Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Colour Blind Concert

We went to the Weird Al Yankovic concert in Coquitlam this past weekend, and while the show itself was a blast, something was definitely wrong with the audience.

Oh sure, everyone in the house was into Al’s schtick – we all waved our cellphones in the air during the cellphone song, and everyone joined together to help him belt out “Yoda” – but there was something significant missing from the crowd.

That something was colour – colourful Hawaiian shirts, to be precise.

Counting myself and my wife, there were perhaps two dozen – no more – of us in the crowd garbed in Hawaiian shirts of varying degrees of tackiness and loud colour. Traditionally, this attire is a must for any Weird Al concert. But not anymore. 24 of us, in a crowd of a couple of hundred packed into the Red Robinson Show Theatre. What happened?

Time was, the Hawaiian shirt, while not mandatory, made up the bulk of what the audience was wearing at one of Al’s shows. I can remember going to see him at the Orpheum in Winnipeg, back in the 90’s when I was at the University of Manitoba, and nearly everyone there was sporting something with too-loud colours and flower and fish and hula patterns. Heck, there was one guy sitting a couple of rows in front of me who’d gone to the trouble of having his yarmulke made from the same bright fabric as his shirt. Now that’s a fan! No so this time around. Just a small group of us die-hards.

It’s not even like being a fan demanded something truly bizarre like wolfing down a twinkie dog with spray-on cheese-like product (I had a buddy who actually did that after watching “UHF” – not something I’d care to do). If that was the case, I could understand concert-goers, saying “Dude, that’s a little extreme.” But it’s not. No, the wearing of the Hawaiian shirt is just a way of sharing the utterly shameless indulgence in daring to be stupid and have fun in being a Weird Al fan amidst other fans. Part of the fun was trying to pick out the wackiest shirt pattern near you in the crowd.

Sure, Al himself isn’t as heavy into the Hawaiian shirts when he’s on-stage as he used to be, but he still wears a couple in the act. Shouldn’t that make it okay for the audience to keep with its traditions?

And yet, it was by and large a pretty drab audience that assembled Saturday night. When did fandom get so grey?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Do NOT see "Star Wars - The Clone Wars"!

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: pick a dumpster in a back alley. Any dumpster will do.)

I took my wife to see a Star Wars movie tonight and I had to apologize afterwards.

Can you imagine how bad that makes me feel? Beyond my own level of disgust at this steaming pile of celluloid excrescence, that is. I mean, I’m the one that first introduced her to Star Wars when we were dating, and now, well, now it’s come to this. Sigh.

I admit, I’d read a few bad reviews ahead of time, as well as one or two good ones, but I figured that being a true fanboy, being someone who’s had Star Wars in his life for as long as he can remember, I had to at least give this flick a chance. Well, at most I can say I’ve done just that. I gave it a chance. Wasn’t worth it though.

I smelled the first faint whiff of putrification when we first stepped into the local billion-plex. Only one theatre had been allocated to a Star Wars movie on its opening night. “Um…” I said, staring up at the board, “Well, maybe they’re just not sure they’ll get enough of an audience because it’s animated.” I ventured to my wife. The second hint something was amiss came when we bought the tickets – we were running a few minutes late and according to the board, the movie had already started. I asked the kid behind the counter if we’d still be able to make it – if the previews were still running and if there was room. “Oh yeah,” says the other kid beside him at the other till “You’ll be able to get in.” At this point my wife, sensing a disturbance in the Force, shot me a glance. Walking into the cinema itself, the guy in front of me rounded the corner from the entrance corridor, stared up at the audience and muttered “This can’t be good.” – there were a few people in it, but not many. Not more than 50 or 60 in a theatre that could seat more than 200.

I knew for sure we were in trouble when the film finally started to roll. The big “Star Wars” title jumped up onto the screen, but the music was all wrong! They weren’t running the theme under the opening title sequence? What the hell?!?! I knew ahead of time that they’d engaged a different composer to do the score for this installment (my wife wonders if it’s because John Williams got fragged in “Family Guy – Blue Harvest” but wouldn’t that mean they should have replaced him with Danny Elfman?), and that’s all well and good for the body of the film, but not the beginning! Not the opening title sequence!

It got worse. What’s worse? What’s worse is right at the very, very beginning, when they left out the crawl. Yes, the obligatory text crawl at the beginning of every Star Wars film setting up the recent backstory was absent. Nixed. Gone. Vamoosed! They replaced the crawl with, get this, a 1940’s-style newsreel sequence – some cheesy newsreel anchor doing a voiceover atop scenes of battle across the galaxy, narrating the state of the war. I suddenly realized why the cinema smelled like urine when I’d walked in – I think any self-respecting fanboy would have to fight to keep from pissing himself watching this dreck, and some likely failed.

Let’s get something straight: the John Williams Star Wars theme music and the opening crawl are fucking tradition. You don’t mess with tradition when it comes to the Star Wars movies. That music and that crawl set the tone. They are the Pavlovian cues that have been revving-up the salivary glands of fanboys for more than 30 years now. Take away that crucial combination and you automatically lose that very solid feeling that you’re about to be treated, treated, mind you, to a Star Wars film.

Then there’s the fact that the newsreel was awful. And I don’t mean awful merely because it had gruesomely disposed of the crawl like an alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, no, I mean this thing was poorly written, lazily performed, and completely out of synch with the Star Wars style of film. Did you see a newsreel re-cap in Empire? No. Did you see highlights at eleven during Jedi? Did the Three Stooges come out and try to sell you a war bond at the opening of A New Hope? I think not. Why? Because a newsreel doesn’t fit with the feel this type of movie is trying to create. Newsreels used in movies or television shows are iffy at the best of times. Many just don’t work (I’m talking about an episode of you, here, “MASH” [TV series]!). It definitely doesn’t work here.

It was at this point I had to start fighting the urge to howl “Turn down the suck!” at the screen, much the way you might try to choke back a fiery little stream of vomit in the back of your throat during Christmas dinner at grandma’s when the beer in your system from the previous night’s partying tries to come out to wish everyone a colourful Yule.

From there it was a blur of unforgiveable tediousness and downright bad film-making. Take your pick: maybe it was the endless fighting for the first hour or so that was so constant, so unremitting, so totally determined to not allow more than 20 seconds of characterization and plot, that I became desensitized to and bored with what I was seeing in the battle sequences. Desensitized and bored used to describe my impressions of a Star Wars battle?!? The hell I say! The hell I do say. The melees ended up playing like nothing so much as test beds for video games – and let’s face it, they probably will be. They didn’t really advance the plot and they were often downright stupid. I mean, come on, Anakin and his padawan Ahsoka crawling through a droid army under a box, bickering like an old married couple and no-one overhears them or stops to wonder “Hey! Why is this box moving? Why does it have feet? And why does it seem to be arguing with itself?!”

Maybe it was the lousy animation. Not only am I not a fan of this particular style of drawing, but the animation itself was crude. Fast, to be sure – very fast movements during the lightsaber duels especially, but at the same time herky-jerky. They lacked fluidity – they (especially the non-droid characters) lacked any sense of organic movement.

Maybe it was the frequently clunky dialogue. Sounded like it was written by the same gang that translated “Macross” into “Robotech”. If they could state the obvious or indulge in repetition, they would.

Maybe it was the stupid plot devices like Jabba’s infant son (frequently referred to as “Stinky”) getting kidnapped. They couldn’t think of a better way for the Sith to exacerbate the war? Or, if they wanted to draw the Hutts into it, they couldn’t think of a smarter way to do it? I mean, come on, in the original movies, Jabba may have been arrogant, cruel and overconfident, but he never really struck me as flat-out stupid. Here, the big space slug (whose mind is supposed to be powerful enough to withstand Jedi mind tricks) is manipulated like a toddler watching a cookie waved under his nose.

And let’s talk about bad characterizations: who would have expected Jabba to get all snuggly and cutesy like he does at the end when he’s reunited with junior?

And then there are the downright bad characters who were brought in: Jabba’s make-up sporting, dilettante uncle Ziro? There have been some out there on the net speculating and complaining that this particular gangster is the first gay Star Wars character. Personally, I don’t care. A character can be straight or gay as long as they’re a good character, and Ziro was most definitely not. Here’s another Hutt who was lead around by the nose. Granted, the Sith are specialists in manipulation, but if the original Jabba is any indication, again, Hutt crime bosses aren’t stupid or weak-willed, and you’d figure any slug who manages to eke out a living as a don on Coruscant, right under the noses of the Senate, probably has some brains as well as balls. As for the makeup and feathers? Meh. If someone were to explain it off as inner-systems fashions for oversized potato worms, then so be it. What bugged me was the acting associated with Ziro (that and the stupid choice of name). Why would they inflict a poorly done impression of Truman Capote on us? I felt like I was watching some bad outtake of “Murder by Death”. And it was such a bad Capote impression too!

Speaking of bad characters, let’s not forget how they dragged in pouty Padme for all of 10 minutes. Really scraping the bottom of the barrel there.

And the list of flaws goes on.

But don’t think this review is a totally one-sided hatchet job. Not totally anyway. I do have to admit there were two elements in this flick that didn’t annoy me. The jazz played by the band in Ziro’s bar wasn’t half bad. And Ahsoka wasn’t a bad character to watch either. I just wish she was a little less clichéd and had a better plot to live in. It’s nice for the Star Wars film canon to finally have a worth-while female Jedi character for girls in the audience (because I think kids would have more tolerance for this movie than adults – as much as I hate sounding like kids would be fooled by the garbage passing for an installment in the series) to focus on.

But overall though, this stinker ranks down there with the infamous Christmas Special. Oh yeah. It was that bad. When the final credits started to roll, I almost felt like standing up and yelling “Noooooooo!” like Vader in the end of Episode III – but then again, James Earl Jones did such a half-hearted job of that “no”, that it just wouldn’t do. No, you’d need a raw-edged, emotionally torn super “no” like Gary Oldman gave us in the beginning of Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” to approximate the necessary no-ness. But that would just be entirely inappropriate for movie-theatre behaviour, so I remained silent and stewed on my anger. What I couldn’t believe though, was the sound of a group of fanboys in the back row clapping.

The Clone Wars made me angry that Lucas would allow this crap to be made an official part of his story.

It made me fearful that the Star Wars universe will be further butchered as time goes on and more spin-offs are excreted in the search for more money.

It made me depressed that such a great series has been brought so low.

“Anger, fear, depression – the Dark Side are they.” Fuckin’ ay, Yoda. Fuckin’ ay.

As one fan of quality SF to another, I urge you to avoid seeing “Star Wars – The Clone Wars”. Save yourself. I wish I could forget tonight’s experience, but in the words of Vader: “It is too late for me”.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Score One for Megatron

He may never have been able to achieve a lasting victory over the Autobots, but Decepticon leader Megatron has beaten Canada Border Services.

Check out this story in today’s Province newspaper about how the borderguards tried to block the import of this Transformers toy, but had to back off.

Now, that he’s able to come north, we all know what kind of trouble ol’ Megatron will be up to – he’ll be looking to score some high-grade, organic, BC energon cubes. Oh yeah.

"You're very persistent, Tron!"

Not too long ago, there was an explosion of excitement coming out of the San Diego ComicCon like a recognizer being nailed by a tank blast, when Disney surprise released a teaser for the new “Tron 2” – or “Tr2n” – in development.

Luckily, someone in the audience was quick enough on the draw to capture the thing on a cellphone cam and upload it to the net. I was able to catch it over at SF Signal and all I could say at first was “Wow.” It looked great. The clip focused on a lightcycle race across a typically surreal tron-world landscape. This time though, the look of the programs and their bikes was upgraded – sleeker, and the lightcycles themselves were able to make curving turns, rather than the traditional, wrenching 90 degree cuts we’re used to. Then there’s the appearance of Jeff Bridges, staring down on the scene from a white room like some tired old god of electronica. All in all, for three minutes, “Tron 2” (I’m not going to use the formal presentation of the name, because I think the embedded “2” looks dumb) looks very promising.

What annoys me though (aside from the placement of that “2”), is the startling lack of presence of this trailer, now that it’s been released. Initially, it was everywhere. But now, a quick search for it comes up rather lacking. It’s not even on the Disney site! What are the people at the cult-of-the-mouse thinking? They’ve whet the appetites of geeks everywhere, and now they’re keeping the teaser to themselves? Within a day of its release at the ‘Con, Disney should have posted a nice, clean, quality official version on its site and blasted it out across the net, as well as every multiplex movie screen with the rest of the pre-feature trailers and commercials. I’m a communications guy by trade, and while I’m not pretending to be the level of expert that resides in the halls of marketing masters at Disney, I do know enough to be able to say pretty confidently that they’re not doing themselves any favours by keeping this little piece of “Tron 2” close to their chests. Most of the buzz about the clip seems to have been positive, and while some would argue that they won’t lose ticket buyers by holding back on an early teaser, I would say they have a better potential to build a BIGGER audience and create MORE buzz by unleashing the thing, fostering its going viral, and getting it up on every SF site out there. Get people talking! Give them what they want – sneak peaks and inside scoops! Remember when Peter Jackson was developing LOTR? Weta had a site up right from the start that was dispensing photos and casting updates, news from the set and, best of all, trailers. By comparison, Disney’s approach now has been as if Kevin Flynn had sidled up to the hole in the game grid wall, hawked a loogie and spat through the breach, then walked away, rather than tearing through in his lightcycle and bringing Tron and Ram with him. In the modern age of information sharing, the smart media mogul starts building hype as early as possible (which Disney has done here) but feeds it by dropping tidbits on a regular basis. The “Tron 2” trailer from the ‘Con should have been released on a much, much larger scale.

At any rate, seeing the sequel’s teaser online put me in the mood to watch the original again – not that it takes much to do that; “Tron” is one of my favourites. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, I can always pop in the DVD and enjoy this movie.

Part of that comes from nostalgia. I have to admit, “Tron” is one of the greats of cinematic sci-fi that I didn’t get to see in the theatre. In the summer of 1982, I was a kid, and even though my friends and I were all gung-ho to see this flick ‘cause it looked really cool, my parents (and the other parents in the neighbourhood) couldn’t have cared less about it – to them, it looked weird and it was science fiction and it wasn’t about anything they understood or had any involvement with, so they weren’t going to waste any time or money taking us to see it. Sigh.

And yet, we were inundated with “Tron” marketing by-products none-the-less: from trailers on TV and the previews before other movies we saw, to posters and illustrated books, and let’s not forget the “surprises” in cereal boxes. Yes, Disney waged quite a campaign through the breakfast industry to get some hype for this flick. I can remember digging crunchily around in boxes of Shreddies and Rice Krispies, finally wrapping my hand around the tantalizing plasticy goodness of the prize hidden amidst the cardboard-tasting cereal, pulling out the crumply package to rip it open and connect spars and wheels of plastic to make my very own lightcycle! No jetwall of course, but with a pull of the plastic ripcord that little sucker would go dashing off across the kitchen floor to smash into the wall (not through it, like on the game grid)! At least, that was the plan, until our collie pup would come bouncing in to play too, scooping up the toy into his jaws and running off with that quick “come on, chase me!” trot. And then there was the video game – and I’m not talkin’ about that cheesy pixilated waste of time that was available for purchase for Atari home game sets (no, I’m not jealous because I didn’t have an Atari – my Colecovision consol was a much better system, even if it didn’t have as many games) – no, I’m talkin’ about the full-sized arcade game (back when there were such things as arcades) with the screen and the joystick set up just like the game in the arcade in the movie. That was the best! There was a Holiday Inn out on the edge of town that was kind of like a weekend getaway resort for the locals, and it had a small arcade with the “Tron” game. I remember it started off with a character in a maze, and you had to find your way to one of the exits on one of the four sides of the screen before some bad guys would come and de-rez you. Once you were through one of the exits, you’d be plunged into a game – each exit led to a unique game. One put you into a lightcycle match, another exit led to a tank battle in a maze (the joystick controlled the tank’s movement, but there was a spinning knob control as well to let you turn the tank’s turret independently), and the other two exits – well, I can’t remember what kind of games they led to ‘cause I was never very good at those. I was okay in the tank battle (although it was really more of my brother’s forte), but in lightcycles, I kicked ass. Three years ago, my wife and I had our honeymoon at Disneyland in California. When we went to Tomorrowland and hit upon the Starcade, I went in hoping to find an old “Tron” arcade game - I mean, this was Disneyland, the heart of the place that gave life to “Tron” – it was a reasonable expectation. What could be more appropriate than a little corner for this movie in an on-site arcade? No love though. “Just a lot of cold circuits”, like the program said. No sign of “Tron” at all. Not even a blue or red Frisbee in the gift shop. I shouldn’t have been surprised – it was 2005 and “Tron” was 23 years gone, and from all appearances, Disney’s all about keepin’ up with the times and the marketing hooks that’ll draw in new generations of little ones, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the classics. Oh sure, there are the rides and attractions that Disneyland just wouldn’t be Disneyland without, like the castle or Space Mountain or It’s a Small World, but forget about the other stuff that helped build its cache, cut new ground, or created memories for those of us who were kids a few decades ago. Anyone remember Disney’s take on Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”? Remember the submarine ride they built around it at the park? When we were there, it was behind a fence getting a facelift into the “Finding Nemo” ride. The only trace of 20,000 leagues was a mural high-up on the second storey of a snack shack – something I suspect they’d forgotten about for the time being but would eventually be wiped-out as part of the rebranding. So much for history. What chance would “Tron” have?

“Tron” also has links in memory to my old school back east – C. Cornwell School was waaaaaay out in the middle of the country, a grade 4-8 school where all the kids got bussed in after they’d been through their local village K-3 elementaries and before they were set loose in the local 9-13 (yes, I said 13, this was Ontario in the 80’s) highschool, and consequently, because it was so far out by the highway in the middle of farmers’ fields and forests, the school dances for the older kids around the holidays had to take place in the afternoons. The grade 4 & 5’s were considered too young for the dances, so they had a choice – go to the “activities room”, where the activities invariably sucked, or go to the “movies room”. “Movies” was a misnomer. There was only one movie: “Tron” – which shows a heck of a lot of cool for a middle school in the middle of farm country. Occasionally they’d also run some short Disney series about a cowboy running a stagecoach service in Australia, but usually it was “Tron”. And that was okay by me and most of the other kids, ‘cause “Tron” blew us away. Cool special effects like nothing else we’d seen before (or since), awesome fight scenes (come on, who wouldn’t be impressed by some dude using a Frisbee as an information storage medium one minute, a drinking bowl the next, and then taking it and blowing away bad guys after that!), good guys who were funny, bad guys full of menace, and, a sense that there were deeper elements to the plot that we were still too young and naïve to understand. Good times, good times.

Over the years, this film has aged well. Sure, the realities of the high-tech world have changed, but we can look at their clunky computers and the arcades and say, that’s how things used to be (kind of). As for the look of the special effects, the synthesis of computer graphics and traditional animation, running side-by-side with live action film elements, were seamless. Together they created a unique world that we hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since. It gave the world of “Tron” its own texture and atmosphere, and a style that doesn’t date itself because it is so utterly different. This early representation of cyberspace essentially showed moviegoers a totally alien environment (something which was itself unheard of – take any other SF movie prior to “Tron” and look at its environment, in most cases it was something easily recognizable, be it cityscape, desert or jungle [with the exception, perhaps, of “2001”] – but no-one had ever seen anything like the world of “Tron”) – but one where recognizable characters were (for the most part) totally at home in, and thus it was an alien environment that we, as viewers, were able to be comfortable enough to visit for a while. Watch “Tron” today, and for all the advances in CG that have been employed to enhance the reality of film backdrops, it’s still pretty rare to see anything that utterly strange (and cool!).

Beyond the pretty pictures, as an adult, the deeper elements are what the story worth coming back to. As writer/director Steven Lisberger has mentioned on the commentary track, the movie explores the issue of freedom of creativity – who owns what gets created, along with the threat of corporations squeezing out individuals – something he notes many programmers were concerned about during the early days of computing. It’s an issue that’s still relevant today. All you have to do is listen to anyone who’s deeply into the software scene discussing the proprietary moves of certain big corporations versus the open-source and collaborative approach, and the impact of each on users. The film is also a series of “religious discussions” (to borrow from Ed Dillenger’s conversation with old Walter). We see programs created in their users’ images, those programs worshipping their users (after a fashion) as gods. In so presenting this macro-micro universe relationship, the film poses the question of whether we, as users/human beings, are merely running systems for larger, higher powers. By showing Flynn’s confusion and vulnerability upon entering the computer world, the film also asks whether theoretical gods thrown into our world would be any more capable (despite having a few bonus powers) or far-seeing than we. I think it also pointedly raises the issue of, as we see from Flynn’s initial surprise upon arrival, whether any creating entities would even be aware of humans as functioning, thinking, feeling minds. Lastly, though I don’t think it’s quite as overt as the other issues, I think “Tron” also brings up the question of a creator’s responsibility to its creations. Initially, Flynn, like any other user, gives no thought to the state of his programs, like Clu – they are things to be used to achieve his ends. The capture and destruction of Clu in the beginning has no meaning to Flynn beyond the personal inconvenience of not being able to hack into the memory he was looking for to find his evidence. He has no concept of Clu’s fear, pain or death. Until he arrives in the computer world, himself, and, most especially because he’s in as much physical danger as the programs around him, learns that what happens to these programs matters – he learns they have feelings too (here the writers tap into a kind of Shinto notion, that anything created by man that serves a purpose for man has a soul of its own). This begins to hit home when he has a hand in the de-rezzing of the slightly portly accounting program Crom (played nicely Peter Jurasik). But the real change comes aboard the salvaged recognizer when Ram dies. Ram asks Flynn to “Help Tron”, which, let’s face it, Flynn probably would have done anyway, having something of an idea that he probably needs Tron to help him get home, but Ram’s dying request puts an added imperative on it. Flynn says yes for Ram’s sake, to put the program at ease as he dies. Flynn is now feeling responsible for what happens to the programs. One wonders if that was an idea of the writers too, to ask the question of whether any supposed gods would feel any kind of responsibility to humanity? The other implied question, of course, is whether creators do have a responsibility to their creations, whether creations can simply be thrown away or if a creator must ask him or herself what the consequences are. A viewer is left wondering whether, back in the real world, Flynn will treat his programs differently (and I guess we’ll find out in “Tron 2”!). But the implication here is that perhaps we, as an audience, also have to start asking ourselves if we, as a society, need to be thinking about this as our science allows us to create more and more complex things – perhaps even artificial intelligences or genetically engineered life forms. I don’t think a viewer has to be religious or not to toss these questions around. The fact that the questions are posed gives the film much greater depth than the simple quest storyline on the surface and makes “Tron” worth re-watching every now and again.

I’m normally pretty cautious about sequels. Even with a great foundation to build upon, it’s too easy to teeter off balance and have a movie come crashing down upon itself (and risk damaging one’s impression of the original). “Tron 2” is no exception – there’s no way of telling whether it will successfully build about the smarts and the wonder of “Tron” until we see it. I am hopeful though. And while I’m being hopeful, I hope that Disney will smarten up and do a better job with releasing its trailers.

End of line.