Saturday, November 27, 2010

Miss Media Junkie vs. the Prequels

I hated the "Star Wars" prequels. My experiences with them comprise a litany of woe and disillusionment that I chronicled in the following article a few years ago to work through some frustrations. For those fans coming to the end of their own film franchises, who may be tempted to wish for more, I've dusted it off and posted it below for your edification, your amusement, and your cautionary warning.

***

The first time I ever saw a "Star Wars" film was in 1992. NBC was running slightly edited versions of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi" across two nights as a part of a 15th Anniversary "Star Wars" celebration. I'd been on Star Tours at Disneyland, seen the "Droids" cartoon as a kid, and have fond memories of the Ewok films, but I'd never seen the actual trilogy before those two nights. I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and instantly hooked. My brother and I raised a fuss and got to see the original "Star Wars" shortly after that by way of rented video, but I always liked the other two a little better.

My fandom resume is pretty decent. For a while in junior high, I borrowed the film novelizations from the public library whenever I couldn't find anything else I wanted to read. I worked my way through about a dozen of the other Star Wars universe books, mostly on loan from a true Star Wars ubergeek in high school. At some point I could recite the entire battle of Endor along with my brother after countless viewings of "Jedi" - we had that '92 broadcast taped, complete with aftershock warnings scrolling along the bottom of the screen. I saw all three of the Special Editions in theaters in 1997, dragging friends along with me. Not having much of a budget back then, I never bought any toys or merchandise. Still, I was always happy to indulge in camaraderie with the hardcore fans, and appreciated the Star Wars markers a friend got me for Christmas (you have to admit that a big black marker with a Darth Vader design on it is pretty darn cool). I knew who the Bothans were. I could spell Kashyyyk. When a friend named her cat Mara Jade, I needed no explanation. And, for better or worse, I was a Star Wars fan.

The release of "The Phantom Menace" was something I remember looking forward to for months and months in advance. Every promo image, every clip, every trailer was dissected and reflected on ad nauseum. I still have the first teaser on video tape, caught in its first airing at exactly 5PM on my local FOX affiliate, thanks to a friend's forewarning. I remember getting excited just seeing ad banners of Queen Amidala and Qui-Gon Jinn at the mall. Even graduating high school and going to college didn't seem to compare to that anticipation.

I don't remember being particularly disappointed with the film itself - I viewed it as a lot of fun spectacle for the most part. Sound and fury and all that. Everyone knew the substantive stuff wasn't going to come around until Episodes II and III when "Ani" grew up anyway. It was so far removed from the original trilogy, I was fine with just seeing the universe broadened out a little. Jar-Jar and the pod race were for the kids. The shiny new CGI probably needed a little time to be fine-tuned to make things look less plastic. Ewan MacGregor was all the eye candy I needed anyway. I mean, who cares about little technicalities like midichlorians? So I didn't love the first movie. It wasn't a big deal. The good stuff was sure to come and I was willing to be patient.

That patience wore out by Episode II. In the throes of college life, seeing the next installment was not high on my list of priorities at the time. My boyfriend and I went to a matinee on a whim, a few weeks after it had opened. I'd seen mixed reviews. Some of the hardcore fans had loved it and others had hated it. I wasn't expecting much but an introduction to the grown up Anakin and maybe some nice lightsaber battles. When I walked out of that movie, all I could do was express my outright horror - the movie was *awful.* It wasn't overanalyzation of geekdom minutuae. It wasn't some deep-set resentment against George Lucas. It was a pure gut reaction. I *hated* "Attack of the Clones."

My first thought was to blame Hayden Christiansen. Never mind that Lucas had cast him specifically after auditioning every other young actor on the planet. The wooden acting, the angsty, whiny teen attitude - Jake Lloyd was a blessing in comparison. I realized later that it was the dialogue that was mostly at fault, especially the parts connected to a pedestrian romance I could barely believe was meant to be taken seriously. Romance in the Star Wars universe had always meant Han and Leia trading barbs, exchanging glances amidst laser fire, and saving heartfelt confessions for the very last minute. Why have Padme so swoony and Anakin so emo? Why were they talking like they were in a badly written daytime soap opera - and rolling around in a field?! What was going on?

"Attack of the Clones" finally also made me realize how poor the action scenes and special effects had become - oh the technological feats were flawless, but they were so terribly used. Where one lightsaber looks awesome, ten look silly. The CGI aliens seemed to have no weight, no substance - and they were all moving much too fast. All the little moments to sit back and appreciate the craft of the creations were gone. I mourned the Muppet Yoda, replaced by a leapfrogging CGI doppleganger with half the charm.

By round three, I counted myself among the skeptics, but the hype won me over. Promises of a darker storyline, Lucas warning small children out of the theaters, and constant gossip about other the contribution of other writers did their job of allaying some fears. The reviews were sparkling, some going so far as to compare "Revenge of the Sith" to the original trilogy. "Better than the original Star Wars!" one of them crowed. Pity I didn't remember the original "Star Wars" had been the one I liked the least.

Little had changed from films one and two. Ewan MacGregor was out-acting everything else on screen, but looking bored. Natalie Portman was being used as attractive scenery, and still completely underdeveloped. Hayden Christensen, despite a fabulous new hairstyle, was as wooden as ever. The effects were still showboating and obnoxious, the scenery overdesigned and unconvincing. I spent the greater part of the romance scenes wondering how much the interior designers on Coruscant made, and thinking that George Lucas really should've left the dialogue to someone else. Hearing James Earl Jones as Vader after so long should have been a treat, but with Anakin's stiff dialogue and the already infamous "NOOOO!" I was clutching my head.

I was just so tired of it by the end. Chewbacca showing up with Yoda was just one of a long string of nods to the original trilogy that were getting too obvious and self-satisfied. On the other hand, probably the best moment of the film for me is when the droids are sent to Captain Antilles, and we see that classic old 70s style cruiser set again. Or the last shot of all, where young Owen and Beru show baby Luke the famous double sunset. Ian McDiarmid wound up stealing the show, and the final duel wasn't bad, but there was so much trashy, prime-time soap opera material to wade through, dressed up as something better.

Sadly, the only thing running through my head as I left the theater was "it's only a movie." The "Star Wars" films, before that, were never "just movies." And just like that, I realized I was no longer a "Star Wars" geek.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Thanksgiving Trailer Trove

It's Thanksgiving weekend, which means the trailers for next year's spring and summer movies are starting to make their premieres. I want to run down a couple of them with a few thoughts. I'll have another post for the trailers attached to the Christmas releases next month. All links lead to Trailer Addict. Enjoy.

"The Green Lantern" – First, let's take care of the big one, now that the trailer has been officially released. Of the three big superhero films due next summer, this is the one I'm anticipating the most. The trailer doesn't change that, but I'm with the critics of the CGI suit. I can see why it might be necessary, but the execution looks awfully cartoonish. Ryan Reynolds is perfectly suited to superhero duty, but I wish we could have seen more of the other actors, especially Blake Lively as the female lead. The trailer starts out all right, but there's some tonal whiplash as it goes from irreverent to eye-popping to somber, and then back to irreverent. Whatever you want to say about the "Green Hornet" trailer, at least it was consistent.

"Cars 2" – I respect the original PIXAR film even if it didn't win me over. I'm getting a similar vibe from the sequel, despite the addition of the espionage elements. And I'm sure the creators didn't intend it, but I'm seeing a lot of similarities to the Wachowski siblings' unfortunate "Speed Racer."

"Cowboys and Aliens" – It's so good to see Harrison Ford back onscreen in an action role after his recent spate of awkward comedies and middling dramas. Even "Indiana Jones" didn't seem to fit him quite right anymore, but playing the scowling antagonist-turned ally to Daniel Craig's gunslinger hero here feels appropriate. I like the way that the trailer only gives us a brief tease of the aliens, saving the money shots for later. My only quibble is that Olivia Wilde sticks out like a sore thumb in the cast and the Old West environment. Between this and "Tron," it looks like we'll be seeing a lot of her this year, and I hope her acting has improved since the last season of "House."

"Red Riding Hood" – I feel bad about laughing, but it's so blatant that the marketers are targeting the "Twilight" crowd with Catherine Hardwicke's latest. The visuals are gorgeous and there's the possibility that the marketing campaign is being misleading. We'll just have to wait and see.

"Battle: Los Angeles" – My favorite trailer to debut in the last month. It looks like this alien invasion film will be playing it straight and keeping the story simple, following a group of soldiers as they clash with extraterrestrial foes. This could be one of those instances where the trailer puts all the best shots forward, and the film turns out to be a much duller affair – the effects are from the same people that did "Skyline" – but I remain optimistic. Aaron Eckhart and Michelle Rodriguez will star in the film, but I didn't see more than a glimpse of either, which suggests that the marketers are keeping plenty in reserve. Now I'm glad I got that picture with the prop helicopter from the film while I was at Comic-Con.

"Hop" – Unfortunate similarities to "Alvin and the Chipmunks" aside, the little bunny rabbit is awfully cute and the concept has promise. Let's see if I respond better to one of these rodent-led rock musicals when it isn't trying to resurrect the carcass of one of my childhood favorites.

"Your Highness" – If you took out Danny McBride's character, this would be the kind of medieval fantasy B-movie that I would be on in a second. James Franco, Natalie Portman, and Zooey Deschanel playing swords and sorcerers? Yes please! Unfortunately, between the efforts of director David Gordon Green and McBride, "Your Highness" is going to be a raunchy stoner comedy in the same vein as "Pineapple Express." I may have patience for five-hour Italian historical dramas, but I'm not sure I have the patience for this. Shoehorning in a quick montage of shiny dramatic moments at the end just makes it all the worse.

"Source Code" – Duncan Jones' follow-up to "Moon" looks to be another conceptually complicated science-fiction film, but with a more high voltage cast this time around. I think they spoiled too much of the plot in the trailer to give us an emotional hook, but I'm still curious to see how it's going to play out.

"Winnie the Pooh" – This trailer is like pure, concentrated nostalgia injected directly into the eyeballs. "Winnie the Pooh" marks Disney's second attempt to revive their traditionally animated features, and they're pulling out all the stops this time. The notion of a new "Pooh" movie is irresistible. You show me someone who doesn't love the Silly Old Bear, and I'll show you a truly miserable human being.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Prince of Persia" is Pretty Pedestrian

There is nothing egregiously awful about "The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." By that I mean that it commits no particularly worse cinematic crimes than anything else in the genre of Middle-Eastern fantasy films produced by Westerners. There are the usual bits of orientalism and racebending – it's impossible to take the leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton seriously as Persian natives – but otherwise it's largely inoffensive. Unfortunately, it's also pretty bland and unremarkable.

Gyllenhaal stars as Prince Dastan, the adopted son of Persia's King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup), and younger brother to Princes Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell). Also part of the family is Nizam, Sharaman's brother and trusted advisor, who is played by Ben Kingsley, and thus, of course, the villain of the picture. Tricked into thinking the holy city of Alamut has been producing weapons for their enemies, Dastan and his brothers conquer the city and take its lovely ruler, Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) prisoner. Dastan also acquires a mysterious dagger with a glass hilt, which has mysterious powers.

You can probably guess the rest of the story from there. Dastan and the princess end up on the run together, traveling across picturesque desert landscapes to evade Nizam's forces and protect the magical McGuffin. I've never played any of the "Prince of Persia" video games that were the basis of the series, so I have no idea how faithful the filmmakers were to the source material, but the movie never feels like a video game. Rather, it comes across as a minor echo of "The Thief of Baghdad," "Aladdin," and all the other iterations of "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights" we've seen over the years, though you can see where pains were taken to avoid familiar tropes like genies and magic carpets..

The other obvious template for "Prince of Persia" is the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, and it's no secret that Disney was hoping "Persia" would be able to pick up the slack once "Pirates" ended. The films share the same penchant for sword fights and CGI spectacle, though everything feels scaled-down in "Prince of Persia," probably due to a smaller budget and the involvement of less action-savvy writers and directors. Also, it becomes very clear how lucky the "Pirates" crew were in landing Johnny Depp, because "Persia" really suffers from the lack of a character like Captain Jack Sparrow to stir up the familiar formula. Given the genre, it's especially strange that "Persia" doesn't have a rogue or thief in its roster.

Instead, the weight of the narrative rests solely on Dastan, the noble good-guy we're meant to root for. Jake Gyllenhaal deserves credit for committing to the role, selling his action scenes, and emoting just enough in all the right places to keep us from rolling our eyes at his dialogue. I expect that it's harder than it looks. Gemma Arterton fares less successfully with Princess Tamina, who is one of the most caustic, shrewish heroines I've had the misfortune of encountering on the silver screen. For the first half of the film she insults and mocks everyone within hearing distance, and only seems to soften up later in order to keep the audience from cheering for her demise.

Of the rest of the ensemble, it's a mixed bag. Ben Kingsley phones in a few scenes of villainy, and the rest of the actors portraying the royals are unremarkable. Alfred Molina pops up as a secondary baddie around the midpoint of the movie to make complicate the journey of the protagonists. With his anti-government rants and affection for ostriches, he's the closest thing that "Prince of Persia" has to comic relief, and is far more tolerable than similar characters found in other movies. I suspect he would have been more effective if he'd had someone else to play off of, which underscores the curious lack of minor characters in this film.

I wonder if the smaller cast was a result of more cost-cutting measures. It's noticeable that "Prince of Persia" has fewer major effects sequences than "Pirates," which are altogether about on par with the visuals of "The Mummy" movies. It also takes fewer risks with its material, resulting in a far simpler, more by-the-numbers plot. In some areas this was to the film's benefit, and I appreciated the lack of narrative clutter. On the other hand, I didn't feel like I'd seen anything really novel, or big and impressive enough to require seeing in theaters. And that's probably why I ended up renting "Prince of Persia" and watching it on my puny television set at home.

Not a great way to start a franchise.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

About That Facebook Movie

When I first heard the comparisons between "The Social Network" and "Citizen Kane" floating around, I scoffed. Even with the combined forces of an Aaron Sorkin script and David Fincher's direction, how could the movie possible measure up to Orson Welles? Well, it doesn't, but that doesn't mean the comparisons aren't apt. "The Social Network" charts the rise of a young man to fortune and power, namely a Harvard undergraduate named Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who created the ubiquitous social networking site Facebook in 2004, and may have stepped on and over a few people in order to do it, including his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

Sorkin's wonderfully dense, quip-laden script uses a series of legal depositions as a framing device, where Zuckerberg, Saverin, and others relate the events around the site's genesis through flashbacks for the benefit of each others' lawyers and the audience. Zuckerberg is charged with stealing the idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (Arnie Hammer), and Divya Narenda (Max Minghella), who hired Zuckerberg to work on their own, smaller scale social networking site. Just as Zuckerberg sought to capture the ins and outs of social interaction through his website, it's a nice parallel that the litigation aims to do much the same thing, sussing out the details of conversations and arrangements that mostly happened in dorm rooms and campus hallways.

There are a few caveats inserted into the dialogue to warn that "The Social Network" plays fast and loose with the facts, and Sorkin is not shy about creating a dramatic narrative that is almost mythic in nature. Zuckerberg makes for a good Greek hero with no shortage of tragic flaws. He's disdainful of the social elites who he perceives as responsible for his ostracism, and so doesn't hesitate to abandon the "Winklevi" and spark their ire. He shuns traditional business tactics and proves easily swayed by power, which leads to the rift with Saverin. We even have a Mephistophelean figure in Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who draws Zuckerberg away from Harvard to indulge in California hedonism, and becomes instrumental in driving the wedge between Zuckerberg and Saverin. I think the story got sexed up a little too much with its visions of Harvard elite living in some sort of frat boy paradise, but otherwise Sorkin does a fantastic job of turning Zuckerberg's ascendancy into a digital-age cautionary tale.

Director David Fincher exercises restraint with the visuals, eschewing flashy gimmicks in favor of taut editing, temporal gymnastics, and a mean soundtrack. Most of the film is simply people having conversations or sitting in front of computers for long stretches, and it's to Fincher's credit that he builds some really tense sequences around Sorkin's dialogue, and deftly accentuates the little moments of humor and absurdity. He's not above the occasional stylistic flourish, such as tossing in a college rowing race set to "Hall of the Mountain King" or a little slo-mo gyrating during a fraternity party, but this is much closer to Fincher's work on "Zodiac" than "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." "The Social Network" is an acting showcase and the performances are the set-pieces here. To that end, he assembled a very impressive cast of up-and-coming talents.

Eisenberg is a dark horse in the Oscar race this year, but Mark Zuckerberg is easily his most iconic role, a socially inept programming wizard whose insecurities about his place in the Harvard pecking order run deep. The onscreen Zuckerberg is incredibly quick and intelligent, capable of delivering devastating verbal takedowns of his enemies without batting an eye, and coldly ruthless enough to ignore propriety and press every advantage against his competitors. But at the same time, he's too insensitive and thoughtless to keep his ambitions from running roughshod over anyone unfortunate enough to get close to him. In the opening scene he offends and is subsequently dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) over the course of a single rapid-fire conversation, where he weilds his intellect like a battering ram. It's a nice encapsulation of the entire film and Zuckerberg's character.

Of the rest of the ensemble, the actor I was most impressed with was Andrew Garfield, who has the clearest and most complete character arc with Eduardo Saverin. Where Eisenberg's performance is often opaque and ambiguous, Garfield is an easy audience proxy who does a great job of drawing our sympathies. Likewise, Hammer and Timberlake put in memorable work as characters who are only slightly less callous than Zuckerberg. The film has been criticized for portraying women badly, but it's better to say that they're hardly portrayed at all. Erica makes two short appearances at important junctures, to help suggest that Zuckerberg's romantic troubles were the impetus for Facebook's creation. Saverin's unstable girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song) has a good scene, and Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a legal associate attending the deposition, gets the last word. However, these are minor, largely symbolic roles, that may be based on real people but are all firmly fictitious.

Ultimately, the film's biggest accomplishment is that it captures the zeitgeist of the emerging Internet generation in a way that no one else has, mostly I think by letting the major conflicts play out among the youthful characters on their own terms. Parents only exist on the periphery of the film's universe, and the Winklevoss twins are mocked for relying on their father's connections. Zuckerberg's family is never seen or referred to. He becomes the devil of Facebook's creation myth, as Delpy calls him, entirely by his own efforts. If the film is missing anything it's the devil's downfall, the tragic ending to capitalize on all those tragic flaws. Fincher and Sorkin still get us feel sorry for the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg in the end, though. He may have found ways to quantify and facilitate social interactions, but the irony is he never understood them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How Can They Be Rebooting "Buffy" Already?

Nothing should surprise me anymore when it comes to reboots, but the news that "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" is getting a big screen revamp immediately caused me to recoil. How could they be rebooting this franchise already? I never saw the original 1992 movie, but the "Buffy" television series was one of the cornerstones of my teenage years. It's too soon, dammit! This isn't one of the half-remembered 80s properties of my childhood. I'm not ready to be nostalgic about the Slayer and the Scooby Gang! There are plenty of older franchises out there that the studios haven't gotten their grubby mitts on yet!

Probably the most distressing part of this news is that "Buffy" creator, Joss Whedon, will have no input on the film despite the fact that the series made him a bona fide geek demi-god in the late 90s. This immediately signals that the filmmakers have no interest in courting the original "Buffy" fanbase, the youngest of which would be in their mid-to late twenties by now. Instead, they're going after the new crop of teenagers who are currently making a lot of money for the people behind "Twilight," "The Vampire Diaries," and "True Blood," but have no familiarity with the "Buffy" universe. I can see the logic behind the decision, ridiculous as I think it is.

There is some comfort to be taken from the fact that the new Buffy will bear little resemblance to the incarnation portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar. According to the the LA Times, the writer in charge of scripting the reboot will be a 29-year-old actress named Whit Anderson with dubious credentials. She'll be starting over from scratch with Buffy Summers, and only Buffy Summers. As Geekosystem points out, Warner Brothers only acquired the license to the franchise name and the title character. Everyone else from the television series actually belongs to 20th Century Fox. This means there's a perfectly good opportunity here to do something original and exciting with a new take on the concept. Of course, they're going to waste it.

Warners wants to fast-track the project for a 2012 or even a 2011 release date, which means their only motive is to cash in on the current vampire craze before it evaporates. I would be absolutely stunned if the film turned out to be even remotely decent. The most likely scenario is that the new "Buffy" will be yet another "Twilight" clone, starring a few attractive teenagers angsting at each other with all they've got. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you can see how this would stoke the ire of the existing "Buffy" fans that were hoping for more projects in the TV show's continuity. Putting aside my own animosity for the moment, there is the distinct possibility that we may be in for a really spectacular franchise wreck, and those are always fun if you aren't too invested in the properties. Unfortunately, I am invested, and a lot of other people are too.

I wonder if Warner Brothers really understands what they're getting into. "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff "Angel" have pretty serious fandoms surrounding them, and their fans aren't the type sign on for a new project just because it's peripherally connected to their favorite show. An existing fanbase can be a great help to marketing and hype, but it can also be toxic if crossed. "Buffy" never got the best ratings - it was always second to the WB network's soapy, faith-based "Seventh Heaven" back in the day - but it remains extremely influential and well-loved. You can see its offspring all over the television landscape today, from the snarky, meta-tastic humor of "Community" to the monsters-of-the-week on "Doctor Who." "Buffy" was aimed at teenagers, but plenty of adults watched it because it was well-written, well-acted, and rarely pandered to the audience. It maintains a good reputation and boffo cultural cachet, which the new filmmakers now are trying to exploit in a very ham-handed fashion.

So it's no wonder people are upset. The news of the reboot has certainly touched a nerve with the fanbase. The LA Times article linked above has nearly 300 comments at the time of writing from furious fans making it clear that they want absolutely nothing to do with the new "Buffy." Many are rallying around Joss Whedon's response and posting diatribes all over the Internet. I happily toss in my own screed with the rest. This reboot is the wrong project with the wrong people at the wrong time. Why not reboot Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" and do them faithfully this time? Why not give Anita Blake's blood-suckers a chance? Why not wait until Whedon is done with "The Avengers" and give him the chance to do a big screen version of "Buffy" his way? After the famous bungle of the 1992 film with Kristy Swanson, this feels like history repeating itself. Give Whedon the same budget as the new filmmakers, a little creative freedom, and the fanbase would bend over backwards to see the results. Or wait another decade until "Buffy" has truly become a cultural relic to talk about rebooting the franchise for a new generation.

Because, dammit, this generation isn't done with it yet!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Did "Babylon Five" Just Jump the Shark?

This post will contain spoilers for the third and fourth seasons of "Babylon Five," because I've come to the point where I don't think I can talk about my reaction to the show without getting into specifics. I'm up to seventy-two episodes, or about a third of the way into Season Four. I was going to hold off on this post for a few more episodes, but the narrative has come to such a definitive stopping place, there's no better time to put down a few thoughts. For the sake of those curious about the show, however, I'll try not to go into too much detail.

For well over two seasons, the show was building up the war with the Shadows, an old, hidden race of aliens that comes out once every thousand years to wreak havoc and destruction upon other worlds. At the end of Season Three, there was a wonderful cliffhanger that left one major character missing, presumed dead, after committing a kamikaze attack on the Shadow homeworld, and another missing after a major battle. In the first few episodes of Season Four, matters escalated. One of the good guys' primary allies turned on them and started destroying planets that were allied with the Shadows. A great parallel story also emerged, following the former ambassadors from the Centauri and Narn races, now in very different roles, conspiring to remove the Centauri emperor.

And then, just six episodes into Season Four, all the major storylines were suddenly resolved. All the villains were drawn out to face each other in the same massive battle, and the heroes took the opportunity to confront them and convince them to end hostilities. The Centauri emperor was assassinated and the conflict between the Narn and the Centauri, which started the whole war at the end of Season One, was over. It was impossible to escape a feeling of whiplash. That was it? After seventy episodes of watching the heroes struggle to unite so many different alien races into a single united force, they only got one big battle together? After all those speeches about destiny and prophecy and neverending struggle, the biggest enemies in the show just walked out? What are they going to do for another thirty-eight episodes?

Reading up on some of the show's production history on Wikipedia, it turns out that the producers thought they only had to worry about another sixteen episodes, because they weren't expecting to be renewed for a fifth season. This resulted in the initially planned storylines for the fourth and fifth seasons to be combined, resulting in some of these major events feeling rushed. Apparently Season Five suffers the opposite problem, because the writers ran short on compelling plot points. I feel like waving this result at any still-griping "Lost" fans as an example of an intricate five-year plan that turned out to be a double-edged sword. I've really enjoyed "Babylon 5" so far, but even if I didn't know anything about the production issues, the speed at which they've hit the brakes would still leave me apprehensive about the rest to come. The momentum has gone, and I'm in no hurry to finish the series now.

Getting back to the end of the Shadow War, I was very impressed with how nicely the storylines all tied into each other and the amount of tension and drama that they summoned up. The Season Three finale was a special high point because the events of that episode had been alluded to and built up to in so many previous episodes, this added an extra dimension of all those prior references paying off in a big way. This wasn't the first time that this happened on "Babylon 5," or the last. All the prophecies and premonitions around the Centauri emperors are also coming true one by one, and it's fascinating to see how the choices of the characters that would seem to be reacting against these predetermined destinies just keeps pushing them closer to the seemingly inevitable. I've seen similar conceits played out before in shows like "Heroes," but the execution and the timing of the reveals in "Babylon 5" has been exceptionally well done.

The only storyline I thought fell short was the arc that dealt with Babylon 5's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs) who quit his post and went on walkabout after becoming addicted to stimulants. I was glad that his character got the screen time and attention, but aside from the final episode of the the arc, most of his appearances during this period felt like filler, especially an ill-conceived interlude with a club singer. And then there are the leads, Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and the Minbari ambassador Delenn (Mira Furlan). I was resistant to their developing romance at first, because it's such a cliche, but Delenn never turned into a swooning alien princess even though she's softened up quite a bit, and Sheridan is still an overgrown Boy Scout, but he's grown on me. Some of the twists and turns in their relationship were awfully manipulative, but in the end I found myself rooting for them anyway. It's not a space opera without a few star-crossed lovers in the mix.

Other characters who haven't been getting enough of the spotlight lately include Commander Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Ranger Marcus Cole (Jason Carter). However, I do like how some of the minor characters like the telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) and security guard Zack Allen (Jeff Conaway) have been developed. The aliens G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), Londo (Peter Jurasik), and Vir (Stephen Furst) remain my favorite characters, especially in light of their recent, awkward alliance. It's also been fun identifying the parade of guest stars, including Melissa Gilbert, Bryan Cranston, Robert Englund, and a surprise visitor from the "Star Trek" pantheon: Majel Barrett, wife of Gene Roddenberry.

And on that note, I have to reiterate that based on what I've seen so far, "Babylon Five" is definitely up there with the best of "Trek" on every level. It has different strengths and a different sensibility, but it has the same sort of hopeful spirit about it that is missing from much of science-fiction today. I'll take rubber mask aliens and off-color CGI spaceships over Yet Another Nuclear/Environmental/Biohazard Apocalypse any day.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Most Adorable Gangster Movie Ever

I don't know why it's taken me this long to see "Bugsy Malone," the 1976 mob musical where every single member of the cast is either prepubescent, or at least looks the part. I was the right age at the right time, and I easily could have crossed paths with it during my childhood. Instead I had to settle for the likes of "Annie" and "Xanadu." Well, bygones.

How do you make a mob movie starring children? The kids talk and behave like adult gangsters and gun molls, but only up to a point. The guns fire whipped cream "splurge" instead of bullets, the cars are all push-pedal operated, and the drinks at the speakeasy contain no alcohol. I suspect adults will get more out of the film than the children it was made for, simply because the cleverness of many of these child-friendly touches requires more knowledge of old gangster film tropes than the under-twelve set is likely to have. Modern kids would probably be more baffled than anything else, since the 1920s gangter era is so much farther removed from the popular culture now than it was in 1976. At the ripe old age of thirty-something, however, I found "Bugsy Malone" charming and sweet and very nostalgic.

Aside from its central conceit, "Bugsy Malone" is also known for the fact that two of its featured young stars, Scott Baio and Jodie Foster, would grow up to be famous actors. Before I watched it, I had an image of the film in my mind of a much stiffer affair, with the child actors mouthing lines and doing impressions of adult performances without really inhabiting the characters. Fortunately this isn't the case. Baio plays Bugsy, a tough guy hero in requisite suit and fedora, who is perhaps too popular with the ladies. Foster is the hard-boiled femme fatale, Tallulah. They're both excellent, but there are two other equally good performances. Florrie Dugger plays Bugsy's love interest, Blousey Brown, and John Cassisi is the local kingpin, Fat Sam, who runs the speakeasy where Tallulah and Blousey are performers. Cassisi especially keeps stealing the show as the blustery, beleaguered Sam, perpetually on the verge of losing his criminal empire.

It's a fine line between child actors simply mimicking adults or going too far in the other direction and behaving eerily like adults trapped in child bodies, but the mix is just about right here. It helps that the mood is light and all the kids seem to be having a great time playing gangsters. There are some genuine talents among the cast, which is vital. The movie's gimmick wouldn't work half as well if the kids weren't good enough actors to make us buy them as these characters. The suspension of disbelief required is pretty hefty, though, and the filmmakers wisely don't try to push the joke too far. The trappings are elaborate, but the story is simple enough that you could see how some enterprising kids could have come up with it themselves. Cast and crew keep up the act convincingly until the very end of the movie, where the big showdown turns into a pie fight and song number, the spell is broken, and all the kids are kids again.

Directed by Alan Parker, who would go on to make other musicals like "Fame" and "Evita," it's ironic that the music in the film is the weak link here. I don't take issue with any of the songs, which were written by the great Paul Williams, but having them sung by adults with the kids lip-syncing to them in the film doesn't work. The results are extremely jarring, especially since the adult voices are the only sign of grown-ups in the whole film, and undermine the conceit of this fantasy universe populated only by children. In every other aspect, the illusion is almost perfect, down to the radio announcers and the chorus line. The speakeasy performance scenes are perhaps a little too reminiscent of those terrifying beauty pageants for little girls with their moments of playacted sexiness, but these are brief and appropriate in context.

Is "Bugsy Malone" great cinema? No, but it's an interesting little experiment with modest ambitions, and manages to be awfully entertaining. It showcases some great young talents, provides a lot of laughs, and it's impossible to get "You Give a Little Love" out of your head for hours afterward. Watching it made me feel like a kid again, and the movie should do the same for other viewers of a certain age, who still appreciate a good pie fight.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tis the Season for Yuletide!

When I started this blog, I intended to have more posts about media fandoms on the Internet, because I'm a member of several of them. However, I've had concerns about treading on other people's privacy, and it was hard to talk about specific activities or groups without potentially outing fans who were participating anonymously. I also seek to avoid drama whenever possible, and fandom can be extremely sensitive to any excessive metatextual poking. Consequently, my fandom posts have been few and fairly restrained.

But 'tis the season for the yearly pan-fandom fanfiction gift exchange known as Yuletide, and I feel compelled to share my excitement. I've participated every year for the past five years or so, and I've really enjoyed my experience with it. Yuletide was conceived to bring a little love to the fans of books and games and movies and TV shows that have very small fandoms or none at all, in the form of new fanfiction stories. After some preliminary hashing out of which fandoms are eligible for a new round, participants sign up with a list of prompts they'd like stories written to, along with a list of fandoms that they're willing to write for. The lists are matched up anonymously, assignments are E-mailed out, and there's a month or so of furious media consumption and writing before the stories come due for Christmas. Writers are kept anonymous, and revealed a week after the stories are posted.

The result is literally thousands of new fanfiction stories every year. The requirements for participation aren't that difficult to meet - being able to write a story with a minimum wordcount for a deadline - but they're difficult enough that the stories produced for Yuletide tend to be of much higher average quality than the ones that come out of the usual no-holds-barred culture of Internet fanfiction. And because all the fandoms are obscure ones with no fan community around them, there's less of the in-jokes and insularity that tend to hamper accessibility. Among my favorite stories from last year were "Killing Elvis," a story about xenomorph taxidermy set in the "Alien" universe, and one titled "Wait, Wait, Don't Eat Me," that actually received a little attention from its inspiration. Yes, that's right. NPR Real-Person zombie apocalypse fanfiction.

Yuletide is not without its flaws and quirks. There are several of barriers to participation that might be daunting to those who would like to join in the fun. The event is hosted on Archive of Our Own, a fan-run fanfiction archive that is for the moment, invite only. Yuletide also came out of the corner of media fandom that centers around the Livejournal blogging service, and most of the announcements and updates are made through various Livejournal blogs. It's not a challenge to do Yuletide without a blog, but it is harder to join in on discussions and enjoy the communal experience. Also, the participants skew heavily female, and Yuletide has taken pains to be friendly to the female-dominated tradition of slash fanfiction, which may spook more conservative fans. In other words, heteronornativity is never assumed in Yuletide stories where they might be elsewhere. I mean, Obi Wan Kenobi never says he's not bisexual, does he?

And of course, there's the drama. Drama over obscure fandom eligibility. Drama over signup forms. Prompt assignments. Writing. Uploads to the fanfiction archive. Commenting. Moderation. People who did not read the rules. People who feel shortchanged in some fashion stirring up controversy. Is the anonymity optional? Is it too late to declare failure and ask for a pinch-hitter? Why has the archive site crashed again? In the last few days before stories come due, I swear every fanfiction writer I know has a meltdown over their works-in-progress. It's not Christmas without the yearly Yuletide panic. I'm one of those annoying types who usually finishes early, and just sits back and enjoys the maelstrom. For others, though, the pressure can be too much to deal with during the busy holiday season.

I've significantly decreased my participation in many fan activities since starting this blog, including several of the other writing challenges and events. Yuletide is special, though. It doesn't require me to be part of any particular fandom, I don't have to keep up with any cliques or communities to really be involved, and you never know what you're going to get every year. It think that's why it's gotten bigger and bigger even as trends in the media keep shifting and changing. There were only a few hundred participants when I first started, and I last year they were nearly two thousand.

I don't plan to stop anytime soon. It's always nice to be able to make somebody happy by writing up the further adventures of characters who don't get enough love from the fannish masses. And getting a story written especially for you in exchange is always nice too.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ealing Comedies and Bad Endings

I'm slowly working my way through the Ealing comedies, which are the best known works of Britain's Ealing Studios that make many appearances on the lists of the best films of the UK. Produced in the 1940s and 50s, they involved such notables as director Alexander Mackendrick and the great Alec Guinness starred in several. I've seen three so far - "Kind Hearts and Coronets," where Guinness plays every member of a noble family that gets bumped off by an enterprising young relation, "The Lavender Hill Mob," where he partners with Stanley Holloway to rob a bank of gold bullion, and "Whiskey Galore!" Alexander Mackendrick's directing debut about a little Scottish island that suffers a whisky shortage during the war.

All three movies feature very likable people doing very naughty things. Reflecting the times, each film ends the same way, with the protagonists being caught at the last moment and facing sure punishment for their misdeeds. The comeuppances feel a little tacked-on, especially in the case of "Whiskey Galore!" where the audiences are meant to be rooting for the Scottish rum runners throughout. The bad end result is only made known through some quick ending narration, and is too remote in time to temper much of the impact of the victorious finale. This kind of iron-clad uprightness feels old-fashioned today, though it works very well for "Kind Hearts" and "Lavender Hill" because both of those black comedies feature protagonists who get funnier the more panicked the more doomed they are. The baleful look on Alec Guinness's face at the end of "Kind Hearts and Coronets" when he realizes he's screwed is absolutely priceless.

These harsher endings stick in the mind, however, because they're so rare in comedies today. Sure, Bialystock and Bloom end up in jail at the end of "The Producers," but they come up with a new hit show while they're in the clink and redeem themselves. Just about everyone else in heist movies gets away with it these days. The "Oceans 11" films have set the standard for comedies like "Mad Money" and "The Maiden Heist" where the thieves are heroes and the crimes are victimless. Even the remake of "The Italian Job" dispensed with the original's famous ambiguous ending and let the robbers get away. The only recent exception that I can think of that really delivered a rough retribution to a criminal protagonist was "I Love You Phillip Morris," which was based on a true story about a serial prison escape artist.

Does this mean that we've all become a bunch of rank degenerates since the 50s? Well, there are as many films that focus on the law enforcement side of the equation, like "The Town" and "The Taking of Pelham 123" to keep things balanced. Also, heist films are rarely black comedies anymore, and mixed endings would be out of place. I don't think anyone ever had any particularly strong sympathies toward banks or bankers at any point in history, but they've grown increasingly faceless and powerful over the past few decades, and in the wake of the recent fiscal crisis they're associated with a lot of bad and a lot of power. When small groups of feisty misfit thieves are so outmatched by the corporate overlords of our financial institutions, it's nearly impossible to feel too bad about them absconding with a million or two when investment bankers are getting away with far worse.

Of course rum running is no longer a crime, but merely a vice. One of the reason why "Whisky Galore!" is so much fun is because it has such a gleefully adulatory attitude toward alcohol, extolling its virtues as liquid courage and a wonderful petrol substitute. The fact that society frowns on its consumption is unfortunate, and the war putting temporary limits on access is troublesome, but that's no reason to hold back when a military cruiser carrying thousands of cases of the good stuff runs aground on your island. The film's relationship with whisky reminds me of the current crop of marijuana films like "Harold & Kumar" and "Pineapple Express," which also tend to end in high speed chases and everyone getting happily blissed out on the substance of their choice. I'm not pushing a more lenient approach to alcohol or drug regulation, mind you, but drawing the parallels is just too easy.

"The Ladykillers" is next on my list, which promises more Alec Guinness and more wicked black comedy misdeeds. There are a few things like killing little old ladies that will always be taboo, which is probably why it was the Ealing comedy that the Coen brothers chose to remake a few years back. I didn't like their version much, but from what I've seen of the other Ealing movies I'm expecting great things from the original.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bristol Palin Dance Show Schadenfreude

To all those viewers of "Dancing With the Stars" who are currently hyperventilating over the fact that Bristol Palin, daughter of former governor Sarah Palin, made it to this season's finals over Brandy Norwood, why are you surprised? The minute I heard that Palin would be participating in the show, I knew that there would be a decent chance that she'd last the entire season whether she could actually dance or not. This is because the weekly eliminations from the competition are determined by audience vote. Sarah Palin and her brood are magnets for drama in abundance, and have the benefit of association with the Tea Party political movement. There's no shortage of people, from the show's producers to political muckrakers, who benefit by her continued presence on the show. With the benefit of the audience participation mechanism, it's no wonder Bristol Palin's still here.

It may come as news to some viewers, but "Dancing With the Stars" is not a dance competition. It's a popularity contest, like "American Idol" and other talent programs. The judges sit behind their podium and give out their scores and opinions, but none of it means anything, or Norwood's higher scores would have put her ahead. This isn't a real competition like "Top Chef" or "Project Runway" where the professionals are making the elimination decisions. Rather, it's the audience that is invited to vote who they want to see for another week. There are no rules that say you have to vote for the best dancer or that you can't let personal biases affect the decision. You can vote for Bristol because she's young and attractive. You can vote for her because you agree with her mother's politics or her stance on sex education. You can vote for her to spite the liberal boyfriend you broke up with. You don't even need a reason.

This is why the winners of reality shows determined by audience poll are invariably young, attractive, charismatic, and tend to skew male and from the South. This is why becoming an "American Idol" or "America's Got Talent" winner is a lousy predictor for actual success after the show is over. Just compare the careers of Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry, who were eliminated in early rounds of "American Idol," to the eventual winners of those seasons, Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks. The voting audience will often get caught up in the dramatics of the competition dynamics and utterly fail to take actual talent into consideration, leading to unfortunate results. This is why I gave up on "American Idol" after watching two seasons. I have a better ear for musical talent than the bulk of the people who were voting, and the tyranny of the majority was driving me crazy. This is why I don't bother with these kinds of competition shows anymore.

I don't begrudge the viewers who enjoy these shows, but at the same time it's a little sad and very funny to see people who are still treating "Dancing With the Stars" and its ilk like serious competitions. I've run across several bloggers referencing Youtube videos, highlighting the differences in skill between Palin and Norwood, and trying to make their case that the results are wrong and unfair. Of course they're unfair. They've always been unfair. It's abundantly clear that nobody was voting for Bristol Palin for her dancing ability, but because she's sympathetic and they like watching her on the program. That's a perfectly legitimate reason. If this were a real dance competition with a title worth anything, the contestants wouldn't be celebrity amateurs and Bristol Palin wouldn't even be there. "Dancing With the Stars" is spectacle in the guise of a competition, a reality show mimicry for the benefit of the home viewers. It's not worth getting worked up over, or breaking television sets for, like that guy in Wisconsin did.

I find the fuss all very entertaining personally, and I don't even have to sit through the show to enjoy the aftermath. For those who do not enjoy schadenfreude, however, I offer a little perspective. If there's anything to take away from the recent results of "Dancing With the Stars, it's that Bristol Palin has a lot of the American public on her side. There aren't any real stakes beyond that except gossip column fodder. Maybe she ought to consider running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska instead of Levi Johnston. On second thought, that may be a little too much reality for reality television to take.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Battle for Thursday

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I was steamed to find out that CBS was moving the "The Big Bang Theory" to Thursday nights at 8PM, because that would put it directly against NBC's "Community." These are the only two sitcoms that I enjoy enough to make an effort to watch weekly. So after eight weeks of the new schedule, who won the timeslot? It depends on how you measure success.

I love both shows and I've been keeping up with them fairly well from week to week. I admit that I've defaulted to watching "The Big Bang Theory" live, solely because it's not available through any legitimate online sources. However, I've also skipped several episodes without feeling particularly deprived. "Big Bang" is far more formulaic than "Community," and though I like my weekly dose of Jim Parsons' Sheldon, the episodes are interchangeable and I don't feel the urgency to watch them right away. Unless there's considerable buzz or discussion about a particular upcoming episode, I don't take any measures to ensure that I don't miss them.

"Big Bang Theory" has been having a great season so far, even with Kelly Cuoco benched for several episodes due to an injury. I like the addition of Mayim Bialik as Sheldon's strictly non-romantic female companion, Amy Farrah Fowler, and the return of Melissa Rauch as Bernadette to up the girl geek presence on the show. Last week's episode that guest-starred Wil Wheaton resulted in a nice early-'90s nostalgia trip as I realized the actors who portrayed Blossom Russo, Wesley Crusher, and Darlene Connor's cute-emo-boyfriend had all survived adolescence just fine. And what do you know? I did too.

"Community," on the other hand, has consistently been blowing "Big Bang Theory" out of the water on every level. The Spanish study group of Greendale Community College has become the Anthropology study group, and so far this year there's been a zombie episode, and a space shuttle launch spoof, and Abed became Jesus. I never know what I'm going to get. I've gone totally head over heels for the show, and I haven't missed an episode of this season. While I'll watch "Big Bang" on live television, I'll often flip to "Community" during commercials breaks to give myself a preview of what I'll be watching later online.

I'm not proud to admit it, but "Community" has gotten me to suck it up and go back to Hulu. I may gripe about their streaming service, but it's much easier and more satisfying to watch the show online. New episodes are uploaded the day after they air on NBC. I don't set aside a specific time to watch them, but I'll rarely wait longer than a day or two. If Hulu uploaded them earlier, I'd happily watch them right after "Big Bang Theory." Or before. Or during. "Community" is especially well suited to online viewing because it's one of the most densely packed sitcoms I've ever seen. I'm constantly rewatching or scanning through episodes multiple times to catch things I missed.

Jokes come fast and furious, and the writers often toss in little Easter Eggs like last week, which was about Annie's pen being stolen and the study group trying to out the culprit. If you had a quick eye, you could spot the theft in the first act. Or a few weeks ago, a story with Abed was playing out in the background of several different scenes, totally unrelated to the main storyline. And this isn't even getting into the 30-second Troy-and-Abed viral video skits. Those things are addictive. For the record, I prefer the Anthropology Rap to the Spanish Rap, since it segues so nicely into Toto's "Africa." I've been catching up on the back episodes and the webisodes too.

So "Community" wins hands down as far as capturing more of my time and attention and affection, but still the measure that much of Hollywood still places the most importance on is the fact that I'm watching "Big Bang Theory" live and waiting to watch "Community" on the Internet. But if "Big Bang Theory" were available online, I'd probably be watching "Community" live, then "Big Bang Theory" online, then "Community" online again. I suspect that many fans of the show are in the same boat, which hasn't been helping "Community" in ratings. They're still pulling in roughly the same number of viewers as last year, but "Big Bang" is really putting the hurt on it.

As long as NBC's still supporting the show, I don't see any reason to change my viewing habits. If things take a turn for the worse, however, Sheldon Cooper may have to wait for the reruns.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Give the Mark Twain Award to Tina Fey Now?

Tina Fey is a wonderful, funny comedian and comedy writer who is one of the best talents working in the industry today. She was the head writer and a performer on "Saturday Night Live," wrote and acted in movies like "Mean Girls" and "Baby Mama," and her sitcom "30 Rock" has been winning Emmys by the boatload. Nobody contests that she's had impact on the American culture, especially during the last election cycle with her spot-on lampooning of former governor Sarah Palin. But that said, I'm not sure how she managed to win the The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a Kennedy Center honor usually seen as a lifetime achievement award for American comedians. Fey follows such comedy luminaries as Bill Cosby, who won in 2009 and George Carlin, who was honored posthumously in 2008. At age forty, she's the youngest winner literally by decades.

To be fair, there is nothing that requires the Kennedy Center Honors to only be given out once a comedian reaches sixty and if the organization wants to start spotlighting more contemporary contributions to comedy, that's their prerogative. There's a perfectly good argument to be made that it's better to honor Fey now, at the height of her career rather than twenty years down the road when her star might have faded. Also Fey has already given us a solid decade of good work and her comedy polymath skills have already helped her conquer both the film and television worlds. As the most powerful female comedian in the entertainment landscape today, and one of the last who can really get a project rolling on the basis of her name alone, acknowledging her success is perfectly justifiable. It's a bold and daring choice for the Kennedy Center Honors, and helps them to shed their stuffy image of being a cloistered, PBS award show of interest to our grandparents only.

But - and you knew there was going to be a but - it was bizarre to see recent "Saturday Night Live" performers and the cast of "30 Rock" on the stage of the Kennedy Center, paying tribute to Tina Fey in a fashion usually reserved for only the most esteemed and beloved artists of our times, whose impact had been felt over generations. Mel Brooks was in that same spot only last year, being serenaded by Matthew Broderick and a chorus of Broadway performers with a touching rendition of "Til Him" from "The Producers." The year before that, a pack of New York policemen and firefighters belted the 70s anthem of adolescent discontent, "Baba O'Reilly," for Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey of The Who. While I think that Tina Fey is in the same league as the other comedians who have received the Mark Twain Award, there's the nagging feeling that others are being passed over who are due for the recognition.

Scanning over the list of past honorees, some omissions can be explained away by noting that many artists received the full Kennedy Center Honors instead of the Mark Twain Award, like Carol Burnett and Barbara Streisand, though there are a few like Neil Simon and Bill Cosby who have gotten both. There are also some who have declined them. Cosby, according to Wikipedia, said no to the Mark Twain Award twice. Maybe that's why veteran comedy names like Woody Allen, Eddie Murphy, and Elaine May aren't there. Maybe that's why Fey's contemporaries like Jon Stewart and Tracey Ullman aren't there. I'll give the Kennedy Center the benefit of the doubt, but there's no denying that Tina Fey sticks out on the list of recipients. She's done enough in the last decade that she's certainly going to be well-remembered in the years ahead, but at the moment you have to wonder what the hurry is to canonize her.

The award ceremony itself, which aired last night, suggests that the clincher was the Sarah Palin impression that Fey performed several times on "Saturday Night Live." The entire sketch where the character was debuted played in its entirety during the program, with great pomp and circumstance. While I found the impression one of the highlights of the 2008 election media frenzy, and understand its importance as one of the rare recent cultural touchstones that everyone is familiar with, it hasn't solidified for me as a truly classic piece of television yet. It's too soon. There's no element of nostalgia or reflection on the past that I associate with appreciating the greats.

I like that the Kennedy Center wants to be more current and relevant, but this seems like swinging too far in the other direction. Giving Tina Fey the Mark Twain Award almost seems anticipatory, like President Obama getting the Nobel Peace. I'm sure both will make good on their potential, but I feel better with the benefit of a little more hindsight.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Asian Solidarity and Cultural Conundrums

Watching "Hawaiian Five-O" has turned into a minefield. Not an episode will go by when someone won't comment the next day that all Grace Park does is stand there and look sexy, or all Daniel Dae Kim does is fill in exposition while Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan get all the good lines. Why is that the two Asian leads always get shunted off into the background, and when they are featured, like Park was a few weeks ago, why must there always be Caucasian male guest stars like Kevin Sorbo there, seemingly as insurance? I've seen constant online castigation of "Hawaii Five-O" for racial issues, such as failing to cast the character of Kono Kalakaua with a native Hawaiian, as the original show did, for sidelining its minority cast in too many episodes, and for playing up the exoticism of the Hawaiian setting and reinforcing stereotypes.

I can't disagree with any of these criticisms. On the other hand, we have a television show currently airing on network television that features two Asian-American characters who do not speak with funny accents, who appear in every single episode, and who largely avoid most of the usual media clich├ęs about Asians – being foreign, inscrutable, geeky, emasculated men, submissive women, etc . Twenty years ago that would have been unthinkable, and I still find it surprising. I watch "Hawaii Five-O" and "Nikita" every week and I have friends of Indian descent who watch "Outsourced," even though we can spot all the flaws. It's Asian solidarity, the same driving force that prompted my parents to tune in for Michael Chang's tennis matches in the 90s, despite not knowing anything about tennis, and switching from the Lakers to the Houston Rockets after Yao Ming's debut.

I vividly remember tuning in to every single episode of "All American Girl," the 1994 ABC sitcom starring Margaret Cho that featured a full Asian-American cast. The family was supposed to be Korean and most of the actors weren't, but that didn't matter. I could appreciate the effort it must have taken to convince the studios to assemble that cast. It wasn't a very good show and didn't last a full season, cancelled after being retooled to remove nearly all the Asian cast members aside from Margaret Cho. The same thing happened to "Vanishing Son," the 1995 syndicated action series starring Russell Wong that used to follow "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" before "Xena" took its place. Asian leads were such a novelty back then, I couldn't help gawking. And I tuned in week after week, knowing full well that both shows were doomed, because I wanted to support the programs and see more people like me on television who actually behaved like people I knew in real life.

Fifteen years later, minority representation has become an awfully touchy subject in the online circles that I frequent. I know it's important for watchdog groups not to rest on their laurels and keep pushing for more roles and better roles for minority actors. On the other hand, I wish more of them would take a minute to acknowledge how far we've come and to remember that changing the culture always takes time. Yes, Grace Park's Kono is underdeveloped, but the fact that she is the female lead on a popular network action show gives her the kind of visibility that Asian actors in the past could only dream of, and it creates the potential for something better. As a friend of mine recently commented about "Outsourced," there's so much wrong with it, but when was the last time you saw so many Indian characters interacting on television together?

There need to be not only good roles for actors of Asian descent on television, but bad roles too. That way we can have standards to compare against and more easily point out ways for representation to be improved. Kono is clearly inferior to Maggie Q's Nikita and Grace Park's prior role as Boomer on "Battlestar Galactica," but imagine if those latter roles didn't exist. Also, we need to get to the point where Asian roles are no longer exceptional just for being Asian. The more there are, and the more accustomed the audience becomes to seeing them, the quicker that happens. Then television writers will have to work harder to distinguish their Asian characters from the ones who came before. I'm hoping at some point people will be able to think of Kono as Kono, instead of the Asian girl from "Hawaii Five-O." Even if that doesn't happen, I still appreciate her being there for us to debate about.

I keep watching, because I know we need to have more characters like Kono – in order to have the ones in the future who aren't.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I'm Worried About the "21 Jump Street" Movie

Viewers of a certain age will remember "21 Jump Street" as the cop show that made Johnny Depp famous. Fewer will remember that the premise of the show, which was one of the early hits of the then-fledgling FOX network in 1987. Depp played Officer Tom Hanson, who ran into trouble on the job in the first episode for his babyface looks. However, they made him a perfect recruit for the Jump Street program, which used young police officers who could pass themselves off as teenagers to go undercover in high schools. Think "The Mod Squad," but taken a step further. "Jump Street" didn't stay in high schools for long, setting episodes on college campuses, military academies, and various other institutions as time went by and the cast got older.

A movie reboot of "21 Jump Street" has been in the works for a while, supposedly being scripted by actor Jonah Hill. I don't believe Jonah Hill has ever written anything, which doesn't bode well for the project. Emma Stone was announced to be in the running to play the female lead, which seemed like a step in the right direction, but now there's rumor going around that Josh Hartnett is being sought for the male lead. Hartnett, who is thirty-two at the time of writing, hasn't credibly portrayed a high school student since the Clinton administration. Does this mean that the original premise of the show is being ditched in favor of more generic action movie cop capers? If so, there's not much that would tie the movie to "21 Jump Street," a possible Johnny Depp cameo notwithstanding. In fact, the more I hear about the new movie, the stranger it gets.

The idea of cops infiltrating high schools was never very plausible, though there were claims that "21 Jump Street" was based on a real unit operating out of Los Angeles in the 80s. With no specifics though, I don't buy it. I don't think today's audiences would buy it either, so we're obviously not going to get a straight adaptation. Hill seems to be developing some sort of comedy-action reinvention. He's mentioned in interviews that he's hoping for an R-rating and "Bad Boys" style action sequences. Maybe it's part of the gag that actors who are obviously too old for the roles are going to be trying to pass themselves off as teenagers. Maybe Hartnett is playing the Jump Street crew's supervising officer, Captain Jenco. The assumption is that Hill is going to be starring in the movie too, and he's not exactly looking youthful these days, so the comedic option is more likely.

But frankly, I'm not thrilled about the new film in any case. I watched "21 Jump Street" reruns growing up when I was at the right age to take some of the public service announcements they ended with to heart. It was the show that introduced me to Johnny Depp, to writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, and to U2 when they lent out their music for one of the later season episodes. It was often silly, unrealistic, and I fully understand why Depp wrangled his way out of his contract after four seasons to go make indie movies with Jim Jarmusch and Lasse Hallstrom. And I understand why his intended replacement, Richard Grieco, also jumped ship for a spinoff series. And yet, "Jump Street" had its heart in the right place. It made no apologies for being aimed squarely at teenagers and taking on material straight out of ABC after school specials.

An R-rated action spectacle that aims to mock the show's 80s milieu and good intentions just depresses me. There was no shortage of the campy, goofily earnest stories that drew so much derision, but people forget that "Jump Street" had its good episodes too. The one with Hanson undercover in juvenile detention was a standout. So was the one about the kid on Death Row. The series had a rare Asian regular, Ioki, who turned out to be a Vietnamese refugee working under a false name. The Christmas episode depicting his escape from Saigon was based on the real-life experience of the actor playing him, Dustin Nguyen. It's not a good feeling to find other people laughing at something that you retain genuine affection for, and though there clearly isn't enough information out right now to be certain about this, I hope that the reboot isn't going to be as mean-spirited and mindless as it sounds right now.

Or this is one fangirl who may have to skip a Johnny Depp movie. That hasn't happened since the Clinton administration either.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In the Kitchen with "Top Chef"

When "Top Chef" first premiered on Bravo, it was in the shadow of its production sibling "Project Runway," and I couldn't see how it could possibly be as compelling. Watching cooking programs has always been fun, but in a cooking competition a television audience is hampered by not being able to smell or taste the results. On "Runway," we saw as much of the designers' garments as the judges did so you could more or less follow along. But over the course of four years and seven seasons, plus spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been proving me wrong. Right now I'm keeping up with "Top Chef: Just Desserts," the newest variant featuring pastry chefs.

I really enjoy these shows for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with being a foodie or liking to cook. "Top Chef" is a very well produced competition program that understands all the ins and outs of the formula. The weekly challenges are well-conceived and fun to watch. While viewers don't get the sensory experience of the food, the judges and contestants are very good at being proxies for us. In a way it's more accessible than the fashions on "Project Runway," because not everyone gets the allure of a thousand-dollar dress, but everybody eats. And being fashion-forward is a harder concept to grasp than a dish being too salty or meat being overcooked.

There's also my favorite aspect of these competitions, which is watching creative people being creative. The amount of time actually spent depicting the food preparation is limited, but the efforts taken by the chefs comes across. The cooking is often secondary to the conditions in which it is being undertaken, usually limiting ingredients, equipment, and time. Past challenges included catering an entire wedding in two days, cooking on the beach in barbecue pits, and creating dishes from the contents of a vending machine. The resulting frenzy in the kitchen makes for very good television. An extreme cooking show on the Food Network, "Dinner: Impossible," gets a lot of mileage out of similar challenges.

However, "Dinner: Impossible" doesn't have the competition dynamics of "Top Chef." The show's usual panel of of judges includes Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, who don't have the personalities of some of their counterparts on similar programs, but come off as knowledgeable and outspoken critics with no shortage of zingers in their repertoire. The contestant chefs are usually a good mix of up-and-coming professionals with a few larger-than-life characters in the mix. Interpersonal tensions sometimes erupt, the way they have with contestant Seth Caro on "Just Desserts," but it's not really necessary to the show and doesn't affect its watchability. The competition itself provokes plenty of good drama.

There's also the benefit of getting what feels like an insider's glimpse into the world of professional chefs, the same way that "Project Runway" does with fashion design. I've picked up all sorts of interesting food-related terminology and can identify many ingredients and foods that I never encountered before watching "Top Chef." The show usually won't slow down to explain what a ceviche is or where jicama comes from unless it's specifically part of the challenge itself, like the time where the contestants were directed to make an amuse bouche, a one-bite appetizer. The more you know about food and cooking, the more you get out of "Top Chef," and I appreciate that the show doesn't pander and maintains that level of professionalism and authenticity.

Because they keep that nice balance between being a show that actual chefs won't groan at, yet novices will find accessible, I find that I keep watching. "Just Desserts" has been especially addictive because I have a sweet tooth and a yen for pastry shows like "Ace of Cakes" already. I wasn't surprised when "Top Chef" snatched the Emmy for best reality show away from "The Amazing Race" this year, ending its multi-year streak. However, I am a little worried about overexposure. Back when Bravo had "Project Runway," they would stagger their broadcasts or alternate between the two. However, with all the different versions and spinoffs, "Top Chef" has been going practically nonstop. Bravo will be rolling out an "All Stars" version next and a "Juniors" competition for teenage chefs in the near future.

As for me, I had my first ceviche a few months ago, followed by my second, third, and fourth. I think watching "Top Chef" may be turning me into a foodie. Alas, for all my appreciation, my cooking skills have not improved at all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Disneyland: the Movie?!

Disney's attempts to make film franchises out of its Disneyland rides have been a mixed bag. "Pirates of the Caribbean" spawned three blockbusters with a fourth on the way, but "The Haunted Mansion" and "The Country Bears" fell flat. "Haunted Mansion" is getting another try with Guillermo del Toro, but it seems Disney is fed up with the piecemeal approach and is moving ahead with a film based on the whole Disneyland theme park - "The Magic Kingdom." The word came down yesterday that Jon Favreau is on board to direct. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

In general I don't mind product placement movies. The "Pirates of the Caribbean" films were a lot of fun, and I can see the potential for interesting things coming out of the Hasbro toy and board game properties currently being prepped for big screen treatments. The concepts behind "Transformers" and "Battleship" are sound, even if they're obvious plugs for the toy company. Disneyland, on the other hand, is a whole different can of worms. I have the privilege of being intimately familiar with the theme park since I grew up in Southern California. Several school and social functions involved trips there, and every time relatives came to town, I ended up playing tour guide. And knowing what I know, I can not wrap my head around a Disneyland movie.

The idea of theme park rides and characters coming to life after hours is not a new concept. The "Night at the Museum" movies would be the obvious model for Disney to follow. However my problem with applying this to Disneyland is that many of the attractions are based on Disney film properties, and will present some adaptation challenges. How do you bring a place like Toontown to life, which was an adaptation of the 2D animated world found in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"? Would they use 2D animation or CGI visuals? Maybe character suits? Would the familiar Disney characters like Mickey and Donald, who are supposed to be residents, have to make the transition too?

What about transplants from animated films like Tarzan's Treehouse (originally the "Swiss Family Robinson" Treehouse, but let's go with the current Disney branding) and Sleeping Beauty's castle? Do they come with a Tarzan and Princess Aurora played by live actors? The more cartoonish the character, the less well that works. Do they follow the continuity of their original films or are we getting new versions? Would Dumbo be in CGI or would they try a live action baby elephant? Which version of the Mad Hatter would you use? What of Indiana Jones? What of Tinkerbell? With all of the different properties to juggle, how on earth would you keep the style consistent?

This could end up being another massive crossover property among the different Disney film franchises the way "Avengers" is going to be for the Marvel superhero movies, but I doubt Disney is that ambitious. My guess is that they're going to focus on the attractions that aren't connected to any other Disney properties, like Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise, and Thunder Mountain Railroad, and just stuff in as many cameos as they can for the rest of the park. This will also be a way for them to test out the feasibility of spinning out some of the lesser know rides into their own films, and possibly setting up the ones that they've already decided to go forward with, like "Haunted Mansion."

I can't say I'm totally opposed to the idea. I still love Disneyland even though much of the shine has worn off for me. I remember the old Disneyland television specials of ages past, which would give celebrities the excuse to run around in the real Disneyland, sing a few songs, hug the guy in the Tigger suit, and trot out their promotions. It was obvious corporate shilling, but at least it felt honest. "The Magic Kingdom" will doubtless make no effort to hide its aim to draw more visitors to the parks, but with a big movie budget behind it, the stakes will be a lot higher and I expect the end result will be a lot further from reality. And I can't help feeling uneasy about how far Disney is going to push the marketing and blur the lines between the park experience and the movie.

On the other hand, I still remember Disneyland adult tickets being under $20 in the 1980s. Now they're over $75 apiece and climbing. Consequently, I can't remember the last time I actually went to Disneyland. An $8 movie ticket for a brief glimpse of a hassle-free, souped-up version of the park sounds like a perfectly acceptable substitute to me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Toothsome Delights of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"

Horror movies and I have had a contentious relationship over the years. One of the reasons I enjoy movies so much is that I can get really emotionally involved in them and enjoy the catharsis. I usually don't have trouble letting go of the feelings that movies evoke from me, but horror films are an exception. They get to me. As a kid they would give me nightmares and the strange, unpleasant anxiety dreams that lingered in the back of my subconscious mind for years. Sometimes it didn't even have to be horror films. I traced an adolescent neurosis about doomsday prophecies back to a trailer for the 1994 film "Nostradamus," that I had seen in a Taiwanese cinema. There were a few titles like "Poltergeist" and "The Shining" that I loved, but mostly I avoided the horror genre.

It wasn't until I was in college that I could start appreciating anything with much gore and splatter, and not until I started on the road to becoming a cineaste that I started actively acquainting myself with the old standbys that I'd missed in my youth like "Halloween," "Nightmare on Elm Street," and the George Romero zombie films. Sometimes I'd still hit bumps, like the ending of the "Dawn of the Dead" remake that left me creeped out of my head for days. I still find many graphic films difficult, and I confess I still cover my eyes when something pointy is about to meet something squishy. With this in mind, imagine my surprise when I watched a notorious horror movie that I'd been avoiding for years last night, and found myself rather charmed and enamored with it: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

I found nothing scary about "Texas Chain Saw," which is why I think I liked it so much. It's a freak show. The stars of the movie are the bizarre killers - the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the shopkeeper (Jim Siedow), Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), and Grandpa (John Dugan). I had no investment whatsoever in the survival of the attractive young victims, who are so two-dimensional and dull to watch, seeing them killed off one by one is no small relief. Sally (Marilyn Burns), Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn) are barely distinguishable from each other. It's only Sally's wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) who stands out thanks to his handicap, and he's not a very sympathetic presence. So rather than feeling dread at the impending deaths, instead there was just a pleasant anticipation.

Sally, Franklin, and their friends are on a drive through the backroads of Texas, first to visit a recently vandalized cemetery where their grandfather was interred, then to look in on the old family homestead. They pick up a hitchhiker who acts bizarrely, first cutting himself and then attacking Franklin. Then they run out of gas in a rural spot, get separated, and eventually come across the home of a murderous cannibal enclave. The primary villain is Leatherface, a big, hulking, silent brute who wears a mask over his face made out of someone else's face, and has a penchant for sledgehammers and chainsaws. His appearance and behavior are so over-the-top, so ridiculous and strange, it's impossible to take it seriously or find it scary. The hitchhiker with the knife at the beginning of the movie is more genuinely disturbing.

Though "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" didn't scare me, I still found it a great watch. Once Leatherface makes his appearance, the film becomes an ethnographical record of the habits and culture of the indigenous American cannibal. We get to see Leatherface's home, decorated with all manner of macabre ornaments fashioned out of the bones and other remains of his victims. There's a nifty looking lamp in the dining room made from the skins of two human faces stitched together, showing the considerable creativity and ingenuity of the maker. The family dynamics that play out among the various cannibals characters is intriguing, especially the clan's reverence for their corpse-like Grandpa. The more gruesome the details, the funnier and more delightful it got.

I have a pretty sick sense of humor, and when faced with the spectacle of Leatherface chasing Sally around in the dark woods with a chainsaw, where Sally's nonstop screaming was consistently louder than the chainsaw, I just had to laugh. Maybe it was the 70s production values, Tobe Hooper's directing style, or the utter vapidity of the main characters, but I found the story so divorced from reality it was easy to sit back and enjoy the carnage. There was no malice or meanness to the horrors, and the killings weren't nearly as drawn-out or fetishized as the ones you see today. I expected something sadistic and gloomy. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a wacky Texan Grand Guignol, and I loved it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On Being a Recovering Otaku, Part III

As promised, here are a few recommendations for anime movies and series that I feel haven't gotten the attention they deserve. A quick word of warning - though all of these shows are adult-friendly, several are definitely not for kids. Read those rating labels, and happy watching!

Movies

"Memories" - A science-fiction anthology, based on the comics of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of "Akira." The film contains three segments: "Cannon Fodder," a fable about a world obsessed with cannons and warfare, "Stink Bomb," a black comedy where a man accidentally turns himself into a deadly biohazard, and finally "The Magnetic Rose," a spectacular ghost story that takes place on a derelict spaceship. "Memories" has some of the best visuals I've ever seen in anime, and though there is no obvious mature content, it's one of my favorite examples of animation made for grown-ups.

"Whisper of the Heart" - Studio Ghibli is best known as being the home base of the great director Hayao Miyazaki, but they've also produced films by several other directors. "Whisper of the Heart" was the only feature film directed by Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Yoshifumi Kondo. It follows a budding young writer named Shizuka, whose curiosity about a chubby neighborhood cat leads her to a chance at romance and new inspiration. Though it takes place firmly in the real world, we're treated to a few eye-popping fantasy sequences, later expanded on in the so-so sequel, "The Cat Returns."

"Tokyo Godfathers" - I miss director Satoshi Kon already. His most underappreciated feature is "Tokyo Godfathers," a riff on the John Huston film "3 Godfathers." Instead of three cattle rustlers, this time it's a trio of Tokyo's homeless who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and take it upon themselves to look after her. One might be tempted to ask why a film like "Tokyo Godfthers" needed to be animated, but Kon uses the animation to very good effect, especially in the comic action scenes, flashbacks, and dream sequences. Why shouldn't it be an animated film?

"My Neighbors the Yamadas" - Another Studio Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is best know for his WWII tear-jerker, "Grave of the Fireflies." The comedic "My Neighbors the Yamadas" is completely different in every conceivable way. Based on a no-frills four-panel comic strip, the visuals are very simple. With its highly caricatured characters, soft colors, and limited backgrounds, it looks like no other Ghibli film. The plot is a collection of domestic vignettes about the Yamada family, full of little daily frustrations and anxieties. But there's also a lot of humor and a lot of love there too.

"Project A-ko" - An older comedy title from the 80s, about rival superpowered schoolgirls who do battle with each other daily, leaving massive destruction in their wake, until an outside threat prompts them to join forces against the new enemy. The typical anime heroine has gotten younger and more timid over time. I prefer the action girl pinups of the 80s who never held back. "A-ko" is high energy fun and mahem as only anime can produce. It's also a parody of many other science-fiction anime series of the time, and gets funnier the more you know about the genre.

TV Series

"Mushishi" - A supernatural procedural with a pleasantly low-key mood and atmosphere. The series follows Ginko, a man who is able to see creatures called "mushi," supernatural beings that can interfere with the human world in strange and unusual ways. Each episode chronicles Ginko's encounters with the various mushi and the people whose lives they affect. The series is set in an alternate version of Japan's feudal era, and many of the stories are based on traditional folktales. The visuals are likewise simple, but very striking, especially the depictions of the mushi themselves.

"Paradise Kiss" - One of the niche genres that rarely gets any attention in the West is josei, anime and manga for young women. Imagine "Gossip Girl" crossed with "Project Runway," and you've got something close to "Paradise Kiss," which is as far as I know, the only animated series ever set in the world of high fashion. Our teenage heroine, Yukari, falls for a wannabe designer named Jouji, and promptly gets swept up in his complicated life. Will she abandon her straitlaced, ordinary life to become a professional model and Jouji's girlfriend? Or is she getting in over her head?

"GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka" - Can a violent, ill-mannered, reprobate biker and gang member be a good junior high school teacher? Onizuka-sensei isn't going to let anyone stop him from trying. At first the show's formula is simple. One of the students has a problem, so Onizuka does something totally outrageous to fix it. Eventually the problems get harder and the solutions get more creative. Onizuka, however, never changes. He’s a borderline delinquent himself, but his heart's in the right place and really does care about his students – after he’s done hitting on their moms.

"All Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku Nuku" - Only in Japanese animation could you find a premise like this one. The brain of a dying cat is transplanted into a super-strong android girl body, creating the Nuku Nuku the catgirl. Her scruffy scientist creator charges Nuku Nuku with looking after his son Ryunosuke, a little boy at the center of a contentious custody battle between the scientist and his fiery wife, who happens to be the head of a major weapons manufacturing company. As Ryunosuke's mom and dad do battle, often literally, it's up to Nuku Nuku to keep the kid out of harm's way.

"Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water" - Kids' anime never get any respect, but they remain a staple of Japanese and Western television programming. One of my favorites is the "Nadia" series from the early 90s, a science-fiction adventure serial loosely based on Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," that puts three runaway kids on the Nautilus with Captain Nemo. It was produced by GAINAX, the studio that would be made famous by the grim giant robot show, "Neon Genesis Evangelion." "Nadia" is far more lighthearted and fun, though it has its darker and more intense moments.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On Being a Recovering Otaku, Part II

As I mentioned previously, only a small percentage of the anime produced in Japan are picked up for distribution in the United States. However, even these numbers would have been vastly reduced if the fan community in the 80s and 90s hadn't taken matters into their own hands by creating fansubs. Fansubs are fan-produced versions anime that have been translated, subtitled, and distributed by fans. Before the Internet, they were traded on VHS tapes, and later digital files. Fansubs are technically illegal, but they were initially helpful to the domestic anime industry, and tolerated for a long time, because they helped raise awareness and interest in certain titles - shows aimed at girls, romantic comedies, and more oddball anime. My college anime club had a collection of VHS fansubs that were openly traded for years. To date, fansubs are still the only way to see many older series like "Rose of Versailles" and "Goldfish Warning."

The trouble with fansubs is that they became a gateway to all out piracy, especially when the Internet came on the scene. Digital files allowed for better quality and faster sharing, which lead to the fansub versions of many shows stealing away the domestic audiences for the legit releases. There was an honor system in place that called for a halt ot the distribution of fansub files for shows that had been licensed by a domestic company, but I found it was getting much too easy to lose track of which anime fell into which category, and there were far too many kids out there who were failing to make any sort of distinction. Eventually I made myself quit all fansubs cold turkey a few years ago and stuck to domestic releases, exiting the larger anime fandom in the process. However, fooling around with digital fansubs taught me a lot. I learned peer to peer filesharing, torrents, IRC, how to work a dozen different media players, how to juggle audio and video codecs, and even a little encoding. This came in handy later when it came to tracking down public domain films and content in copyright limbo.

However, I got even more out of the fandom that came with the fansubs. Anime was my first real experience with entertainment from a totally different cultural context. I quickly fell in with the purists who had been burned by too many anime distributors of the 80s and 90s hacking and mangling favorite shows into subpar kiddie pabulum. I started paying attention to translation issues, quickly learned the benefits of watching subtitled as opposed to dubbed anime, and picked up some of the little cultural quirks like honorifics and idioms. Unedited anime is more fun to watch the better you know the culture and language. I never went so far as to take Japanese language or literature classes as I knew some anime fans did, and never became especially enamored of Japanese society, but I got into the habit of enjoying the differences instead of recoiling at them. For a while I shunned American localizations as inferior, but over time the pendulum swung back the other way, and I learned to appreciate many of the adaptations as they improved during the late nineties.

A lot of this carried over when I started watching foreign films. It was much easier watching Kurosawa's samurai epics and Ozu's domestic dramas already being familiar with many of the differences in behaviors and mannerisms that might have been distracting otherwise. I'd gotten so attuned to the little nuances of Japanese productions, I actually had a tougher time with Chinese films, even though I speak Mandarin and I'm far more familiar with the culture. Once I'd gotten my head around Japanese media, it's wasn't hard to make the leap to movies in Korean, Swedish, Farsi, or Afrikaans. I think anime makes a particularly good starting point for exploration into foreign media because Japan is totally industrialized and viewers will always have clear points of reference, but the Japanese culture and social norms remain largely non-Westernized. Also, anime is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. No other country does animation quite like the Japanese do it, and though they were influenced by a lot of different sources, the strength of anime is that its aesthetic and values are identifiably Japanese, through and through.

It is very easy to be caught up in the anime world once you get past the initial barriers to entry. My tragic flaw is that I am a completist. I wanted to finish every series I started, was easily caught up in the hype about any title that was held in any sort of esteem, and I was always on the lookout for the less commercial, artsier fare that wasn't as popular or well-known. When I first started out, there wasn't any broad consensus of the must-see titles, reviews were always scatter-shot, and in most cases the only way to figure out if you liked a series or not was to watch it. So I did. I usually figured that if someone had taken the time to sub a series, then it must have been worth the time to watch. I ended up seeing a lot of pretty miserable anime over the years, but I also found those few, amazing shows that no one else was paying attention to. And the experience was fun while it lasted. It takes significant time and energy to be a true otaku, a superfan who can keep up with the pace of the industry and all the new titles, while expanding their knowledge of the classics. I know from experience now that there are a very few shows each year that are truly worth my time to watch, but I'm no longer keen on paring down the field myself. My interests and priorities have shifted, so I leave it to the younger fans to pick up where I left off.

These days I'm off chasing Godard and Fellini and Kiarostami and Assayas and Zhang Yimou. I've turned in my otaku badge for a shot at being a real live pretentious movie fan, but I still count myself as an anime fan. They'll pry my "Cowboy Bebop" boxset form my cold, dead hands. Tomorrow I'll finish off this series with a couple of recommendations of obscure titles I think deserve more attention.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On Being a Recovering Otaku, Part I

For the better part of a decade, I was a devoted otaku, or anime fan. What's so special about being a fan of Japanese cartoons, you ask? It's not as easy as it sounds. I want to take a couple of posts to talk about my experiences with anime, since becoming an otaku was a huge part of my development into the pretentious movie geek I am today. First, I want to make a few general observations on the emergence of anime in the U.S.

Every couple of months, some major paper will trot out an article on anime, which has been enjoying increasing popularity in the U.S. over the last decade or so. With some incredulity, they've chronicled the boom of the toons among older audiences, especially teenagers and twenty-somethings. The big point that most of these stories seem to miss is not that anime has arrived. Rather, anime has expanded, no longer the domain of toddlers and basement dwelling D&D enthusiasts, but of both genders, all ages, and a gargantuan DVD market that feeds into cable and web programming. Twenty years ago, distribution was non-existent, and fans resorted to trading self-subtitled nth generation VHS tapes to catch a few episodes of their favorite shows. Nobody cried foul when the popular "Macross" was combined with two other series and rewritten to become the 80s classic, "Robotech." Today, walk into any Best Buy, and you'll find dozens of anime titles on DVD, often only a few months after their Japanese release dates, featuring both dubbed and subtitled versions on every disc, and all translated with strict faithfulness to the originals. These standards were created almost entirely due to fan demand for them, long before the TV on DVD market started up. What sort of cartoons could inspire this much fuss?

To understand what the anime craze is about, it's a good idea to take a look at the home-grown product first. For a long time, U.S. produced cartoons fell into two distinct categories: a small number of prime-time comedies like "Family Guy" and "South Park" aimed at young adults, and a heftier chunk of Saturday morning fare strictly for the tots. Broadcast standards and practices for children's cartoons were notorious for their severity, where the word "kill" was verboten and young heroes were never allowed to be in any realistic peril. More insidious were the creative controls imposed by network executives, who liked simple, episodic, repetitive plots that could easily be rerun ad infinitum. Some networks even frowned on all but the subtlest hints of romance. While good cartoons were produced in this atmosphere, it still felt like a minor miracle when one emerged that could appeal to an audience beyond the 2-11 set. It's only recently that there's been any middle ground, and this has largely been due to the influence of anime.

The Japanese animation industry doesn't really look all that different from its Western counterpart at first glance. While there are titles aimed at adults, including the embarrassing existence of anime porn, the vast majority of the programs are aimed directly at kids and teenagers. Many shows are little more than hyped up pablum, often meant to help promote video games, trading cards, or toys. Look a little closer, though, and the distinctions become more apparent. One is the sheer quantity of anime in Japan. There can be thirty or forty new titles each season, for broadcast and direct to video release. Many are based on popular manga, Japanese comics, which are as ubiquitous as newspapers, and cover every imaginable topic and genre. Thus, another difference is the scope of the subject matter of anime - just about anything is fair game. There are romance anime for young adults, sports anime for enthusiasts, and late night horror anime for insomniacs. The most successful shows are usually the family dinner-hour programs like "Little Maruko" and "Mrs. Sazae," long-running, low-budget situation comedies about a toddler and a housewife respectively.

What's enjoyed the greatest success in the U.S. though, are the action shows. These are generally aimed at adolescents, and the median age of the heroes is about fifteen. Thanks to the Japanese lack of stringent content restrictions, the fights can be bloody, girls can be wooed, and most important, the stories are almost always ongoing. This allows creators to develop their characters, complicate their plots, and engage their audiences on a level that an American cartoon simply can't reach with their interchangeable twenty minute episodes. Even kid fare like "Yu-Gi-Oh" and "Digimon" are rife with cliff hangers and plot twists that can take an entire season to resolve. At its best, anime can tackle very serious themes, and do it without compromise. A popular recent title, "Full Metal Alchemist," features a pair of orphaned brothers who unsuccessfully try to bring their mother back from the dead, and then spend the rest of the series struggling with the disastrous consequences of their failure.

Another interesting factor is that many anime only run for a single season - around twenty-six episodes - and are planned from the outset to have their stories entirely resolved within that space of time. Successes like "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Cowboy Bebop," for instance, have follow up movies, but no subsequent seasons. This gives the creators much more incentive to use their material to its fullest. For fans it means not having to wait too long for the final payoff of a premise, and a welcome lack of structural safety nets. It is not uncommon for an anime hero to die in the final episode along with the villain, since he doesn't need to come back next season for more adventures.

Anime has plenty negative aspects, of course. Even the best shows will often reek of adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies - and evidently most young Japanese men wish to pilot giant robots and land pretty, girlfriends. The actual animation quality is highly variable, and tends to emphasize design over movement. Like American shows, there are always popular trends, derivative or copycat products, and a sore lack of originality on many fronts. Yet every year, without fail, there will be a show, or two, or three that does everything right and will win more fans to the growing population of U.S. otaku. In this fashion, anime has a shot at not being just a hot new trend, but a firmly entrenched, self-perpetuating part of the cultural landscape.

But even though anime has become popular, much of the best of it is still difficult to access. In the next post, I'll talk about the anime fandom, specifically some of the fan activities that helped make anime in the U.S. what it is today.