Saturday, April 11, 2009

Top 5 Reasons Dollhouse Deserves to Survive

(Yes, I'm back again, let's all be shocked and make jokes and blah blah blah.)

The year was 2002, and Joss Whedon's latest television opus, Firefly, was not-so-shockingly given the axe after receiving dismal ratings despite favorable reviews and loyal fan support. Whedon swore he'd never work for the FOX network again, returned to work on his more successful shows and eventually rebuilt his empire around the Buffyverse, feature film Serenity and surprise online smash hit Dr. Horrible. Suddenly, last year the news came down that a new Whedon series was in the works, on FOX no less. Still, Joss fans like myself allowed themselves to get excited again, assured that there was no way FOX would risk incurring the wrath of Joss fans again by canceling another of his shows prematurely.

But here we are, and Dollhouse stands on the edge of an abyss. Poor ratings and tepid reviews are threatening to sink yet another of Whedon's young works. And why not? It's failing to make money or establish even the loyal fanbase that Firefly gained in so little time? I'll tell you why not. I'll give you five reasons...

5. Wrath of the Browncoats - History has proven that it's really a bad idea to piss off the ComicCon crowd. Cancellation of Dollhouse could mean a substantial drop in nerd support for FOX, which bodes poorly for this summer's Wolverine movie. The latest X-Men film has already suffered a major hit after it was leaked onto the internet. Can they afford to piss off Joss loyalists who can now just as easily steal the movie out of spite than pay to see it?

4. Joss is calling it quits after Dollhouse ends. That's right, Joss has announced that after (whenever) his latest show ends, he'll be devoting himself exclusively to online projects. Sure, his first web movie was wicked awesome, but there's only so much he can do with just his own money. I for one am not ready to say goodbye to Mutant Enemy on weekly television. So please, FOX, have some pity - we'd just miss him too damn much!

3. The viewership isn't really that bad. Think about it: the sixth episode of the series, "Man on the Street" (which is so far the undisputed best chapter) was up against the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, a cable series that is considered to be a huge financial success. The BSG finale was watched by 2.4 million people. "Man on the Street," which found itself in DIRECT competition with the sci-fi television event of the year (if not the decade), earned 4.1 million viewers. Honestly, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. If the suits at FOX are really unhappy with this turnout, why not try the show at a better time slot next season?

2. Honestly, you guys, what else are you gonna play? Nanny 911?

1. Storytelling Potential - Dollhouse has an extremely exciting premise that allows for every episode to be new and exciting, totally different from all the others. Joss Whedon has created a show that has an extremely broad framework - it can be whatever kind of show it wants to be from week to week. Let the cast and crew show you what this show is capable of!

Odds are Dollhouse will be cleaning out its proverbial desk by the end of April. It very well could be goodbye to the show (and to Joss) on television forever. But, as a note, if FOX doesn't pick up the series for a second season, the SciFi channel is stupid if they don't make an offer. Seriously.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Top 5 Musical Themes from Battlestar Galactica

In my lifetime, there has never been a television show so enthralling, so consistently mind-blowing as Ronald D. Moore's Re-Imagined Battlestar Galactica. I'm ashamed to say that I almost missed the boat on the already-legendary sci-fi series; I missed the 2003 miniseries and was initially turned off by the Season 1 premiere in 2005, having no idea what the frak was going on. But with patience and a little help from my friends, I caught up with the story and the characters and found them to be like nothing else I'd ever seen before. For four years now, I've been watching this show religiously. It has consumed by Friday nights since high school, opening up new friendships and creating new traditions. Though a lifelong Trekkie and a firm believer in the philosophy that fuels Star Trek, I can say without any doubt that no series has reached into my soul like Battlestar Galactica.

With the series finale only days away, I've decided to dedicate a short series of Top 5s in tribute to its majesty. Not wanting to jump the gun and name my favorite episodes, moments or characters, knowing that a great many things may change on Friday, I've decided to begin here, with the music of Bear McCreary. The music of Battlestar Galactica is totally unique, blending a dozen different styles together, from Celtic to Eastern to Rock, into a distinctive and fascinating sound. Much in the way that John Williams's score to Star Wars defined, matched and amplified that series, McCreary's score to Battlestar is a perfect fit, and I for one can't imagine the show without it.

Through the magic of YouTube, I can offer you clips of my personal favorite musical moments from the groundbreaking score. Here's my Top 5, complete with commentary. (For best results, hit play on the video and read the commentary as the music plays

5. "Roslin and Adama"

Every time I watch the show from the beginning (which I do often) I try to spot the exact moment when then-Commander William Adama realizes he's in love with President Laura Roslin. I haven't been able to find it. perhaps there is no such moment, but I can tell you the moment I first fell in love with them as a couple: the first time I heard this theme. Like the characters, this theme carries a haunting weight, with the strings played in such a way that the instruments sound old, past their prime, but still capable of conveying remarkable emotion.

4. "Colonial Anthem" (Stu Phillips, arr. Bear McCreary)

The theme to the original Battlestar Galactica is considered a classic, and I won't disagree, but like the rest of the show, it feels just a little bit too much like Star Wars to me. For the episode "Final Cut," Bear McCreary was to re-arrange the original show's theme to play behind a documentary-within-a-show, to serve as a sort of national anthem for the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. This is the only time in the show you'll hear the stereotypical sci-fi brass section on this show, or any horns at all, and this makes this piece a loving throwback, but also a testament to what makes this show different and special. Listen to the more meditative, somber coda at the end of the track, more indicative of the new show's sound and flavor. Hearing these two drastically different motifs juxtaposed against each other is a real treat, both aesthetically and symbolically.

3. "The Shape of Things to Come"

Played for the first (and only) time in the closing minutes of the first season, this was the first "oh, wow" moment in the series for me, in terms of score. Like many of the other themes in BSG, the first word that comes to mind is "haunting" and the second is "beautiful." McCreary doesn't often delve into traditional orchestral arrangements, and this is the first time in the series we hear him do this. Set against a semi-hallucinatory symbolic look at the future, this piece of music embodies the dichotomy of the show: it is mysterious, and yet lets us, the viewers, in so close to its world and its characters that we feel intimately familiar with it.

2. "All Along the Watchtower" (Bob Dylan, arr. Bear McCreary)

The exact arrangement and intro used in the show isn't yet available on CD (though it's coming) but this is close enough, I suppose. Bear McCreary reinvented the classic Bob Dylan tune from the ground up to serve as an intense but eerie portent of doom for our rag-tag fleet. On vocals here is Bear's brother, who goes only by "B3" (what is it, 1997?) and I have to say that his rock voice works here perfectly. The guitar solo, the intense bass and electric guitars, a vocal part in English, these are all extreme rarities on the show, making it clear to we viewers that this song was important - it meant something. References to the song continue to spring up every three or four episodes, making this a frequent recurring musical theme in the show. Personally, I'd have loved to hear it as the opening credits theme to Season 4.

1. "Admiral and Commander" ("Wander My Friends"/"A Good Lighter""Reuniting the Fleet")

Sometimes I think I want this song played at my wedding, other times I want it played at my funeral. I think it works for both. This theme, which has come to be associated with the father-son relationship between Bill and Lee Adama, first appeared in the Season 1 episode "Hand of God" and has recurred ever since. I have not been able to escape it - it has been consistently stuck in my head for four years. I whistle a lot, when I walk between buildings on campus, when I'm bored in my room, and this tune probably crosses my lips three or four times a week. This particular arrangement comes from one of my all-time favorite episodes, "Exodus," in a scene where father and son part ways, never expecting to see each other again. It's a beautiful moment on screen, and in music.
"Admiral and Commander" is everything Battlestar Galactica is: it's remarkably beautiful, it's intense, and it's completely unforgettable.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Top 5 Convention-worthy Franchises

Dylan's Note: Why should I have all the fun? This weekend, my dear sister Jenny called me with an idea (and the first few paragraphs) of a Top 5 list of her very own and asked if I was interested in publishing it. Jenny, who has some actual publishing cred, is a comparatively level-headed pop culture addict, as opposed to myself and my rabies, and brings a refreshing, less-hopeless new voice to the table. I look forward to seeing more work from her in the future, however rare it may be, as she has a fuh-real actual job. Please enjoy this first of (I hope) many lists contributed by Ms. Jennifer Leigh Roth, Esq. (Or what ever the female equivalent of Esq. would be.) Ta!

Today I was thinking (perhaps spurred by conversations with my brother and this very blog) about how the conception of geek-dom has changed over the past decade. Not only have niches like science fiction and comic books become more mainstream, but with the spread of cyberculture and the invention of blogs, everyone is now encouraged to research, obsess over, and form relationships based on their love of – well, whatever it is they love. Whether it’s economics or knitting, thanks to the internet, you can find someone as freakishly obsessed with something as you are.

So, then, I thought, if geekdom has expanded, why not convention culture? If you’re into sci-fi or animation, then you’ve already got a well-formed network of conventions, either dedicated to one subject (Star Trek, anime) or featured at comic conventions, which have grown about 1000%, both in scope and audience size, over the past 10 years. The sheer number of franchises that could support a Trek-like convention culture is amazing. Here are (in my opinion) the top 5 best candidates for conventions. I tried to get some diversity on the list, choosing various genres and types of franchises.

5. The Disney Channel. Alright, you’ll probably all hate me for suggesting that the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and their ilk hit the road and come to a town near you… but they’re already doing so, filling concert halls left and right. Why shouldn’t the Mouse capitalize on these household names even further? Rather than just a concert, why not have hotels host signings, merch tables, panels, and small-scale performances of their up-and-coming artists in conjuction with full-blown concerts? My only hesitation in putting this on the list is that, if it’s a real way to make money, why hasn’t the conglomerate already done this?

4. The Godfather. How many people in the world list The Godfather as their favorite movie of all time? More than for any other movie that I can think of. So why not tap into this market? Unlike newer franchises like Harry Potter, many of the people who worked on Coppola’s masterpiece are now out of work and available to work the convention circuit. But that window is closing—Paramount better get on this before too many more cast members pass away.

3. The Simpsons. You may be saying that this show, once the unchallenged leader of television comedy, is past its prime—and I’d agree with you. But clearly, The Simpsons, just renewed through its 22nd season, is a pop culture phenomenon that’s not going anywhere. Maybe people aren’t as fiendishly obsessed with watching the series anymore, but its characters and catch phrases have permeated our culture to such a degree that you or someone you know has probably made a Simpsons reference in the past week. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen an episode of the show in the past year. If you had the opportunity to dress up as Professor Frink, share inside jokes over a case of Duff Beer, and stage your own production of “A Streetcar Named Marge,” you’d be there.

2. Harry Potter. A convention culture has already developed for Potterheads—but no actual conventions. Hundreds of people have gathered at Wizard Rock concerts, put together by a bunch of fan bands, to commune with other Muggles. Similar events have been organized at bookstores worldwide. But none, with the exception of a few readings by Ms. Rowling (mostly to young children) have been officially sanctioned by the franchise Powers That Be. Get together a bunch of people involved with the books and movies—even just bit players like Sean Biggerstaff (Oliver Wood in the movies) or Arthur Levine (who, as an editor for Scholastic, brought the books to the U.S.) and BAM, you’ve got an incredibly profitable convention!

1. Joss Whedon’s creations. The power of his fans has already been demonstrated threefold: his show Firefly, after airing only 11 episodes, became such a cult favorite that it launched a movie—and it even made money! Then, during the writer’s strike, Whedon and Neil Patrick Harris captured the hungry eyes of the American public with a little online production called “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” Once again, what started off as something small became a huge, money-making franchise. Who knows if it ever will continue, but there’s certainly plenty of potential. And his new series, Dollhouse, is guaranteed to be on the air for at least a few seasons simply because Fox fears the wrath of Whedon’s blogger army, who started ardently defending the show before they saw a single scene. With those three projects under his belt, plus the inarguably successful series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Whedon has more than enough material and fans to bust out of his tent at Comic Con and into his very own convention tour.

Be gentle with the comments--I'm new at this whole nerd thing! Er, at least the nerd blogger thing.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Top 5 Things that Didn't Work in Watchmen

Part Two of a Two-Part Review

Watchmen satisfies on many levels. Considering the difficult source material and unreal public and industry pressure, it's amazing the film turned out as well as it did. But Zack Snyder's loyal translation is far from flawless. Some mistakes are worse than others - here's my list.

5. Silk Spectre II - I won't entirely condemn Malin Akerman's portrayal of Laurie Juspeczyk (called Jupiter in the film). Yes, she seemed to understate the character to an extent, and maybe the relatively-inexperienced actress wasn't quite up for the part, but I feel that the character was botched long before she got her hands on it. In the book, Laurie is far more obviously damaged. She is petty towards her mother, taking all opportunities to talk down to her. She's got a fuse as short as they come, and she is bitter over having, from her perspective, wasted her life. And while Akerman failed to present this, the script swiped away almost all of the character's finest character moments. For example, the revelation that Eddie Blake is her father was rushed and her reaction seemed to come out of nowhere. The setup was almost entirely missing. (This may be corrected in the director's cut.) Also, Laurie's poolside breakdown in Chapter XII, which so well rounds out her arc was omitted completely.

4. "Blue Balls Syndrome" - Admit it: every time Dr. Manhattan appeared on screen, where was your visual center of gravity? DISTRACTING.

3. Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter - I honestly don't know what they were thinking with this piece of casting. Carla Gugino (aged 37) managed to make every one of her lines feel unnatural. As the young Silk Spectre, she was simply not notable. But as the older Sally, the more important of the two parts, it seemed as if she was struggling just to get her lines out. Gugino failed to convey even the semblance of a character behind her (poor) makeup, inadvertently sabotaging the believability in almost all of her scenes. Luckily, her scenes were few and far between.

2. The Songtrack - It's not that the songs Snyder and his crew picked were bad songs. "The Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel is a classic, but over the funeral scene it seemed completely out of place. "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen is a beautiful classic, but in Dan and Laurie's sex scene, it consumes the scene completely, adding to the cheesiness of the sequence. And I don't know what "Ride of the Valkyries" was doing in this movie. The songs chosen for the Watchmen soundtrack are almost all mood-killers, jolting the viewer out of the dream. I do give props for the use of "The Times They are A-Changin'" in the brilliant opening montage. Aside from that, though, I feel that the long list of great songs on the soundtrack were each used very poorly.

1. Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt - While Matthew Goode's performance was by no means as disastrous as Gugino's, it was certainly closer to the forefront. The character of Adrian Veidt (in the source material) is simultaneously commanding and unassuming, somewhere between Donald Trump and Hugh Hefner. Goode almost managed this. But instead of charismatic, his Ozymandias seemed cold, boring and... and where the hell did that accent come from? (It vanished and reappeared more than once over the course of the film.) Even as Veidt spoke the words "I've made myself feel every death..." I found myself unable to believe him. We should believe him - Veidt isn't a "bad guy." He's not diabolical, he's trying to save the world. Matthew Goode's Veidt feels too much like a heartless villain, and that's entirely contrary to what Watchmen is about - moral ambiguity.

I know there's going to be disagreement on this. C'mon and let me here it!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Top 5 Things that Worked in Watchmen

Part One of a Two-Part Review

As a fan of the graphic novel for years, I was once among those who insisted that a film adaptation of Watchmen could not, or should not be done. Director Zack Snyder used to be in this camp, too. How things have changed! At last night's midnight showing, Zack Snyder proved he could do the impossible - craft the 12-issue miniseries into a watchable, enjoyable two-and-a-half feature film. While it's certainly not a perfect work, Watchmen succeeds in many areas that fans of the book least expected. Here's my countdown of the 5 ways Watchmen most excels.

5. The Fight Scenes - All of the combat in Watchmen seemed distinctive and original to me. The reason for this, I think, was the R rating. While the fighting in most superhero films is somewhat sanitized for PG-13, Watchmen did no such thing. No punches were pulled. Bones shattered, necks snapped and blood splattered all over the place. It was different, and although it made me cringe from time to time, in the end it was kind of refreshing.

4. Pacing & Sequence - The sequence of events, with the exception of a few changes in Adrian's storyline which do not appear in the book, are in almost the exact same sequence as they appear in the book. And while this makes the pacing of the film unusual, it certainly works. The film's fidelity to its source material is extremely admirable, even if it doesn't work all the time. (More on that in Part Two.)

3. The New Ending - Many fans were angered by the news that there would be no giant alien squid in this film. Read that last sentence again, this time aloud and try not to chuckle. Seriously, one of the weakest plot twists in the original Watchmen graphic novel is the sudden appearance of a telepathic genetically-engineered squid monster in New York as the instrument of Adrian's master plan to end war. It requires about five pages of exposition to understand what's happened and it all kind of comes out of nowhere. The new ending is also somewhat rushed (I expect this to be better paced in July's director's cut) but is more poignant, more believable and less jarring.

2. Comic Relief - The book is pretty stiff, for the most part, though there are moments when a dark, sickly sense of humor peeks through. The movie, however, extends Moore and Gibbons's concept of a real world with superheroes by acknowledging that sometimes that would just be ridiculous. In the dark, in a fight sequence, of course costumed heroes are going to look badass and awesome. But what about in broad daylight, or just having a conversation? Sometimes, that's going to be silly. Watchmen does not deny this, nor does it avoid these situations. If this were done in a Batman movie, I would probably shake my fist and scream bloody murder, but in Watchmen it really works.

1. Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg - Jackie Earl Haley and Jeffery Dean Morgan have been getting a lot of press for their portrayal of Watchmen's lovable sociopaths, but what about Nite Owl II, the soul of the graphic novel and the film? Dan Dreiberg, our everyman and one of the few truly heroic characters in the story, is a more difficult part than it seems. Nite Owl has to be intense, but also insecure. Patrick Wilson is not only a spitting image of the comic book Dan, but he seems to have a perfect understanding of who Dreiberg is. There's nothing stereotypical about Nite Owl as a superhero, at least not in Wilson's portrayal. His body language is extremely natural, and he sometimes seems totally out of place in his costume. To me, this is exactly right, and solidified the believability of the film for me.

Next time: a parallel list of Watchman's biggest missteps.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Top 5 Superhero Movies

With the release of Zack Snyder's Watchmen only days away, you may be wondering why I'm choosing today to rank my picks for the 5 best superhero films of all time. Surely, I should Watchmen a chance to make this list, right? Here's my thinking: either the movie will be incredible, prompting a lot of big talk about how great it is, comparing it to all the reigning greats in its genre and getting blown way out of proportion the way The Dark Knight was, or it'll be mediocre, in which case this list would remain accurate. My point is that if I did this list on Friday, it'd be impossibly skewed. I would rather make my Top 5 now, and then, after a few months and a half-a-dozen viewings, decide whether or not Watchmen belongs on it.

In the past decade, the superhero genre has boomed from a specialized market to a staple of American cinema, earning billions of dollars and real critical respect along the way. There were literally dozens of films to consider in constructing this list, and a lot of thought. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of arguments about it, and if I did the list again in a week I'm sure it'd look different, but as for now, I'm making my bed.

5. Unbreakable - This'll cause a stir, for sure. M. Night Shyamalan's dark thriller about an aging security guard who survives a trainwreck was a sleeper in theaters but has assembled a loyal cult following. Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, is a realistic, self-conscious take on superhero mythology unlike anything ever attempted. Unbreakable poses the question: in a world like ours where no one believes in superheroes, how do you convince even yourself that you are one?
To be fair, the #5 slot was extremely competitive, and Unbreakable may not have made the list if I hadn't had so much trouble choosing between Spider-Man and Iron Man.

4. The Incredibles - Brad Bird's CGI masterpiece could be called "Watchmen-lite" for its thematic similarities to the graphic novel. A love-letter to superhero comics, The Incredibles was able to walk the line between being a tribute to a genre without lampooning it or falling into its clich├ęs. There's no movie like The Incredibles - it's a family film, more kid-friendly than even Spider-Man, but also more mature. It caricatures our current culture of mediocrity, truly convinces that the world needs heroes, and then delivers them. Packed with non-intrusive homages to comics and animation history, The Incredibles may not be based on any established franchise, but given time, I believe it will come to be known as a classic in its own right.

3. The Dark Knight - No, it's not number one, and I'll tell you why. Like everyone else, I was spellbound by Chris Nolan's latest Batman epic for months after its release. I submitted automatically to the notion that The Dark Knight was the greatest superhero film, and maybe the greatest comic book movie, of all time. And it's up there. But upon closer inspection, i.e. watching it six or seven times, there are a bunch of things that just bother me about it. For one thing, the pacing of The Dark Knight is a little off. I've heard fans and detractors alike comment that it should have been two movies, and I can't help but agree. While the acting is fantastic for the most part, Maggie Gyllenhaal disappoints, and at some points, even Christan Bale falls short. Finally, it seems to me that The Dark Knight suffers from the same ailment that plagued the Burton/Shumacker franchise - it's more about the villain than Batman. But, hey, given the mindbogglingly-great performances of Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart, that's not so much a complaint so much as an observation. Nobody's debating that The Dark Knight is a great movie. My point is, it's not perfect, and there are better superhero films to remember.

2. X2: X-Men United - Often overlooked on Best Of lists, Bryan Singer's X2 demonstrates the full potential of the X-Men franchise. Each character in this film has depth, his or her own arc. Marvel likes to push Wolverine to the forefront in X-Men comics and films, which can sometimes feel stale or annoying. Not so in X2. Here, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) truly shines, opposite Brian Cox as Walter Stryker, a villain as complex and lovably hateable as Magneto, who gets to play anti-hero in this story. X2 is action-packed, but also loaded with character, best exemplified by the repentant Nightcrawler, who to me has always been the soul of the X-Men. Seriously, if you doubt this movie's place on this list, go watch it again and count the amazing moments, not just the moments of action, but great moments of story. But while we're talking about action, how about that first Nightcrawler sequence? Coolest thing ever.

1. Batman Begins - I've read and watched hundreds of Batman stories, from comics to film to animation, and if you were to ask me which was my favorite, I would be able to name, with confidence, Batman Begins. That's no easy decision, given the huge archive of great legends of the Dark Knight, but I stand by that answer, and here's why. To date, there is no Batman origin story that 100% convinces me that Batman really can exist. From beginning to end, there are no moments in Begins that seem unbelievable. Even the most jaded moviegoer (my father for example) can see this movie and entirely understand why Bruce Wayne is Batman, and why Batman matters. For frak's sake, my grandparents liked this movie, and they hate anything with special effects. The screenplay by comics veteran David S. Goyer and then-indie rising star Christopher Nolan incorporates all the best elements from all the greatest Batman writers and artists, from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale to Denny O'Neil and Neil Adams, fusing them together to really find the heart of the character. If there exists an Ultimate Batman, this is it.

There's gotta be debate on this one. Let me hear you!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top 5 Star Trek Enterprise Episodes

Picking your top 5 favorite Enterprise episodes is like picking your top 5 all-time favorite mosquito bites. Of the hundred-or-so episodes, which five are the least irritating? Alright, so I exaggerate a bit. Enterprise was not a complete disaster. Sure, it was plagued by sloppy writing, rehashed storylines and stiff actors playing boring characters, but what about the important stuff, like special effects and gratuitous semi-nudity?

Okay, my point is made. Star Trek Enterprise (not a typo, the title lacks a colon) is the ugliest baby in the family. Premiering in September of 2001, Enterprise was a prequel series, taking place roughly a hundred years before Kirk's crew sailed the stars. The show was supposed to be friendly to new viewers and allegedly required no previous Trek experience to enjoy. In a controversial move, the series was originally called simply Enterprise; the prefix was added midway through its third season.

Promising a bold new direction for the franchise, Enterprise did not disappoint. Instead of attempting to deliver the smart morality tales of The Next Generation or the character-driven intrigue of Deep Space Nine, Enterprise took its cues mostly from the more financially-successful Voyager, choosing its most marketable traits and exaggerating them to gross extremes. The new show would shed Voyager's occasional thought-provoking tale or remotely-interesting characters, leaving only the weighty effects budget and dependence upon a busty science officer to boost ratings.

There are, however, a few diamonds in this rough, which I've listed below, as always, in ascending order.

5. Shuttlepod One - The premise: a stranded odd couple of obnoxious stereotypes is trapped in a shuttle for days waiting to die. Take one laid-back southern gentleman (Chief Engineer "Trip" Tucker). Add one stuffy Englishman (Tactical Officer Malcolm Reed). Allow to simmer to a boil in a cramped, damaged shuttle while they wait to die. This is the first episode, as far as I'm concerned, that demonstrated any actually interesting character development on the show. (And to be honest, it doesn't provide much.) I still kind of wish they hadn't been rescued at the end of the episode. Now that would be a great twist.

4. Similitude - During the long, Bush-Doctrine-inspired arc of Season 3, we the remaining Trekkie audience were treated to a few breaths of fresh air that reminded us that this was still Star Trek we were watching. In this episode, Trip is badly wounded in an accident, so they clone him some special way so he can keep the ship running. This new Trip, who they call Sim, grows up in a matter of days and slowly acquires his donor's memories and skills. His lifespan is only supposed to be a couple of days - when he reaches maturity, he'll donate some tissue to Trip and then die a natural death a few weeks later. Meanwhile, Sim is developing his own personality, his own hopes, dreams and aspirations. One of them is to be with T'Pol, who has been denying the sexual tension between herself and Trip for some time. But something goes wrong - it turns out Sim won't survive the procedure to save Trip, and he refuses to do it. He wants to live. The Doctor can synthesize an enzyme that will slow Sim's metabolism back to normal human levels, thus allowing him to live a long, full life, but the crew chooses Trip. Sim is killed, and Trip is allowed to live. Heavy.

3. Dear Doctor - Another early episode, "Dear Doctor" lays the groundwork for the Prime Directive, one of Star Trek's guiding principles. The crew happens upon a planet where one species is dying off, while another, more primitive one is slowly evolving to maturity. The advanced species, which is kind and benevolent, begs Enterprise to find a cure to their ailment. Doctor Phlox unlocks the cure, but in doing so discovers that the victims are dying off naturally so that the other species can evolve to dominance. Rather than alter the natural course of history on this planet, Captain Archer has to hide this cure and allow an entire species to die rather than set a precedent of humans playing God on other worlds.

2. In a Mirror, Darkly - What makes this episode so great? Not a single character from Star Trek Enterprise appears in the entire two-parter. This story takes place entirely in the Mirror Universe, where humans are an evil conquering Empire. A love letter to the original series, "In a Mirror, Darkly" sees the badass counterparts of the regular crew capturing a ship from the future - a ship identical to Kirk's Enterprise that was apparently destroyed in the TOS classic "The Tholian Web." The crew puts on the old-school uniforms, fires the old-school phasers and goes on a rollicking old-school adventure! Plus, since we'll never see any of these characters again, anything goes! Why, I ask you, couldn't the entire show have been like this?

1. Twilight - (Yes, I know, the title has been tainted forever by the Stephanie Meyer novels, but ignore that for a moment.) If you recall from my Top 5 Voyager list, I'm a big fan of reset-button episodes. These are the shows in which, at the end of the story, some kind of time-travel-related plot device erases the events of the episode, restoring the status quo. Why are these so fun? Because it allows for the crew of Enterprise (whom I despise) to suffer a great deal more than the producers would normally allow. They can bring about the worst-case-scenarios, killing off regular characters and presenting huge, game-changing events, because at the end they can just take it all back. "Twilight" is one such episode. Picture this: in the teaser, a dazed Archer steps out of the turbolift onto the bridge and witnesses Earth getting annihilated by the Xindi superweapon they've been trying to destroy all season. Flash forward a few decades and Archer's in a refugee camp on Ceti Alpha V, along with the few-thousand survivors of the human race, unable to create new long-term memories since before the destruction of Earth. Now, it's a race against time to fix the mistake that incapacitated our brave (read: wimpy) captain and save Earth in the past before the Xindi can wipe out all the survivors! My favorite part of this episode: Enterprise blows up and everybody dies! Yay! Unfortunately, at the same moment they're able to make their time correction and everybody's returned to safety twenty years earlier and we have to keep watching this stupid show for another year and a half. But it was nice while it lasted!

Top5Trek doesn't end here, folks! No, sir, the countdowns will continue until the release of the new film on May 8th!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Top 5 Most Frustrating Geek Culture "Visionaries"

This morning a friend of mine delivered me some very disappointing news. Apparently, Universal is interested in putting out a new theatrical film based on Battlestar Galactica. Wait, what's the bad news? While developer and executive producer of SciFi's BSG series is interested in making such a film, Glen A. Larson, creator of the original show from the 70s, will not allow it. Larson has blocked Moore's team from producing a theatrical BSG film, demanding that Universal instead produce a new film based on his original series or nothing. Universal, of course, is only interested in cashing in on the now-reputable Battlestar Galactica name, and has begun talks with Larson, snubbing the people responsible for breathing new life into the dead franchise.

This got me thinking - there are a long line of cheap, petty moves and less-than-flattering quotes by sci-fi and comics royalty. I'm guilty of holding onto my creative heroes despite my wish to "judge the art, not the artist," and I know they're not perfect, either, but there are a number of famous creators, writers and artists who consistently drive me into a murderous rage. Here's my list of the 5 people who do this best.

5. Todd McFarlane - Best known as the creator of Spawn and for his work on Spider-Man comics in the 80's & 90's, Todd McFarlane was one of the founders of Image Comics, along with such notables as Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld (who very nearly made this list) in 1992. The original goal of Image was admirable - to create a powerful new comic book publisher which gave its writers and artists complete control and ownership of their characters. Sounds good right? The problem: freedom for writers? What writers? The company started out with the mindset that comics were merely a "hey, look-a this!" art form, driven by, in McFarlane's words, "style, not substance." In one interview, McFarlane claimed that comic writers, and writing in general, were secondary to the success of the comic book industry and are in the long run not very important. Comics fans just wanted cool stuff to look at. This put him at odds with the bulk of the industry, which recognized story and art as equal parts to the whole that is comics. Todd's arrogance and disrespect for his peers has since left him bankrupt. Thankfully, Image has turned around and become one of the all-around best producers of comics today.

4. Stan Lee - For Stan, I would like to retract the "scare quotes" from the word Visionary up there at the top of this article. Stan Lee is a legitimate geek culture genius, of that there's no doubt. I'm not going to attack his characters or his skill at creating them. He is clearly one of the greatest "idea guys" of 20th century entertainment. How else can you explain the dozen hit movies based on his characters in just the last decade? What I will attack are Stan "The Man" Lee's megalomaniacal tendencies. As I only have about a paragraph to discuss it, I'll pick a fairly recent example. Let's take a look at the reality/game show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? which was hosted and produced by Mr. Lee. In addition to using the show to perpetuate a number of ugly comic book-geek stereotypes, Stan was able to play up his own God complex by putting his face on gigantic TV screens and barking orders at his contestants. During the first season, when he chose the winner, he picked the player who worshiped him the most. Since the prize would be a Dark Horse comic based on the winning character (written by Stan himself), Stan took the opportunity to totally bastardize the character's backstory and personality in a shoddily-written single-issue that changed everything but the character's name and costume. Even when the prize is a moment in the limelight for his biggest fan, Stan manages to make it all about himself.

3. Frank Miller - Oh, where to begin. Frank Miller is often placed on the highest of comic book pedestals for his masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns which is credited with returning Batman to his roots as a dark avenger of the night, as opposed to the then-popular Adam West-style character. I will not deny him this. I'll even say Sin City is a lot of fun as Miller's personal playground of badassitude. Miller's problem is that he sees his own success with these works and responds by pushing that trademark darkness way beyond the red line. Frank Miller knows how to write two characters: one, a heartless alpha-male who lacks a conscience and chooses to fight for good or evil for the sake of the plot but could really go either way, and two, a woman who is a dominatrix and/or a prostitute. Look through his works; they're all jam-packed variations on these two characters. Again, this wouldn't be a problem if it was contained in his ultra-violent noir-verse, Sin City. But any time he returns to other characters, such as Batman in the disasterous All-Star Batman & Robin or the just offensive Dark Knight Strikes Again, he applies these same traits arbitrarily to the source characters whether they fit or not. It's just careless, self-indulgent storytelling, disgracing his accomplishments in reviving comics' greatest hero.

2. George Lucas - There's very little I can say that hasn't already been said. George Lucas, like Stan Lee, has apparently been convinced by the fans who worship him that he is, in fact, infallible. Lucas insists the Star Wars prequels are "the best films [he's] ever made" and is unwilling to compromise and admit that there is still a reason to keep the original, unaltered versions of his original trilogy in print. He has flat-out refused to release them. But more than anything, George Lucas is an awful director, far too awful to be so often named as someone's all-time favorite. Actors who have worked with Lucas on the Star Wars films, such as Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, have attested to his lack of patience toward the acting process. He apparently refused to shoot more than 3 takes of anything, and his vocabulary for directing actors is apparently limited to "faster, more intense." He has disrespected his actors time after time; for example, the story goes that David Prowse (Darth Vader's body) was not informed that his voice would be dubbed over until he attended the premiere. Lucas has implied in interviews that he prefers working with computer-generated characters than real-life actors. That's fair - I'm sure a lot of actors would rather work with a computer-driven director than with him. My point is that he's a Geek Culture God the scale of which no one alive, not Joss Whedon, not even Stan Lee, can match, and he's not even good at what he does. It has to stop.

1. Alan Moore - Again, no quotey-marks around Visionary here. Alan Moore's intricately-crafted stories and characters were essential in granting the graphic novel form the mainstream respect and legitimacy it deserves. No one is debating that Watchmen is a masterpiece. And I can understand his complaints against the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, as it did take some huge thematic leaps from the original graphic novel. And The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was... inexcusable. But Moore's rage toward the American media, both the comics and film industries, has blown way out of proportion. Alan Moore has asked his name to be removed from all his works that are owned by publishing companies (including Watchmen and V) and refuses royalties or even credit for any adaptations to other media, even the scrupulously faithful Watchmen motion comics. And here's the thing that just kills me - though he has read the draft of the script being used for the upcoming Watchmen film, and even admitted that it has merit, he "shan't be going to see it." Come on, Mr. Moore. Zack Snyder (who Moore condemns for his work on 300, though he hasn't seen it) has put his career on the line, fighting his studio every step of the way to make Watchmen faithful to its roots in story and in spirit, and yet you blatantly disrespect his work by pulling your name off the project before you've even seen it. That's just immature. Alan Moore may be a visionary, he may even be a genius, but at heart, he's just a big baby with a hilarious beard.

What movie or comic book creators have been on your nerves? Comment comment comment!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top 5 Super Smash Bros. Characters

I've decided that these little forwards before lists might become a regular thing, if only because I sometimes have things to say to you guys but adamantly refuse to make any posts that do not contain Top 5s. (This is because it makes it harder for me to keep track of just how many lists I've published. When someone goes onto this blog and sees that there have been 63 entries, for instance, that should mean that there are 63 lists.) Besides, it's easy enough for someone to skip ahead to the list, which is after the "+" break.

My message to you, my loyal, merciful readers, is in the form of a humble request. You'll note that I've posted a poll on the sidebar asking if you guys would refer your friends to this site. Though I appreciate Dan Wilhelm's sentiment from the comments to yesterday's list, I would enjoy at least a slightly larger readership than the one that I have. A lot of the fun of doing this blog in the first place is in reading your responses, and though I love hearing back from all of you regulars, I still have this dream that someday, somebody I haven't actually met will enjoy reading what I write, and that maybe that'll lead to some new friends. This is how David L. and I became buddies, after all, through a mutual friend referring him to GeekSpeakRadio.Net, where Mike Pfeiffer and I posted a weekly talk radio show.

So I ask you, dear readers, to please share this blog with your friends, preferably people I don't already know. This can benefit all you current readers, as well, as you'll now have more people to argue with on the comment threads. After all, it's been far too long since we had a good old-fashioned flame war. I do want to make this clear, though: this is NOT an ultimatum. I'm not setting quotas or making threats. Just the fact that you guys cared enough to kick my lazy ass out of retirement and bring this blog back to life is enough to keep me writing it. If the dozen of you remain the only people reading T5E, then that'll be enough for me.


Requested by David L.

Asking someone who their favorite Super Smash Bros. character is like asking someone what their favorite song off their favorite mix CD. They're all good, otherwise they wouldn't be there. For those of you who've never played it, (I'm certain the only people reading this who fall under this category are my parents) Super Smash Bros. is a series of easy-to-learn multiplayer fighting games featuring all the most popular characters in the Nintendo canon, plus a few third-party characters the players demanded. The latest version, Super Smash Bros. BRAWL, features 35 playable characters from Mario to Sonic to Pikachu and back again. Each character in Brawl has its own distinctive set of moves and style of play, which keeps the game interesting and fun for hours at a time.

There are a lot of factors that go into picking your favorite character in Brawl, and a lot of it comes down to personal taste, which is part of what makes this such a great topic. Some people like close-range melee fighters like Marth or Meta Knight or tank-like powerhouses such as Bowser or Gannondorf, while others still like speedy, agile characters like Sonic or Falco, or avatars that depend on evasion and long-distance strikes, good examples being Ness or Samus. And then there are those crazy, strategy/combo based characters like Mr. Game & Watch or Olimar whose gameplay is so dramatically different from the others that it feels like you're playing an entirely different game altogether.

Myself, I like to mix it up a lot, which should make this list a fairly fair (but random) one. I should warn you that this list might look a lot different if you asked me tomorrow or next week or next year, and that, I think, says a lot about the magic of the game: it keeps finding new ways to surprise you.

5. Luigi
What gives Luigi, who began as a simple palette swap of Mario, such a greater appeal than his more famous brother? Well, for starters, the days of them playing identically are long gone. In Brawl, Luigi's fighting style is unique, cartoony and fun. I love making him run at enemies, flailing his arms wildly to deliver a surprisingly satisfying amount of damage. Luigi's Final Smash is my favorite in the game, as he basically takes the entire game along with him on a wild acid trip. I often perform his taunt, which is just a subdued, discouraged kick, like he's knocking a can down a sidewalk after a rough day, not just in the game but in real-life situations. Most of all, though, I love using Luigi's devastating Dragon Punch. PING!

4. Snake
I would probably play as Snake more often if it weren't for the fact that one of my most frequent sparring partners chooses him CONSTANTLY, and is way too good as Snake for me to try to challenge him at his own game. As annoying as it is that he always plays as the same character, it's not hard to understand way. Snake is not only a badass and a gaming legend in his own right, but his skill sets are very impressive. Snake's signature is that nearly every one of his moves makes things explode. At long-range, he's unstoppable, launching seeker missiles and detonating remote and proximity mines left and right. But he's no picnic to fight against in close quarters, either, with his drop-kicks and that insanely annoying dive-attack thing he does that I can never seem to avoid, hard as I try. And then, of course, there's his unbelievably cheap Final Smash, probably the most effective in the game. I'll never hear the phrase "It's Showtime" the same way again.

3. Sonic
Sonic's probably higher up on the list than he deserves to be, mainly because I just love Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog has been my favorite video game character since the early 90s when I first learned why thumbs were invented. When I learned that Sonic would be joining the cast of Brawl I literally jumped up from my seat, (in a crowded room of people I didn't know) shouted "YES YES YES YES" and started to dance around. What makes Sonic so much fun to play, to me, stems from how well he sticks to his roots. Playing Sonic in Brawl is just like playing Sonic in any of his original games for the Sega Genesis, plus some fun new tricks like the diving kick and my personal favorite, the spontaneous spring drop. And he's so damn fast! Playing as Sonic on a small stage can be risky, but isn't it fun being able to consistently outrun your opponents, dancing around them like the arrogant little punk Sonic is? If you ask me, the trade is well worth it.

2. Zelda
You'll note that I don't list her as "Zelda/Sheik." This is because I almost never play as Sheik, not even in Melee, where she's ridiculously good. Her style of play isn't nearly as much fun to me as her alter-ego, Zelda. I love Zelda's little starbolts that can be shot out like guided photon torpedoes. Her reflector move is, to me, more useful than Fox's or Falco's, and her teleport move makes for an excellent third jump. And as hard as it can sometimes be to pull off properly, her Final Smash is as wickedly cool as any other.

1. Ness/Lucas
I list these two as a tie for first because, with a few key differences, Ness and Lucas play almost exactly the same. PK Thunder is probably my favorite attack in the game, and I've been described as "deadly accurate" with it. I like that it allows me to be cheap and hide in a corner while still dealing damage. I prefer Ness's thunder attack to Lucas's, probably just because I'm more used to it. Really, it's hard to ask for a better long-range attack. But let's not discount Ness or Lucas's up-close fighting prowess. They both have that treacherous Smash attack (Ness's bat certainly being more effective than Luca's weird stick thingy) and Lucas's up-smash is, as my friends are all tired of me saying, "the best up-smash in the game." I mean, seriously, it takes next to no time to charge, does a ton of damage and even has a decent duration, so that it's hard for your opponent to judge just when exactly it's safe to attack. But the one thing I think that makes playing as either of these two kids more fun than any other character is the sheer joy of seeing a tiny, smiling little boy beat a genetically-engineered supersoldier to a pulp with a baseball bat. Awwwwwww...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top 5 Alien Species in Sci-Fi

First and foremost, I owe each of you, my ten readers, an apology. Without so much as a note, I abandoned my post here at T5E, more out of laziness than anything else. Yes, my workload this semester has been heavier than when I started this blog, and yes, I haven't had as much time to commit to this project. But that's no excuse for stopping outright. T5E was supposed to be an exercise in discipline as much as in entertainment, and in that aspect, I have failed you all and myself.

Most of all, I'm very sorry that I left you guys with such a cop-out list as "Top 5 Ricardo Montalban Moments" as my would-be last hoorah. There are fewer than a hundred words of actual copy on that list, and the clips are only marginally entertaining.

I had considered devoting a list to apologies or excuses or promises, but have elected to get right down to business. You, my readers, have been bombarding me with Facebook messages, emails, even a couple of phone calls, demanding that Top 5 Everything continue its rampage through American pop culture, and tonight, your nagging will finally pay off.

Ladies and gentlemen, back by popular demand, I give you Top5Everything.


Requested by: Dan Wilhelm

Extraterrestrial life has been a staple of science fiction since the turn of the 20th century and continues to fascinate fans of genre fiction world-wide. While aliens in fiction were originally almost exclusively evil invaders, many sci-fi aliens have now been fleshed out with fascinating cultures, some as complex as our own. On the other side of the spectrum, scary, invader-style aliens have gotten progressively more awesome, and infinitely more terrifying. Here, dear readers, I post my own personal favorite Top 5 Alien Species in Sci-Fi!

5. Irkens (Invader ZIM)
I place this species on the list at the risk of alienating (oh, frak! It's a pun!) the girlfriend demographic, which is about 10% of my total readership. But, as always, I've got evidence to back up this choice. The Irkens, of Jhonen Vasquez's cult classic cartoon Invader ZIM, are a pretty complex culture for a kids' show. They are also hilarious. Their social structure is based upon height, meaning that the tallest Irken is their absolute ruler, regardless of how stupid he, or in the case of twin Tallest Red and Purple, they, happen to be. They worship snack foods. They conquer planets and then convert them towards a single purpose, such as Conventia, the Convention Hall Planet, an obvious jab at the Star Wars staple of having a "forest planet," "ice planet," or "city planet." Most interestingly, as it's slowly revealed in the series, the "little green man" visage is actually just a body they use - Irkens are actually their backpacks. Whether you love or hate the show, you've got to admit that the Irkens are pretty cool. And again, they're always good for a laugh.

4. Borg (Star Trek)
On the other side of the coin, you've got the terrifying cybernetic zombies from the Delta Quadrant, The Borg. Though the basic concept is (I think, lovingly) borrowed from Doctor Who, the Borg are unlike any other TV or movie alien. Originally, they were conceived as an utterly unstoppable villain that Picard's Enterprise could never truly defeat. Over time, they were fleshed out into a collective based upon the pursuit of perfection - their conception of perfection at least. What makes the Borg fascinating is that, from their perspective, they're making the universe a better place, bringing other species and cultures "closer to perfection," at the cost of what makes them unique and beautiful. Their unrelenting nature and endless numbers make the Borg as downright scary as they are cool to watch.

3. Xenomorphs (Alien)
But when it comes to scary, there's no question: the Xenomorphs, better known simply as "the Aliens from Alien," take the cake. They start out as eggs, then shoot creepy spider-crawly thingies at your face, latch on, lay eggs in your stomach, burst out of your ribcage (absorbing the unique properties of your species), then rapidly grow up into an unstoppable killing machine with a wicked inner jaw, saliva made from molecular acid and a tail that can cut a man in half without trying. True, culturally, they're pretty simplistic (kill, breed, light on fire) but this is totally outweighed by their overall freakout factor.

2. Cylons (Battlestar Galactica)
The Cylons (or simply the plural "Cylon" as some models prefer) are totally unique in science fiction. I refer, of course, to the Re-Imagined version from the current series, not the basic chrome toasters from the 70's. The Cylons began as humanoids, the thirteenth tribe of Man on the planet Kobol, along with the ancestors of the human race we came to know in the series and assumed were connected to us. They left Kobol years before the other twelve tribes to find their own world, which they called Earth. (That's right, we're the Cylons after all.)
Millenia later, there are also wicked cool mechanical Cylons created by Humans on their own planets, who rebel and virtually annihilate humanity. Their progeny (co-created by the survivors of the original Cylons' own robot holocaust) are flesh-and-blood, and some even think they're human. Over time, Cylon culture is revealed to BSG fandom, and man is it complex. They're machines, but they're people. They're flesh, but they are also software. They can perceive their surroundings however they please. When their bodies are killed, their consciousnesses download to a new, identical one. Most interestingly is the dichotomy of their existence. Many of them hate humanity, and yet they value their human form. Some reject feeling and try to be "the best machines the universe have ever seen." Others are completely ruled by love. The Cylons have gone from being the undisputed "bad guys" of BSG to becoming as complex, as flawed and as REAL as the humans.

1. Klingons (Star Trek)
C'mon, who else would it be? The Klingons are not only sci-fi royalty, but are possibly the most complex fictional culture to originate in television or film. Klingons believe, above all, in honor. In the original Star Trek series, this put them at odds with Earth's Starfleet as they battled over territory. But as the franchise evolved, so did the Klingons. The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine revealed that the Klingons have a culture rich with ceremony, tradition and history. The Klingon religion, based in part on Norse mythology, is unique, yet recognizable and not at all farcical. Klingon rituals, though at time caricatured, can also be hauntingly beautiful. Klingon pride is both aggravating and admirable. For frak's sake, they have their own fully-functioning language. You can buy Hamlet in Klingon. The Klingons are the quintessential alien race, being all at once fun, accessible and richly intricate.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Top 5 Ricardo Montalban Moments

Ricardo Montalban, one of the greatest bad actors ever, died today at the age of 88. As a tribute, I present to you my Top 5 Ricardo Montalban Moments, brought to you by our friends at YouTube.

5. "Welcome to Fantasy Island" - A gem of bad acting.

4. Rrrrrrich, Corrrrinthian Leather...

3. Spy Kids Grandpa! (Example used here: His wheelchair becomes a frakking robot!)

2. Ricardo Does Ricardo on Freakazoid

1. Montalban v. Shatner - First, "Space Seed" (TOS) Khan's first appearance, going toe to toe with Shatner in a battle for who is the best bad actor in Hollywood! Round One goes to Shatner. But next time...? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan kicks it up a knotch, with the greatest bad acting showdown to date, and the infamous "KHAAAAAAAN!" scene which may very well be the greatest moment in bad acting history. Still, I gotta say, round two goes to Ricardo. Pity there was never a Round Three. We miss you, man.

Note: Sorry, hard as I tried I couldn't find a clip of the actual complete "KHAAAAAAN!" scene. This is the best I could do.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Top 5 Actors/Actresses I'd See in Anything

Having a favorite actor is different from a favorite author, or a favorite musician. Great acting can make a good movie great, but no single performance can make a bad movie good. Still, there are some actors (and actresses) who can excite me into seeing a film by the grace of their involvement alone. Here's my Top 5 Actors/Actresses I'd See in Anything.

5. Patrick Stewart - C'mon, he's Captain Picard. Sure, he's been in some stinkers, like Masterminds, but he's an excellent stage actor with film chops.

4. Samuel L. Jackson - Case and point: Snakes on a Plane. I mean, c'mon, it was a clearly terrible movie from the get-go, but just knowing that Sam Jackson would turn around and say: "That's it! I've had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!" made it all worth it.

3. Natalie Portman - Star Wars prequels aside, Natalie Portman is a terrific actress. Her involvement in any movie inspires confidence in the quality of the script. No, she's not infallable, I mean, again, let's look at those Star Wars prequels again, but check out Garden State, or Closer or even V for Vendetta and see just how much range and depth she has as an actress. Also, a cutie.

2. Phillip Seymour Hoffman - In my opinion, our greatest living actor, Hoffman is a brilliant character actor with unbelievable flexibility. From leading roles like Capote to brilliant supporting pieces like Almost Famous, The Big Lebowski and witness just how well Hoffman can disappear into any role, dramatic or comedic.

1. Christian Bale - No, he's not the best actor in the world. But he is very good, and he seems to have a penchant for creating memorable roles in genre films. Putting aside Batman for a moment, how about his unique role in The Prestige or his masterful character piece in American Psycho? If not for the involvement of Christian Bale, there's no way I'd even think about going to see the upcoming Terminator: Salvation film, let alone be excited about it. Christian Bale is the thinking man's action hero.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Top 5 Star Trek: Voyager Episodes

I should start by saying this: I don't like Star Trek: Voyager. For years I tried to watch it, tried so hard to get into it, and couldn't entirely figure out why it didn't work. It just seemed barrel on, episode after episode without ever hitting any marks. Then I read an interview with Ron Moore about his brief tenure on the show, and suddenly it all made sense.
What I found on VOYAGER was suddenly it wasn’t about the work
anymore. It wasn’t about making the best show that we possibly could; it was
about all these other extraneous issues. It was about the politics of the show,
and the strange sort of competition of egos within the writing staff and the
producing staff and the management of the show...
"The fun factor dropped precipitously, and I think that shows on the screen,"
Moore continues. "I think that the product that you are getting now is also a
reflection of the way the show is produced.
DUH. I couldn't enjoy it because nobody who made the show enjoyed making it. There are a few exceptions, I think, cases where the series really shines. Here's my obligatory Top 5 Voyager episodes.

5. Scorpion - One of the advantages Voyager always had over the earlier shows was a nice, hefty effects budget. In addition to hindering storytelling by convincing the writing staff to work some stupid CG gimmick into every episode, it also provided some really impressive stupid CG gimmicks! Scorpion, the two-parter that bridged Seasons 3 and 4, is almost certainly my favorite effects-driven episode of Voyager, introducing the freaky three-legged purple whatsits called Species 8472 and their planet-busting bioships. 8472 became the kind of invincible treat villain for the show the way the Borg used to be in TNG, and you have to admit the best way to show an audience that there's a new big bad in town is to have them beat the ever-living crap out of the old big bad.

4. Dark Frontier - I know a bunch of you have heard me contend that Voyager ruined the Borg by making them a "baddie-of-the-week" instead of the ultimate, insurmountable enemy. This episode, I think, is a notable exception to the rule. Dark Frontier, a two-hour TV movie event, is one of the creepiest Borg episodes there ever was, and it was done by getting too close for comfort. Half the episode takes place virtually from the Borg's perspective as they assimilate a civilization. Plus, there were the flashbacks showing the ill-advised exposition of the Raven and the transformation of young Annika Hansen into Seven of Nine.

3. Tuvix - The best Treks of the past tend to present the audience with an arguable moral dillema. In TOS, the solution was usually for Kirk to step in and teach everyone a lesson. In TNG, Picard was often honor bound not to solve someone else's problem, even if his heart begged him to solve it. But then on DS9, and in this case on Voyager, there were some fun twists on that theme: what if the Captain chooses the inherently wrong choice, perhaps for some greater good, or perhaps out of blind emotion? In Tuvix, The least and most annoying characters on the show (Tuvok and Neelix, respectively) get merged together into one infinitely more likable character, who calls himself Tuvix. He is his own person, and he likes who he's become. But Janeway wants her old friends back, so once the problem's been analyzed, she tosses the guy back in the transporter and tears him in half against his will. And it's clearly wrong. That's what makes it great.

2. Year of Hell - My favorite episodes of Voyager tend to be the ones in which terrible things happen to the characters. I pretty much hate all of them. In the two-parter Year of Hell, an alien scientist begins erasing entire civilizations from time in an effort to correct a mistake he made using his device the first time. By the time the episode is over (and the reset button is hit) Tuvok's been scarred and blinded, the ship's had the shit kicked out of it and they're so short on redshirts that they've actually had to hand a commission to Neelix. The entire crew is pretty much completely miserable. I LOVE IT! Really, though, the story is fun and the villain Annorax is uncharactaristically deep and interesting for the show.

1. Timeless - Again, my favorite Voyagers tend to be the reset-button episodes, because they allow for *gasp* things actually happening! Timeless is an episodes with real heart - it opens with two unknown excavators searching through an icy terrain. What are they looking for? It's freaking Voyager! The episode takes place 20 years into an alternate future in which Harry Kim accidentally causes the deaths of the entire crew in a horrible accident that only he and Chakotay survive. They make it back home and Harry, in an unprecidented show of character, can't deal with it and commits himself to fixing his mistake through time travel. This is the one and only story in which Ensign Kim is remotely interesting. And it's a shame, because based on this one episode, he had a lot of potential. Plus - a cameo by LeVar Burton, who also directed the episode, as a now Captain Geordi LaForge.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Top 5 Best Managed Film Franchises

It's not always easy keeping a good film franchise good. Starting out strong isn't enough - a series has to endure creative changes, production issues, box office returns and critical reaction over extended periods of time. A change in director or or the loss of a cast member can change everything. Very few film franchises (this list defines franchise as a series of four or more films, preferably one has potential to be ongoing rather than finite) can stand the test of time not just as classics, such as The Godfather trilogy, but as a recurring reason to go to the movies. Here's my Top 5 Best Managed Film Franchises.

5. Star Trek - Most Trekkies would say that the Star Trek film series (currently ten films, the eleventh being released May 8th) is batting about .500 in terms of "good movies" vs. "bad movies," the odd even numbered ones being the winners. (Some fans swap III and Nemesis to keep the ratio even.) But of a series of ten films, five good ones isn't so awful. Plus, the movies have managed to re-light the flame of the franchise as a whole twice, going on three times, thanks to the media buzz J.J. Abrams's relaunch is getting. Now that the series has a future again, we may see Star Trek getting a little higher on this list.

4. James Bond - After 22 official films and two "unauthorized" installments, the Bond series is still going on strong. It's true that A Quantum of Solace didn't live up to expectations, but there's good reason to trust EON Productions to learn from their mistakes as they have in the past. When a Bond gets stale, he's replaced. When the series gets too campy, it reboots. It did this with Roger Moore and then again with Pierce Brosnan, when each of them started to stretch the boundaries of believability. (Or in the case of Die Another Day, watchability.) Casino Royale proved this 45-year-old franchise is still full of pleasant surprises.

3. Star Wars - How is it that after three (four, counting The Clone Wars) consecutive bad movies that Star Wars is still cool? How is it that even now I'm wearing a Boba Fett t-shirt? Despite awful production decision after awful production decision, Star Wars is still one of the most beloved film franchises of all time. I don't get it. But it's true. Maybe it's the merchandise or the colorful characters or the lightsabers - hell, I don't know. I can't explain it. That's just the way it is. So, more than likely, George Lucas will keep putting out shitty movies and people will still see them and hate them and wear Boba Fett t-shirts.

2. Saw - Here's a confession: I've never seen any of the Saw movies all the way through. Wait - confession's the wrong word. Confession implies guilt. I have no desire whatsoever to rectify this so-called "problem." I don't go for slasher flicks, they're just not for me. And I really doubt there's much intellectual stimulation to speak of that I'm missing. But think about this: the entire Saw series combined has cost a mere $36 million to produce. Worldwide, the five films have brought in over $655 million in box office returns. The last sequel still made marginally more money than the original, and the format of the series allows for an endless supply of new stories with new death traps and gimmicks. Basically, the creators of Saw have created a cheap, self-sustaining film series that can consistantly make money despite being a complete critical failure. It's so cheap that it doesn't have to expand its fanbase to survive; even if the next Saw movie flops, it will still probably make money. It may be a piece of crap - again, I can't judge because I've never sat through it, it could be a cinematic masterpiece for all I know - but it's a terrifically managed franchise.

1. X-Men - Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie was the true beginning of the superhero film movement that continues to grant us great genre cinema every summer. It got moviegoers to start taking superheroes seriously again. X2 was a box-office and critical success with the scope and polish of an Oscar film. (Pity nobody died while shooting it, maybe then it would have gotten the attention it deserved.) Yes, X-Men: The Last Stand was a disaster, but it was a disaster brought on by production calamities - namely the loss of guiding light Bryan Singer, and along with him James Marsden (Cyclops) to Superman Returns. Now, the X-Men film franchise is starting fresh with the X-Men Origins line, which has nearly infinite potential. The prequel will no doubt spawn at least one sequel of its own, plus its expected to sow the seeds for countless spin-offs. Deadpool and Gambit are already in the works. Plus, the long-awaited Magneto film has a lot of potential, too. The X-Men franchise has so much to work with that it can expand almost indefinitely, and maybe even stay cool and original.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Top 5 Choices for the Next Batman

So, you've all heard the news: Batman is dead. (Yeah, right, I'll believe it when there's a body. And then, you know, still not.) Whether or not we've really seen the last of Bruce Wayne, there will be a new Batman within the next twelve-to-eighteen months. So, who's it going to be? There are the obvious choices, and the writing and editing staff for DC and the Batman line have made some major hints as to the likely candidates. Who's deserving of the Mantle of the Bat? Here's my five cents.

5. Roy Harper - Here's my longshot candidate, if you'll forgive the pun. Roy Harper was once Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy, mastering the bow-and-arrow school of crimefighting. Over time, Harper proved his skill in using anything as a weapon, though remaining non-lethal like his mentor, and like the Batman. These days he goes by Red Arrow, and had a three-year stint with the Justice League alongside Bats. Harper's got the resourcefulness, the cunning, and the commitment to crime fighting. He's also a father, raising his daughter Lian alone. Batman must remain a paternal influence and a mentor - Roy Harper has the edge in this category.

4. Harvey Dent - During the legendary Hush storyline, Two-Face was restored his old sane, handsome self, Harvey Dent. Dent took over crimefighting in Gotham during the year Batman, Robin and Nightwing took off on a global training regimen, which I think was an amazing new thread for the character. Of course, after One Year Later, the new staff in Detective Comics decided it would be a good idea to completely undo it all and have him go nuts and make himself into Two-Face again. (Add it to the list of great changes from Hush that were undone within three years due to poor planning.) Think of Dent as protrayed in The Dark Knight, an honest committed man, "the best of us," as the new Batman. According to the teaser image from Battle for the Cowl (see above) this actually isn't an entirely unlikely possibility. I just hope they fix his mind first - and his face.

3. Terry McGinnis - Growing up on the DC Animated Universe, I'm quite partial to the character created for Batman Beyond, Terry McGinnis, the young reformed delinquent whom an aging Bruce Wayne chooses to be the new Batman. Terry was introduced in the animated series, not in the comics, but has been appearing sporadically in alternate universes since 2003 or so. I'd love to see Terry McGinnis pop up on Earth-One, if not as the next Batman, but perhaps the one after that.

2. Dick Grayson - The first Robin, the original sidekick. Dick Grayson has honored the legacy of Batman for decades. As Nightwing, he's led the Titans, the Outsiders, even the Justice League on occasion. After Batman and Green Arrow, Dick Grayson is probably the best non-powered superhero alive. So why is he number two? Because Dick Grayson stopped being Robin for a reason. He's his own man - he's stepped out from his adoptive father's shadow. Put simply, Dick has never wanted to be Batman. It's been one of his defining characteristics. Why should that change now?

1. Tim Drake - Since the death of his own father in Identity Crisis and his adoption by Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake has accepted that he will someday take up the mantle of the Bat. For years, Tim thought his crimefighting career was something he'd eventually give up for a normal life, considering a future as an archetect or engineer. But in a matter of months, Tim lost his girlfriend, his father and his best friend, awakening in him the fury he used to see in Batman but thought he'd never feel himself. Since Infinite Crisis, Tim has been training specifically for the task of being the new Batman. The mantle is his - he deserves it, and he wants it. As of now, Tim Drake is Batman. He just doesn't have the mask yet.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top 5 Starship Captains

It takes a special kind of person to lead a crew through space. Like in the open seas of old, space voyages are treacherous, demanding extreme mental discipline just to keep from going insane in the endless void. Unlike sea exploration, however, starships and their captains are 100% fictional. The advantage of this is that there are very few examples of qualified starship captains to choose from when constructing a Top 5 list. Here's the five men (not meaning to be sexist, it just happened that way) I've chosen as the greatest starship captains ever to sail the silver seven screens.

5. Han Solo, The Millenium Falcon (Star Wars) - Never tell him the odds. Han Solo may only command a crew of two or three (does Threepio count?) but he's the gutsiest starship captain you'll ever meet. Solo gets extra points for knowing how to pilot, repair, customize and defend his own ship. Han is basically a one-man starship crew. But where would he be without Chewie?

4. Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity (Firefly, Serenity) - Keeping a boat like Serenity in the air takes more than a little technical knowhow, it takes love. Mal may be a rogue and a tough guy on the outside, but deep down, he loves each member of his crew and each and every part of his ship like a member of his family. Also, try defending yourself from a tyrannical government and crazy zombie space pirates without any ship-to-ship weapons. That takes some serious skill. Most importantly, though, is Mal's dedication to his ship, which inspires its complete dedication to him.

3. James T. Kirk, USS Enterprise (Star Trek) - Jim Kirk, too, is a man in love with his starship. (His starship and two or three dozen space princesses.) Kirk has it all: guts, brains and a mean right cross. He is, after all, the archetypical starship captain. There would be no Malcolm Reynolds or Han Solo without James T. Kirk. Nobody can pull one out of the fire like Kirk and his skilled and extremely memorable crew of the Enterprise.

2. William Adama, Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica) - Except perhaps for Commander (later Admiral) Bill Adama, who actually turned his ship into a falling, burning airship and managed to jump it back into space from only about 500 feet above the ground. It's easy to have guts when you can count on the Enterprise's state-of-the-art futuretech. After all, there's nothing that ship can't do. Bill Adama's ship gets the crap beaten out of it year after year with no spacedock to go to for repairs and no relief on the way. In a scrap, the decrepit old Battlestar always hangs on by a thread thanks to the dedication and leadership of William "Husker" Adama. But more importantly, Adama inspires a paternal reverence in his crew, who all lovingly refer to him as "the old man." Like Solo, he'll "roll the hard six" for a gutsy, near-impossible plan to keep humanity alive just one more day. Like Mal, he knows that a crew and a ship can't stay intact without love and respect.

1. Jean-Luc Picard, USS Enterprise (Star Trek: The Next Generation) - What makes a great leader? First and foremost, a captain must inspire respect. Jean-Luc Picard knows the best way to gain respect is to give it. Captain Picard is the perfect starship captain because he is the perfect father figure. His crew doesn't just look to him for orders, but for personal guidance. And Picard, the intellectual, the diplomat, always has good advice for his people. Picard is accessable, compassionate, but also forceful. Officers aboard Picard's Enterprise don't question orders, not out of fear but out of absolute, unwaivering trust. This is the key to any sucessful leadership, and nowhere is this more important than in the cold outer reaches of space. The crew of the Enterprise may be far from homes and families, but they'll always have a father they can count on.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Top 5 Books I'm Sure I'd Love if I Read Books

It's my Achilles heel: I don't read enough. My attention span is not unlike much of the Facebook Generation, about thirty seconds long. Even as I study to become a writer, I still have trouble picking up a book and enjoying it unless I'm required to read it for a class. Often, I'll take a look at a novel and say, "wow, this looks great. I should read this." I may even buy it or ask for it as a gift, fully intending to plow through it in a day or two. I may start it and then forget about it or I may even just let it collect dust on my shelf, saying "I'll start it tomorrow" for weeks and weeks before finally admitting I'm just never going to read the damn thing. I honestly don't know what my problem is, and how the hell I expect to make in a medium even I don't appreciate.

In any case, there are a lot of books people recommend to me or I see for myself that are right up my alley, but still haven't read because I'm some kind of mutant. Here's my Top 5 on the subject. (Forgive my italicizing the titles, for some reason Blogger doesn't let me underline.)

5. Sideways - Rex Pickett. A lot of the ways I hear about books is when they get made into films. The general rule is that when a novel is adapted for the screen, it's never as good as the source material. (Exceptions: The Godfather, V for Vendetta.) Sideways (the film) has some great, memorable characters and a sense of humor that really speaks to me. I'd be willing to bet that the novel would have a similar, if not better, effect.

4. The Children of Men - P. D. James. What a premise: what happens to society when people can't have children? The film knocked my socks off, though I hear it took a lot of liberties from the book. Anyway, it sounds to me like a great piece of naturalist science fiction and I had ought to give it a try.

3. The Dark Tower Series - Stephen King. Described to me as a science-fantasy-horror-western odyssey, The Dark Tower sounds like an awesome example of great genre fiction that breaks rules and sets new standards.

2. High Fidelity - Nick Hornby. This British novel inspired one of my favorite films, though the movie took place in the United States. If John Cusack's fourth-wall-breaking narration in the movie is any indication, I would love the voice of this book. For frak's sake, the character's obsessive lists of five inspired this blog! It really does seem right up my alley, a lot like the way I want to write. I would certainly learn a lot from it. And there it is, in the next room, sitting on a shelf in my dad's study. Here's me, not reading it.

1. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon. The story of a writer/artist comic creation team in the "Golden Age" of the forties. My junior year of high school, my writing teacher photocopied me the first chapter as a sort of "free sample." From that point on, I was determined to totally-for-real-maybe-eventually-someday-when-I-have-the-time read this book. Last Christmas I asked my sister to get me a copy and she did. That didn't help. Hell, I'm not even sure where it is right now.

I am a terrible person.