Friday, March 20, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

Well that was garbage.

The first season of Galactica was some of the best television I had ever seen, and feels now like a the truest cultural monument to 9/11 to come out of those times. It's unrelenting approach to apocalypse, where, regardless of how one dealt with certain death - either by faith or reason - it didn't change the fact that Death was still there, and all you could hope for was one more day and fill that with life - that was more accurate than any patriotic paean that directly addressed the crisis.

But this... this was pap. Touched by an Angel kind of pap. And if the ultimate message is that humanity with its technology "has allowed its head to outrace its heart," anyone with a brain cell can see that's a load of shit. Religious fundamentalists who blew up buses or launch missile-fueled crusades, these are the real villains of our times, and they do not spread their evil because they have allowed their head to outrace their heart. Quite the opposite in fact. Humanity suffers from a surplus of faith, not a lack of it, and I mistakenly believed the show was better than that.

So yeah... garbage. I'm off to delete Caprica from Netflix queue.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why Can't I Have Nice Things?

Watched Kings last night, and loved the hell out of it. It was imaginative, original, and literate, filled with good acting and interesting storylines. It is everything that I want out of a television series and so rarely find these (or any other) days. And, of course, America hated it:
Marc Berman's PI Feedback:
Beginning with Kings, the aforementioned two-hour debut was stalled at the gate, with a mere 4.1 rating/7 share in the overnights from 8-10 p.m. Take a look how Kings declined in every half hour (never a good sign, of course):
Kings (NBC) – series premiere
8:00 p.m.: 4.6/ 8 (#3)
8:30 p.m.: 4.3/ 7 (#3)
9:00 p.m.: 3.8/ 6 (#4)
9:30 p.m.: 3.7/ 6 (#3)

One year earlier in this block, the second half of a two-hour edition of Dateline and a repeat of Law & Order was considerably stronger at an average 6.3/10 in the overnights. Do the math and that is a loss of 35 percent. Let’s be honest: did anyone really think this show would work?
It's doomed, as the 18-49 demo made the result even worse (around 1.6). Television shows very rarely improve from their premieres, as most get cancelled before they get the chance. If Kings were an HBO or Showtime series, it would've probably turned out fine, at least getting a second season to bring the show to a decent conclusion (unless the creators couldn't care less); but on network television, there's just no incentive not to replace what looks like a relatively expensive drama with some cheap-&-easy reality show that can't possibly do worse.


Sunday, March 8, 2009


Herein be spoilers, ye have been warned...

I can't judge this movie outside of my own experience of having read the graphic novel twice, and from that perspective, Watchmen was mostly boring. The production was so faithful that I knew what was coming up each and every scene, and while it was sometimes interesting to see how the the filmmakers would translate Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work to the screen, that source material was never vital or interesting enough to really capture my attention in the first place.

Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of modern comic books: it added artistic techniques and adult themes that matured the medium beyond what had hitherto been solely children's literature, but it has since been so copied that it's often hard to see the original work as anything other than quaint and tired. The truth is that Watchmen wasn't all that revolutionary, as the deconstruction of the superhero goes back to its earliest creation, when Philip Wylie created a superman in his novel Gladiator and then showed how that kind of power is ultimately rather powerless. Yet Alan Moore is a great writer and created the best comic book I've ever read... it just wasn't Watchmen, but rather his true masterpiece, From Hell.

So it's no surprise that the problems I had with the film are almost all down to the graphic novel itself. While at first I found the performances (particularly Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg) clunky and uninvolved, the truth was that this was mostly due to Moore's bad case of Lucasitis when he wrote the prose-like dialogue in the comic. That the film takes so long to get started was also a failing of the comic. And that so few of the characters are likeable or interesting enough to empathize with is also inherent in their portrayal in the comic. Watchmen is a case study in why the anguish of fanboys should be ignored and filmmakers should first try to create their own good movie from comics rather than treating the source material like holy scripture that cannot be edited.

The film may actually be even worse than I found it, because, while I could easily keep track of all the various subplots and characters, and while I knew what emotions and ideas the film was trying to capture, all that was due to my having read the graphic novel. I wonder if someone who hadn't would able to do the same, and, when we get the shot of the pudgy costumed Nite-Owl screaming with over-emotion in the snow at Rorschach's blood spot, I can't help but feel the whole thing had descended into cheesy camp for the non-initiated. All that said, as the film neared its end, I began to feel it was turning out marginally alright. That Zack Snyder changed Moore's ending by replacing the giant alien squid to the threat of Doctor Manhattan himself actually felt like an improvement, but then they screwed it all up by leaving out the comic's most lasting note (for me).

In the end of Moore's Watchmen, Veidt implores Doctor Manhattan to reassure him that he did the right thing, that "it all works out in the end," but Manhattan simply leaves with the ominous parting words of "It never ends." It is a damning statement on the very nature of superheroes: the old-time heroes of the forties either faded away, their exploits having been little more than media-generated advertising, or turned into fascist nightmares like The Comedian; the later generation of heroes had become equally obsolete, serving as tools of a government that would later outlaw them, and finally are made irrelevant by the truly superpower of Doctor Manhattan; and Ozymandias, the last real human superhero, the "smartest man in the world", the only one who really understood how the world worked and the only one who was able to use his powers to actually change things, ultimately will likely also accomplish nothing, as Manhattan's final words suggest that human nature will one day take its course and mankind still likely awaits its own destruction. Watchmen's final message is that superheroes cannot save humanity from itself (these "heroes" are far too human to begin with, and are simply acting out their own "too human" neurotic fetishes). While it is clunkily delivered in the comic, it remains a compelling theme.

None of that is in the movie. The "nothing ever really ends" line is still there (spoken by Laurie to Dan in the next-to-final scene), but that it is not delivered by Manhattan to an apprehensive Veidt strips it of its thematic power. Watchmen the comic book may have its flaws, but it did try to be about something. Watchmen the film is, like all of Snyder's other work, absolutely meaningless - superficial and lovely in short doses, but with nearly three hours to examine it in detail, Watchmen is far too long to hide the fact that Snyder is a vapid storyteller.

I could go on about other things: the film is gratutiously more violent than the comic, Snyder's usual slo-mo camerawork destroys the pace in a film nearing three hours, all the Nixon scenes looked like Snyder was trying to rip-off Dr. Strangelove more than adapt Watchmen, but whatever. It should have been a rental.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In War Times

Kathleen Ann Goonan's novel is subtitled "An Alternate Universe Novel of A Different Present," but nothing like that appears until nearly the last third of the book. Strangely though, that's exactly where the book begins to fall apart, and, before then, In War Times serves as a rather charming WWII memoir with occasional ruminations on how DNA, string theory, and modern jazz can create the conditions for time travel and parallel universes.

The story concerns a brilliant but naive young engineering student named Sam Dance, who gets caught up in bureaucratic meanderings as a soldier-technician during the Second World War. This part of the novel reads more like Catch-22 or any other countless memoirs penned by ex-soldiers who eschew realism and put a slightly fantastic sheen on their experiences to capture the craziness inherent in the war machine. Here Goonan relies heavily on the diaries penned by her veteran father, but it works well.

The other part of the story deals with an attempt to rewrite reality by moving members of an international conspiracy into a parallel reality where war has been made obsolete through genetic manipulation, resulting in a liberal technocracy instead of the past fifty years of our own history (that is, in the author's opinion, war, oppression, poverty, and the inevitable threat of nuclear annihilation). This is carried out by a strange device that relies on DNA as the programming code of reality, and has a parallel in how modern jazz (i.e. Dizzy Gillespie and Bird Parker) rewrote the conventions of jazz to create a new musical reality.

It's all rather vague and tantalizing, but it's also not really explored by the author. Though the characters are unique (jazz-obsessed radar technicians, female OSS superspies), their personalities are utterly boring and don't change much over the course of the narrative. And Goonan's treatment of alternate history is completely facile (does anyone really still believe that a non-assassinated JFK would've ushered in a limousine-liberal utopia where civil rights would've been pushed through and a Vietnam-style quagmire could be avoided into the present day?), so the book is at its weakest when it finally gets around to focusing on that part of the story. It was a decent read, mostly as a memoir of non-combat soldiers in WWII, but it was definitely nothing more than that.