Thursday, April 30, 2009

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Superman Returns

I'm a big fan of Bryan Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS; it's a controversial film at the very least, and the number of people who utterly despise it is kind of disheartening. I gave it a glowing review at the time, of course, and I still hold out the vain hope that he'll be given another go and that Warner Bros. won't hand the franchise off to a hack. As a way of continued tribute then, the film's wonderful opening, which needs little commentary:

Yes, I'm well aware it's the end of the month, what's your point?

The Comics Page #21: Dan Dare: The Red Moon Mystery

Red Moon Mystery cover and Amazon link
Seeing as I’ve looked at Garth Ennis’ solid DAN DARE revival recently, it only makes sense that I should also go to the original. Titan Books has released several collections of Dan’s adventures in the beloved UK comics weekly EAGLE, and I’ll go through a couple. Because I found both at random we start with the second volume; “The Red Moon Mystery” was my introduction to the character, and a fine one it is. Written and drawn mostly by Frank Hampson and his studio, the second major Dan Dare arc is a classic old-school sci-fi tale which mixes over-the-top space opera with some rather intriguing scientific concepts.
Dan Dare is visiting his uncle Ivor, a famous archaeologist investigating the ruins of the dead planet Mars. Ivor has discovered writings of the inhabitants’ last days, warning of a red moon which approached the planet and somehow wiped out all life on the planet in less than a week. No sooner has this discovery been made than a red moon appears in the solar system, heading towards Earth in a way that makes it appear that it’s being steered by some intelligence. It falls to Dare, his pal Digby, the lovely and brilliant Prof. Peabody, and others to unravel the mystery of this celestial menace while protecting the people in its path, including the colonists of Mars.

Obviously I’m not going to disclose the secret of what the moon is, suffice it to say it’s a downright clever concept grounded in reasonably plausible science. There’s no true antagonist character here, though mutineers among the evacuees provide a bit of extra conflict; it’s mostly a disaster story, with epic scenes of destruction and tempestuous storms aplenty. The pacing on this arc is excellent; there’s always a sense of forward momentum because the Red Moon simply keeps moving closer, bringing chaos with it.

The art isn’t reproduced as well as it could be, but it’s remarkably well-detailed and has an interesting use of color; British and European comics weren’t quite as restricted by printing techniques as their US counterparts, and the deep shades used here add to the story’s atmosphere. The future technology is rendered with great dedication, the character designs (with sketches often being based on poses by people in the studio) are all memorable, and I was particularly struck by the surrealistic vistas of the moon’s surface.

The ending of this story drags on a bit as a way of leading into the next major plot arc, but it’s still suspenseful up to that point. People wanting to get into the classic Dan Dare adventures will likely want to start at the beginning, but if like me you chance across this particular volume, it’s a great introduction. It’s pulp sci-fi done with intelligence and polish, and a certain bit of class.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Bookshelf: The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud

Wages of Fear cover and Amazon link
For a while I was convinced that I wouldn’t ever find an English copy of WAGES OF FEAR (the book) outside of a rare books dealer or a library’s special collections. Still, I would look, and at one library my inquistiveness unexpectedly paid off. The copy seems to date from the early 50s and I’m surprised it’s still in circulation, but I’m not going to argue. Instead let’s just enjoy a classic thriller, one which inspired two equally-brilliant film adaptations yet has somehow disappeared from the US book trade.

The book takes place in Guatemala (and somehow neither movie mentioned this), in Las Piedras, a town dominated by an American oil company. An explosion at one of their derricks leaves the company with a fire to put out quickly, and doing so requires that a quantity of volatile nitroglycerine (the only kind worth having) be hauled with great delicacy across 200 miles of treacherous jungle roads. The company puts out a call that is answered by four desperate men; all foreigners, hiding from crime or debt, hoping to buy their way out of the poverty-ridden hellhole. The focus of the book settles on Gerard, a Frenchman and former smuggler with ambitions of buying a boat, and Johnny, a twitchy Romanian fleeing a death sentence.

The book is short and tersely written, despite a few meditations on fear and its effects on people, how it both helps and hinders us. (The translation by Norman Dale is smooth enough, with a few clunky passages.) This is at heart a page turner, one to be blazed through in a few days at the most. It’s a form of novel that’s been tragically sidelined by modern publishing- nowadays even the trashiest of books is a disappointment if it doesn’t make it to 300 pages. In fact, I find it almost ironic that both film versions of this seemed to devote more attention to developing the characters. Speaking of the films, I can now definitely say that the original French version (which I need to get to reviewing sometime, if only to complete the triptych) is closer to this, but both took some interesting liberties.

The lack of space devoted to character development is sometimes to the book’s detriment, but the exploration of the relationship between Gerard and Johnny is quite well done. Gerard resents Johnny’s cowardice, but an inevitable comraderie develops. Where Arnaud really excels is in the attention to detail; according to the book jacket, he was taken prisoner in WWII, escaped to Latin America, and worked at a number of odd jobs, truck driving being one of them. The mechanics of moving a truck across bad roads as delicately as possible are, understandably, a huge part of the story, and with his own experience as an aid to research, Arnaud makes every step of the journey seem authentic. It’s the sort of thing that I have to seethe with envy at, because it would take me a solid six years buried in technical manuals to even begin to fabricate something as plausible.

At heart, THE WAGES OF FEAR is a good read, overshadowed by the cinematic genius it inspired but a compelling book nonetheless. It’s a damn shame that it’s been allowed to drift out of print; I’ll regret having to return this copy, that’s for sure, and you know what Amazon resellers are like. So keep your eyes peeled, or if you feel so inclined, start boning up on your French.

Grade: A-

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

I was hoping to get back to regular reviews at some point, but for now, another formless text piece. Not a rant this time, but another memoriam. Dave Arneson, the co-creator of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, passed away recently at the age of 61, over a year after the passing of his collaborator, E. Gary Gygax. Arneson wasn’t quite as well known or prolific as Gygax, and so doen’t quite get the credit he deserves. So I figure he deserves a tribute at least as long as Gygax got, even if I’m now finding myself rummaging for something new to say.

I’m fuzzy on the early history of D&D’s development, but I do know that Arneson was the creator of Blackmoor, a fantasy setting that actually predated the game. He’d been working with miniature wargaming and introducing fantasy elements, and Blackmoor was the world he had the games take place in. The desire for a more codified r
ules set than existed at the time led him to team up with Gygax, who had been involved in the CHAINMAIL medieval miniatures game, and together they developed D&D based on the structure of one of Arneson’s Blackmoor scenarios. It formed the background for the earliest D&D games, but the world wasn’t presented in much detail until it was published as a third-party campaign setting in 2004.

Arneson parted ways with Gygax and TSR near the end of the 70s, (though he briefly returned to author a few Blackmoor modules when Gygax temporarily took control of the company) and was kept out of the copyright for ADVANCED DUNGEONS
& DRAGONS by virtue of Gygax writing the whole thing. At one point Arneson was involved in a lawsuit against TSR regarding ownership of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS trademark, but this was resolved when WotC took over (hence the third edition going back to D&D.) Despite these troubles Arneson never seemed bitter about his experience, and continued running games and working with game design in various forms until shortly before his death.

Arneson’s death came at the end of a long battle with cancer, and far too soon for anyone. But he leaves behind a great legacy- a game that spawned a medium, a game that encourages the imagination, and something very fun for the nerdier set, i.e. people like me. He didn’t get quite enough credit for it, but he’s not going entirely unsung. I hope I’ve done justice to him in my small way, and if it’s not too sappy, I’d like to imagine he’s just now started on his greatest adventure. Or, at the very least, that he and Gary are finally collaborating again.

Map of Blackmoor by Dave Arneson

Rest in peace, Mr. Arneson. We won’t forget you.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Rant the Second: My "Scott and Jean"

The High Council of Gallifrey Demands an Explanation for this Bullshit
Another late meme, and another rant that you may or may not be interested in. Basically, over at AlertNerd, a post coined the phrase “My Scott and Jean”- which specifically refers to Scott Summers and Jean Grey of X-Men fame, their romance and her death/rebirth and all the drama associated with it, etc., but generally means one thing in fiction you can’t discuss rationally (or wholly rationally) because of how geekily you are devoted to it. They’re also known as “Geek Sacred Cows”. Since I’m a geek, I don’t want for these things, so one week after everyone has ceased to care, I’ve narrowed it down to three.

1. Maxwell Lord is a sleaze, a scumbag, a shady character. But he’s not all bad.

In Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ legendary run on the Justice League, Maxwell Lord was introduced as a corrupt businessman with designs on giving the League international status and U.N. backing. He was also working with an alien computer to try and take over the world. He was first intended just as a villain, with artist Kevin Maguire basing his appearance on that of Sam Neill in OMEN: THE FINAL CONFLICT, but by the time they got around to resolving his arc, Giffen and DeMatteis decided they wanted to keep the character around, so he had a change of heart and redeemed himself in a rather touching issue. Since then he became the league’s UN liaison and boss, and generally went back and forth between blatantly self interested, manipulative scum, and someone with the League’s best interests at heart. You never knew where you stood with him.

At least until COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS, wherein he became the evil head of Checkmate and blew Ted Kord’s brains out. Now, I understand this was to develop the story that would become INFINITE CRISIS, and when Lord was killed by Wonder Woman later, that set up a bunch of plot threads for her that have yet to die.

Frankly, though, the move never made any sense to me, despite various retcon attempts. Yes, Max was a bastard, but he had limits. He was willing to let a crazed would-be terrorist get himself killed as part of a set up for the League, and in his past came close to killing his own boss, but held back. More importantly, I like him as an ambiguous figure. The entire point was that you didn’t know where you stood with him- it was impossible to say at any given moment whose interests he was pursuing. He was a complex figure, a three-dimensional one, and at heart I’m a sucker for redemption narratives. As an out-and-out supervillain his possibilities were extremely limited- you know from the start not to trust him, because he’s wearing Black Ops gear and trying to control Superman’s mind, so he becomes Lex Luthor with added mind control powers.

The presence of extra-evil Maxwell Lord was enough to drive me away from the “Blue and Gold” arc in BOOSTER GOLD, as many good things as I keep hearing about that series. And he’s showing up in BLACKEST NIGHT, or so rumor has it. So I may sit that one out.

2 (though related to the above). I want Ted Kord alive, dammit.

Ever since the death of the second Blue Beetle in the aforementioned pre-INFINITE CRISIS event, a lot of writers have tried to make sure that Ted gets the respect in death he didn’t in life. The aforementioned BOOSTER GOLD arc apparently dealt with how Ted’s seemingly-insignificant sacrifice actually prevented Lord and the Omacs from getting too far in their plan for world domination or whatever, and how it was a necessary and noble thing, etc. I get that it’s now considered a moral victory- Ted was physically defeated but held to his principles up to the end.

And yet- I dunno. Maybe it’s just that, due to geek sacred cow #1, I didn’t accept that this storyline had much worth to it in the first place. But also, Ted is probably the superhero character I most identify with, and I wanna see him win it all, get the girl (though many shippers would dispute this particular point) and if they have to retire him, have him ride into the sunset. Not quite as dramatic, but it makes more sense for a lighthearted hero like him- especially since he’s easily the nerdiest of the superheroes, an insecure joker who sometimes messes up but whom you can’t help but love.

On top of that, I get turned off by the underlying idea that the time Ted proved himself was the time he stopped kidding around. That he had to get serious and get grim in order to do what had to be done. There’s this impression I get from superhero comics sometimes that superheroing now is considered a business which requires both the discipline of a Navy Seal and the solemnity of a death row prison guard. I don’t think it’s right that the character’s defining moment is his most serious. He needs a do-over.

That said, as I hope I’ve established before, I’ve got nothing against the new Blue Beetle, and if/when Ted comes back I don’t want him to displace Jaime.

3. The Time Lords are more interesting as a living civilization than a lost legacy.

I love the new DOCTOR WHO, and I totally understand why Russell T. Davies decided to blow up Gallifrey offscreen at the start of it. It’s a great deck-clearing situation which also served to give the character some extra motivation and give everyone a mystery going in. But it’s been nearly 4 years to the day, and I think the well’s run dry. The whole “lonely god” aspect of the Doctor has been played out, and though that’s always been part of the character, he needs to veer back towards “eccentric adventurer”, and not having a lost planet to brood over might help.

Also, even though the Time Lords are generally regarded as hard to write and not conducive to great stories, I love the guys. Super-advanced dead civilizations are everywhere in science fiction, it’s a valid and common trope, but frankly I think it’s even more interesting if you’ve got a godlike ancient race that’s still around and still has some power. The Time Lords are also versatile- they can be the bad, corrupt people repressing the Doctor or doing some unethical meddling in one story, and decent folk who need saving from Sontarans the next. I want to see the grandeur of Gallifrey captured as best the production team can (though I was grateful for the flashback near the end of Season 3), and I want to see it explored. And I don’t want the Doctor to be forever the last of his kind and someone who only wanders because he had to destroy his home. The Time War thing is coming dangerously close to defining the Doc’s whole character, and we need to see more that he’s a wanderer and adventurer by choice.

I spent way too long on something that’s supposed to be irrational and inexplicable. Oh well, that’s my contribution to the meme. And I’ll try to have something more coherent next time.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Probably a bad idea.

Warning: The post that follows contains spoilers for DOLLHOUSE, the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA finale, and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. It is also a rant, and thus poorly structured and vague in its intent. Feel free to skip it. However, to prevent this from being a complete waste of time, and also to conduct an experiment in site traffic, here's a photo of Jennifer Connelly.

Jennifer Connelly
I’ve developed a kind of precogniscence that I’d rather do without. (Now I know how Christopher Walken felt.) It seems that after years of discussing media on the internet, as well as enjoying unpopular examples of said media, I now know when people on the internet will hate something well out of proportion to its actual flaws. I’m not sure whether I’m becoming more perceptive or if fandom, in the broad sense of the word, has become that predictable.

Last night I saw an episode of DOLLHOUSE, Joss Whedon’s latest series, set in a creepy facility where “actives”, people who’ve had their personalities wiped, are implanted with different personalities and skill sets to do jobs for wealthy clients. It’s a decent show, took a while to get going and will probably be canceled sooner rather than later, but never mind that. The episode in question involved a bunch of actives remembering who they were and trying to escape the facility. In the end, it was revealed that this was a psychological experiment to deal with some of the repressed baggage these particular actives had, that had been surfacing in prior missions. It was a fun episode which deepened some of the characters, expanded on the setting, and moved at a good clip. But I knew the final twist, and the fact that this episode had not demolished the status quo as the network promos had hinted, would in fact piss a lot of people off, and so it did. I was enjoying the episode but dreading the inevitable blowback.

Go back a bit to the ending of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. In a final confrontational moment, resident religious nut/glorious scumbag/whatever the Hell else he is Gaius Baltar offered his explanation of divine forces at work bringing the Cylons and the last hope of humanity together at one vital moment. The possibility of divine influence in this series was always present, but sci-fi fans were generally hoping for something more concrete and detailed, and detailed explanations- of whether Baltar was right or an idiot, of what the Head-things are, of what Starbuck was, etc.- were not forthcoming. I didn’t mind the ambiguity but I knew that others would, especially since the Sci-Fi Channel had been promoting the final season by promising that all questions would be answered. On top of that, I knew that a final decision by the characters would be perceived as particularly anti-science, pro-Luddite, and generally backwards and reactionary in our modern political climate, and in this case I thought the articulation of that decision was kind of weak (the show, magnificent as it was, had a tendency to lapse into cliché dialogue now and again), so I felt some of the end scenes were flawed, but to me they were minor issues. To others they totally ruined the end of the series.

I’m getting repetitive but I’d like to go back even further, to May of last year and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. My positive review of this film is a matter of public record, and at some point opinion on the film went from polarized to profoundly negative, as seems to be the fate of anything George Lucas has his name even remotely attached to. (I’m sure he doesn’t care, having enough money to start his own country, but the way his name is spoken like a curse annoys me. Price of success I suppose.) Now, the film definitely had flaws. But more unpleasant than the actual bad parts of the movie (the overly abrupt ending, John Hurt having nothing to do, etc.) was watching the parts that I knew fanboys on the Internet would lose their shit over. The early scenes in the desert have a lot of prairie dogs popping up, and they’re obviously CG and sort of a passive Greek chorus to the high-action absurdity going on, which is weird but funny. But because it’s so cartoony, it was once again evidence of Lucas’ sinister immaturity tainting a formerly dignified franchise. And then there’s the nuked fridge. Indy rides out an A-bomb test in a lead-lined refrigerator, which I found amusing and it set up a great shot of him looking up at a mushroom cloud signifying the passing of an era. It’s blatantly impossible, so lo and behold, “Nuking the Fridge” is now common Internet parlance for ruining a franchise.

And it’s not like this only happens with moments I otherwise don’t mind. I do think the business with Mutt leading a bunch of monkeys to mess with the Nazis was kind of stupid. Emphasis on “kind of”, because it’s an obvious Tarzan homage and this is a pulp movie and seriously, have you seen some of the crap they get away with over in the Mummy series? But of course, if there is one thing fans cannot stand it is a series not being taken as seriously as they themselves take it, so this movie ends up on worst-of-the-year lists and anything wrong with it is the fault of you-know-who.

Objectively I shouldn’t care. If you enjoy something, the fact that others don’t shouldn’t give you pause. If you think it’s actually objectively good and others think it is terrible, you are not necessarily wrong. But sometimes the sheer level of vitriol makes a reasonable give-and-take over something harder to engage in- the con side defines the terms of the argument and you end up having to defend monkeys and fridge-nukes before you get to talk about the things you actually liked. On this blog, at least, I can structure an argument without going into defense mode, but I enjoy actually having a give and take with people as well.

If you’re not sure what point I’m making, welcome to the club. Obviously people will disagree on things, and such is the Internet. I wish debates like this took place on more fundamental levels- story and character and aesthetics rather than individual weird moments- but at the same time I suspect that a lot of the complaints you hear are shorthand. BATMAN AND ROBIN isn’t a terrible film solely or even primarily because there are nipples on the batsuit, but “nipples on the batsuit” is sort of a code for the film’s campy attitude and aesthetic, which doesn’t work because the performers don’t sell it like they did on the Adam West series, etc. DIE ANOTHER DAY’s problem is not that James Bond windsurfs down an iceberg but that the film seems to ricochet between absurd madness like that and attempts at low-key geopolitical intrigue like two scripts were shoved together at random.

I suppose my problem is perspective and a lack thereof. We’re talking about things that represent individual whims and choices on the part of writers/directors/etc., conceptual decisions that in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. It’s all in the execution, and examining why something works or doesn’t is a lot more interesting than just pointing to it. I suppose all of us, myself included, could also stand to be more open to disagreement and the idea that the opposing side may in fact have valid points. Too often I hear these points espoused as geek gospel, something that’s been decided on, and someone who challenges them is an apologist- a Whedonite, a Morrison whorrison (though that’s actually kind of clever), an undiscerning fanboy who refuses to recognize the truth. It hate it when these situations occur, and that’s why I hate being able to see them coming. There’s no way for creators to avoid it because fans are impossible to uniformly please, and catering solely to them means losing your own voice, a fate I would not wish on Whedon, Ron Moore, George Lucas, or frankly even Michael Bay. Not that they’re paying attention.