Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (2007)

And if the rest are like this they can stay lost. Thank you, I’ll be here all week; don’t forget to tip your waitress. Even offstage, I can’t help but think that Straczynski had all these years to prepare and this is the best he has to offer? There’s a short exorcism tale so embarrassingly clumsy that few people would have thought it worth releasing and then a longer moral-choice story that while it works overall is definitely slim.

Let’s start with the exorcism and certainly that subject sounds odd for B5. I remember hearing a story that Straczynski was annoyed by the supernatural elements in Neil Gaiman’s script but can’t find any verification so let’s just leave that as an unsubstantiated and possibly wrong rumor. In any case, Straczynski seems to have gone that route himself and “seems” because you can always posit the demon as some kind of utterly natural alien though there’s not the slightest hint of that in the episode.

Which may or may not matter considering how embarrassing this segment is. The entire opening is pretty much nothing but two characters spouting exposition at each other, nothing dramatic about it and a voice over or text crawl could have served the same purpose just as ineptly but much lower on the annoyance factor. Actually, there’s a brief scene just before the exposition-a-rama showing an unknown man falling down in what appears to be a warehouse area. A bit is shot through some kind of circular object, perhaps with the idea of adding some visual interest though it’s so completely unmotivated that’s really just distracting. Maybe he was trying to indicate the character is trapped but I sincerely hope not. (Straczynski is the credited director though the IMDB also lists Sara Barnes.)

So the point is that Catholicism (or Christianity in general?) has been declining since humans reached the stars and found no angels, not even Vorlons. The priest goes on (and on) about this while Lochley lays out her problem. (Tracy Scoggins is as wooden an actor as you can find.) Seems the guy from the first short scene is possibly possessed by a demonic entity and when he’s finished his crumpets could Mr. Priest please have a look-see? Admittedly there’s a bit of spark to the priest-possessee dialogues though overall they don’t amount to much. In the end it’s tossed away by having Lochley jump up from a sleepless night having realized the “secret” and then she then gets to deliver a cringe-worthy monologue at full volume. The entire segment has no subtlety, no depth, no brains, no nothin’.

The second and longer segment revolves around whether Sheridan will save Earth from a disastrous attack by assassinating the prince who will grow up to lead said attack. This story is much better, partly because the cast is stronger but also even though the conflict is quite schematic at least it has some substance. The impact is reduced by having some out-of-the-blue disaster that relies on Sheridan believing that a vision he has is actually of the future and not some hallucination or illusion (a line of dialogue even addresses this, though in a somewhat improbable “I know what’s real” tone). And then the prince volunteers personal info to Sheridan that it’s hard to imagine anybody in such a cut-throat court doing. Even worse is a scene with a news reporter that shows Sheridan playing a mean practical joke but actually comes across as misogynist. Was this intended to display another side to Sheridan or did Straczynski actually think this might be funny? (The misogyny seems completely unintentional though still hard to deny.)

In the end the second segment relies on Sheridan thinking of an unexpected alternate solution which is perfectly fine even if it mostly sidesteps the moral dilemma. The unfortunate capper, though, is a bit where Sheridan accuses the technomage of perhaps manipulating him to do the this alternate solution which the technomage had wanted all along. This doesn’t even really make much sense and you’d have to really stretch the earlier scenes to make that fit. But then that possibility is never resolved anyway so it feels completely tacked on.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shakespeare After Mass Media (2002)

Editor Richard Burt opens with an introduction that’s so moddish academic that if it’s not a parody (and there’s no indication of tongues anywhere near cheeks) then I almost didn’t want to go any further. And that title: “after mass media”?

But there’s some good work here and it’s just easiest to go down the list. Most of this is at its best doing real archive work rather than criticism which is nice to see since that’s almost been overwhelmed by a tendency toward analysis unfettered by any facts. (Somebody just finishing their doctoral dissertation in film told me that he met with resistance because it was based on a lot of primary research.)

Donald K. Hecrick – Covers some uses of Shakespeare in business books and a few other consumer items. Mildly interesting.

Peter S. Donaldson – Good close reading of Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

Mark Thornton Burnett – Decent overview of Branagh’s career weighted down by smugness despite this having almost nothing beyond that overview. As he says “arguing that they can only properly be understood when discussed as a corpus”. Ah, so Mr. Burnett has the only proper key to understanding so if you connected in any way to these films then you’re wrong, wrong he tells you.

Diane E. Henderson – Shakespearean tourist recreations, obvious and really only has a page or two worth of material.

Laurie E. Osborne – Shakespeare in Harlequin etc romances. One of the best pieces here even if there’s little “real” use made of Shakespeare this does probe at some real pop cultural elements.

Josh Heuman & Richard Burt – Shakespeare in comics. Good overview.

Craig Dionne – Shakespeare in Star Trek. Solid.

Douglas Lanier – Shakespeare in American radio. Another outstanding piece.

Fran Teague – Shakespeare musicals. Another good overview.

Stephen M. Buhler – Romeo and Juliet in pop songs. Merely a survey with nothing of interest backing it up.

DJ Hopkins & Bryan Reynolds – Somewhat turgid essay about a Robert Wilson deconstruction of Hamlet. Also seems like a parody of academia at times.

Helen M. Whall – Shakespeare quotations in Bartlett’s. Interesting and admirably short.

Richard Burt – The editor closes with a piece about Taymor’s Titus and other adaptations that starts off badly (somebody please let him know that puns in this context are more embarassing than any kind of linguistic short circuiting) but pulls together towards the end. Maybe he should read more Mencken or Edmund Wilson.

It's all about the story?

CNN just had a piece (Web-only I think) about sex on TV. It focused on one HBO show, one Showtime and in passing a network series and had very little that made this seem like anything unusual so it was clearly a non-story. But that's not the story that was the real focus. CNN had a TV Guide and a Newsweek critic on different sides of whether the sex scenes were important to the shows' stories; since they were only discussing generalities there's no way to reach a conclusion and a cynic (not me, I'm a stoic) would suspect that's exactly what CNN wanted. The TV Guide critic took the usual line that the sex scenes are acceptable if they're needed for the story though shortly afterwards she gave the game away by saying she wouldn't want her mother or her daughter to walk in and see such scenes. Of course they would have no idea whether this was part of the story or not so in other words as far as she's concerned it's irrelevant whether such scenes are important to the story.

But why do the sex scenes have to be necessary for the story? Do we care so much about "the story" that nothing else matters? Films like Lone Star and Oldboy definitely need fairly explicit sex scenes because major elements of the story require that viewers have absolutely no doubt that this took place. And apart from that, so what? Violence is also frequently subjected to the story-necessity idea but few people would argue that the violence in CSI and its kin are required by the story; well the violence yes because you can't have a murder mystery without a murder but the display not really. But I think you see where I'm going with this. Car chases in a cop show aren't really needed for the story. Soap operas can do without all the conversation. Musicals aren't advanced one bit by the songs. Sports film, why go through The Big Game but just tell us who won? In fact we should just listen to radio where some announcer can tell us the story in a few minutes and we don't have to be distracted by actors or dialogue or movement or locations. We can get the real story. Because apparently nothing else matters.

Friday, October 26, 2007

last year's Halloween viewing

Late as usual but might as well add this:

Cannibal Apocalypse (Antonio Margheriti 1980) - Saw this some twenty-something years ago under the title Invasion of the Flesh Hunters and remembered it as a pretty nifty zombie thriller. Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong. It's sloppy, lax and mindless; the kind of film where a guy way inside a building shoots a shotgun and blows out the window of a police car in the parking lot. There's not much apocalypse and few cannibals and little of note. I was very interested in the DVD bonus about shooting locations since I recognized the Decatur courthouse and I thought another spot or two but the bonus was mostly a botch. Should be very easy, just show the locations in their current state and talk about them a bit but instead there are some "what were they thinking" comedy bits and other misguided bits.

The Invisible Ray (Lambert Hillyer 1936) - Without Lugosi & Karloff this would have faded into obscurity or at least as obscure as any horror film gets. Opens with some almost competely nonsensical sequence about viewing Earth from space before eventually moving to a routine mad-scientist/killer story where nearly all the bad stuff happens off screen (save fx budget). Duller 'n dirt.

The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher 1960) - Moderately effective Hammer film with Cushing as Van Helsing, a girls school, an overbearing vampire mom, a castle, frightened villagers, etc.

Saw (James Wan 2004) - Quite dumb and shows filmmakers who didn't really have a good idea of what they were trying to do. That's until perhaps the most mindbogglingly stupid surprise ending since Pieces. You just wonder what Fulci might have done with this premise.

How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock 1958) - Mild behind-the-scenes film about a make-up man seeking revenge.

Sisters of Death (Joseph Mazzuca 1977) - This kind of film fascinates me. It's not good, not even in a "so bad it's" way, and looks like a tax shelter effort that nobody expected to see theatres until co-star Claudia Jennings appeared in Playboy. I could be wrong but that's what it looks like. There's a meandering story and for a film of that era very little visible violence or sex (perhaps they were going after the TV market?). You can almost imagine some guys with a couple of weeks and some film stock deciding they'd make a movie which would account for the home movie feel of some scenes and the limited locations.

Dust Devil: The Final Cut (Richard Stanley 1992 & 2006?) - Fairly effective, almost-surreal outing about a woman in southern Africa who picks up a hitchhiker who may or may not be The Devil or a devil or a demon or something. The original release had most of the supernatural elements removed so this version is considered the director's final say.

Oasis of the Zombies (Jess Franco 1981) - Almost completely worthless but hey what else would you expect from a Franco film? Even by his standards this is tedious and poorly done.

Homecoming (Joe Dante 2005) - The political point is heavy-handed and even for an hour-long film Dante hasn't completely thought it through but still it's a decent addition to his filmography. When he's not on the main point, Dante has a good satirical eye (I particularly like the preacher who has a different opinion of the zombies when their true purpose is revealed) and the skill to keep it moving.

Pick Me Up (Larry Cohen 2005) - Cohen pits two serial killers against each other in a tight and pretty interesting story, marred primarily by a murder scene that seems mostly misogynist.