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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Geek Heaven Episode 8

The second episode of our triumphant return!

Topic for this episode include:

∙We get in the game, Academy Award Predictions.
∙Hollywood's run with video game adaptations.
∙SyFy's Being Human.

MOVIES I JUST WATCHED: I AM NUMBER FOUR - A review by Joseph Michael Sciola

            I Am Number Four, based on the novel of the same name is a movie I have been looking forward to for quite some time. We covered the trailer in Episode 6. I picked the book up on a whim, and read a few chapters before getting sidetracked. I have yet to finish it (in fact, I really need to find the book) but from what I have read, I really enjoyed, and was thoroughly surprised to discover it was being made into a movie so soon after its release.
            From what I remember reading, it followed the book relatively well. There were a few changes, but that is really to be expected for the book to movie transition, and honestly, I didn’t really mind the changes. The movie has a relatively young cast which includes Alex Pettyfier as Number Four/ John Smith, Teresa Palmer as Number Six, Dianna Argon as Sarah, Callan McAuliffe as Sam, and Jake Able as Mark. The cast is rounded off with Justified’s Timothy Olyphant as Henri, John’s guardian and protector, and Kevin Durand as the unnamed Mogadorian Commander.
            Acting wise, the more experienced Olyphant and Durand were the highlights of the movie. At times, saying more with simple looks than any line of dialogue. The rest of the cast was far from horrible, but they were just outclassed in this.
            As far as villains go, the Mogadorians were good ones with a significantly creepy design and just an overall eerie presence to them. They had a few rather comedic moments as well, such as one of them going shopping and waving at a little kid as he walked past, and another bearing his fangs at a car that car they were passing, scaring the hell out of a kid inside, but don’t let these two small moments fool you. They were portrayed as serious threats from the very beginning, and remained so until the very end.
            The final fights towards the end of the movie were nothing short of incredible with a great mix of chorography and CGI. The end result of the big battle left the school’s football stadium a smoldering crater and that is just awesome. My only complaint about the fights is that they were so fast paced, and I would have liked to see them have gone on for a little longer, but they are fortunately not on the same level as the knife fight in Faster which lasted about ten seconds.
            The book was planned as the first book in a series of six. The Power of Six, the second book in the series is expected to be out this August. I know I plan on picking that up, and hopefully the movie does well enough to continue adaptations of those books, because as I see it, I Am Number Four was a perfect ten.

Friday, February 18, 2011

V and the Decline of a Television Series – An Observation

V, starring Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), Morena Baccarin (Firefly) and many others, had a great first season. But somewhere between the first and the second, something went wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. The production team seemed to implode, and the second season became something to watch not because it was good, but because it was so bad as to be incomprehensible.

I have to give credit where credit is due, the second season made some great casting choices. Veteran character actor Oded Fehr, The Shield’s underrated Jay Karnes, even Bret Harrison from Reaper made an appearance. But even these great actors were unable to pull the series back from the precipice.

The problem stems indelibly from the writing. What was once engaging, if a bit outdated, storytelling has devolved into mindless cliché and plot contrivances. It’s as if the writers believe their audience has never watched another television show in their lives before. This is especially noticeably since one of the executive producers, Rockne S. O’Bannon, was once the showrunner for Farscape, one of the most creative and unique science fiction shows in recent memory.

The writing, of course, has lead to the acting to suffer as well. Morena Baccarin’s character, Anna (the V’s leader) went from a cold and calculating menace to a stereotypical bad guy. Even her scenes with Diana (Jane Badler, reprising her role from the 80’s series… sort of), while supposed to be menacing, are only funny due to the sheer silliness of the dialogue. Morris Chestnut, despite having one of the only emotionally engaging storylines remaining in the show, seems to have given up entirely.

The story suffers from a stubborn refusal to actually move anywhere. Anna’s right hand Marcus is assassinated? Well, not quite, since he’s still alive. And on top of that, he’s replaced by TOTALLY NOT MARCUS, I SWEAR Thomas, who, by the way, is exactly like Marcus. Joshua (played by voice actor Mark Hildreth, best known as Sten from Dragon Age: Origins), V ally of the Fifth Column – the anti-V resistance group – gets caught? Thanks to amnesia (!!!!), he’s back to being Anna’s loyal mook. Erica and the Fifth Column get a new ally? Dead three episodes later. While characters move back and forth on which side they’re on, no actual progress gets made.

The writers had the opportunity to do something different, too. This was probably the worst part, that instead of trying to tread new ground, they only decided to maintain the status quo. There was an episode during Season 2 in which the Catholic Church dared to stand up to Anna’s advances. This could have made a very interesting storyline; such a major organization like the Catholic Church allowing its priests to speak out against the Vs could have added some much-needed tension and drama. Instead, Anna just blackmails the church… and it works. They back down. Anna’s still the scariest one on the block.

The most recent episode as of the time of this writing (“Siege”) was so full of plot nonsense and cliché that I don’t even know where to begin. Erica and her ex-husband Joe (The X-Files’ Nicholas Lea) getting back together? Of course not. He dies. Fifth Column not-quite-terrorist and overall badass Eli Cohn (Oded Fehr) pulls out a picture of his dead wife and child? Anybody who’s ever watched an 80’s movie knows that’s the Kiss of Death right there. He dies. Erica suspected of working with the Fifth Column? A fancy plan involving a hostage situation “clears” her. No one questions this? No one knows that Diana, Anna’s mother and the former queen is still alive (why is she still alive?). Anna’s daughter Lisa (Smallville’s Laura Vandervoort) and Fifth Column ally just HAPPENS to walk by as Anna leaves the ship’s secret prison, giving her the opportunity to meet her grandmother.

Even Anna’s once-capable plans seem to be suffering. Ryan, played by Morris Chestnut, was a V sleeper agent living on earth who turned towards the Fifth Column. Having fathered a half-V child with a human woman, Anna takes the child hostage to use against Ryan, splitting his loyalties. Generally, this is a good plan. It worked against Jack Bauer just fine. But, when Ryan gets captured by Cohn, Anna pulls this tactic again with someone else entirely. Despite it being a good plan, doing it over and over makes for repetitive writing. Continuing the 24 analogy, Zeljko Ivanek’s character on the show said, “When plan A fails, you go to plan B, not plan A recycled.” Sound advice for any writer.

Joss Whedon once wrote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Unfortunately, the writers of V are doing just that. They write themselves in circles, ignoring the fact that what they’re doing now has already been done.  There’s a lot of flash, and nothing of substance anymore. What pains me is that this is a show I used to love. Now I can only hope that ABC puts it out of it’s misery.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - An Observation


You know…


All right fine, I’m just going to say it: THIS MOVIE SUCKS! What in the HELL was Edgar Wright thinking with this!?

A friend of mine finally sat me down and forced me to watch it. It honestly didn’t interest me. Even as a pretty damn hardcore gamer (I’ve beaten I Wanna Be The Guy, though only on Hard, and I’ve taken down the Demi-Fiend in Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga) , this movie just looked dumb. And I was right. It was really dumb.

I’m going to talk about the things I actually did like, first. Item one: the fight scenes rocked. Peng Zhang is proving himself to be the second-best fight choreographer in the industry, right behind Yuen Woo Ping of The Matrix and just about every Jet Li movie ever made fame. Peng Zhang did Ninja Assassin, a terrible “movie” which however had some of the most creative and interesting fight sequences I’ve ever seen. Kick-Ass and ­The Transporter 2 are some of Zhang’s other films. His choreography coupled with Edgar Wright’s direction created dynamic, interesting, and entertaining fight sequences which were easily the best part of the movie.

Some of the supporting cast was really good. Chris Evans was gloriously hammy. Mark Webber was perfect as beleaguered singer Steven Stills. Keiran Culkin was hilariously understated as Scott’s roommate Wally. A surprisingly badass turn by Mae Whitman (the voice of Katara in Nickelodeon’s hit cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender). Disaster of a Superman Brandon Routh managed to actually be really awesome. There was a fantastic cameo by Clifton Collins, Jr. (Boondock Saints 2: All Saint’s Day) and Thomas Jane (The Punisher) as the Vegan Police. And the normally annoying Jason Schwartzman was phenomenally smug as Gideon Graves, the “final boss” of the movie, including a pretty much perfect fight scene.

And oh yeah, there were succubi early on. What can I say? I have a thing for demon chicks.

And that’s the good stuff.

You notice how I left the main, well, everybody out? Yeah…

The title character is a douche. Which I get was part of the point of the script, being Scott growing up and becoming less of a douche. But here’s the thing, even as you’re supposed to like him near the end, Michael Cera sucks out all likeability. He’s like a black hole. It’s a testament to Peng Zhang’s skill as a fight choreographer that Cera looked even remotely cool at any point during this movie.

Alternately, we have Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the female lead Ramona. I just don’t buy Winstead as a romantic lead. As evidenced between this and Live Free or Die Hard, Winstead’s destiny seems obviously as an action star. She has a great, deep voice (her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof notwithstanding), she can do a great death glare, and she looked very natural holding and using a weapon. However, her softer scenes were just… uninteresting. She was flat.

In neither case did I actually buy them as a couple. This is a big problem; if you can’t stand the leads, the romance just dies. And when your movie is ostensibly a romance, you need to have likable romantic leads. Winstead was only believable when she was annoyed, snarking, afraid, or in combat, while Cera was just… Cera. What’s worse is that the love triangle was rounded out by Ellen Wong, whose performance seemed to be channeling that of Kathy Bates in Misery but in reverse. Pathetic and ignorable when shy and quiet, memorable and scary when angry, and able to switch between the two on a dime. She was actually interesting (comparatively)!

The final female characters were… they were there. And if they didn’t get so much screen time, they’d probably be entirely forgettable.

The direction was completely out of line. I know the world of Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be colorful, but there is such a thing as too far, and this movie’s visuals were WAY too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Edgar Wright. Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are two of my favorite comedies. But in trying to keep with the sensibilities of the comics, he’s sacrificed the tolerances of his audience. It is a filmmaker’s job when adapting from another medium to make it watchable, and in this particular project, Edgar Wright ignored this job. The colors were blindingly bright at times, the constant text effects were grating, every flashing light and quick comic-panel-like cut was an assault on the senses. I will sometimes say that a movie “gives me a headache,” as a way of saying it’s stupid or obnoxious. While I feel these adjectives do fit the movie, the aggressive colors and directing style literally did give me a headache.

When a project causes a viewer literal physical pain, there is something wrong with the project that needs to be addressed.

The game references were constant. Constant and overbearing. They just wouldn’t go away. At first they were funny. Then they got old. Do we really need to see a pee meter? Do we need the constant DDR references? Though I will say, the girl named Richter using the Belmont whip was really awesome. Go play Rondo of Blood!

The music… was not my kind of thing, except for the tracks originally written by Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy II battle theme) and Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda theme). I admit, I was kind of looking forward to the battle between the Katyanagi Twins and Scott’s band, but… apparently they decided that actually hearing the supposedly badass musician twins’ Electronica music was unnecessary and did not need to be in this movie. Instead we got that obnoxious Beck-composed monstrosity that plays throughout the entire movie. Though I will say it’s awesome that the principal actors did in fact learn the instruments they were supposed to have played.

This one is probably a nitpick, but it honestly sent me up a wall. The camera work. You see, Mary Elizabeth Winstead actually did her own stunts in the movie (another point for her as a burgeoning action star). However, in both of her big fights were obvious “Stunt Shots.” Basically, action directors are trained in such a way so as to avoid shooting faces so the stunt doubles are harder to notice. So during several moments, most notably a very impressive wire-work jumping flip, I muttered “stunt shot.” Turns out, no, that was actually Winstead. Directors, if your actors are doing their own stunts, SHOW IT OFF! Give them the credit they are due!

Look, this movie isn’t a total disaster. There are definitely positive elements. But this movie should have been a lot better than it was, especially in the casting department. The actors involved deserve better, and the audience this movie is targeting deserves better. If you want a gaming-reference movie, go watch Dark Maze Studio’s Press Start directed by Ed Glaser. It’s actually funny, despite being MUCH lower in budget. You want a gamer romance? Well… I’m not entirely convinced that such a blend can exist. Feel free to send suggestions! You want to see awesome Peng Zhang fight scenes? Go watch Ninja Assassin. Yes, it too has unlikable leads and a stupid romance plot, but that movie at least knows it’s about ninjas killing each other, and knows what to concentrate on. And if you want more Scott Pilgrim than just the comic book? Play the XBLA/PSN game. For fans of Scott Pilgrim and old-school 16-bit beat ‘em ups alike, that game OWNS.