Saturday, July 30, 2005

Firefly the movie. Serenity now? Not so much.

Since it's a few months before Serenity hits theaters, I thought I would post my thoughts on the movie in the hopes of saving the film from itself and writer-director Joss Whedon's legion of fans (unlikely considering this is just a blog no one but me reads, but a man can hope). At no point in the run up to this film's release have I heard a dissenting opinion from the online community, and I'd like to take this moment to point out how disasterously bad an idea that is. When people operate in a vacuum, they tend not to see even the most glaringly obvious flaws because everyone around them says, "What you're doing is perfect!"

Which is the thing Serenity is furthest from, let me assure you. Also, consider this the lone voice of dissention on the internet until the critical responses hit in September where, I assure you, the response will be all over the map. For the record, the version my friends and I saw was pretty much locked except for music and color-timing. All of the effects work looked finished, and if there was more editing left to do, I would be surprised. I just hope someway, somehow, Joss Whedon finds his way to this corner of the internet and finds someone who liked the show, but strongly disagrees with "his vision of the future."

It’s been a little while since I watched Serenity, the movie based on the cancelled TV show Firefly, and I’m still pissed. But first, a quick explanation of my history with the show.

When Firefly debuted on FOX in the Friday-night death slot once owned by The X-Files, I immediately thought of it as average with a strange concept and an awful theme song. As the show progressed and we leapt around the galaxy with this motley crew of misfits who hated each other, I actually found myself kind of interested in where it was going. Then FOX killed it, and I put it out of my mind.

Once the show hit DVD and sales went through the roof, I became curious again. I borrowed it from a friend of mine and over a few days sat down and watched all 13 episodes of the show in the order they were intended. It wasn’t until the half-way point with the episode Ariel that my interest really piqued. It culminated with Objects in Space, which is justifiably hailed as one of the better hours television has seen. My friends and everyone on the internet are crazy and drunk in love with Firefly while I still maintain that it was a solid show with promise.

Then I watched the Universal-funded movie and I have only one thing to say: I’m done with Joss Whedon for a while.

In Serenity, I found myself not recalling the characters as being this unlikable, specifically Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Simon Tam (Sean Maher). These two comprise two thirds of the movie’s focus and both are consistent only in the sense they’re angry with each other. Does Malcolm want to shoot everyone on his crew if they won’t hop to his orders or will he go to the ends of the universe to save them? Is Simon a shy medic who is protective of his sister, or an angry snot that’s reached the end of his rope? Which is it, Joss?

If you’re going to have the story focus on three people, two of which spend more time angry at each other than not, then having the third be a crazed loose canon named River (Summer Glau), who was always the weakest link on the show, might not be the best way to go. Oh, and the best of your supporting characters shouldn’t be thrown to the background as much as they are.

Next to River, Zoe (Gina Torres) was the second-weakest link on the show because the extent of her character was as a stoic bad-ass of a soldier that had Mal’s back. That’s her character, start to finish, and this is what passes for a strongly written character in the Whedonverse? Come on. Look at the rest of the cast: Alan Tudyk’s pilot Wash, Jewel Staite’s mechanic Kaylee, Ron Glass’s pseudo-preacher Book, Adam Baldwin’s thug Jayne, and Monica Baccarain’s call girl Inara, were the collective heart and soul of the show, as much as Mal was the Han Solo poster child for it. These were the actors and characters who brought the Firefly universe to believable and, more importantly, human levels for the mass audience. Short shifting them in the big screen movie is flat-out stupid, which makes it all the more maddening and surprising that Whedon would do something like this. He typically knows where his strongest characters are and plays them up to the hilt, frequently too much for their own good (witness Spike in the last two years of Buffy).

For all the bitching I’m doing, let me say that Serenity starts off brilliantly. The first third of the film is outstanding and moves at a breakneck pace. Then we start focusing on the wacky visions of River, and the film grinds to a screeching halt. Then we crash to another halt as the movie introduces a silly character named Mr. Universe, since Mr. Plot Contrivance might have tipped off the audience a little early. Try though it might, and River’s final stand against an endless tide of Reavers should instantly be added to any action fan’s highlight reel, Serenity just rolls along to its fairly predictable ending, something I never thought I’d say regarding a Whedon story.

My friends and other fans online argue that "the big character death" towards the end is essential in creating dramatic tension, because after that point anyone can die. Or so they said to me. I counter with this: nothing changes after the character dies. Nothing. To be more specific, the character dies, and the most we get is "Person X isn’t coming" and then we’re on to another big action scene. This I expect out of a typical Hollywood movie where, to be honest, lesser characters have warranted more tears and shock than this did. This was a person so near and dear and vital to the show and the crew, and no one at all freaks out or expresses remorse or sorrow? Not even at the end when everyone left is safe? Am I alone in finding this strange?

In short, the biggest surprise of Serenity is how utterly familiar and clich├ęd it is. After watching the fifth season of Angel a few weeks back, and comparing certain Whedon-directed episodes of that to Serenity, I became even more surprised. When Whedon is firing on all cylinders, he becomes a force capable of making you laugh through anguished tears and I love him for it. The most powerful episodes of Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even Firefly brought high comedy, powerful drama, and epic romance all into one package. Serenity brings the comedy and the drama, but somewhere along the way it forgot the formula for magic and settled on the formula for average.

Make no mistake, you will laugh heartily during Serenity. But when you sit back and think about what you’ve just seen, you’ll realize exactly where Whedon abandoned creativity and went for the easy out. Take away the names and this is the exact same action-adventure film we’ve seen for the last 40 years, right down to the character types who don’t make it to the end. I guess that is what left me so utterly disappointed in Serenity. That after going through everything he went through to make this film, it feels like Whedon just turned out a run-of-the-mill action flick with above-average acting and sharper one-liners. He can now make Firefly-based movies until he’s blue in the face, and I won’t care a lick. The only two characters I was emotionally invested in didn’t survive, ergo I find myself with no one to care about anymore.

So were there any truly inspired characters in the movie? Chiwetel Ejiofor is downright scary as The Operative, a government assassin sent out to retrieve River and kill anyone in contact with her. His own code of ethics is terrifically contrasted with the missing code of the captain, and their battle of wills is vastly entertaining. Out of the entire cast, it is my sincere hope that Ejiofor goes on to bigger and better things because he’s simply outstanding.

Fans of the show may be chomping at the bit to see what the Reavers look and act like, and Serenity does not disappoint. Reavers were built up on the series as men who had ventured to the furthest reaches of space and gone mad from the emptiness. As a result, they slaughter anyone they encounter in ways few people can imagine. So you might wonder how it is that they not only work in teams together, but also how they manage to maintain and fly star ships. The trouble is, that line of thinking will only confuse you more once you see a video late in the movie that explains exactly what the Reavers are. Once I saw that, I immediately said to myself, "Wait a minute. That pretty much kills any means by which they would be on ships and flying out amongst the stars." We are never lead to believe, either in being shown or told, that Reavers are anything more than mindless savages, and this goes back to the show as well. Sooo… how are they flying ships and sometimes actually showing restraint?

One thing I will give Whedon a huge amount of credit for is the extensive, brutal, and frequently funny action scenes. As stupid as I think the Reavers wind up being late in the film, initially they’re scary, fast, and furious, and when they give chase, you can see the genuine terror in our heroes’ eyes. It’s also a good thing Summer Glau is an ex-dancer because the acrobatic nature of her fight scenes is breathtaking to watch. Whenever River decides to take out everything in sight, it’s downright awesome. The same can be said for the final space battle in which Whedon remembers something most science-fiction films forget: Space is an empty vacuum. As such, you can go in any direction you want, and with so many ships all duking it out in a frenzy of explosions and laser blasts it can lead to some hair raising moments. The effects team really did a wonderful job during the final sequences, and should be heartily commended.

Major plot holes and character beefs aside, Serenity is quite funny and the first third is terrific as is the final series of battles both in space and on the ground. If you really must see it in the theater, then I can’t stop the signal as the ads have repeatedly told me. But I can say that you’re wasting good money when you can just as easily wait five months and watch it cheaply on DVD.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How About a Dose of Reality, Sen. Clinton?

First and foremost, I'm a devote Republican that has steadily lost faith in the Bush Administration's ability to things other than pander to the Extreme Right(tm) and the Religious Right(tm). I agree with some of their decisions, and disagree with quite a few of them too. That being said, I can't stand Hillary Clinton and her ilk of misinformed, melodramatic, spotlight grabbing drama queens. So imagine my utter shock when a "liberal" newspaper like the LA Times calls her, and others, out regarding the controversy over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The article linked below is flat-out perfect:

LA Times to Hillary - FactCheck This!

I love it. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Remakes Etc.

If you check out this story at Yahoo, you'll see there is now a filmic adaptation of the beloved Voltron: Defender of the Universe in the same pipeline as The Transformers movie. Apparently, originality is so completely dead in Hollywood that lame cartoons from the 1980's are the next frontier for big-budget films. God help us all if someone should discover Robotech.

For the record, I grew up on Voltron, Starblazers to a degree, and more importantly, The Transformers. There was a rumor on AICN this morning about the current fallout behind the scenes on The Transformers courtesy of possible-director Michael Bay's latest film, The Island, rolling over and dying at the box office, but it looks like it's been pulled. The story on AICN, I mean. Expect The Island to be yanked off-stage shortly. I'm honestly puzzled why it's shown up DOA in theaters, because it looks like a fun movie. Say what you will about Bay's penchant for explosions over exposition, he always gets great performances out of his actors, save Affleck. Hell, he even showed that Josh Hartnett can emote more than "morose" or "happy" along with reigning in Cuba Gooding, Jr. at the same time. For that alone he deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award.

In short, the story said there was dissention in the ranks behind the scenes over The Island flopping. Bay was in line to direct The Transformers and now he may have to pull out. Personally, I think he's perfect for the roll. This is a man who fetishizes cars, explosions, and Americana to the point of eroticism, and he does it with a twinkle in his eye and song in his heart. He's perfect for The Transformers movie. Rumors of a script being completed are just that at this point. The video circling the 'net showing off Spielberg talking about his love of the toys ends with the logo and the date of July 4, 2007.

That's a throw-down to everyone else in the industry that says only one thing: Move, or be moved, because that date is ours.

I'm growing weary of the remake/raping the childhood trend ravaging Hollywood at the moment. Some of the movies being remade are barely 20 years old. There should be a rule that no film can be remade until it hits the magic 50 year mark. This year we've seen War of the Worlds, the upcoming Bad News Bears, and cap it with King Kong. And those are just the biggest three. I can appreciate the need to go with "familiar" territory, but in no way, shape, or form do either Bad News Bears or King Kong need to be re-done. There is literally nothing new to be gained from this, nothing at all. Peter Jackson's argument on Kong is that it's his own take on it, and he's wanted to retell that story since he first saw it. Fine, Peter, I get that. So why not come up with something similar (a beauty&the beast love story involving a monster) and call it "new"? And the trailer did nothing for me, even in the theater. Completely unnecessary film, when you should be working on wrenching the rights to The Hobbit from whomever owns them.

And what is the world coming to when I see a large-scale remake of War of the Worlds directed by Steven Spielberg, and it sucks? I mean it was start-to-finish awful. I had to come home and watch Jaws just to get the taste out of my mouth. The marketing campaign was brilliant because it was simple, and never showed you the aliens. To be fair, the tripods and the aliens both are scary, genuinely so. The problem is the film if focused on three assholes who try to survive an alien invasion, and none of them warrant your sympathies to start with, and actually manage to lose your good faith the further along it goes. Tom Cruise is simply terrible as the "bad dad" cliche, and he manages to get worse the more he's on screen. If you're going to make a story about the end of the world, here's a tip Steven: Bad things that happen to nice people = high quality drama.

At no point did I care about some man-child asshat from Queens who runs from aliens with his equally asshat teenage son and his brat daughter, then tries to find his pregnant ex-newly-re-married-wife because... why? His son accuses him of wanting to find her and drop the kids with her, and even after it's over I thought, "Yup, that's about right." Spielberg loves broken families sort-of being healed through extrordinary circumstances, but good God does he mangle it here. The only highlights belong to the tripods, and when they show up the film leaps to life. Spielberg can truly burn images into our minds like the fury of God, and he does so here with the tripod attacks, the burning train, and the clothes floating down from the sky. But then he focuses on three asshats on the run, and the film dies again. Couple all of this with a disappointing score from John Williams (moreso after his phenomenally powerful "Revenge of the Sith" score) and War of the Worlds is a massive disappointment.

So what did that rant have to do with remakes? That Hollywood needs to tread carefully and remember that even if the movie worked the first time, there's no guarantee it will work the second time. Or the third. Or fourth...

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Rockstar Doused with Hot Coffee

By now, just about everyone on the internet has heard about the infamous "Hot Coffee" mod that lets you play an interactive sex scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and how it's since been determined that despite developer Rockstar's pleas to the contrary, the code for this sex game was left in the original PS2 version.

In short, Rockstar has found itself pwned. Hard. And fast. The unfortunate thing is, so has the games industry.

I won't rehash the explicit details of the mini-game itself, nor the manner in which to access it. Suffice it to say, you have to go out of your way and devote the better part of an afternoon just to play a few minutes worth of pixelated nudity that's half-assed at best, so to speak. So why all the hub-bub about this from the hallowed halls of the Senate? Why, we must protect the children of course! Anything less is downright un-American! We must support the right for free violence for all, but nudity?!? Holy crap, stop that now!

I mock the rather Puritanical values of our nation, but the repressed nature of the Religious Right in America isn't going anywhere. Personally, I don't think it's really grown or shrunk since the glory days of Oliver Cromwell's people landed here, but it's voice has always been both shrill and frequently used. They may very well be in the minority of the populace, but you would never know it from how vocal they are. I'm all for people believing what they want, but the second they become more interested in living my life instead of theirs, they anger me to no end.

All of this is a round-about way of saying Rockstar displayed the sort of hubris and wanton stupidity others hold up as an example of "What Never To Do" in their respective business fields. By leaving this in game, whether intentionally or by accident, they opened the flood gate for the sort of political and activist probing the games industry does not ever need. The entire argument boils down to the fact that games in general are not static content such as movies and television shows and as a result anyone with a bit of tech savvy can modify them to their heart's content.

Where that blurs the line between what is "acceptable" and what is a "violation of the hearts/minds of children everywhere OH NOS!1!" is what the developer created and what the end user adds to it. Any modification creator worth their salt can alter game code like Neo could change the world of the Matrix in the blink of an eye. There is little to no challenge there, and by leaving questionable code in a powder keg of a game like Grand Theft Auto is to invite the kind of mayhem that has now erupted.

It’s a shame that fools like Rockstar and Running With Scissors have become the de facto poster children of the games industry in the eyes of Washington. Or course, when have politicians ever concerned themselves with learning facts when the "seriousness of the charge" looks so much sexier headlining the New York Times?

To its eternal credit, the games industry is giving Rockstar the grand spanking it deserves. GTA: SA has been pulled from every shelf in the land with the intent of relabeling it as Adults Only until Rockstar releases a patch that locks the code out from the PC version. The PS2 and Xbox versions are pretty much guaranteed to be AO only until Rockstar goes back and re-releases the games without the code, possibly at great cost to them. No one ever said stupidity came cheap, and hopefully Rockstar will learn something from this.

If history has proven anything though, they’ll just do something even dumber next time. Idiots.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Composing Forgetfulness

I tend to repress a lot more than I'd like to admit. Probably why I never kept a journal before, and probably why this on-line one is sparse to say the least. It'll be odd when I die that the sum of my life's experiences will almost assuredly go with me, but maybe the grandkids will enjoy listening to me weave tales of B.S. Such are my pleasant thoughts this Monday afternoon.

In other news, I find myself torn between wanting to outright leave both of my jobs (my 8-5 gig and my gaming site one) from sheer frustration, and wanting to leave both my jobs from sheer frustration. On the one hand, I receive too little information to successfully do my job, and on the other I receive too little information to enhance my job. Go figure. It's one thing to feel completely ignored at your job, but to feel completely ignored at both jobs despite being fairly vocal results in nothing but pure frustration. To which everyone would instinctively say:
"Then why don't you speak up and make your discomfort known to The Powers That Be?"
My response is such:
"Already done that for the last few months, bud, and the only thing I've become is a few months older. And horse."
Picture this: You write up a series of articles and turn them in on average every two and a half weeks, and start building this up into what you hope, and what you have been told, will become a standard feature on the site. Nothing else comes from the Powers That Be despite your repeatedly asking them whether this is something they want to proceed with.

Then along comes some other people who just outright do what they want and circumvent you on your article writing (of a sorts). This leads one to believe the inmates have finally taken over the asylum, and the Powers That Be have become the Powers That Were But Have Taken Off To Jamaica.

The result is seeking some comfort in a day job that is less than creative-friendly, the irony being said work takes place in a production company. The company line clearly states that we make corporate videos and do a positive profile series on companies, when the reality is a series of glorified informercials. To even whisper that word around the boss will result in him going Mola Ram on you, and after he tears your heart from your chest he'll punch you in the face with it.

So I find myself left in a quandry of wanting desperately to write professionally, be it scripts, books, syndicated columns, blogs, and so forth, yet continue working in creatively-devoid endeavors while sitting at home nights looking at my computer wondering why the hell I'm not writing more than I am (which is sporadic at best). I've said it before to myself, and I'll say it again now: I think it's high time I shut up and just do it. It's times like these I grow anxious for My Fair Lady to finish law school and pass the bar (slated for next summer) so our financial situation won't appear so dire everytime I look at our bank account.

The funny thing is I still wouldn't trade my current life for going back to school. That ship sailed many moons ago, and may it never see land again.