Monday, December 30, 2013

#660. The fascination of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may very well be the best of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films.

I've long held that this distinction properly belongs to his first, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the one where everything worked best, with the most consistently iconic moments and the cast doing its best work, all revolving around the best performance in the series to date, Sean Bean's Boromir.  The next three found various ways to disappoint me (The Two Towers only came alive in the scenes with Gollum, The Return of the King was only properly cumulative in admittedly the crucial scenes at Mount Doom, and An Unexpected Journey once again in the Gollum sense).  It seemed each time that as Jackson worked in such a famously continuous fashion, he kept losing his ability to fire on all necessary cylinders.

What changed that?  A lot of things.  His first three films made film history, were universally acclaimed as some of the best movies ever made, and whether or not that was ever true, they did change the course of popular entertainment.  For one thing, they gave someone like Guillermo del Toro the opportunity to explore his creative potential in a movie like Pan's Labyrinth, and another, it opened the door for the fantasy genre to go mainstream, which led to the TV series Game of Thrones.  There were a lot of other effects, but these two are the most relevant to my argument of how Desolation of Smaug ended up the best of Jackson's efforts to date.

Del Toro, of course, was headed toward directing The Hobbit himself.  His fingerprints are there in the renewed and heightened depiction of the monstrous bad guys in the latest two films, and even how foreign languages are now free to exist with subtitles in a major genre production.  Game of Thrones, meanwhile, among other things helped remind people that perhaps it truly was Sean Bean who was the breakout star of the first three Jackson efforts after all.  It's Bean who leaves the biggest acting impression on the new films.  Richard Armitage is more reminiscent of Bean than Viggo Mortensen, even though he inhabits a role far more comparable to Mortensen's Aragorn than Bean's Boromir.

Both points aren't even the main reason I've come to consider the latest offering so brightly.  The most maligned element of these new efforts may be that Jackson made the decision to expand the slender Hobbit into three films.  On the surface it is undoubtedly because he wanted a chance to make as many movies as possible out of it, because he was simply used to working like that, the traditional trilogy structure that he himself helped revive previously.  This required him to expand the material itself, which many observers have scoffed at, even though he had already liberally adapted Tolkien with his other films.  That he now did so at a substantially elevated rate meant Jackson would have greater control than ever before on his own legacy.

And this is a very good thing.  Audiences were originally very happy to see his interpretation of Middle Earth.  It's safe to say that as far as mainstream audiences go, anything anyone knows about Tolkien's fantasy world comes from Peter Jackson.  When he made the decision to adapt The Hobbit into a sequel/prequel, he had the chance to build on what he had done before, and in fact reverse engineer what J.R.R. Tolkien himself had done when he wrote Hobbit first and Lord of the Rings later, having to revise the first later in order to increase its significance and relation to the new material, especially in regards to that pesky ring Bilbo Baggins found.

It's more apparent in Desolation of Smaug than it was in An Unexpected Journey that Jackson was aware of this significant opportunity.  For one thing, everyone knew he would be adding in his own material far more in this one than the first.  The casting of Evangeline Lilly and return of Orlando Bloom were both signals, given who they would be playing, that this was where Jackson would be affecting the bulk of his expansion.

There are two very important things accomplished by the characters Lilly and Bloom play.  The first is that Lilly's Tauriel is an entirely new creation.  The second is that Bloom's Legolas patently did not appear in The Hobbit originally.  Legolas was a supporting character who mostly interacted comically with John Rhys Davies' Gimli when he wasn't shooting things dramatically with arrows.  Bloom had far more exposure as a would-be buccaneer in the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  He notably takes the opportunity to give a more dynamic performance this time, the same way Elijah Wood patently fashioned his reprisal of Frodo in Unexpected Journey after not his own original performance but Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter.

That in itself signals something important about Jackson's new films, and Smaug specifically.  He is more aware than anyone that the new films are an opportunity to improve on his original results.  I know, this sounds ridiculous.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was so beloved so instantly that Return of the King won the Best Picture at the 2004 Oscars.  This is practically unheard-of in genre film-making.  How do you possibly improve on that?  For most fans, they will be happy enough that Jackson's making new movies, but they secretly believe that they can never compare to the old ones.

It's a little like George Lucas, actually.  Star Wars fans will never understand how Lucas could look at his original trilogy and think, "Well that could be done better."  He's been thinking that so often in the past fifteen years or so, these fans have actively thought Lucas has a screw loose or something.  Yet an artist in a medium where the creative culture has long made it acceptable to tinker with the product, a process that begins on the original editing floor, can't help but think like that.  No other entertainment medium makes it so easy for the artist to do that.  When a song is changed, it's called a remix.  When a book is changed, that's usually just a expanded rerelease (which is extremely rare).  TV shows never change.  There's no reason to even consider it.

Anyway, so even outside of George Lucas, it happens in film on a fairly regular basis, and eventually Peter Jackson looked at his original trilogy and thought, "Well that could be done better."  He'd already done that, remember, with those extended editions.  A decade after working on the first trilogy, he finds himself in the position to do essentially the same thing all over again.  And so he figures out that this is an opportunity to sink himself even deeper into the artist's seat.  The first films were already hugely artistic successes.  They were such distinctive movies because of that.  Because he stumbled into becoming the steward of Tolkien, a role emphasized when the effort to let someone else direct additional material fell apart, Jackson could do what most people erroneously considered unthinkable.

He could make his efforts better.  The structure of the Hobbit trilogy is patterned after the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This is nakedly obvious.  The difference is that a Jackson who is engaged to a far greater degree because he has to come up with far more of the material himself is a director who has to take into account the full vision for himself.  Consequently, he does things like have Gandalf discover that the Necromancer is not just some random bogeyman but rather the first hints of Sauron's return, which necessarily force the same resonance in the rest of the material, which makes the whole thing about far more than a simple heroic quest, and far more like the epic journey Jackson previously tackled.  And because it's not just Tolkien in the material anymore, it's also Jackson and also more direct reflections on the world outside the studio window as the films are completed.

Smaug features greater emphasis on character arc and development than virtually every other Tolkien film so far.  This is another way I see a reflection of Sean Bean's Boromir, because it's in Fellowship and that character where this is previously and almost exclusively to be found otherwise.  Gollum is an eccentric whose journey spans two films and isn't as conclusive as it could be, but he's the next best example of this kind of work.  Everyone else is headed only toward the inevitable.  Because Jackson created someone new with Tauriel, he was forced to do the Boromir arc all over again.  He had to figure out what to do with the character.  And so Smaug features something at once familiar but also the most interesting thing about the film, a stopover with elves that ends up with the action Jackson clearly enjoys (which dominated both Return of the King and Unexpected Journey to detrimental degrees), dramatic rescues that in the arc of Tauriel have more to do with character development than the need to keep audiences engaged while elsewhere there's talk talk talk.

Lilly and Bloom, meanwhile, have the added bonus of defining the acting in the new films better than the assorted ranks of dwarves previously managed.  Lee Pace is likewise a standout as another of the elves.  Luke Evans as the requisite human-sized character assists as well. The voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug does what the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch always does, which is electrify those scenes.  Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen meanwhile continue to carry the heft of the rest of the cast.  The original films were not just at their best in the art but their terrific casting jobs, something that was so evident that nearly every actor in those films went on to at least one other prominent role in the decade that followed.  In a way, no matter how much Smaug improves on Unexpected Journey in that regard, there's no way these new films can match that record.

Peter Jackson clearly understood the potential of doing Tolkien all over again.  Desolation of Smaug is the moment he works his own best magic in these films.  If Pan's Labyrinth or Game of Thrones made what he previously accomplished look almost routine in retrospect, Jackson now accepted the task of doing something no one else could do.  I think he succeeded.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

#659. My Year in Parentheses

In the fall of 2011, my life kind of went to hell.

I mention this now because in some ways, all of that came to a head in 2013, and I'm hoping was resolved or at least began to be resolved.

The whole chain of Borders bookstores closed that fall, if you remember.  I finished my five-year journey with the company as it concluded its liquidation process.  At the time it was an exhilarating experience, but at the end of it I was also without a job.  I spent the rest of that year unemployed and looking for work.  When I finally got a new job, it was in a hell of a different stripe entirely.  (Call centers are patently criminal affairs.  They prey on stupidity.  If I were ever able to convince the United States, or any other country, to regulate businesses the way they regulate other things, this is where I would start, not, ironically, the asshole practices that gave us the Great Recession.)  I lost that job within six months and went back on unemployment.

(Unemployment, by the way, is both a terrific blessing and a terrible curse.  You have the whole day to yourself, basically, but you also feel a pounding pressure to once more contribute to society so that you can make money.  I get why we have money.  Money makes the world turn round.  I also see the real possibility that we could one day turn that ridiculous institution on its head.  I'm not a revolutionary.  I'm a human being.)

I spent a year working for Walmart.  Yeah.  So that happened.  Then I came back home.  I mean that literally.  I went full-circle all the way around.  I even went back to work for L.L.Bean.

Let's rewind the clock again.  It's now the fall of 2010, a full year earlier than the period at the start of this reflection.  My mom has just been diagnosed with cancer.  I've never written about this, but it has been dominating a significant portion of my life for three years now.  The worst days I've had in this period weren't on the unemployment line or a really bad job, or the financial crisis that led to the decision to move back home, but a week in the fall of 2010 when my mother for all intents and purposes looked like she had already lost her fight.

We need to rewind again.  The worst day I ever had at a hospital was some twenty years earlier still, when my mother's father was in his final days.  I cried more nakedly that day than I had before or have since.  I was all of ten years old, but knew it was incredibly serious when I saw that even my grandfather's distinctive pencil-thin mustache was gone.  (I'll never forgive the mortician who completely botched putting it back on him, because he was given a full mustache in death, and that was a rank insult.)

My mother spent the week in an induced sleep, and that was the worst way to visit her, at the start of her battle with cancer.  To me, who sees connections in everything, it looked like the end, right there at the beginning.

I'm not looking for your sympathy, by the way.  I don't want a single comment in that regard.  This is my battle.  If you're not busy supporting all of mankind every single day, even the people you lightly despise, you are not much of a human.  I hate to put that so nakedly, but there you are.  I'm not looking for popularity based on a morbid fascination.  I'm not looking to inspire you.  I'm a weak person trying to be strong, and I fail constantly.  I'm not being humble.  I'm not putting on an act.  Maybe I'm being this honest, in a reflection I've been planning for months, because that's the mood I'm in as I finally write it.  I live with the constant awareness of my failures.

She got better, of course, thankfully by the end of that week, just before I had to head back to my then-home in Colorado.

And although there were a lot of emotional developments along the way, she kept getting better, despite all the prognoses she received.  As far as her doctors were concerned, she should be dead by now.  We gathered the whole family for her 70th birthday in February of 2012 with the express belief that it might be the last happy memory she'd ever have.  We're headed toward the two-year anniversary of that reunion.

Earlier this year I began making daily phone calls to her.  I always tried to make weekly phone calls previous to that, but I decided that wasn't good enough, that she deserved more than that as she tried to fill time she now had in abundance.  This sometimes had the effect of forcing her to think about the very thing that had come to dominate her existence, which gave her true mortal fear, which sometimes only made it worse.  I tried to get better, stressing positives rather than negatives.  You can only go so far with that.

And I could only do so much.  Even now I can only do so much.

My life continued, of course.  My money stretched thin.  I never made much working for Borders.  They don't pay you well to sell books, mostly because even though a lot of the Internet or at least the corners I know best would seem to contradict this, books are hardly the most popular mode of entertainment we have in the 21st century.  They probably come in after the Internet itself, even though the things we have to promote the Internet today have also gone out of their way to promote books all over again, to inadequate effect as far as I'm concerned.

Money stretched very thin indeed while I was unemployed.  They paid worse for unemployment than for selling books.  As you may or may not have gleamed reading my thoughts and experiences for however long you have, I love popular culture.  I spend more money on it, or certainly have in the past, than I've made promoting it.  This is a a bad financial combination.  When I had my terrible job, I was making a good amount of money, and when I was working at Walmart I made a bad amount of money.  Eventually I couldn't outrun my bills anymore.  I was in dire straits this past summer.

I was also in the midst of a bed bug infestation.  (I will never ever again listen to the term "don't let the bed bugs bite" with any trace of good humor.)  I spent the last six years or so living in the same apartment with the same habits, and yet was blamed for the infestation, even though it became apparent later that it had come from someone else.  I was never given an apology.  My whole world was turned upside down all over again.  And I was already in the midst of knowing I needed a drastic change.  And so that was the definitive turning point in my decision to move back home.

It took bed bugs to make me do the right thing, both by my own finances and by my mother.  I feel pretty ashamed about that, by the way.

My parents had been trying to sell the family house for two years.  They finally succeeded in the fall.  (Change is appropriate for this season.)  When I got back I was immediately thrust into the blitzkrieg of clearing out a house that had accumulated nearly thirty years worth of living in it.  We didn't make the deadline.  We pushed on with some much-appreciated help from some of my father's co-workers.  It was accomplished.

(That was the culmination of a whole journey I did write about, which is part of a whole different running theme in my life, my relationship with my sister, the one I lived with or near for the better part of the last decade, a relationship I greatly value and which greatly affected the course of my life over that period, to the degree that I cannot properly express here.  Suffice to say, but the most visible aspect of this relationship has been evident in my writings, and that for me is one way to define how important something is to me.)

I feel like a failure all the time.  I never quite fit in.  I'm always the odd man out.  My thought process is always operating at a different wavelength than those around me.  I've seldom known what to do about that.  Often, it's made me angry.  This is how I process it, and it's healthy and unhealthy at the same time.

When I approach my own mother like that, though, it just doesn't seem okay.  She's not herself anymore.  She's doing far better than she has any right to be doing, and the cancer itself doesn't seem to be doing anything at this point, but she's on the business end of her mortal coil.  That much seems evident.  It scares me greatly.  Her mind is slipping.  I've learned that this is a stage in a person's life that brings into sharp focus everything they always were.  The more you retreat to protect yourself, the more you become yourself.  I try not to judge my mother in this regard.  But I am struggling more and more with how to deal with this.  She demands a great deal of patience.  She exhausts herself in apologies.  She's in constant conflict with herself.  She doesn't know how she fits in with the world anymore.  And I don't know how to help her with that.

(Still, I beg you, do not reply with sympathy.  You may not even believe in prayer, but when you wish well on all humanity, which I believe all good humanity does as a matter of instinct, that's what you're doing.  Christians have this particular belief that prayers for specific individuals can act as an intercession.  In some cases this is relevant, but I believe in the sense that positive leads to positive.  Otherwise what happens is what is supposed to happen.  We only experience the world linearly.  Everything that will ever happen has already happened.  You can't change that, because you will have already.  It's the basic paradox of life.  It's the mystery that makes it so hard to deal with difficult experiences.)

2013 has been a year of transition.  I've struggled more than in any other year of my life to find my way.  I've struggled to find out where I fit in with the rest of the world.  Even here, in my blogging adventures, I've struggled.  Anyone who's read me regularly will know that.

I consider a good day one in which I'm not actively fighting any battles, or when I've managed to say or write something that makes sense of this crazy life.  I consider my writing a way of processing my experiences.  If I sometimes seem condescending to the writing of others, it's because I cannot comprehend how they can take it so lightly when it means so much to me.  I write as I read, and I read as someone who finds his best connection with humanity in the words of others.  I devote myself to popular culture because of this connection.  It's my one real tether to the world.  This becomes more important when my mother, my first and best tether, begins to slip away.  I'm not looking to escape.  I'm looking to find my way.

In the end, we're all a very small part of a very big world.  Sometimes we feel smaller.  Sometimes our basic survival instinct of arrogance makes us feel bigger.  My parentheses are my arrogance.  I tell myself all the things I never hear anyone else say.  (Again, again, please don't tell me anything like that now.  I would consider the best response to this reflection to be no response at all.  This is my arrogance.  This is my pride.  An isolated individual needs to tell himself a lot of things.  What he doesn't need is the appearance of something that he keenly feels every day as an absence that has come to define and inform his entire existence.)

That's my life at the end of this year.  I'm hoping for better next year.  Conceivably, as it has been conceivable since the fall of 2010, the worst will finally happen in one key element of this tapestry.  I'm not afraid of death.  I'm more afraid of life.  I'm afraid of watching it, experiencing it, slip away.  I'm a coward.  It was bravery and selfishness that brought me back home, a naked financial need.  I find myself inadequate to the task of providing my mother with the comfort she desperately needs, the unconditional understanding she craves.  I thought it would be easier.  I thought, as I thought when I began making the phone calls, that my presence alone would reassure her.  This is not the case.  Nothing is ever that simple.  My battle is the fight of my mother's life, a war that already has a conclusion, just waiting to happen.  It feels bad just knowing that I sometimes thought the worst of this year was money.  What I was feeling in my worst days, my mother has felt for three years on a completely different scale.

I'm only now beginning to fully appreciate that.  My challenge for the new year isn't to fight her battle for her, but to overcome my own limitations.  I can't say how that'll go.  I can only hope for the best.

One final time, because I absolutely mean it, none of this was meant to provoke anything but a clearing of my own conscience, a reckoning with a period of my life that in some ways has come to an end, and in others is just beginning.  We define a lot of our lives by time.  When time becomes a precious commodity we feel it most keenly.  Sometimes I feel as if I'm stealing time from myself.  I'm not even sure which aspects of my life I'm stealing the time from, or if that's my whole life.  I call this the year of parentheses because that's exactly how it felt.  It was a reckoning.  I hope I've learned something from it.  The new job is the same as an old job I had at the start of the millennium, but it's also completely different now than it was then.  That's one way I know I've changed.  I hope for the better.

Friday, December 27, 2013

#658. The Cephalopod Coffeehouse December 2013

Please direct all congratulations and lamentations to A Squid for another Cephalopod Coffeehouse post.

This month since I've been reading the Bible (yes, that Bible) and am nowhere near finishing (although if you really want you can read along with me as I muse on my experiences here), I don't have a book like usual to talk about, but rather a different kind of reading experience entirely.

Comic strips!  Specifically, Over the Hedge: Stuffed Animals, which was originally released and I bought back in 2006, when the movie adaptation was also in theaters (Bruce Willis has one of his overlooked but always amusing voiceover roles in it).  I've actually been reading this collection off and on since that year.  This is not a judgment on the cartoon strip, but rather a sad indictment on the state of comic strips in general.  Because without this collection, or the Internet, I would never have read Over the Hedge at all.  I've never seen it in a newspaper, and that's one of the many criminal things to talk about today.

(Incidentally, one of the more popular posts I've done on any of my blogs was all about building a new comic strip line-up from obscure and familiar favorites, which you can read here. I suspect that some of the visits have been from bookmarks people have returned to as they read my digital compilation.)

I love comic strips.  My all-time favorite, as it is for many other dedicated fans even though it ceased publication way back in 1994 (twenty years ago!), is Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes.  I have many other favorites.  My current favorite is Pearls Before Swine.  It's the main reason I don't want crocodiles for neighbors.  (They're idiots.)

Big Nate was created by a Maine native, but isn't popular enough in Maine to have stuck in my local paper.  It's since been extended into Diary of a Wimpy Kid-esque books, and that's been fun to see.  I enjoy that one.  I love Red & Rover, which is a perennial contender for Calvin & Hobbes-esque.  I love Zits.  I love Sally Forth.  I can't believe that FoxTrot has never become a beloved cultural institution, even though it basically invented our current event culture thanks to reliably nerdy Jason, who embodied The Big Bang Theory long before The Big Bang Theory ever existed.

I think the idea of the comic strip is an endangered species.  Yes, comic strips can exist on the Internet.  There are many comic strips that were born on the Internet and have made names for themselves.  But they are inherently a newspaper institution.  They're the last best social commentary we have.

That's what Over the Hedge is all about, by the way.  It features a band of woodland creatures who are forever commenting on the saddest aspects of American culture, all the stuff everyone else always complains about, but with fuzzy creatures who have lives and obsessions of their own (RJ the raccoon made a artform of obsessing over Twinkies long before Zombieland).

Maybe it was Watterson's principled fight against commercialism, but no comic strip since, except for Dilbert, has managed to pierce the heart of popular culture the way Garfield and Peanuts did and still do.  It's not a matter of stagnancy, as some observers are always saying.  You can ignore the likes of Family Circus, by all means!

I wish Dilbert were as successful in an overt way as it has in a subversive one, but as much as it lampoons everything, basically, that led to the Great Recession, it hasn't changed anything.  Yes, I take the funnies seriously.

And I wish more people were aware that an Over the Hedge movie exists, and that an Over the Hedge daily comic strip exists.

Although I would also be content to see Bill Watterson enshrined as one of the 20th century's great artists, where he rightly belongs...That's the strength of comic strips at their very finest.  That's worth preserving.  Newspapers don't seem like they will be around much longer.  How much longer still until comic strips disappear?  I don't think I want to see that day...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

#657. Christmas Blogathon of Doom!!! returns

The Christmas Blogathon of Doom was something that happened last year.  It was participated in by folks like Briane Pagel, the ubiquitous Pat Dilloway, Andrew Leon, Vanna Smythe, and Lara Schiffbauer as a shameless and innovative way to promote creative projects.  At the time, you may or may not recall, we thought the Mayans had doomed us all with their poor calendar-making skills.  We're still here (or perhaps we're someplace else and we're just waiting for M. Night Shyamalan to explain), so I figured that was excuse enough to do a reprise.  That and I wanted a reason to write a story that occurred to me the other day...

The Snowman

I don't know what we were expecting at the time.  I'm sure I knew then, but too much has happened since.  I'm rattled.  I'm pretty sure I'm going to die.  And how these things often seem to go, it all seemed so innocent at the start... 
Jimmy, Lucy and I were just some kids playing in the snow.  Even kids get cold after a while.  They remember that they're outside in the middle of winter.  We ducked into this antique shop and had a look around.  I don't remember the name of the place.  Maybe it's just as well.  God knows what else lurks precariously in its apparently harmless trinkets of years gone by. 
The hat, the stupid hat, the ridiculous top hat.  It was out of our reach.  We should have kept it that way.  The shop owner, who didn't have anything better to do, had been watching us.  He had a musty odor.  He asked if we could use some help.  Probably he thought we were trying to steal things.  I'm sure Jimmy did, but that was no longer important after what happened.  Lucy eagerly accepted the hat.  She looked adorable when she put it on.  I didn't realize how cute she was at the time.  I probably would have married her. 
We walked back out into the gusty air.  It was flurrying.  I said we should make a snowman.  I should have kept my stupid mouth shut. 
By the time we were done, I found myself looking at the hat that still sat perched on Lucy's head.  I should have just been like every other boy, nursing a childhood crush on the girl I was lucky enough to call my best friend.  But I was looking at that stupid hat.  I said, "Why don't we put it on the snowman's head?"  And so we did. 
The snowman came to life.  It began to dance and sing.  Jimmy and I actually joined in, and then so did Lucy.  For one brief magical moment, the world was exactly the fantasy you can only really believe in when you're young. 
And then, just as childhood itself is always threatening, the looming awareness you can only fight if you contradict everyone else around you, the real world reared its head.  The snowman turned toward us.  And then he ran away.  
He ran so fast that it was all we could do to keep him just in sight, keenly aware that our boots were not at all like our summer sneakers.  Jimmy was laughing, Lucy giggling, and I'm sure I had a huge grin on my face.  We thought this was the greatest development yet.  How were we to know that the snowman would so quickly develop a mind of its own, or that it would be resentful that it owed its whole existence to a fluke, or that the hat had once belonged to a serial killer? 
That's the explanation for the Snowman Murders.  It was actually a snowman.  The snowman.  The explanation no one would believe except the lunatic fringe.  When Jimmy died, I didn't believe it myself.  When I was holding Lucy in my arms, the years having passed and her having become really a great beauty, I started to believe.  I didn't want to, but now I had to.  And it was all my fault. 
The snowman is coming for me, isn't he?  Perhaps this is how it will finally end.  If I'm lucky.

Monday, December 23, 2013

#656. The year in wrestling

2013 was an interesting year to be a wrestling fan, not 1998 interesting (when you had the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Goldberg, the nWo, and just about everything else firing on all cylinders), but about as good a year as you can have without any significant mainstream interest in the product.

The year started with as much of that as you could expect with Dwayne Johnson's reprise of The Rock hitting its stride as he defeated CM Punk for the WWE championship (snapping an historic reign that lasted for more than a year), setting up the John Cena rematch at WrestleMania 29, an encounter that was better than last year's original for having something they could both work off of.

After that both WWE and wrestling as a whole struggled to find a way to follow up on that.  Cena is this generation's golden boy, the company face who has been dominating the top of the scene for years now, and this was supposed to be the year where he got to enjoy that again for the first time in a while (it may be worth noting that he'd been building toward this moment since 2010).  He eventually used it as a way to help push the career of Daniel Bryan into the main event, which is something that happened at this year's Summer Slam.  The results of that moment are still developing, so they're a little hard to fully appreciate, but here's what it's looked like for the past few months:

Daniel Bryan is a consummate wrestler's wrestler.  His emergence as a viable personality has been one of the more surprising career breakthroughs of the past few years (and perhaps interestingly or not, but this is also a journey that began in 2010).  After beating Cena for the WWE title, he was immediately thrust into a program with Triple H and Randy Orton that looked for all intents and purposes like the 2013 version of the Steve Austin saga.  But it took a few additional turns.  Orton eventually clamped onto the title, and a couple of weeks ago defeated Cena, who had returned after taking a brief hiatus to capture the world heavyweight championship, which meant for the first time since 2002 the company has an undisputed champion in Orton.

Daniel Bryan, meanwhile, isn't done yet.  Cena keeps reminding fans that he's still a viable contender, which could bode very interesting for WrestleMania 30.  Who knows where the company is going with this?  Bryan could win the 2014 Royal Rumble and as a result head to the top of the year's biggest card.  It would be the first time since 2005 that the company has attempted to make a permanent new headliner at WrestleMania.  Then again, he might be headed to a match with the Undertaker, who has consistently defended his WrestleMania winning streak against stars who had breakout years in the preceding twelve months but the company had since moved on from, which is what happened to CM Punk this year.  Punk was supposed to be the major star of 2012, and by all rights he was, but given that the company had to keep a huge emphasis on Cena to keep the Rock momentum going, there was only so much Punk could do to keep his name among WWE's most prominent even as champion.

There's also Ryback.  Ryback was supposed to be the new Goldberg, the WWE Goldberg.  Goldberg in the WWE wasn't like the WCW Goldberg (as I watched the recent DVD career compilation, I realized more and more than the WCW Goldberg was different and far more interesting than fans have generally admitted).  But as the WWE Goldberg from the start, Ryback has had a tall order to fulfill.  His journey began in 2012.  Most expectations assumed he'd be much farther along at this point, and losing far fewer matches (including the stunner at this year's WrestleMania against Mark Henry), but all this is guaranteeing that if he ever makes it as far as it seems he should, he won't be the WWE Goldberg after all.  He won't be Brock Lesnar.  He won't even be Batista (who rumors are suggesting will be making a 2014 comeback).  This will be a monster who is used to being a part of the machine, who has had a huge push and also known the humbling phase most stars must experience.  Goldberg didn't have that.  Lesnar didn't have that.  After WWE realized what it had in him, Batista didn't have that.  If it works, Ryback could be huge in 2014.  Just not in 2013.  But by all means, feed him more, guys!

In TNA, the Aces & Eights angle dominated the company for the early part of the year, until someone realized that company ace A.J. Styles had been set up to make a defining impact at this year's Bound for Glory, the TNA equivalent of WrestleMania.  Enough people had already been describing the Phenomenal One's dramatic makeover as too reminiscent of Sting's from the nWo era (when he turned into the Crow) that the gears obviously had to be shifted.  So the transitional Chris Sabin reign with the TNA championship happened.  Bully Ray won it back.  And then Styles did what he was supposed to.  And then the company did what all three major US promotions did this year: it made the championship scene interesting again by putting the champion's status in dispute, thus making it far more important in 2013 than in a very long time to be talking about the company's champion.  Styles has been haggling over a new contract with TNA for weeks now.  It's conceivable that the company's franchise player will be leaving.  Conceivable and inconceivable at the same time!  In the meantime, Magnus recently captured the title after it had been vacated by the company but not A.J. Styles, who has been touring the globe with it.  Magnus is interesting, because TNA has been trying to make a British wrestler significant in the company for years now.  This is the guy who finally made it happen.  He's a fresh face and comes with far fewer expectations than anyone else they've tried in this position (Bobby Roode, James Storm, Austin Aries, Sabin).  If he comes out of the Styles program looking good, he might be the guy who turns the company's fortunes around to actual significance in competition with WWE.

Ken Anderson, meanwhile, is just one of many wrestlers who were once significant in WWE but turned to TNA for a second chance.  He had a big year in 2011, capturing the TNA championship twice.  If he didn't make it bigger at that time it was because TNA has always been a company that finds it difficult to focus on one star long enough to really make a difference.  A few times, guys like Styles, Roode, Kurt Angle, and Jeff Hardy have had that opportunity, but time and again TNA fails to capitalize with a program as memorable as the champion.  Jeff Jarrett, ironically, came closest.  As co-founder of the company, he was also the perennial champion for the first few years, the heel in the same vein as Triple H and JBL that everyone just wanted to see defeated already.  Anderson struggled to bounce back.  2013 was a good year for that, though.  He'd joined the Aces & Eights faction as the most notable name defector not previously established as a secret member, but his role in that capacity wasn't significant until he made the decision to leave.  I'm hoping this is momentum he can use to have a bigger 2014.  He's long been a favorite of mine, one of wrestling's best personalities and unusual in the ring besides.  I would not mind at all if he makes it back to the top of the card.

ROH, the third promotion in the American cog, actually got the ball rolling as far as the 2013 disputed championship scene went, and this was something the company badly needed, after losing most of its defining stars in the past few years (including CM Punk and Daniel Bryan).  The Briscoe brothers who are not the 1970s Brisco brothers (which eventually gave us one of Mr. McMahon's favorite stooges) had their chance to shine when Jay Briscoe captured the ROH championship.  In an echo of the same quagmire Shawn Michaels found himself in in 1993 that eventually led to the historic 1994 ladder match at WrestleMania 10, Jay's contract with the company was terminated during his reign, and so ROH went in search of a new champion, and found it in Adam Cole, a face as equally fresh as Magnus.  But by year's end, Jay was challenging Cole's right to the title.  Could make for a very interesting early 2014 for the company.

On the indy scene, John Morrison remained active.  Morrison is another huge favorite of mine, a WWE star who like Ken Anderson (then known as Mr. Kennedy) never quite broke through to the level of success his talent richly deserved.  His contract expired at the end of 2011, and Morrison took time off to heal nagging injuries.  Reports of his imminent return have been circulating almost since the time he left, and maybe that will finally happen in 2014.  I can certainly hope!

And Corporate Kane happened.  How did Kane become the most interesting and most likely to evolve personality in wrestling?  Glen Jacobs had tried a couple of times to make a name for himself in WWE.  His first name was Isaac Yankem, Jerry Lawler's dentist.  Then he was the New Diesel.  Then he was Kane, the Undertaker's masked brother.  Then Kane unmasked.  Then he masked up again.  And now he's probably the most interesting thing about Triple H's Authority regime.  So, yes, Corporate Kane.  It only figures!

Other names to watch in 2014 include the members of the Shield (Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, who somehow sustained their big debut in the fall of 2012 for a full year), the Wyatt Family (who have somehow managed to duplicate the success of the Shield), Cody Rhodes (thanks to big brother Goldust, getting another shot at a breakthrough), Damien Sandow and Dolph Ziggler (both looking, as always, for something worthy of their talents), Big E Langston (receiving a big push now), and who knows as far as new and returning wrestlers!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

#655. 101 books from 2013

Way back at the start of November, Pat Dilloway did a recap of all the books he'd read in 2013.  Don't tell him I said so, but it got me thinking.  I've logged all the books I've read this year at my Goodreads account, making it easy to keep score.  Why not do a recap myself?  And while I didn't get anywhere near as impressive as Dilloway's 200+, I hit 101, and thought that was a pretty good number, so that was all the motivation I needed to do this.  And because I'm obsessive like that, I'm ranking them based on the star scores I originally gave them...

  1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
  2. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  3. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
  4. Insane City by Dave Barry
  5. Zulu by Caryl Ferey
  6. The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano
  7. The Annotated Sandman Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman, Leslie S. Klinger/various
  8. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
  10. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carre
  11. Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco
  12. A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre
  13. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
  14. Call for the Dead by John le Carre
  15. Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
  16. Batman and Robin: Pearl by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
  17. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
  18. Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver
  19. G.I. Joe: Cobra - Son of the Snake by Mike Costa, Antonio Fuso
  20. A Murder of Quality by John le Carre
  21. Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolano
  22. Lunatics by Dave Barry, Alan Zweibel
  23. Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman/various
  24. Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith
  25. The Starman Omnibus Vol. 6 by James Robinson/various
  26. War of the Green Lanterns by Geoff Johns/various
  27. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
  28. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
  29. Doom Patrol: The Painting That Ate Paris by Grant Morrison/various
  30. Doom Patrol: Down Paradise Way by Grant Morrison/various
  31. 7 Against Chaos by Harlan Ellison, Paul Chadwick
  32. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
  33. How I Became Stupid by Martin Page
  34. Ask the Dust by John Fante
  35. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  36. The Friedkin Connection by William Friedkin
  37. Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
  38. Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  39. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  40. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley
  41. Hellblazer: Rare Cuts by various
  42. The Otter, the Spotted Frog, and the Great Flood by Gerald Hausman
  43. Cave of the Dark Wind by Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson
  44. The Boy Who Played with Dark Matter by Holy Ghost Writer
  45. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  46. "Ikibukuro West Gate Park" by Ira Ishida from Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs
  47. Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts 
  48. The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi
  49. Day of Judgment by Geoff Johns, Matt Smith
  50. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  51. Over the Hedge: Stuffed Animals by Michael Fry, T. Lewis
  52. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  53. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  54. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
  55. None Died in Vain by Robert Leckie
  56. Kaboom! by Jeph Loeb, Jeff Matsuda
  57. Supergods by Grant Morrison
  58. The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano
  59. Strange and Amazing Facts About Star Trek by Daniel Cohen
  60. The March by E.L. Doctorow
  61. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
  62. Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
  63. Fated by S.G. Browne
  64. The New Teen Titans Archives Vol. 1 by Marv Wolfman, George Perez
  65. Green Lantern: Brightest Day by Geoff Johns/various
  66. Olympus by Geoff Johns/various
  67. Martin Monsterman by Manny Trembley
  68. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey, Aaron McConnell
  69. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  70. Blockade Billy by Stephen King
  71. The New Avengers Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen
  72. CassaStorm by Alex J. Cavanaugh
  73. Bayou Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love
  74. Flashpoint: The World of Flashpoint featuring Superman by various
  75. Star Trek Online: The Needs of the Many by Michael A. Martin
  76. Gone to Amerikay by Derek McCulloch, Colleen Doran
  77. Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes by Ed Brubaker, Chris Samnee
  78. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Prophecy and Change by various
  79. We Are Now by various
  80. Batman: No Man's Land Vol. 4 by various
  81. Circuits of the Wind Vol. 1 by Michael Stutz
  82. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  83. Fanon by John Edgar Wideman
  84. Rez Salute by Jim Northrup
  85. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence
  86. Astronauts in Trouble by Larry Young/various
  87. The Best American Comics 2007 by various
  88. A Hero's Journey by P.T. Dilloway
  89. Star Trek: Enterprise - The Good That Men Do by Andy Mangels, Michael A. Martin
  90. Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations - Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett
  91. JSA: Fair Play by Geoff Johns/various
  92. Sky Pirates of Valendor Vol. 1 by Everett Soares
  93. Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham/various
  94. The Curse of Selwood by Martin T. Ingham
  95. The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton
  96. Circuits of the Wind Vol. 2 by Michael Stutz
  97. Circuits of the Wind Vol. 3 by Michael Stutz
  98. Noah's Ark by Andrew J. Morgan
  99. Azlander: Second Nature by Gabriel Brunsdon
  100. Manifesto by Anonymous
  101. Why I Became a Muslim by Ian Nisbet

Saturday, December 21, 2013

#654. Ranking the first half-decade of Avengers films

I'm a DC guy.  Always have been, suspect I always will be.  But I like superheroes, and I love them in movies, and most of the superhero movies since 2008 have featured Marvel characters, and most prominently as part of the ambitious Avengers cycle.  Technically it began in the noncanonical Hulk from 2003, the Ang Lee comic-book-as-art-project effort that starred Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Nick Nolte, thematically so similar to the later films that it might as well be included.  It may arguably still be my favorite.  I mean, wasn't Nolte just born to be a tortured soul in a superhero movie?  The likes of him have never been matched.

The official entries began in 2008, with Iron Man and Incredible Hulk (a quasi-sequel to the 2003 film).  And then they kept coming, and they keep coming.  None of them has to my mind even approached the sheer brilliance of Batman Begins, say, which itself is not nearly as awe-inspiring as The Dark Knight.  But they've been entertaining, easily the best movies ever based on Marvel characters (though X2 will always be the highwater mark for some, and the original Sam Raimi Spider-Mans 1 & 2).  When you strike such instant gold as Robert Downey, Jr. pulling the Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow synergy with Tony Stark, a character who had no cultural relevance at all until 2008, you've done something very, very right.

So here's how I rank the first eight in the cycle:

  1. Iron Man 2 (2010) For most fans, this was actually one of the more disappointing efforts, but for me it's the one that best understands Downey, Jr.'s Stark and manages a complete and satisfying film around him, contrasted nicely with Sam Rockwell (who is always awesome) as Stark's exact opposite.  Toss in Mickey Rourke (who is also always awesome), Scarlett Johansson's debut as Black Widow, John Slattery as Howard Stark (making technology more essential to Iron Man than simply being a superhero basically in order to survive), Gwyneth Paltrow (who's always awesome), and Don Cheadle (who's always awesome!), and it's the best ensemble for any Avengers movie to date.  And this one's not at all afraid to make a statement about the nature of the superhero in terms of the public, or government, either.  Through and through a solid effort.
  2. The Avengers (2012) I've been all over the map on this one, but finally, I've come to determine it to be what everyone else on the planet has decided, that it's just plain great entertainment.  The gang's all here, and the best villain of the cycle, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, manages to steal the show.  More and more, I've decided that the proper attitude toward this one, even if there's no real weight behind any of it, is what's not to love?
  3. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) The straightest version of a superhero movie Marvel has managed to do, and actually manages to capture pretty much the whole history of the genre in a single film.  Impressive.
  4. Thor: The Dark World (2013) The most recent release, I found this to be a vast improvement over its Norse predecessor.  Anthony Hopkins, for one, seems to have been inspired (and the inspiration came directly from his Alexander performance as the aged Ptolemy, which is not a bad thing to evoke, considering that's my all-time favorite movie).  It plays like a cross between Hellboy and Lord of the Rings.  Loki actually doesn't have a terribly strong showing in this one, but that's okay.  This movie has Kat Dennings, in the single greatest comedic performance in a superhero movie to date, with a game Natalie Portman attempting to keep up with her.  Thor is busy being as straight a superhero as you can get, but manages to hold his own with Loki for the first time.
  5. Iron Man (2008) The first half of this one sets the perfect tone and is probably as good as anything else in the cycle.  The second half, not so much, about as generic as anything else in the cycle.
  6. Thor (2011) For the sheer dynamite of Loki's debut, it's better than it actually is, which is about as mediocre as you can get.
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013) A disappointment after everything that came before it, not terrible but also almost instantly completely pointless.  Its one thrill is Ben Kingsley's unexpected reclaiming of his own cinematic persona from Daniel Day-Lewis, who's raided it at least twice (seriously, There Will Be Blood).
  8. The Incredible Hulk (2008) I love Edward Norton, but there was nothing he could do to salvage this entirely generic affair.
How will next year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier compare?  (All signs point to "very favorably.")  Will Guardians of the Galaxy be considered related enough to the cycle to be relevant in the discussion?  What about 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron?  Will Paul Rudd be able to make Ant-Man vastly different from the thematically similar and routinely disappointing Hulk efforts?  And why was Benicio del Toro so laughably channeling the Schumacher Batman era as the Collector, anyway?  And when will we reach Thanos?  And will it be worth it???

Friday, December 20, 2013

#653. 7 incarnations of Peter Pan

One of my biggest fan obsessions is Peter Pan.  For whatever reason, the boy who wouldn't grow up has always fascinated me, so it's been fun to experience different incarnations besides the J.M. Barrie original (which started out as a play):

  • Peter Pan (1953) The classic Disney animated feature was probably my first exposure to the character, which did not at all prepare me for how very-less-than-angelic Tinker Bell really is.
  • Hook (1991) This was my second.  I think it's always suffered from a poor reputation because most people thought of it as either a Robin Williams movie, a Dustin Hoffman movie, or a Steven Spielberg movie.  For me, it was always a Peter Pan movie, or more accurately, a Pan-the-Man movie, what happens when he grows up, and how ironic that Captain Hook himself never moved on.  If anyone was ever born to play an adult Peter Pan, it was Williams, and for me, this will always be a signature role.  (Notable actress playing Tink: Julia Roberts.)
  • Peter Pan (2003) Created to cash in on the Harry Potter craze, this live action adaptation had the great benefit of exposing me to the long stage tradition of Hook and Mr. Darling be portrayed by the same actor, in this instance rather brilliantly by the perennially underrated Jason Isaacs.  (Notable actress playing Tink: Ludivine Sagnier, who at the time was much more well-known thanks to her provocative role in the movie Swimming Pool.)
  • Finding Neverland (2004) Less about Peter Pan himself and more his creator, and the sweet brood of boys who helped inspire him.
  • Peter and the Starcatchers (2004) The first in the Starcatcher series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, another attempt to make Peter Pan relevant to the Harry Potter generation.  There were five books in all, plus a stage adaptation (fittingly enough).  This one had the added advantage of allowing me to indulge two obsessions at once (Dave Barry is more or less Peter Pan himself).
  • Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006) This is the authorized sequel, the product of a contest held by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was granted the official rights to the character by Barrie.  I haven't actually read this, perhaps out of morbid fear that it wouldn't live up to expectations (I read a Hook origin novel that didn't), and partly because I'd entertained hope to enter and win the contest myself.  I didn't and so I didn't.  But I would probably still like my idea better (down, inner Dilloway, down!)...
  • Neverland (2011) A sort of Charles Dickens version of Peter Pan, featuring Rhys Ifans as Hook.  It's funny, because Ifans interacted with a different Peter (by a few degrees) in The Amazing Spider-Man the next year.  (Notable actress playing Tink: Keira Knightley.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

#652. The most wonderful cartoon time of the year!

I love the Christmas season for a lot of reasons, and one of them is certainly the annual tradition of the TV networks broadcasting the familiar line-up of animated specials.  My favorites of the old perennials will always be (as they are for many people) Rudolph and Charlie Brown.

Two of my more recent favorites are Hoops and Yoyo Ruin Christmas

and Olive, the Other Reindeer

Hoops and Yoyo, in case like me you couldn't remember their names for the longest time, are the excitable chatterboxes featured in many of Hallmark's audio-enabled greeting cards.  I love them.  I'm obsessed with them!  And they have a shot at immortality now that they have their own Christmas special.  It's funny, too, because at first it's confusing how they're not excitable chatterboxes throughout the special, but once that sinks in...they're still Hoops and Yoyo!

Olive, meanwhile, is a Matt Groening creation.  It's perhaps the one role of Drew Barrymore's (she's the voice in the special) where her insufferable childish voice really works for me.  We're currently knee-deep in Groening's Simpsons era.  Groening himself probably sees his fairly obscure Life in Hell cartoon strip as an equal part of his legacy, but in the long run Olive may actually outstrip them both, if he ever catches on the way Rudolph did (in huge part thanks to that song).

Which kind of reminds me, isn't it possible if they keep airing them that kids of the future will only know Shrek from his holiday specials?  How weird a thought is that?

I was thinking of a few new specials I'd love to see.  One would feature Invader Zim.  I thought I was alone in being obsessed with him, but apparently there's a whole cult following.  With good reason!  The other would feature Larfleeze, a signature creation for Geoff Johns in his extended Green Lantern run.  Larfleeze is the only Orange Lantern, because his power ring exaggerates avarice in its bearer.  He's the DC equivalent of the Grinch and Scrooge (with no redemption to date).  His very first solo adventure was a Christmas one-shot issue. This would be an ideal basis for a TV special.  I'm just saying!

As far as live action material goes, my annual Christmas tradition is watching Patrick Stewart's A Christmas Carol.

And because this will be my one post this season on the matter, happy holidays to all!

Monday, December 16, 2013

#651. 7 Star Trek characters who need to appear in the new films

I love the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot.  I've said it before.  It bears repeating.  I love both of the films to date, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), both of which create something new while cleverly acknowledging what has come before.  As a long-time fan, I can't help but hope more familiar faces keep popping up in these films, and so here are my votes for who should definitely make that cut:

  • Decker - There are two Deckers to consider, actually, and they're equally viable candidates.  The first is Matt Decker, who appeared in the original series episode "The Doomsday Machine."  The second is Will Decker, who nearly replaced Kirk as captain of the Enterprise in The Motion Picture and was famously an inspiration for the later Will Riker in The Next Generation.  More on both of them a little later in my not-so-secret bonus at the end of the list...
  • Number One - The biggest loss from the original pilot to the original series, "The Cage," was the female commander played by Majel Barrett (the actress rebounded with two iconic roles, Chapel and Lwaxana Troi, plus the voice of Starfleet computers, of course, plus marrying the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry).  This would have been a pretty historic character in the history of television.  It's time she's given a second shot, and a name!
  • Gary Mitchell - Some of the speculation concerning Benedict Cumberbatch's then-mysterious role in Into Darkness was that he was going to be this guy, an old friend of Kirk's who ends up with justified delusions of godhood who showed up in the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."  I think that could still make for a compelling movie character.
  • Garth - One of a number of Starfleet luminaries to appear in the original series in later corrupted form, Garth was a brilliant captain who basically ended up suffering from PTSD, and was featured in "Whom Gods Destroy."  Whether he appears in relation to Gary Mitchell or as a consequence of Admiral Marcus' shenanigans in Into Darkness, he could serve as a nice counterpoint to Kirk.
  • Harry Mudd - A recurring character in the original series who even popped up in the later animated series, Mudd was obliquely referenced in Into Darkness already ("the Mudd incident"), although in the comic book prequel was gender-flipped.  Fans don't seem as wild about him today, so he could use some redemption in the movies.
  • Cartwright - Featured in both The Voyage Home and The Undiscovered Country, Cartwright was Admiral Marcus before Admiral Marcus ever existed, and seeing that both of them were heavily obsessed with the Klingons, who are bound to be featured in the next movie one way or another, that makes a natural fit for Cartwright right there, an attempt to succeed where Marcus failed.
  • Chang - There are a number of iconic Klingons from the original series (Kor, Kang, and Koloth, who later reappeared in Deep Space Nine in one of the niftiest nods to continuity in the franchise), but Chang's role in The Undiscovered Country makes him more of a natural rival to Kirk, and it would be fun to see that revisited, while they're both in their primes.
And now my vision for the third film in the rebooted film series:

The story needs to be cyclical.  I'm a sucker for literary storytelling like this, and a lot of that cyclical framework has already been built into the two previous films.  Here's how it happens: Kirk and Carol Marcus once again have a baby together.  Just as our intrepid captain is contemplating some well-deserved personal time, another crisis rears its ugly head.  It's Decker, perhaps Will Decker the son trying to atone for the sins of his father Matt, obsessing over the the Doomsday Machine.  Trouble is, the Klingons have noticed it, too, and like the Genesis Device of a previous movie trilogy, Starfleet finds itself in unexpected competition with the Klingon Empire (a nice echo, too, to the relationship originally featured in the series).  Long story short, it boils down to Kirk having to make the same sacrifice his father did at the start of the first movie.  In order to give his son a future he has to die.  This was already teased in Into Darkness.  The films could very easily continue with Spock as captain.  And the kicker would be using the same music that serenades George Kirk's sacrifice as Jim Kirk does the same.  Wipe tears, movie history achieved.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

#650. Next Generation Rewind: 7 points to keep in mind for an Abrams style movie reboot

I personally love the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot.  I never thought that I'd love any reboot.  I dreaded the idea.  But the two Abrams films, I love them, I really do.  Half the reason is because they figured out how to make character-driven material out of characters who had previously only been able to manage that, basically, when Spock died.  And, again, that's with characters who previously had not had a lot of definition to them.

The major difference between the original Star Trek and everything that came after it is that the later crews were all stooped heavily in background material, starting with The Next Generation, even if a few of the biographies were taken from past Gene Roddenberry projects.  Besides the material that came prepackaged, the second Star Trek crew was also the first to have adventures that actively added to their stories.

Assuming this is ever attempted, and if any Star Trek after the original ever gets this treatment this crew's the most obvious beneficiary, these are the points that would help make a truly stellar movie (series):

  • Jean-Luc Picard - It can sometimes be forgotten, because after the first season it was not really considered relevant anymore, but Picard had a command before the Enterprise-D.  It was called the Stargazer and he famously lost the ship in the first recognized encounter with the Ferengi.  Not only that, but there was also a whole family of Crushers involved, including one we never met (but more on that later).  The younger Picard was constantly pictured as more rebellious than the stolid man we would come to love.  That journey alone could carry a whole film.  But you could also center the story on the most famous incident of his career, being assimilated by the Borg, which was something First Contact revisited because it was immediately considered the hallmark of the series.  You can't go wrong here.
  • The Crushers - Beverly and Jack Crusher were lovers in a career that doesn't often see that done successfully.  Jack died tragically in an away mission under Picard's command, and there was always the suspicion that Jean-Luc had always harbored a crush on Beverly, a potential romance that left its mark throughout the series.  Toss in Wesley the boy wonder, and his whole Traveler saga, and you have a completely different and equally full-bodied story to center a reboot on, in a place fans don't often look.
  • Tasha Yar - I'll bet part of the reason Denise Crosby vacated the spacedock so quickly was that she was as aware as anyone could be that Yar had one of the most interesting backstories of the whole series, growing up on a ruthless colony world she barely escaped, which was barely acknowledged while Yar herself was in the series.  Her sister shows up later and has the episode that could have been done much better with Yar herself involved.  Keep the character in perspective and you have a far bigger winner than fans ever realized.
  • Data - From his creation to the shenanigans of his "brother" Lore concerning the Crystalline Entity to joining Starfleet to the fight for his very existence, Data is ripe for storytelling potential, a point the series always liked to keep in mind.  So there's plenty there to exploit in a reboot as well.
  • Worf - Like Data and Yar and Picard and the Crushers, Worf has a tragic origin story (I literally just realized all the tragedies in this story!), his Klingon parents murdered and later framed for treachery, raised by humans who did the best they could but were never, well, Klingons, and being the only Klingon in Starfleet not so long after Klingons were the blood enemies of the Federation.  So, reboot material in spades.
  • Riker/Troi/La Forge - This is a whole generation in itself.  There's the Riker/Troi romance, always ripe for exploiting, and the fact that La Forge was more or less originally Riker's best friend.  Clearly that relationship would put both their careers in better perspective.  You may notice that La Forge doesn't actually have his own story, because for all intents and purposes his artificial vision was his tragedy.  I'd keep the visor in the reboot.  Distinctive images are always handy, especially when they already exist.  Plus his learning to become a master engineer is distinct from Scotty's version in either guise, and the later bond with Data is another thing that could use better defining.
  • Q/Guinan - Whether together or apart, they're essential to the Next Generation story, one as Picard's opposite number and the other his guiding light (a truly interesting reboot might not even make it clear which is which!).
The challenge would be adequately representing all of them.  But then you might not have as many people wondering if this is really Star Trek.  Because it's all there already, and all of their journeys reflect the central message of the franchise, the trickiness of the human condition and the challenges of the unknown.  Maybe center it around Q once again, but this time maybe avoid the whole Farpoint business...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

#649. 7 favorite Clancy Brown roles

Ah, Clancy Brown, an actor gifted with presence.  Most of the time, he uses this power for evil, but every now and then, he's the good guy!  Now, without further adieu, here are my favorite Clancy Brown screen appearances:

  • Highlander (1986) Clancy's breakout villainous role was the bad guy from the very first Highlander movie.  He was the guy who wasn't the Frenchman pretending to be Scottish or Sean Connery (although to be fair, Christopher Lambert pulled off one of those far better than the other).
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Part sadistic prison guard, part semi-okay guy ("Drink up, ladies") when he isn't threatening to drop poor Andy Dufresne from a rooftop.  Technically he is human, and not a monster, so this counts as career development.
  • Earth 2 (1994-1995) This short-lived but entertaining series gave Clancy perhaps his best role.  He was basically the Han Solo of the crew (which might remind Star Wars fans that, like most of Clancy's other roles, Han was probably not considered an overly nice guy, and not just by Princess Leia; after all he did hang out at a place known for scum and villainy), second lead, and was even a father!  Real hero stuff.  
  • "Desert Crossing," Star Trek: Enterprise (2002) He finally makes the obligatory genre actor appearance in Star Trek, and it's a fun role, and he clearly has fun playing it, as the head of a faction on a planet that turns out to be something other than it first appears (but not in a bad way!).  For a guy who normally doesn't have to create a character because his size and voice do it for him, Clancy tries on a fancy accent, and it's awesome.
  • "Live Together, Die Alone," "One of Them," Lost (2006) Here he's Desmond's predecessor (briefly his mentor and colleague as well) in the infamous hatch, plus the man who teaches Sayid the lovely art of torture on behalf of the enemy against his own people.  So technically, although only featured in two episodes, his character is pretty integral to Lost lore.
  • Pathfinder (2007) Basically an updated Highlander experience for Clancy, in a movie starring Karl Urban.  The closest he's come, so far as I know, to be an out-and-out horror performance.
  • Cowboys & Aliens (2011) I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of this movie, and Clancy's appearance is just one of many reasons why, although it's another unique role for him.  Looking a little like Jeff Bridges from the True Grit remake, he seems more relaxed, and it begins to be startling when you realize that Clancy has really never had an out-and-out starring role, whether in TV or film.  He deserves something like that, and this slightly world-weary part might suggest the best way to do it at this point.  Give the man his due already!

Monday, December 09, 2013

#648. The Padme/Ewok Paradigm

Oh, that crazy Emperor, Palpatine...

By any other name, Darth Sidious was one of the most powerful practitioners of the Force in Star Wars history.  If you accept my interpretation, he was probably around as long as Yoda, was the apprentice who killed Darth Plagueis (from the scene where Anakin is finally sold on the Dark Side in Revenge of the Sith).  So powerful he, ha, feared losing his power...

It's Palpatine who drives all the action in the six film saga, who manipulates the galaxy into a state of war and then recruits Darth Vader to replace him, which leads to Luke Skywalker's bid for redemption, which can only come once the Emperor is finally eliminated.  As the Emperor likes to say in Return of the Jedi, these events are all things he has foreseen.  He's considered all the variables.  His clairvoyance has given him perfect control over everything.

Why, then, does he ultimately lose?

It might be argued that it's a simple case of arrogance and comeuppance, that good must necessarily always triumph over evil no matter how long it takes.  It might also be that Palpatine has a fatal flaw he continually overlooked.  Call it the Padme/Ewok Paradigm.

People who claim to have thoroughly analyzed all probable outcomes and prepared accordingly often don't seem to consider the intangibles, or in other words the variables of the variables.  Sure, you've considered the variables themselves, but these megalomaniacs don't consider that there are ways these variables themselves can wield great influence even if they seem completely insignificant.

We'll begin with Padme Amidala, the queen of Naboo at the start of The Phantom Menace.  Palpatine himself is a senator from Naboo at this time, as is the chancellor of the Republic.  Since he knows so much about this planet, Palpatine has foreseen the variables even the rest of the planet never considered, that being the reconciliation with the amphibian Gungan race.  In fact, he uses Padme's own ideals against her and the resulting weakening of the entire political scene in Naboo at the end of the movie to position himself into his necessary place of power, which he subsequently builds on in Attack of the Clones and Sith to fashion himself Emperor of the Galactic Empire.

As far as he's concerned, Padme is no longer relevant to his concerns except as she relates to Anakin Skywalker, whom he manipulates into becoming his last and greatest apprentice, Darth Vader.

Vader himself represents a flaw in Palpatine's greater design.  As the chosen one, Anakin was prophesied to bring balance to the Force, something that hadn't been true probably since the schism that created the Jedi and Sith orders that the Jedi grew dominant over probably in Palpatine's earliest days.  Vader was supposed to be the perfect Force practitioner, better than even Yoda or Palpatine.  His maiming in the duel with Obi-wan Kenobi was not in the equation, although Palpatine was uniquely qualified to salvage the remains.  A Vader who no longer questioned his destiny was exactly what Palpatine wanted, but that didn't turn out to be the case in the long run as it seemed in the short.  Vader's son Luke would have been the perfect replacement for him, as far as Palpatine was concerned.

This is only an issue because of Padme, who survives long enough to give the Force a chance to compensate one last time.  Anakin does bring balance to it, thanks to Luke, and both are greatly influenced by Padme's refusal to give up the fight apparently lost all the way back in Menace.  Where Anakin speaks of frustrations with the system, Padme, who has greater reason than he does to share them, still looks for ways to help it work, even when the system seems completely broken.  She forms the necessary relationships that send daughter Leia to one world that can work in the open, and son Luke to a world where things work in secret.  In effect she follows the Palpatine model, and ultimately cancels it out.

As the person on the other end of this model, Palpatine was so convinced of its inevitable success that he never considered for a moment that it could work just as well in reverse.  Were it not for Padme, the Rebellion would never have happened and the Jedi would have become extinct, the full extent of the Force lost forever.  It's Yoda who knows as well as Palpatine the ways of the Dark Side, who can sense instinctually what's going on with the Force.  As far as Palpatine is concerned, only the Dark Side is relevant.

If all that sounds a little complicated, consider next the Ewoks.  Palpatine was no doubt aware that they existed, but as far as he was concerned they could never have been anywhere near a viable factor in his vision of how the Battle of Endor played out.  Even when he's surprised the Emperor always seems to be comfortable that he was right all along, or so his conversations with Vader suggest.  When we first meet the Ewoks, it's easy to assume that they're just as primitive and ineffectual as they appear.  They certainly have a functional society, but they can't possibly comprehend what all these Rebels and Imperial troops are doing around them.  To the Emperor, comprehension is everything.  It's probably why he never considered Padme a threat.  It's the power of the visionary, who can see the most likely outcome out of every variable, who has thought of everything.  Anyone who doesn't function that way can't possibly compete with him.

Except the Ewoks do.  They obviously hadn't bothered with any of the other Imperial activities on their moon.  It was patently beyond their ken.  Yet in concert with the Rebels, they put up a fight anyway, and thwarted the Imperial troops in the end all the same.

One-on-one, neither Padme nor the Ewoks could have done much against Palpatine.  That's the real trick.  Even the Emperor needed plenty of help, whether it was the Trade Federation or Jango Fett, pawns who played right into his hand, or that insulting fool Jar Jar Binks, who completed the sorry decline of sharp Naboo politics by giving Palpatine the last link of legitimacy he needed to complete his apparent triumph.

The Ewoks are the reverse of Jar Jar Binks.  Tellingly, fans don't like either one.  Yet one of them is indirectly responsible for everything that fails, and the other for everything that succeeds.  It's the paradigm that undoes the Emperor's grand design.  His blind spot revealed for all to see, in the end.  He assumes only his way, the way he does it, can succeed.  And he's defeated because of two different approaches that are the complete opposite.  The variable of the variables he considered, the probability of the events he set in motion, is that the reverse of everything he himself was doing could work just as well, and in fact better.  Because what the Star Wars films ultimately suggest is that the force of will is not something you can manipulate, but what you are willing to embrace.  It's a matter of inclusion rather than exclusion.  The Sith work best while hiding most of what they do.  Padme and the Ewoks weren't hiding anything (well, except for the whole secret marriage thing).  Instead their success came about because they trusted others, even when they had every reason not to.

...And you thought it was all about the Skywalkers...

Sunday, December 08, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 7 (#647.)

Since September 2011, Zooey has starred in New Girl, a Fox sitcom in which her character and three male friends live together and have zany adventures.  It was around the launch of the series that she started to actively fight her adorkable image, which feminists suggested painted women in general in a backward light, so the show shifted how it presented her over time.  Eventually and most famously in the show's run so far, Zooey's Jess developed a surprise romance with Jake Johnson's Nick.  Also featured are Max Greenfield as Schmidt (the most sitcomy of the characters), Hannah Simone as Cece, and Lamorne Morris as Winston (who often seems to be part of his own series).  If you want to see all these characters at their most hilarious (and most compromised), you may want to catch "Virgins" from the second season, in which we witness, well, how each of them lost their virginity.  If you know Community at all (and shame on you if you don't), this can almost be described as Community outside of a community college (and, sadly, with far less Dean).  Also, filmed without a laugh track, but hopefully we're all used to that by now.  Frustratingly for a guy who used to watch as much network programming as he wanted, it was around this time that this became virtually impossible, and so I have caught only the occasional episode.  (Funny enough, but the first two times I caught it, the episode "Bells" was airing.  It's a good one.)  Thankfully, I love it, and for more than just Zooey, although she's a surprisingly natural fit for the small screen, where she has more or less remained since production started on the series.  I hope it lasts many seasons (it's currently in its third), and that she can resume and build on her movie career.  I still suggest a reunion with (500) Days of Summer costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt, by the way.  They could easily become one of those classic big screen pairings.

For the record, even if you still haven't and never plan on watching the show, if you like the Super Bowl, next February New Girl (along with Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has the coveted post-game slot.  The series currently has some really terrible ratings (but that seems to be true of all the really good sitcoms these days, perhaps as an act of revenge for that 90s period where sitcom was king, especially on the famed NBC Thursday lineup), but is guaranteed to get a boost that night.  And chances are some of you will be in the audience.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 6 (#646.)

2009's (500) Days of Summer was Zooey's last major movie to date, and it's a heck of a way to go out.  It's her best one, her most defining, and a classic by any regard.  And it will positively break your heart.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt falls in love with her (such a hard task!) and spends the eponymous number of days attempting to figure out why the relationship just doesn't seem to work even though they seem to have exactly the right amount of chemistry.  The ending is particularly brutal, when Zooey turns up married in fairly short order to some other guy.  This is the one and only time I've close to not liking her.  But to be fair, her character was clear to Gordon-Levitt's from the start.  What he thought was kismet (because he's a hopeless romantic) was a lot of him seeing what he wanted to see.  Anyway, this is my generation's When Harry Met Sally..., and it shows Zooey's range better than anything else she's done.  It's exactly like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without all the science fiction, an atypical but also in a lot of ways very vintage affair, which of course is Zooey Deschanel in a nutshell.

Friday, December 06, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 5 (#645.)

2008's Yes Man starred Jim Carrey and also featured Bradley Cooper in probably the last role before he became a movie star, and of course it also had Zooey.  The weird thing is that it may well be the role she alludes to when talking about being tired of roles where she plays the adorkable second fiddle, because this is probably the epitome of her adorkable persona.  The thing is, I still love it.  I love it because even though she's the romantic second fiddle to Carrey (like Zooey one of my favorite actors), it's not even most of the part I care much about, but rather the second time she spends movie time singing.  For all I know this was the secret origin of She & Him, her pop group with M. Ward that I've been pairing with these movie moments during the week.  Although the whole point of her extremely alt-pop material in the movie is the exact opposite of her later actual pop music, it's still the thing I like best about the movie, and for me the best thing about a Jim Carrey is usually, well, Jim Carrey.  So that's Zooey for you.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 4 (#644.)

Blink and you'll miss Zooey in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but she's in it all the same and it's one of my all-time favorite movies, so there's very little chance I'd overlook the confluence in this week of appreciation for her career to date.  There's nothing I don't love about this movie, although it's clearly one of my favorites that a lot of other people just don't get, especially the parts I love the most.  Chances are if you know anything about it, I love that part.  And it's perhaps the first time Zooey's look coalesces, strangely enough in a period piece that definitely has no room for her current adorkable phase.  Instead it's Zooey at her most dramatic, and all I can think of now is that she's as ready as anyone actress has ever been to have exactly this kind of movie all to herself, sort of like Inglourious Basterds if it had only been about Melanie Laurent's character.  I salivate at the prospect.  I think Zooey has an incredible amount of untapped potential, and this is where you look to see just a small hint of it.  If she someday wins an Oscar, it'll be because she finally makes that movie.  And I really want to see that happen.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 3 (#643.)

The first time I really noticed Zooey Deschanel was in 2005's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Being a big fan of the trilogy (as it were) by Douglas Adams, it was always going to be a given that I'd watch this movie.  A lot of fans, or as it sometimes seems every other fan, just didn't care for it, but I loved the movie from the start, and Zooey was the reason why.  Although it stars the very British Martin Freeman, Zooey is obviously not native specific to the source material, which is pretty much the case with the rest of the cast as well (including the manic Sam Rockwell and Mos Def), although there's always Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy to tide the restless fan over.  The fans thought this was one of many details that just didn't ring true with everything they'd already loved about the original story.  They thought it was far too Hollywood.  Although for the record, Sam Rockwell?  About the last guy you could call the Hollywood mainstream.  Even George Clooney couldn't sell this guy (even though he's completely awesome).  So anyway, I realized I loved the movie in perhaps its biggest deviation from the novel/radio program, when Freeman's Arthur Dent declares his unabashed love for Zooey's Trillian.  What sells this moment so well is Zooey's innate ability to draw sympathy from the audience, and it comes from those distinctive eyes of hers.  A lesser actress would have long ago consigned themselves to movies where they were sad all the time.  Instead Zooey has become, as mentioned before, the epitome of adorkable (stealing that title, arguably, from Kirsten Dunst).  Jennifer Garner can do extremely sad and extremely happy (and extremely badass), but I think her options tend to shrink because audiences are looking for a blend of all these.  Zooey is the more perfect version of Jennifer Garner, minus the extreme badassery (for now).  Anyway, when this big dramatic moment occurs, it's the point where the movie stops being the British Men in Black (as I like to consider selling it to anyone who is not particularly obsessed with things like always traveling with towels) and becomes its own entity entirely.  And maybe that's kind of what the fans noticed all along, without realizing it.  It's the moment where you realize this is not Arthur Dent's movie at all.  It's Trillian's.  Which is to say, Zooey's.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 2 (#642.)

Our second stop on the tour of Zooey Deschanel's career is the 2003 movie Elf.  Yeah, I know, you probably think of this as more of a Will Ferrell movie, and with good reason, because it launched his popular movie career, but wait! in a costarring role is none other than Zooey (still not looking anything remotely like her eventual trademark image).  This role is incredibly notable for being the first link in the chain of her singing career, as Zooey sings "Baby It's Cold Outside" to herself.  If you remember nothing else about this movie as far as she goes, or want to watch it for any one reason, that's it.  I can't believe someone didn't try and make her into some kind of musicals star or something after it.  I'm just saying, but she could very easily reunite with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for that kind of thing.  But we'll get back to that...

Monday, December 02, 2013

(7) Days of Zooey - Day 1 (#641.)

I'm wild about Zooey.  Zooey is Zooey Deschanel, whose entire existence helped coin the phrase "adorkable," which as it suggests means dorky and adorable at the same time.  Yet she's much more than that.  It's been fun watching her grow up.  The daughter of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and younger sister of Emily Deschanel from Bones, Zooey might have been a classic case of Hollywood nepotism, all fame and no talent, and yet she was blessed with the it-factor, an undeniable screen presence that she took years to cultivate and perfect, sometimes frustrated with the parts that seemed all of a kind, keeping her just outside of her deserved spotlight.  The next seven days are how I became a hopelessly devoted fan.

Big Trouble is a 2002 ensemble comedy headlined by Tim Allen, based on a book by Dave Barry.  To my mind there's everything to love about it.  The whole cast is magical.  And in that mix is a very young Zooey Deschanel.  She doesn't have her trademark look yet.  But she's clearly already all her own, sardonic and lovable at the same time.  It's a small part, perhaps not terribly noticeable when you've got Allen and Patrick Warburton and Rene Russo and Stanley Tucci and Tom Sizemore and Dennis Farina and Janeane Garofalo and Ben Foster and Omar Epps and Jason Lee.  And Johnny Knoxville!  And Sofia Vergara!  And yet there's Zooey, the target of juvenile romantic gestures from Ben Foster (to be Ben Foster!).  Frankly I'm at a loss as to how more people aren't obsessed with her.


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