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May 12, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Boldly Gone

Torie Atkinson at Tor notes that the new Star Trek movie is a pretty good action flick, but it's really bad Trek:

Nero's just seen his entire planet destroyed, yet when he goes back in time he utterly wastes the chance to change things. Why on earth does he not get his ass straight to Romulus, tell them about that supernova thingawhatsit that's gonna happen in the future, and give them some of his technology to plan for the eventuality? No, he's a boilerplate villain hellbent on a boilerplate revenge plot.

...There are Big Issues tossed around, but they're not explored in any meaningful way. The destruction of Vulcan is only there to make Spock emote--there's no hint as to what this means for anyone else, including humanity, the Federation, or the future. Nero annihilates his cousin race. The implications are astounding and interesting and never engaged with at all. We're talking about full-scale genocide. If you can't address that idea beyond 'It makes someone sad,' then you shouldn't be using it in your film.

Atkinson also, as you'd expect from a geeky sci-fi blog, points out a whole host of science-related plot holes. And although it's tempting to dismiss that kind of complaint as nerd nitpicking, particularly given Trek's non-reputation for scientific accuracy, there is a deeper point to be found there. Here's the thing: when the writers in the original series threw another minute of 'technobabble' onto the page to cover up a blatant last-minute deus ex, it was entirely in keeping with the earnestness of the show as a whole. It sprang from the same source as the preachiness that sometimes overwhelmed it. Fans mock its silliness, but there's also fondness there, since it meant the writers were still trying to say something.

Star Trek could be a painfully sincere program, a tendency that only got worse with TNG. It had faith in people, in progress, in technology, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. The technobabble was a part of that sincerity--sure, it said, we're just papering over the cracks in this episode's premise, but we refuse to let it slip by. We'll even draw attention to it with a jarring, pseudotechnical expository speech, that's how deeply and awkwardly we've bought into Roddenberry's vision of the future: one that might still have contemporary problems--racism, the Cold War, William Shatner--but can overcome them with a little human ingenuity and logic.

In the new Star Trek movie, they don't bother with the technobabble. Magical plot black holes created with 'red matter?' Scotty's transporter formula that can somehow hit a spaceship in warp from light-years away? (One wonders why anyone bothers with the ship in the first place, then.) Time travel that's a paradox only when the script demands it? Taming the franchise's runaway explanation habit was probably a good idea, but Abrams takes it too far in the other direction. It's just lazy: trying to get to the next action scene while avoiding any of the pesky social commentary (no matter how outdated) or sincere moralizing of the original. It's thrown away the heart and soul of the show for the sake of streamlining.

It's a pretty good movie. But it's not really Star Trek.

March 25, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

Review: The Machine Girl

Noburo Igichi's The Machine Girl is basically what you'd get if Peter Jackson had sat down with revenge-epics Oldboy and Kill Bill instead of a bunch of slasher flicks before making Dead Alive. Like Jackson's classic gross-out horror comedy, The Machine Girl is low-budget, outrageously gory, and perfectly cast. And if it never reaches quite the same heights ("I kick ass for the Lord!"), it's also far more consistent and doesn't suffer from the dragging pace of its predecessor.

Warning: trailer may contain both spoilers and awesomeness.

Without spoiling things too much, The Machine Girl is about a student named Ami whose brother is killed by the son of a local Yakuza boss. Ami tries to take revenge, but loses an arm in the process. She's taken in by the parents of her brother's friend (also murdered), who join her in her quest for vengeance by constructing a prosthetic chaingun arm. Ultraviolence, and no small amount of stupidity, ensues.

I hesitate to say that it's a good movie. But then, to call something like The Machine Girl "good" is to miss the point. This is gleefully juvenile, not high cinema: it's Takashi Miike without the class, early Sam Raimi without the playfulness. At one point, someone is stabbed in the neck so hard that they spit out their intestines. If you can handle that, and if you finished the trailer with a stupid grin on your face, you'll probably enjoy it. But like Dead Alive or Miike's less artful outings (Gozu, for example), it's definitely not for everyone.

March 20, 2009

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Nothing but the Rain

Tonight the very last episode of Battlestar Galactica will run its course, closing out what may have been one of the greatest science fiction shows ever to run on television--dark, unpredictable, and surprisingly well-acted. I'll miss it, but I'm glad it's going out on its own terms.

BSG has always been driven by twin engines of character and crisis. It is, as I wrote once, a show about constantly ratcheting up the pressure on its protagonists in new and interesting ways. Eventually, everyone either cracks or is compressed into their core, like Saul Tigh standing up to declare that "Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that's the man I want to be. And if I die today, that's the man I'll be." The writers have not always been successful at this dynamic--Lee Adama's fat suit period, for example--but they've hit the mark more often than not, with devastating results.

Along the way, they've also managed some impressive social commentary. The show has addressed both sides of insurgency, talked about waterboarding and torture, discussed abortion, been called chauvinist and defended as feminist. There have been episodes about vengeance, abuse of power, and reconciliation. And surprisingly, few of them have tried to wrap the issues up in a bow for the viewer. BSG is comfortable with moral ambiguity in a way that most television sci-fi has never achieved. The UN even held a panel this week about the show, albeit using it as a way to introduce the students in attendance to the important issues that international government faces.

I have to note one of my favorite parts of that panel, when Eddie Olmos channels Admiral Adama for a passionate rant on racism and human rights:

...I detest what we've done to ourselves. Out of a need to make ourselves different from one another, we've made the word 'race' a way of expressing culture. There's no such thing--and all you high school students, bless your heart for being here. You're a hundred champions right now that are gonna go out understanding this. The adults in the room will never understand it. Even though they'll nod their heads and say 'you're right,' they'll never be able to stop using the word 'race' as a cultural determinant.

I just heard one of the most prolific statements, done by one of the great humanitarians [gestures to Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], he's really trying to organize and bring us together, and he used the word race as if there is ... an Asian race, an indigenous race, a caucasian race, or a Latino race. There's no such thing as a Latino race. There never has been. There never will be. There's only one race, and that's what the show brought out. That is the human race. Period.

Now, the pressure comes, why did we start to use the word race as a cultural determinant? The truth is that over 600 years ago, the caucasian 'race' decided to use it as a cultural determinant so it'd be easier for them to kill another culture. That was the total understanding. To kill one culture from another culture. You couldn't kill your own race, so you had to make them the Other. And to this day, I spent 37 years of my adult life trying to get this word out, and now I end up well-prepared, as the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica, to say it to all of you:

There is but one race, and that is it. So say we all!

At that point, the gallery literally erupts with people shouting "So say we all!" It's a tremendous moment. And it is impressive that any television show, much less a show on the (temporarily) Sci Fi channel, could inspire that kind of discussion and passion for social justice.

Leading up to this final episode, the pace may have lagged a little. Personally, I've always enjoyed BSG's willingness to mess with its audience by killing off characters or radically rearranging the setting. There was talk at one point, during the writing strike, that the show might have ended with the episode that became the middle of this season: humans and cylons landing on Earth together, only to find an uninhabitable, radioactive wasteland. I still kind of wish they'd done that.

But I'm glad they're getting a chance to wrap things up, and also that they're quitting while they're ahead, relatively speaking. With a show like this, the worst thing that could happen would be to drag it on for another four or five seasons. It's definitely better to go out with some kind of plan, instead of a whimper and a cancellation notice. So grab your gun and bring in the cat.

Boom boom boom.

March 17, 2009

Filed under: movies»commentary»croooow

Downstream: Antibody

The problem with deciding to liveblog the worst of Netflix's streaming selection, I suspect, is going to be finding movies that make for bad viewing but good commentary. The films need to be sincerely bad, not intentionally campy (the Troma Films canon) or pre-parodied (Kung Fu Mummy, Vampire Dentist). Like Transmorphers, they should mean every awful minute, because it's harder to mock a movie that already has a sense of humor about itself. I'm also hoping to avoid (for now, at least) direct-to-video sequels and "collection"-style films, which sadly means I will have to hold off on Adam West's Tales from Beyond. (All of those are real films. I am not making this up.)

Eventually, I'm sure one of these things will end up a total dud due to the above factors, or simply because it's so bad that it's literally not funny. But I have high hopes for tonight's viewing choice: Antibody stars Lance Henriksen in a rehash of Fantastic Voyage--but instead of saving a scientist, they're hoping to... well, we'll see.

0:00 As required by law, the titles are a combination of A) Helvetica with gratuitous Outer Glow Filter, and B) computer-generated X-rays.
0:02 FBI Agent Gains (Henriksen) arrives at the Russian consulate, where a bomb has been planted. He berates the cop for the small perimeter that's been set up, then asks for everything within a two-mile radius to be evacuated. I'm not sure what kind of bomb causes destruction for only two miles around, but I'm sure he knows what he's doing.
0:04 "Where's your vest?" asks the cop on duty. Gains says he doesn't need a vest, because he gets the big ones, by which I assume he means the bombs. "If this goes off, bring in a mop." A two-mile wide mop, I guess.
0:05 Gains opens up the bomb by somehow figuring out the code on one of those old Nokias they used to give away with a basic contract, then figures out its cunning laser tripwires with the ol' cigarette smoke trick. The filmmakers must have been disappointed that they couldn't get Richard Dean Anderson for this part.
0:07 Airport security calls: the terrorist has been found, probably because he's holding a huge detonator and singing loudly in some Eastern European language. "Take him out," Gains says. This is a bad idea, because apparently killing him sets off the bomb. For great justice.
0:11 According to fake TV news footage, Henriksen's character is actually named "Gaynes." So sue me, I'm not fixing it.
0:12 Gaynes faces an investigatory committee. He can't explain why his actions were negligent, he testifies, because the evidence is top secret. And who classified it? Gaynes himself. Ha-HA! Take that, irony!
0:13 It turns out that the detonator our Russian terrorist was waving around was entirely fake--the real detonator was a nano-scale electrocardiogram inside his body! "We both know what this means," says Gaynes. That the terrorist is the designer of the cell phones in Zoolander? That there are no small parts, only small terrorists? That you maybe shouldn't have had them shoot the guy? Henriksen doesn't elaborate.
0:14 ONE YEAR LATER: MUNICH, GERMANY. No, no, hang on! Tell us what "this" means first! Don't leave us hanging!
0:15 They leave us hanging. Instead, we get an incredibly awkward conversation with Gaynes's inexplicably Russian daughter, followed by an encounter with a journalist hunting for a story on the anniversary of the bombing. Gaynes is now running a security firm, and after some light banter he revokes her press pass for the tech summit he's coincidentally handling. Never mess with people who buy ink by the barrel, my friend. Or fictional American news networks ("ANN"). It never ends well.
0:18 Two terrorists drive by the summit in a disguised van. One turns to the other and snarls "Destiny is ours!" in the same tone of voice that most people would use to order a cheeseburger. And then they ruin the journalist's shot by driving behind her. Well, that'll teach her to set up in a driveway, honestly. Mr. Destiny almost shoots the reporter for catching them on tape, but the second terrorist stops him because "it'll be over before they can review the tape." Remember this.
0:20 As the summit begins, the terrorists take up positions in the kitchen, where they begin their villainous plan: heating the lobster bisque, and then shooting the cook when he complains. I'd like to see that on Top Chef.
0:24 Even though you've seen this in about a million sub-par thrillers, Gaynes appears to have missed the kitchen in his security plan, allowing the terrorists to bring in their big, obvious AK-47s and take the summit hostage. The terrorists force the German chancellor outside and--you still remember the camera-shy bit from earlier, right?--shoot him in front of a small crowd and demand a camera crew.
0:26 Proving he has his priorities straight, Gaynes calls his daughter (who is at the airport in Chicago) to tell her to cancel her flight to Munich. You know, it takes what, 16 hours to fly from Chicago to Germany? I think he could have delayed that call. Especially since...
0:26 ...the formerly-reclusive terrorist leader takes over the ANN news broadcast, announces his real name to the world, and states that there's a nuclear device in the city that he'll detonate if his demands are not met. It could just be me, but I think they'd probably divert international flights in that situation.
0:28 "What would you say to critics who call you a bloodthirsty lunatic?" asks the reporter. Not the follow-up I would have picked.
0:29 Inside the building, Gaynes remains unmolested in the security office. Even though it's perfectly light inside the building, they switch to infrared cameras, which in this movie are monochrome green. Gaynes and his staff decide to take out everyone except the ringleader, Moran, who is identified by his "inner peace." What follows is the worst. Counterterrorism. Ever. A lot of people are shot, and Moran is wounded.
0:31 Luckily, Dr. Theodore Bichall was at the conference, and he's an expert on a new miniaturization procedure being prototyped at a top-secret German research lab. Clearly, their best hope is to shrink down and remove the detonator--not, you know, stabilize the patient while they locate the bomb or anything like that. Because that would just be crazy.
0:34 Dr. Saverini, one of the researchers, raises the valid point that they should try microsurgery instead of miniaturization. Bichall shoots this down, insisting that they can't operate if they don't know where the detonator is. And the best way to find it, obviously, is with a tiny submarine. We also meet the other two team members, Julio and Natalia, who are adorably dim and ethnic.
0:36 Before entering the body, though, everyone has to be disinfected, which means everyone's favorite science fiction trope: naked airlock strobe lights! Thankfully, we are spared naked Henriksen footage. Gaynes also gets a phone call from his second-in-command, who does in fact confirm that air traffic has been rerouted to CDG. Take that, continuity!
0:40 The submarine, named the Helix, bears a suspicious resemblance to the sets from Alien, and seems much bigger than it looked from outside. Gaynes gets a tour of the heavily-armed shuttles/escape pods. But I'm sure they won't need those.
0:43 We have shrinkage!
0:46 I have to say, Lance Henriksen doesn't phone this in. It's a badly-written, silly role, but he sells it as much as he can, reacting to some patently unscientific dialog about white blood cells and blood vortices. Somehow, despite all odds, Gaynes doesn't get that the crew's references to "whites" is about the immune system. Maybe he thinks that Moran is filled with tiny skinheads or something.
0:52 Having made it through the heart, the Helix now enters the Exposition gland.
0:55 "Do you ever wish we could tell people what we do?" mourns Natalia. Julio takes the opportunity to make an XFL joke. All five people who remember the XFL laugh. I guess better topical humor was out of their budget. Gaynes and Saverini flirt a little, including the phrase "Brad Pittiful." I'm very uncomfortable right now.
1:00 To get from the abdomen to the brain as fast as possible, they run a shunt outside of the body. So I guess the shortest distance between two points is a long curve? Once in the brain, the Helix is attacked by white blood cells, and the crew mans the guns. Yes: shooting lasers around inside someone's brain does seem like a good way to keep them alive. Sadly, Natalia is killed when she takes a shuttle out, but not before admitting her utterly predictable love for Julio.
1:06 Bichall draws the white blood cells away from the ship by injecting blood from someone with a cold. Injecting it directly into the brain through the jugular. This plan seems completely consistent with modern medical knowledge.
1:07 "I could have disarmed the Big Bang in twenty-four minutes." Ooh, baby. Talk relativistic to me.
1:09 Why is it, on b-movie spacecraft, every door has a combination lock? What designer thought it was a good idea for emergency personnel to have to punch in a code when moving around the ship?
1:13 Just as Gaynes is stumped on the detonator problem, his daughter calls from Paris--where another bomb has been planted! This is otherwise known as "end justifies the means" continuity: decisions by characters that don't make any internal sense until information is revealed that they couldn't possibly have known.
1:16 The code to disarm the bomb turns out to be "disarm" in direct numerical code (4, 9, 19, 1, etc.). No, wait: it's actually "disarm" in Spanish! No, wait: it's actually the sum of the numbers! No, wait: it's lucky number 777! It's a good thing the terrorists put big, easily-identifiable number codes all over the circuit-board.
1:21 At the moment of truth, Julio is killed by a rogue skin mite. A skin mite swimming around in the brain. Take a moment to savor that one. It almost kills Saverini, but she's rescued by Gaynes, and they escape into a needle that Bichall has inserted into the brain via Moran's neck (again). This plot point seems entirely consistent with modern medical knowledge.
1:25 There's just enough time for some more awkward flirting before the pair is restored to full size. We close with Gaynes meeting his daughter at CDG in Paris. "You look a little taller," she says. I've got one word for you, lady: lifts.

Arbitrary final rating: 2 out of five brain-dwelling skin mites.

February 17, 2009

Filed under: movies»commentary»croooow

Downstream: Transmorphers

Ah, Netflix streaming. Originally a neat idea that I used once in a blue moon, now a feature that I would miss dearly if the XBox decided to go belly-up once again. Its selection has grown much more mature recently, including such films as No Country for Old Men, El Orfanato, and several seasons of Macgyver.

But what about the other side of the Netflix Instant Queue, the side that features such dubious entertainments as Species 4, Excessive Force II, or (I kid you not) Womb Raider? Someone has to watch these things. And since I love bad cinema with the force of a thousand Mansquito jokes, it might as well be me. For your vicarious amusement, please enjoy the following notes.*

To kick things off, we're going to start with Transmorphers. "Wait," you might ask. "You mean the ill-advised Michael Bay adaptation of a beloved merchandising scheme from the '80's?" I wish. No, this is far worse: a similarly-named cash-in published just in time to benefit from confusion at the retail counter, especially given its strikingly familiar DVD box art. This is going to be great.

0:00 Let's all thank Starz Play for bringing this fine film to us, and reminding us that it is, in fact, rated "adult" for violence. I think this only highlights our societal need for much more creative rating systems.
0:01 We open with a voice-over saying that mankind sent out a message of peace to the universe. Five years later, they received their response: an asteroid shower made of substandard CGI.
0:02 Techno credits!
0:04 From their undergound bunker, the humans pick up readings of advancing robots. In response, they're going to deploy a set of very generic marines, an electromagnetic device, and some astonishingly poor line readings.
0:06 "What about those brainscans we hear about?" Oh, my friend. I don't think you have anything to worry about.
0:08 It should be noted that Transmorphers was "written, directed, and edited by Leigh Scott." Scott also has writing/acting credits in Wolfsbayne and The 9/11 Commission Report, making him the poor man's Uwe Boll--something I don't say lightly.
0:11 The marines storm into the outside world, which looks like an empty construction lot with a bad strobe light infestation. One of them begins to spasm, with a bad nosebleed. Either the brainscan is real, or the fake lightning triggered his epilepsy.
0:13 Elapsed time to "It's a trap!" - 13 minutes.
0:14 The marines are slaughtered by giant robots, mostly from offscreen. One robot does kind of turn into a tank. So, you know, transmorphing achieved.
0:16 One man! Could lead! This mission! And that man is named: Warren Mitchell. But is he too radical? People in leather clothes debate this for a little while, and then eventually thaw him out of cryostorage. You know what I always wonder? When mankind goes into the underground bunkers in these movies, where do they keep getting their cotton t-shirts and animal skin? Or their eyeliner, for that matter?
0:19 Mitchell is inexplicably British. He asks to have "Walker" and "Itchy" on his team. The administrators are understandably reluctant to revive people with nicknames like that, but eventually agree to thaw out one of them. Of course, since we're informed in earlier dialog that Walker didn't make it through the freezing, it seems kind of pointless to quibble over poor Itchy.
0:23 "He hasn't changed a bit," complains the general. Well, he was frozen, after all.
0:24 In an unexpected--seriously!--twist, the (female) general tells Mitchell to "stay away from 'her'" because they (the general and the person to be avoided) were married three months after he went into cryosuspension. Said wife (who turns out to be one of the bickering leather-wearers from earlier discussion) immediately goes and joins Mitchell's commando team. This will go well, I'm sure.
0:27 Mitchell provides a pep talk to his squad--and by pep talk, I mean that he orders them to attack him, and then beats up on them for either hesitating or for attacking him. As a management technique, it's probably less than effective, but it's still better than making the team read "Who Moved My Cheese?"
0:31 A scientist in a jumpsuit and blue-tinted glasses outlines a plan for destroying the robot computer system via their fuel cell. It's kind of hard to pay attention to him, since there's a woman next to him dressed like Ulala. She has no dialog or apparent purpose, except to distract the viewer from the scientist's tortured exposition. It goes without saying that this is the movie's high point.
0:35 There's some generic political intrigue, leading up to a shrill, pointless shakycam fight between the women soldiers. Two steps forward, about a million steps back. The director uses the fresh editing technique of splitscreen cuts, making this like something like 1968's Thomas Crowne Affair, but without the jazzy score, Steve McQueen, or a sense of shame.
0:40 The general and her wife share a tearful farewell, and then Mitchell's squad prepares to deploy. Their method for countering the brainscan, according to Itchy, is to count backward from one hundred. Science fiction writers everywhere are kicking themselves for not thinking of that one.
0:44 The transmorphers attack, looking suspiciously like leftover assets from the Journeyman Project games, although (like all great b-movies) the firefight features sound and visual effects stolen from Doom. It always gives me flashbacks to the mod scene of the mid-nineties.
0:48 One robot steals Itchy's girlfriend, and the general's wife swoops off after her using a jetpack ripped directly off the back of a downed robot. I don't think that's how technology actually works. The marines destroy the remaining robots using (I kid you not) exploding frisbee grenades. The physics of that may be questionable, but even worse, imagine the sad consequences if these guys get confused while packing for a trip to the beach.
0:49 Back at the battleground, scientists in a tent open up the robot and find a mixture of old car parts, red jello, and cotton cobwebs. Mitchell tells them to leave it behind in order to go look for the missing squad members "with guns blazing." End result: the mission fails, the wife remains lost, and no robot computers are hacked. Promotions all around!
0:55 Even though there's a tracking device in every robot, the marines bring one back to base anyway. This gives the scientist a chance to deliver some more exposition, perform surgery with a cordless drill, and then kill the cyborg parts of the robot, thus leading the enemy directly to human HQ. Who's in charge of training here, Gaius Baltar?
0:58 Leigh Scott may have many talents, but ADR sync is not one of them. As the scientist explains the shocking plot twist (his first android was--gasp--Mitchell himself!), you can almost fool yourself into thinking that it's pretty good for a German dub.
1:01 For added comedic effect, Scientist Character proves that Mitchell is a a secret android by twisting his arm offscreen, triggering the Doom "airlock door" sound effect. It goes without saying that this is the movie's high point.
1:03 They plug the fuel cell into Mitchell using a pair of uncomfortably bulky acupuncture needles, and then it's off for the final fight scene. In a surprise move, the robots launch an aerial attack--surprising, because they've done that in every fight scene so far.
1:07 Mitchell and his team drop in via flying snowmobiles. At this point, it's still not the stupidest thing I've seen. "Do you know how to fly those things?" asks the scientist. "No." says Mitchell. Dude, it's a snowmobile. Nobody knows how to fly one.
1:10 By now, the human forces have deployed a bunch of fighter aircraft from big Bond-villain hanger doors, as well as some giant EMP satellite dishes. We clearly have different ideas of "secret underground hideaway."
1:11 Elapsed time to "Noooooooooo!": One hour, 11 minutes.
1:14 Mitchell's commando team lands and enters the transmorpher mainframe. But--surprise--it changes into a giant robot! Bet you didn't see that coming. Clearly, this is the movie's high point.
1:16 Funny thing about the transforming robots in this movie: they don't have any actual reason to transform. So, for example, a giant robot carrying a howitzer will turn itself into... a tank with a howitzer, which it then fires. Uh, sure. Because you know, a giant robot with a gun is much more ridiculous.
1:19 Inside the tower/robot, Mitchell manages to get past its defense system, which is based on biological sensors instead of something sensible, like motion trackers or infrared. They're clearly working off the Evil Overlord theory of security. He sacrifices himself to shut down the transmorpher network, causing a lot of robots to fall over. We're not shown what happens to the ones currently shaped like tanks. Maybe they turned back into robots, then fell over.
1:20 Time for a victory montage! You might think that's the best part. You'd be wrong: over the end credits, still frames from the fight scenes are inserted after being run through the "watercolor" Photoshop filter. I can't imagine why every movie doesn't do that, unless they decide to spend the money on seasoned actors, or special effects, or quality post-production instead.

Arbitrary final rating: 1 and a half out of four lesbian robot snowmobiles.

* Now that you can stream Netflix in Firefox, someone really ought to write a plugin to add pop-up commentary in realtime. Any takers?

December 4, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_wire

The Bribe

Every season (or every chapter, more like) of The Wire has its own theme. The first covers "the street," the second "the supply," while the third chapter turns to "reform." Those three, taken together, also form one of the show's most compelling arcs: the tragedy of Stringer Bell, and it's tempting to call them the greatest achievement of the show. But it's the fourth season, purportedly centered on education, where The Wire begins to tip its hand, slyly hinting at a more ambitious goal than simply masterfully-written entertainment. It's there, in other words, that we start to see the emergence of a new theme for the show beyond each yearly installment.

What makes season four so different? Essentially, it downplays the procedural, cat-and-mouse aspects of the first three seasons. There are still cases being worked by the police--Herc's missing camera, Bunk's intervention in Omar's wrongful arrest--but the narrative arc of cops vs. dealers takes a back seat to Michael, Duquan, Randy, and Namond (the four corner kids introduced in this season). Unsurprisingly, the writers have a hard time keeping the level of tension up without a caper to solve, and so the show takes a more leisurely pace.

But in a lot of ways, the slowdown suits The Wire a great deal. At the heart of creator David Simon's critique of the police institution in Baltimore, there's always been the belief that the lack of support for smart, high-level casework in the department not only allows the drug trade to flourish, but actually encourages it by swamping the legal system in corner arrests that it can't possibly handle. The fourth season is his chance to show how that happens without the distractions of "better" cops, like McNulty and Freamon.

From a wider view, however, The Wire has never been a typical procedural show. It can't be: it's rooted in the realities of Baltimore, not the fantasy crimelabs of CSI. Above all, it refuses to treat either side of the drug trade as inhuman or irredeemable--in this, The Wire stays far from the caricatured authoritarianism of Law and Order. Simon and the show's other writers don't want scapegoats, they want to show that the corner gangs are actual human beings--ones that have grown up in experiences that shape them differently from most viewers, but not so much that we can't feel a kinship with them.

In the book that he co-authored with his Wire collaborator Ed Burns, The Corner, they write (on the topic of welfare):

... To do more than tender the bribe would require empathy, charity, and connectedness, and in thirty years we have summoned up nothing close.

Empathy demands that we recognize ourselves in the faces at Mount and Fayette, that we acknowledge the addictive impuse as something more than simple lawlessness, that we begin to see the corner as the last refuge of the truly disowned. Charity asks that we no longer begrudge the treasure already lost. And connectedness admits that between their world and ours, the distance, in human terms at least, is never as great as we make it seem.

It becomes clear, when even the limited amount of separation between citizen and criminal allowed on The Wire is minimized, that this is part of Simon's point: to give viewers a perspective that forces their empathy, charity, and connectedness to emerge. Gangsters like Slim Charles, Stringer, or Bodie are shown richly and warmly, but without dismissing the destructive actions they often take (Slim Charles, especially, is so enjoyable to watch that it's sickening to be reminded of his work as a hired killer). Even the show's most unrepentantly villainous characters, Chris and Snoop, have an inner life and a complicated relationship with the world around them.

They aren't so different from us, Simon is saying. As with Stringer Bell, they could very well be us, if it weren't for the warping effects of the drug world. That's the perspective that gets lost when the battle against drugs becomes a "war," and the opposing sides are reduced to soldiers. It could be a genuinely transformative viewpoint for many people. Which is why it's such a shame that The Wire is the greatest show that nobody ever watched.

November 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Scrap Iron

On a second viewing with Belle, Iron Man is a much more ambivalent film than it seemed the first time around. It's a movie about a superhero who does very little in the way of superheroics except defend his corporate interests. It's about an industrial magnate who wants to give up building weapons, but still for some reason has missile systems loaded into his post-conversion set of armor. And at heart, its main character is a guy who is capable of doing good not because of training or ideology, but because he was born rich and was once forced to confront his own unwitting privilege through a loss of control.

Many of these issues are inherent to the source material: any decent movie based on the Iron Man character, coming from a comic book as he does, is going to have to work around the shift in the medium. Successful adaptations--and Iron Man is very successful--have done so by minimizing the silliness of the genre, often keeping the main character out of costume as much as possible (the Spiderman movies use much the same strategy, as does the new Hulk, apparently). That said, the weakest part of the film is certainly at the end, when Obediah Stane goes on an armored rampage for no other possible reason than to fuel the movie's closing confrontation. After all, Stane is otherwise shown to be a shrewd manipulator and businessman, who's already working to move Tony Stark out of his position through channels both legal and illegal. There's no particular reason he should be bothering with a waldo-powered fistfight, except that it makes for exciting comic-book cinema.

Still, never mind all that. Because for a large chunk of its running time, Iron Man purports to be both self-contained and realistic-ish, meaning it doesn't matter that I know nothing about the comics and the characters that they set up. I don't need to know that Tony Stark, in the Marvel universe, is a long-time alcoholic, nor the complicated twists and turns of his business empire. I can happily ignore those in favor of the movie itself.

And what that movie presents, speaking glibly, is Batman without the ninja correspondence courses.

Tony Stark becomes Iron Man because he's held prisoner by a set of Afghani militants, and forced to recognize that his weapons are not being used to defend freedom and the American way, but also to arm guerrillas and terrorists. That's why he thinks he becomes Iron Man, but it doesn't address how he is able to do so, except indirectly. Because of course, Stark's ability to fight crime is based entirely on his wealth, his education, and his connections. He's an entitlement superhero. He has infrastructure.

This actually makes Iron Man a little old-fashioned, which is why a post-Cold War film adaptation is so interesting. As Matt Jones points out, Iron Man has a great deal in common with the classic Bond villains, who flaunted their wealth and power through elaborately-decorated lairs (or as Christopher Frayling is quoted in Jones' post, "machines for being a megalomaniac in.") The comparison with Batman, therefore, is actually flawed: when Bruce Wayne was traumatized, he responded by refining himself and acquiring new abilities separate from (although still funded by) his family's advantages. Tony Stark, in contrast, retreats back into the coccoon of Stark Enterprises. Batman is dangerous even when disarmed. Tony Stark, barring incompetent villains who provide him with raw materials, is not.

I don't think this makes Stark more or less sympathetic, although that's hard to gauge given Robert Downey Jr.'s charismatic performance. But it is illustrative of exactly how much the character is founded in privilege, and how much he still needs to grow. Indeed, you could make some very interesting social commentary with this as a starting point. In his 2007 book White Like Me, anti-racism activist Tim Wise comments on the rash of school shootings by white students at places like Columbine. He notes that those shootings by white students, which are characterized by their pointless, nihilistic goals, may in fact be spurred by the fact that white Americans are cushioned by their privilege. They are told by society that they are meant to be powerful and in control, and when they are placed in situations where that is not the case, they often lack the coping mechanisms to deal with them effectively. Privilege allows those mechanisms to atrophy, and the result is mania: school shootings, white collar crime, and other destructive behaviors far more common in white Americans than in the minority population.

As an explanations of Stark's transformations go, I think that's pretty good. His journey is roughly equivalent: a massive psychological shock delivered by the realization that he is not, in fact, an invincible force for good. And I think it's intriguing to consider the film in that frame. Because it's clear that while he's become more cognizant of the consequences of his actions, Tony Stark by no means understands how his new behavior is, in its own way, just as destructive as his previous arms dealership. He's trying to solve those old problems by using the same technocratic tools to reinforce his perception of self-superiority. The only change is the form factor--and the exaggeration of the privilege that caused his trauma in the first place, by placing Stark (instead of a trained military bureaucracy) directly in command of those dangerous technologies.

Of course, if Stark ever realized that, he'd have to conclude that the best thing he could do as Iron Man is take off the armor for good. And there's not a lot of Marvel marketing money in that scenario, no matter how psychologically or socially satisfying it might be.

September 23, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»eureka

Drain the Tub

When the SciFi Channel started a Twitter feed for a character on Eureka that automatically follows anyone who mentions the show, I thought that was creepy, but also a little clever.

When they started doing cross-promotions for the show involving Degree brand deoderant, using the commercials that spoof home shopping channels, I thought that was kind of blatant, but I have TiVo, so I never had to watch them.

When they started having fictional characters on the show pitch for Degree during commercial breaks, I thought that was really blatant--but again, TiVo.

When Degree started to show up prominently in placement positions around the show, to the point that it started to look like a parody of product placement, I thought that was getting close to the line of what I could comfortably watch, but I still kind of liked the show, so I put up with it.

But when they wrote an episode about an artificial second sun, and one character walks into a lab and says "So, I understand you're working on a compound that could keep someone cool under the most extreme conditions," and then Degree is sitting right there on the desk in a close-up shot...

Well, that would be when I stop watching. If anyone from NBC is paying attention--say they've got some poor intern whose job is to track the zeitgeist across unread corners of the Internet like this one--you might want to consider ending that particular promotional experiment. Or at least hire better writers to do the shilling.

September 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»twin_peaks

Great Moments in Nonviolence

Miguel Ferrer is a national treasure.

August 20, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»drama

Movie Review: Everything Is Illuminated

If it had been released a year ago, Everything Is Illuminated would have probably been seen as the dramatic counterpoint to Borat. Both feature America-loving, Soviet-bloc protagonists with a penchant for misappropriating the English language and an ambivalent relationship with Jews. But where Borat uses language as a way to set his listeners off balance, Illuminated's Alex seems to instead have simply dragged its words into a configuration that makes him more comfortable, like bringing a footstool into reach. More generally, Borat puts a foreign character into normal situations to heighten their absurdity, Illuminated eventually reveals these oddities as only thinly exotic versions of typical indie-comedy quirks, which, as usual for this kind of movie, are soon pulled back for more affecting fare.

At heart, this is a road-trip movie structurally similar to Little Miss Sunshine or (more distantly) Y Tu Mama Tambien. Elijah Wood plays Jonathan, a Jewish-American writer who travels to the Ukraine in search of his family's history. He hires Alex (and his grandfather, who professes to be blind despite all evidence to the contrary) to guide him from Odessa to the town of Trachimbrod, where Jonathan's grandfather grew up before traveling to America during WWII. The three travel in a tiny Russian car through broad Ukrainian landscapes, accompanied by the grandfather's "seeing-eye bitch," a deranged pound-puppy named Sammy Davis Junior Jr.

If this sounds precious, it's no doubt far less so than the original novel, in which author Jonathan Safran Foer inserts himself as his own character, plays with multiple timelines, and writes partly in a magical-realist style--although, having read his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I suspect it is less "magical-realist" and more "hipster-pretentious." One of the more enjoyable parts of the film adaptation is that it cuts the literary fiction flourishes and makes "Jonathan Safran Foer" just another character, which is much more interesting than a walking reminder of the author's cleverness.

Nevertheless, during the mandatory indie-comedy roadtrip, Illuminated slowly sheds itself of the kind of easy targets derived from culture-shock and "quirky" characters, and begins to pick at the underlying threads of discontent in Alex's family (helped in large part by the likable presence of Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), as well as the uncomfortable history of Jonathan's grandfather. It would be easy to criticize this as a transition from one cliched genre to another--that of the belabored Holocaust film--but to do so is to ignore that these cliches are most frustrating when they're done poorly, or half-heartedly. Illuminated handles both its slapstick and its pathos with competence, if not greatness, and the transition is handled gracefully enough so as not to be jarring. In the end, I found it to be a sweetly touching movie--surprisingly so, considering its pedigree.

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