Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review: The Road

Non Spoiler Review:
Last year I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in anticipation of the feature film, and I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it. Plotwise, this is a very linear and simple film, like the book, so it's easy to provide a non-spoiler review. It is very faithful to the book—a post-apocalyptic survival tale of a father and son making their way south through a devastated America in the hopes of finding a better life.

It’s interesting that the movie came out around the same time as 2012 and the two are completely at odds with one another. This is a very true-to-life rendition of a dying world. The film begins with the unnamed father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) pushing their shopping cart full of supplies down the broken roads of the United States, following their map to the coast. Though it’s never revealed what exactly happened, the geological upheavals and bleak climate point to some kind of asteroid impact or super-volcano.

The movie is stunning, and the palette is completely washed out of this ashen environment of devastated cities and burnt out forests. The only colours come from flashbacks Mortensen has of his life with his wife (played very well by Charlize Theron) and the events that led them to abandon their home and begin the journey south.

There are extremely dark moments that show the depravity of humanity faced with certain extinction. This isn't 2012 where everyone looks with optimism to a new beginning at the end. Humanity faces a daily struggle for survival against the hostile environment, famine and the barbarity of others they encounter on the road. It's as much about the struggle to survive, as keeping the will to live, faced with potentially horrific fates worse than starving to death.

Robert Duvall has a small, but very powerful part in the film, and both Mortensen and his son are compelling to watch as they find ways to continue to survive from day to day. As I said, the plot is very simple, but the themes are very complex, and sure to inspire thoughtful debate after the movie, much like McCarthy's other work, No Country for Old Men. I highly recommend this movie. It is quite disturbing on many levels, and some scenes will definitely stay with you afterwards. But if you like though-provoking stories, this is one of them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Commentary: Why 'V' Needs a Kick in the Junk

I started writing this review before the season finale, but opted to wait and see if there was a surprise pick-up in the series' momentum. We were promised the birth of Val's lizard baby, as well as the revelation of the Visitor's master plan for Earth. So, now I can comment on this first season.

When I found out V was going to remade, I felt the same way I did when I heard Clash of the Titans was getting a reboot—current special effects, a darker tone—awesome—much as how Battlestar Galactica completely rewrote its concept and took it to new directions its predecessor never imagined. Well, it might have been amazing if HBO had picked it up, but V is on ABC, and this snake is lacking venom (yes, I couldn't resist that cheesy metaphor, but it's very appropriate).

General spoilers:
V suffers from a couple of major problems. First, it's a remake of an icon of 80s television. V: the Miniseries was an event I can still clearly remember from my childhood. It was full of archetypal images that everyone was talking about the next morning at school—the giant motherships hovering over major cities, Visitor leader Diana swallowing a guinea pig whole, the reveal of the Visitor's reptilian faces, and the birth of the hybrid baby. The overall themes of fascism and the descent of a society into a police state doesn't lose any impact even when watched today.

So out of the gate, this new incarnation suffers from a level of expectation. It's like rebooting Star Wars as a television series. The writers have balanced the hype of the show on an expectation of what is to come, rather than what they are delivering each episode. In contrast, Battlestar Galactica made it clear from the start this was not the 70s Battlestar Galactica. Anything could happen. But as I watch and get increasingly frustrated with a lack of a cohesive vision for this series, I'm left with the thoughts of Oh well, I know Anna's a reptilian underneath that faux flesh, and they'll eventually have to get there if I stick with it.

Unlike the original that began with a miniseries with a clear story arc, this episodic V must be continuous with no (apparent) ending. That means that the key plot points of the miniseries—reptilian faces, the resistance being forced into hiding, full scale conflict with the aliens, Nazi-style martial law—to name a few, can’t be triggered in this incarnation, or the series will quickly pass a point of no return in its plotline. And the last thing ABC wants is big budget battle scenes to render on a weekly basis.

So we’re left with a series in which we know the aliens are reptiles, but we’ve only seen a few skin swatches and sharp teeth here and there. We know Val is having a Visitor baby. Older fans know this to be a little lizard baby. We suspect the Visitors are wanting to steal our water and use us for food, but only because we watched the original. 

I would be interested what someone who has never seen the original is taking from this new version. Ultimately, for me the excitement of the series is coming from what we are anticipating versus what is actually happening. Because a lot of the themes and potential in the pilot have been stumbling out of the starting gate.

There are some interesting updates to the mythology. The Nazi analogy has been replaced with a religious one—the Visitors appearing as saviours. But this has only gotten brief comment onscreen, and aside from a few placards in crowd scenes, one does not get the impression that globally people are drifting towards the Visitors as a new religious movement.

This lack of a global perspective is a big problem. Sure, we see images of Visitor motherships over world cities, and snippets of news reports. But that's it. The scope of the Visitor influence shown on the show (free medical technology and healing clinics, blue energy technology which requires absolutely no infrastructure to work) never delves into the implications of what this is meaning for society as a whole. It's as if the world of V is a small town that doesn't have to recognize what's going on elsewhere.

V wants to be Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t have the will to push its characters into those dark places. A case in point—one episode had the resistance shooting down a Visitor shuttle. Anna anticipated this and had human bodies put on the ship so it would appear as if they killed a bunch of human passengers. Had this been Battlestar Galactica, the resistance would have had to deal with the fact that they were used by Anna, and killed innocent people. End of story.

But this is V, and on ABC, so by the end all is revealed that they were human dead bodies, so they didn’t kill anyone after all. Phew! Sadly, that takes away from the impact of this resistance movement, who are virtually terrorists. And so a relevant theme of terrorism and its justification is left hanging in the wind. The writers just don't want to push it too far.

This show has suffered from a long hiatus, and it seems it won't air until late 2010 or early 2011 again, so that is also part of the problem in maintaining momentum. But they've already gone through some production changes, and one hopes they will actually hit upon a writing team who will chart out the entire season and its storyline, with perhaps an ending in mind, because right now it's a mess.

Spoilers for the Season Finale:
While this was a decent episode, it fell short in delivering. Chad Decker is still being wishy-washy. I have no idea if he's lying to Father Jack or to Anna, but it could be Scott Wolf's acting. He seems to be physically chewing on every piece of dialogue. Whatever the case, at Joshua's suggestion, he investigated the secret chambers where the Live Aboard humans are being taken and saw...what exactly? Whatever it was, apparently Chad now understands the Visitors' real reason for coming, which is fine and dandy, because the viewers still don't.

Val had her baby, and we got a nice shot of...a lizard tail. And that's it. And Val was killed by Anna right after, but I really didn't care what happened to her. She was just a plot device from the beginning. Ryan has apparently fallen back into Anna's has he completely converted back to the Visitors? It seems too easy, so he could be faking it. He just acted bizarrely the whole episode.

Finally, the one plot that developed pretty well was Erica managing to destroy Anna's soldier eggs. With help from Joshua and Lisa, and a plot that required everything to go perfectly—mission accomplished. However, she had to shoot Joshua in order to maintain her cover and BFF status with Anna (but not to worry, Joshua has been resurrected by...Marcus?).

Anna experiences a very messy emotional outburst, prompting a smirk from Lisa, and in a fit of vengeance, initiates the second stage of their mission. The new fleet, which left their homeworld in episode four, has arrived. Cloaked in orbit, these additional motherships turn the skies red (everywhere on Earth, even on the night side apparently!). So what this is, we have no idea. And so much for our answers. ABC, please stop promising answers to your shows' plotlines! (That's a shot at you, J.J. Abrams). I do not believe you anymore.

What Works/What Doesn't: 
Not to be entirely negative, this show has (had) great promise, which is probably the most vexing thing. Anna is great as the new supreme commander. She plays the villainess very well, and her entire comportment, from her posture to her rapid eye blinking, is very reptilian. But she is supposed to be emotionless, and yet she and her second-in-command Marcus visibly sneer with villainy towards the camera after each scheme comes to fruition. They might as well be rubbing their fingers together, too.

It is nice to see updated Visitor tech. They are wearing actual cloned flesh rather than masks. But what are their motivations for coming to Earth that would warrant such a massive undertaking to outfit thousands of their people, versus just invading? They have an outrageously massive invasion fleet that has just reached Earth by the end of the season that should have tens of thousands of soldiers at their disposal. Why must Anna breed her special super-soldiers? 

The design of the motherships has been updated from the original to subtly resemble a snake's head. They are rendered very well on the outside, but the interiors have suffered from too much greenscreen-itis. Backgrounds have come across looking quite artificial at times, but if the storyline and writing was better, it wouldn't be an issue at all.

Erica is great as the FBI agent, and coming off such a tragic death in Lost it's nice to see her showcased here. She really is the best, most consistent character on the show. The others still need development—Father Jack just does not come off as a priest, and Scott Wolf isn't believable yet as this famous Anderson Cooper-type journalist that can sway public opinion. Only former terrorist Hobbes shows some promise. I haven't developed a major hate for Erica's son, Tyler (as some reviewers seem to) or Anna's daughter, Lisa. I do like Marcus and Joshua, but perhaps it's because Visitors are so emotionless, they really don't have to act that much.

What's new in this version is that the Visitors have apparently been operating on Earth for quite some time, so much so there was a resistance in place during their official arrival. Some rebel visitors, representing their Fifth Column, have been living on Earth (Ryan being one of them). While it does set up the idea that the Visitors have been creating global chaos for years in anticipation of their arrival as saviours, was this really necessary? It seems to be a plot device just to set up the notion that anyone could be a Cylon—er...Visitor spy, I should say.

Lisa is a bit of a problem. She has some undisclosed plan for Tyler but has developed feelings for him. So by the end of the season, she has picked sides against her mother to help the Fifth Column destroy Anna's soldier eggs. This is a very ticklish plot she now knows which of her people are in the resistance, that Erica is part of it, and she could really blow it all wide open if she needs to.

But this is a nice segue into my rant, so here goes...

The Rant:
Given this effort to represent the science fiction aspects more realistically, the writers don’t seem to know where they’re going and casually skip over obvious plot problems. Oddly enough the 80s version took more effort to delve into the science. Here, the fact that the Visitors look human got one line of dialogue in the pilot and no explanation has been offered at all. You would think scientists the world over would be wanting some kind of explanation, yet none has been offered. The original series brought up the fact that human scientists were noticing the odd skull shape of the Visitors (given there was a human mask over a reptilian head). This prompted the Visitors to create their scientist conspiracy in order to silence this movement from the start.

Even the 80s series knew enough to have scientist Diana lend a creative hand in hybridizing the human/Visitor baby. But here, it just happens naturally? So humans and Visitors can reproduce with no effort whatsoever? 

Even more egregious is the inconsistencies in Visitor technology. Their defences are seemingly impregnable, at least until they need to be. They have assassination drones that show up and fire sharp needles in every direction. Their shields cannot be penetrated by human weapons, and they manage to track any human they’ve injected with their RV serum through vast rooms of projected images taken from omniscient cameras. 

And yet Erica not only talks freely on her cell phone at FBI headquarters to her fellow resistance (terrorist cell) members, without a concern that the FBI, nevermind the Visitors, might be monitoring phone calls? The Visitors have blue energy that requires no infrastructure, but they can't pick up a cell phone?

AND…Joshua can move about at will on the mother ship and kill troublesome prisoners to preserve the Fifth Column, talk on communications devices with the resistance that goes unmonitored? Even Erica can sneek about the mother ship, take a cell phone call from the resistance on the ground, toss a grenade into Anna’s hatchery, get back to dinner, and there was no surveillance footage or discovery at all? Chad can do the same, getting into the deep dark secret rooms where they're experimenting on humans, and just watch them from an open doorway? Do all the live aboard humans have such access?

Anna suddenly develops an emotional outburst (I guess sneering doesn't count) and sets in motion Stage Two…which involves the skies turning red (a bit of an homage to the original series where the red dust bacteria was the weapon the resistance used to defeat the Visitors). How are they going to hide their intentions now that they've initiated such a global event? 

Right now they've raised the spectre of a possible Visitor weapon—an algae engineered to combat CO2 emissions, but with the deadly side effect of killing reptiles and fish. So I imagine that plotline is going to be the new series' answer to the Red Dust.

So I'm left following this series to see where it goes, but disappointed that the ball has been dropped so early. I'm happy it has a second season to at least resolve all this, but unless the writing improves, more of the same is not going to help.

Review: The Walking Dead 72

Non Spoiler Review:
The current storyline continues to unfold slowly, with a growing sense of menace, and I'm still unsure what direction this is going to take. As last issue ended, Rick was commenting how simple it would be to take the settlement away from Douglas and his people, and in typical soap opera fashion, there's Douglas coming up the steps. Did he hear them or not?

The rest of the issue focuses on a party hosted by Douglas for everyone to get to know one another before they head out to start their various jobs in the safe zone.

Spoilers Now!
This issue allowed more of the domestic themes to develop. There are still no zombies to be seen, as the action continues to take place entirely within Alexandria. Everyone gets settled into their knew roles—Michonne hangs up her sword over her fireplace, giving us a a series of flashbacks of its more memorable moments, and she vows not to use it again.

Glen and Maggie are having some domestic disputes over Glen being put on supply runs to Washington D.C. Douglas, meanwhile, hits on Andrea, who rebuffs him, despite his claim of being in a purely political, loveless marriage (whatever that could mean at this point, given a complete lack of political necessity). What would be the point of that in this community?

Douglas' meet-and-greet further explores the cracks in their little society. Rick notices one of the children has a black eye in the company of his parents. Michonne loses it on the women who are overly concerned they will bake her something she won't like. And Andrea finds out she's been chatting with Douglas' adult son (awk-WARD!). Glen gets outrageously drunk and has to be escorted home. Abraham is reticent to go back outside the fence to help expand the community. Carl, as usual, is having a terrible time adjusting.

Only after Rick takes the kids home and checks in on Glen do we find out Glen wasn't drunk at all, but on a recon mission to ensure they can take back their weapons when the time comes to do so, and this issue leaves us with a second ominous glare from Rick, who has orchestrated the whole thing.

What I liked:
Some might complain that the pace of the book is moving too slow, but it's working for me. After dozens of issues that have been moving at a frantic pace, it's nice to have the characters enjoy a respite, and it also serves to develop the menace of the town. As Rick puts it, the characters are getting to enjoy domestic problems...something they have not been allowed to do since they left their previous settlement. That could pose trouble, though, as the various complex relationships helped to tear their previous home apart.

I'm still musing over Rick's love prospects. At some points it seems he and Michonne are flirting, but he and Andrea share the oldest relationship of the group so far.

Confrontation is inevitable—the inhabitants have themselves become virtual zombies in their false society, and it's not going to take much to break it apart when the time comes. There is still lots to be revealed. It looks like next issue will deal with everyone going off to start their respective jobs.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Recommendation: The Life and Times of Tim

Another animated gem on HBO is Life and Times of Tim, now ending its second season. This show reminds me somewhat of Home Movies, one of my favorite adult-oriented cartoons of a few years back. It is very smart and dialogue-driven, complemented by an assortment of great voice actors. I'm not sure if the dialogue is as much improvised as it is great writing, but just listening to the characters' banter is as humorous as the plot of the episodes.

The main character is, of course, Tim, a young employee in NYC's Omni-Corp. Tim is the normal one of the bunch, surrounded by an assortment of eccentric characters—his girlfriend Amy, neighbourhood prostitute Debbie, his coworker Stu, and the Boss of Omni-Corp, to name a few. Tim's best intentions get him involved in situations that invariably spiral out of control and end badly for him.

This half hour show is broken into two fifteen minute episodes. If you're a fan of such shows as Home Movies, Venture Brothers, Frisky Dingo, and the like, this one will be appreciated.

Recommendation: The Ricky Gervais Show


I saw the ads for this animated show on HBO months back and had no idea what to expect. Ricky Gervais and two of his blokes, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington have converted their regular podcast (how did I miss this one?) into an animated format.

The concept is simple enough—their animated characters sit around a table and discuss various subjects, answering viewer questions, but particularly mocking Karl's long, rambling observations.

This show has always been consistent with guaranteed laugh-out-loud moments each episode, and even afterwards can warrant a chuckle when I think back on particular moments. Karl's softspoken observations that go on and on, are comic gold, spurred on by Ricky and Stephen's merciless, biting sarcasm.

The animation is old-school—reminiscent of a Flinstones/Jetson’s style, and there are numerous vignettes that play off on the stories the trio are discussing. The regular segments of Karl's Diary and Monkey News are particular favorites.

If you're a fan of Ricky Gervais, or quirky British humour, I guarantee you'll enjoy it! However, if even the thought of a Monty Python or Little Britain sketch makes you wretch, this is not for you.

Check it out on HBO.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: The Walking Dead 71

Non Spoiler Review:
Once upon a time I came across the Walking Dead trade paperbacks at the advice of a friend, and for a few years I managed to hold out and collected just the trades, nicely sorted by storyline. But the last arc broke me down and converted me into a single issue reader, so here I am, a slave to every month's issue, knowing I can never go back to the bliss of reading a whole chapter from start to finish.

For those unfamiliar with the series, its draw comes from the human drama resulting from a zombie apocalypse. It's a story of these characters dealing with the end of their civilization, and adapting to a world where death, loss and survival has become a simple fact of life.

The nature of the zombie virus is relatively similar to those seen in other books and film, except in this case, even the living are infected, meaning that if one dies a natural death, they will resurrect as the undead unless their brain is destroyed—hence the name Walking Dead.

These are slow-moving zombies, by the way. But that doesn’t mean they’re a push over—herds of thousands of zombies roam the land and can mass in a swarm to overwhelm survivors if they don't take care to stay ahead of them. The undead may be lying motionless in tall grass or abandoned vehicles, ready to reach out and bite an unsuspecting passerby.

The series has entered its second year of continuity for the band of survivors, who have been steadily on the move since the series began, except for all too brief respites which ended horribly. This is a very large cast of characters, and there has been a massive amount of death since the series began. No one is safe, which makes it all the more interesting. Any beloved character can die at the drop of the hat.

While an ensemble cast, the series does focus primarily on former police officer, Rick Grimes, and his young son, Carl. The character of Andrea, who recently lost her partner, is starting to figure more prominently again, as well as the new armed muscle of the group, Abraham. Newlyweds Glen and Maggie, and sword wielding Michonne, remain prominent at the moment, while a host of secondary characters sometimes get lost in the background. If you haven't checked it out, it's worth a look. But on to the review of the latest issue...

Spoilers Now!
As this storyline began, the current group of survivors, lead by Rick and Abraham are making their way to Washington DC, failing to find any government in place. Outside the city they’re recruited by a small settlement that has managed to wall off a safe zone and is living a peaceful existence within their walls.

Of course, at this point, the reader will be thinking that it’s only a matter of time before these seemingly friendly townsfolk reveal their dark Stepford secrets and the lives of our heroes are again in jeopardy. The heroes think the same, and take the necessary precautions and suspicions before ingratiating themselves too deeply into this community. Understandably, they had their own refuge that was destroyed by outside (and internal) forces, they’ve been on the run, and each of them have lost pretty much everyone meaningful in their life.

It’s a testament to how good this series is that the last two issues have been zombie-free and I haven’t even noticed. Action takes place entirely within the walls of Alexandria and plot focuses on introducing new characters and local politics. Rick is made a constable to help with security and the rest get various jobs. There is a bit of infighting within the town already, as everyone seems to be just play acting that things are normal, and Douglas, the leader, makes obscure reference to some nastiness that transpired early on.

The idea of a safe zone is pretty standard for this type of apocalypse fiction. And it usually is never what it seems. Carl immediately sees through the veneer that the traumatized residents are just acting as if life has some semblance of normalcy. Even at the most mundane levels it is not, when none of the characters can pinpoint what the actual date is. Carl has become so numb to the realities of the new world he can't even participate in a Hallowe'en party.

I tend to read Walking Dead in bed before sleep, and it always leaves me with some seriously disturbing stuff to haunt my dreams. I did not see it coming—Rick, clean-shaven after 70 issues and adapting to his new responsibilities as constable, commiserates with Andrea about their new living conditions. Andrea can’t feel safe or even consider that this respite will last for any length of time, given they’ve had to flee every habitat they’ve settled in and lost most of everyone who was traveling with them. Rick smiles, and casually comments that this town has a complete lack of security, without so much as a lookout for trouble. If the townspeople give them any trouble, they’ll just take it from them by force. To be continued.

What Worked:
What a great twist! Since the horror of issue 50, it's been difficult watching the heroes of the book increasingly commit atrocious acts, even against people who seriously deserved it. But at the moment, these townspeople appear to be the weaker, naive ones who can desperately put Rick and companions' skills to good use. But Rick has gone so far off the bend that he doesn’t even have a moral conflict anymore with some of the ideas he's considering.

But of course, as we all know by now and tend to forget, Rick is crazy and talks to his dead wife on the phone he carries around with him. That’s easily overlooked when the situation is normal. The implication that he's snapped and is really out of control amps up the tension for the future of the group. I'm also starting to wonder just who Rick is going to hook up with. At different points I can see him pairing up with either Michonne, whom he shares a psychosis, or even Andrea, both of whom have lost their significant other. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

What Didn’t Work:
I thoroughly enjoyed the slow moving aspects to the storyline. It’s what writer Robert Kirkman does best and allows elements to evolve organically. The only issue I had was sometimes forgetting about some of the secondary characters referred to off panel. With such a large cast (and a lot of them unshaven and unkempt for the artist to render) it can get confusing if too much time passes without a reference to them.

For example, high school teacher Eugene was figuring prominently on the road to Washington, because he was pretending (as we later found out) to know about what caused the plague. But once his deception was outed, he hasn't warranted a speaking part at the moment. Nor does Gabriel and Morgan. But a minor quibble. I’m anxious to see where this will go next.

If you haven't yet checked out The Walking Dead, and want you some zombies, then be sure to check it out.
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