Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Babylon 5 - The Lost Tales"

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: a couple of small spots of mold that have to be pared off a block of cheese before grating it on your pasta)

It took a few solid days of hunting around at several local outlets of big entertainment store chains to track down an exceedingly rare copy of the recently released “Babylon 5 – The Lost Tales” (only to stumble on about five million copies in Costco just the other day – D’oh!). But the search was worth it. (And no, I’m not saying that as someone who’s gone on record as being a B5 fanboy -which I have)
These latest installments (the presentation, “Voices in the Dark” is actually two separate shorts) in the B5 canon take place in 2271 – 10 years after the founding of the Interstellar Alliance, 9 years after the end of Season 5, and 10 years before John Sheridan’s death and the destruction of the station.
In fact, the film opens with the destruction of B5, and as the clock winds backward to place us at the time these stories are set, we’re treated to part of Citizen G’Kar’s farewell to Sheridan from his departure in Season 5, accompanied by a simple B5 melody from Christopher Franke. I can’t think of a better way to take us back to the B5 universe than to use this bit of dialogue where the soft, low tones of the late Andreas Katsulas remind us of the lasting effect of people and places upon one-another.
And with that, we’re into the first of the Lost Tales: “Over Here”.
Shortly before B5 is to host the 10th anniversary party for the founding of the Alliance, station commander Elizabeth Lockley (now having risen from Captain to Colonel) has to deal with a staff member who’s having some sinister issues – nothing she can’t solve by importing an old Catholic priest from Earth. But as the two confront their demonic adversary, they realize the stakes are higher than the salvation of one man’s soul.
All in all, “Over Here” was a good story. But it wasn’t a Babylon 5 story. Certainly the wrestling with philosophical and theological issues and the feelings of the individuals trying to navigate this territory is standard fare for B5. And the fact that Lockley understands her way out of the problem and avoids the two narrow choices that her adversary attempts to impose on her definitely keeps it in the pattern of a major B5 showdown. But the set-up, the drawing-out of the plot and the final resolution didn’t feel like one of Straczynski’s typical B5 installments. No. This felt more like a short story from one of the old authors from the Golden Age of SF – stylistically and structurally it had more in common with the feeling of the neat logic of an Asimov yarn.
And in a different facet, Tracy Scoggins’ delivery of Lockley’s checkmate speech channeled pure Captain James T. Kirk. That’s not to say she made the mistake of a Shatner-esque delivery, rather there was a word choice and intensity and self-satisfaction that ol’ Jim woulda used in putting some alien posing as a Greek god in his proper place of intergalactic irrelevance. More of a sneer than, say, Sheridan’s exasperated “Now get the hell outta here!” to the Shadows and Vorlons at the end of their war. Fitting for Trek, a bit out of place for B5.
“Over Here” and its presentation of the threat of demons and damnation would also seem to offer some continuity problems within the canon, given that the pre-history of the galaxy that came out in the Shadow War indicated that most of mankind’s conceptions of demons and angels were the result of deliberate tampering by the Vorlons who wanted to program humans to be their allies on an instinctual level. Where does that leave room for the demons dreaming of the stars in “Over Here”? In fact, wouldn’t Lockley put even less faith as it were in her opponent’s demonic claims, given that she’s probably read all the files about the Shadow War and the dealings with the various First Ones? Wouldn’t her own experiences with high technology and advanced alien races predispose her to deal with this problem from a secular approach as opposed to theological?
That being said, “Over Here” is still a fine piece of science fiction in the style of the old school, if not strictly speaking that of B5.
Meanwhile, the second half of the presentation, “Over There” has us riding alongside President John Sheridan, on his way to the party at B5, dogged by a pesky reporter, his own shadows of melancholy about his future, and the sudden reappearance of the Technomage Galen, who brings a dire warning. It seems a young Centauri prince who Sheridan will meet along the way to the celebration could be a major threat to Earth if his grand aspirations come to pass in the decades after Sheridan’s death. And Sheridan has a difficult choice in how to best ward-off the potential devastation.
Unlike the first offering, “Over There” is pure B5. The plot, the balance of logic and heart, its fit into the canon, the behaviour, recollections and knowledge of the characters - everything in this feature makes it immediately recognizable as an episode (albeit a short one) of Babylon 5. And a good episode at that!
There might be some fans who would be tempted to criticize “The Lost Tales” for being too small – for having shorter stories and for featuring only three major characters from Babylon 5 and Crusade. But I think the limited scope of these stories is actually their strength. What we get out of it by only following one or two of the major cast members at a time is an incredible focus on their personalities and their crisis – something that would run the risk of being watered-down or outright swamped if the stories needed another half-hour or hour each to bring in the other major characters and properly flush each of them out so that they wouldn’t be short-changed. No. In this instance of storytelling, simpler is definitely better.
Others might point out that the digital special effects are a bit spotty at times – the animation of the background in B5’s hanger seems a bit clunky and the timing of the rotation outside Lockley’s porthole seems off. But that’s really getting into serious nitpicking. Let’s focus instead on what has a bigger impact – let’s focus on how great all the exterior digital effects look. B5 itself is rendered in exquisite detail that we as viewers could only have dreamed of when the series originally ran on TV back in the late 90’s. Same for the Starfuries. For the most part, Straczynski’s special effects crew has given us a work of art to look at.
And the feature is packaged nicely with a bunch of worthwhile extras. Straczynski’s fireside chats range from mildly interesting to downright hysterical and he gives a nice tour of the behind-the-scenes development of the project. There are also some really touching moments in the memorials for Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin). This extra is the part of the whole production where I wish there had been more cast members available to share their memories of these two fine actors.
I seem to recall once running across a fan site that said “Sooner or later, everyone comes to Babylon 5.” (I can’t recall if that was actually in the series itself – I’ll have to have another watch of the series sometime soon to check, not that I need an excuse or anything). In seeing what J. Michael Straczynski has put together for “Voices in the Dark”, I’m hoping that sooner or later more installments to “Babylon 5 – The Lost Tales” will be coming.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Another Overdue Review: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a head of lettuce that’s been left in the fridge a week too long)

No-one can deny this summer has seen an onslaught of Potter. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, based on the fifth book in author J. K. Rowling’s series about the boy wizard of the title, was released not too long before the final novel “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” hit the shelves. Of course, being Potter fans in our household, it was a given that we’d brave the lineups to see the new movie in its first week. And it didn’t disappoint.
Overall, director David Yates has done a superb job in paring-down an immense novel to its essentials and fitting them into a two hour and 18 minute film – substantially shorter than its predecessors. As Harry and his sidekicks wrangle with new threats from the evil Lord Voldemort and his gang of Death Eaters, we see the rise of bureaucratic tyranny in the Hogwarts school, showing that there are many different kinds of evil that can eat away at a society and its individuals. The pacing is quick and the darkness of the film and its subject matter gives it much more of an adult feel than the others.
The movie wasn’t without its flaws though. One of the important aspects of the novels is Harry’s growth into adulthood beyond the ongoing conflict with the forces of darkness, and part of that growth is his awakening interest in girls. The series of movies only gives the lightest of nods to this reality up until “Order of the Phoenix”. Here we see Harry enter into a relationship with Cho Chang, a young witch he’s been blushing over for quite some time. Well, not really. We certainly see them have a good first kiss. But that’s pretty much it. The relationship is essentially dropped after that. We don’t even see their breakup. In fact, Cho’s longing and hurt look at Harry as he brushes past her later on are about the only indication we have that the encounter might have been more than just a snog-and-grope in a broom closet somewhere. If Yates was going to bother including the relationship, he should have tacked on an extra 5 minutes or so for a couple of scenes spaced throughout the movie to show its development and disintegration. That being said, one small detail that was very nicely done was Ginny Weasely’s wistful look backwards as she and the other kids leave the room to let Harry and Cho have some time alone. A nice, quick way to foreshadow their relationship to come – if, that is, the director of the next installment even allows them enough screen time for them to have a relationship!
And in talking with a few other people who’ve read the book and seen the movie, there’s a general consensus that the battle at the climax was adequate, but that it felt a lot smaller in scale than it should have been.
Hats off though to Imelda Staunton for playing the usurping bureaucrat Delores Umbridge with such cotton-candy viciousness. A perfect performance for a well-written character who we’ve probably all come across in one form or another at some point in our lives.
And, of course, Gary Oldman continues to do a great job playing Harry’s godfather Sirius Black. But then again, when does Gary Oldman ever do a bad job?
One final note on small details: Mad-Eye Moody’s broom being outfitted and sounding kinda like a Harley Davidson. A bad-ass broom for the Potter-verse’s version of Snake Plissken.
One thing to note if you’re planning on seeing this movie in Imax like we did: the 3D presentation advertised is only the 15 minutes or so of the final battle. Most of the movie is regular 2D, so don’t sit there with your 3D glasses on your nose the whole time wondering what’s wrong with the picture like some people did in the theatre we sat in. But whether you see it in 3D or 2D, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is worth conjuring up the full price of admission.

An Overdue Review: "Transformers"

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a raw chicken left on a sunny window-sill in August for a couple of days)

It’s been several weeks since the debut of this summer’s uber popcorn movie, “Transformers” and the pain in my neck from having to watch it from the third row of the theatre in the first week of the run has just about gone away. But it was worth it!
The movie is director Michael Bay’s live-action re-imagining of the classic 80’s cartoon about the ongoing battle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons.
In the original, an eons-long war between the two factions had drained their home planet of Cybertron of almost all of its “energon” resources – and thus the giant robots’ fuel or food if you will. In a desperate bid to find more energon to carry on the war, some of the Autobots flee in a starship but are hunted down by the Decepticons. In the ensuing battle, both vessels are damaged and the Transformers crash onto a primordial Earth. Millions of years later, an earthquake causes their machinery to reactivate, leading to the Transformers’ reawakening and the resumption of their war amidst modern-day humanity.
Bay’s version continues with the tradition of the Transformers letting their internal disputes spill over onto other worlds. But quite a few of the details change. We’re told Cybertron’s environment has been damaged by the civil war and we get the impression that consequently that world is pretty much uninhabitable. Thus the hunt for something called “the cube” – an ancient device of unknown origin that creates life. Kind of. Both robotic factions seek to possess the cube to tip the balance of the war, and in their quest, they track it to an unsuspecting Earth. The Decepticons waste no time in wreaking havoc to find they information they need to uncover the artifact. The Autobots are a bit more subtle, choosing to remain undercover during their own investigations, only coming out in full force in the open for the battle of the climax. Caught in the middle of it all is teenager Sam Witwicky, who just wants to get a nice first car and the affections of the girl of his dreams, but who unknowingly possesses the key to finding the ancient bone – er, cube of contention.
In typical Bay fashion, Transformers is a nearly non-stop orgy of action punctuated by snappy dialogue and effective one-liner humour and sexy leading ladies for the young hero (and the audience) to ogle. The special effects for the metal titans are top-notch. The actors do a capable job. And, best of all, Peter Cullen was brought back to reprise his role as the voice of Autobot leader Optimus Prime. In short, this flick is a modern teenage boy’s ultimate fantasy, or an 80’s action cartoon fanboy’s wet dream.
And the new version deserves bonus points for some of its details: I won’t spoil exactly what it says, but pay close attention to the decal on the side of the Decepticon police cruiser. Bay’s SFX guys have also finally resolved the major inconsistencies the old series had with conservation of mass: guns and cassette decks becoming giant robots. In this version, a portable stereo, no matter how evil it may be and no matter how great its ambitions, transforms to a height of about 4 feet rather than 50, and yet remains a respectable badass and capable spy in his own right. Also, extra geek points for the method the robots use to find new alternate forms: in the old series, the AI satellite Teletraan 1 scanned human technology and adapted the robots during repair to fit the forms they’d be mingling with on Earth and that would best suit their personalities and former functions; in the new movie, the robots seem to impress upon nearby vehicles that they encounter first and suit their needs. In this way, they’re rather like the later-generation Transformers of the “Beasties” series, which imprint on the first animal detected when their pods crash land. I don’t know if the Beasties parallel was intentional or accidental, but kudos anyway.
But there were also a lot of problems with the flick. One look at the robots in their natural anthropomorphic form, as they emerge from their crash craters, and (as others have noted) you have to doubt they’ve got the proper design to actually transform into anything, let alone a car, tank or jet fighter. Then there are the extensive changes that have been made to the characters of many of the Transformers themselves: Prime is still a semi (though a different kind of rig than his original cartoon form) and Starscream remains a fighter plane, but most of the others bear little resembling to their old namesakes. Bumblebee is now a Mustang, rather than a Volkswagon Beetle. Ironhide is a Hummer rather than an old van. Jazz remains Prime’s lieutenant, but he’s only Jazz in name. Now, instead of having a voice that would sound like it might belong to an old jazzman, like Scatman Crothers in the original, he’s got Darius McCrary voicing him as a rapper/hip-hop artist. The writers should have just renamed him MC or something like that and to make a better impression that he’d been re-imagined, rather than keeping an old monicker with a new, inappropriate voice. Another nitpick note was the unanswered question of why extreme cold seems to stop the Transformers in their tracks. Megatron is frozen in the arctic and later imprisoned in what’s basically a big-ass freezer. The nasty government types (led by John Turturro – in his undies, no less!) take down Bumblebee with ropes and blasts of cold. But, wouldn’t the Transformers have to survive the deep cold of space to travel from planet to planet in their search – especially Megatron, who’s new form is some kind of space fighter! And what’s with that crazy cosmic cube? Why does bestow life upon machines, but kill any robot that stuffs the thing in its chest? Too much raw power?!? Sounds like someone’s too drunk on energon! Too little thought to plot, more likely! And when it does animate various pieces of machinery around it, why, when they suddenly transform into robots, are they evil? I mean, I can kind of understand why the pop machine is diabolical – those things do steal coins from people all the time, so, it makes sense that they’d be inclined to up the stakes a little bit with some rocket fire, etc, but the other machines? Why would they go on a rampage? Wouldn’t they be just as likely to belt out “Happy Birthday!” like a newly-awakened Frosty the Snowman? And lastly, there’s something really wrong with the last scene of the movie: the young hero who’s finally go the girl of his dreams gets to snog on a hilltop overlooking the town with a beautiful sunset as the backdrop… but they’re on top of his car – his intelligent car, and a bunch of his car’s buddies. It’s like they’re necking in front of a crowd. Haven’t these big ‘bots ever heard of a human concept called privacy? I mean, hey, maybe young Sam and his girl are exhibitionists, and if that’s their thing, then fine, but personally I’d find it a bit creepy. How many of us have a tough time getting intimate with out significant others in front of the stares of the bewildered family pet, let alone a gaggle of extraterrestrial automata?
But in the end, the many faults of the movie just can’t outweigh its simple, mindless fun. Not only is “Transformers” worth the full price of admission, it was worth the pain in the neck I picked up watching it. Now, how can I get my printer or dishwasher or something to transform into a masseuse to rub away the sore spots?

Perhaps the best part of the Transformers getting such a blockbuster movie made is that it’s given me many, many opportunities to get a rise out of unsuspecting and, these days, largely ignorant fanboys with Gobot jokes, a-la Randall in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II”.
Most of the current movie’s fans weren’t old enough to have seen the Transformers or the Gobots in their original TV runs, and so just stare blankly when the latter are referenced, requiring the “Clerks II” explanation that Gobots are “the K-mart of Transformers”.
But it’s inflicting Gobot references on old-school fanboys that’s most entertaining, just to see them froth in fury. Best example so far: I asked my brother what watching the Gobots was like at the drive-in theatre out in Langley. His response: “Gobots. Sheesh. It's not a transformation when all you do is stand up. Ironhide needs to go bust some Gobo-chops!”
That’s the kind of ferocity normally reserved for the Star Trek vs. Star Wars crowd. Pointless, but occasionally entertaining.