major surprise to the audience... and to her. (Note the cold look in Connery's eyes.)
Villain Quality: Finally, we come to the villain. The villain here is Largo (Adolfo Celi), who is the number two man at SPECTRE. Celi absolutely looks the part. He projects just enough respectability that you could see him fitting in well in Nassau, but he simultaneously presents an incredible amount of menace. His scheme is fantastic too. It’s simultaneously simple, yet super complex. It feels like it could really happen, yet it also feels outlandish. That makes it brilliant: it is the perfect scheme you send a superspy to stop.
As I said before, where Largo falls down a bit is in not killing Bond, though ultimately that may not be a fair charge. We know who Bond is and that he will prevail. Largo doesn’t know that, and he needs to weigh whether killing Bond makes sense. After all, if he kills Bond, then who knows what the British will do to the island. As for his chances to kill Bond, Largo mainly meets Bond in public places, like a casino or a dance. When he invites Bond to the house, he can’t kill him because he doesn’t know who is watching Bond. And his other attempts, like dropping a grenade into the ocean or sealing the pool to drown Bond if the sharks don’t get him first, really do seem to him like they should have worked.

Where there is a flaw in Largo, it is the ending. As I noted above, the film strongly suggests a one-on-one fight is coming, but it doesn’t. To the contrary, Largo turns coward and tries to run away only to be shot in the back. That’s not worthy of the setup.

Ultimately, this is a great film and a great Bond film. Its images are iconic. Its characters are strong and each is interesting in their own right. Connery is at the top of his game. There’s so much to love about this film, and while it does have a few flaws, they can be explained or forgiven. If only the ending had been stronger, this film could have been the best Bond film ever, but the ending was a letdown. Thus, it sits at a well-earned No. 005 of 0023.
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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guest Review: Backdraft (1991)

By ScottDS

Ron Howard’s Backdraft turned out to be the last movie I watched in 2013. I had never seen it before. It also happened to be one of the cheesiest movies I watched in 2013. In my Air Force One review, I criticized that film for being “too cinematic” with clichés that happen for no other reason than because we expect them to. Backdraft, as entertaining as it is – and it is entertaining – suffers from this in spades.

Meet the McCaffrey brothers: Stephen the older one (Kurt Russell) and Brian the younger one (William Baldwin). As a child, Brian saw their firefighter dad die while fighting a large blaze and after a series of odd jobs, he’s decided to return to firefighting. He’s assigned to Stephen’s station: Engine 17 in Chicago. Stephen is reckless and frequently disregards his own safety, much to the chagrin of fellow firefighter John Adcox (Scott Glenn), who watched over the McCaffreys after their father died. At the same time, Alderman Martin Swayzak (the late J.T. Walsh) is running for mayor but is facing some heat [rimshot] for his budget cuts, which have caused several firehouses to be decommissioned; this puts our heroes in ever-greater danger.
The competition between the two brothers is fierce and Brian eventually leaves. He gets a job working for arson investigator Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (Robert De Niro, whose moniker proves you can’t have a movie about a group of blue-collar guys without nicknames). The fires all have one thing in common: the backdraft – a fire resulting from the sudden re-introduction of oxygen into a previously oxygen-free environment. We eventually learn that Alderman Swayzak is benefiting financially from the shuddered fire stations – they are to be turned into community centers and his construction company cronies will get big contracts. Sadly, we also learn that Adcox is the arsonist, getting his revenge on the financial hacks who suggested the idea via a phony manpower study. Both Stephen and Adcox die in a climactic chemical plant fire. Brian, despite his previous doubts, continues as a firefighter.

This movie is exciting. The pre-CGI fire scenes are excellent. The film was actually nominated for Best Visual Effects (and justifiably lost to T2), and the pyro guys certainly deserved all the recognition they received. ILM did a handful of miniature shots but with one exception, I couldn’t tell what was what. Kurt Russell is always fun to watch and that all-American swagger and smirk are quite present here. William Baldwin is… fine. I suppose anyone could’ve played this role, but Baldwin has just the right amount of earnestness and naiveté. (Though I’m not sure if it’s sincere or just bad acting!) J.T. Walsh is excellent as always and I know what you’re thinking: a corrupt politician? In Chicago? Walsh was one of the quintessential “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors and I miss him. He passed away in 1998. Donald Sutherland has a small role as an arsonist who helps Brian, à la Hannibal Lecter – more on him a bit.
Ron Howard… his filmography is quite varied to say the least. I’ve heard good things about Rush but, as far as the last decade goes, The Dilemna looked horrible, Frost/Nixon was good but ultimately forgettable, and the two Robert Langdon movies were just bland. I enjoy Apollo 13 quite a bit, though I don’t think A Beautiful Mind was necessarily worthy of Best Picture. (If you want a better Ron Howard/Russell Crowe movie, check out the overlooked Cinderella Man.) As it stands, he has yet to make his Schindler’s List and I’m not entirely sure he has it in him. Not every director does. Many of the criticisms against Howard all have the same keywords in common: “hack,” “safe,” “sterile,” “commercial-friendly,” etc. When Spielberg goes dark and edgy, we’re “witnessing the maturation of an artist.” When Howard does it, it’s “Opie is in over his head!” He just hasn’t cranked it up to 11 yet. Maybe Rush will change my opinion. (But the man helped bring Arrested Development into the world so he ultimately gets a pass!)

As usual, I’ll leave it to the experts. Here’s a thoughtful and accurate take on Howard by Grantland’s Tom Carson: “Spielberg's real genius is that he has made his neuroses (Daddy, where art thou?) and paradoxically practical-minded version of transcendence part of the average moviegoer's comfort zone, obviously not the case with Howard. Like Spielberg, Howard has directed movies in all sorts of genres. But unlike Spielberg, he doesn't enrich – let alone renew – them with a detectable perspective of his own. The ability to rip the mass audience a new comfort zone is one definition of mainstream greatness, from Walt Disney and Frank Capra to [Spielberg] himself. Howard, by contrast, just abides by existing formulas and does a better carpentry job than most. A poet he isn't, although he did well enough by whimsy – poetry's crowd-pleasing kid brother – in Splash.”

But in the case of Backdraft, everything that I thought would happen ended up happening. And the script – by former firefighter Gregory Widen, who also wrote Highlander – piles on cliché after cliché. We have the sibling rivalry, which apparently never ended. We have the new guy’s even cockier best friend (played by Jason Gedrick) – he’s the character in World War II movies who would die after showing the guys a picture of his sweetheart back home. In this movie, he ends up horribly disfigured. In the war movies, the character was usually named something like Kowalsky. In this movie, it’s Krizminski! We have not one, but two lost loves. Stephen frequently visits his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay) and their son, while Brian’s ex-girlfriend Jennifer (a bored-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh) conveniently works in the Alderman’s office. Brian and Jennifer make love on top of a fire truck, which is something I’d expect to see in a Michael bay movie.
And speaking of Michael Bay, my first reaction after the movie ended was, “Wow, it was like a Michael Bay movie, but pre-Bay!” Armageddon and Pearl Harbor specifically came to mind. All three movies feature rivalries, cheesy romantic interludes, and a group of guys going into battle with a strange and relentless force. Both De Niro and Sutherland’s characters anthropomorphize fire. At one point, Sutherland asks, “Did the fire look at you?” And De Niro insists fire is a living thing that eats and breathes and hates. The only way to fight a fire is to love it a little bit. Um… okay then. Ask any firefighter and they’ll tell you it’s mainly scientific: collection and analysis of data, development and testing of a hypothesis, and finally a conclusion. Gut feelings and love? Save it for the dating scene. (And many firefighters have pointed out that there isn’t enough smoke in this movie, but too much smoke would obscure the actors.)

This movie also features one of my pet peeves: making one of the heroes the villain. It’s a trope as old as the hills and maybe we’ve just seen it too many times… but the entire time I kept thinking, “Please don’t let the arsonist be one of the firefighters!” Adcox feels justified in his actions, and he dies for his sins. In cases like this, you can usually do one of three things for the audience: a.) save the reveal for the end which happens here, b.) show us the villain from the start (like the traitorous Secret Service agent in Air Force One), or c.) simply have it be a random person. But, in terms of storytelling, how satisfying would it be for the arsonist to be just one random nut that we never saw before, played by a glorified extra? But contrast this (and Air Force One) with Executive Decision: all the heroes remain heroes, and they even manage to get another villain – the bomb-maker – into the film in the last 20 minutes! (Hey, Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh were in that movie, too!)
A few more Bay touches are included… there’s a cheesy training montage, complete with inspirational ballad (Bruce Hornsby’s “The Show Goes On”) and slow-motion shots of Brian hosing himself off, his hair waving to and fro. A filmmaker like Ron Howard shouldn’t be using such clichés; he should be creating new clichés for other filmmakers to use! And the score by Hans Zimmer… wow. I think every cue in this movie has been used in a trailer at some point. And this was early Zimmer, before he became the creator of this overused thing. The score is anything but subtle, but I’ll take it over the droning background noise that passes for movie scoring today. The other technical stuff is all first-rate. After shooting The Abyss for James Cameron, this movie was no doubt a cakewalk for cinematographer Mikael Salomon. And it’s nice to see Chicago playing itself. No Toronto or Bulgaria in this movie!

In a world where there aren’t enough movies about firefighters, this one will have to do… at least until someone else directs a better (and better-written) one. It’s entertaining – your typical Hollywood 90s-era blockbuster, pre-CGI, pre-shaky-cam. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it looks and sounds like every other wheel out there.

“What about fire?”
“Fire?”
“Yes. It consumes fuel to produce energy… it grows… it creates offspring… by your definition, is it alive?”
“Fire is a chemical reaction. You could make the same argument for growing crystals… but obviously, we don't consider them alive.”

(This is dialogue from a Star Trek: TNG episode – they cover the subject better than this movie!)
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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Questions... Questions... Questions!

Tonight's article is more of a question... two actually. What are your favorite cartoons and what do you like about them? Wow, that was short. Maybe we should throw in a third to pad things? Which cartoon character is most like Obama reading the State of the Union?
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Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Favorite Films: Musicals

Today, I’m going to start something different – we’ll come back to the debates in a few weeks. For quite some time now, people have been asking me to list my favorite movies. So that is what I’m going to do. These aren’t necessarily the most significant or the best movies by any stretch. They are just the films I enjoy the most in each genre. So read along and see if you agree, and then tell us your favorites too.

Let’s start with musicals because I’ve been talking musicals all week with one of our readers.

1. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973): Ironically, I didn’t like this one the first time I saw it. But something about it compelled me to watch it again and I was hooked. This film features a fantastic 70’s rock soundtrack, some true subtlety of message, and the most kick ass tasseled jumpsuit EVER! Moreover, the track “Could We Start Again Please” is one of those rare songs were you can honestly feel the emotion behind the song.

2. Grease: (1978) Grease is the word baby. This is an awesome musical that combines 1950s style music with a hint of the 1970s (two strong musical eras). The songs work both as straight forward “wholesome” songs for kids and Mormons, and yet have a well-hidden, extremely dirty undercurrent for everyone else. The story is very relatable to anyone who has dated, and it’s just all around strong.

3. Cabaret (1972): The film surrounding the music in this one is interesting. It provides an interesting look into swinging Berlin in the 1930s just as the Nazis are starting their rise up, and one of the pro-Nazi songs (“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”) gives an incredible mix of beauty, strength and creepy. Beyond that, the songs seem to walk through the various sexual perversions, but they are very funny and entertaining and I would love to have seen this club in real life. Plus, there are some shots of German beer here that just make my mouth water.

4. Xanadu (1980): Ok, shoot me. This one tanked in theaters, but I really enjoyed the whole idea as a kid and I thought the music was super strong. Over the years, my appreciation of the film has only grown. ELO’s work in particular is amazing – some of their best. Gene Kelly can still dance like a mad man, and I love the mix of old and modern in the scene where they present the clashing visions of the club. Interestingly, I read recently that this film has had a recent revival among gays. Huh.

5. Sound of Music (1965): Great songs, great story and Julie Andrews is adorable. What more can you want? I watch this one every year.

6. The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1982): Texas has a whorehouse in it, God have mercy on our souls. Man, watching Charles Durning dance a little sidestep still makes me smile. And Burt and Dolly were just so right for each other.

7. South Park (1999): Yeah, strange. It took me a while to realize not only that this was a musical, but it just happens to be one of the strongest musicals in years. “Blame Canada” in particular is a truly classic musical song. And of course, who doesn’t bust a gut at the “Uncle F***er” Song.

8. Moulin Rouge! (2001): This one cheats and that bothers me, but still I enjoy the constant medleys of hit lyrics. The couple original songs are good too and the versions of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” and The Police’s “Roxanne” are awesome.

Thoughts?
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Film Friday: Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion was considered a bomb, though it did well overseas. It was also derided by the critics as a knock-off and kind of thin. So I had pretty low expectations going in. I’m not sure how much having low expectations helped, but I actually found that I enjoyed Oblivion, though it was very slow. That said, however, I have no desire to see it again, and therein lies the problem.

I’m going to go light on the spoilers because what makes this film work is the steady stream of discovery. Without that, this film is pretty worthless. So here’s the plot in a nutshell: Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is Tech 49. He lives in a house in the clouds with Victoria, his partner and lover, and his job is to protect and maintain drones which protect these massive machines that are sucking up the oceans and turning them into electric power, which gets shipped to the humans living on Titan.
The reason humanity has moved to Titan is because of a war. The year is 2077 and 60 years prior an alien race known as the Scavengers attacked the Earth to steal our resources. When they invaded, they initially destroyed the moon, causing massive earthquakes which up-ended the Earth, destroyed our cities, and nearly wiped out humanity. Then their troops landed. The humans were losing so they fired off nuclear weapons. Those weapons made most of the planet uninhabitable, but they succeeded in winning the war. Jack’s job now is to protect the machines producing the power from the last few Scavengers left.

The story begins with Jack fixing a drone and giving us a long series of visuals about the destroyed Earth. We are shown various destroyed landmarks, like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Pentagon. We also see that the scavengers are no match for Jack, and certainly not for the drones.
At this point, you can probably already tell where this is going, and that is the problem. Had this film been made in the 1950s, Oblivion would be considered pure genius. People would talk about it in the same way they talk about 2001. But it wasn’t. It was made last year. And since the 1950s, this premise has been done to death, and then some. In fact, I think every other episode of The Outer Limits in the 1990s started this way. And from those episodes, we know that things are not as they seem. Indeed, we know that Tom is really working for the bad guys and just doesn’t know it.

Is that what’s happening here? Well, yeah, but there are several more interesting twists I won’t tell you about, like who/what Tom really is and what role Tom had in the initial invasion of Earth. Again, neither point is original, but their inclusion feels surprising enough here that it’s worth not revealing in this review.

As films go, this one wasn’t dull, despite the very thin story. The film is beautiful, even if we are talking about yet another apocalyptic film. There is a lot of tension in the film, coming primarily from the use of space. Specifically, there is a constant sense that Tom lacks the ability to monitor the world around him to ensure that he’s safe whenever he steps out of his helicopter spaceship (a bubble ship). This was very well done to keep you anxious throughout.
The film is good too at dripping out a continuous stream of clues. (Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.) For example, we get Tom having a dream involving a woman. That’s the first sign that something is amiss with Tom, especially as we are told they had their memories wiped for some reason. Who is this woman and what does she mean? And why wipe memories at all? Doesn't that seem suspicious? Interestingly, this dream also shows Tom in New York City before the invasion, which shouldn’t be possible if the invasion happened 60 years ago. So something is already wrong with the story. Then there’s the radiation zones. Radiation doesn’t sit, it travels. So the idea of radiation borders doesn’t make a lot of sense and should tell us that something is amiss with the radiation zones that are meant to keep Tom out of other areas. Then you have the drones, which act like they want to kill Tom. This foreshadows the idea that the drones are hostile to humans... which makes no sense if they were built by humans. Then Tom saves the woman who is his real wife, but again, how could they be the same age if she had been asleep for 60 years.
These clues and the way Morgan Freeman tells Tom to figure things out for himself rather than just telling him what he needs to know keep the movie interesting and keep you excited about solving the puzzle of what is going on. That is more than enough to make this a worthwhile film to watch. It is interesting.

But it also makes the movie worthless in terms of re-watchability. This movie depends entirely on the mystery it builds and the suspense in each individual scene... will they get him or not. And once you know the answer to the mystery and once you know when he’s in danger and when he isn’t, there just isn’t anything left in the film that you want to watch a second time. The story doesn’t resolve itself in a rousing way to make you stand up and cheer, so you can’t revisit the feeling of triumph. The romance is pro-forma and cold, so you can’t fall in love all over again. The film isn’t funny, the dialog isn’t beautiful or surprising. The action scenes aren’t spectacular. The world they create is sparse and uninteresting and not the sort of world that sparks fantasies. All you have is a mystery, a mystery that vanishes once you’ve seen the film.
For a movie like this to stand out after the flood of poor science fiction that pillaged ideas like this and made them all feel derivative, the film needs a second act. It needs Tom to stumble upon a second world to explore, where the story could become more than “wasteland Tom learns the truth.” Or it needs some strong emotional story in which Tom struggles against himself to realize what it means to be human and to do the right thing against real odds – face the impossible choice. Even revealing the past through some sort of flashback story would have helped. It needed something.

So here’s the thing. Nothing about this film is original. In fact, it’s horribly derivative. Nothing about this film is deep or memorable. The film isn’t an enjoyable story that you want to see again, it doesn’t present a world that will pull you in and make you want more, and it doesn’t have characters that you care about. But what it does have going for it is an interesting mystery about what exactly happened. In that regard, I definitely recommend seeing this film... just don’t buy the disc.
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 006 You Only Live Twice (1967)

It has become fashionable to dislike You Only Live Twice. The plot is ridiculous! There’s a volcano lair! How can Bond possibly pass for Japanese? Heck, Connery himself admitted he phoned in the role in this one because he was getting sick of the rock star treatment. Still, for the public at large, this is essential Bond. And frankly, if this film hadn’t proven so strong, then it wouldn’t have been copied again as The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and Tomorrow Never Dies. This film has earned its place at No. 006 of 0023.

Plot Quality: The plot begins well. The story opens with Bond taking a woman to bed in Hong Kong. Some gunmen enter the room and shoot the bed full of bullets. The police appear and announce Bond dead moments later. He gets a burial at sea in full view of the public. Of course, Bond isn’t dead. The idea is to fake Bond’s death so SPECTRE will think he’s dead and turn their attentions elsewhere. And this is a pretty smart way to start the film... only, Bond does nothing to maintain a low profile after this.
Meanwhile, on an American spaceship in orbit, one of the astronauts is doing a spacewalk. This goes off without a hitch, until a mysterious blip appears on their radar. That blip is an unidentified spacecraft which opens up and swallows the American spacecraft. The Americans think the Soviets are behind this, but the British have their doubts. They believe the unidentified spacecraft originated and landed in Japan.

Bond is sent to Japan to investigate. Upon arrival, he is contacted by a woman named Aki. She is an assistant to the leader of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka. Aki introduces Bond to the local MI-6 operative, Henderson (Charles Gray). Gray claims to have proof that a Japanese organization is behind the spaceship hijacking, but before he can share that proof with Bond, he is killed. Bond follows the assassins back to the corporate offices of Osato Chemicals, where a fight ensues and he steals some documents. Bond then flees the scene and is picked up by Aki. Bond is suspicious of Aki and follows her when she flees into the subway. Once there, he falls through a trap door, which takes him to meet Tiger.
Tiger has the documents examined and finds a microdot which indicates that a tourist was killed for taking a seemingly harmless picture of a freighter, the Ning-Po. In light of this, Bond decides to investigate Osato Chemicals by posing as a buyer for a foreign chemical company looking for a license to manufacture. Bond plays cat and mouse with Mr. Osato and then gets chased by thugs. After his escape, he decides to investigate the docks because of the connection to the Ning-Po. There he is captured and taken to Mr. Osato’s secretary Helga Brandt who seduces him and then tries to kill him in a staged plane crash.

Up to now, the plot has been pretty solid. Yes, there are some silly bits, like why Bond wouldn’t know what Tiger looks like or why Osato didn’t just shoot him in his office or why Brandt didn’t just shoot him when she had him tied up. But all told, the story holds together very nicely. Sadly, that is about to change.
Bond decides to investigate the area where the Ning-Po was docked when the photo was taken. To do this, they stage an elaborate wedding, after a training sequence, so Bond can pose as a local fisherman. This feels like padding and its very, very hard to believe Connery could pass as Japanese; nor does it make sense that he would waste time doing this. Bond then discovers that something is strange with a dormant local volcano. Bond investigates and an aerial dogfight takes place between helicopters and Bond in a mini-copter. Then Bond realizes he must take a closer look at the volcano, so he climbs to the top and discovers that the lake in the volcano is fake.

Bond breaks in and discovers a secret base, complete with launch facilities. He tries to get onboard the rocket that is about to launch and gets caught. Then he is taken to the mastermind behind all of this, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence). Pleasence hams it up and tells Bond he’s going to kill him. But just then, Tiger’s ninjas attack the volcano. Pleasence flees. A titanic battle ensues with color-coordinated henchmen. Bond and Kissy (who replaced Aki when she was killed) escape and the film ends with them kissing in a raft.
It’s easy to see why this film is slowly falling out of favor with some people. The film has the travelogue feel we all like and a good deal of action and the first part of the plot is good. BUT, much of the plot ends up being pointless, e.g. why fake Bond’s death if he’s not going to keep a low profile? And unfortunately, once we get to the fishing village, things start going off the rails. For example, the idea that Bond would take time out to perform a fake wedding with only hours left before the next launch is ludicrous. Nor is there any reason for it, i.e. why not just snoop around the normal way? The volcano lair is WAY over the top, though it will become a common feature in these films. Blofeld turns out to be a total moron and coward, which diminishes him a lot. And then you have the Austin Powers effect. Austin Powers parodied the elements at the end of this film so well that it’s made it hard to take the last thirty minutes of this film seriously.

Still, the scene of him following the assassin to Osato Chemicals and doing some spying there is some of the best work in the series. They idea of the hijacked spaceship is extremely cool, even by today’s standards. The stakes are high as the US and Russia are on the verge of going to war over this. And the whole thing really does feel right for a Bond film. Moreover, this is one of the five films they always show in prime time during Bond-a-thons, attesting to its continued popularity. This film has earned its place.
Bond Quality: Connery has claimed that he didn’t take his role seriously in this film, but honestly, Connery at half-speed is better than most of the others at their best. What’s more, Connery puts in a truly awful performance in Diamonds Are Forever, which makes his performance here seem quite normal by comparison, i.e. it’s hard to see this as a poor performance given what he does next. Moreover, Connery’s lack of intensity actually kind of works in this film because it gives his character a sense of calm which makes the unreality of the rest of the plot easier to take. Had he been as serious as he was in Dr. No in this film, he would have felt out of place.

I also wonder, quite frankly, if Connery really did tank his performance as he indicates or if that was simply a self-serving claim for an actor who wasn’t able to handle the pressure of the role? Comparing his performance here to his performance in Diamonds Are Forever, I can’t help but think that Connery really did do his best.
The Bond Girl: The Bond girls here are not a strong suit. Aki is played by Akiko Wakabayashi and she doesn’t stand out. The role is less than challenging and the actress doesn’t add much. In this film, Bond’s relationships with M and Q and Tiger are more important. Aki is replaced by Kissy Suzuki after Aki gets poisoned and I dare you to tell the difference.

The other possible Bond girl is Karin Dor as Helga Brandt, but honestly, she’s a little too old and too, uh, East German to be sexy. She’s barely in the film and when she is, she spends more time letting Bond escape than doing anything constructive.

Villain Quality: Oy vey. I’m a big fan of Donald Pleasence in horror films, but he’s really out of his league as a villain in a Bond film. He plays Blofeld in such a near-cartoonish fashion that he became the obvious choice for Mike Meyers to parody as Doctor Evil. He has none of the menace of the prior Blofeld or Largo or Red Grant or the mathematical precision of Dr. No. He is like Goldfinger’s weaker brother. This is too bad too because Blofeld’s scheme is ingenious.
This is also the first time in a Bond film where you feel like Bond should have died. Various characters in prior films could have killed Bond, but defects in their characters saved Bond, e.g. Grant’s sadistic ego in wanting to see Bond admit Grant was better before he killed him, Dr. No’s arrogance in dismissing Bond as a threat, and Goldfinger’s insecurity in keeping Bond around as insurance. Nothing like that saves Bond here. Blofeld could have shot him dead at several points in this film, but didn’t for no good reason. That hurts this film.

All in all, this is a top Bond film. It has one of the best moments in the franchise in it, the scheme is one of the best, and despite claims to the contrary, Connery does an excellent job as Bond. There are negatives, and the Austin Powers films have parodied those heavily, which may ultimately drag this film down a couple notches. But right now, this film sits where it belongs at No. 006 of 0023.
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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guest Review: The Reader (2008)

by Koshcat

What happens when you find out a monster turns out to be a regular human being? How about if you found out your first love turned out to be a monster? These and other questions came to mind after watching The Reader. I’m going to cheat and link to the Wikipedia description of the plot because I want to focus on other issues related to the movie. I am also only focusing on the movie as I haven’t read the book.

The plot can be found here: The Reader.

Overall it is a good movie but not a great movie. Kate Winslet is very good as Hanna. Her breasts, which you will see a lot, are a little saggier than they were in Titanic but also more realistic. Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael is solid, which is to be expected. I was particularly impressed with David Cross who plays the younger Michael. He seems to have a bright future as an actor.
There are some problems with this movie. For example, why does Michael turn his back on his family, even his siblings? It is never explained and doesn’t make much sense. The elements around Hanna’s suicide are also unclear. She spends much of her life in prison teaching herself how to read. Perhaps this opened her eyes and either she felt her punishment was inadequate or couldn’t live with herself. However, when asked by Michael what she thought about her past, she retorted that “the past was the past” indicating that she never did appreciate her crime. She may have realized by learning to read she will never have the relationship she previously had with Michael. Basically, she finally grew up but then couldn’t deal with being an adult. Although leaving things unsaid or unexplained can make a movie better, I thought these weakened it. I also would have liked to see a stronger relationship between Michael and Professor Rohl. Finally, the situation around the Ilana Mather, the survivor of the concentration camp where Hanna worked, was strange. How did she and her mother survive the church fire? Did someone help or did they just fight to survive. It is never explained. She also seems to have personally succeeded by publishing her experiences and by expiating the deaths of her friends and family where Hanna gained nothing. I’m not sure if the movie was showing us irony or antisemitism.

Metaphors are purposefully used by good authors and directors, although I often wonder how many are purposeful and how many are made up afterwards. A good artist allows you to try to figure that out and this movie has plenty of possibilities. The illiteracy of Hanna could represent generational illiteracy about the Holocaust. The relationship between Hanna and Michael could represent multiple themes: the younger generation’s interested in the wonders of the Nazi regime while being consciously ignorant of it’s evils; the emotional conflict of the younger generation accepting the past; the older generation preferring not to deal with its past sins; the older generation seeking its own pleasure at the expense of the younger (the last could be seen today with the generational shift of money via social security and Medicare to those who control most of the wealth in our country).
The film has its critics, some calling it child pornography. Of note, while Mr. Cross looks and acts young, he was 18 when making the film. The film initially makes the sexual relationship between a teenage boy and an older woman seem wonderful, however, it is clear that Hanna is using Michael’s naivety for her own pleasure. We also get to see a teenage boy become a more confident young man up until she leaves. This whole experience leaves a negative impression on Michael where he seems unable to have healthy relationships with his subsequent lovers, friends, or family.

The more intense criticisms are related to the films overriding themes of the Holocaust and illiteracy. Below are two examples from the Wikipedia entry.
“...you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.”
-Manohla Dargis of The New York Times

“...so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy — despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn't require reading skills — that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it's been declared "classic" and "profound") actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder... Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you're guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it's not shown in the film.”
-Ron Rosenbaum of Slate
These both surprised me because it was as if we saw different films. I don’t think illiteracy was being used as an excuse to forgive the crimes. Illiteracy trapped Hanna into becoming an SS guard. In the movie she is a hard worker but twice she leaves jobs when offered promotions. The one that had the most effect on her life was when she leaves Siemens to join the SS and become a prison guard. In addition, she didn’t use illiteracy to hide her crimes. Instead, she took full responsibility of the crime verses the other defendants who refused to admit any. Perhaps if she could read, she would have never gone down this path in the first place. This leads to a couple bigger issues surrounding Nazi Germany.
How complicit are the regular workers with regard to the Holocaust or other atrocities? It is easy to sit back and criticize these people but in reality what can an individual person do? They are one small cog in a large machine. If she left or refused to perform her duty, she would be killed and easily replaced. This happens in totalitarian regimes. It takes a minimal threshold of individuals to make changes and totalitarian leaders exploit this. To maintain control they brutally make examples of dissidents to keep others in constant fear. To survive, you work hard, keep your head down and your mouth shut.

Hanna has always been a hard worker and didn’t make waves. She wasn’t a hero and didn’t want to be; she only wanted to survive. 300 women were being guarded by six guards, a very difficult task. Their task was to keep the prisoners from escaping, period. This is why a system that encourages liberty and individual rights is so important. Our system in general allows an individual to stand up against atrocities like this and survive. Something liberals either seem to ignore or hate.

The other issue is with regard to forgiveness. If someone has no chance for forgiveness how can she atone for her sins? Do we forgive what the Nazi’s did? Absolutely not as the crime is too great. But can an individual be forgiven if she seeks atonement? I think so although it does depend on the situation. For example, I don’t think there is anything Goring could do to atone for the Final Solution. One important aspect to learn from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is that any one of us could easily end up in the same situation as Hanna. To deny this is being naive and I have history to support my position. The Holocaust isn’t the only or even the worst atrocity to have occurred. We have the Soviet Union, Communist China, Liberia, Rwanda, Darfur, and many others. What Hanna did was wrong and she should be punished. However, she should also have the opportunity for atonement if she seeks it. And I think this is the biggest problem liberals have. Did the US treat Africans and Native Americans poorly? Absolutely, but how long are we to suffer for something that happened before our grandparents were born? And why do liberals seem to have so much trouble admitting to the atrocities of their beloved communists? Crimes of complicity like Hanna’s occur in situations where individual rights are suppressed for the benefit of the whole.

Movies like this allow us to talk about bigger issues. More importantly, and why I think those critics missed the mark, is this movie wasn’t about Hanna. It was about Michael. That’s why it was called The Reader and not The Listener or The Illiterate Nazi Bitch from Berlin. This was Michael’s story of coming to grips with his history and past. It takes Michael most his life, but he seems to finally understand that you can both be disturbed by an atrocity and forgive; that is hate the sin, love the sinner. He also learns that by keeping the history a secret, the next generation won’t learn from it. The possibility of being a “monster” like Hanna resides in all of us but by recognizing this, perhaps we can prevent the next one. This starts by reading, learning, and talking about it.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why I Don't Like Computer-Drawn Cartoons

When it comes to humans, they say that symmetry equals beauty. Actually, they say that near-symmetry equals beauty, but perfect symmetry freaks people out. Therein lies my problem with modern computer animation.

Some time ago, the animation studios all switched from hand-drawn cartoons and animated films to computer generated images. The reason was cost. Though naturally, the studios also claimed this was what people wanted and that the images looked better. I've never liked the computer drawn images. They feel fake to me, which is an interesting thing to say about a cartoon... which is fake by its very nature.

What bothers me though is the lack of imperfection. When characters were hand drawn, it was virtually impossible to create perfect symmetry, especially when drawing something that was spherical in nature. Thus, the images they drew were all believable and real to me because even though they were animated, they had just enough real world asymmetry to feel natural... as if they could be out there somewhere. But in the computer age, all the drawings are mathematically perfect and all that inescapable asymmetry has vanished. Suddenly, the characters are too perfect to be real, as is nature around them.

That said, there have been two instances lately where I have been able to overlook this and not feel bothered by the glaring symmetry. Interestingly, these exceptions proved the point to me because of what makes them unique. The first is Wreck-It Ralph, and the reason the perfect symmetry in Wreck-It Ralph didn't bother me was because this film takes place in the world of videogames. That means that the characters are meant to have an unreal feel to them. Hence, it was easy to overlook the unreality because you expected the characters to look unreal.
The other example was the minions from Despicable Me. Again, these characters are perfectly symmetrical and that makes them look fake when you look at them one on one. What saves them, however, is that the filmmakers tried to make each of them look different. Thus, even though one-on-one they are too symmetrical to look like they really exist, as a group they are fine because the lack of symmetry in the group hides the absolutely symmetry within the characters themselves.

In both instances, the symmetry problem vanished. Few other computer drawn films, however, have similar means of hiding their misguided perfection. That's why I prefer hand-drawn animation, because the imperfection caused by the human hand makes the characters more realistic. It makes them something which can exist in the real world. The perfection which comes with computer drawn images cannot do that. And few animators seem to realize the problem.

Thoughts?
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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Great (film) Debates vol. 106

Villains... boo! Well, not always.

What villain were you supposed to hate, but you could almost kind of maybe see yourself supporting?





Panelist: AndrewPrice

I could probably say Darth Vader in Star Wars actually. He clearly thinks his empire is a good thing and he has to deal with pesky rebel scum who are constantly trying to destroy it. But I'm not saying that. I'm going with Gordon Gekko from the first Wall Street only. Not only is nothing he does actually illegal, but you have to admit he's living an awesome lifestyle and he's making America more competitive. Besides, by Oliver Stone's own rules, Gekko has time to do good things with his money... and thereby make himself into a hero.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Well, I know it is television, but the late Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in Dallas is one of the great, complex, characters of all time. He was, to be sure, a back stabbing rat who would stop at nothing to gain total control of Ewing Oil, and defeat his enemies. But, he did love his extended family, and would stick by them as long as they did not threaten his own quest for power. And when it came enemies of the Ewing family, nobody could spin a trap quite like 'ole J.R.

Panelist: Floyd

Dean Wormer from Animal House. Even a little empathy with someone in charge shows that he was probably right. LOL I hate getting old. By that logic I guess Judge Smails in Caddyshack is also largely correct that the riffraff will (and did) ruin his beloved country club. Supporting doesn't mean "like" though. Now that I think of it, Sgt. Hulka in Stripes is similar. Harold Ramis didn't write a truly detestable villain until Walter Peck in Ghostbusters.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I don’t like the villains! They are so villainous.

Panelist: ScottDS

Man, these questions are getting harder! The first answer that came to mind was General Zod in Man of Steel. He's only doing what he's been programmed to do: restore Krypton's way of life, and if that means the destruction of Earth, so be it. He only wanted what was best for his planet, and some tool in a red cape had to ruin his plans!

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, January 17, 2014

Film Friday: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack the Giant Slayer was considered a box office bomb, as it just about broke even. The critics hated it, giving it a 50% rating. They used words like “one-dimensional,” saying it lacked a good script, and called it “an attempt to cash in on a trend.” Well, I can’t disagree with any of that, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. This film is a throwback to a simpler age, I just wish it had offered a stronger script.
Plot
Directed by Bryan Singer of The Usual Suspects and X-Men, Jack the Giant Slayer is the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” done as an action film. It follows in the questionable footsteps of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman, and it probably draws its roots back to Van Helsing. Unlike these other films, however, it is neither dark nor cynical nor anachronistic.
The story begins with two families telling their children the story of Erik, an ancient king who defeated an army of giants from the sky by crafting a magical crown which compelled the giants to obey. The story is told to Jack, a peasant, and Princess Isabelle, a descendent of Erik. Then we skip ahead ten years. Jack has been sent to town by his uncle to sell his horse. In town, Jack sees a group of turds harassing a young woman and he steps up to defend her. This is Princess Isabelle and moments later Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the Captain of the King’s Guard, arrives to protect her and take her away. Naturally, Jack is smitten.

As Jack continues through town, he runs into a monk who appears to be fleeing the authorities. The monk offers Jack some magic beans in exchange for his horse. He tells Jack that Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) would pay handsomely for their return. The monk then takes Jack’s horse and flees.
Jack returns home to find that his uncle is a tad angry that Jack traded his horse for some worthless beans. He takes the beans and throws them away. Meanwhile, Isabelle has escaped the castle because she doesn’t want to marry Lord Roderick. She takes shelter in Jack’s house because it has begun to rain. When the water from the rain hits one of the beans, it grows into a beanstalk which destroys the house and grows way up into the sky. Isabelle ends up up the stalk.

Back on the ground, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) sends a team up the stalk to rescue his daughter. This team includes Elmont, Jack, Roderick and some others. When they reach the top, they find an entirely different world. This is a world of giants. Soon enough, most of the team is dead or captured. Elmont and Jack find themselves in the kitchen where they are being baked into snacks for the giants. Roderick, however, has gone a different route. He has stolen the magical crown which lets him control the giants and he intends to lead them back down the beanstalk to take over the kingdom. He has also been responsible for killing most of the team.
On the ground, the King decides they need to destroy the beanstalk, even if his daughter remains missing.

I won’t spoil the rest.
Why I Liked This
Let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t a great film by any stretch. The effects are good, but nothing special. The acting is what you expect, but nothing memorable. The dialog is not clever – even the clever bits are obvious. The story is very, very simple. There are no unforeseen twists. There is nothing that isn’t predictable. In short, there’s nothing really to commend this film.

What this film does have though, is a sense of earnestness that makes this fun. There is no cynicism in this film. The bad guy wears a black hat and twirls a mustache, the good guys are pure and chocked full of noble traits, no good guy is secretly bad or must overcome some prior act of evil. The King isn’t stupid or an ass. He loves his daughter. Jack is heroic. Elmont is heroic. And they all rise to the occasion. And not a single character rolls his eye to the audience telling them they view the film as a joke.
Putting this in different terms, this film is a real throwback to the simpler age of storytelling where good and evil are well divided, where you’re not asked “to understand” the villain apart from knowing his motive, where the hero is a hero rather than an anti-hero, and where the world isn’t a dark, nasty place awash in cynicism, corruption and betrayal... nor is this “earnestness” meant sarcastically. This is simply a film that tells a story that is meant to be enjoyed. Moreover, there are no politics here. There’s no attempt to impart some political message about the rich or capitalism or the environment or the plight of peasants, nor is the film politically correct. It’s just a film about some people who end up fighting some giants. That makes for a pleasant, fun film.

It’s too bad this film was let down by its script, and I mean this in two ways. First, it seems clear that with the lack of cynicism, the writer was at a bit of a loss for how to come up with conflict to keep the film moving. Indeed, understanding the structure of modern scripts, you can see the points where the various negative parts usually sit, and in their place here you get characters lamenting that they are incapable of doing anything except waiting, i.e. the writer didn’t fill those parts with non-cynical plot points or conflict. The writer also struggled a bit with how to have Jack earn the respect of others around him; it happens far too quickly and too easily. I think these points are related. Had the writer focused the script more on Jack’s journey from good but stupid farm boy to hero of the Kingdom and stretched this out over the course of the movie, then I think this could have been quite a rousing film. But he didn’t. So instead, you end up with a film that is about moving between set pieces.
Secondly, the script fails for lack of cleverness. Time and again, it feels like the writer chose the line of dialog that was obvious for the moment. The few bits that are truly clever come from the special effects people or some moment in the action. That's not enough. This is the kind of movie that needs to be packed with puns, turns of phrase, and well-earned irony to be memorable, but the writing here simply never offers any of that. Indeed, in this cynical age of ours, where every character is a twisted mess with a secret villainous side waiting to happen and voyeurism can be added to any script to give it punch, a film like this needs more than such a simple and simplistic telling if it’s going to pull in an audience.

So I feel mixed about recommending this film. This is a fun movie, but don’t expect anything that will make an impression on you... but it’s not going to insult you or turn you off either. It is a decent movie and I respect what it was trying to do and I think it’s worth your time if you’re just looking to be entertained, but it never moves beyond that, and that's too bad.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TV Review: seaQuest DSV (1993-1996)

by ScottDS

One thing on Netflix kept me company during finals week: seaQuest, the ill-fated mid-90s sci-fi show that premiered on NBC in September, 1993. It was re-cast several times and even went through a name change in its final season. Watching it now proved to be a fun and interesting exercise, what with the “gritty,” arc-based, post-Lost, post-Breaking Bad world we live in today.

seaQuest was created by Rockne S. O’Bannon, who would later go on to create Farscape. The show chronicles the adventures of the high-tech submarine seaQuest DSV (“Deep Submergence Vehicle”). The seaQuest is operated by the United Earth Oceans Organization (UEO), a world-wide coalition of countries and undersea groups. (Yes, it’s very much like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets and yes, there will be more Trek comparisons!) The show takes place in what used to be considered the far future: 2018. Humans have exhausted all the natural resources in the ground and have now begun mining the ocean floor. The UEO is tasked with patrolling these new colonies, as well as defending their interests from hostile nations. In the pilot, we learn that the UEO has also started to engage in heavy scientific research. Early episodes stress the science/military conflict but it’s mostly much ado about nothing.

Roy Scheider is Captain Nathan Bridger, original designer of the seaQuest. In the pilot, he’s cajoled into assuming command after the ship’s previous captain (played by Shelley Hack) was relieved for disobeying orders... and over-acting. Stephanie Beacham plays Doctor Kristin Westphalen. She and Bridger share a brief romance near the end of the season (yes, not unlike Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher). Jonathan Brandis plays teenage genius Lucas Wolenczak (yes, not unlike Wesley Crusher). The rest of the senior staff consists of sensor officer Ortiz (Marco Sanchez), comm officer O’Neill (Ted Raimi, brother of Sam), engineer Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk), supply officer/comic relief Krieg (John D’Aquino, a.k.a. Seinfeld’s “Todd Gack”), security chief Crocker (Royce D. Applegate), and first officer Ford (Don Franklin).

They give it their all but the three that get most of the attention are Bridger, Lucas, and Westphalen. Scheider’s presence was always appreciated and he comes across as a believable naval officer-slash-father figure. Lucas wasn’t quite as annoying as Wesley Crusher was in early TNG, but “teenage genius” is such a tired trope – hell, it was a tired trope 20 years ago! In the pilot, Lucas demonstrates the vocoder technology that allows the ship’s resident dolphin (Darwin) to talk. This is the one element of the show that most people remember. Technically, the dolphin didn’t “talk” – the vocoder simply translated the noises into language, most of it cryptic. On one hand, it could be a bit of a crutch; on the other hand, Darwin actually came in handy sometimes. TV shows tend to either re-use an idea till it’s no longer dramatic (cough, holodeck)… or they introduce an interesting idea only to forget about it.

As a production of the early 1990s, the show isn’t serialized. A few characters show up more than once and a couple of plotlines are followed up on, but this show was written back in that prehistoric age when a new viewer could randomly tune in and not miss anything. Nowadays, if you were to miss one episode of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, you might as well not tune in again! As critic Daniel Carlson wrote in a recent defense of episodic television: “[…] this isn’t about which type of show is better. There is no inherent ‘better,’ because that assumes that one form automatically trumps the other. But TV doesn’t have to look like any one thing to be great, or even good.” This show is also refreshingly light, for the most part. Things get a little heavy later on but you won’t find any rape scenes or bloody beheadings. It’s not a kids’ show per se, but it’s mostly “safe.” 10-year old ScottDS watched it from day 1!

Also, some of their 21st century predictions were, shall we say, off. This was back when virtual reality was considered the next big thing. Even Michael Crichton suggested (in Disclosure) that we’d read our e-mail, not on a small phone, but while wearing bulky goggles and gloves, manipulating a virtual mailbox or some such retro-futuristic weirdness. Hitchcock operates the ship’s external sensors via virtual reality and it looks quite ridiculous today. Also ridiculous: some characters still have early-90s mullets. As with most depictions of the future (at least on TV), popular culture apparently ended the year the show was made, so all the references are current ones - apparently, no new songs or books or movies exist. The Internet is mentioned (along with it’s dated “information superhighway” moniker) but the idea of social networking and streaming entertainment is nowhere to be found. Oh, and meat is banned, there’s an aircraft carried named the H.R. Clinton, and Colin Powell was president at some point. None of this has happened (yet).

At the end of the first season, the seaQuest is destroyed. The show relocated to Orlando for season 2 and most of the actors over 35 were fired. No more Westphalen, Hitchcock, Krieg, or Crocker. Krieg would return for one episode but none of the other characters were mentioned again, and even the Bridger/Westphalen romance was forgotten. The “younger, sexier” characters brought on board the new seaQuest were security chief Brody (Edward Kerr), chief medical officer Smith (Rosalind Allen), and helm chick Henderson (Kathy Evison, who bears a slight resemblance to an old crush). I think nearly every male character develops a crush on Henderson at some point. Smith, on the other hand, has no chemistry with anyone. Oh, and she’s a telepath (yes, like Counselor Troi).

We also meet two more new characters, both freaks in their own way. Michael DeLuise plays Seaman Piccolo, an ex-con who rebels at first but later tries to better himself. Oh, and he has gills! Michael’s brother Peter DeLuise plays Dagwood, a genetically-engineered life form (GELF, or “dagger”). He serves as the Data character, in which other crewmembers help him make sense of humanity. It was about this point when Scheider started voicing his displeasure at the direction of the show. No more stories of scientific exploration or current events (they even did eco-terrorism); in the second season, we had time travel, aliens, telepaths, killer plants, a killer crocodile, and even an encounter with the Roman god Neptune. I’m not joking! In the season finale, the ship is taken millions of lightyears away to another planet where the crew becomes involved in an alien civil war. Only Lucas, Dagood, and Darwin survive…

…until the third season when the seaQuest and most of her crew mysteriously reappear on Earth… several years later. For this season, the show was re-titled seaQuest 2032 and Michael Ironside was cast as Captain Oliver Hudson, a strict military man. Scheider, who had wanted out, was contractually obligated to guest star in a few episodes. Smith and Ortiz were out, as was Brody half-way through. We find out that, with seaQuest out of the picture for a decade, the bad guys were able to extend their influence, giving rise to the evil “Macronesian Alliance,” presided over by a mustache-twirling Michael York. The Alliance is in bed with the world’s largest evil megacorporation, Deon International, presided over by a mustache-twirling Tim DeKay (White Collar). No more aliens; this season emphasized action, geopolitics, and especially cronyism. (It did NOT emphasize subtlety.) We get one time-travel episode involving the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s kinda like “Yesterday’s Enterprise” but without the nuance, the sense of dread, or the quotable dialogue!

The show was cancelled mid-season after 13 episodes. Watching it today, I think it could’ve kept going, at least one more year. Ironside certainly had presence and there were no doubt plenty of stories that could’ve been told. This show is a classic example of “executive meddling” – taking an intelligent premise and throwing it away for explosions; firing a perfectly good cast to replace them with “young, hipper” characters… the list goes on. The show ranged from mediocre to good, but was rarely, if ever, great. Howard Hawks once said that a good movie consists of "three great scenes, no bad ones." No doubt a similar rule exists for TV. The humor was rarely funny, the ideas rarely thought-provoking in that “wake up at 3:00 in the morning and slap your forehead” kind of way. They never did their “Best of Both Worlds” or their “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – classic sci-fi television that’s still remembered today. Speaking of “Nightmare,” this brings me to…

The Shatner Episode

The only reason seaQuest reappeared on my radar after 15 years was because a friend of mine – who had never watched the show – decided he wanted to check out the episode “Hide and Seek” because it guest starred William Shatner. Needless to say, this episode needs to be talked about. I’d love to host a panel at Comic-Con dedicated to it! Shatner plays Milos Tezlov, an ousted Serbo-Croat dictator (!), recently escaped from UEO custody. Shatner doesn’t speak with any kind of accent, but we know he’s evil because he has a mustache. At the same time, Darwin the dolphin starts appearing in everyone’s dreams, including Teslov’s. Teslov has visions of seaQuest and it turns out Darwin can help his mute son talk again. Or something.
I’ve watched this episode three times now and it makes no sense!! To paraphrase Ed Wood, it’s “stupid, stupid, stupid!” We never find out why Darwin appears in dreams at this particular time and it’s never mentioned again. Shatner gets around way too easily, considering he’s public enemy #1. (Imagine bin Laden just showing up in your backyard one day.) Westphalen is held hostage along with a scientist, Malcolm Lansdowne. Lansdowne is played, not by an actor, but by the writer of this episode. I’m sure he’s talented, and they try setting up a love triangle between them and Bridger, but: a.) this guy isn’t that good an actor, and b.) he’s just a… schlub!! And I kid you not, Shatner delivers the following three lines of dialogue with a straight face:
“Bloodshed follows me like a wedding train.”
“I am a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler.”
“I want your dolphin!” (he later refers to Darwin as “My dear mammal”)
Yeah, that happened. At the end of the day, my friend and I had a lot of laughs. Like I said above, the show could be good but just wasn’t great. I don’t see seaQuest ever coming back in any form and, unlike other 90s sci-fi shows like Babylon 5 or The X-Files, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of thriving fanbase. Despite a line of action figures, a couple of video games, and model kits, history will most likely consider seaQuest a footnote next to Earth 2 and M.A.N.T.I.S.

And now, the unfortunate epilogue: Roy Scheider died of natural causes in 2008. Jonathan Brandis committed suicide in 2003. He was only 27. Royce D. Applegate (Crocker) died in a house fire in 2003. He was only 63.
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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Toon-arama: Avatar: The Last Airbender

by Kit

"You know, Prince Zuko, destiny is a funny thing. You never know how things are going to work out. But if you keep an open mind and an open heart, I promise you will find your own destiny someday." —General Iroh

If you asked me a year ago what the greatest animated series was I would have answered affirmatively the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Today, while Batman holds a special place in my heart, I would have to go with Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show raised the standard of animated television by giving viewing audiences great stories, writing, characters, voice acting, and animation.

First, a disclaimer: this show has nothing to do with either James Cameron's 2009 feature-length movie Avatar or with the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan adaptation of this cartoon series.
Story
Avatar is best described as your typical funny Saturday morning action-adventure cartoon but with an epic story-arc on the scale of the original Star Wars trilogy or The Lord of the Rings. This is attested by the fact that each season of the three seasons are referred to as "Books" with Season 1 being called Book 1: Water. The overall story was planned from the get-go having the occasional alterations and/or additions as the show moved on, none of which damaged or changed the basic integrity of where the show was heading.
The show is set in a fantasy world of four countries, each of which is based on the four elements, they are the Fire Nation, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads. In each country there are people capable of "bending" their community's particular element to their will called "Benders". Waterbenders can "bend" water by causing it to levitate, create waves, etc., earthbenders can levitate dirt or stone and throw it or create walls, airbenders can turn the air into a huge gust of wind, and firebenders can create flames and throw them at opponents (firebenders are the only ones capable of creating their element out of nothing, the rest must rely on what is present). Now, a bender can only bender his or her element, but there is one exception to this rule: the Avatar, a person capable of bending all four elements and charged with keeping the four elements in balance and is capable of entering his "Avatar State", where he becomes near all-powerful but is also a danger to those around him. The Avatar is born in every lifetime, reincarnated after his or her death, resulting in a Dalai Lama-style search after the death of each Avatar.

When the show begins we are told that once the four countries lived peacefully together until the Fire Nation began a war with the other four tribes 100 years ago and the most recent Avatar, an airbender, was nowhere to be seen.
Then we meet two siblings, Sokka, a young man who has taken over hunting for the Southern Water Tribe since his father left with the rest of the men to fight in the war, and his sister Katara, a waterbender. On a hunting trip finding the most recent Avatar, a young boy named Aang and his flying sky-bison in a block of ice. Aang, Katara, and Sokka decide set off for the Northern Water Tribe so that Aang can learn waterbending from the masters living there. They must do this while evading Zuko, a scarred and banished Fire Nation Prince who hopes he can "reclaim his honor by capturing the Avatar" and is being helped and mentored by his uncle Iroh. And that is just season 1.

Each of the 3 seasons has its own story arc that moves things closer to the finale. The first season is called "Water", during which Aang must learn Waterbending on a journey with two Water Tribe siblings Sokka and Katara, the 2nd is "Earth", where Aang travels across the Earth Kingdom to learn how to earthbend as well as meeting fan favorites Toph, a blind earthbender, and Azula, Zuko's borderline sociopath sister. The final season is called "Fire" where Aang and the rest of the group must secretly enter the Fire Nation so he can learn the art of firebending and hopefully bring an end to the war by defeating Fire Lord Ozai. The result is a mind-blowing climax that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest TV finales of all time. Still, the key to the show's success is the characters.
Characters
To be successful, a family show must have characters you want to spend time around. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect little angels (who wants to spend time with those?) but they need to be likable and enjoyable enough to bring the short attention spans back next week. In this Avatar succeeds brilliantly. Nearly all of the principle young characters are likable and enjoyable. Even the villains, such as Azula, who may not be likable per se, are compelling. The reason for this is that these characters have depth far beyond what you would expect from a normal children's show or even most "adult" shows. Yet the show never dwells in their angst. In fact, rather than punctuating the drama with humor and action, it punctuates the humor and action with drama and as a result even the most brooding character, Zuko, never gets annoying because the angst and brooding are not the emphasis of the show.

Moreover, the show provides us with this depth through the character's actions and, sometimes, through humor, rather than exposition. And the show can be very funny at times. The most obvious example of the show's use of humor to bring out depth would be when the evil and power-mad Fire Princess Azula tries to sweet-talk a handsome boy at a party. Azula's typical M.O. is operating from a position of power using threats and, if necessary, using her incredible firebending abilities, abilities which make her a truly dangerous villain. But when she has to actually woo a guy at a beach party with charm and nice words… she bombs. Big time.
But the humor in that scene is not purely mean-spirited. While there is some schadenfreude in seeing the evil Azula taken down a peg, we also chuckle because most of us have been in similar awkward situations. The scene also teaches us about her character. As I stated above, her usually M.O. is to use threats and walk around like she owns the place. But at the Beach Party, because she is attending as a normal Fire Nation citizen, she cannot play up her position as fire Princess or use the threat of firebending to coerce others. Therefore, she blows every social encounter and the result is we learn something about her: Princess Azula has difficulty relating to others on an equal level and is possibly very lonely and insecure, perhaps trying to cover for them by threatening and ordering others about.

Many shows might have had her give a brooding speech about her problems. This show relays all of that information in a few awkward social situations that, combined with everything we've seen about her so far, giving us a far more compelling portrait of a villain who is truly multi-layered. More importantly, it’s subtle. Not that any of this means she will be redeemed but the added depth makes the character more interesting than a simple hammy, over-the-top bad-guy.

By giving each character, even the villains, at least some degree of depth, the show is able to have some of the most fascinating and engaging characters in animated history. And then the show allows its characters to grow and mature over the three seasons. Indeed, none of characters ends at the same emotional place were they began, and just about every character must deal his own fears, doubts, and insecurities however small or large those problems may be. And how they confront, or refuse to confront, those problems is what tell us who they really are underneath. Nowhere is this more clear than in the story arc of Prince Zuko, who is constantly forced to confront the question of who he is and what kind of person he will be.
Animation
The animation is also top-notch. The action scenes are fun and well done and the show is drawn beautifully with stunning backdrops and brilliantly uses its colors to create atmosphere and mood. The first season, featuring Aang's quest to learn waterbending, is largely bright, appropriately with a lot of bright blues thrown in. Only sporadically getting straying from light until the bittersweet finale where the show's first major character death (sort of) occurs and the colors get very dark with lots of deep navy blues thrown in. The 2nd season is mostly greens and browns to reflect Aang's journey in the Earth Kingdom. The lighting here, while darker than season 2 is not that dark as things still look up, at least until the end where you have lots of black and dark greens. The third season, the darkest and packed with the most character development, features lots red and black reflecting the dire straights the heroes are in and the emotional tension as they move to the show's climax, which is gorgeously animated on a level that rivals the best Disney movies.
The Rest
I touched on the humor but more must be said. The show has some gut-busting moments in it with jokes that form the characters. They even manage to make the jokes referencing pop culture work within the world they built whether its a WWF-style Earthbending fight or a group of waterbending hillbillies in a swamp.

The voice acting is great too. Both the child and adult actors deliver fine performances. Special mention must go to Grey Delisle (Daphne Blake since 2001) for her performance as Azula, the late Mako (Adm. Yamamoto in Pearl Harbor) for Iroh, and Dante Basco (Rufio, from Hook) playing Prince Zuko. The latter two prove beyond a doubt that the failure of the award-bestowing elite to recognize voice acting in any way is an unforgivable slight. The individual episodes are well-written as well with stories that run the gamut of drama and comedy.
The Flaws, Real and Possible
The only major flaws are, one, that the stories in the first season are hit and miss and, two, the jokes do not start getting funny until season 2. But most shows often have trouble in their first season and, given how amazing season 2 and 3 were, these sins are forgiven as the people behind the show eventually are able to find their footing and deliver.

Some conservatives may not like the heavy use of Eastern philosophy in the show and there are some occasional environmental messages but only in one episode did it move close to the anti-humanism so often seen today in the Environmentalism of the left where Aang finds a group of people living in an abandoned Air Nomad Temple and is upset by what their additions to it (lots of steam pipes). By the end of the episode, however, he is at peace with it saying that he is happy that someone else could make it their home... that’s not exactly Captain Planet. The other environmental moments are few and far between and deal only with issues most conservatives would agree with like not dumping lots of pollution into a fishing bay thereby depriving them of the right to clean water.
Conclusion
Avatar is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and is also among my favorites, ranking right behind Firefly and Doctor Who. Very few live action shows are as good as Avatar. This show aired on Nickelodeon so if you're expecting dark and gritty, stay away. But, if you want a television show with great writing, great animation, great humor, and great characters then check it out.
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