Sunday, March 29, 2009

Live from 1978

When it was announced that Battlestar Galactica was coming back to the screen, fans of the original 1970's show were up in arms about the new version robbing them of their childhood memories of lunchboxes and playsets and the show's lovable robot dogs.

All that evaporated pretty quickly, and the show went on to spawn two mostly fruitless attempts to put a new spin on old saws The Bionic Woman and Knight Rider. BW was canceled after eight episodes, I think, and New-KITT has gone gently in to that good Knight. (If you think that's bad, take a look at the episode titles for that show). Now, I myself was irked because it seemed like my favorite show at the time, Farscape, was being canceled to make way for BSG, but, like the fans of Galactica Original Recipe, my ire died pretty quickly upon seeing the finished product.

I was actually surprised to find out later that many of my friends had never even seen the original show (its heyday was a couple years before any of us were born), and some of them even came to the new show years after the original fan anger died down. For them, I dedicate the following run through Youtube:

The original series' theme, as narrated by The Avengers Patrick McNee:

And the only clip I could seem to find of Dirk Benedict's 'Starbuck.' Both Benedict and Original Apollo Richard Hatch came out against the show at first and while Hatch turned around and wound up cast as Tom Zarek, Hatch rebuffed Moore's attempts to get him on the show and wrote a pretty sexist article for I think Dark Horizons or something about the gender-switching on Starbuck and Boomer.

Sadly, Youtube seems to be sparse on fans of the original (either that or there was another TV industry-mandated culling of TV show clips). I found a bunch of clips, though these have been fan-edited to spruce up the special effects slightly. Still: fun stuff.

And one more, the 70's origin of the Cylons as narrated by Lorne Greene's Commander Adama:

Full episodes of the show's first season (it had two, and an ill-fated spinoff, Galactica 1980) are available on hulu. I might actually watch the whole series one day.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her

I started on Atlas Shrugged, at the behest of a friend. Now, normally I wouldn't choose to write about my feelings on a book until I'd finished the thing, but at present this blog has a dearth of things to write about, I'm going to chronicle my progress through this fucker.

I'm about seventy pages in. I've had the book a week. It takes me a while to get inertia started on any new novel, but that's neither here nor there. I had to read The Fountainhead in High School and I say "had to" because I found certain aspects of the plot to be morally reprehensible and in general Randian Objectivism (as though it comes in other flavors, I dunno) to be contrary to every natural instinct I've ever had in my life. Or maybe it's more the Objectivists, and the Conservatives who now who use Fountainhead and in particular Atlas Shrugged as clarion calls like they use the parts of the Bible and the Constitution that appeal to their vision of the world as shaped through Institutionalized Assholery.

Obviously I came to this tome with some baggage. Which was sort of the point for me. Because it's my friend's favorite novel, I felt I owed the thing a second chance, to take it on its own terms rather than through the prism of my own prejudices or through legions of line-quoting fucktards. Objectively.

Spoiler alert: Did I meet John Galt already?

Seventy pages in and here's what I can tell you. The lady likes the obvious dialogues. And cyphers. These two devices in tandem are slowly building up her philosophy, and that's fine. Speaking of John Galt, I like the way they're setting him up. He's not even a person yet, he's a cultural artifact, a saying, something in the background. Rand is fairly clever in the way she parses out information, and I'm willing to see where she goes with this.

We're setting up two sides, the people who are competent and the people who are largely incompetent. And the competent people, while not uniformly of the same viewpoint, are all squarely on the opposite side of the morons, who seem to parrot the same lines interchangeably.

This is where the book doesn't quite work for me. Rand portrays these titans of industry as wanting to share, and being concerned with keeping up the status quo, and of being frightened and repulsed by the idea of making any more money than their station in life already allows for. I have to call foul on this. From my experience at least, this isn't how the world works and it isn't how the powerful stay powerful.

Still. The book has potential. More to follow.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica miniseries

One of my favorite TV programs, the superlative Battlestar Galactica, ended its run last Friday. Now, one of my only complaints--though, sadly, a major one, was that the Sci Fi channel, in its infinite wisdom and foresight, saw fit to hack the program to pieces, splitting up both seasons 2 and 4 in twain, and leaving fans as much as a year to sit on their hands waiting for the show's return. It was hard to keep interest in the show, let alone catch some of its subtler character arcs. Case in point, the genial, slightly incompetent, officer-turned-mad-bomber Captain Kelly.

Kelly starts out as effectively third in command of the ship. By season 2 he's a poor-man's Apollo (if you don't know the show, just roll with it. All Will Be Explained). By the end of season 3 he's planted a bomb under a space shuttle, and mid-way through season 4 he's redeemed. And this is a one-off character, somebody whose total appearances I more or less just chronicled. So instead of getting any satisfaction out of his story progression, I'm forever like that guy in Memento, facing a case of "Hey, it's that guy, what's he do?" every time I watch the program.

So I decided, not too long after the last shot had been fired on BSG, to rewatch the whole show. To see Adama, Starbuck, Tigh, and the whole gang over again without the yawning chasm of time between seasons and bits of seasons. I can't promise anything more eloquent or intelligible than the reams of material already written about this show, but I can promise it'll be captured in my own inimitable style, that is unless I'm too tired.

So. The miniseries.

Did they say frack? "Frack" became a euphemism for "fuck" during the show's run, and a pretty effective one. It's the hard "k" sound at the end. Satisfying. But I don't remember it in the mini.

The ship is pristine! And, really, so is everybody. Hard times ahead. The show was almost uniformly bleak throughout, and really the pilot is no exception, but at least they have running water and food that isn't algae.

Both Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan's performances are slightly different in this than what they evolve in to later, and I'm talking here about voices. They have a softer, less gravely quality I'd come to associate with their characters.

Katee Sackhoff has a tattoo on the back of her neck. Also she is awesome as Starbuck, from day one.

A number of overt references to the 1978 show are present here, which at the time were meant to appease the classic series' fans, who thought this was an abomination. After practically every news program (including my beloved All Things Considered) ran bits on this show last week, it's hard to remember that at the time, this show was a risky proposition and there was at least some group of folks that were vehemently opposed to it.

The pilot was produced as a TV miniseries, what in TV terms is referred to as a "back door pilot." That's a show that tells you it's a movie but is secretly testing the waters to see if people will watch these folks again for an hour each week. It would be a year before the first batch of episodes made it to the network. You can tell the moment (and this is true of most TV pilots, front or back) where it stops being a movie and starts informing you on the premise of the show, and this is also the point where BSG begins to abandon its overt connections to the classic show. There is no planet Earth, not really. Commander Adama, who as the series progresses will become one of its most staunch atheists, has woven a homespun faith about a place to settle. It's not enough to live, he says. There has to be something to live for. And considering what these people have in store for them, he's damned right.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Your Guide to the Saints

Of course today is St. Patrick's Day. Besides St. Valentine, he's the only widely recognized Saint in this country, whose flavor of Christianity boils down to several shades of Protestant. Which is a shame, because Pat and Val are gateways into a whole history of strangeness.

3/17: St. Gertrude of Nivelles: Belgian Abbess at a Benedictine Monastery. At age ten, during a party her father was throwing, she was asked who she wanted to marry and she replied that Jesus alone would be her bridegroom (the guy is like Captain Kirk). She lived just thirty-seven years, most of them in piety and fasting, where she prayed for the souls in Purgatory. She's the patron saint invoked against rats and is generally depicted with mice or rats running up the length of her staff, as at the time mice were used to represent the souls in Purgatory.

3/19: St. Joseph: Jesus' Dad. A friend of mine told me that while she was living in Cincinnati, the the Irish-Catholics would have their feast on St. Patrick's Day and the German-Catholics would have theirs on St. Joseph's Day and never the twain should meet.

5/16: St. Brendan. Irish-born saint, who, according to legend, voyaged out on a small boat to the mythical land of Tir na Nog, which some scholars later figured might be Newfoundland. Largely discredited. My friends and I used to, around this day, run a flotilla of canoes down the Huron River. A fun time was had by all.

7/12: St. Veronica. Was in the streets of Jerusalem as Jesus carried his cross up to Golgotha. Taking pity on him, she stepped in his path to wipe the sweat off his brow. Her cloth retained his image. Not surprisingly, this converted her on the spot. She became the patron saint of photographers before Vatican 2 rationalized her out of existence.

8/10: St. Lawrence. Larry here was one of those early Christians routinely martyred by whichever Roman Emperor was in power at the time, in this case Valerian. Lawrence was grilled to death, hence his association with the gridiron and his rightful place as the Patron Saint of Cooks.

8/28: St. Augustine of Hippo. Famous drunkard, lout, and all-'round good time, who recanted just in time to be saved, and also to produce a slew of philosophical papers (and his biography, The Confessions of St. Augustine), introducing the concept of "original sin" (I poked a badger with a spoon!) and the idea of a just war. I don't know why we don't all get drunk on this day. It'd be a hoot.

10/21 St. Ursula. Patron saint of orphans, archers and students. Set out for a sea voyage with, according to the legend, eleven thousand virginal handmaidens. This is likely a mistranslation from the reading of "11 M" in a document to mean the Roman numeral "M" as opposed to "11 Martyred." I don't know where you get eleven thousand virgins anywhere. There's an Ursuline order of nuns named after her, as well as the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Anyway they were all massacred, which always helps you get in to Sainthood.

12/13: Saint Lucy of Syracuse was born around 283 AD. Her name means light. Lux, lucid, Lucifer, Lucy. She was raised by a Roman father and a Greek mother. When her father died, Lucy was put up for marriage by her Mom, who didn't really believe in Jesus until Lucy, after forestalling the marriage as much as she could, took her mother to the tomb of St. Agatha, and an illness of her mother was miraculously cured.

Still, she was s'posed to get married to some bigwig and when she didn't, local authorities decided to force her into prostitution, but when men came to move Lucy, they couldn't, not even with a team of oxen (which may have been exaggerated; I'm not sure how you get a team of oxen into the streets of Syracuse). So, the Governor had her tortured instead. If the oxen claim is to be believed that means God was a little more concerned about Lucy's virginity than her being tortured to death, which is what happened. Part of the torture included having her eyes taken out, though depending on your account she either regrew them or was simply able to see without them. They tried stabbing her too, and eventually burned her alive. She's depicted with a sword (or the little palm frond thing that St. Agatha carries) holding a dish with a pair of eyes on it, and for obvious reasons got to be the Patron Saint against blindness and for blind people. Less obvious is why she gets to be the Saint of salesmen. Saint Lucy, called Sankta Lucia in Scandinavia, is the only Saint to be recognized by those primarily Lutheran countries. You've seen the pictures, of girls in white robes, with goddamn candles in their hair, which always kind of terrifies me. God forbid the girl use too much product in her hair and--whoosh!

3/9: Saint Catherine of Bologna was your typical saint. Raised in relative well-to-do-ness, skipped out on it to live a life of piety, visions, miracles. The miracles in question happened mostly after her death. Her body, for some reason, was interred without being embalmed and without a coffin, probably due to that whole pious poverty thing. Eighteen days later, though, they dug her up due to an odor of perfume and the presence of miracles coming from her grave (the website is vague on the miracles. Restored sight? No bad hair days for a year?), and her body was interred in the cell in which she spent most of her life. Apparently when she was exhumed the body was incorrupt, and now exists as a mummified Catherine. Must've been all the bologna.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Quis Custodiet, and All That

I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen when the book was rereleased for its tenth anniversary. I was sixteen. For a while there in college I'd read the thing over again once a year, around the same time, in Spring. This Spring, the long, not-quite-awaited adaptation of the film came to celluloid at last. I got a chance to see it last night.

The whole Internet must be on about this, a moment of geeky catharsis probably unmatched. Among comics fans--me included--there isn't a book more revered, whose transition to the screen was watched with more scrutiny and anxiety. We nerds are overprotective, and Watchmen is perhaps the one great comic work that has a rightful place as a work of literature (that one comic where Superman fights Muhammed Ali nonwithstanding).

Can a soundtrack doom a film? The book Watchmen, which originally ran in single-issues between September of 1986 and October of 1987, has a lot of history, and in one of the film's best sequences, a lot of that ground is covered in an opening sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'." It's an expansive, effective, beautifully shot scene and for me at least, the song was chosen perfectly. Some of the other song choices? Not so much. Not so much at all. But I'll get to that.

Like I said, the book has a lot of history. It covers about two weeks in a parallel 1985 where guys in tights and at least one man capable of leveling mountains actually did burst on the scene, way back in 1939, and tells the stories of each of these characters through different flashbacks, often giving different points of view to the same event. It's the superhero thought experiment that made the book famous. Superman routinely beats up on bank robbers, mad scientists, and evil aliens, but his world remains the same as ours. Metropolis is more or less New York, and there's no real change to the political landscape that, realistically, you'd expect there to be if some dude who could destroy South Dakota by sneezing was just running around punching the shit out of people.

So it's 1985. Nixon is still President. Vietnam is the 51st state. America has won the arms race, due to having its own superman, Dr. Manhattan, a walking, talking nuclear deterrent who was once a normal guy. All the superheroes have been forced into retirement, save Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian, a brutal nihilist whose murder kicks off the book and the film.

Plot-wise, Zack Snyder's adaptation hits all the right notes. The mystery of who was behind the Comedian's death and the countdown to nuclear confrontation between America and the Soviets is all there, shot ably and beautifully by Snyder, as our heroes come out of retirement to solve a conspiracy that reaches about as high as it gets.

But is it any good? Should you go see this movie? Short answer: kinda, which is better than most of us nerds had any right to expect. If you haven't read the book, though, I'd do that. You'll be way more invested in this three-hour tour if you can read the book, and being a book and not a relentlessly intense action/mystery/superhero picture, the Watchmen graphic novel can be lingered over and puzzled after for as long as you damn well please. So: go read the book. It's good. I promise.

Done? Wicked. Because the long answer as to whether or not this film is any good? That's below.

What the Hell, man? So before, I asked, "can a soundtrack doom a film?" The answer is "You fuckin' betcha." And for me, really, all the problems in this film more or less pivot on this scene, the love scene between Dan and Laurie. Now, normally I'm not against Leonard Cohen, but the use of "Hallelujah" here is just fucking embarrassing. It was cringeworthy and abysmally cheesy at a moment which is supposed to be, well, kind of a hallelujah moment. But it's like 2001, man, how "Thus Spoke Zarathrustra" can't be used in any context anymore that isn't ironic and jokey. That's how this felt. Either that or Snyder had no self-awareness, which seems quite likely given that his two directorial triumphs were basically storyboarded out for him twenty years ago. Not only that, the thing goes on for far too long, but maybe that was just me reacting to the Cohen. It's shot like an action scene, one of my friends pointed out. It's choreographed. It's technical. It made me want to die a little and that's not the reaction I should be getting to the Silk Spectre naked.

The direction here brings up the major problem for the film, which is that Zack Snyder really has only one setting and that's EXXXTREEME! Which is fine for a film like 300, where that's its lifeblood, but here it just doesn't work and in my other least-favorite part of the movie, it completely undermines those same two characters: Dan and Laurie.

There's this bit in the book where Dan and Laurie are ambushed by a group of thugs in an alley. Same in the movie, only in the book it's far, far less violent. See, D & L are supposed to be the sane ones, the two grounded people in this picture. They're meant to be compared favorably to Rorschach, who goes around breaking people's fingers. But here, Dan is breaking somebudy's fucking arm through his skin while Laurie stabs some asshole in the neck and uses him as a human shield. This isn't who these people are. Snyder makes an egregious sacrifice here: he chucks character in the bin in favor of pandering to the people who came to this movie to see 300 II: Blue-Man Boogaloo. (The AV Club referred to them as "Joe Popcorn.")

Speaking of Laurie Juspeczyk, Malin Ackerman, the actress who plays her, is, well, she's not all that good. She looks like the character from the book (in fact, with the exception of Adrian, the visual aspect of the casting is 100%), but her acting is, well, it's just bad. Distractingly bad. As is the acting of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. He's got "I'm an Evil Wanker" in neon lights above his head through the WHOLE FUCKING FILM. This is a problem. Again, comparisons to the book. In the book it's a huge shocker because Adrian's a nice guy, never a patronising asshole who you're just waiting on to reveal his plan. A quick google reveals Goode's from England, and it shows. If he's trying to hide his Brit accent, he's doing a piss-poor job of it and, let's face it, if you're in an action film and you have a British accent, odds are you're going to try and kill the fuck out of some people.

Goode is incapable of selling Ozymandias, either as a result of piss-poor direction (Snyder's a little like George Lucas. He's there to make sure the visuals are perfect, and God help you if you need acting tips) or because he just feels like he can sleepwalk through this thing and cash a check. This does a huge disservice to the character. Ozzy's whole thing is he's saddled with this unbearable burden, the burden at the core of all superheroes, really. Proactive vs. Reactive.

Like I said, alternate history, right? Thought experiment. What if there were superheroes, alive and well in the real world? Because in comics, Superman never flies to Burma and tears apart the junta, like they oughta be torn apart. Wonder Woman never busts white slavery rings. The Fantastic Four are utterly unconcerned by global famine. Captain America could give a shit about AIDS. This comes back to needing to make comic-book worlds accessible, especially to new buyers (of which there seem to be perishingly few), but in the world of the Watchmen, that's not how we roll. Ozymandias sees the doomsday scenario between the US and the USSR as inevitable, and he's gotta do something about it. And having lived life as a vigilante crime fighter, he's used to this proactive, above-the-law approach. But Goode just can't play ball. He can't do Oz as anything less than an asshole, making his professed guilt ring hollow. It's a shame.

Which isn't to say all the acting is bad. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl. He's got the Clark Kent thing nailed down. And Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach is amazing. For most of the film he's saddled with a face-concealing mask and Alan Moore's purple prose, but when that mask is off, particularly at the film's climax. Haley soars. The man needs to be in more pictures.

Some people didn't care for Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, but for me that's easily the hardest role to play. He's gotta be off. Manhattan's a guy who is becoming totally disconnected from reality, the way you might slowly forget a dream early in the morning. That's incredibly difficult to do right and not slide into unintentional camp. I think Crudup does pretty well. And speaking of Dr. Manhattan....

Wang. Okay. I said it. Can we move on? This is more a complaint about the audience and not the picture itself, and I'll close out my little diatribe with it. We've all seen naked men. Get over it. Both Manhattan, whose nudity is a symptom of his just not giving a fuck about anything anymore, and later Daniel, who is nude in a scene meant to show him as vulnerable and frightened, have in-film reasons. And yet I get snickers. Come on, people. When it's Malin Ackerman's bare butt, nobody laughs. It'd be par for the cinematic course. But suddenly Patrick Wilson's derriere is yack city? Come on.

All in all, speaking as a fan of the book, this was a better film than it had any right to be. It wasn't perfect, far from it, but there's a visceral thrill of seeing these characters I grew up reading translated on to the big screen which buoys the movie through even the choppiest waters. Plus, I really want an Owlship.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Canaveral 2025

John Skylark was marooned ten days in space before they found him, alone among the wreckage of the blasted space station. He came back different. Saw the world differently. Ten days adrift above the Earth with only silence and distance for company. Rescue Rocket Six's crew found him a changed man.

The emptiness changed his eyes. The silence changed his ears. His wife, Miranda, found him on the roof of their house that first night, bundled in a heavy coat and boots, a hovercycle helmet standing in for his space helmet. He was staring out at the stars. She told herself she could deal with his, she was an astronaut's wife, that they all knew the risks when he signed up, but this was different, they had children now. She had to think of the boys.

She called Dr. Fenwick. They made an appointment. John sat in a plush couch opposite the Space Agency psychiatrist and said nothing for a very long time. He rarely said anything anymore.

His radio was damaged during the explosion, Fenwick told Miranda later. The Agency hadn't been very forthcoming with her--not even when they found him alive. She knew almost none of the details of John's sojourn in that impenetrable blackness. There had been an explosion, everyone save John was killed. He had to scrounge for oxygen tanks amongst the wreckage. Distance is a tricky thing to judge in outer space. There's no common frame of reference. Objects can be closer or farther than they appear. "His eyes had to adjust to that," Fenwick told her. "He doesn't see objects anymore, not in the way you and I do. He only sees the spaces between them. In many ways it's like he's come back blind."

"I'm lonely," he told Dr. Fenwick on the fifth day.

"But you're home, you're surrounded by people," Fenwick replied. "By your loved ones, your family, the people who care about you." John didn't say anything much after that.

The rest of the summer was spent at Canaveral, him seeing Doctor Fenwick on a weekly basis, sometimes talking, most times not. He played with his sons, albeit in a distracted, curious way, as though he were learning to be human again, slowly. Sometimes he and Miranda made love, but even then he was far away.

Between each of them there was a yawning chasm as great as the distance between the Earth and the stars.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I have gotten way behind on this

2/19: The Day of Whining Roses
2/20: iDay
2/21: The Day of Brightly Colored, Comically-Ineffective Rain Boots
2/22: The Day of Precariously-Maintained Social Status
2/23: The Day of The Evil Reverse-Zodiac*
2/24: The Day of the Middling Chinese-food Place
2/25: The Day of Correct Bus Fare
2/26: The Day of The Complete Wanker (Unabridged)
2/27: The Day of The Eyepatch as a Clever Fashion Accessory
2/28: The Day of Telling That Same Story a Thousand Times
(2/29): The Day of the Single Girl

Thus concludes February, the Month of Scrubs Reruns, and now on to March, the Month of Ides. Man, I'm behind

(* which we will not get in to this year)