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

Monday (6/23/08) 11:09pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Battlestar Galactica:  Razor [spoilers], Battlestar Galactica (4x09-4x12) [spoilers]
Books:  Top 10 [2nd TPB], Ex Machina [1st TPB], The Adventures of Barry Ween:  Boy Genius [1st TPB]
Other:  Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods [script] [spoilers]

Battlestar Galactica:  Razor [spoilers]
This was the two-hour TV movie the show came out with as a way to tide fans over during the long hiatus between seasons three and four.

It's... odd.  It's a hodgepodge:  the 'current day' storyline is sometime in late season two; we see flashbacks to Admiral Cain's draconian reign on the Pegasus; we see flashbacks to Admiral Adama during the *first* Cylon War[1]; we see flashbacks to Cain's childhood; we see flashbacks to Guest Star Kendra Shaw's childhood.

The wide-ranging nature of the story lets it touch on lots of interesting bits.  We see the old-school Cylons, which indeed look like the man-in-suit robots from the original series and say, "By. Your. Command."  We see a research station where said robots are well on their way to constructing the first 'skinjobs'.  We see the attack on the Twelve Colonies from the Pegasus's point of view.  We see the gut-wrenching situation where the Pegasus stumbles on a small civilian fleet, scavenges them, and leaves the rest for dead.

These were all bits and pieces that I (and I imagine most of the audience) wanted to see.  The drawback is that they were all strung together kind of artlessly.  There was an ostensible plot about a (blink and you miss this important plot detail) lost science team.  The Pegasus launches a rescue mission, folks have flashbacks, and (no surprise here) the fleet loses more personnel than they rescue.

It was like they handed me a big bowl that contained a pile of chunks that fell off of other parts of the series.  It's okay, but it's just not elegant.

They also fell into the 'guest star trap'.  This is something they tell you repeatedly about writing spec scripts of a show:  write about the central cast -- don't introduce some Mary-Sue-like guest star and focus on *her* the whole time.  And yet here's this movie, introducing Kendra Shaw (a second-in-command under Cain that we just never saw in season two), making her the protagonist of the movie (as opposed to the characters we care about), and trying to generate some sort of tension about whether she'll survive to the credits.  (Hint:  she didn't show up in season three anywhere.)  If you introduce a guest star, you should use the guest star as a means to tell us more about the central cast, right?  Instead, we got a long story thread that spiralled off into nowhere.

Other elements (as the showrunners assured the fans) did wind up reappearing in season four, most notably the Hybrid's declaration that "Kara Thrace will lead the human race to its end."  Having heard this several times in season four, that reveal carried no particular narrative punch for me.  The Hybrid goes on to allude to much of what happens in season four, albeit in vague terms, and I was glad I had skipped it until now.

So it was a pleasant way to kill an hour or two, but not much beyond that.

Battlestar Galactica (4x09-4x12) [spoilers]
First things first:  yes, I did like the mid-season finale.

I think most people would have guessed that.  I mean, I liked the bizarre turns of the season-three finale, and I liked 'the uncomfortable year spent nestled in Gaius Baltar's hair' at the end of season two.  Basically, I love it any time a finale pulls a move you didn't expect, and makes you wonder how the series can ever be the same.  It gives you something to ponder during the hiatus, and typically the show draws a great storyline out of 'snapping back' to more or less the status quo.

Of course, now all bets are off.  Maybe now it's just not a show about fleeing from killer robots through interstellar space any more.  And I would be fine with that.

Another thing I love about this particular finale is that they whipped right past the endpoint we'd all guessed for the show.  We all figured they'd get to Earth and that would be the end of it.  And now they've reached Earth, we've still got 10-odd hours of television left, and we have no idea what happens next.  Excellent.

There were other things to enjoy in the finale.  They paid off the 'secret four' Cylons perfectly.  I loved that Tory, Anders, and Tigh each had to reveal their secret to the absolute worst possible person.  Tory had to confess to Roslin; Anders had to confess to Starbuck; Tigh had to confess to Adama.  And it was damn good storytelling to force them to out themselves by raising the consequences of keeping the secret higher and higher until Tigh finally broke.

And I figured they (the writers) were willing to kill Tigh dead.  Honestly, this had one of the more tense 'last-minute dash to save someone's life' scenes I've seen in a TV show in some time.  Ron Moore is one of the few showrunners who I'd say is crueler than Joss Whedon with regards to offing major characters.

The only bit I'd quibble about is how the miracle Viper detects a signal, and everybody just naturally assumes it's an Earth beacon of some sort.  They do hang a lantern on it (Leland opines that it's kind of a stretch), but it was still kind of annoying.

Note:  I am still pissed off I didn't get to see the midseason finale at the Alamo.  Damn überbug.

I was actually a bit disappointed with the two episodes leading up to the finale.  "Sine Qua Non" made the annoying mistake of taking 42 minutes to sort out what the audience knew from the start of act one:  that Leland (yeah, I'm just going to keep calling him that) was the ideal candidate for the interim presidency.  They made the characters look dumb by making them struggle to recognize the obvious.

And what was up with the phantom cat?  Or Lampkin pulling a gun on Leland?  Nothing about Lampkin's sudden bout of Screenplay Insanity Syndrome (wherein characters do completely irrational things that happen to neatly advance the plot) made much sense, character-wise.

No, the only things I really liked in that episode were the shocker that Caprica Six was pregnant -- which somehow came down just on the near side of "batshit" and the far edge of "audacious" -- and the image of Adama sitting and reading at the end of the episode.  It takes a bit of structural finesse to make an image of a man quietly reading mean so much dramatically.

Then after that was "The Hub", which I actually found fairly disappointing.  I had been eager to find out what exactly happened with Roslin's disappearing Basestar, and the answer was... oh.  She had some vague visions about her death.  Oh, and she's accompanied by a vaguely-magical dead black woman who makes vague, aphoristic statements.

Um... waiter, I ordered a *story* -- could you take this vague mound of scenes back to the kitchen?

Granted, after a while we get a space battle, which is intriguing enough (especially with Pike's jump dovetailing with his body's discovery in the previous episode).  Baltar gets sliced across the stomach for no good reason, and it's interesting watching Roslin decide (reluctantly) not to kill him.  And Roslin getting reunited with Adama at the end was a satisfying moment.

There were things to like about each of these two lead-up episodes, but neither one held a candle to "Revelations".

Note:  I picked up a few comic books at the library a couple weeks back (it turns out the North Village location has a really nice graphic-novel section -- who knew?).  I read them while I was sick, so I only have brief comments about them.

Top 10 by Alan Moore [2nd TPB]
This is the second volume of Alan Moore's series about a police precinct in a universe where everyone has some sort of superpower.  I remember being more entertained by the first volume, probably because it focused a little more on day-to-day life in the superhero community.  Volume two focuses more on the detailed plot mechanics of the Big Crime that the officers finally uncover, which makes it a little more like an episode of some bland CBS procedural.  It probably didn't help that it had been so long since I'd read volume one, and the details laid out there were a bit hazy for me.

Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan [1st TPB]
A superhero steps in to save the day during the 9/11 attacks, and then he gets elected mayor of New York City.  Ex Machina is the story of his term in office.

I was impressed with how well Mr. Vaughan kept from getting bogged down in details.  From the first page he nails down that, in this alternate history, everything *else* that goes on in the world happens the same as it did in our universe.  He also invents an NSA gag order that prevents people from discussing and probing the full extent of the hero's powers.  We know he can listen to and command electronic devices -- and isn't that all we really *want* to know, anyway?

I was surprised to discover that this series -- or at least the first trade paperback -- doesn't really push the 'superhero' angle.  That's mostly a gimmick to get us to read a story about a tyro politician struggling to handle the job of running New York City.  The crises he faces are interesting enough, though they don't have the range and verisimilitude of, say, the depiction of Baltimore politics in The Wire.  Instead, there are little 'monster of the week'-style problems:  someone's killing city snowplow drivers; there's an offensive piece of art at a public museum[2]; et cetera.

Still, Mr. Vaughan is a good storyteller, and the episodes elegantly putter along.  I should pick up volume two sometime.

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius by Judd Winnick [1st TPB]
This was a pleasant way to spend half an hour or so.

I admit, I've long ago gotten sick of stories that show a bulletproof Mary Sue deliver putdowns to all the stupid people around her.  (That was one thing that irked me about Juno, come to think of it.)  That's pretty much what this comic is about:  the dialog is a zillion variations on "I've invented a Turing-complete AI on my home computer, and you're asking me about pizza toppings?!" -- not an actual example from Mr. Winnick's comic, but I think it conveys both (1) the "I am SMART!" content of the zingers and (2) the relative un-zinginess of the zingers.

That said, it's obvious that Mr. Winnick is having a good time.  When Mr. Winnick spins a yarn in which Barry accidentally turns his best friend into a dinosaur or takes down a team of international art thieves, you can't help but share in the ebullience.

So:  good, not great, but certainly goofy & fun.

Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods [script] [spoilers]
This past week, one of the earlier drafts for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wheedled its way out of Paramount's vaults and exploded out on the Internet.  This was a draft turned in by Frank Darabont, a writer and director perhaps best known for The Shawshank Redemption.  I found out about it here and chased down one of the pdfs that had thus far eluded the studio's game of cease-and-desist Whack-a-Mole.

Executive summary:  it's better.  Not great, but better.

In many ways, it's a simpler story.  There is no Ray Winstone triple agent.  Instead, there is a Russian named Yuri who befriends Indy on a dig, double-crosses him with the Russian squad, and *stays with the Russians for the rest of the movie*.  My god, that sounds... almost *sensible* or something.  There is no Shia LeBoeuf sidekick -- and thus, no convoluted explanation as to why the sidekick shows up, no stretches where the sidekick has little to do, and no "great big reveal" about the sidekick that gets telegraphed from act one.  Instead, Marion has a larger role, which means you don't wonder "Why have they brought in Marion if she's just going to stand around making googly eyes at Indy all the time?"

In fact, hell, I can actually *summarize* this plot:  the Russians recover the skull as in the film.  Then Indy manages to snatch it from the Russians, and stumbles on their plot to use it to discover the lost City of Gold, which is reputed to grant wishes.  Then it's basically Indy's crew, the Russians, and the locals all racing to the same locale, using the Nazca lines as a guide.  (It's always a sign of a good plot, if you can easily recount what happened afterwards.)

That last bit touches on one of the few advantages of the film -- Darabont's script has a whole rogue's gallery of raiders going after the Lost City, whereas the film employs one clear villain that we can love to hate.

Also, Darabont's draft has some... unfortunate bits that read like cutesy fanfic.  They shoehorn in a joke about how Willie Scott went off to Hollywood and married 'some bigshot director'.  Indy at one point muses that "It's not the mileage, it's the years."  Yeah, it's wink-wink funny, but get it the hell out of the script, please.

By and large, this movie was far more competent than what ended up on screen.  It needed cutting -- 140 pages is a bit bloaty for an action melodrama -- but the action scenes were tense, the funny bits were funny, and the story pretty much made sense.

That said, I wish I could tell you what was missing from this that makes it fall so far short of Raiders.  I suspect I'll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the answers to that one; if I ever *do* figure it out, I'll be a very capable screenwriter.

EDIT: Here is an interesting article comparing Darabont's script to the movie.

For next time:  not much planned.  I just finished Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so I'll have a review of that.  I'll watch more of The Corner and Friday Night Lights.  I may finish The Taming of the Shrew as well.  Also, I've started listening to an audiobook of Phillip Roth's American Pastoral[3] -- but it may be a while before I finish that.

More Beethoven at work.  Cello sonatas, now.

[1] These first appeared as a series of webisodes earlier in the year, also designed to appease the fans during the hiatus.

[2] This bit demonstrated a canny knowledge of the art world, IMHO.  I wish Mr. Vaughan were as perspicacious towards politics.

[3] Side note:  I re-listened to a bit of She Comes First the other day, and it hit me that I'd have liked it if Stephen Fry had an editing pass at the book.  Not that the subject matter would be Mr. Fry's thing, but more that Mr. Kerner was aiming for a Fry-like style:  benign and cheerful about sex, while casually demonstrating jaw-dropping wit and literacy.  Mr. Kerner missed.  Badly.

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Date:Tuesday (6/24/08) 6:07am
Stop there with "Top Ten", at least as far as the main series goes. "The Forty-Niners" is terrific, and "Smax" is good for some lulz for its spoofs of fantasy clichés, but then some other guy took over writing "Top Ten" and it sucked.
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