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Monthly Archives: July 2008

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The Tomatoes are Coming up Rotten for Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

With 14 reviews in, all negative, and some reviews calling Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor a franchise killer, it’s looking like a really really bad summer for Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz seems to have been weisz (yes I hate himself too) to stay away from this one. Let’s face it, the Mummy movies were never more than second rate retreads of Indiana Jones but they did have a certain amount of charm. Now with an actual Indiana Jones movie out, albeit a second rate one, and with a failed spinoff movie starring the Rock and years gone by, the whole thing seems that much more pointless. Of course I wouldn’t count Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor at the box office yet. Franchises these days seem popular with audiences and a third sequel seems to be a better lock than an original movie. Dark Knight is holding steady but it’s not exactly a family movie, Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor likely will be. So Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a decent shot at doing well, if not spectacularly well.

Putting some China in your Movie

One of the summer’s big hits, especially animation wise is Kung Fu Panda. Mummy III Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is China based. The Dark Knight left Gotham for a scene set in China. Obviously China is a major emerging market and one that Hollywood is finding it tough to crack, as the People’s Republic of China pours on the restrictions to protect its domestic film industry while keeping Hollywood movies out. Gone are the days when Hollywood would touch the Dalai Lama with a ten foot pole, but even that’s not helping. Still action movies are more likely to incorporate a Chinese scene. Mission Impossible 3 did it, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 did it and so did The Dark Knight. I’m not too sure that The Dark Knight’s Hong Kong scene featuring Batman’s forcibly extradition of Lau was really meant to cater to Chinese audiences, the references to corruption in China and the portrayal of Lau is the sort of thing to piss off Chinese authorities, the way they went ballistic over Jet Li in Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Still Hollywood is likely finding ways to include Chinese themes, audiences and locations to capture that all important foreign box office.

Metered Bandwidth and the FCC

FCC Chief Kevin Martin has come out and said that he currently has not objection to tiered bandwidth pricing plans so long as the bandwidth limits are clearly spelled out. On the positive side this will mean an end to the current Double Secret Probation system that cable customers find themselves on, when they’re told that they’ve gone over the cap, but not how much the cap is or how much they need to reduce their usage. On the other hand this is a virtual greenlight for cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner to bring on the usage caps and turn online video into their private and paid playground. Having the cable monopoly control the on ramp to the video internet is a major problem and conflict of interest, but to the cable companies it’s just synergy which is why the internet is now in big trouble. The boundless greed of cable companies will drive them to use broadband caps to effectively tax the internet and turn services such as Hulu into an added offering just like premium channels.

Joker’s Asylum , Two Face

I doubt I’m the only one who thinks the Joker’s Asylum issues feature the Joker out of character, too well… serious for one thing and didactic. The Joker’s Asylum Two Face issues suffers from most of the same problems as the previous issues. We have the gratuitous use of Batman in order to give the caped crusader some face time even though he has no real place in the story. That means a flashback of being saved from a fire by Batman (isn’t it enough that Batman replaced the Gotham Police Department, does he have to replace the Gotham Fire Department too?) and as an impostor in Two Face’s gambit and finally as the rescuer who saves the day. Again we’ve got flat earnest characters and the usual villains like Joker and Two Face who never really seem right or in tune. The closing of Joker’s Asylum Two Face that breaks the fourth wall and asks us to flip a coin for a man’s life is nicely done and a good tie in with The Dark Knight, I half suspect inspired by The Dark Knight’s rendering of Two Face, but it’s too little too late.

The Death of the X-Files and Babylon 5

There’s an odd kind of cyclical harmony to things sometimes as the two most noted SF series of the 90’s, the X-Files and Babylon 5, seem to have reached their terminating point, even as Star Trek might have a shot at a resurgence with a splashy new movie.

You might say that the X-Files and Babylon 5 had gotten worn out in the same way that Star Trek had, going through multiple spinoffs and movies under the eye and hand of tired creators. Chris Carter has few excuses, considering the amount of power and latitude he had and just how badly he screwed it up. I remember watching a late season two part X-Files episode that simply never made any sense. Not in the “I’m confused here” but simply consisted of nothing but an incoherent jumble like monkeys had put it together in the editing room. That was what the X-Files became. X-Files 2 was simply the belated nail in the UFO’s coffin as an aging Mulder and Scully tried to reunite with no one but the fans caring anymore.

Babylon 5 was more of an anomaly, a SciFi series driven by its creator and a small fanbase, motivated at least in part by its antipathy to Star Trek, that never could extend itself into the Star Trek like franchise that it tried to be. The game fell through, the novels sold weakly, the audience for the TV movies dropped off, two series were launched and quickly canceled and even the direct to DVD solution that resurrected shows like Futurama proved to be inadequate, as JMS announced that it’s a big screen movie or nothing. While remake fever is underway, it’s more likely to be nothing.

Of course it’s possible that years from now someone will come along to reinvent the shows, more like the X-Files. Or maybe not.Reinvention is a tricky thing and while the X-Files has a simple enough premise, it also requires matching the zeitgeist of an insecure period where people are more willing to… believe.

Is Ben Silverman Done?

Page Six is claiming, and everyone is prematurely gloating, that Ben Silverman may be on his way out at NBC. That would be a quite fast departure for Ben Silverman, but then again Silverman also had a quick rise to the top, where he hasn’t done much to justify his reputation.

With The Bionic Woman already dead and NBC left with little in the way of usable series, about the only thing that could save Ben Silverman is a successful 2008 fall series launch. But I doubt anyone seriously believes that Knight Rider will do it. If the two new sitcoms, the Office spinoff and Amy Poehler sitcom, are huge hits, Silverman might survive. Otherwise probably not. With a slate filled with weak summer Reality TV shows and fall slate filled with foreign imports and revivals, Silverman’s creative programming is low on creative and high on derivative. Not a crime in TV land, except when you fail.

With Journeyman and the Bionic Woman as high profile meltdowns, Life and Las Vegas dead, Lipstick Jungle and Friday Night Lights barely hanging on, Scrubs moving to ABC, NBC needs some fast action and needs it now and Ben Silverman no longer looks like the guy to deliver. Worse yet the rest of NBC’s lineup is aging badly. The Office is likely to have a bumpy next season, My Name is Earl has gotten old real fast and 30 Rock, Medium and Chuck as vanilla but acceptable placeholders, NBC’s problems will only get worse and this tepid lineup speaks volumes as to how NBC became the fourth network.

Silverman has filled the 2008 slot with high concept dramas like Crusoe and Kings and My Own Worst Enemy that are all too likely to fizzle when they meet the audience, reality shows that play like second hand FOX and sitcoms that NBC desperately needs, but may not take off. And that’s where the rubber will meet the road.

Journey to the Center of the Earth movie review

Journey to the Center of the Earth movie posterWalden Media’s ongoing attempt to compete with the mainstream blockbuster by producing family friendly films reminds me of the wave of self-criticism in the Chinese film industry in the wake of Kung Fu Panda’s success, all focusing on the stifling atmosphere that prevents anything original or controversial from being created. Journey to the Center of the Earth, another Walden Media project thrust into the summer’s blockbuster season against such titans as The Dark Knight, is an all too unfortunate example of the problem.

Journey to the Center of the Earth has been made and remade over and over again, yet despite being a novel that captured the imagination of so many when thrown at the screen it has a way of turning into a lackluster film. Journey to the Center of the Earth is yet another lackluster entry, painfully family friendly and short on actual content. Despite its hefty budget and 3D come on, Journey to the Center of the Earth feels like a TV movie and plays out just as predictably as one. So predictably that even children in the audience should have no problem guessing what comes next, before it happens.

With only three characters and a plot involving, of all things, family, Journey to the Center of the Earth is meant to be the ultimate family movie. Unfortunately it’s the kind of family movie that condescends to the children and bores the adults out of their minds. Journey to the Center of the Earth isn’t so much a movie as an amusement park ride with lots of falling, jumping, falling on a water slide, being swept along a river and occasionally being propelled upward and once in a while being chased by a dinosaur. Some movies have the potential to be turned into amusement park rides, but Journey to the Center of the Earth is an amusement park ride in search of a movie. And that movie is hard to find.

Starring Brendan Fraser as Professor Trevor Anderson, a lecturer delivering lectures no one listens to based on his vanished brother’s theories, he’s forced to take in his nephew for a week, only to have the kid quickly unearth clues in a copy of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth that leads them to Scandinavia, where Hannah, a pretty but skeptical mountain guide, takes them into the mountains where they naturally wind up finding their way to the center of the earth.

The nephew of course wears a ski cap and a hoodie and teaches his professor uncle all about the internet by accessing Google on his PSP. The mountain guide is of course pretty and competent while Fraser’s character is a klutz, until about halfway through the movie when the mountain guide strips off her outerwear, unaccountably falls in love with Fraser’s character and reverts to a sexist stereotype of femininity, clutching him and running away from danger, while he gets to be the hero.

For fans of the book, Journey to the Center of the Earth offers the occasionally interesting twist on Verne’s original methods updated by more modern science, but it’s unfortunately buried in unreal special effects and a lightweight cast. Brendan Fraser carries as much of the movie as he can with his naturally goofy affable personality, but he doesn’t get much help from his co-stars who seem completely out of their league on the big screen and once the amusement park ride is underway, there’s not much for him to do except panic, deliver the occasional quip and run around in front of a green screen.

If you need a good way to visualize everything that’s wrong with Journey to the Center of the Earth, think back to the CGI waterfall in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Remember how Jones and the crew go over one CGI waterfall and then another bigger one and a bigger one, until you stop caring anymore because none of it seems real and no matter how well the cast tries, they can’t make any of it seem like anything more than a bunch of people trying not to look silly while pretending to go over a waterfall. That’s 90 percent of Journey to the Center of the Earth in a nutshell.

There are nice touches in Journey to the Center of the Earth and even the glowing bird who guides the boy through every turn of the underground journey isn’t as annoying as it might seem. But Journey to the Center of the Earth still suffers from the tepid touch of Walden Media that under the mandate of producing family films, produces antiseptic and lifeless productions. Written by a man whose only previous experience was on War Stories with Oliver North and directed by the visual effects supervisor from The Day After Tomorrow, Journey to the Center of the Earth feels like an expensive and lifeless TV movie that’s short on ambition, originality, characters, plot and everything that makes a movie worth watching.

That Wonderful George Lucas, Times interview

I say wonderful because it manages to give people new reasons to hate George Lucas while reminding us of all the old reasons we hate him. It’s so rare that in a brief interview a public figure can destroy his own image with every other sentence, while no one besides the fanboys pays attention. But that’s been the Lucas way for a while. The Star Wars prequels have become a running joke, the new set of Indiana Jones movies is pretty certain to end up the same way, Lucas has demonstrated over and over again that he simply doesn’t care. And so we take it from there.

In the Times interview, there are plenty of fun tidbits. Take Lucas’ admission that he really doesn’t care who he licenses Star Wars to and what they do with it, so long as they send the check to the right place.

“I am the father of our Star Wars movie world – the filmed entertainment, the features and now the animated film and television series,” he says. “And I’m going to do a live-action television series. Those are all things I am very involved in: I set them up and I train the people and I go through them all. I’m the father; that’s my work. Then we have the licensing group, which does the games, toys and books, and all that other stuff. I call that the son – and the son does pretty much what he wants.” He laughs. “Once in a while, they ask a question like ‘Can we kill off Yoda?’, things like that, but it’s very loose.

“Then we have the third group, the holy ghost, which is the bloggers and fans. They have created their own world. I worry about the father’s world. The son and holy ghost can go their own way.”

I’m going to skim over the obvious fact that George Lucas can’t seem to even talk about his own franchise without using some high minded religious metaphor that compares himself to a deity. This isn’t even the first time he’s done it, so it’s old school by now. The Mad TV George Lucas Dateline parody video above covers that one pretty thoroughly.

But let’s just recognize that George Lucas really doesn’t care what the licensees do with Star Wars so long as they don’t kill off major characters. That’s not the attitude of someone who cares about his work. It’s the attitude of someone who cares about cashing in.

“We were hoping for box-office figures like that, which is, ultimately, with inflation, what the others have done, within 10%,” Lucas explains. “So, we squeaked up there. Really, though, it was a challenge getting the story together and getting everybody to agree on it. Indiana Jones only becomes complicated when you have another two people saying ‘I want it this way’ and ‘I want it that way’, whereas, when I first did Jones, I just said, ‘We’ll do it this way’ — and that was much easier. But now I have to accommodate everybody, because they are all big, successful guys, too, so it’s a little hard on a practical level.

Of course Lucas could have just handed the movie over to one of his VFX supervisors to direct and made all the characters CGI, but unfortunately he couldn’t get rid of Spielberg and after the failure of Young Indy, maybe he’s grasped that Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford doesn’t work. But Lucas managed to be the stubbornest one in the trio, ousted Darabont and turned in a weak Indy 4 that even he admits just squeaked by. So naturally he blames Spielberg and Ford for it.

“If I can come up with another idea that they like, we’ll do another. Really, with the last one, Steven wasn’t that enthusiastic. I was trying to persuade him. But now Steve is more amenable to doing another one. Yet we still have the issues about the direction we’d like to take. I’m in the future; Steven’s in the past. He’s trying to drag it back to the way they were, I’m trying to push it to a whole different place. So, still we have a sort of tension. This recent one came out of that. It’s kind of a hybrid of our own two ideas, so we’ll see where we are able to take the next one.”

So basically George Lucas wants to take it into a future involving Communists, space aliens and Shia LeBeouf. Why stop there? Take it to the 22nd century or a galaxy far far away. The whole reason people liked Indiana Jones was because it took place in the past.

“I’m only going to produce Red Tails — we have a black director — but then I think I am going to direct some more, make some esoteric films that have a personal significance.” And what might they be?

A black director! Amazing. I’m sure he’ll do well as long as he caters to George Lucas’ expectations of what black people are like by talking like Jar Jar Binks,

Spindrift by Allen Steele book review

Allen Steele has the dubious gift of writing novels that read like short stories or perhaps short stories that have been padded until they turn into novels. On close inspection Spindrift might pass for a novella rather than a novel, padded with minute details of the trip and the explorations of Commander Harker, pilot Emily Collins and traitor and prisoner and all around genius when it comes to aliens, Jared Ramirez.

From the start Spindrift whomps you with a whole lot of background, virtually none of which is elucidated as Allen Steels apparently is writing for people who have read his Coyote novels and expects you to know what’s been going on in the Coyote Universe. But stripped of background, Spindrift is the usual story about a first contact starship mission featuring a blowhard Captain, a savvy first officer, a fearful female pilot and a scientist who no one listens to but knows everything before it happens, who go off to make First Contact and encounter wise and peaceful aliens but nearly spoil it with their usual human warmongering ways.

Steele attempts to bring in some complexity with Jared Ramirez, who traded genocide for immortality in the name of ecology, but is unable to bring any kind of moral reckoning to bear on the whole thing and spends most of the novel using Ramirez as the prototypical genius that the brass won’t listen to but who turns out to be right about everything.

There’s nothing new in Spindrift, not that you should expect it from Allen Steele whose novels are basically simpler, up to date and real world repackagings of SF tropes. Spindrift is no different and like most of Steele’s novels offers no actual surprises, despite the attempt at generating mystery by setting the whole thing as a sort of flashback. If you’ve read Steele before then you know what to expect. If you haven’t, now you will.

Is Bush Batman? A Political Reading of The Dark Knight

A Wall Street Journal essay comparing Bush to Batman in The Dark Knight has gotten a good deal of attention both positive and negative. It’s inevitable that conservative commentators will attempt to read conservative messages into popular movies, as they view it as a way of demonstrating that the people are with them. By turn liberal commentators are happy to read liberal messages in movies, not in the name of populism, but a sense of artistic vindication.

Since Batman is the story of a vigilante who dons a mask to fight crime while cooperating on and off with the police, it’s naturally going to be more given to a conservative reading than a liberal one. While Batman has been written from a liberal perspective, the politics of the average comic book writer being what they are, the character and setting are naturally more given to a conservative interpretation. And this is a problem for superheroes in general, because aside from having them exclusively fight Neo-Nazis, Big Corporations, the Religious Right and a Neo-Con government, making a superhero liberal takes more work than making him or her naturally libertarian or conservative.

Many movie critics have described The Dark Knight as a post 9/11 movie, which it might be, or simply influenced by America post 9/11. But the important thing to understand about The Dark Knight is that it lacks an ideological agenda, either Democrat or Republican. It takes place in a version of the real world where all actions have consequences and there are no perfect solutions.

The Dark Knight focuses on blowback and escalation, as a product of Batman taking the war to the mob. An anti-war reading however would have to argue that Batman was wrong for putting on the cape in the first place and that the status quo where the mob ruled Gotham was preferable. And that’s a hard position to defend. The Joker is a consequence of Batman’s war on crime as Gotham’s war becomes a clash of symbols. The Dark Knight references CIA extractions, blowback, rendition, surveilance, abuse of power and all those things, but it views them as tragic yet inevitable products of the escalation that occurs when you take on a fight of this magnitude.

Read from the standpoint of middle eastern politics, the mob can be viewed as the Saddam Hussein like dictators while the Joker is the new breed of terrorists dedicated to seeing the world burn. Batman represents the more ruthless darker tactics of Bush’s War on Terror while Harvey Dent represent the more “noble” criminal justice campaign against terror of the Clinton Administration. But Dent like the Clinton Administration has a dark side that makes him no different really than Batman, Bush. The tactics that enable him still rely on illegal and questionable measures.

The question that would really move The Dark Knight into one political category or another, is whether Batman’s actions are ultimately necessary or not. I suspect most viewers will answer that they are, since Batman is the hero. A minority might agree with Bruce Wayne’s regrets and argue that Wayne should have kept off the batsuit and tried to fight crime by fighting social problems, but a conservative rejoinder would be that fighting organized crime attacks the cause of many social problems, including drugs and prostitution and poverty.

The conventional Batman tries to do both, using his wealth to help people as Bruce Wayne and promoting Dent, while fighting organized crime by night. This can be read as the two sides of America, the dark that uses killing, torture and imprisonment to fight threats while the light dispatches foreign aid across the world. One can’t really exist without the other. In The Dark Knight, it isn’t only Harvey Dent who has two faces, but Batman as well. Harvey Dent’s noble public image was an unrealistic veneer just as Bruce Wayne’s is. His results came about through Batman’s darker tactics. Standing in between them Commissioner Gordon meditates the extremes on behalf of the city of Gotham and sacrifices a real hero, Batman to give the city an unreal hero, Harvey Dent. But despite the public war with Batman, covertly Gordon relies on Batman, just as America under any administration must rely on covert and darker tactics to see its way through the dark night.

It isn’t that Bush is Batman. Every US President must be part Batman, part Dent and part Gordon to do his job.

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