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!