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“Twilight’s Captives” will be in the Jan/Feb 2017 ANALOG

As visitors to my home page may have already noticed, I’ve learned that my upcoming novelette “Twilight’s Captives” will be appearing in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Since the October 2016 issue seems to be the current one on sale, I guess that means it should be out before the end of this year. That’s roughly the same time that my Star Trek: The Original Series novel The Face of the Unknown will be out, so that’ll be a big month for me.

Given that it’s been only six weeks since I sold the story, and given that it took nearly a year for my previous Analog story to see print, I’m surprised that it’s moving so fast. Two stories in Analog only 7 months apart is a new record for me; my previous record was 9 months between “The Hub of the Matter” and “Home is Where the Hub Is.” And that makes this only the second time I’ve had two Analog stories separated by under two years. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

I’ve already proofread the story’s galleys, which is how I know the publication date, so I know that this story will have an illustration — though I don’t know what it will look like or who the artist will be. I have my own design sketches for the featured aliens, which I’ll post with the story notes on publication, but Analog‘s artist may well take them in a different direction. This will be my fifth illustrated Analog story; the only ones without artwork are “The Hub of the Matter” and “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” (although the former got a nifty illustration when it was republished in the Russian Esli magazine).

Okay, I finally saw BATMAN V SUPERMAN… (Spoilers)

September 15, 2016 2 comments

The library finally came through with my requested DVD of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a film I refused to see in the theater, because the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous Superman film, Man of Steel, was such an endless, tedious, gratuitous sensory barrage that it almost drove me out of the theater. I read in the reviews that this film’s action sequences were even more noisy and excessive, so I chose to wait until I could see it on a smaller screen and be able to set the volume to my comfort level, as well as take breaks as appropriate.

As you can tell from the title of the above-linked MoS review, there was a lot I really liked about that film, but the stuff I hated was so awful that it ruined the rest for me. As for BvS… Well, I can’t really add much to all that’s been said about it in the months since its release. It’s a mess. I had much the same reaction as I had to X-Men Origins: Wolverine — that it felt like a highlight reel from a significantly longer movie that we weren’t seeing. (Which is somewhat literally the case here, since it’s heavily cut down from a longer version available on Blu-Ray, but the library only had the DVD of the theatrical version.) But it’s more than just brevity. Even within scenes, bits of dialogue follow each other without rhyme or reason. Character actions and reactions appear in a void, without the background to set them up. Too much stuff is crammed in and hardly any of it is given enough attention to make it feel justified.

Character-wise, Clark/Superman and Lois are relative ciphers. We don’t see enough of them to learn much about their personalities or thoughts, and what we get is disjointed because too much is left out. Henry Cavill was a high point of MoS, the first actor since Christopher Reeve that I really believed as Superman. But he’s terrible in this one. Which is probably because he has so little to work with, and it’s just so incoherent. He gets no reaction at all when Congress blows up around him, and he doesn’t even get to speak a word in that entire scene. And his words to Lois afterward are nonsense. Superman is the dream of a Kansas farmer? He’s been living as his father wanted? No. Nuh-uh. MoS made it clear that this version of Clark became a hero despite Jonathan Kent. He had to reject everything Jonathan taught him in order to become a hero. So they’ve thrown out a key part of Clark’s characterization from the first film and replaced it with a detached, unfeeling cipher who speaks in disjointed platitudes. Meanwhile, Amy Adams is probably the blandest Lois Lane in the history of the character. (Even given the existence of Kate Bosworth. She wasn’t exactly bland, just completely miscast.)

Perry White comes off even worse, getting character-assassinated as badly as Clark’s other human father figure, Jonathan Kent, was in MoS. Traditionally, Perry White is the archetypal loud, grouchy boss, but he’s also always been portrayed as a paragon of journalistic integrity, the moral center of the Daily Planet as much as Clark himself was. Here, he’s a caricature of a shallow, sleazy tabloid editor, unrecognizable as Perry White and a total waste of Lawrence Fishburne’s talents. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor isn’t as annoying as I feared at first, but he gets more annoying when he just keeps on talking and talking and talking while Superman or Lois barely get a word in. (And both characters suffer from having the writers force them to deliver overly on-the-nose bits of foreshadowing, like “This is someone you don’t want to pick a fight with” or “No one cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.”)

As for Bruce/Batman, it’s not a completely untenable idea to set him up as opposed to Superman because of what happened in Metropolis, and it’s certainly a good idea to try to make up for the staggering disregard for life in that whole climactic sequence, but I can’t say it works well. Having Bruce pretend to Alfred that he was going after some “dirty bomb” unconnected to Superman serves no purpose, and undermines the momentum of the story by making Batman’s early actions seem disconnected to the plot and thus rather boring. The film was already disjointed enough without that. Moreover, Batman’s casual killing is unpleasant, though Michael Keaton’s Batman was just as murderous (and I’m not at all a fan of those movies either). I’ve heard behind-the-scenes handwaves about how this is an older, more bitter Bruce who’s crossed that line, but I don’t think there’s anything in the movie establishing that, so it just comes off as gratuitous.

Overall, the character’s actions make little sense. Clark and Lois don’t do much investigating beyond having clues fall in their laps. Batman’s actions don’t follow any sort of logic. When he’s going after the kryptonite, he puts a tracking device on the truck… and then chases after it at close range and gets into a big firefight and crashes and explosions and whatnot, which was all absolutely unnecessary because he put a freaking tracking device on the truck!!! After that whole overlong sequence, he just went back to the Batcave and found where the truck was anyway, proving that there was no reason for the chase in the first place. This is Snyder’s problem. Not only does he care more about cool images and moments than he does about story, but he doesn’t even care enough to come up with coherent justifications for his cool images and moments. It made zero sense for the firing of the tracking device and the up-close car chase to be in the same sequence of events. They directly contradict each other. But Snyder didn’t care, because he just wanted a succession of cool-looking moments.

Others have written about how incoherent and overcomplicated Lex Luthor’s plan is here, so I’ll just say that the fact that Lex had to force Superman and Batman into arbitrary conflict reflects the filmmakers doing the exact same thing. They started with the title, the decision that this would be a movie about them fighting, and everything else had to be about contriving an excuse for that to happen. They couldn’t even come up with a good excuse. They tried to set something up with Clark getting fired up about Batman as a threat that needed to be stopped, but then totally abandoned that and went with Lex threatening Clark’s mother. Why? Just because someone thought it’d be cute to point out that Bruce’s mom had the same name? (Which might not have been quite so ludicrous if they hadn’t made such a huge dramatic moment of it, complete with a recap of the frame-by-frame imitation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns Wayne-murder scene that already opened the film. Not only does Snyder slavishly copy old comic-book pages, now he’s copying his own copy.)

And then we get a whole other completely unrelated story about Doomsday, just so Snyder can indulge in more disaster porn — though they make a forced, clunky point of how abandoned and evacuated everything is this time. This is just a random monster fight out of nowhere, and the character decisions are as random and unsupported as most everything else. Why does the president default to ordering a nuke before it’s even been sufficiently demonstrated that Doomsday is a threat that Superman can’t contain? Far more inexplicably, how does Lois psychically intuit that she needs to go back for the spear? She has no way of knowing that, unless super-hearing is contagious. And why didn’t Superman just give the spear to Diana?

Still, while the climax here was just another self-indulgent CGI-fest, it was more watchable than the MoS climax. It was less repetitive, less crassly exploitative of 9/11 imagery (though we got a ton of that in the opening), a bit more fun with the banter among the three heroes (what little there was). Plus — and this is particularly important for me — the music was actually fairly engaging this time, not just endless monotonous blaring. It was a reasonably good screen debut for Wonder Woman, allowing for how tacked-on her presence was in this film — which doesn’t really stand out given that pretty much every other plot thread was just as cursorily tacked on. Although I’m not crazy about the modern trend to fixate on the idea of Diana as the ultimate warrior, which runs counter to her traditional role as a champion of peace. Hopefully her upcoming solo film will balance her two sides better. Overall, I agree with the consensus that Diana is the one element of the film that really works, and that’s almost entirely due to Gal Gadot’s presence and charisma rather than the flimsy storyline the script gave her.

So… This was bad. Not potentially great but critically flawed like MoS — just plain bad, a clutter of disparate pieces pretending to be a narrative. It had some ideas that had promise but were ineptly or fitfully explored or simply mentioned in passing and forgotten. It had a few scattered lines of good dialogue amidst a word salad of pretentiousness and random subject changes. It had some interesting imagery, but dwelled too heavily on a lot of it. It had… well, it had some good actors, but I can’t say anything positive about the characters, since they were little more than devices to advance the fragments of what passed for a plot. And it was trying too hard to be a promo for future films. This wasn’t a story, it was a corporately mandated piece of connective tissue between other movies. It’s pretty at times, but virtually brainless and utterly soulless. It doesn’t even make me angry like the horrible climax of MoS did. Nothing about it has enough weight to evoke that kind of emotion. At most, it evokes a weary frustration at the Hollywood system that puts such huge amounts of time and money and labor into these elaborate, beautifully made productions but perennially fails to understand that it’s all a waste without the foundation of a strong story and script.

Another ANALOG story coming — “Twilight’s Captives”

This is threatening to become a regular thing — I’ve sold my seventh story to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Called “Twilight’s Captives,” it’s a novelette about an interspecies diplomatic crisis in which a tense hostage situation, created and complicated by a fundamental clash of human and alien values, threatens to spark an interstellar war.

Like my previous Analog story, “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” this tale is in my main original-SF universe; but it’s centuries further in the future and delves into humanity’s FTL interstellar era, a period that to date has only been peripherally glimpsed in my Buzzy Mag story “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” (and foreshadowed in my long-out-of-print “The Weight of Silence”). This is also only my second published story in that universe to feature sapient aliens, the first being my professional debut, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” way back in 1998. I’ve developed a number of alien races for my default universe over the years, putting a lot of thought into their evolution and culture and history, but somehow I’ve almost never managed to sell any stories that featured them (in part because I was saving the main ones for novels — a strategy I’ve been reassessing lately). But “Twilight’s Captives” introduces aliens of three distinct types, belonging to two major astropolitical unions. I’m glad I’m finally getting the chance to flesh out this underutilized aspect of my future history.

Like “Cislunar” and “Butterfly’s,” this is actually an older, unsold story that I recently took another stab at, emboldened by my success with those two. But this one required surprisingly little reworking to make the grade — just a little streamlining here and there and a stronger opening paragraph. Which goes to show how important a good beginning is.

The publication date hasn’t been set yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.

DTI: TIME LOCK cover is out

I just found out that The Trek Collective posted the cover to Department of Temporal Investigations: Time Lock on Friday:

DTI Time Lock cover

It’s kind of abstract, but so were the previous covers. And this one’s based on an idea that’s hard to visualize. Another clock face would’ve been a bit repetitive, even though this is a story for which a ticking clock would be appropriate. Anyway, the blue is a nice change of pace from the red-orange of previous covers.

Here’s the blurb again:

The dedicated agents of the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations have their work cut out for them protecting the course of history from the dangers of time travel. But the galaxy is littered with artifacts that, in the wrong hands, could threaten reality. One of the DTI’s most crucial jobs is to track down these objects and lock them safely away in the Federation’s most secret and secure facility. As it happens, Agent Gariff Lucsly and his supervisor, DTI director Laarin Andos, are charged with handling a mysterious space-time portal device discovered by Starfleet. But this device turns out to be a Trojan horse, linking to a pocket dimension and a dangerous group of raiders determined to steal some of the most powerful temporal artifacts ever known…

Time Lock will be released about a week from now, around September 5. You can find preorder links here at Simon & Schuster’s Time Lock page, and international links in the Trek Collective page linked above.

Marx Brothers rewatch thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been binge-rewatching my Marx Brothers DVD sets, and I thought I’d post some brief thoughts on them all. There are 12 “proper” Marx Brothers movies — five from Paramount from 1929-33, five from MGM from 1935-41, one from RKO Radio Pictures in 1938, and one from United Artists in 1946. There’s also a borderline case from UA in 1949. Through the vagaries of film library rights transfers, the Paramount films are on a set from Universal Home Video and the MGM and other films are on a set from Warner Home Video.

The Cocoanuts (1929): This was adapted from a Marx Brothers stage show, and it feels like it. Not their best film by any means, but it sets the template for both the Paramount films and the MGM films (and is closer to the latter’s plot structure in some ways). It establishes the basic roles that carry throughout the films. Groucho is an unlikely authority figure and something of a grifter, in this case a broke hotel manager trying to make money any way he can. Chico and Harpo are pickpockets and thieves, but Chico gets a comedic piano solo and Harpo gets a straight harp solo. (I love these parts. Seeing the zany Harpo become so serious and focused on his beautiful harp playing is such a striking contrast.) Zeppo, the straight man, is barely there as the desk clerk. Margaret Dumont is the rich widow Groucho tries to woo, and the mother of the young female romantic lead, who wants to marry working-class male lead Bob, but Dumont wants her to marry the upper-class villain, who’s conspiring with the vamp to steal Dumont’s necklace and frame Bob for it. It presages the MGM formula where the Marx boys end up helping the young couple win out, but doesn’t really develop it well, since Chico and Harpo barely interact with Bob before they end up randomly saving him in the last act. Notable for a couple of reasonably good Irving Berlin songs and the Groucho-Chico “Why a duck?” sketch that sets the template for their later routines.

Animal Crackers (’30): One of the best and most famous Marx films. Groucho is Captain Spaulding, the African explorer — the first of several Groucho characters that are inexplicably revered despite acting like, well, Groucho. As usual, he’s trying to marry Margaret Dumont(‘s money) yet insulting her constantly. Chico and Harpo are musicians and con artists, recruited by the young romantic leads to help them swap out a painting that the villains intend to steal to humiliate Dumont. Zeppo is Spaulding’s secretary, getting his most notable comic scene when he takes a letter. Lots of classic songs and sketches here, like Spaulding’s account of his adventures, Groucho and Chico’s banter, and the surreal three-way flirtation scene with random Eugene O’Neill strange interludes. But Harpo’s a bit too belligerent here with his aggressive girl-chasing and a bridge-playing scene where he gets kind of violent with Dumont (although what he does when he finally catches a girl is completely innocent).

Monkey Business (’31): My least favorite of the Paramount films, because the Marxes have no identities or character motivations in this one and just feel randomly shoved into what passes for its story. They’re just four anonymous passenger-ship stowaways who spend the first reel dodging the crew before stumbling into a feud between gangsters. It’s less interesting without the tension between Groucho as the faux-authority figure subverting the establishment from within and Chico and Harpo as the ruffians subverting it from without, and the weird adversary/ally relationship that results between them. But it’s probably the best showing for Zeppo, who gets to be the romantic/action lead this time, wooing the daughter of the reformed gangster. The climax doesn’t work too well, since the daughter gets kidnapped and the brothers inexplicably take the lead in going to her rescue, yet all of them but Zeppo are cavalier and unconcerned about rescuing the kidnap victim, or about helping Zeppo as he fights the abductor. So a sequence that would’ve been funny with less dangerous stakes instead feels kind of inappropriate and callous. It has its moments, like all the Marx Brothers films do, but it’s forgettable to me.

Horse Feathers (’32): This fortunately reverts to the standard formula, with Groucho as a supposedly great dean brought in to save a struggling college. But his son — Zeppo, again as the romantic lead — convinces him that what the college needs is a winning football team. Chico and Harpo are bootleggers that Groucho mistakenly recruits as football players, while the actual players become ringers for the rival team and serve as the film’s villains. (In an oddly intellectual in-joke, Groucho’s college is Huxley and the rival is Darwin.) Notable for Groucho’s famous song “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” the speakeasy password scene with Groucho and Chico, and the climactic slapstick football scene, which establishes the tradition of Harpo using his cartoon-character powers to save the day. A reasonably good one.

Duck Soup (’33): The absolute best of the Paramount films if not the entire Marx canon. None of the others had me laughing this constantly. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, appointed dictator of tiny, cash-strapped Freedonia at the insistence of Dumont. Chico and Harpo are inept spies for the ambassador from Sylvania, who’s trying to take over the country by stealth. They somehow end up as both allies and adversaries to Firefly, who’s his and Freedonia’s own worst enemy, constantly digging the country into a deeper hole through his impulsiveness. Under cover as a peanut vendor, Harpo also gets into a rivalry with a lemonade vendor played by well-known “slow burn” comedian Edgar Kennedy, which adds a funny new dynamic. Zeppo is back to the secretary role and largely irrelevant. Notable for the utterly classic mirror scene where Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection, for Chico’s trial scene, and for the unrelenting slapstick in the climactic war sequence. The one real deficiency, aside from the randomness with which Chico and Harpo switch allegiances, is that it lacks their piano and harp solos. (Though I wonder if a piano scene for Chico was cut, because in one shot he’s standing by Dumont’s piano, and a few seconds later he’s gone.) It’s also the only Marx film without a pair of young lovers in the cast.

A Night at the Opera (’35): The first of the big-budget MGM films that established a new formula, brainstormed by producer Irving Thalberg. While the Paramount films had been set in farcical worlds where the Marxes could get away with anything, MGM’s films put them in a more grounded world with more coherent storytelling, as well as making them more sympathetic by directing their antics more toward helping the young lovers and confounding the villains. Groucho is Margaret Dumont’s business manager and wooer, and he’s helping her invest in an opera company run by the obnoxious Gottlieb (Sig Ruman). Harpo is the villainous tenor’s abused dresser, shown sympathy by female lead Kitty Carlisle, who’s pursued by the villain but only has eyes for a less famous singer played by Allan Jones. Jones is old friends with Chico, who convinces Groucho to sign him in the classic contract scene, featuring one of the all-time great punchlines. The movie handles the steamship/stowaway plot much better than Monkey Business did. Jones and Carlisle are strong singers and actors and effective leads, and MGM pulls out all the stops on the big production numbers and the action climax. (The Chico and Harpo musical solos are back with a vengeance.) But the highlight is the famous crowded-stateroom scene. The best of the MGM films, and competitive with Duck Soup as their best ever.

A Day at the Races (’36): The last film Thalberg was involved with, because he died during production. Brings back Allan Jones as the romantic lead, but this time opposite Maureen O’Sullivan (best known as Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films), who’s wonderfully classy and elegant here, though she doesn’t sing. She’s the owner of a sanitarium whose survival depends on the generosity of Dumont, a hypochondriac patient who wants Groucho’s Dr. Hackenbush to run the establishment. But Hackenbush is actually a horse doctor. This is a new twist, in that Groucho is no longer unquestioningly accepted, but is overtly a con man in danger of being found out by the villains, including Morgan (Douglass Dumbrille), the abusive former owner of Jones’s race horse and the man who wants to tear down the sanitarium. This one has weaker humor in the first half, though there’s better stuff later on. I’m not that fond of the racetrack-tout sketch where Chico cons Groucho, because it make Groucho look too naive; I prefer the older formula where Groucho’s the smart one but is confounded by Chico’s linguistic misunderstandings, or where they’re both conning each other equally. The movie also debuts a sketch where Harpo tries to give Chico an important message through charades, a routine they’d reuse in later films. The musical sequences are hit-and-miss, including a musically impressive African-American slum sequence that was probably considered racially inclusive for the time but has some problematical elements by modern standards.

Room Service (’38): An odd sidebar in which the Marxes were loaned out to RKO to adapt a play that wasn’t written for them. (The deal was made by Zeppo, now working as the brothers’ agent.) It’s about a broke theater-troupe manager (Groucho) using various cons to avoid getting thrown out of a hotel. It’s not very funny, and the young male romantic lead is annoying. The funniest bit is a wordless, slapstick meal sequence with the Brothers, probably added for the film. Notable for featuring Lucille Ball as the female lead, though she’s wasted in the role. (Though she’d get something out of it, since she and Desi Arnaz later bought RKO and renamed it Desilu. Which is the first tenuous connection between the Marx Brothers and Star Trek, aside from both of them being Paramount franchises at one time or another.) Not worth it unless you’re a completist.

At the Circus (’39): Back to MGM and its established formula, as circus employee Chico hires private detective Groucho to help save a circus owned by Margaret Dumont’s rebellious son, so that he can marry his lady love. Naturally, villains are out to take the circus away by any means necessary. Harpo is again the abused assistant of the secondary villain, a strongman who oddly wears the same kind of curly wig as Harpo. Eve Arden plays the vamp working with the villains. Notable for introducing the Groucho song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” This isn’t as well-received as the previous two MGM films, but I found it a lot funnier than A Day at the Races. Maybe it was just in contrast to the dullness of Room Service, but I really liked this one. All three brothers are in fine comic form, though Groucho’s toupee is unfortunate.

Go West (’40): These titles are starting to sound rather prosaic, but keep in mind that the posters showed them underneath “GROUCHO – CHICO – HARPO – MARX BROS.,” so it’s basically like saying The Marx Brothers at the Circus or The Marx Brothers Go West. Anyway, this is their only period piece, set in 1870, as the brothers go out west to dig for gold (more figuratively in Groucho’s case) and end up helping the romantic couple hold onto a valuable deed to land that the railroad wants to buy and the villains want to steal. Probably the first Marx Bros. film with onscreen killing (it is a Western, after all). Notable for the sketch where Chico and Harpo con Groucho into giving them change for the same $10 bill over and over — it’s a bit like the racetrack routine I mentioned before, but Groucho holds his own better because he’s trying to con them too. The big train-chase climax is fairly fun, though these climaxes are getting more over-the-top and slapstick-driven. This film has my least favorite harp solo, because it has Harpo very unconvincingly turn a rug loom in a Native American village into a makeshift harp, with the harp music dubbed in, rather spoiling the illusion.

The Big Store (’41): The final MGM film, with Groucho again playing a detective, hired by Dumont to protect her singer nephew from second-time villain Douglass Dumbrille, who wants to kill him to take possession of the high-end department store he owns. (These movies are getting more violent!) Harpo is Groucho’s man Friday, the first time he’s started out teamed with Groucho rather than Chico. Some good gags here and there, but a couple are too labored, like the extended “novelty beds” sequence with all sorts of weird beds coming out of the walls, and the overly long slapstick climax. But it has a couple of noteworthy musical sequences. The big production number “Sing While You Sell” is rather good and features a cameo solo by singer Virginia O’Brien, known for her trademark deadpan singing style, staring ahead unblinkingly and expressionlessly while singing otherwise normally, which is oddly compelling and slightly creepy. Chico and Harpo did their only four-handed piano duet, bringing fresh interest and comedy to the routine. (They also get a brief piano-harp duet during the otherwise clumsy “Tenement Symphony” production number.) And Harpo has his most glorious harp scene ever, a fantasy sequence where he plays Mozart’s Sonata in C Major while dressed in fancy clothes and a powdered wig and forms a trio with his reflections in a pair of ornate mirrors. An inconsistent film, but I like it.

A Night in Casablanca (’46): This reunion film from United Artists, a riff on Casablanca and similar films, follows the MGM formula pretty closely. Groucho comes full circle to play a hotel manager again, in danger from disguised Nazi Sig Ruman (his second turn as a primary villain, his third appearance overall), since there’s hidden Nazi treasure in the hotel and Ruman wants to take it over in order to find it. All the usual MGM tropes are there. (The romantic male lead is Charles Drake, who two decades later would play Commodore Stocker in Star Trek: “The Deadly Years,” our second connection.) There are a number of good comedy sequences — Harpo messing around with Ruman and his henchmen, Chico and Harpo packing the restaurant with tables to clean up on bribes from aspiring customers, Groucho and the vamp moving from room to room as Chico tries to interrupt the seduction, and the trio driving Ruman crazy by secretly unpacking his clothes while he packs them, to delay his escape. Not a bad swan song for the trio.

Although… there is one more film that should arguably be counted, though the Brothers themselves preferred to ignore it. It’s not on my DVD sets, but I found it on YouTube.

Love Happy (’49): Not quite a Marx Brothers movie — more a Harpo movie with Chico co-starring and Groucho tacked on as a “narrator” who barely participates in the story, since that was the only way Harpo could get financing for what he intended as a solo vehicle. Otherwise, it follows the familiar formula, with Harpo and Chico helping a pair of young lovers trying to keep a cash-strapped theater troupe afloat. Harpo ends up in possession of a stolen necklace that the villain (Ilona Massey) is trying to find, with help of henchmen including Raymond Burr. There’s some decent comedy from Harpo, and he carries a lot of the film with his endearing persona, but it’s weak overall, and has some ill-conceived bits involving a brutal offscreen beating and a “comedy” musical number that makes light of child abuse. The Harpo-Chico material relies too heavily on the familiar “charades” routine. And it’s the only time Groucho is almost completely unfunny, because his material stinks and he hardly has anyone to play off. (The best-known aspect of this film is a random, brief walk-on by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first screen roles. It was before she went platinum blonde and adopted her infantile persona, so it’s the only film in which I find her at all sexy.) The three brothers never appear together except in one shot where they don’t interact. Worth it for Harpo fans, but a slog otherwise. (And it has more Trek connections — Fred Phillips did the makeup and Howard Anderson did the visual effects.)

There was one more film that featured Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, Irwin Allen’s unfunny comedy epic The Story of Mankind in 1957, but the three brothers appeared in separate, brief sketches and never interacted, so it can hardly be considered a Marx Brothers film. It’s not worth reviewing here, but I talked about it in a few posts on the TrekBBS a few years ago, starting here.

So… Overall, a pretty good run, with only a couple of real duds. Even the weaker Paramount and MGM films had a lot of memorable material. Hard to say which era I prefer. The Brothers did get a little more domesticated and inhibited in the MGM era, and they had to share more screen time with non-comedic romantic leads; plus the MGM movies were quite formulaic, all variations on the same pattern. But the Brothers were also more sympathetic in the MGM films. Their personalities were basically the same, but tempered by more compassion. And I don’t mind Chico and Harpo being tamer and sweeter, because they were both really good at it. The edgier Paramount stuff was fun, but Harpo’s early antics were sometimes too edgy and aggressive. Harpo was really very charming, and the MGM era brought that out more fully. As for Groucho, his evolution from Paramount to MGM reminds me of Bugs Bunny’s evolution from the early Tex Avery days to the later Chuck Jones days — initially just a wise guy making trouble for fun, but eventually becoming more a comic hero and defender of the helpless. But post-Paramount Groucho was often more the butt of the joke than the perpetrator — often willingly letting himself be led astray by the vamp, or suspecting that Chico is conning him but not quite catching on. But that fallibility made him a more effective hero, since it introduced the risk of failure.

I don’t think I can really decide which era I prefer. I think both are essential to the whole. And I’m glad I have the complete set, though now I know there are a couple I can skip in the future.

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I’m still here, you guys

Sorry, folks, I lost track of how long it had been since my last post. Not that much has been happening that’s newsworthy, since I’ve been waiting for certain things to be approved or moved on by other parties. Fortunately, there’s finally been a bit of movement, so with luck, I should have a couple of announcements coming relatively soon. This is a relief for me in other ways, too, since it means there should be an improvement in my financial situation, which has been pretty tense lately. Although it’ll probably remain tense until at least next month.

On the plus side, the delay has left me plenty of time to work on my own original projects, including several short stories/novelettes. I just finished one the other day — I’m trying to revise and streamline it now, though I’m a bit stuck — and I hope to be able to move into another promptly thereafter. As a tease, I’ll reveal that my research for that just-finished story included a vintage Robert A. Heinlein story and the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Which has prompted me to do a binge rewatch of the two Marx Brothers DVD box sets I inherited from my father, one featuring all their Paramount movies with Zeppo, the other featuring most of their later films. I’ve had those box sets for years, but I’ve never gotten around to rewatching them until now. I’ve always loved the Marx Brothers’ absurd verbal humor and wordplay. They were unusual in combining both verbal humor and visual/slapstick humor, and doing both well. But Groucho and Chico’s contortions of language and logic are amazing to listen to.

Let’s see, I’ve also been getting the occasional DVD from the library. I rented Deadpool despite my misgivings about its violence and crass humor, because I’d heard it was really clever and funny otherwise. I thought it had some very funny bits here and there, and Morena Baccarin was luminous (though no way could her hair grow that long in just one year), but overall I could’ve done without it. Just not my style of humor. Also, perhaps prompted by my recent discussion of the Mako Mori test in my “Bechdel” thread, I decided to rent Pacific Rim again. It still holds up well, and it was interesting to note how many kaiju-movie tropes it touched on. The idea that the aliens were softening Earth up for invasion now because we’d polluted the planet enough to make it habitable for them is reminiscent of Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe. The use of helicopters to airlift the giant mechas to battle evoked the Millennium-era Mechagodzilla movies. And Mako was very reminiscent of the female leads in movies like Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. I felt the story was well-structured too, deftly using the mind-melding technology of the Drift as a way to drive the plot dynamics, establish character backstory, and provide a source of information about the invaders, all rolled into one. And of course I still love Idris Elba’s big speech.

Well, I just heard the mail arrive, so I should go. More news soon, I hope.

Categories: My Fiction, Reviews Tags: , ,

My STAR TREK BEYOND review (spoilers!)

I wasn’t planning on seeing Star Trek Beyond until Tuesday (discount day) due to my strained finances, but a fan was kind enough to make a PayPal donation as a gift to let me see the movie earlier (thanks, Linn), so I went yesterday. (Plus I needed groceries anyway, so an earlier trip was welcome.)

I generally agree with the consistently positive reactions the film has gotten. It is the best of the Bad Robot series to date (or the Kelvin Timeline, as it’s now been officially dubbed). I liked the first two films for the way they handled the characters, for J.J. Abrams’s good directorial work handling emotion and relationships, and for the superb casting — but they both had pretty major logic problems and plot holes, like Kirk’s ludicrously rapid promotion in the first film, the gratuitous Wrath of Khan callbacks in the second film, and the careless astrophysics and near-instantaneous interstellar travel in both films (justified by an implied time cut in the first film, but harder to reconcile in the second). I also wasn’t crazy about the totally unnecessary disaster porn in Into Darkness‘s climax, and I didn’t like how gray and gloomy Earth’s cities looked in the films. So I liked the films, but with reservations. In the case of Beyond, most of the problems of the previous two movies are absent, and there’s plenty of good stuff still there as well. With a different director (Justin Lin) and writers (Simon Pegg & Doug Jung), it has a different flavor and tone, and it’s one that works well, for the most part.

The first two films were meant as prequels, showing the early years of the TOS cast as they grew into the people we knew, or reasonable approximations. Beyond is the culmination of that process. The characters are now three years into the five-year mission, and they’re pretty much the mature versions of themselves at last. Chris Pine’s Kirk is more seasoned, more thoughtful. On the cusp of his 30th birthday, he’s no longer the delinquent renegade he was just five years earlier, but a seasoned commander, a Starfleet company man, serious and disciplined but with a bit of the old bad boy still peeking out occasionally — essentially just like his predecessor. Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Karl Urban’s McCoy finally get the extensive interaction they’ve lacked before, and it’s a classic Spock-McCoy interplay, albeit a bit more foulmouthed than would ever have been allowed 50 years ago. McCoy is put in a bit too much of an action-hero role at times (when did he ever show any piloting skill?), but it’s in service to keeping him and Spock together, and that’s long overdue. Spock’s romance with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is downplayed, though not entirely absent, which allows Uhura to stand on her own as a protagonist; she handles herself well, carrying the brunt of the direct interaction with Idris Elba’s villain Krall, standing up to him, and gaining vital intelligence about his true identity and origins. Pegg’s Scotty also gets a good share of the spotlight, unsurprisingly, as he interacts with the guest alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a striking and tough alien of unidentified species, and supports her through her character arc as she aligns herself with our heroes. Not surprising that these movies would prioritize cast members as prominent as Saldana and Pegg. Unfortunately, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin are still basically wasted as Sulu and Chekov, never really given a chance to emerge from the background, which is particularly tragic given that this was Yelchin’s final turn in the role. Chekov is pretty much just there to follow orders and be comic relief, and he has even less of an arc than in the previous two movies. Sulu is given a bit more character depth as we learn that he has a husband and daughter on Starbase Yorktown, and we see his worry about them when we learn that Krall intends to attack Yorktown, but it’s a character arc that’s conveyed almost entirely without dialogue, relying purely on Cho’s silent reaction shots — and of course Cho is more than good enough to put volumes into those wordless looks, but still, guys, he’s probably the best actor in the whole damn cast (other than Yelchin — damn it, I’m getting teary-eyed), so give him something to do! (I wonder if there were more scripted lines that got cut because the studio was nervous about focusing too overtly on Sulu’s gay marriage.)

I liked the way the film compensated for the male-heavy core cast by featuring mostly women in the supporting cast. We still had Elba’s Krall as the main villain and Joe Taslim as his sidekick Manas (who was such a minor character that I didn’t even notice him as a presence until Jaylah established in dialogue that he was her nemesis), but we also had Boutella’s standout work as Jaylah; Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Yorktown commander (Commodore Paris!); Lydia Wilson as Kalara, an alien refugee playing a significant role in the first two acts; and Melissa Roxburgh in a small but important role as Ensign Syl, an alien crewmember with a special skill that Kirk cleverly takes advantage of.

Beyond also avoids a lot of the crazy science of the previous Abrams films. Warp travel actually seems to take time (and the new warp effect is utterly gorgeous, the first one that actually looks like it’s representing the warping of space, at least in a stylized way), there’s no transwarp beaming or super-healing Augment blood, and it’s essentially the first Star Trek screen work that’s ever handled alien languages and translations in a realistic way, with aliens either speaking their own languages, speaking accented English, or speaking in their own voices while a computer translation runs parallel, in Kalara’s case. This is what we were always supposed to assume was going on when we saw aliens seemingly speaking English, but now we actually see it shown literally, and it’s refreshing, if a bit distracting. I wouldn’t have minded, honestly, if they’d emulated The Undiscovered Country‘s Klingon courtroom scene and started out that way long enough to establish it, then transitioned to having Wilson just speak English. The science of Yorktown’s outwardly spherical artificial gravity, and the weirdness that results in the center of the field, is a bit fanciful, but no more so than artificial gravity in general, and it’s the basis of a really clever action sequence at the climax. Yorktown itself is a gorgeous setting; unlike the Earth cities in the Abrams-directed films, it’s bright and inviting enough that it actually looks like the Federation should look. (Although I wish it hadn’t been filmed in Dubai, a country that I gather is prone to rather atrocious human-rights violations toward emigrant workers. That hardly seems fitting.)

As for the action overall, I found it kind of meh. It was big and frenetic and everything, but sometimes hard to follow. It was definitely clever in a lot of ways, but the execution wasn’t always there. They did find an imaginatively novel way to destroy the Enterprise, but it gets a little tiresome that deflector shields almost never seem to work in the movies. I’m also not convinced by the claim that the E was unequipped for this kind of attack, given the dozens of point-defense phaser banks it was shown to have in the first couple of films. Most of all, the destruction of the Enterprise had no emotion to it, no pathos. I didn’t feel the loss like I did in The Search for Spock or Generations, because we weren’t shown the characters feeling the loss. The Enterprise wasn’t treated as a beautiful lady that we loved and hated to lose, but just as a vehicle that was abandoned once it was no longer useful. So it was a well-made sequence and all, but rather unengaging. The emotion just wasn’t there. Say what you like about Abrams as a director, but he always focuses on the emotion of an event, no matter how big and frenetic it is. That was missing here.

Now we get into the really spoilery stuff, since I’m going to talk about Krall’s backstory. I guessed pretty early on, as soon as we saw Krall changing appearance when he drained the crewmembers, that it would turn out he was a member of the Franklin crew who’d been changed into an alien. I feel the movie totally failed to explain just how that happened, or where the transformative technology came from. I guess it was something left behind by the previous inhabitants of Altamid, the warrior race that had built the superweapon (and I’m getting a little tired of Trek movies built around superweapons), but the exposition that would’ve tied this together seemed to be absent. As for Krall really being Balthazar Edison, an ex-MACO who couldn’t adjust to peacetime, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s kind of a classic TOS-style plot, with Kirk against another Starfleet captain who’s gone rogue — there’s a lot of Ron Tracey in Edison. I’ve even seen one person express the opinion that it covered similar themes to my novel Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, though I was actually reminded more of the debates in Into Darkness about Marcus’s warmongering view of Starfleet versus the more peaceful approach Spock advocated. And the tie-ins to Enterprise-era history were interesting. The bit about the MACOs being dissolved and folded into Starfleet meshed comfortably with my own books, although the uniform design is quite different from what I came up with. (I’m not worried about inconsistencies with ROTF, though; Simon Pegg has recently said that the Kelvin Timeline was altered in a way that allows its history to diverge before Nero’s arrival in 2233 rather than after, which is basically a way of saying that storytellers in the respective universes can operate independently of one another from now on.)

But I’m disappointed, because the advance word suggested that the story was going to be about how alien cultures perceived the Federation’s expansionism as cultural imperialism — a post-colonial take on Trek’s ideas, as filtered through the perspective of the Taiwanese-born Justin Lin. As a student of world history and frontiers in particular, I would’ve been very interested in a story along those lines, and looking forward to seeing that new perspective. But it turns out that was essentially all just a fakeout, or else a plan that was changed by the time the film was finalized. This was really just another story about a rogue Starfleet officer turning on Starfleet, like we’ve seen many times before — and it again echoes STID in that the villain’s true identity as a figure from human history was obscured for much of the film. I liked the theme of working for peace versus embracing war, but it was rather more conventional than what I was led to expect.

I also don’t think it sold the message of peace very well, because it fell back on the usual action-movie pattern of just killing the bad guys without remorse or qualm. The bit about using hard-rock music to defeat the swarm ships was kind of cute in a hokey way, but it involved killing thousands of alien pilots, and that wasn’t acknowledged in any way. (How many of those pilots were innocent captives transformed into Krall’s servants?) And I was hoping that the climax would involve Edison redeeming himself — to have a Spider-Man 2-style ending where Kirk would persuade him to regain his humanity and he’d sacrifice himself to stop the destruction he’d started… or better yet, work with Kirk to stop it and then survive to be rehabilitated. It’s only paying lip service to the idea of peace if your hero makes no real effort to find an alternative to killing the bad guy. This is one respect in which I have to give the higher score to the Abrams-directed movies. Kirk at least made a token effort to invite Nero to surrender (though that could’ve been handled much better), and they actually did take Khan alive (though that was mainly with an eye toward sequel possibilities).

As for the closing sequence, I think it’s a bit corny to destroy the ship just to set up an Enterprise-A at the end of the same film, although the time-lapse ending was a clever alternative to ST IV’s approach of just pulling a finished ship out of a hat. But I’m disappointed that the E-A looks basically the same as the original. I was hoping that they’d hold off on introducing the new ship and then would come up with a completely new design for its successor in the next, like the TNG films did with the Enterprise-E. Honestly, I’m not a fan of this Enterprise design. Its saucer is fine, if rather derivative of the TMP ship, but the proportions of the engineering hull and nacelles don’t work for me at all. I would’ve welcomed a completely new design from a different art team.

All in all, this is a very solid Trek movie that handles the characters and ideas pretty well, but that has a certain emotional and thematic superficiality compared to some of its predecessors. Its plot holds together pretty well except where it overlooks some things that could’ve stood to be explained. It has some fantastic action and some overly cluttered action, and some fun-but-hokey moments like the music bit and the motorcycle bit. It handles most of the ensemble well, including Jaylah, but still lets Sulu and Chekov down. I wouldn’t say the problems are quite as frustrating as the problems in the previous two Kelvin films, but there are a few things those films did better, especially when it came to emotional engagement with the characters and situations. So it’s an improvement — certainly the best Trek film of the past decade and one of the best overall — but there’s room for future films to improve on it even more.