Much Ado About Nothing (Film Review)

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There are few minds out there like Joss Whedon’s. I mean really, when you’re filming a movie like The Avengers, a movie that winds up becoming one of the highest-grossing in history and sets all sorts of box office records, and after you complete principal photography on it, you go on a contractually allowed vacation, you decide to make a Shakespeare movie, in your house, with a bunch of actors you know and love, in black and white, in 12 days?

Seriously, who does that?

Regardless of the craziness of the endeavor, Whedon proves himself to be better than anyone else I’ve seen at adapting Shakespeare’s immortal words to a modern-day setting. He doesn’t go for elaborate visuals like Baz Luhrmann and he doesn’t try to transpose in modern concepts where they don’t belong…also like Baz Luhrmann.

Indeed, apart from the modern California setting and one major change in the opening that fundamentally colors how you view the main characters, Whedon plays it entirely straight, relying on his actors and their gifts to get the point across.

So our story then: after fighting in an unspecified war, Benedick (Alexis Denihof), his friend Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and their “prince,” Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), along with the prince’s no-good brother Don John (Sean Maher) and his companions Conrade (Riki Lindhorne) and Benicio (Spencer Treat Clark) head to the house of Leonato (Clark Gregg), governor of Messina, where the overjoyed governor declares they will stay for a month.

The men arrive and Claudio is instantly smitten with Leonato’s virginal daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) who the prince proposes to woo for him. Benedick meanwhile clashes wits with Beatrice (Amy Acker), Leonato’s niece who’s just as cynical as he is. Seeing this, the prince, Hero, Leonato and Claudio conspire to make the two of them fall in life. But what does the scheming Don John up to?

Seeing this movie was an experience in and of itself. I had to travel with my friend and sister to a theater in downtown Chicago to see this movie–a limited release–where we met up with another friend I hadn’t seen in almost 2 years. The trailers attached were either foreign or art-house movies, so it was totally new. The theater was on the fourth floor of a mall and I had to climb a broken escalator to get to it. So yeah, an experience never to forget.

That aside, the film itself is highly, highly enjoyable, no question. Anyone who knows about Whedon’s oeuvre knows he likes to work with the same actors and the easy feel between cast and director is noted and very lively. More than that, this film is also hysterical; particularly with Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry–the head constable of Messina–the film gets a lot of laughs and it’s the physical comedy that delights as well as the words. Denihof has two great sequences in a row that back me up here.

The cast really gets into this material, giving it everything they’ve got. Denihof and Acker are brilliant, combining caustic wit with hidden depth, Kranz is fantastic being lovelorn and brooding, and fans of Gregg’s work on The New Adventures of Old Christine will be delighted to see him at his daffiest.

Whedon seems to be digging at, through this setting and this play, just what the notion of love, sex and happiness might all mean. It’s an interesting little meditation and I’d recommend it without a second thought, especially if you were confused by Shakespeare in high school.

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Supernatural: Rising Son (Review)

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My review of the first season of the long-running CW drama Supernatural wound up being one of my longest entries on this blog. I reflected when I linked to it on Facebook that I must like this show more than I thought. Well, I’m almost halfway into the second season and I can tell you, that’s still true! So true, in fact, that I checked out an old tie-in prequel miniseries from Wildstorm a few days ago and read it in one night.

For the unfamiliar, WildStorm was a comic book company founded independently by superstar artist Jim Lee after his exodus from Marvel in the ’90s with the rest of the Image Comics founders. One of the core studios that initially made up Image’s group of creator-owned publishers, it looked set to die after the comics bubble of the ’90s burst, but it was saved by merging with DC in 1998.

The merger allowed WildStorm to survive and paved the way for Jim Lee to make himself a DC success story (he’s currently co-publisher and artist on Justice League), while also providing the way for bona fide comics geniuses like Alan Moore and Warren Ellis to make books like Promethea and The Authority, which resulted in dedicated followings and critical acclaim.

However, with DC itself publishing the superhero stuff and the Vertigo imprint publishing all the edgy horror stuff like Hellblazer and The Sandman, someone had to become the publisher of the waning-but-still-lucrative field of licensed tie-in comics. That fell to WildStorm which, until its closure in 2010, mostly cranked out stuff that tied in to things like Gears of War and World of Warcraft (which actually had two comics, one for the Horde, one for the Alliance). So when it came time to tie in to Supernatural, well, why go anywhere but in-house? (Like the rest of DC, WildStorm was owned by Warner Bros., which produces Supernatural.)

Produced in 2008-2009, during the last Writer’s Guild of America Strike, the miniseries is, as I said, a prequel. It follows a younger John Winchester (played in the show by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in 1990 when Sam is 7 and Dean 11. The boys are old enough to join John on his trips hunting demons. After one such hunt leads to John getting fired from his day job, the family heads to Elgin to track down the cousin of Mary, John’s late wife. They find him, but he’s under some heavy stress, warning them to leave immediately. The town, it turns out, is full of succubi. John manages to kill them all, but just barely, seeing as they all transform into visions of Mary.

Ditching Elgin, they head down to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where John enrolls the boys in school, and Sam becomes a star pupil for his teacher, Ms. Lyle. But why does she have such an interest in Sam? And what’s with the mysterious black car that keeps following the Winchesters…?

Scripting duties for this book fall to Peter Johnson, an executive producer on the show and Rebecca Dessertine, a staff writer (though I’m unclear as to whether they’re still around). They manage to capture John’s voice nicely and create versions of Sam and Dean that are just plausible enough to make one believe that these kids do grow up into the guys we see on TV.

The cover art is done by Dustin Nguyen–like the one above–and his work is, as always, amazing. The interior art is done by Diego Olmos; while I don’t think I’ve read anything else he’s illustrated, he acquits himself admirably here, rendering both character scenes and crazy monster showdowns with equal skill and energy. Unfortunately, it seems like the team wasn’t cleared to use Morgan’s official likeness for John, but Olmos’ design more than makes up for it.

Overall, this is a solid story in its own right and a great exploration of the life of the Winchesters before the series. If you check out the trade, there’s also a bonus story co-written by series creator Eric Kripke featuring the Ghostfacers (the jokey ‘Ghost Hunters” wannabes of the show) that’s pretty hilarious. Recommended.

Star Trek Saturdays #24

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #24!!!!

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This week’s episode is “Space Seed” and despite some iffy gender politics, it’s still thrilling and introduces one of the all-time great Trek villains.

We open with the Enterprise picking up a strange signal from a ship floating in space, which Spock cannot identify, other than noting that it seems to be a ship from the 1990s, during Earth’s Eugenics Wars. However, faint heart beats are detected onboard without any signs of respiration. Because of this, Kirk beams over with McCoy, Scotty and Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), ship’s historian specializing in late 20th-century history, to investigate.

Once onboard, the landing party confirms that the ship–named the S.S. Botany Bay and filled with people in cryogenic slumber–is indeed of Earth origin. Because the historical records of the Eugenic Wars are few and far between, McGivers reckons that the ship is full of refugees who fled Earth.

McGivers also tells them that this is a sleeper ship, designed for long periods of interplanetary travel before the discovery of warp drive. One of the life support units begins waking the man inside it up. Concluding that he must be the leader, Kirk breaks him out of the unit. The man (Ricardo Montalban) asks how long he’s been asleep; Kirk can only estimate two centuries.

Kirk orders McCoy and the man beamed back to sickbay. Back onboard the Enterprise, Scotty informs the others that twelve of the life support units have failed, leaving 72 alive. Spock can find no record of the vessel in the ship’s library, but Kirk suspects that, with Botany Bay being the name of a historic Australian penal colony, that the ship might have been used to transport criminals. Spock rebuffs this and also notes the incredibly low probability that this ship could have survived so long and managed to leave Earth’s solar system. Kirk orders the ship put under tow and sets course for Starbase 12.

In sickbay, the man wakes up, steals a scalpel and grabs McCoy by the neck. “Where am I?” he asks.

“You’re in bed, holding a knife at your doctor’s throat,” McCoy replies coolly.

The man makes McCoy summon Kirk to sickbay; Kirk asks his name but the man ignores him, asking where they’re headed. Kirk tells him and the man identifies himself. His name, he says, is simply…

Khan.

I don’t think I need to give anymore explanation, but yeah, Khan is one seriously bad dude. He’s best known, of course, for pursuing Kirk with fanatical vengeance in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, but this episode is where it all began.

Of course, when playing such a menacing character, an actor needs to be, well, menacing and Montalban does just that, owning absolutely every scene he’s in with a mixture of an imposing frame, a warrior’s mindset and a quiet but threatening voice. This guest spot was some years before Montalban really endeared himself to American audiences with the show Fantasy Island, but with plum guest roles like this, he could have built up a great reputation just on that.

Our other big guest star of the episode, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as memorable. Rhue doesn’t have anything to do really as McGivers other than wax about how much nobler strong men like Khan are and ultimately, she winds up completely passive. It’s a shame, really; I would have liked more into her mindset.

The regular cast are all superb. As that above exchange notes, McCoy gets some excellent lines in this episode, and the standoff between him and Khan explains how DeForest Kelley wound up on so many Westerns during his career. Spock isn’t as wry or funny here as he has been, but he’s still central to the goings-on, expressing a bemusement that the crew could express admiration for such a brutal tyrant.  Kirk gets a great fight scene, some nice meditations on the nature of tyrants and shows off why he’s captain.

The script, by Carey Wilber and Gene L. Coon, sets up an interesting conflict–how does one fight against someone who is superior to them in every way?–and follows through with it wonderfully. In the setup of the Eugenics Wars, it gives not only a glimpse into the darkness the Trek universe had to go through to reach utopia, but also offers up a setting fertile for examination; Greg Cox did just that with the trilogy of The Eugenics Wars novels.

Marc Daniels returns as director again and he is magnificent. His camera underscores the brutality of Khan’s actions, the romanticism he represents to McGivers and the threat he poses to the Enterprise.

If there’s one glaring flaw here, it’s that women are treated weirdly badly in this episode. Besides the aforementioned problems of McGivers, Uhura actually gets slapped in the face at one point. Troubling stuff, but ultimately, it’s a small blemish on an otherwise perfect hour of television. Recommended.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

 

At Future’s End

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So Wednesday night saw the season premiere of Futurama and, apparently, the start of its last season.

I’m rather upset at this because this isn’t just the end of one of the great sci-fi comedies of the past decade, but also one of my favorite shows of all time and one that’s meant so much to me over the years.

I suppose I should give a recap of the show’s air history for the unfamiliar: premiering on Fox in 1999 with the highest ratings in the network’s history at that point, the show ran in primetime over creator Matt Groening’s objections and was preempted for football so much, the four production seasons turned into five on-air seasons. Due to low ratings–I wonder why they got those?–Fox stopped buying the show in 2003.

But, like Family Guy before it, it was a combination of DVD sales and reruns on Adult Swim that ultimately saved the show; after the syndication deal with Adult Swim expired in 2005, Comedy Central picked up the rights and announced the production of four direct-to-video films, which were broken up into half-hour chunks and aired on TV (as season 5 production-wise). In 2009, newly produced episodes began airing on Comedy Central, with a 26-episode season broken up and aired in two blocks of 13 over the last couple of years. (This makes the episodes airing right now the back half of Season 7.) It was announced in April that the show would be cancelled, as its ratings have steadily declined from year-to-year since being brought back.

This is important to me for a couple of reasons really: 1. It seems like this show, more than The Simpsons, was Groening (and co-developer David X. Cohen’s) passion project; in an interview on the first season boxset, Groening enthuses how in Catholic school, he got in trouble for drawing rocket ships in class and now here he was making a TV show with them. So yeah, that thrill is gone.

And 2? Well, 2 is that this is not only one of my favorite shows, but something that’s enriched my growth as a consumer of entertainment and as a writer. But the main reason is well, this show was there for me.

I didn’t have too many friends for most of my life, so I found solace in TV. I had some vague memories of watching this show in middle school on Fox and, a year or two later, when I discovered Adult Swim and found out it reran Futurama not just a night, but EVERY NIGHT, I was hooked; I watched it over and over again. And it’s a point of pride for me that I own the original four seasons in their original boxsets–not the slim cases but the HUGE boxsets they used to make for shows on DVD back in the day, when every disc had its own case and they all fit into a slipbox–and I rewatch them frequently. Heck, I’ve probably seen every episode of the first three seasons at least four times each.

As a consumer, as someone who turned to television to reflect the world, I learned so much about satire and about good comedy and what that can mean. And as a writer? Well, it’s a bit of a bold claim to say that, I suppose, but I feel this show did teach me something about how to develop well-rounded characters and a good fictional universe that can also be ludicrous and funny.

So yeah, I’m gonna watch every one of this last run of episodes. And when it comes to Netflix, I’ll watch it again. Heck, I’ll probably buy the DVDs of all these Comedy Central seasons at some point, along with the movies (even if I only really like two of them). The point is, this is one of the best comedies and best animated shows in the history of television; even when it’s not great, it’s still been much better than most shows out there, even its predecessor in The Simpsons.

If you’ve never seen this show before, it’s on Netflix like I said and it’s also out in syndication now so check around for reruns. You won’t be upset.

And remember…”You still have Zoidberg. You ALL still have Zoidberg!!!”

Garden State (Film Review)

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I have a nostalgic fondness for Scrubs, the long-running dramedy show where Zach Braff became a household name. The summer before my freshman year of high school, the first five seasons of Scrubs went into regular rotation on Comedy Central and I fell absolutely in love. The show’s surreal aesthetic, quirky humor mixed with compelling drama, and uniformly excellent cast–led by Braff–hooked me and although I haven’t seen an episode in a long time, I watch it if I ever see it.

Last night, after being repeatedly told to see it, I sat down with a friend and watched Garden State, Braff’s much-lauded labor of love. Released in 2004, Braff wrote the film, directed it, personally supervised the soundtrack (for which he won a Grammy Award) and starred in it. His dedication paid off because I enjoyed the film enormously, both for its departure from indie-movie cliche and for Braff’s unique stylistic choices.

The plot stars Braff as struggling actor Andrew Largman, 27 years old, heavily medicated for his entire adult life and completely emotionally closed off
from the world. He flies from L.A to his home state of New Jersey to attend his estranged mother’s funeral and, while awkwardly interacting with his psychiatrist dad (Ian Holm) and reconnecting with long-ago friends like pot-smoking gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarrsgard), he winds up befriending eccentric Sam (Natalie Portman) in a doctors office and the events of the ensuing week will change his life.

This movie has a cult following and its not hard to see why. Braff has a unique design sense in this film, using set design and color to tell us the mindset of a character. He also uses costuming to the same ends and his camera observes but doesn’t announce, letting the audience decide the import of what they’re seeing.

Script-wise, Braff uses dialogue to great effect and structures the conversations very naturally and low-key, even the more comical bits. We’re never told exactly what anyone’s thinking, for the most part, but we infer it through what they say.

But the biggest strength Braff brings behind the camera is, without a doubt, the music. And that’s no surprise, is it? I mean, part of what made Scrubs so great was its well-placed and well-timed soundtrack; Braff was responsible for that, at least partially (it was he who suggested the song that wound up becoming the theme). According to the film’s Wikipedia entry, Braff personally picked each and every song, choosing songs that expressed his mindset at the time he was writing the screenplay. The result is a fantastic collection of music that helps us perfectly understand these characters and the moments they experience; in short, it’s every bit of what popular music in films should be: helping us underscore what we’re seeing, not just shoved in due to promotion. My favorites of the soundtrack (which, for the record, is available on iTunes, Spotify, what have you)? Toss-up between Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which figures heavily in the film’s climax and The Shin’s “New Slang,” which figures into Sam and Andrew’s first meeting (incidentally, this movie helped The Shins break out in popularity).

Finally, there’s the acting. Braff makes some very interesting choices as Andrew, and it’s interesting to see him be so closed-off after watching him be all over the place and wacky on Scrubs. Holm is a quiet presence as Andrew’s dad, who acts one way but really feels another. Saarsgard takes Mark from a lazy stoner to something different altogether by the end. And he gets a chance to bounce off of Jim “Sheldon Cooper” Parsons in a really funny scene that proves that Parsons can actually act when not being an utter jerk on The Big Bang Theory.

But the real stand-out is Portman. Now I know the case can be made that she buys into the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and while I understand it, I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Yeah, Sam is quirky and tries to make Andrew less of a sad-sack, but A. We find out there’s real, deep pain underneath all that and B. If you met a guy as numbed as Andrew, wouldn’t you want to cheer him up a little?

Bottom line: this movie is great and well worth your time. It may feel like you’ve seen bits of this before, but I guarantee you’ve never seen them done in such a unique, almost subversive and ambiguous way. Recommended.

Star Trek Saturdays #23

It’s time for…Star Trek Saturdays #23!

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This week’s episode is “A Taste of Armageddon” and it’s pretty darn great, with heavy ideas presented in an entertaining matter.

We open with the Enterprise en route with Ambassador Robert Fox (Gene Lyons) to star cluster NGC 321 to open diplomatic relations with the inhabitants. They receive a message from Eminiar VII, the main planet they intend to contact, labeled 7-10, or “stay away at all costs.” Kirk wishes to honor the request, but Fox, who technically outranks him, orders him to proceed because they’ve waited too long to make contact with this planet.

After arriving at Eminiar VII, Kirk, Spock, a yeoman and two redshirts beam down. Conveniently, they’re right at the heart of the planet, at the Division of Control, where the government resides. They’re met by Mea 3 (Barbara Babcock) who tells them that they’re in grave danger. She takes them to the High Council of Eminiar VII to make their case, but the planet’s leader, Anan 7 (David Opatoshu), rejects their offer because they are at war, he says, with the neighboring planet Vindikar, for nearly 500 years. Suddenly, their meeting is interrupted by reports of an attack by enemy forces.

 

(Left: Babcock Right: Opatoshu)

We see that the main city everyone’s in is reported destroyed by enemy fire, but the crew’s tricorders detect no radiation, and the Enterprise doesn’t see evidence of anything happening from orbit. It is Spock who discerns the truth: the “war” is fought entirely with computers. But if that’s true, then why are there reported and confirmed deaths on both sides…?

This episode, such as it is, is obviously meant to instill some fears about technology, which a lot of sci-fi has done. The whole setup of Eminiar VII, actually, sort of put me in mind of things like Metropolis or Logan’s Run (Neither of which I’ve seen yet, but am familiar with, just FYI).

Another surprising thing here is that this episode actually spends a lot of time on Scotty. After being in the background for the most part, he actually gets a chance to shine confronting the hostile ambassador when he’s put in charge of the ship with Kirk and Spock being on Eminiar. It’s a nice thing to happen and James Doohan rises to the challenge, bringing to bear some of the swagger and heft he no doubt exhibited throughout his astonishing military career.

Speaking of acting, every guest star in this episode is pretty awesome: Babcock is chillingly cold as Mea and Lyons is a real jerk, albeit a slightly sympathetic one, as Fox. But the MVP here is Opatoshu, who gives a perfect glimpse at what it’s like to be a leader who does the horribly wrong thing for, to him,  justified reasons.

Regular cast wise, this is very much a Kirk-centric episode. Shatner gets a lot to do here action-wise and he does it well, while Nimoy just sort of rolls with it. Mind you, that’s never a bad thing.

Writing-wise, as I’ve hinted, this is pretty solid, grappling with big ideas–VERY big ideas–in a way that’s entertaining, not didactic. Robert Hamner–the creator of the ’60s television series S.W.A.T. among other things–is credited with the story, co-writing the screenplay with Gene Coon, and he gives us a script that suggests more than one close reading of 1984. It’s still a cracking hour of action, but some of the subtext here will make you think for sure.

Directing once again is Joseph Pevney and, as “Archons” and “Arena” have proved, he’s a good fit for Star Trek, giving lean, punchy direction that allows even the weightier aspects of the story to come down easy. I can’t wait to see what other gems he’s got coming down the pipeline.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

Geronimo

So apparently the Internet had already been speculating about this for a while, but the news officially broke this past Saturday that Matt Smith, the current star of Doctor Who and the youngest actor to portray the British television icon, is stepping down after the upcoming 50th Anniversary special and Christmas special.

It’s a bit sad, but inevitable. Like David Tennant before him, Smith had just wrapped up his third season in the role and since actors who break out on TV shows nowadays seem to have more opportunities ahead of them, the writing could have been on the wall. But I’m still a little disappointed.

See, I got into Who when a friend showed me the episode “Blink,” from the third season of the revived show (as opposed to the long-running half-hour series that made the Doctor an icon), which was written by current showrunner Steven Moffat. It’s a tightly constructed horror piece that barely features the Doctor at all, but it was so well done, I was drawn into the show. Concurrently, I got into it just as Tennant’s last full season was ending and before the series of specials that officially marked his exit, but I still got caught up because my local PBS affiliate began rerunning the revived series from the beginning around the same time.

To sum it up, Matt Smith is basically the only Doctor whose entire run I’ll have seen from beginning to end. I remember being ridiculously excited when he first showed up, and in my opinion, he’s just gotten better and better each episode.

While there are bits I haven’t liked about Smith’s run–Moffat’s insistence on a huge overarching conspiracy every season as well as shoving Alex Kingston’s mysterious character River Song down our throats to the point of irritation, the fact that a major mystery at the end of Smith’s first season still hasn’t been resolved and the multiple times we’ve been told the Doctor is awesome instead of seeing him being awesome–overall, it’s been a fun ride and one I’ve been happy to take.

Smith, for his part, seems to be doing all right; he’s set to star in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, How To Catch A Monster with Christina Hendricks and Eva Mendes, and there’s quite a bit of rumor floating around the Interwebs about him being the voice of Rocket Raccoon in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. For now, though, I’ll just await his two final outings as the Doctor and wish him well with whatever comes next.

Thanks, Mr. Smith, for all the fun times. And for proving, once and for all, that bow ties are cool.