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Monthly Archives: July 2011

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Hating on the Buffy Reboot

Sure it’s an easy target. Beloved franchise exploited for cynical money grab. Nothing like turning out a comic where Buffy has a lesbian one night stand. Now that’s classy.

I’m sure the movie reboot will suck. If only because sucking is the whole point of it and not just in the vampire way. Like Vampire Diaries this is a frantic attempt to capitalize on vampire mania, not a smart knowing look at being a teenager. Nobody really cares about the original audience.

But Joss Whedon and his crew of ex-Buffy people showed that they could destroy the material just as comprehensively. Whit Anderson who never seems to have sold a screenplay before, might make a mess of it. But I don’t see her making a worse mess of it than Marti Noxon and Jane Espenson already did.

The thirty something Buffy fans complaining about the reboot. How long can you stretch out the whole continuity baggage anyway. Buffy Season 8 showed how you can keep it going, by upscaling the concept and cluttering the story with every character who ever appeared on Buffy. It’s fan service. There’s no reason for anyone who isn’t already a fan to read through it.

A reboot might move the concept to what it originally was, a wisecracking California girl growing up while fighting monsters. It might even be fun.

Breaking In Pilot Review

Breaking In could be entertaining, but it echoes its star’s previous turn on Reaper too closely without the same symmetry. Once again he’s a man child whose life is hijacked by a supremely cool substitute father figure who thrusts him into an adult role playing on a next level battlefield, lusting for the girl he can’t have for some reason and forcing him to grow up at the same time. But as cool as Christian Slater is, he lacks the satanic glee that Ray Wise brought to the part in Reaper.

Breaking In tosses in too many characters, all of whom are extreme in a way that can only be lifted from studio notes. There’s too much energy in the room and none of it goes anywhere. Three co-workers, beginning with his boss, bully and humiliate Cameron. Even when his crush’s boyfriend shows up in the form of Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum, it’s more of the same.

Breaking In has to try so hard, because when you subtract the characters, it’s not original at all. This show has been made over and over again and the producers are relying on the character dynamic to pay off. There are good things about it. Christian Slater finally gets to play the character he should have been playing all along. And I would love to see the show be about him, instead of wading through another sad sack performance by Bret Harrison.

Is Hulu Getting Worse?

Free service plus pressure to monetize from corporate overloads plus virtual monopoly, equals this. Few sites actually keep getting worse over the years, but there’s just no way to compare the Hulu of today with the Hulu of 2008. The content isn’t as good, the format is worse, the interface hasn’t moved forward except for the social stuff that no one wants or needs, and the monetization is getting obnoxious.

Sure Hulu is entitled to push Hulu Plus. I hope it’s successful too. I don’t need it myself, but if it builds a business model for networks streaming their programming, so much the better. But there’s a way to do it without alienating regular users. Filling up Hulu Plus content that you have to click through, and doing it especially so you have to click through it, is obnoxious. And it’s not even the best way to sell you on it. It’s low level marketing.

The front page is as much of a mess as ever. When Hulu did its 1996 flashback, it wasn’t just a fun flashback, it was actually a much better page. Free of Hulu’s own crap like The Morning After, a show about TV shows, trailers and random Saturday Night Live clips.

Looking at the Hulu front page right now, there’s three Daily Show/Colbert things, one Family Guy clip and four Family Guy interviews, the Morning After, a Lego trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean, a Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live clip. The only episodes featured are Cougar Town, Happy Endings, and Modern Family. Sure you can manually change that, but it makes Hulu look like it’s cluttered with crap. And it’s an outlet for two or three productions.

There’s no way to get rid of Featured Content, which is almost always crap. Oh and under Popular Movies, 7 Lifetime movies. Seven! A documentary on beer and a documentary on salt. Really. Nothing from the Criterion collection even shows up.

Hulu front page, you’re starting to make YouTube’s front page look good.

Ugly Americans

Rarely has a show with a promising premise been botched as badly. The concept, aliens, monsters and creatures of all kinds are among the immigrants lining up to get into the United States and New York City. Rendered in a cartoon, you get a cruder version of what Futurama tried to deliver on in its first few episodes, but then gave up on.

So what’s the problem? A main character who takes every twenty-something slacker working in an office stereotype and lobotomizes them. The difference between Archer and Ugly Americans, is that Archer knows Archer is a moron and builds itself around that, Ugly Americans thinks its main character is great and the only sane person around. Ugly Americans might have been funny, if it understood that its most human character is actually its ugliest. But instead it gives into politically correct impulses, using him to teach the unseen audience lessons about getting along with werewolves and monsters.

The last thing you want in a cartoon not aimed at four year olds is preachiness, and the last character you want to be preached at by, is an even more annoying version of Jim from The Office, who looks and sounds like he’s taking a break from a commercial from Bud Lite. And that’s a shame, because the supplementary characters in Ugly Americans aren’t bad. The art is weak, but it passes. What doesn’t pass is the pandering.

Conan O’Brien Please Stop

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the documentary chronicling O’Brien’s post Tonight Show tour which was about his breakup with NBC. His recent viral commencement address and now documentary, more of the same. Being booted from Leno’s old timeslot in favor of Leno gave him a fire in his belly and a new identity. It also made him a one note character.

The old Conan seemed smart and self-aware. The new Conan is obsessed with being forced out of a timeslot and learning to get over it. It’s comedy as therapy, which is funny with some comedians, but not with him. Maybe it’s because Conan’s downfall is hard to relate to. The energy of sticking it to your boss brought people over to Team Coco, but go behind the scenes and you’re looking at a guy who was put in a position he wasn’t ready for, walking away with a 45 million dollar golden parachute and then building a career on insisting that he’s the victim.

I’m not one to argue with a successful media strategy. But I doubt I’m the only one tired of it. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop raises and partly answers the question of why a rich guy who has been successful beyond any realistic ambition is still obsessed. And the answer isn’t great. The contrast with Jerry Seinfeld who ran through the top comedy half-hour on television and amiably walked away to do standup is telling.

The sad thing is that the job Conan wanted and wants was wrong for him. He’s a funny writer. A very funny one. But he’s not a talk show host. He managed to hang on to his goal of having a late night show to host, and he almost managed to draw the right lesson from it in his commencement speech. Failure is liberating, but Conan didn’t liberate himself from having to be a celebrity and chat with celebrities. He put himself right back in the same cage.

Game of Thrones Wrap Up

I hated the first episode of Game of Thrones. I didn’t watch any of the rest of the season, and then finally tuned in to the finale. And my take.

It’s not quite as bad, but most of the badness is still there. The Daenerys storyline has been completely blown. Some of the blame goes to the actress who can’t do emotional depth. Most of it goes to a production that put its priority on making her older and more naked. The same mix can be seen throughout Game of Thrones. Good actors side by side with bad ones. Strong scenes side by side with scenes that exist to show off gratuitous nudity. The objectification factor is off the charts.

Fast forward through everything with Tyrion and Daenerys, and you get passable fantasy. Sometimes. Game of Thrones amps up the camp factor deliberately. Watching it is still like watching two shows. One with Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley, Iain Glen and Maisie Williams. And one with Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Jason Momoa and Jack Gleeson. But some of these people actually have scenes with each other. It’s as if the Adam West Batman and the Nolan Batman were crossbred into a single production.

But the producers, writers, directors are all to blame for this mess too. Why is the Daenerys reveal at the end handled so clumsily. And why does her accomplishment in gaining their allegiance hardly register. The wallpaper nudity now is ridiculous. We have naked women in scenes where they have almost no dialogue. Their only job is to be naked so the viewer doesn’t get too bored by the dialogue. At least that seems to be the idea.

Game of Thrones isn’t a good show, but it’s an HBO show. And it’s successful. What else is there to really say about it?

Bioware Sucks

Let’s get it all out there. Bioware sucks. Why?

1. Bioware has been making the same game since 2003. Further back if you count the development time. Kotor, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are all the same game with different characters and settings. Sure they’re all good games, but they’re all the same good game. The same RPG lite approach, cutscenes, group of wacky characters you get to know along the way with different powers and engine that can’t handle you trying to walk on the grass. The same game since 2003.

2. The gimmicks are all old. The enemy who turns out to be a front for the real enemy. The mentor who turns out to be your enemy. The companions who turn on you forcing a showdown. The companions who make you choose which of them is going to die. The dark secrets of your companions. It was innovative in its time, but it’s all been done over and over again. Imagine Black Isle’s rep if it had just made Fallout, a game that played like Fallout but was set in a medieval fantasy land, a game that played like Fallout but was set in space, etc.

3. DLC, DLC and more DLC.

4. Pathetic attempts at social relevance. Remember playing Neverwinter Nights and finding a tribe of natives being attacked with poisoned blankets? That was embarrassing but Dragon Age 2 has material just as embarrassing. There’s a smart way to do social commentary and there’s the bonk you over the head with it way. Bioware goes the bonk way.

5. They’re not games, they’re interactive movies. If the earlier Bioware games were choose your own adventures, games like Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2 are just geared to showing you their cutscenes in between combat. Your choices are narrowly limited to sitting through what the designers want you to sit through. Bioware designers call that storytelling, but it strips away user agency for designer wankfests.

6. Consolization. Bioware is aiming heavily at the console market and stripping away the more interactive elements. Less customization and more handholding. A streamlined experience with no soul. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 shows what happens when they try to adapt their formula to the console. The story goes by the wayside and the focus becomes on combat and cutscenes that mostly play out the same way whatever you do.

Should Roger Ebert Still Be Reviewing Movies?

Forget, should Roger Ebert have ever been reviewing movies. He shouldn’t have, but his reviews at least used to be plausible. They were things that looked like reviews of movies. Not your uncle’s random stuff typed on a page. Now that’s exactly what it is. Your uncle musing about stuff and then commenting on a movie. Reading these things now is just embarrassing. And I’m not sure anyone does.

It’s not just about Thor. It’s about every review Ebert does. The Thor review is almost passable. Ebert actually at times comments intelligently on the movie and the source material. Even if the whole thing is drowned by his asides and his extended recap of most of what happens in the movie. But that’s rare.

Ebert has taken to Twitter. His condition has made him a media personality. But his reviews which were always sloppy, have stopped even trying to pretend that they’re anything but his random impressions composed in a few minutes or less.

Ruth Rendell

Sometimes you pick the books you read, sometimes the books pick you when you’re in a place with limited available reading material. I’m obviously not the demographic for Rendell’s books, but still picking up a copy and seeing all the praise for it, from reputable publications calling her the greatest living available writer ever, I expected something… better.

Rendell isn’t a bad writer, but there was nothing in Not In the Flesh, that half the contributors to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine couldn’t plop out annually. And looking at the list of Rendell’s novels, that seems to be what she does. The Wexford novels are obviously phoned in. Not in the Flesh is a novella fleshed out a little with a female genital mutilation story that has nothing to do with anything else, except that it’s an issue the author cares about.

The Kate Atkinson novel I read afterward was not only about a dozen times better, it read like the author had put some work into it. Rendell doesn’t. The outcome of the case is obvious. The clues pop out at you from the background material. An aside describing a ring means that the ring will become significant. When Rendell goes on about a ring on another character’s finger given to her by her murdered boyfriend, the connection between the two murders becomes obvious. Similarly when she goes off on a rant about a writer’s religious novels and points out that one stands out, it becomes obvious that the novel was stolen and that explains the first murder. Anyone with half a brain knows the ending 100 pages before the plodding Wexford finally gets there. All this is lazy writing. Rendell could probably do better. She doesn’t bother. And these things apparently sell well enough that she doesn’t need to.

All fair enough. What I was less prepared for was the weirdly dogmatic political correctness and the sheer hatefulness of some of it. It’s not that I disagree with her, so much as the first 100 pages felt like being shouted at shrilly by someone on a train. Every few pages there’s some petty mini-lecture. I’ve read Henning Mankell. His politics are there, but he doesn’t relentlessly beat you over the head with them. Hannah Goldsmith becomes unbearable a few pages in, and it’s unrealistic that a junior officer would even be bullying a superior officer over such petty things. But after the first 100 or so pages, Rendell levels off and focuses her politics on a sideline about genital mutilation that has nothing to do with anything. The homophobic character sketch of Greg, is an odd choice for a woman who relentlessly lectures on bigotry.

It’s the hatefulness that’s unpleasant. Whether it’s through the eyes of Wexford, a middle aged male inspector or one of his subordinates, the descriptions are oddly hateful and when it comes to women, catty. They’re not plausibly those of Wexford. And they clash with the tone. The bias also makes the mystery much less of a mystery. You can tell the villains by how hatefully Rendell describes them or how much of a tear she goes on over them. Her rant about Son of Nun makes the final culprit obvious. It’s sloppy, but again Rendell clearly doesn’t care.

Falling Skies pilot review

Falling Skies carries obvious comparisons to The Walking Dead, but it’s both better and worse than The Walking Dead. Better because it moves at a faster pace, but worse because it’s light and predictable. The Walking Dead is overdramatic, but Falling Skies lacks drama. The Walking Dead builds a convincing world, Falling Skies doesn’t.

Falling Skies bears the hallmark of second-hand Spielberg, too many kids and too much banter. And ridiculously predictable writing. Two seconds after we meet Sarah Carter’s character, it’s obvious that she will be the one to turn on her companions. Just as it’s obvious that every time the gang breaks into a store or armory, it will be a trap.

There are things to like about the show. It tries to imagine an alien invasion in realistic military terms. The civilian population reduced to guerrillas being pushed back into the hills. But then it shoots itself in the foot by making its hero too incompetent to have any kind of status, but still insisting that he’s right and the commander is wrong.

When Wylie’s Mason insists on doing something and the commander is opposed, it’s Mason who’s right, even though he screws it up. Is it believable that in a country filled with veterans, that the best a group of 300 could do for a second in command is a guy who reads military history. It’s not. What’s worse is that Mason begins spooling out the research that the writers did to prepare for writing this show in dialogue.

The characters never amount to much, but the cast is good enough to carry through. Noah Wylie and Jessy Schram are the only ones who register positively. But even Moon Bloodgood isn’t as annoying as she usually is. What’s lacking is anything for them to do. Wylie gets the character development, but that means playing dad and talking about military history. The rest are even worse off.

On the defensive is Noah Wylie trying to act his way through the clumsy writing and mediocre direction. But there’s only so much he can do. He tries to add pauses to turn ridiculous dialogue into something weighty, but the camera is against him. When he weighs two books against each other, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vs A Tale of Two Cities, deciding which to take along and which to leave, it should be a weighty moment. But the scene carries no more weight than if he were choosing between two types of bread in a supermarket.

Worst of all is the predictability. Every scene is obvious and done to death. There’s nothing original here. Falling Skies keeps moving and it avoids the turgidity of V, but only at the expense of being obvious. Some of the dialogue is bad, “Professor Kick Ass” is an obvious nominee, but it’s the plot that really suffers.

With better writers and direction, Falling Skies could be standout. Instead it’s weak with some promise.

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