Wednesday, June 25, 2014

#754. Overheard June 2014

This month I'm mostly going to provide links.  The first two will be interrelated (one directly references the other):

I'm including them because, especially in the latter, I've heavily inserted my thoughts into the comments sections.  The latter explains itself.  In the former, I'm thinking of a story I read in The Best of McSweeney's, "Can a Paper Mill Save a Forest?" from Nicholson Baker, which explores the curious facts of life under a digital cloud and the myths of how paper mills only negatively impact the environment.  As it turns out, all those files we save have to be saved on computers servers somewhere, that just because personal devices have gotten smaller that there isn't a need somewhere else for those giant things computers used to be to still exist.  This is something I'm fairly certain has been conveniently overlooked in our rush to digitize everything, arguably for the sake of progress.  But it's also another instance of the emperor wearing invisible pants, hiding unpleasant realities in plain sight with a collective willingness to overlook the obvious.

In much lighter Internet discoveries, I read on Pearls Before Swine creator Stephen Pastis's blog about a far more pleasant con job, the secret return of Bill Watterson to the comic strip page.  Even though Calvin & Hobbes ended nearly twenty years ago, it remains the gold standard for the medium.  The whole reason Watterson ended it was because he feared the format had been irredeemably compromised, whether by newspapers or capitalism.  I hope one day he releases a treasure trove of material he's done since his self-imposed exile.  In the meantime, he popped up in a strip that seems to be the polar opposite of everything he used to do himself.  (Though make no mistake, Pearls is brilliant.)

via Go Comics

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#753. Christopher Nolan's Villains Revealed

Something occurred to me recently.  In each of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) the villain is introduced by way of misdirection.  Don't believe me?

Now, for those of you who lack the patience or time to view the videos and don't remember how things develop in the films (and are willing to trust that I'm being accurate), here're the bullet points:

  • Ra's al Ghul is apparently introduced in the guise of Ken Watanabe.  Liam Neeson is introduced as Henri Ducard, Bruce Wayne's main contact and trainer in the League of Shadows.  Except Watanabe's al Ghul is a smokescreen.  It's Ducard who is really al Ghul, as Batman discovers after saving Ducard's life.
  • The opening bank robbery in The Dark Knight sees a whole crew of would-be clown wonders under rubber masks.  As they begin eliminating each other, the audience realizes there's more going on than it seems.  This is made clear when we discover these clowns are working for the clown, Heath Ledger's Joker, who emerges from under the mask of the surviving hoodlum at the end of the sequence.
  • Tom Hardy's Bane has a number of reveals.  The second one still kind of infuriates people.  He was not the prison brat who made the miraculous leap.  That was the young Miranda Tate Talia.  In the opening sequence of Dark Knight Rises, Bane is introduced similarly to the Joker, under a hood that makes him seem like just another thug.  Despite his relationship with Talia, he most certainly is not.
Now, all of this is fairly obvious for movies about a man who chooses to run around in a giant bat costume, from a director who had already amply demonstrated his penchant for exploring mutable identity.  In fact, before we go much further, let's do another list, this time of Christopher Nolan's films to date:
  • Following (1998)
  • Memento (2000)
  • Insomnia (2002)
  • Batman Begins (2005)
  • The Prestige (2006)
  • The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Inception (2010)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  • Interstellar (2014)
Now, chances are few in my reading audience are quite as interested in Nolan's career as I am.  This is not a boast.  There was a point where Memento was his best-known achievement.  I bet few of you even know what Following is much less have seen it.  How about Insomnia?

For me, these weren't just building blocks, but touchstones in his career.  I was actually disappointed by the news that he'd be doing Batman, and was generally underwhelmed for years by Batman Begins.  I thought it was a step back in his creative development.  It showed none of the flare of his earlier films.  It was a little too obvious, straight-forward.  Yeah, I can be an idiot sometimes.

The thing is, Batman Begins, and the two sequels that followed, were probably necessary for wider audiences to appreciate Nolan's talent.  They were necessary mainstream translations of his instincts, and as such took different approaches.  But they're every bit as remarkable, even the first one.  I came around, like everyone else, by the time Dark Knight was released.  It instantly became an all-time favorite.  The epiphany I began this reflection with is what solidified my overall opinion, however.

It probably seems obvious to interpret a Batman film around the lens of Batman, right?  Except, and I'm not saying this is inaccurate, but it's also not necessary.  Take away Bruce Wayne, take away Batman (either one, really), and you still have a perfectly representative Christopher Nolan experience.

In a lot of ways, Neeson's Ra's al Ghul makes Batman Begins very similar to Following, a student and a master whose relationship becomes increasingly confused.  The true genius of Ledger's Joker has as much to do with the performance as the depiction of a character many might have assumed they knew everything about, which is another way of explaining the story of Memento, which is told in reverse and constantly undoes everything the viewer thinks they knew.  And yes, Dark Knight Rises is a lot like Insomnia, with a compromised hero constantly trying to play catch-up with the villain.

No, I'm not making the argument that Nolan simply remade his own early films with Batman plugged in.  His Dark Knight was from the start a deliberate character study of the famous vigilante.  Bruce Wayne's journey was more important than Batman's introduction.  Back in 2005 I kind of just wanted a Batman movie, or a Christopher Nolan movie.  I wasn't prepared for both and more besides.  I was overwhelmed.  And I never saw coming that Nolan had been making his own story, with the villain, all along, even when it became clear which actor was playing Ra's al Ghul.

via Hippie Refugee. Again, not this guy.
To have the idea echoed, with considerable and effective variation, in the other two films, with more traditional villains who still work as Nolan archetypes, only affirms the accomplishment.

These films remain remarkable and singular experiences.  Whereas Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man gleefully prances around like a regular Jack Sparrow with the rest of the Pirates of the Avengers acts openly in his duel personality (only the later somewhat misguided handling of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 compares in the whole Marvel canon), nearly everyone in Nolan's Batman trilogy has another side of themselves they're desperately trying to hide.  Rather than alienating them from audiences looking to find a piece of themselves in colorfully outsized personalities, this humanizes them, Batman especially.  People like to mock Christian Bale's growl under the cowl, but it's his scenes as Bruce Wayne that truly represent the performance.  Exploring his insecurities and struggles, a newly nuanced relationship with Alfred, is a revelation, and how exactly he chose to become Batman why he sticks with it for so long.  It's not his resources that define him but his vulnerability, not his ability but his frailty, both emotionally and physically.

Before Batman, Nolan looked a lot more on the surface than he would later.  His characters are always troubled, and stumbling into crises that overwhelm them.  With Batman, he was finally able to step beyond the line that separated his characters from their own experiences, whether that was a faulty memory or lack of sleep.  Finally Nolan could look at the whole picture, which was another reason why his version of the Joker was so refreshing, because it was the rare moment he allowed himself to fall back on his own instincts.

To have Nolan accepted as a blockbuster filmmaker even outside the Batman films is perhaps more remarkable than people realize even now.  This is not one long hard sell for the upcoming Interstellar.  But can you think of anyone else making movies today who is able to get away with stuff like Inception and find a willing and large audience waiting for it?

This is to say I'm a big fan of the guy, and I think Christopher Nolan's career is really still only beginning. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

#752. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine...from a Certain Point of View

Ever since the debut of the Defiant in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (oh...about twenty years ago) and the later introduction of the Breen body armor, it's become easier to view the third live action TV entry in the franchise from a Star Wars kind of light.  That being said, I'm going to have another look at it.

I've made a few special modifications...

Call this An Emissary of Hope.  Our lead character is Jake Sisko, who has long dreamed of ending Dominion tyranny in Federation space, ever since a disastrous war gave way to a new order.  He's recently become aware of a part of his late father's life that he'd never dreamed of before, from the old shape-shifter Odo, who once served under Starfleet but whose life became complicated when his people in the Founders were revealed to be behind the Dominion.  Odo tells Jake that his father was the only one capable of closing the so-called Celestial Temple, the wormhole located in Cardassian space, thanks to his connection to the Bajorans.  Benjamin Sisko's mother was what the Bajorans called a Prophet, or least that's what they thought.  This effectively gave him great temporal powers among other gifts.  Except he wasn't imbued by the Prophets but the Pah-wraiths.  Jake can make things right by embracing the ways of the Prophets.

Jake joins forces with unlikely allies in order to confront the forces of Dukat, ruler of the Dominion who possibly also wields the powers of the Pah-wraiths.  Jadzia Dax and Worf have long had private command of the Defiant, last surviving ship of Starfleet, and they have allies in Julian Bashir and Miles O'Brien (at least when they're getting along).  Jake values the support of Major Kira most highly, however, a Bajoran whose relationship with Odo goes back a long time and one of the few who will be able to resolve the conflict with her peoples' gods.

Along the way, they will also have to deal with challenges provided by Garak, a Cardassian who works only for himself, and Quark, a Ferengi of considerable influence who has long held a grudge against the meddling Jadzia.  The final conflict, however, will be between father and son, Prophet and Pah-wraith. Tthe fate of the galaxy rests in the hands of the Siskos.  Which one will prevail?

...And here's a handy cheat sheet:

Benjamin Sisko = Anakin Skywalker
Jake Sisko = Luke Skywalker
Odo = Obi-Wan Kenobi
Gul Dukat - Emperor Palpatine
Jadzia Dax = Han Solo
Worf = Chewbacca
Defiant = Millennium Falcon
Julian Bashir = C-3PO
Miles O'Brien = R2-D2
Major Kira = Princess Leia
Garak = Boba Fett
Quark = Jabba the Hutt

The scenario I've presented isn't so far-fetched.  Jake and Ben actually did square off against each other (albeit with Sisko backed by the Prophets and Jake the Pah-wraiths) in the sixth season episode "The Reckoning."  Feisty Jadzia and Quark indeed had an association, although an unusually friendly one for the Ferengi.  The Defiant was introduced at the start of the third season in "The Search" as Starfleet's answer to combating the Borg (which finally happened in First Contact...with Worf as its commanding officer!), although it much more frequently went into war with the Dominion.  Ben Sisko learned of his role as the Emissary of the Prophets in the first episode, appropriately entitled "Emissary," and that his mother was a Prophet in the seventh season premiere "Image in the Sand."  Jake and Kira had some key moments together in the fourth season episode "The Visitor" (which also heavily features the Siskos) and are the last two characters seen in the series finale, "What You Leave Behind."  Recasting the Dominion War, which dominated the final two seasons of the series, as a longer conflict, seems easy and fitting.

Here are a few additional associations:

Michael Eddington = Lando Calrissian
Weyoun = Yoda

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

#751: Seven Reasons - Movie Supervillains

In the thirty-plus years of superhero movies, the constant challenge has always been to create supervillains as compelling as the superheros.  Without further preamble, here's my list for the seven best to date:

1. Heath Ledger's Joker (The Dark Knight)
I was always a fan of Ledger as an actor, but it took everyone else and one great role to make him immortal, sadly right before his passing.  The genius of his Joker is that it went completely against the grain, a villain who was less interested in being obvious (which is what virtually every other supervillain does in these movies) and more understating...pretty much everything.  No origin.  Slapdash clown makeup.  First scene he's introduced seemingly as just another goon.  There's nothing I don't like about the performance, the part, how it fits into the rest of The Dark Knight.  Instantly the gold standard for movie supervillains.

2. Tom Hiddleston's Loki (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World)
I've been lukewarm on the Avengers movies from the start (Iron Man does not have a representation on this list), but one of the elements I loved instantly was also one of the most unexpected ones: a supporting character in Thor.  I didn't expect great things from Thor.  It was fine.  But it just seemed, right from the start, like a kind of pointless excuse to add to the cinematic Avengers cycle.  Without the rest of the team, would anyone really care that much about the guy?  But his troubled brother Loki?  Even with an arc that still hasn't gone anywhere three appearances later, the dude oozes charisma.  He's a bad guy who's really easy to love (I mean, even blatantly stealing from Terence Stamp's iconic Zod in Avengers with the whole "kneel before me" thing doesn't hurt him).  I would watch a whole movie headlined by Loki.  Easily.

3. Thomas Haden Church's Sandman (Spider-Man 3)

Everyone knows Spider-Man 3 is the black sheep of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.  Yet I've always been a fan, and it's mostly thanks to the reinterpretation of Uncle Ben's death.  Turning the story around has a number of intriguing possibilities (arguably Marc Webb's Spider-Man films have benefited greatly from them), but here this means we actually get to sympathize with the villain, which is certainly rare enough.  Haden Church had just experienced a career resurgence thanks to Sideways, which had the effect of finally exposing his dramatic potential.  He's the rare supervillain actor to have been given the chance to explore that side, and because of all the other things going on in the movie, he's free to focus exclusively on that.  He nails it.  I would watch a Sandman movie, too.

4. Tom Hardy's Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
I've long been a fan of Hardy's, so I was already expecting great things from him, although even for me (see above) it was a tall order to follow Heath Ledger.  He did it.  He knocked it out of the park.  There have been various criticisms, such as Bane's hard to hear (he really isn't) or being revealed as Talia's henchman weakens the character (it really doesn't).  Like Ledger's Joker, Hardy nails the ability to create a character who clearly doesn't mind calling attention to himself without making a parody of a character, which is what happens far too often with movie supervillains.

5. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman (The Dark Knight Rises)
A real argument could be made for Dark Knight Rises being...a Catwoman movie.  Every one of Hathaway's scenes is fantastic and as a whole carry a full story.  Her status as a villain fluctuates throughout the movie, although for most of it there's no real question.  A lot of people have long praised Michelle Pfeiffer's version of the character, as many who have maligned Halle Berry's.  Neither really has a ton of subtlety, which is something Hathaway accomplishes easily despite most of her scenes calling for high emotion or pithy remarks.  If any movie supervillain has approached Tom Hiddleston's Loki, it would be Hathaway's Catwoman.

6. Ian McKellen's Magneto (X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of the Future Past)
The whole reason I couldn't really get into Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class is because he wasn't nearly as compelling in the role as McKellen.  McKellen's Magneto isn't even my favorite role from the actor, but c'mon.  The man knows how to act.   Aside from Hugh Jackman, he's the actor who helped the X-Men films really take off in the first place.  Without him, most of their dramatic weight would be gone, and these are movies that need that.  I argue that the Avengers movies are less successful creatively because they don't have a Magneto.  If Loki were more prominent, instead of the guy who keeps stealing movies, I'd like them a lot more.  I like the X-Men movies more when McKellen's Magneto is around.

7. Jennifer Garner's Elektra (Daredevil, Elektra)
I think the whole reason Daredevil quickly lost mainstream support is because Garner stole the movie.  At the time she was best known for the TV series Alias.  In a lot of ways, her Elektra is exactly like her Sydney Bristow.  Like Hathaway's Catwoman, she's not really a villain.  In fact, even less so.  But the story often pits Elektra and Daredevil against each other, and every time, Elektra easily holds her own.  When she received her own spin-off a few years later, it was a nonevent.  Everyone wanted Daredevil to show up.  That's a testament to Elektra's appeal, that it wasn't just her alone, but how she fit so well in Daredevil's story, how essential she was to him and he to her.  The more people disassociated them, the more they only thought about Ben Affleck, who played Daredevil.  At the time he was on the verge of a career decline, and so pretty much everything he did was interpreted unfavorably.  But watch this one again.  It's great.  And Garner's Elektra is a huge reason why.  She's a villain who's not really a villain.  They say all villains see themselves that way.  This is a chance to see that make some sense for a change, cleverly turning classic Hollywood romantic comedy tropes on their head.

I do have a number of runners-up:

  1. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor (Superman, Superman II, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)
  2. Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor (Superman Returns)
  3. Terence Stamp's Zod (Superman II)
  4. Michael Shannon's Zod (Man of Steel)
  5. Colin Farrell's Bullseye (Daredevil)
  6. Jack Nicholson's Joker (Batman)
  7. Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond (Green Lantern)
  8. Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2)
  9. Liam Neeson's Ra's al Ghul (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises)
And all of them I could wax fantastic about.

Who're your picks?

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

#750. Star Trek's Perfect Symmetries...are in the movies

It's funny, but Star Trek only really understands its best relationships in the movies.

I know, there're a ton of great relationships in the TV shows.  The original series was best defined by the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle.  Data and LaForge  were the closest family members of the Next Generation set.  Bashir and O'Brien sang "Jerusalem" together in Deep Space Nine.  Drunk.  It was hilarious.  Paris and Kim created Captain Proton together in Voyager.  Tucker and Archer traded stories with T'Pol in Enterprise.

But it only got better, in the movies, every single time.  Removing McCoy from the equation (not completely, but enough) made Kirk and Spock so much better.  The Motion Picture put both of them through the emotional wringer.  Wrath of Khan did it even better.  Search for Spock was probably the definitive statement in that incarnation of the characters.  They came as close to hating each other as possible in The Undiscovered Country.

In the Abrams reboot, Kirk and Spock took the Country dynamic, mashed it up with Search, and ended up with something even more beautiful than ever before.  That's what I've loved so much about these films, Star Trek and Into Darkness.  Every critic says they're more Star Wars than Star Trek, just because they feature better action and budgets than ever before.  That, apparently, is all you need to be Star Wars.  Apparently Michael Bay has been making Star Wars for years.  Who knew?  But to me, the Abrams films have been about Kirk and Spock, almost exclusively, brilliantly, better than ever.  The first one goes back to the beginning for both characters, and then sees what happens when they meet for the first time, try and figure out what their disparate worldviews look like when put up against each other.  A lot of arguments, apparently.  Possibly a few instances of trying to end careers and/or lives.  But in both instances a thing of beauty.  Exquisite.

The thing I've been realizing is that the Next Generation movies are exactly like that.  Data and Picard are the main characters in all four.  They're the only instances where either is so important to each other, besides "The Measure of a Man" (when Picard makes the winning argument for Data's continued independent existence).  In Generations, the stellar cartography scene in which their paths finally cross during the story is perfect.  Picard is thinking of his problems, Data his, and all the while they're supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.  Picard begins musing on the need to focus on the moment.  He forcibly requires Data to do the same.  It's the only time Data wants to deactivate himself.

In First Contact, they unexpectedly converge again as the Borg attempts another invasion.  They're practically inseparable.  It's true, Picard references what Data did for him in "Best of Both Worlds, Part II," but that was less to do, at that point, with what they meant for each other and more a matter of the greater family from that crew.  I think as the years progressed, Picard valued Data more, his unique perspective, something that made more and more sense, especially after realizing how much they had in common during Generations.

Insurrection gets so little respect, but it's almost a sequel to "Measure of a Man," with Picard coming to Data's rescue after Starfleet has apparently decided once again that the android doesn't need a great amount of consideration.  The rest of the movie is about what Picard discovers, that Data was absolutely right to go rogue (ironically, Data himself veers in a completely different direction for the duration), once again realizing how important his friend's perspective is.

Nemesis gets less respect than Insurrection, but it deserves more.  The parallels between Picard and Data's arcs are the most blatant in all four movies, but the conclusion more subtle.  Throughout the movie both must contend with cracked mirrors of themselves.  Both variants are gone by the end, but at the price of Data's life.  What does it all mean?  Most people just assumed that Data would have just come back, just like Spock, and wrote off Nemesis as a cheap knockoff of Wrath (it's the ultimate dismissal for Star Trek fans, their favorite trump card).  The point, I think, was that Data's life was a culmination of the decisions he'd made, just like Picard.  The decision he made was the opposite of the one Picard made, however.  Picard ended his problem by eliminating his doppelganger.  Data had done that before.  He went the opposite way this time.  He sacrificed himself not only for Picard, but for his doppelganger as well.  And I think that was the real point of the movie.  He made the ultimate selfless gesture, something even Picard hadn't been willing to make.  And that was what Picard had always wanted to learn from Data, which he only really started realizing in Generations.

Watching the movies this way, I think, is to discover what Star Trek is really about.  I'm glad we had J.J. Abrams come along to make it so obvious.  Maybe the fans will catch up at some point.  When Gene Roddenberry first came up with Star Trek, his first idea for the pilot, "The Cage," was all about Pike realizing how profound relationships are to human existence.  We try and pretend life is about everything else, our great potential in every other regard.  But it isn't.  It's about what we mean to each other.  Not the families we have but the ones we make.  If that message is best distilled into perfect friendships, their perfect symmetries, then, well, make it so.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

#749. Seven Next Generation Episodes to Remember

Last November I wrote about characters from The Next Generation (1987-1994) that Star Trek fans who know Picard's crew only from their movies (Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, Nemesis) would never have met.  It recently occurred to me that there are large swathes of the crew's legacy that would be hard to truly appreciate without having seen at least some of the series.  Fans who existed at the time Next Generation was on the air wouldn't need a reminder like this, but we're now twenty years past the end of the series (no, really!), which is plenty of time for new fans who may not particularly have the time to sit through a hundred-seventy-odd hours (although, of course, there's binge-watching as a whole thing these days, which I'm not ashamed to admit I helped pioneer) but could easily watch the movies, if the new movies have indeed been making new Star Trek fans.

Here's the list:

1.) "The Measure of a Man"
Anyone who watches the movie will obviously know Data is an android, but by the time Generations comes around he's undergone a dramatic revision of his character.  He's lost one of the biggest hurdles in his quest to become more human.  "Measure" is the episode that doesn't just spotlight that quest, but threatens to take it away from him.  Insurrection is kind of a sequel to the episode, actually, in a lot of ways (another reason to take this particular movie more seriously), the way Admiral Dougherty casually dismisses Data.  It's also an early look at Data's relationship with Picard, which really doesn't get picked up again until the movies.

2.) "Sins of the Father"
Surprisingly, one of Next Generation's most distinctive characters, Worf, really only has a fitting spotlight in one of the films (First Contact), which doesn't even address most of what he was all about in the series.  Consider "Sins" a primer on everything you need to know about the proud Klingon warrior, from his background to his relationship with other Klingons (don't expect a lot of happiness).

3.) "The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2"
First Contact is a sequel to this defining moment from the series, one that is useful in experiencing itself, from how Picard initially confronts the Borg to the process of disconnecting him from it.  Riker has a considerable role in the first part, which goes a long way to expanding his characterization.

4.) "Brothers"
The other side of Data's journey in the series is his surprisingly complicated family situation, which includes his creator, his brother, and the pesky emotion chip that he finally receives in Generations.  This is probably the most concise exploration of the whole affair.

5.) "The First Duty"
There isn't really a good Dr. Crusher episode worth recommending, but there are plenty of Wesley Crusher episodes to choose from (really!), including this one where he admits to wrongdoing at Starfleet Academy, which sees the cadet confront both his mother and Picard.

6.) "Ship in a Bottle"
Next Generation was famous, some might say infamous, for introducing the holodeck to Star Trek lore.  The best use of the holodeck was the underrated character of Moriarty (who debuted in "Elementary, Dear Data"), a truly cerebral villain fit for the character of the series itself.

7.) "Tapestry"
Arguably the best Q episode also explores aspects of Picard suggested in Nemesis, i.e. his surprisingly rebellious youth.  Given a chance to revisit those days, the thoughtful older Picard is surprised to discover that he needed to make the mistakes he did in order to become the man he is.

Have any episodes you think deserve consideration?  Sound off in the comments!


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