Thursday, September 27, 2007

Heroes Takes a Fall

Spoiler warning, and all that.

So, um, the "Heroes" premiere? Kind of disappointing. Not quite as disappointing as the season finale, but certainly lacking that sort of crazy dramatic energy that characterized most of the first season.

I think part of the problem is that some of the plotlines feel pretty predictable at this point. How long is it going to take Hiro to realize that he's going to have to take Kensei's place, for instance?

I liked the comic book touches, though. There's the turn toward hopelessness (a mainstay of "time has passed" reboots) with the end of Parkman and Petrelli's marriages, there's Nathan's drinking problem and Noah's undercover dealings. Not to mention the Legacy Virus. But the two most "comic book" moments of the whole show were the "Of all of us, I never expected it to be you" scene, with the silhouetted assassin, and the mysterious amnesia there at the end. Fantastic.

But still, it felt kind of...blah. Just, flat. I suppose the series premiere was pretty lackluster too, so I hope it'll just pick up again like it did before. I'm not sure about the virus plot or the fact that Sylar's still out there; I thought they cured the disease in the last season (in Molly, with Mohinder's antibodies), and I think Sylar's going to end up overused and boring. We'll get to the mid-season break, and the recently-revealed silhouetted assassin is going to head back to his headquarters, greeted by a mysterious voice. As he turns around to attack, the camera will pan around to Sylar, sitting ominously in a chair, and we'll get the "To Be Continued" screen for a month and a half. I guess it's a consequence of being so comic book inspired that it feels like the plots are predictable, but I really hope they pull out some twists and prove me wrong.

On the bright side with regard to predictability, once we saw Claire's classmate flying, I figured he'd turn out to be Peter, keeping an eye on her (did Peter ever meet the illusion-making woman?). Now, I have to wonder. It's possible that it's Sylar (can he shapeshift into something other than a cockroach? Can he use telekinesis to fly?), and it's possible that it's just another Hero with flight as a power, but the show so far (it seems to me) has been operating on the old-school Legion rules: no repetitive powers.

Now that I think about it, though, the obvious option is that he's related to Claire, and is another child (illegitimate or otherwise) of Nathan Petrelli.

So, yeah, despite a slow start, I'll be watching "Heroes" religiously this season. Every time I think I'm out...

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Thursday Night Thinking!

Been awhile since I did one of these. I wonder what the Flash is thinking here?

No, no, he's jacking in.

I'm betting "Borg cubes make terrible toilets." But let's make this interactive: What do you think the Flash is thinking?

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Girls are Icky

People who've been paying attention for awhile should know that I love watching bad movies (ignore all the unfinished posts, please). Whether it's independent shoestring-budget schlock like "Shatter Dead" or bloated big-budget silver screen abominations like "Face/Off," I get some perverse pleasure out of watching terrible, terrible films.

But my love of the terrible is not limited to the wonders of the screen, oh no. I've a soft spot in my head heart for bad literature, and I listen to quite a lot of bad music as well. Of the three, bad music tends to be the cheapest and easiest to find; I mostly just turn on the local Top 40 station and listen for a few minutes.

Sidebar: there's quite a lot of bad music from previous generations, too, but it tends not to get as much radio play now. You could listen to the oldies station for days before you caught "Macarthur Park," and you might never hear "Timothy" or "He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss." When's the last time you heard "Too Young To Date" on the '80s channel? Conversely, you might hear "Grillz," "Me Love," and "Girlfriend" in one twenty minute block on Top 40 radio.

Now, there's a national show I sometimes catch on weekends called The Open House Party, which tends to employ a more strict censorship policy than the regular station (I assume so it can be played across the country, regardless of regional differences in sensitivity). I've got a problem with censorship to begin with, but recently a prurient hack-job on the Open House Party exposed me to something far more offensive than foul language.

The song was "Money Maker" by Ludacris and Pharrell, a crude tune that continues this trend of mentioning women's mothers in pick-up lines, which I have to imagine is about the most unsexy thing ever. But I'd heard all that before; the new wrinkle in this listen-through was that the show censored the word "wet" in the line "How every way you turn I'll be makin' you wet."

It's clearly a reference to female arousal and I can see why you'd cut such an obviously sexual reference. Taken alone, that decision isn't surprising. It's when you listen a little longer, to the line "Get up, and I stay harder than a cinder block, man," which was not cut. Why is it that a clear reference to female arousal can't be played, but a clear reference to male arousal can? What is so different between erections and lubrication? Is it the presence of fluids? I'm sure they'd cut "cum," but that's far more specific to what it's describing than "wet;" it's not like Luda said "every way you turn I'll be making you discharge lubricating fluids." No, it's a double-standard: it's okay to talk about erections and male arousal, but it's not okay to talk about female arousal.

Seems to me that this is a symptom of a social contradiction: "the purpose of women is to be sex objects" vs. "girl parts are icky." It's absolutely fine to have a whole song where women are merely objects of sexual desire, but you can't actually discuss the mechanics of their girl parts, because that's too gross. Guy parts, however, are simple and clean and all on the outside, out in the open, not mysterious and dark and dank.

These contradictory social dichotomies show up all over the place in misogyny, both the personal and institutional sorts. There's the Frank Miller Special, "virgins" vs. "whores;" there's the classic chivalric "women are better than men and deserve exaltation" vs. "and that's why they ought to be second-class citizens with different rights;" there's even "women don't actually want/enjoy sex" vs. "all women lie/cheat/sleep around (see also: John Donne)" vs. "women who dress provocatively and flirt are just asking for it."

It happens with other minority groups too--I'm specifically thinking of the "noble savage"--but seemingly without as much frequency, tenacity, and diversity as these attitudes toward women. I've seen screeds from misogynists that hit on several of these contradictory points in a row, completely oblivious of how poorly they fit together. "Wait, getbackinthekitchen_48, if men are naturally much smarter than women, then how was she able to manipulate and trick you for so long?"

Generally stereotypes contain within them some measure of truth; that's part of why they're so widely believed and so easily disseminated--members of one group already perceives all members of an outgroup as a homogeneous whole, so traits which purport to describe all members of an outgroup fit within that framework. What people so often fail to do is actually examine the traits they've used to label these outgroups and see that they often don't fit together. If all Mexicans are lazy, then why are they a threat to your manual labor jobs? If all homosexuals just want to have loads of indiscriminate no-strings-attached sex, then why are they a threat to the sanctity of marriage? If your stereotypical traits don't jive with each other, then what are the chances that they apply to all members of a community?

The truth is that all group descriptions, all things that may be true "on the whole," break down on the individual level. On the whole, women aren't as physically strong as men; that doesn't mean that every woman is physically weaker than every man by any stretch of the imagination. It's not enough just to tell people that stereotypes are bad and that we should reject them; stereotypes are bad, but they're also a natural consequence of evolution-sculpted psychology. In order to overcome the instinct to create generalizations, we have to apply intellect: we have to recognize the stereotypes for what they are, accept that we use them, understand why we construct them, and finally see why they fail and how to overcome them. The first step toward overcoming natural drives is recognizing them as such.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Check it and see

I don't really care for Forerunner. She's just shy of a Mary Sue, and I suspect that's mainly because she doesn't really act as a Paul Dini stand-in. She's overexposed, she's unnecessary, and all the other characters seem to think she's a total badass and really important, because they keep telling us explicitly that she's a really important badass.

And now she's getting her own miniseries. Damn it, DC, isn't it enough that you're setting up Lara Croft-meets-Smurfette as the lynchpin of the next big event? Can't you leave it at that? No, of course not. Instead you waste paper on this miserable abomination:

FORERUNNER: HOT BLOODED #1
Written by Adam Beechen
Cover by Ed Benes
Art by Ed Benes and Sandra Hope
Spinning out of COUNTDOWN, Forerunner takes the lead in her own all-new miniseries! It's a blue morning when the mysterious Monarch casts Forerunner out of the Bleed and into the middle of the SALVATION RUN! Will she play along with Monarch's head games, or will she finally sell him out to the Monitors? It'll have to be an urgent decision, because Captain Cold and Killer Frost are ready to make her cold as ice!
On sale December 19 • 1 of 8 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US

Sigh...wake me up when Countdown is over, please.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Blah

Sorry for the longer-than-usual absence. I've developed a nasty cold, which has turned my brains to mush, made the back of my throat all goopy, and filled my sinuses with gunk. Hopefully I'll be over it before any other amusingly-worded ailments develop. Gah.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Symptoms of Terminal Geekiness

There's a Greek group on campus here (a sorority, I think) named "Chi Omega." I see their letters fairly frequently on shirts and the rear windows of cars. But every time I see that "," my immediate next thought is "Manowar."

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Oh, the Horror!

I'm not sure that I've ever mentioned this here before, but I watch a lot of horror movies. Most of them, like most of just about anything, are awful. Quite a lot of them are hilariously awful, which tends to be why we watch them. But occasionally you'll see a horror film that isn't quite laughable, but clearly misses everything that makes horror movies effective. There are a number of key things that filmmakers need to understand about horror movies before they start writing and directing their own, things that a hideously large number of modern horror movie directors simply fail to grasp.

Guess which movie I saw this weekend. So, here are, in my estimation, the most important things you need to know before you start making a horror movie.

1. Gore is not a substitute for suspense. I think this bears repeating and repeating and repeating to every horror filmmaker in Hollywood right now. Don't get me wrong, I liked "Saw" and "Saw II" (haven't seen the third yet). But I didn't enjoy those movies for the gore; I cringed at the gore (especially in the second one. I liked them because they had good plots with a clear understanding of suspense and of the audience's expectations. A lot of the horror movie fans who go on to create their own, whether for the big screen or for the Blockbuster shelf, remember being shocked by spurts of blood or hearing their girlfriends scream at dismembered limbs and sudden stabbings; what they often fail to understand is that the shock isn't how much blood there is, but in the atmosphere leading up to the gore. Gore is little more than window dressing; it's almost entirely unnecessary for a good scare. What you need for a good jump moment is music, setting, and other elements that create a sense of apprehension which leads naturally to a sudden climax. Blood might be involved in that climax, but it's not satisfying alone. It's the difference between recreational sex and artificial insemination: the point isn't the fluid, it's about everything leading up to it.

2. Sympathetic killers are scary. Monsters are scary. Sympathetic monsters are goofy. Now, when I say "monster," I'm not necessarily talking about something like Godzilla, but Godzilla works well as an example. While it's hard to really think of Godzilla as a horror character, it's easy to see why he could be scary. He's big, he's angry, he kills indiscriminately, he's relatively difficult to stop, and so on. Who remembers Godzooky, the animated baby Godzilla? The only scary thing about Godzooky is that someone thought it was a good idea. When you give Godzilla a kid sidekick, when you humanize him and make him sympathetic, you remove what's scary about him.

Different things can make a character monstrous. Some characters, like Godzilla, are monstrous because they're threatening and inhuman: Jason Voorhees is a mute, faceless engine of death; Michael Myers is similarly silent, slow, and completely imperturbable; Freddy Krueger is a wisecracking child molester who comes at you in your sleep. These characters frighten you because you imagine yourself in their victims' position, being chased by an unstoppable murderer. Some characters are monstrous because they're compelling and seductive: Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant, charming psychiatrist who conducts meticulous cannibalistic murders; Dexter Morgan is a funny, witty antihero with an artificial sense of morals; Dracula is a sexy, sophisticated immortal prince with superpowers. The compelling monsters scare you because you imagine yourself in their position, you live vicariously through them, you can't quite bring yourself to condemn them entirely; they scare you by making you see the monster in yourself.

This isn't to say that sympathetic killers can't be scary, but it's a different kind of scare. You get more of a "that could happen to anyone" scare, a realization of how easy it is to be pushed to doing terrible things. But a sympathetic killer isn't a monster, and the dynamic is very different because of that.

Mixing sympathy with monstrousness is like topping cheesecake with ketchup: the things are great separately, but together both are ruined. You can't turn a sympathetic character into a threatening monster because you've already identified with the character; they no longer seem threatening. You can't turn them into a compelling monster because there's no moral anxiety, just dissonance because you no longer identify with the character the way you did. Trying to go from monster to sympathetic character is equally fraught with failure. Moviemakers need to be aware of which character they're promoting, which one is the most interesting, which one the audience is identifying with, and write the story accordingly.

3. If you're going to give the killer a moral code, stick with it. The slasher genre has always had a fairly strict moral undercurrent, which was made explicit in "Scream." The audience knows that the couple who goes off to have sex is going to get mercilessly slaughtered, and that the pure-as-snow virgin heroine will live to see the credits. Especially since "Scream," you can't make a slasher movie without acknowledging this; your killer either has to follow some moralistic pattern, or has to completely eschew it and kill indiscriminately. The problem with the former is that you risk losing some suspense value to predictability and cliché. The problem with the latter is that you risk losing suspense value because the audience can't anticipate when a kill is coming.

There are, of course, ways around this. You can circumvent the "slasher morals" by establishing a different moral code, like in "Saw." You can make your hero/heroine not quite so pure as the standard. What I'd like to see some director do is follow the "slasher morals" with the first kill, setting the audience up for the standard, then shock the audience with the sudden murder of one of the morally pure characters, and continue from there ignoring the slasher morals entirely.

What you can't do is follow the morals sometimes, and kill indiscriminately other times. It's sloppy, and it makes your killer look inconsistent. When you've set up that your killer only goes after, say, the morally impure and the people who are mean to him, you can't then have him killing his friends and killing people who never committed any immoral acts on-screen. The killer's motives should generally be clear.

4. Setting is part of the scare. I addressed this briefly earlier, but it's worth repeating. Crafting an effective scare, even just an effective jump moment, requires more than just the characters. You need music appropriate to the mood and you need an atmosphere that promotes uneasiness. Too many horror filmmakers seem to lack basic understanding of how lighting, music, and setting come together to create an effective scare. It's the reason that someone shouting "boo" at you in your well-lit living room is less effective than someone doing the same thing in the woods under a full moon.

Similarly, your setting should be clear and distinctive. The audience should have some idea of where and when the action is taking place. A confused audience is not a scared audience.

5. I think this may be the most important: Effective horror movies play on preexisting fears. This is another place where it pays to know your audience, and to anticipate their reactions. Slasher movies tend to target teenagers and adults, and these groups come to the theaters with certain anxieties. Smart filmmakers know this and use it to great effect. The reason that the "Friday the 13th" movies are effective is because they play on the adults' fears of sending their kids off to camp; and they play on the teenagers' fears of an unfamiliar environment like camp, and their fear of being caught and facing consequences for engaging in "immoral" activities--sex, drugs, drinking, etc. That last bit there, naturally, is common to most slashers: the fear of being caught. The "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies play on parents' fears of child molesters and of their children suffering the consequences of their mistakes; they play on kids' fear of "that creepy guy at school," lingering fears of nightmares and the Boogeyman, and the fear that they aren't safe even in their own bed.

And the brilliance of the original "Halloween" is that it takes the mundane, the familiar, the completely safe and makes it scary. It plays off a couple of common urban legend themes--escaped mental patient, 'in this town there was a guy who once killed his sister'--and of course picks up the "getting caught" fears of the slasher morals. It plays off of common fears of Halloween, not just the "crazies come out on Halloween," but it's the natural extension of the "razor blade in the apple" myth: there are people who will exploit Halloween to get at your kids. And then it sets all this in a very normal suburb, effectively getting the audience to feel that fright isn't reserved for creepy hotels and summer camp, but it can follow you home. Top it off with a killer who is always calm, always silent, and displays no apparent superhuman abilities--a mundane, normal sort of murderer--who wears a spray-painted William Shatner mask. Familiar setting, familiar face, and familiar fears all come together to make a very effective scary movie.

And it's on nearly every one of these criteria that the new "Halloween" fails. The gore was excessive by the fifth time Michael hit the bully with the log, and never let up (and yet wasn't particularly realistic either. The effect when he slit the redneck boyfriend's throat looked like it came straight out of 1984's "Nightmare on Elm Street").

We start the film with a long segment exploring Michael Myers' childhood and how he became a mass murderer, with a family which could have come out of the "Big Book of Serial Killer Stereotypes" and a terrible experience at school. He clearly only kills people who are mean to him, either directly (the bully, the redneck boyfriend) or indirectly (the sister and her boyfriend who have sex instead of taking him trick-or-treating). It seems (in my unprofessional opinion) that he suffers from fugue states or some sort of dissociative personality disorder, since he clearly has no memory of what he's done while masked, and since he seems to recognize that killing is wrong when unmasked. Despite this, the psychiatrist says that he has no morals, or something to that effect.

We cut forward an unclear number of years, and completely foul up the setting. The movie started in the apparent '70s, but when it moves forward it's no longer clear when it should be. The ages of the characters would suggest the '80s, maybe early '90s at the latest, the cars and fashions would suggest modern day, the old-style Illinois license plates put us back in the '90s at the latest, the trucker's style and mannerisms (and porn) all set us back in the '70s, but the cell phones place us back in modern day, and the psychiatrist's rotary phone places us back in the mid-'60s. Not to mention that all the houses that we bounce between in the "modern" setting are completely interchangeable. We're told that it's Halloween, but where are the trick-or-treaters? There's no one on the streets, there's no one waiting at their front doors with candy (able to hear the screams of young girls and the wail of police sirens)...if not for the two lonely kids in costume, the movie could have been called "The Night of September 23rd" or some equally arbitrary date.

Back to our erstwhile slasher, the awkward, geeky little boy has grown into a 7-foot-tall, 300-pound grunting superhuman monster. He breaks his thick chains with no apparent effort, and broke my suspension of disbelief along with them. He then proceeds to go on a murderous rampage through the asylum, even killing the friendly janitor who protected him. At this point we've completely undermined the moral code we set up in the beginning, and we've tried to turn our sympathetic victim of circumstance into an inhuman hulk. The resultant effect is inconsistent and utterly laughable.

I applaud the filmmakers for the casting and characterization decisions with Laurie, who is both less prudish and more attractive than Jamie Lee Curtis's version. Unfortunately, we sacrifice quite a bit of realism here with an over-the-top quasi-lesbian relationship with all of her friends, which increasingly looks and sounds like "how a creepy 40-year-old man thinks/wishes teenage girls act."

Michael, upon returning to his hometown (apparently? I thought the sheriff said he moved Laurie to a different town), decides to pick up a moral code again and starts killing the fornicators, except that he also kills Laurie's adoptive parents, so he continues this inconsistent streak. Somehow, despite being superhumanly immense, he is able to repeatedly sneak up on people and enter houses undetected.

After several instances of him stabbing young girls and watching them crawl away, he goes after Laurie, who apparently shares the Myers family's superhuman durability. Eventually we get to the reprisal of the "falling off the balcony" scene from the first film, and Laurie shoots someone in the Myers mask in the face. Also, there's a running subplot about the psychiatrist's book that never goes anywhere.

And then we cap it off with an inexplicit twist ending that was revealed back in "Halloween II," and was stated more-or-less explicitly two or three times in this film besides. If you couldn't figure out who Laurie was by the time Michael showed her the picture of them together, then congratulations: you're an idiot.

It's a muddled mess of a movie. I'm glad it made changes to the original, but it seems like every one of those changes moved it toward cliché rather than away. The whole point of the original "Halloween" was to make the mundane frightening; this new version has no such overriding theme, and instead tries to make caricatures frightening through a liberal application of fake blood and real boobs. It doesn't feel like a remake of "Halloween" so much as a cheap knock-off, sold in Mexico with a sloppy paint job and brittle plastic.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Doctor, Doctor

I moved around quite a bit as a kid, so not much stayed constant through my childhood. Different schools, different neighborhoods, different shows on TV. But no matter where we've lived, my dad has always managed to find some channel airing a variety of British television series. I can't begin to count how many night's I stayed up late in the living room, watching episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or "Mystery!" or "Are You Being Served?" or "Benny Hill" and not getting a whole lot out of them. As I've grown older, I've latched onto some of these shows; I love anything with the Pythons, I've seen the vast majority of "Red Dwarf" episodes, and I'd probably sit and watch an episode of "Mystery!" if it were on. I'd at least watch the Gorey opening.

And then there's "Doctor Who." If you'd asked me at any time for as long as I can remember, I'd tell you I liked "Doctor Who." I might even have called myself a fan of the show. I could hum the theme song, talk about the TARDIS, do my best impression of a Dalek, tell you that Tom Baker's my favorite Doctor, I might even be able to say something about K-9 and The Master. And while I'm sure that, over the course of a youth spent watching late-night British television at my Dad's side, I've seen quite a bit of the series, I honestly couldn't remember the plot of a single episode. Heck, I remember making a point to watch the TV movie when it aired, and I couldn't tell you much about that either.

But recently I've been able to see a dozen or so of the revival series episodes on BBC America and Sci-Fi Channel, the vast majority of which have been with David Tennant, and I've really, really liked them. At the Con, I picked up a toy Sonic Screwdriver (with psychic paper!) and I've been spending a rather inordinate amount of time playing with it since then. All this has led to a reconfiguring of my Netflix queue, interspersing discs of "Cosmos" with discs of the Doctor.

So, I spent the last two hours or so watching "City of Death," starting my formal introduction to the series with a well-recommended Tom Baker episode, and it was fantastic. The show is clever, the Doctor is witty, there's a great deal of humor--how is it that I've managed to go this long without giving the show a real try?

Well, I certainly won't be making that mistake again. From now on, I'll be justified when I call myself a Whovian.

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