Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Warning: May Cause Deep Sadness

Hot off the season 3 DVD, the Veronica Mars season 4 'pilot', Rob Thomas's attempt to sketch out the show's revamped form with Veronica as an FBI agent: part 1 & 2. (See also the season 3 blooper reel.)

The crazy thing is, I actually have a list of likes and dislikes in response to this, as though it weren't just a sad reminder of something that'll (probably) never be but an actual prelude to a new season. I think the pace could use a little picking up, but I'm pleased to see Veronica surrounded by other smart, observant, driven people, something the third season toyed with but never fully explored.

You see? Madness! I was happier before I watched this.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Words Fail Me

Publishers Weekly reports from the Frankfurt book fair:
The Eggers book, an adult novel based on Maurice Sendak´s classic Where the Wild Things Are was actually acquired by Ecco last winter, but kept quiet until now. Foreign rights are in play at Frankfurt and Ecco publisher Dan Halpern is predicting, "I think it`s going to be his biggest book. I think it´s going to be huge." Ecco is publishing the book in fall 2008, to coincide with the Spike Jonze movie adaptation based on Sendak´s book, for which Eggers wrote the screenplay.
Other, rejected titles for this post: 'Um, What?', and 'I've Never Read Anything By Dave Eggers and Now I'm Glad.'

(Link via Maud Newton)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Recent Movie Roundup 5

  1. Stardust (2007) - First, a word about the ubiquitous Princess Bride comparisons: these are only excusable coming from a) public relations wonks or b) people who have forgotten just how funny and smart The Princess Bride actually was (people who have never seen The Princess Bride have no excuse whatsoever). Everyone else--what were you thinking? The Princess Bride is a film that people can and do watch again and again, and though Stardust is an enjoyable way to spend an evening, and one that I wouldn't object to repeating one of these years, it simply is not in the same league as Reiner and Goldman's masterpiece. To be honest, I'm baffled at the amount and the vehemence of the buzz, both good and bad, generated by this inoffensive, pleasant film, and can only account for it by the general lack of fantasy films for adults. In itself, the film is a rather ordinary fantasy adventure story, just funny and romantic enough to get by, and with several winning, though hardly remarkable, performances to keep it afloat.

    As an adaptation, Stardust is both good and bad. Good because Gaiman's novel is essentially plotless--Tristan basically stands around while minor characters (some of whom he never even meets) orchestrate his good fortune as part of a larger political plot of which we are never made fully aware--and the film does a decent job of imposing the standard quest/adventure narrative on the novel's events. Bad, because almost all of the irreverent deviations from fairy tale tropes that made the novel so much fun in spite of its limp plotting (and which might, just barely, have justified the Princess Bride comparison)--stuff like Victoria being a decent person who was willing to fulfill her bargain with Tristan, or Tristan and Yvaine deciding to run off and have adventures instead of becoming monarchs--have been lopped off, resulting in a narrative that is almost by-the-numbers even as it pats itself on the back for breaking the mold. Which is probably why this is a cute, enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable film rather than a meaningful entry in the extremely short annals of cinematic adult fantasy.

  2. Die Hard 4 (2007) - Between the plot--an evil hacker genius tries to bring America to its knees by crippling its computerized infrastructure--and the two one-on-one fight scenes--one in a martial arts style, against a sexy Asian villain; the other an acrobatic display against a svelte European type--it's clear that the fourth Die Hard film is a response to the changes in the action genre over the last few decades. The numerous echoes and callbacks to the original Die Hard seem to be a message that this film is taking us back to basics, to good old-fashioned blood, sweat, and thrown punches (whether the juxtaposition of this so-called meat-and-potatoes action style with the rah-rah America undertone of the film--it even takes place on July 4th--is significant is an exercise left for the reader).

    The problem is that all the references to the original film also serve as a reminder of how good, how smart, and how unusual the original Die Hard was (including, but not limited to, the fact that Bonnie Bedelia neither looked nor dressed like a runway model, something that can't be said of her character's daughter in this film). It was anything but meat and potatoes, and its sequels have lost that quality, becoming hackneyed and conventional, and buying into the tropes of a genre that Die Hard 4 is supposedly lambasting. The confrontation between John McClane and the villain du jour is a textbook example. It's an echo of the corresponding scene in the first film, in which a bloodied, exhausted McClane confronts the man who has his female loved one at gunpoint. In the original film, this scene jarred us--we saw McClane through his wife's eyes and realized how feral and animalistic he had become. Die Hard 4 doesn't try to elicit this shock. Despite paying lip service to the notion, it doesn't believe that McClane is a human being, which means that violence can't dehumanize him--he's already there. From a story about an ordinary man becoming a hero we've come to a story about a man who is, every second of every day, a hero and nothing more, and the result is boring for all the exploding helicopters.

  3. Joshua (2007) - There's a time-honored tradition of films about creepy, preternaturally polite and clearly sociopathic children, and in its first half it seems that Joshua is an interesting play on this trope. Monstrous though the title character--who never laughs or even smiles, who is always quiet and well-coiffed, and who at the beginning of the film assures his parents that they don't have to love him--plainly is, he is not significantly less normal than his family. Mom is a neurotic fast sinking under postpartum depression. Dad is a man-child intent on ignoring his family's problems, but who is nevertheless shocked when his fellow stock brokers advise him to forget his family as soon as he leaves their palatial Manhattan apartment. Grandma is an evangelical Christian, and the most normal family member is the uncle, a stereotypical New York queen. Even as they desperately assure each other that they are not like 'these people'--the Manhattan yuppies they meet at work or at their son's school--Joshua's parents are clearly sinking into that soulless, shallow life, and are only shocked out of it when they bring their baby daughter home and their son's covert creepiness begins to rise above the surface.

    Unfortunately, once the menacing suggestiveness portion of the film draws to a close, it relies on the most blatant kind of idiot plotting to keep going. Joshua's father becomes convinced that his son is a monster because he finds a video tape of Joshua menacing his sister, but later, when he is accused of abusing his son, he doesn't show the tape to anyone (the tape's existence also begs the question of why Joshua made it and left it for anyone to find, and why, in the name of all that is good and holy, do his parents have a night-vision feature on their video camera). At the film's end, there's no escape but to interpret it as a bizarre sort of allegory--that Joshua's derangement is a metaphor for his being one of 'those people', who does away with his parents because he sees their ambivalence towards the lifestyle they raised him in as an obstacle. Which is, to say the least, weird, and as social criticism goes, a little on the broad side. Still, the performances are all good and the film is effectively creepy--so much so that it still hasn't entirely settled in my mind.

  4. 1408 (2007) - Sad to say, but this is probably one of the most successful Stephen King adaptations out there. Based on a short story of the same title (from the collection Everything's Eventual, which I very much enjoyed), about a writer of travel books for ghost enthusiasts who spends (or rather, tries to spend) a night in the titular room, the film is nicely atmospheric and, though they're both clearly slumming, John Cusack (as the writer) and Samuel L. Jackson (as the hotel's manager, who tries to talk Cusack's character out of staying in what he calls 'an evil fucking room') are both game and give the story their all. The first half, which introduces us to the characters (including the tacked-on self-destructiveness of Cusack's character and hints of the tragedy driving it) and elaborates on the room's gruesome history, is tight and well-paced.

    Unfortunately, the original "1408" is a Lovecraft-ian mood piece about evil forces men shouldn't mess with and a guy who does. In other words, it's plotless. As the film draws on, its attempts to impose a plot on the story become increasingly strained and pathetic. Towards the end, we're just alternating between ever-more inventive horrors being inflicted on the writer and ever-more maudlin exploration of his emotional issues, over and over again. There's probably a good one-hour piece in here--maybe a substitute for one of the less successful entries (which were, sadly, the majority) in the anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which adapted ten of King's short stories--but as a feature-length film it drags and can only end unsatisfyingly.

  5. Eastern Promises (2007) - This film is clearly a companion piece to Cronenberg's previous entry, A History of Violence. Like History, it focuses on the meeting point between the world of civilized, law-abiding people and the brutal underworld of organized crime, with a character played by Viggo Mortensen stuck in the middle and a blond woman acting as his love interest and moral compass. This time around the woman is Naomi Watts, who plays a London midwife left with more questions than answers when a young woman dies in her care and leaves a baby and a diary written in Russian behind. She follows the girl's trail to a Russian mobster, his hotheaded son, and the son's friend, driver, and clean-up guy, Nikolai (Mortensen), and becomes caught in the middle of a power struggle between the three. I liked A History of Violence, with some reservations because I felt it didn't do enough to explore the questions of identity and morality it raised, instead preferring to focus on acrobatic violence. Eastern Promises goes even further in that direction. It's as though Cronenberg took William Hurt's campy, over-the-top ten-minute appearance from History and made an entire film out of it.

    Mortensen very nearly saves the entire exercise. He's the heart of the film, not Watts's character (who is too naive to be believable, and whose quest for justice on behalf of her dead patient and the baby comes off as whiny rather than principled or brave), and Eastern Promises is worth watching both for his performance and for the puzzle his character poses--whose side is he on? What, if any, are his moral convictions? What does he want?--as well as for the film's procedural segments, which his actions drive. Unfortunately, his dominance of the film isn't complete. Too much time is spent with the broad and obvious godfather and his aggravating son, and though, when Nikolai is in the room, there's some fun to be wrung out of his obvious efforts not to roll his eyes at their limited intelligence and inelegant bloodlust, far too often he isn't in the room, and we're left with atrocious dialogue and hammy overacting. The entire film, as a result, feels overwrought, which is a shame for Mortensen's sake--he's fast moving into the George Clooney category of handsome, charismatic actors circling 50, and I wish there were better vehicles out there for him.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

While I Was Gone

I'm back! Had a lovely time. Once again, this trip was occasioned by a family wedding (as Niall said, my relatives get married in all the coolest places), and at least half the fun of it involved meeting cousins distant and obscure, many of whom I haven't seen in several years, and some of whom I met for the very first time this week, as well as their friends and relatives. The wedding was beautiful and the party in its wake great fun.

I also did the tourist thing, but everyone knows the New York highlights so I won't bore you too much with my version of them. I took a rather laid-back approach to the museums, wandering about them willy-nilly and poking my head into any exhibit that looked appealing. As a result, I had a somewhat dizzying experience at the Museum of Modern Art when I turned a corner and found myself face-to-face with Van Gogh's Starry Night. I had known, on an academic level, that the original of an image I've encountered hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times in facsimile had to be hanging somewhere, probably at a location of MoMA's caliber, but to come upon the painting unawares really threw me. This wasn't an experience like going to see the Mona Lisa, and discovering that it is too small, and the crowd surrounding it too large, for any visitor to properly appreciate it. I had plenty of time and access to the painting, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that I was actually in its presence. I was left with all sorts of confused thoughts about the value of an original creation when its image has become throughly entrenched into our cultural subconscious, but luckily there was a gigantic Monet triptych in the next room to take my mind off them.

The New York subway system remains, I am sad to say, the least hospitable and comprehensible underground rail system it has ever been my misfortune to use. Confusing, contradictory, and, just when you need it the most, insufficient signage, a senseless enslavement of the underground map to above-ground physical landmarks that is, to add insult to injury, only sporadically adhered to (if you're going to name a subway station 23rd St., why are the exits on 22nd?), a downright bizarre distribution of both stations and lines, and poor maintenance of both stations and trains. I imagine it's a perfectly serviceable system for someone who knows the city, but as a tourist (and last time I checked, New York gets more than a few of these) I found it frustrating, and frequently chose to take a bus.

And then there's this:

Most of them should be readable, but titles are available upon request.

In what is becoming a tradition, two literary awards were announced during my absence (last time it was the Nebula and the Clarke). Anne Enright's The Gathering won the Booker, and Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. I'm not terrifically fussed about either. Of this year's Booker nominees, I'd only read McEwan's On Chesil Beach (in fact, I don't believe I'd even heard about the other nominees before the longlist was announced), and though I liked it very much, I didn't think it was substantial enough to deserve the award. All I know about Lessing is that Ursula K. Le Guin (who, in spite of my embarrassing indifference towards her novels, is fast becoming one of my favorite reviewers) savaged her most recent novel, The Cleft. Here's Adam Roberts, however, discussing Lessing's SF writing.

On Monday, Strange Horizons published a double review of Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues, by Martin Lewis and Rose Fox. Neither one is particularly thrilled with the novel, and interestingly, both come at it from the perspective of big city dwellers--Lewis is a Londoner, Fox a New Yorker. I adored Spaceman Blues, but I'm coming to it as someone who has never been more than a tourist in either of these cities, so I'm going to have to think some more about their criticisms of the novel.

And finally, coming from J.K. Rowling herself: Dumbledore was gay. And in love with Grindlewald (though whether that love was requited remains unclear). On the one hand, how cool is it that the Potterverse's Xavier/Magneto, Gandalf/Saruman equivalent is actually canon? On the other hand, is a representation of homosexuality in the form of a character who is ancient, celibate, and traumatized into asexuality something to get excited over? And shouldn't this have been revealed in the book itself, for example in "King's Cross", which as it stands is an almost pointless chapter in which Dumbledore tells Harry things he, and we, already know?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

New York, New York

Not that weeklong silences have been rare on this blog recently (she said sheepishly), but there's another one coming up as I flit off to New York for yet more family nuptials. Expect me back some time next weekend. As usual, I'm unlikely to reply to e-mail or comments until I get back. See ya.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Insert Futurama Quote Here

What better way to test my ability to embed video than with the trailer for the upcoming Futurama film, Bender's Big Score?

The Nibblonians are back! Hurrah!

The film is going direct to DVD on November 27th, and later on will be broken up into episodes and aired on The Cartoon Network. The same deal applies to the three other Futurama films: The Beast With a Billion Backs, Bender's Game (how has that joke not been made before?) and Into the Wild Green Yonder.

(Link via SF Signal)

(My favorite Futurama quote, in case you're interested, is: "What are you hacking off? Is it my torso? It is! My precious torso!")

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

File Under 'Big Surprise'

Ian McShane believes the promised Deadwood films aren't going to happen:
I asked him the big question Deadwood fans have been wanting to know for a while now -- was HBO just blowing smoke with its promise to wrap up the series with a couple of made-for-TV movies? Well, the answer is yes, McShane revealed to us. "I just got a call on Friday from ... a dear friend of mine, who told me that they're packing up the ranch," McShane said. "They're dismantling the ranch and taking the stuff out. That ship is gonna sail. Bonsoir, Deadwood." He went on to say that even if the movies were happening, there would be the strike to consider, and on top of that, he's committed to a filming schedule that would prevent him from doing them anytime before late next year anyway.
(Link via)

I've been thinking for a while about the Deadwood situation as compared to the fates of shows like Veronica Mars, Jericho, Farscape, Futurama, and other series that have been brought back from the brink of death or beyond it by concentrated fan effort. Fine and well-loved as it was, Deadwood never had a fandom. Neither, I suspect, do most HBO shows. I think series like Deadwood and The Sopranos are beloved primarily by people who enjoy watching the series but don't necessarily see the appeal (and perhaps are not even aware of the existence) of fannish activities--critical analysis, episode reviews, parodies, filks, fanart, fanfic. It is these activities, however, and through them the fostering of a community and of a sense of ownership over the series, that create fandoms capable of affecting the nature and fate of their favorite series, and sometimes of forestalling their executions.

I don't know what would have happened if HBO's offices had been flooded with shipments of, say, canned peaches. For one thing, HBO has a very different business model than advertiser-supported networks. More importantly, I suspect the fannish phenomenon would have been so alien to the channel's officers that they wouldn't have known how, or even whether, to react to it. When the Sci Fi Channel cancelled the long-running Stargate: SG-1 halfway through a projected two-season storyline, they met with irate reactions from fans and promptly greenlit two TV movies with which to resolve that plot--movies which are currently in production. HBO similarly promised to resolve the Deadwood story with TV movies, but now it appears to be reneging on its promise, or at the very least delaying production indefinitely, without any awareness of the effect that such behavior might have on fan loyalty towards their other shows (I've more than once come across the argument that the failure of John From Cincinnati came about at least in part because aggravated Deadwood fans stayed away from David Milch's new show in droves).

These differing reactions are rooted, I suspect, in the two channels' respective awareness of the importance and power of fandom, and in the absence of such a fandom when it comes to HBO shows (consider, for example, the fate of Carnivale, which despite its fannish appeal was led away to the chopping block with nary a sign of a save-our-show campaign). The question now becomes, is HBO about to learn a bitter lesson about the importance of fostering viewer loyalty, or is their customer base willing, yet again, to take this kind of treatment lying down?