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Captain America movie review

Captain America movie posterThese are the things that Captain America doesn’t have. A plot, compelling characters or any reason to care about what’s happening on screen. But what it does have is charm. Director Joe Johnston brings the same retro sensibility to Captain America that he did to the Rocketeer, but he can’t being a semblance of order to a script that lacks momentum and a movie that exists just to promote The Avengers.

Johnston tries and when skinny Steve walks up to the desk and stares fiercely at the doctor, defying him to reject him, it almost seems as if he succeeded. But Steve Rogers’ drive to be a little man who contributes to the war is the only thing the movie has going for it. And once Steve gets his wish, Chris Evans reverts to his usual blandness and the movie dies even as it’s just supposed to be taking off.

It’s not really Evans’ fault, by then he’s been upstaged by a rush of action scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but have no impact, by a hastily introduced band of commandos that we didn’t really need to see, by raids that don’t matter and a relationship with the abrasive and irritating Agent Carter who has no chemistry with him.

Movies are often defined by their villains and Captain America has a generic villain with a generically pointless plan to blow up the world. The Red Skull is only briefly interesting once he belatedly pulls off his face and not even then. Johnston does a good enough job of grounding Captain America in a nostalgic period haze that the portrayal of a ridiculous Hydra Nazi splinter group just looks silly and spoils the balancing act between the real war and the comic book version.

Until its second half, it still almost seems as if Captain America might recover, but that’s when the script drops Captain America as a character and rushes into a hyperactive storm of attacks and action scenes that kill it as anything but a bunch of video game cutscenes. There’s barely any order to them and no real reason to watch.

Captain America works best when it sticks to the atmosphere of a 1940’s New York (the one that can only be found in England), the World’s Fair, the bond drives and the movie theaters. It’s where Joe Johnston is strongest, joyfully coaxing period life out of the streets and scenery. But it’s weakest once Captain America is running around in costume punching a long line of men in motorcycle helmets.

It’s hard to say who gets the blame for this mess. Bringing in the Narnia writing team was probably a bad idea. This is not a very good script, though it has a few good ideas. But the overall scrambled feeling can probably be blamed on Marvel’s insistence on wrecking Iron Man 2 and Captain America to set up Joss Whedon’s Avengers. But Johnston has to take some of the blame. The second half of the movie is just a mess and Hayley Atwell needed better direction. He wasn’t in a strong enough position to walk away from the franchise, like Jon Favreau did, but it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t have done anything to make it a bit more watchable.

Breaking In What?

Few shows get a second chance at life after being cancelled. Many that do probably shouldn’t. Case in point, Family Guy. But the relaunch or reboot or rewhatever of Breaking In has to be the most baffling butchery of a TV series ever. Or at least in the last few years. Sure what FOX did to Human Target was inexcusable, but at least there was some way to understand it. Take a producer and some people off your other action series, even if that action series is as lame as Chuck, transplant them to a series like Human Target that seems to have potential, and let them work their magic by ruining it, and then going back to Chuck and killing it too. But that still makes sense.

But take Breaking In, a show with lots of young attractive people who break into places in a wacky security company run by Christian Slater. The show had some potential, its humor was edgy, but not really streamlined and the cases weren’t that interesting. It needed some tinkering. FOX canceled it. Business as usual. Then Breaking In comes back after having added Megan Mullally to the cast, but not just to the cast, but as the central character, while playing the most annoying possible character that you can imagine Megan Mullally playing.

To make this move just that much more insanely baffling, the show has been redesigned as an office comedy. That’s right, Breaking In, an action show about wacky young people who break into places, is now a really annoying version of The Office (except The Office, Parks and Recreation and a bunch of other NBC shows are already really annoying versions of The Office). To get how this works, imagine adding Stanley from The Office to the A-Team and rebooting it as an office comedy.

The only way to understand this is like a fox chewing its own leg off to escape a trap and then wondering if life after that is even worth living. Breaking In got to second two through the most ridiculous means possible. Cut the budget, add Megan Mullally, pretend this thing is now an office sitcom. It doesn’t work, it makes no sense, it’s unwatchable, but everyone involved collects a paycheck for a bit longer.

The Breaking In website with a poster that looks like it was salvaged from a 90’s NBC sitcom gives you some idea of what happened. “BREAKING IN is a half-hour workplace comedy that takes office politics to the next level of genius.” Genius might not be the word for it.

Did this horrible and desperate move work? Nope and nope. Breaking In has been canceled again after apparently five episodes. Those episodes had a third of the viewers that the old series did on average. But here’s the thing. Overall Breaking In had pretty good ratings in Season One. Something happened in its season finale, it may have been the rescheduling, but overall it was running decently for a TV series today. The YAM demos for it were not spectacular, but it was beating its competition. Shockingly adding Megan and turning it into an office sitcom broke the YAM ratings completely.

That’s the strange part of this whole thing. Most networks want a show to go younger. Breaking In went older. Sure there was a mandate to win over female viewers. That’s what killed Human Target. But Breaking In could have added more female cast in a less crazy way. Did FOX really think that airing an office comedy was a good idea when going up against The Voice or Dancing with the Stars?

You can blame some boneheaded network moves on known factors. Terminator’s cancellation on FOX’s relationship with Joss Whedon, his fanatical fanbase, Eliza Dushku and her boyfriend who happened to produce half the cartoon crap on the schedule. But understanding what happened to Breaking In is so much more difficult.

Crack’d Pot Trail by Steven Erikson book review

Crack'd Pot Trail Steven EriksonBoiling down Steven Erikson’s megaword Malazan novels to something more novella size might have seemed like a good idea, but it’s an old idea bogged down by one note characters and even older lectures on the meaning of art.

Despite the cover, Crack’d Pot Trail is not a story of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, unless you count a novel where they only appear on the last page as being a story of them. It is a story of several sets of stereotypes journeying together through the wasteland and stabbing each other in the back or eating each other along the way. And I’m making it sound more interesting than it is.

Erikson introduces several poets going off to a contest, depicts them as broad stereotypes, as talentless hypocrites and parasites of various flavors, so we don’t particularly care what happens to them. Then two broad parodies of heroes, self-righteously vicious religious sociopaths. And an assortment of characters who matter less. Along with a narrator who serves as a mouthpiece for Erikson’s views.

The setup is that the group has run out of food for some reason and has begun eating the artists, deciding who to eat through an impromptu contest to decide who will be eaten. It’s a decently ghoulish premise, but Erikson doesn’t bother to credibly set it up, and while the butchery is going on, there’s a wagon driven by mules that nobody really seems to mention as potential dinner.

Erikson doesn’t care much about the credibility of the setup, because it’s only a vehicle for him to make his points about art and they aren’t very good points.

A story in which characters meet and exchange stories has potential, it’s been done many times before, but Erikson doesn’t bother much with the stories part. Brash Phlucker (yes that’s a character’s name and it should give you some idea of the nuance Erikson brings to the table here) delivers comic relief poetry. A second poet goes on about eggs as some sort of metaphor for being out of ideas. A third tells a long and overwritten love story ending in cannibalism. The narrator tells the story of the trip in Erikson’s own horribly overwritten prose.

Erikson gives us every indication of an unreliable narrator, so the twist isn’t much of a surprise. It’s just not a twist that makes much sense, since while the narrator does sic the heroes on the carriage, there was no real probability of it ending in death until some random events took place.

As a novella, Crack’d Pot Trail wouldn’t be quite adequate, as a novel it ranks with publishing your own shopping lists.

The New York Post Wins Again

If there’s any doubt check out the New York Post and the Daily News’ take on Bin Laden’s porn collection discovery.

The Daily News has the better picture and design, blending their headline title text into the picture, and photoshopping a clearer XXX into Bin Laden’s TV. Good so far. But the New York Post as usual comes up with the much better headline. Really Daily News, Osama Porn Laden. Did you guys actually think that sounded good?

It’s not just that the New York Post wins, it’s that the Post is the real New York tabloid and the Daily News is the wannabe. The News is Springsteen style working class slumming. It’s okay but no one’s really buying it. I mean the act, not the paper. Breslin’s zombie work grinds on. And every time they try for the edgy tabloid headline, they get their asses kicked by the Post.

The New York Post is the real deal, loud, shameless, sleazy, exploitative, vulgar, racist, violent, populist and grindhouse. From its red cover to the angry columns, it’s the old New York City boiling underneath its skin, cursing under its breath and taking off its clothes and shouting threats at people on the subway. The Daily News is a tabloid as designed by people who don’t really get tabloid. Who want to be the New York Times but don’t have the resources or the design to make it happen. The New York Post is New York City, for better or mostly worse.

The Daily News is the new Times Square. The New York Post is the old dark neon lit erotic nightmare of muggers and pimps. Is it any wonder the Post wins again?

The Last Colony by John Scalzi book review

The Last Colony by John Scalzi Like other Scalzi novels, The Last Colony is an idea for a book in search of a book. Scalzi comes up with acceptable worlds and plots, but lacks the ability to tell a story, to fill it with realized characters or make you care about anything on the page. Oddly his only living characters are aliens and they don’t show up nearly enough of the time.

The Last Colony is decent enough as a concept, the uber manipulative human Colonization Authority has decided to defy an alien federation that is taking control of galactic colonization with a hidden colony that will operate at a back to nature level to avoid showing up on their radar. That’s fine as far as it goes, but once the actual process of running the colony is exhausted, Scalzi has no characters to bring to the table, except the alien general whose vision is behind the Conclave.

The dialogue is bad, the characters are robotic and the only good thing about The Last Colony is that it’s short. Too short to really be able to complain about anything. There really isn’t anything new here, but when the shelves are full of non-books, The Last Colony actually looks decent enough because it passes for classical Science Fiction.

Bioware and Game Design Hubris

“Fundamentally, we don’t consider the player’s experience to be more important than the ideas we’ve had or the expectations” for the genre.”

A one sentence explanation for everything that Bioware got wrong with Dragon Age 2… and it comes from Obsidian, a company, which for all its faults actually gets what games are supposed to be.

There are good designers out there, but few of them understand the dangers of hubris. Every creative person confronts the gap between what he creates and how other people experience it. But many never adapt to it. Writers who refuse to read reviews and listen only to positive feedback. The producers of Battlestar Galactica and Lost who got so carried away by the toys they were playing with that they forgot to tell the story and give viewers what they wanted.

Bioware fell prey to it in Dragon Age 2, besides the consolization, it got too caught up in its own cleverness to realize that its story was muddled and unrewarding. It substituted its own ideas for player choice and it lost. And the players lost out.

Imager’s Intrigue by L.E. Modesitt book review

Imager’s Intrigue by L.E. ModesittAs a writer Modesitt is an impressive human factory rattling off one book after another. The whole Imager series was a fairly obvious attempt to diversity his offerings after the Recluse series, but despite its early variations in the art scene and the fantasy French setting, by Imager’s Intrigue the books have hopelessly converged back to their Recluse origins with the same trajectory.

Sure all the books are basically the same. The brash youthful main character learns the study of magic, copes with a distant and uncommunicative mentor, finds a girl and marries her, and then gets down to working at some sort of job or running a business while developing skills that the other characters find ridiculously superhuman. But some still manage to be entertaining, which is more than you can say for Imager’s Intrigue which finds the main character, name long forgotten, working at his police job, married and with a kid or two, until the villains of one of the previous novels, evil capitalists, shell the Imager academy forcing him to root them out.

This sounds exciting, but really isn’t. The first third of Imager’s Intrigue reads like a log with the character getting up, going off to work and doing nothing much there. Then coming home and eating dinner with his family. The book picks up a bit after that, but not by very much. The villains are still the same old capitalists who want to overthrow a monarchy and this time there aren’t any wild cards.

By the end the main character commits genocide against them, wiping out millions of people, without even yawning. The author doesn’t find this too awful either. And even that moment happens off-screen while the main character is doing such exciting things as eating breakfast and checking in with the local police. The banality of evil would apply here, because it’s banal and evil. But mostly banal.

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