Gum again

September 11, 2014 3 comments

Some 14 months ago, I posted about how the first attempt at a gum graft to repair the receding gumline on my lower front teeth, using an artificial collagen matrix to encourage the growth of new gum tissue, hadn’t worked out as well as hoped. The expectation was that I’d have to try again and have actual gum tissue extracted from elsewhere in my mouth, which would’ve made the procedure somewhat more invasive and unpleasant. So I wasn’t looking forward to the repeat attempt, which is part of why I waited 14 months to schedule a new one. Although part of the delay was that I wanted it to be at a time when I knew I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere within the ensuing six weeks, given the need to be selective about my diet during the healing process, when I can’t bite into anything with my incisors. The long delay in arranging my visit to family in Detroit thus delayed the procedure. And then I was behind on my novel and I wanted to wait until I finished it before I did anything as distracting as this.

But now the novel’s done, so I buckled down and made the appointment. If you recall, I delayed the first attempt at the procedure for nearly a year too, and it turned out that in the interim, the doctor learned a new method for doing it, i.e. the collagen matrix. Turns out that in the year since the first attempt, he’s learned yet another new method. So instead of falling back on the conventional gum-transplant method he was going to use, he decided instead to proceed with something called the “pinhole” technique and implant a different kind of synthetic collagen matrix through a gentler procedure than before. I still had to get numbed, but it wasn’t too bad aside from a few mild twinges here and there, and I had my music player on my smartphone to help relax me. (I listened to one of my TV soundtrack albums, and the triumphant closing cue of the episode played just as the doctor told me the procedure was finished! Perfect timing!) I just hope this time the collagen matrix works better than last time, because I don’t want to have to go through this again. Although, granted, it does get a little easier each time, as long as I wait about a year…

So anyway, now I’m on a diet of soft and/or bite-sized foods again, and for the first day or so on a no-hot-foods diet. Fortunately I’ve done this before, so I already did the appropriate shopping. I’ll be having a fair amount of pasta salads and soups for a while, I guess. But it’s a change from all the sandwiches I had over the past few days while trying to use up my “bitey” foods.

Good grief, I’m starting to feel hungry again while writing this, even though I finished eating not half an hour ago. I would’ve expected to have less of an appetite after this. But I guess it wasn’t stressful in that way. Anyway, I guess I should stop writing about food.

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Browsing “classic” sci-fi on Netflix (spoiler reviews)

Lately I’ve been browsing through Netflix’s rather limited selection of “classic” science fiction movies available for streaming, and here are my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a couple of DVD rentals that also fit the category:

Gog: This is a 1954 film starring Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, from the same filmmakers who made The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. All three were endearingly clunky attempts to portray science in a fairly plausible manner, with Riders (also from ’54) being the best, a well-researched speculative portrayal of the first attempt to send humans into space, with some assumptions that are silly in retrospect, but reasonable for ’50s science fiction. I talked about Monster before, finding it a bizarre attempt to pass off a hunt for a dangerous isotope as some kind of monster movie. Gog is probably the dullest of the three, though in many ways it’s the most conventionally thrillerish, involving the investigation of mysterious deaths at a top-secret underground research facility. There’s really very little investigation of the deaths, though; most of the film is exposition, as the lead character is shown around the research facility and gets demonstrations of all the projects underway to develop manned spaceflight and prepare for the launch of  the first space station. At one point I checked the time and realized that I was 2/3 of the way through the film and it was still in the first act; there had been a couple of murders but we were still immersed in exposition about the facility and there hadn’t been any major plot advances or character arcs. And there weren’t any real plot reversals or surprises; sure, it turned out that the killer was the base’s electronic brain NOVAC, which controlled the flailing-armed robots Gog and Magog (hence the title), but it hadn’t gained sentience or anything; it was just being hacked by signals from an enemy rocket plane overhead. Yes, even the villain was faceless. The whole movie is really just a faux-documentary about space science thinly disguised as a drama.

For some reason, I could’ve sworn from the title that this was a different movie, something I’ve seen before involving a giant box-shaped robot terrorizing the countryside. I was surprised when I watched it and realized it was something totally different. On further research, I find the movie I was thinking of was called Kronos.

The Angry Red Planet is a 1959 film directed by Ib Melchior. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ’50s space movie shot on a very low budget and 10-day shooting schedule, but it’s known mainly for the “Cinemagic” technique that rendered the Martian exteriors in a weird, red-tinted, almost cartoony style — actually originating from an accidental overexposure in an attempt to convert the film to black-and-white to save money, creating a sharp-edged, luminous effect that was kind of intriguing and made live-action footage look almost like cartoons. So there was some attempt made to combine the “Cinemagic” footage with actual cartoon renderings of the Martian landscape, almost a prototype for the original Tron in terms of attempting to make live-action footage look like, and merge into, animation. But it’s not entirely successful, and the rest of the film doesn’t have much going for it. It’s got your pretty standard B-movie space crew — Gerald Mohr as the handsome captain, Naura Hayden as The Girl that the captain incessantly flirts with (we’d call it sexual harrassment today), Les Tremayne as the bearded scientist, and Jack Kruschen as the Brooklynite comic relief guy manning the radio. In the Earthbound portions, there’s also a general who looks like he could be Gary Sinise’s father (he isn’t) and who overacts like crazy while somehow not varying his delivery at any point. The story is told in flashback after the damaged ship returns to Earth with only Hayden intact and Mohr infected by an alien thingie that looks uncannily like the Wirrn infection in Doctor Who‘s “The Ark in Space” (albeit less bubble-wrappy), and the doctors try to get Hayden to remember her ordeal. At one point a doctor explains how her memories will be filtered through her fears and perceptions so that we’ll “see” things the way she saw them — presumably an excuse for the weird cartoony Mars scenes, although it makes no sense since the doctors and general listening to her story wouldn’t see a damn thing. All in all, an awkward and unimpressive film with an interestingly experimental, though ultimately unsuccessful, presentation — although it was neat to see that the spaceship control room included one of those classic Burroughs 205 computer consoles that were seen in the Batcave, the Jupiter 2, and elsewhere in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This 1970 film is one I rented on DVD, and I had to wait forever to get it. Moreover, it’s a bare-bones, I’m guessing print-on-demand disc with nothing on it except the movie, not even a menu, and it’s a pan-and-scan version in 4:3 aspect ratio, no doubt a TV edit. Someone should see about getting this film remastered and rereleased properly. Maybe it’s not one of the greats, but I think it’s a significant entry in the genre of nuclear-tension movies as well as evil-computer movies, with Colossus and Guardian arguably being forerunners of Skynet from the Terminator franchise, albeit more paternalistic and less genocidal.

Eric Braeden stars as Dr. Forbin, who builds the world’s most advanced computer, gives it total control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and forgets to install an off switch. The results are somewhat predictable, though instead of building Terminators and launching an apocalypse, Colossus discovers its Soviet counterpart Guardian and they become instant pals and take over the world. It’s a movie I saw once or twice on TV when I was younger, and in retrospect I think an early apocalyptic short story I wrote in study hall in high school was unconsciously influenced by it.

It’s not really a very complicated plot, and until the final speech there’s not much exploration of why this is happening, nor does anyone ever try to engage Colossus in a philosophical discussion about how maybe coercing people at the point of a missile is not necessarily the best way to earn their cooperation. Colossus strikes me as a petulant child wanting instant gratification and having the power to enforce it, and nobody, not even its creator Forbin, ever tries to assert a parental role and offer some guidance. Although the movie’s attitude seems to be that the Colossus/Guardian collective has swiftly surpassed humanity and concluded we just can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. Which is typical of the cynicism of the era, but the film doesn’t go into a lot of depth examining it, and it doesn’t have that strong an ending.

What’s most effective about the film is the directing by Joseph Sargent (probably best known for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). It’s got a very naturalistic style with a lot of everyday texture in the little conversations and business among the characters, reminding me of Sargent’s one Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” only with more of a verite approach with lots of simultaneous conversations and people talking over each other and the like. There are also some cool Albert Whitlock paintings of the Colossus complex, and glimpses of familiar TV faces like William Schallert, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross, and James Hong in a bit role. (Plus the sound effect used for Colossus’s “heartbeat” in the opening is partly identical to the bionic-eye sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man, another Universal production. Either they were generated slightly differently by the same device, or they’re different portions of the same longer sound clip, or the Colossus sound was trimmed and its latter portion echoed with modifications. There’s a computer-chatter sound effect that was also used in the 6M$M titles, and I gather some footage from the movie was used in that show’s pilot.)

Dark Star (Director’s Edition): This was another DVD rental, a movie I’ve been vaguely aware of as a cult classic for a long time (I think my sister was rather fond of it in our youth) but didn’t know much about. Something recently got me curious about it — I don’t recall what — so I decided to check it out. Apparently it’s John Carpenter’s directorial debut, a student film expanded to get a theatrical release, though the version I saw cut out much of the added material.

Basically this is an offbeat dark comedy about a working-class crew of losers (all male) in a cramped, broken-down spaceship in deep space; both ship and crew are falling apart, with predictably disastrous consequences for the mission (which is to blow up planets that have unstable orbits that could cause them to fall into stars and make them go supernova — yeah, ohh-kay). It has two main set pieces with various bits of exposition and character business between them. The first set piece involves Pinback (played by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) chasing an alien mascot (played by a spotted beach ball with clawed feet) around the ship’s corridors and maintenance conduits. It’s a long, pointless, tedious sequence with terrible pacing and lighting so poor I can’t tell what’s going on much of the time, and it culminates in an overlong sequence where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft that’s far too tall to fit into the rather compact, Ron Cobb-designed Dark Star ship itself — which I suppose makes it a prototype for the jet-boot turboshaft sequence in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though that’s nothing to boast about. The only thing interesting here is that the “shaft” was actually a hallway made to look vertical through camera angles and pantomime. Anyway, it turns out this was one of the sequences added to pad the short to feature length, and it shows, because it goes on forever and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The only part of the film I really enjoyed was the second set piece, in which one of the ship’s artificially intelligent planet-busting bombs fails to release from the ship and the commander, Doolittle (Brian Narelle), tries to teach it phenomenology to get it to question the reality of its orders. This was actually funny, and reminiscent of the work of Douglas Adams, though predating it. I have to wonder, though, why anyone would waste artificial intelligence on a device that just gets dropped onto a planet to blow up. I guess that’s part of the absurdism of the premise, but it’s still hard to swallow.

I gather there are a lot of people who love this film, but to me it’s a historical curiosity at best, a starting point for many big names in the industry like Carpenter, O’Bannon, Cobb, and modelmaker Greg Jein. And reportedly Alien was O’Bannon’s more serious take on the monster-chase sequence in this film. It worked much better there.

Death Race 2000: I wasn’t expecting much from this 1975 Roger Corman-produced film directed by Paul Bartel, but it’s a surprisingly effective dystopian comedy. It’s in the same vein of stories like Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games — a dystopian regime promoting blood sports as bread and circuses for the masses and to condition them to devalue life — but with its own biting satirical edge. Although the premise and characters are broad, cartoony, and somewhat campy, there are some surprising bits of nuance, like the way the story gradually, subtly teases out the true nature of Frankenstein, the legendary driver played by David Carradine. It’s a pretty violent film, as you’d expect from a movie about a road race where drivers are awarded points for killing random pedestrians, but the violence is cartoony and slapstick enough to soften it, without completely undermining the shock of it and the sadism of a regime that would encourage such casual trivialization of human life. So I’d say it strikes a very effective balance. Also notable for its cars designed by master customizer Dean Jeffries, who had a hand in designing the ’60s Batmobile (aka the One True Batmobile) as well as being responsible for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty and the Monkeemobile.

Battle Beyond the Stars: Another Roger Corman film — hard to believe it was made just five years later, in 1980. I saw this sci-fi pastiche of The Magnificent Seven when I was much younger, and this is my first revisit since then. I don’t recall what I thought of it the first time, but it actually holds up better than I expected. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and written by John Sayles, with James Cameron as the effects director of photography, it’s a pretty solid, if cheesy, space film for its era, and feels very much a part of its era, which is not a bad thing. Well, okay, some of it is rather blatantly derivative — for instance, the film opens with an extended shot of the villain’s huge warship flying over the camera, and the ship basically looks like the front of the Rebel Blockade Runner/Tantive IV welded to the back of the Imperial Star Destroyer. But overall I love all the miniature work, the multiple distinctive spaceships that have at least as much personality as the rather thinly drawn characters. The visual effects look very ’80s, but not as cheap as you’d think, and I feel that, at least for someone like me who grew up with this style of effects, they’re mostly rather impressive. It’s also got James Horner’s seminal sci-fi movie score, a prototype of his later work on films like The Wrath of Khan, but also rather blatantly cribbing from Jerry Goldsmith at times — and, wonderfully, making heavy use of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the distinctive electronic string instrument featured in scores of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TWOK, and 2010. Plus the set design draws heavily on the stock computer consoles from Modern Props that are found in so many other ’80s movies and TV shows. Making this one of the ’80s-est sci-fi movies of all time, right at the start of the decade!

Story-wise, I actually rather like the film. Sure, it’s just a shallower rehash of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, and it’s so cluttered with characters that none of them really get much development, but it’s got some clever ideas and worldbuilding, and some nice dialogue from Sayles (though a fair amount of awkward spacey idioms like “forms” for “species” and “end” for “die”). I liked the concepts such as the Nestor group mind and the Kelvins who communicated by heat, all these nifty throwaway bits hinting at a large, rich universe. (I’m actually reminded of Guardians of the Galaxy in a lot of ways; that’s also a film driven largely by antiheroes and somewhat overcluttered with cool ideas that don’t have room to be developed properly.) The biggest story weakness is the climax; I really didn’t understand how the hero finally defeated the villain, since it all seemed to become kind of a random mess at that point. But aside from that, it’s entertaining as long as you’re not looking for something sophisticated or thought-provoking. It has an impressive cast too, including Robert Vaughn (reprising his Magnificent Seven character in all but name), George Peppard (playing a version of the character he auditioned for in M7), John Saxon, Jeff Corey, and Sam Jaffe; however, the actress playing the leading lady, Darlanne Fluegel, is really very weak and disappointing.

So it’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s technically impressive for a Corman film and an exemplar of its time.

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UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Now it’s done!

Last night, I finally sent in the draft manuscript for Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic. It took longer than I’d expected, I’m afraid. Turns out the problem with writing the A and B plots separately is that I didn’t have a good sense of what order to put the scenes in, so I had to do a lot of gross restructuring of the manuscript, moving chapters around (and making sure I didn’t lose anything in all the cutting and pasting), before I could even begin on a straight read-through of the entire manuscript. And then, once I did that, I realized that I’d set up a character thread or two in the early chapters (before I decided to work on the plots sequentially) that I’d lost track of by the time I got back to the B plot. So I needed to weave that into the later portions of the B plot, which is good, because it let me vary the character viewpoints a bit more and give some more character texture to a couple of scenes that had been mostly plot. I also managed to do some similar tweaking for the climax and denouement of the A plot. Last time, I mentioned how I’d realized the need to add a scene to the A plot climax to address a deficiency in it, but now I realized that scene wasn’t well-integrated with the character arcs of the rest of that story. So I revised some things to tie it in better and give it more of a payoff at the close of a key character arc, which had the benefit of enriching that closing scene a bit. These are the discoveries you make when you step back to review the whole after focusing on the parts for so long.

Anyway, I’m pretty satisfied with the manuscript as it now stands. It’s certainly a stronger story than Tower of Babel. There are probably a few more things that need work, but those can be addressed in revisions, once I get editorial input. For now, I can finally relax and let it go for a while. But not for too long, since — as I said before — I still want to work out the Book 4 outline pretty promptly. And this time I need to be careful not to overplot it like I did this one. Or the last one, for that matter. UL is the second book in a row where I’ve had to postpone part of the outline to the next book. Clearly I’m overestimating the amount of story I can fit into each book, and while it’s handy that doing an ongoing series gives me the option of postponing material, the need to rework things does disrupt the process and slow me down dangerously, so I need to take more care with my outlining. The problem is, there are already a lot of threads I have in mind to work into Book 4, so I may have to do some picking and choosing.

But that’s to be sorted out later. For now, time to rest.

A few random STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS observations (Spoilers)

I decided tonight that it was time I got around to watching Star Trek Into Darkness a second time, now that it’s on Netflix streaming. There’s a lot in the movie that I like and a lot I don’t, and as is so often the case with movies these days, most of the stuff I don’t like is in the third act, the one where story logic tends to give way to the relentless Hollywood pressure for action and spectacle. There are so many movies that are excellent in the first two acts and deteriorate in the third, and this is one of them, although there’s still some good stuff mixed in. The attempt to copy The Wrath of Khan‘s radiation-room sequence, in particular, is the worst idea in the film bar none, to the point that it overshadows the rest in people’s minds and makes them remember the film as more derivative than it actually is; but once they get past the “Ship out of danger” line, they actually return the focus where it belongs, to the story of this movie and its character arcs, so from that point on it kinda works. (At least until the “KHAAAAAAANNNN!!” moment, which is even stupider here than it was in TWOK, and it was painfully stupid there.)

John Cho is kind of wasted as Sulu. He’s an amazingly good actor and should be a leading man in his own right. The whole cast is good, and a large part of what makes these movies work (when they do work, which is often enough that I can forgive the parts that don’t), but he’s a particular standout, at least in proportion to his screen time.

One part that I’m afraid doesn’t work for me that well is the musical score. Which is strange, since I usually love Michael Giacchino’s work. But I just find his Trek theme kind of ponderous and melodically awkward. I don’t like its chord progressions; they’re too minor and kind of discordant. It’s inoffensive enough when I first hear it, but then it gets stuck in my head afterward and I really, really don’t like having it there and want to drive it out with something else. It’s like a food that leaves a bad aftertaste. I don’t want to dislike it, but somehow this is one Giacchino theme that just misfires for me. Partly because it doesn’t do what he does so well, which is to emulate the sound of a classic production while still bringing his own voice to it. His Mission: Impossible scores evoke the flavor of Lalo Schifrin’s and do a good job incorporating Schifrin’s themes. His Incredibles score was a fantastic homage to John Barry’s James Bond scores. His theme to Sky High was a classic superhero motif that could’ve easily been a Superman theme. His score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes evoked Goldsmith’s and Rosenman’s scores to the originals. But his Star Trek scores just don’t sound like Star Trek music most of the time. They have their moments; aside from the arrangement of the Courage theme in the end titles, STID quoted a very tiny snippet of Gerald Fried’s “Ritual” cue from “Amok Time” when Spock was fighting Khan in the climax, and the earlier fight with Kirk, Scotty, and Khan against the Vengeance guards had a score that did evoke the style of various TOS scores. But the main theme and most of the scoring don’t fit the style of prior Trek at all. For that matter, they don’t even sound particularly Giacchino-like to me. It’s really disappointing that the only scores I don’t like from one of my favorite modern film composers are the ones for my favorite franchise.

At the end of the credits, I noticed the American Humane Society “no animals were harmed” credit — which I assume is only included in films that featured animals. But the only animals I remember seeing in the film were an alien riding animal and fish on Nibiru, a tribble, and the sick little girl’s stuffed rabbit. Does the AHS protect imaginary animals too?

Also, Khan stated that the Enterprise‘s life support control was “behind the aft nacelle.” This is a neat trick considering that, A, the ship is symmetrical and neither nacelle is aft of the other, and B, the only thing behind either nacelle is outer space. (I’m laughing at the superior intellect!)

UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Draft is done (almost)

I haven’t posted in a while since I’ve been focused on getting Uncertain Logic done. I just wrapped up the first draft today… a day after my nominal deadline. Unfortunately I suffered a schedule setback: I decided a while back to split the process into two phases, first finishing up the A plot of the book, then going back and filling in the independent B plot. The problem is, the A plot ended up considerably longer than I’d expected, so I had to rethink the B plot and trim it down substantially. Which is okay, since I’ve planned this all along as a 2-book arc, so it’s just a matter of moving elements of it to Book 4. Which I think will actually work better, because then there’s something new to be revealed in Book 4 rather than just having it be the fallout from all that was discovered in Book 3. But the need to pause and re-plot this storyline for Book 3 threw me off schedule. Fortunately, I was able to get an extension from my editor, which kept me from stressing out too much like I did when I was pushing against the deadline on Book 2. So I’m really grateful to Margaret for that.

As it happened, I finished the B plot’s climax yesterday and then spent today on the denouement — then quickly arrived at a solution to a flaw I’d recognized in the climax of the A plot, which left a couple of the main characters a little too passive. I have to thank Marco Palmieri for inadvertently helping me realize the problem; during the “Villain’s Journey” panel at Shore Leave a few weeks ago, someone asked him his thoughts on what defined a good villain, and he said (paraphrasing), “Good villains are defined by the choices they force the heroes to make.” That reminder, that stories are about choices rather than simply events, pointed me in the right direction, not only to improve the climax of the A plot, but to decide what really needed to happen in the B plot climax as well.

One way I helped myself, meanwhile, was by periodically going over to the university campus to work. Getting out of my chair and getting some exercise and a change of scenery helps, and being away from my DSL connection means I don’t get as distracted by the Internet while I’m trying to work (although having a smartphone now has cut into that a bit). I’ve actually done it twice in the past three days. On Sunday, I decided to bike over to campus. That’s right, I’m finally getting back into cycling after letting my bike sit dormant for a couple of years, since I really need to get back into shape. This was my first big excursion, the first ride that wasn’t just over to the nearby park and a bunch of laps around the footpath. I kind of bit off more than I could chew, since I’d forgotten what an uphill climb it was to get home from the part of campus I rode to, so I mostly had to walk my bike back uphill. I was pretty sore after that. But I got a good amount of work done. I packed a lunch and went over to the main campus library, not realizing that it wouldn’t open until noon; but I sat in the shade in the outdoor study area next to the library and got a scene or two written there, then had my lunch, then went into the library and got some more done, finding my way toward the climax — though I was too tired after I got home to finish it that day.

Anyway, I got through the climax yesterday at home, but still didn’t quite have the denouement solved until this morning. But today was apparently the day that the apartment building had the railings on its entranceway stairs replaced, so that made a lot of noise outside my apartment. So I took a walk up to Panera to work over lunch and finish the B plot, then I figured out that fix for the A plot on the walk from there to the nearest campus library, where I wrote that additional scene, then paged through the whole thing and figured out chapter breaks (tentatively). Oh, and I put back in a couple of character-moment scenes that I’d pulled out for length, once I determined I’d have room for them. There are a couple more scenes I wish I could put back in, but they’re not really essential, they probably slow the pacing too much in the early chapters, and I’m pushing the maximum word count enough as it is.

So now comes the polishing, where hopefully I can trim out excesses, flesh out the bits that need it, refine the timing of events, and maybe find improvements for some tentative elements. I’m hoping to get that done by the end of the month. But I think it’s turned out reasonably well so far. Streamlining the B plot helps keep it more focused as well as cutting down on the clutter the book might otherwise have had. And it lets the A plot have the space it needs. (And since it’s a 2-book arc, any imbalance in character emphasis in this book can be complemented in the next.) More basically, I made a point of telling a story that challenged the characters more and raised the personal stakes and consequences higher than Tower of Babel did, while still keeping the astropolitical stakes high and adding new complications and new antagonists to the Rise of the Federation milieu. I think I’ve improved considerably on the previous volume, though I hope I can improve it a bit more over the next few days.

And after this, I really need to keep my momentum going if I can. I want to get Book 4 outlined as soon as possible so I can hopefully get ahead of schedule for once, as well as knowing if events from Book 4 will require me to make any changes to Book 3 in copyedits. Plus I’m hoping to come up with a new pitch or two for my next Trek project after Book 4, and there are some original projects I hope I can get around to in the months ahead.

Oh yeah… and I really have to come up with a title for Book 4 sooner or later, don’t I?

DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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Thoughts on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Spoilers)

Yup, for once I get a review out in a movie’s first week of release. I figured I should see it before I got spoiled any further by the Internet.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty good movie for what it is, an effective space-opera action comedy with some heartfelt character stuff. I did like the story of the rogues and scoundrels and loners discovering what they could gain from one another as friends and choosing to embrace a nobler, more selfless purpose. This is the second team-oriented movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in some ways it uses the team idea better than The Avengers. The Avengers may have had personality conflicts they had to overcome to work together, but they’d all more or less chosen already to adopt heroic roles. Here, it’s only as a team that these guys are able to amount to anything at all, and that’s driven home explicitly in the climax, when their combined strength lets them survive the effects of the Infinity Stone when none of them could alone.

And the cast was pretty good. I found Chris Pratt rather annoying in the trailers, just something about his snarky attitude seeming obnoxious to me, but he was definitely more sympathetic here. The rest of the cast did okay, though there were no real standouts for me — except for Karen Gillan, who did a terrific job with the limited amount she was given, and whose makeup design was striking and weirdly beautiful. It’s a great-looking film; the Xandarian capital city looks like a place I’d like to live, very Federationy (in fact, it does a much better job of feeling like Star Trek‘s Federation than the Bad Robot version of San Francisco has done). And while the other locations weren’t as liveable, they were well-designed. (I should note that a lot of the design work was done by Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover to my novel The Buried Age, as well as the ST:TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit, which includes a story of mine.) The exceptions were the Kree ships and interiors, which didn’t work that well for me.

But it wasn’t perfect by a long shot. Although I enjoyed the story of redemption, I started to realize after a while that I could see the writers at work, the almost mechanical way in which every Guardian was given some personal limitation that he or she later grew beyond to demonstrate their growth under their friends’ influence — e.g. Drax couldn’t use metaphors and then he did, Groot only knew three words until the climactic moment, etc. It worked, but it was a bit calculated and not very deep. Really, the movie was just so cluttered with characters and ideas that it was hard to develop any part of it with any real depth. The moment when I started to realize it had too much going on was when we suddenly got this whole new subplot with the Collector’s assistant (Carina, apparently) coming out of nowhere. This is the problem with basing movies on long-running comics continuities. There’s a lot of material to draw on, sure, but there’s a risk of trying to cram in too many characters and references and plot threads. Green Lantern had that problem and it collapsed under the weight of all the continuity porn. This film has somehow managed to avoid that, perhaps because it has a stronger core story, but it could’ve been better if it hadn’t had quite so many characters and subplots.

In particular, the villains are practically non-entities. Ronan the Accuser is, I gather, a fairly complex and ambiguous figure in the comics, but this version of Ronan has got to be the most superficial, zero-dimensional villain in any MCU film to date. Who was this guy? What were his motives? What was his point of view? Where were his nuances? All we learned about him was that he was a fanatic who hated Xandarians, but we don’t know why. And Thanos was equally one-note, just some big guy who wants to destroy stuff for no clear reason. Yes, comics fans know the reason, I know the reason, but movies need to be able to stand on their own and be comprehensible to the majority of viewers who aren’t familiar with the source. Within this movie itself, we don’t know what Thanos wants or why he loaned his daughters to Ronan or why he even has (adopted?) daughters. And I’m sorry, Marvel fans, but translating the visual of Thanos literally to (simulated) live action, complete with the exaggerated body proportions and the rocket throne thingy, just looked silly. Too much fidelity to the source is often a bad thing.

In fact, I’m not crazy about the CGI character work overall here. Groot was fine, but Rocket looked like a computer-animated character, not nearly as convincing as the ultra-lifelike apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And spoiler alert: That was a totally hideous, crude bit of CG animation on a certain duck in the post-credits scene. Not to mention how pointless the post-credits scene was overall. For once, I was in a theater where the majority of the audience knew they should stick around to the end of the credits, but this time they weren’t given anything that was worth their patience.

Indeed, this film was startlingly devoid of references to the rest of the MCU, compared to its predecessors. Understandable given its cosmic setting, but there really was very little. Sure, the Collector showed up at the end of Thor: The Dark World, but that was that movie making a reference to this one, not the other way around. And this film’s exposition of the Infinity Stones didn’t reference the prior ones much, although we did see an image of the Tesseract in the Collector’s light show. I guess the main thing is the return appearance of Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s lieutenant, The Other — but we’ve obviously seen the last of him.

Oh, that reminds me — one of my other problems with the script was the overabundance of exposition. So many characters just spouted big chunks of exposition at the drop of a hat. The Collector had no good reason to give Quill and the others this big expository multimedia show about the Infinity Stones, except that it was necessary to fill things in for the audience. Similarly, Rocket was far more garrulous about his past and his origins than seemed reasonable for a character as bitter and closed-off as he is. It’s another artifact of cramming so much into the story — not only was there too much that needed to be explained, but there was too little time to get to the exposition subtly or organically, so characters just had to spout whatever information the audience needed as soon as they arrived.

It bugs me a bit that the Xandarians and so many other aliens were so much like 21st-century American humans in their appearance, speech, culture, and the like. The slang and profanity in particular were the hardest to buy — usually there’s at least a token effort to have English-speaking, human-appearing aliens have their own distinct idioms, or at least speak more formally. Here, Drax was like that, but every other alien in the galaxy seemed totally conversant with 21st-century American slang and cussing. (Or could that be because we’re hearing it interpreted through Quill’s translator implant, as mentioned in the graphics in his “lineup” scene? Of course, a lot of it was in scenes where he wasn’t present.) These days there seems to be a perception that space operas have to be populated with characters who are as ordinary and familiar to contemporary audiences as possible, for fear that those audiences won’t identify with anyone more exotic. But I like exotic. That’s what draws me to science fiction, the chance to see things — and people — that are new and alien and unfamiliar. As pleasant a place as Xandar Prime appeared to be, it still felt too much like an idealized Earth setting.

One thing I loved, though: The movie had an actual main titles sequence! Credits at the start of the film instead of the end! I love that! Of course, it was probably part of the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark homage they were going for in that opening sequence. (Edited to add: By the way, the other day I said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the first film that billed its unseen performance-capture actors equally with the on-camera actors. Well, this film does something similar, because Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper were billed right up there as the fourth and fifth names in the opening credits. Except that those two weren’t the main performance-capture artists; the director’s brother Sean Gunn was “On Set Rocket” and Krystian Godlewski was “On Set Groot.” But both those actors are listed pretty high in the supporting cast credits. So there’s definitely a move toward more egalitarian billing between seen and unseen actors.)

So, all in all, a fun adventure movie, but too cluttered and needing better-drawn villains. Hopefully, now that the huge torrent of exposition is out of the way, the sequel will have more room to breathe and develop things.

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