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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (5/11/09) 9:10am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Finally back to writing reviews after illness, travel, and illness.]

Movies:  When We Were Kings, Star Trek [spoilers]
TV:  Andy Richter Controls the Universe [2x01-2x07], The Sopranos [1x04-1x07], LOST [5x14-5x15] [spoilers]
Books:  Yes!:  50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive [audiobook]



When We Were Kings
This is the mid-90s documentary about the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Honestly, I don't have much to say about this.  The movie meanders pleasantly.  It gives us a general idea of how Ali came across to the press leading up to the fight.  It shows us the insanity behind the scenes as Don King put together the event.  It shows the brutal conditions under Mobutu in Zaire.  And it occasionally flits over to footage of the soul music festival held alongside the fight.

Sure, the big question is "Who will win the fight?", but since we all know the answer, that question fades into the background, and we focus on sightseeing in that crazy setting, separated from us by thirty-five years and an ocean.

So I watched the footage drift by with mild interest.  I only really perked up during the fight itself, which only occupies the last twenty minutes or so of the film.  This was the first time I'd seen a boxing match with commentary that actually explained the strategy involved.[1]  That fascinated me, since I'd always just seen boxing matches as something akin to schoolyard brawl, with people madly punching at each other.

Apart from that, I really have nothing else to say.  It's a pleasant-enough way to pass an hour or two.


Star Trek [spoilers]
This is something I don't see every day:  great characters in a bad movie.

Almost every bad movie has bad characters.  I can think of few exceptions.  You could argue that The Big Lebowski has great characters in a movie that's a bit of a mess, but Lebowski is shambolic by design, a sort of anti-detective-procedural.  No, it's very, very rare that I get to the end of a film and think, "Okay, good.  Now that that's out of the way, shall we put this cast of characters into a story that *doesn't* suck?"

I suppose I knew going into Star Trek that the plot would be a bit dodgy.

I did know the general storyline:  some evil baddie had gone back in time and split off an alternative-timeline Trek-verse.  I have to admit, alternative-timeline time travel usually rubs me the wrong way, as it creates a universe with no stakes.  Something went horribly wrong?  Hey, just rewind and fix it!  Or, perhaps more precisely, it's not a universe with no stakes:  it's a universe in which surely everyone *else* in the future has hit upon this fabulous time-travel technology, so the whole universe is now a four-dimensional FUBAR where everyone's meddling with history simultaneously.

Sorry.  I digress.

I saw that Abrams et al were doing some alternate-timeline thing, and it struck me as an okay 'necessary evil.'  Okay, this is how they can reboot to original-Trek times without using the geriatric (and dwindling) orignal cast, and without shoehorning the latest stories into the crevices of original-series continuity.

But then I found out that the alternate timeline split off *before* Kirk got himself the Enterprise with its old, familiar crew.

Um... hmm.  So... how exactly do we get the band back together?  Is Kirk instructed to snap up these particular crew members?  (If so, why?)  Or do we just end up relying on crazy-ass coincidence?  Ding!  Why, yes we do!

The other plot problem was that Star Trek is a movie adaptation of a TV show, and such adaptations are notoriously difficult.  As I've gone on about here, a TV show is fundamentally different from a movie.  A movie sets up one hero pursuing one objective.  A few secondary characters help him/her along, and an antagonist stands in opposition, and that's it.  A TV show sets up a whole universe that can generate hundreds of stories.  Even if you have a single central hero (e.g. Kirk), you're definitely going to have a significant set of secondary characters (e.g. the crew).  And those characters aren't just about helping or hindering a single objective -- they're there to provide different attitudes and objectives towards *anything that might happen*.

So, when you have to adapt a TV show to film, you most often wind up having to include a whole ton of extra characters when the film *wants* to be about just one person going after just one thing.  This happened in Serenity (oh, now we have to visit Shepherd Book, because, uh... we have to include him), and it happens here, too.  The movie can't quite settle on a protagonist (Kirk? Spock?) and it devotes a bunch of its running time to secondary characters.

There a whole 'nother problem when it comes to adapting a "client-based show".  Quick definition:  a client-based show is a show where, in every episode, 'a stranger comes to town.'  In a medical drama, the clients are patients.  In a lawyer show, the clients are... well, clients.  And on Star Trek, the clients are whichever space aliens that Kirk et al are dealing with this week.

Okay, that 'nother problem:  your movie plot is going to require a client.  Whatever client you come up with is going to suck.  There is no way you will, on the fly, come up with a client character who is as beloved or as nuanced as the TV show's core cast.  Sure, the Operative in Serenity was a nice try, but I still found myself a bit bored while watching Chiwetel Ejiofor's estimable performance.  ("Where's Cap'n Mal and his crew?  C'mon!")  Khan (in Wrath of) is something of a miracle.  I don't remember the villains in any other Trek film.

So of course the Trek reboot was going to have a sucky villain.  In this case, we wind up with -- hold on, let me look it up on Wikipedia -- Nero the Angry Romulan.  He had a face tattoo.  He looked angry a lot.  He had some motivation that came from Romulus will-be-having-gotten[2] blown up, something Spock prattled on about in a big chunk of history-lesson exposition.  And, like all truly evil geniuses, Nero the Angry Romulan is going to destroy the Earth.

This is what, in the biz, is called 'schmuck bait'.  It's the threat that's so over-the-top that you as an audience member don't believe for a nanosecond it will succeed.  It's the Alf episode where it looks like the bad guys might shoot Alf at the second commercial break.  Yeah.  Right.[3]

So where does that leave us?

Well, we've got an alternate-universe time travel story (*eyeroll*) in which a big, unwieldy cast of good guys fight a really lame bad guy with a ludicrous Evil Plot.  Oh, and we'll spend a ton of time on setup -- more specifically, on a set of wince-inducing coincidences that gather said cast of good guys together.

*sigh*  Okay, fine.

That said, the movie might still win on points, because again, they've got a great cast of characters (minus Nero) muddling through this chewing-gum-and-baling-wire storyline.

To my mind, Trek succeeded because Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were a great trio of characters.  They were sharply written, they had unique attitudes on every situation, and they would all always conflict about everything.  Perfect.  I intend no slight to Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty -- it's just that, character-wise, I don't know anything about them apart from that they're all very professional and that Scotty is very clever, in addition.

In this reboot, they don't screw up the big three.  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban do beautiful work here.  They don't do impressions of the original-series actors, but they nail the core of those characters.  Pine is the biggest surprise of the three, reminding you that yes, Kirk was/is a cocky, insufferable, womanizing bastard -- not the sort of person you want to know in real life, but exactly the sort of character you want in a work of fiction.

Those three characters worked fine in the original, and they work fine here.

They handle the other secondary characters by basically endowing them with characters that weren't quite there in the original show.  Chekov's "thing" is that he's some sort of boy genius á la Wesley Crusher.  Scotty is now Simon Pegg with a brogue and a diminutive alien sidekick.  Uhura is much more take-charge, take-no-crap-from-Kirk than the original.  (Sulu stays a rather vague fellow in this incarnation, but kudos to the writers for somehow getting him into a swordfight.)

The other strength here is (as others have pointed out) the art direction.  J. J. Abrams embraces the old 60s mod stylings -- primary colors, go-go boots, and all -- but he gives it that battered, lived-in quality that (ironically) tends to require lots of money, CGI-wise.  With modern space-fi now defined much more by Alien and Battlestar Galactica (gritty, grimy, gray), harking back to the bright, original Trek designs is a way to boldly zig while everybody else zags.  And lo, everything old is new again.

So in spite of all my complaints, I had fun while watching this.  Maybe I didn't particularly care about what happened next, maybe I rolled my eyes at the latest wild coincidence, and maybe I didn't even 100% understand what was going on -- but I liked watching the familiar characters go through their scenes on the well-designed sets.

Now that they've got the pilot out of the way, maybe they can knock the second episode out of the park.

(Evens are always better than odds, right?)


Andy Richter Controls the Universe [2x01-2x07]
I didn't even realize I'd moved on to the second season until just know, when I checked the episode list on wikipedia.  Frankly, the only difference I noticed in this batch of episodes was that somehow Irene Molloy wasn't as mind-meltingly distracting -- probably some subtle change to makeup and costuming.

There really isn't much to say about the latest batch of episodes.  I guess the unmarried counterpart to the "fat guy with a hot wife" sitcom is the sitcom where a plain-looking male comedian beds and loses a different starlet in every episode.  I suppose it makes for a straightforward episode structure, giving the lead a straightforward objective and restoring the status quo at the end.  Apparently Richter himself was surprised (and a bit uncomfortable) at the number of love scenes he wound up doing on this show.

But the show's at its best when it's at its wackiest.  Episodes where Andy has to go through sensitivity training or competes for a business trip to France are alright, but pale in comparison to, say, Byron's conversion to sheep-worshipping or Conan O'Brien's guest turn as the insane Pickering CEO.  The further it goes into fantasy-land, the more different it is from ordinary workplace sitcoms.


The Sopranos [1x04-1x07]
Disc two of season one has four episosdes:  "College", "Pax Soprana", "Down Neck", and "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti".

I have my DVD player programmed to skip the FBI warnings and go straight to the start of the current movie.  This doesn't work so well with TV shows -- given a TV disc, the player doesn't always know which episode to start with.  So I got halfway into "College", and I wondered to myself whether I'd skipped ahead by accident.  (I hadn't.)

This got me thinking that The Sopranos, for all its innovation, still predates a lot of the heavy serialization we associate with lots of subsequent shows (picking a few at random:  The Wire, Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica).  Sure, it has an overall plot, but it's never a "what's going to happen next?" kind of show.  The overall plot drifts along slowly, like in Mad Men.  And instead of providing the next chunk of the plot, each episode explores a different part of the setup.

The initial setup has a ton of questions built into it.  What will happen when Tony tells his daughter what his *real* job is?  How far is Carmela willing to go with Father Intintola?  What will happen when Livia finds out Tony is seeing a therapist?  What was Tony's father like?  The pilot planted all these questions, so now the episodes burn through them, one at a time.  It's not about moving the plot, it's about filling in the landscape.

Honestly, I don't have much else to say about this batch, mainly because I'm writing this about a week and a half after watching it.  (Two bouts of illness and a trip to Chicago intervened.)


LOST [5x14-5x15] [spoilers]
This past Wednesday, I went out to the Drafthouse to watch the latest episodes of LOST.  This might have been unwise, as I was fighting off what I later found out to be a case of bronchitis. (!)  In any case, I sat quietly in the theater, focussed intently on not-coughing, and watched "The Variable" and "Follow the Leader".

Maybe I wasn't in the best mood to appreciate these episodes.  Or maybe "The Variable" had been hyped a little too much, with the title alone inviting comparisons to "The Constant", which may well be the high-water mark for the whole series.  In any case, I felt a little underwhelmed.

The basic problem, for me, is that I've bought in 100% into the "Whatever happened, happened" theory of time travel.  There is only one timeline, and if you've seen something happen in some part of the timeline, that's set in stone.  So when Daniel suddenly did a 180° and decided they could change the past by detonating a hydrogen bomb, I just didn't believe it.  I didn't believe they could succeed, and (more annoyingly) I didn't believe that Daniel would be stupid enough to think he could cheat his way around the grandfather paradox this time.

Again, I wish the smarter characters on the show would just accept the single-timeline theory, and start thinking up cool ways to take advantage of it.  (Sawyer's plans to buy Microsoft and bet on the Superbowl seem like they're on the right track.)

That said, the doomed effort led to some interesting conversations.  I loved watching Jack and Kate try to wrap their heads around the latest time-travel paradoxes.  I loved the discussion of whether they'd be better off losing the last three years of their lives as they land safely in Los Angeles.[4]  Still, I just wasn't on-board for the overall story.

"Now what?" indeed.

That said, watching Sawyer's life fall to pieces was great fun.  It was a long time coming.  As soon as the Ajira passengers showed up in '77, LaFleur's cozy little life was in danger.  As soon as they saved Ben behind DHARMA's back, they were in more danger.  And once Phil finds the videotape in "Some Like It Hoth", everyone in our little group is doomed.

So yes, I loved watching everything hit the fan.  Of course Radzinsky finds Phil in the closet.  Of course people get shot at.  Of course they all decide to flee Dharmaville.  And of course the DHARMA folks wind up torturing Sawyer.  This all feels like the opposite of marionetting the characters into place for plot setup -- instead, all our 70s Losties have the simple, clear objective of getting out of DHARMAville alive.

And lastly, I loved seeing Sawyer and Juliet together at the end.  I suppose all viewers have their allegiances to various pairings on the show, and mine are with those two.  More generally, I get weary of television's fixation on "will they or won't they?" on-again, off-again couples.  After a while, you just want to see a couple that's together and that works, because (1) one wants variety, and (2) I'm not a teenager any more, so these singleton soap opera quasi-couplings don't quite relate to my life.

Now, Sawyer and Juliet are no Coach and Tami, but they're a couple that's been together for a few years, that support each other, and that aren't going through the same tedious motions of "OMG does she 'like me' like me?!  OMG OMG!"  They're together.  They're happy.  And yeah, I know, they're doomed.  Just give me this moment.

Finally, these episodes show us Locke & Co. in 2007.  I don't have much to say about this part, as it seemed to be mostly tantalizing hints about the rest of the story.  Did Richard really see all the DHARMA recruits die?  How does the compass keep time-traveling between 1954 and 2007 without eventually crumbling to dust?  Who is Jacob, and why does Locke want him dead?

So all of that is interesting and augurs well for the finale.

All in all, I actually liked these two episodes.  Sure, there were aspects that bored and disappointed me, but generally the penultimate episodes of a LOST season are just about moving the pieces into place for the finale:  set up one group over here, another group over there, and a third group in some other place, with plans to collide them all together at the end.  I'm sure "The Variable" and "Follow the Leader" had that same function, but it didn't get in the way of the storytelling.  Everybody had understandable reasons to go to their variety of destinations.

So now we see how they finish it off.  Evidently this time, the code-name for the finale's rug-pull scene is "the fork in the outlet."  Bring it, fellas.


Yes!:  50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Noah Goldstein et al [audiobook]
Sometimes I just impulse-buy something on audible, and I wind up regretting it.  This is a sensible idea for a book -- the authors distill current psychological research into simple, down-to-earth advice for sales and marketing types -- there's just no reason for me to read it.

Sure, there are some interesting tidbits here and there:  for example, just putting a mirror on a wall makes people more likely to behave in a socially-acceptable way.  But most of the information is sales-specific:  for example, how to handle voice mail when you're dealing with international customers.  So the book ranges between "mildly interesting" and "utterly useless."

The writing style has little to recommend it.  I swear to god, there's a whole sense of humor that exists solely among sales-and-marketing types that just makes no sense to me.  The book opens with a joke from Henny Youngman ("What a hotel!  The towels were so big and fluffy I could barely close my suitcase!") and stayed in that stale, weak-joke mode throughout the book.  (For example, they end on chapter with a paragraph that references Star Wars, and the last sentence is, "After all, we sense much good in you."  Budum kish.)

So, yeah, that was a dud.


Nothing new, podcast-wise. 

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Schumann's lieder.

For next time:  more Andy Richter Controls the Universe, more Sopranos, and I continue my glacial progress through Richard II.

________________________
[1] Also, this is one of the first times I've seen boxing footage after kinda-sorta learning to dance.  This meant that I was suddenly incredibly impressed by the footwork involved.

[2] Time travel plays bloody hell with English verb forms.

[3] I'd even argue that destroying Vulcan is too big for the audience to really wrap their heads around -- c.f. Arthur Dent trying to comprehend the destruction of Earth in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

[4] But still, the fact that dozens if not hundreds of people have *died* on account of the 815 crash should pretty much decide things, right?

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Comments:

From:(Anonymous)
Date:Monday (5/11/09) 11:53am
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Whew, with all those "didn't believes," I was starting to believe you outright disliked those episodes. I'm glad you didn't :) I do agree that, rather than being top-notch episodes by themselves, they're basically performing the task of setting up the finale.

If you think that predictions are spoilery, then this is spoilery: I really believe that the Losties of '77 are going to die. Which is still going to blow my mind when I see it, and is going to be the most radical season finale I've ever heard of. Jack, Kate, Hurley, Sawyer, Juliet, Miles, all dead... and we have to wait eight months to see how a whole other season works under those circumstances. It'll be awesome.
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From:innocentsmith
Date:Monday (5/11/09) 2:47pm
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There is no way you will, on the fly, come up with a client character who is as beloved or as nuanced as the TV show's core cast.

Most of the ST movies, IIRC, feature villains introduced previously in the series. Which makes sense from a promotional standpoint, and to some extent a storytelling standpoint: you pick the audience-favorite bad guys.

(If they weren't very nearly played out at this point, I'd be taking bets for how many movies it takes for alt!Kirk & Co. to meet the Borg.)

I don't think it's impossible to get a dearly beloved and iconic client character/species/antagonist, really, especially in Trek. I submit for your consideration: tribbles, Q, the Borg - all of whom were instant classics on their first appearance. It's just that it's kind of easier to have a show where you can try different things out from week to week, and see what sticks, without the huge money and time issues involved in making a motion picture.

As to the movie's plot in general...yeah. Um, you know, thinking about it? Fanfic has probably really affected my ability to care about plot holes. Not to see them, really; part of me was definitely going, "So Kirk and Spock Prime JUST HAPPENED to land on the same planet and then wander into the same ice cave on said planet, are you motherfscking KIDDING me?" and so on. I just...didn't actually care that much, because I was so busy going "OMG BABY SPOCK! DON'T BE SAD, BABY SPOCK!" The plot could pretty much go screw itself, because it was all so shiny and all the performances were great.

I am hoping they'll deal in more depth with the destruction of Vulcan in the sequel, though. Which I pretty much figure they'll have to, because you know they're not going to be able to pass up doing a plot about pon farr.

....And I think I need a new!Trek icon or two, now.
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