Monday, September 28, 2009

Cutting It Close

Four days to go until VCon 34 (as its site reminds us) and still no sign of the schedule. They found time to post the complete guest list, which, given the advance promotion and the roster at the past couple of cons, doesn't really contain too many surprises. But no sign of the schedule. I know these things tend to be late-breaking due to last minute changes and the demands on time from non-con parts of life. And for that reason I hate to bitch about it, but I'm gonna 'cause there ought to be enough information to post some semblance of a schedule by the week of the con! Even if in order to do so it requires that wonderful catch-all preface "subject to change". From a con-goer's perspective, it certainly helps to have some idea of what's going on when to help plan the weekend (irrespective of the die-hards who live at the con for the duration). A little love for the attendees, guys. Please.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lurch Forward

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as an orange left on the highway after the flashforward)

I'm trying to remain positive about Flash Forward, but after tonight's hit-and-miss debut that's gonna be hard.

Admittedly, I've got a bit of a bias here. The novel that inspired this new TV series is one of my favourite Robert J Sawyer books and I think that story certainly has what it takes to translate to the screen (though it would work better as a one-off movie or miniseries rather than a full season/multiple season series). That being said, I admit it's probably more intellectual than what the average TV exec thinks the audience is willing or capable of following. I also try not to fall victim to comparing a TV show or movie with the novel on which it's based - they need to be treated as seperate entities and evaluated on their own merits. While I haven't been deliberately avoiding advanced reviews for the show, I haven't made an effort to hunt them down either, so I came into the show cold.

The show begins with the disasterous aftermath of the flashforward - where the entire population of the Earth has suddenly and simultaneously experienced a strange phenomenon where their minds have jumped 6 months into the future for a span of just over 2 minutes. This causes their bodies to collapse, with terrible results as people are injured or killed through falls or accidents involving cars, planes, etc. FBI agents Mark Benford (played by Joseph Fiennes) and Demetri Noh (John Cho) try to figure out what caused it to happen, as they and the people around them try to pick up the pieces of their lives and cope with the implications of what they've seen (or not) during their flashforwards.

On the up side, the show started with a frighteningly impressive depiction of the disaster caused by the flashforward - an unflinching vista of highways littered with wrecked vehicles, bodies and the injured, and skylines of wrecked buildings as uncontrolled aircraft tumble from the sky.

As childish as it sounds, amidst all the angst-ridden flashforwards of the cast, I also enjoyed the touch of the banal when the FBI boss recalled (but didn't cop to) his own future memory of sitting on the can reading the sports section of the paper.

But the best moment of the show was Brain F O'Byrne's gripping performance as Aaron Stark, Benford's friend and fellow an alcoholic, when he confides to the FBI agent that his flashforward is a burden because after struggling to deal with the supposed death of his daughter, his experience has indicated that she's still alive and he has to find a way to cope with the storm of emotions and readjustment that this causes.

The weaknesses of the show, however, were strongly evident from the beginning. The scene with Benford's slo-mo run through the disaster has been done so many times by Hollywood it's become corny. Speaking of scenes, the 4-hours-before cutaway was vaguely creepy because the shot of the LA suburb reminded me too much of the neighbourhood in Poltergeist. Incidental and unintentional, I know, but it took away from the story for me, so points lost from the show's overall score. Deal with it.

Then there was Sonya Walger's completely awful excuse for a performance in the role of Dr Olivia Benford. An unprecidented, bizarre and deadly incident has just rocked humanity - never mind the sheer scope of what's happened, it's also given her character a glimpse into an unsettling near future. But Walger downplayed her character's reaction to the point that she seemed disinterested and bored. I realize she's going for the portrayal of a seasoned doctor staying professional amidst a crisis, but there's a definite line between acting cool and calm, and just plain bad acting, and Walger was on the wrong side of that line.

The little details were jarring too (and again, I realize the show's different than the book and needs to be evaluated on its own merits - or lack there of). Lloyd Simcoe now has an English accent? Where did that come from? He's supposed to be a good Canadian guy. I won't even get into the weirdness being hinted at in the previews.

But what seemed like the biggest change for the worse was the combination of making the flashforward a short hop of just 6 months into the future rather than the 20 year leap of the book, and the emphasis on ratcheting up the tension of an FBI investigation with hints at mysterious figures that could be involved. Admittedly, a story about a Canadian scientist working at CERN and trying to come to grips with the philosophical implications of what's happened as well as the practical ramifications of knowing waht's in store for him 2 decades in the future might not seem like exciting prime time fare for Joe and Sally Sixpack. But with the set-up we've been given, FlashForward looks like it's going to be a knockoff of 24 seasoned by SF. Just what TV needs, another cop show.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not writing off FlashForward yet. If I stuck with the steaming pile known as Dollhouse for 4 episodes, I can certainly give this show the benefit of the doubt for a little while yet.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mad Rush to the Door

Damn. Missed out on today's deadline for early registration to VCon 34! Guess that means I'll have to hoof it to the hotel on the opening Friday after work to get my admission and see if I can snag a con T-shirt before they're all sold out.

Ah well, the full price of admission is pretty reasonable, especially given that this year's choice of venue is the Marriott in Downtown Vancouver. Never been in that hotel before, but it's in the upscale part of Downtown, and let's face it, anything's worth the price compared to last year's event in the squalid depths of Newton in Surrey (the neighbourhood was something out of a B-budget post-apocalyptic adventure movie from the 70's - as were many of the locals!) This hotel should be quick and easy to access too - just a couple of blocks west of the new Canada Line station at Waterfront.

No sign of the schedule on the con website yet. That being said, they've done a reasonably good job in the past of slotting in interesting topics (though some of last year's did seem to be a tad repetitious when compared to the previous year) and bringing in good panelists.

WorldCon just last month... VCon just a couple of weeks ahead... by Hallowe'en I'll be absolutely twitchy with residual geek overload!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love Your Library While You've Got One

Two recent articles about the difficulties faced by public library systems have got me thinking about just how important the library has been to me over the years.

Over on boingboing, Cory Doctorow has recently weighed-in on the dire situation facing Philadelphia's Free Library system (thanks to Christine Rondeau for passing this along). Then in today's Vancouver Sun, Shelley Fralic writes about the tough times our libraries are having here in BC as government funding is put on thin ice by the economy: while Vancouver's library system will probably remain intact, some smaller communities may not be so lucky.

If you don't go into a library on a regular basis - and I admit, in recent years I haven't ('cause I'm a book hoarder rather than a short-term borrower) - then the system becomes a service you take for granted until you come across stories like these. But the fact is that libraries (both public and school) were important to the development of my love of books and to the deepening of my appreciation for speculative fiction.

As a kid back east, one of the highlights of every summer was going to the Cambridge Public Library. By all rights, my favourite branch should have been the one in the Preston neighbourhood where my grandmother worked, but my true love was the Galt branch (situated near the huge old churches that ringed the public square, there's something metaphorically appropriate about having a library - a temple of knowledge and literature, on an equal footing with more common places of worship). It was vast, silent and dark - a catacomb of nooks and crannies filled with books and all kinds of other cool stuff. We'd go every couple of weeks to stock up on books, and amidst the lighter kids' fare like the Choose Your Own Adventure titles, that's where I picked up the real treasures like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This was extremely important to my development given that SF is pretty much alien to my parents, so I wasn't going to be finding anything to read that suited my interests at home.

And there were other enticements for young geeky minds in addition to the books: they had summer programming in the auditorium that included presentations for kids on all kinds of fun topics like wild animals and dinosaurs. But the best, the absolute best, was the seminar on robots! I still remember going up the stairs to the auditorium entrance on the second floor and seeing a huge metal mechanoid (or at least the shell of one) leaning on the doorframe. The presentation was from a guy who worked in robotics (can't remember which university or company though) who talked about how robots were built and what they were used for in the real world. Then came the moment that I'll never forget: as he started talking about robots in the movies and which were his favourites, he pulled out a remote control and brought a replica of R2D2 rolling out onto the stage. Somewhere around a hundred 5-10 year olds proceeded to go bonkers and you could tell that even though it was his robot, the guy onstage still thought seeing R2 up close was as cool as we did. After showing off some of R2's moves, the guy opened the floor for questions. Great guy - he took all of our questions seriously. I remember very clearly that I asked him how much wire it took to make R2, and he smiled and said "Miles and miles of it."

As if that wasn't enough, I also remember in either the summer of 83 or 84, the library set aside a very large display case to show off someone's extensive collection of Star Wars toys. No surprise, Mom nearly had to use a crowbar to pry us away from that thing to get us to go home.

I always plan to pay a visit to that library when I go back home for visits, but scheduling never allows it. I think I owe it to the old place to schedule some of the sit-downs with relatives around a trip to the library for once.

Later in my childhood, when the family moved out to BC, I made a point of acquainting myself with the local library. The Tsawwassen branch of the South Delta Library was a heck of a lot smaller than the one in Galt, but there were SF books to be had that kept me interested once I'd ploughed through the stock in the school library. Years later, as an adult, even though I don't live there anymore, I've still been known to drop in and spend a few hours reading from time to time if I've left my car with the mechanic just down the road for a little work.

As I've mentioned before, I tend to be a hoarder when it comes to books, so I don't visit the library that often anymore. That being said, because I do appreciate how important it was to my development, I know that in a couple of years when my wife and I have kids of our own, we'll definitely be regulars at our local library.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Are You a Geek, a Nerd, a Dweeb or a Dork?

Check out the Cynical-C Blog for a graph shedding light on the differences between geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks. Definitely worth a chuckle to see which side of the line your fannish friends sit on -and, if you're honest with yourself, which camp you're in!

Thanks to the guys over at SF Signal for catching this one and sharing it with the rest of us on their Twitter feed.

The Shat Goes Doctor Dolittle Again

According to an article in today's National Post, William Shatner is throwing his weight behind another animal-related cause.

This time, the man behind Captain Kirk is lobbying the mayor of Edmonton, Alberta in an effort to get the city's Valley Zoo to send its aging elephant, Lucy, to a sanctuary.

Not too long ago, the Shat was urging officials in BC to put an end to fish farms that might threaten the health of wild salmon stocks.

For his next act, he'll be travelling back in time to rescue a pair of humpback whales. He already did that? Oh. Um... how about his ability to act?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Quick Review of G.I. Joe

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a Cobra soldier from the undersea base bobbing up through a hole in the ice to be polar bear chow)

You can't go in to a movie based on a toy line (okay, a toy line that spawned a comic and a long-running cartoon) with high expectations, so the lack of quality in G.I. Joe wasn't a total surprise or disappointment. That being said, it definitely missed the opportunity to be something better.

The special effects and fight scenes were all top notch. I also have to admit there were a couple of scenes that made me chuckle. I like the backstory that was constructed for McCullen's/Destro's (played by Christopher Eccleston) family, but his transformation at the end to have the liquid metal face was pretty lame. As much as it would have been inanimate, I think it would have been better if he would have donned his ancestor's steel mask. It would have had more meaning than nanobots giving him a T-1000 look.

On the downside, the flick had plot holes big enough to drive an entire armoured column through. One of the worst offences was after the disaster in Paris where the Joes get arrested by French authorities. While Hawk is eventually able to get them released, they're told their forbidden from ever returning to France. Huh? This is supposed to be an international team dispatched by the UN, right? So while I can understand your run-of-the-mill gendarmes and bureaucrats not knowing who these characters are, how is it that high-level French officials are in the dark and have to have their arms twisted to release the Joes? If this is an international force, wouldn't there be a couple of French members? Wouldn't the French government at least be in the loop?

And then there were the Joes themselves. Snake Eyes is white?! Huh? Granted, I only read a couple of issues of the comic back when I was a kid and borrowed them from a friend, so I don't know if the comic had anything to say about his ethnicity, but at least in the cartoon there was never any indication that the Joes' resident ninja was white. He was just a ninja. Most ninjas as Japanese, right? Now sure, you may say that doesn't mean that he can't be white, maybe there are white ninjas. Fine. But if this is supposed to be an international team, why not keep things simple and say he's Japanese like most ninjas probably are? This just felt like the producers were trying to pander to the American audience's dim memories from the 80's of American Ninja, which, for all its attempt to be a serious ninja movie, was equally as lame as another white ninja movie years later: Beverly Hills Ninja.

But the worst offence this movie committed was the absence of Shipwreck Delgado from the G.I. Joe team. Shipwreck was the man! The lack of Shipwreck and his bird was truly unforgiveable.

Save G.I. Joe for a rental night if there's nothing else available at the store.

My Marvel-Disney Mashup

Okay, since everyone else in the universe is doing it, I'll hop on board the Marvel-Disney mashup bandwagon. Here's what I'd like to see:

Finding Magneto

Marvel & Disney Sittin in a Tree...

I'm not sure what to think about this whole Marvel/Disney marriage that was announced a while ago.

On one hand, it's probably a good thing for Marvel, because as part of the Disney empire they'll have steady access to a lot more capital to develop movies and avenues like stores and themeparks to hawk merchandise. This is, of course, a good thing, most especially from a business perspective.

For Disney, it's another property to put bums in the seats of its themepark rides. It's not hard to imagine the mouse taking some of the big Marvel names and flushing them out into Indiana Jones-style show rollercoasters or Star Tours-esque puke theatres. And it would work. Hell, I'd go.

On the other hand, with Mickey at the helm, I worry that it's only a matter of time before comic fans see the Disneyfication of the Marvel lines. Oh sure, it wouldn't be right away and it wouldn't be all in one fell swoop. It would probably start subtly because the Disney guys are smart and won't want to damage the revenue from their new property, but over time I wonder if you might start to see a softening of some of the violence or a gentling of character personalities to be more in line with the wholesome image of the mouse's company (granted, American pop culture rarely has a problem with violence - it's sex and swearing they're really afraid of - but you have to admit that at least in recent years, Disney's something of a soft touch when it comes to slugfests). This is not to say that Marvel's titles are the homes of over-the-top gore or phsychological violence. They're still ultimately (for the most part) written with the understanding that kids and youth will be buying them (as opposed to other comic publishers which lean towards the adult audience specifically and are markedly different in the depth of content). But I can just imagine a boardroom meeting some day with execs talking about developing, say, X-Men into a ride for the themeparks and getting into a discussion about whether Wolverine's gonna have to tone down the attitude in order for the concept to be a more palatable for parents; this in turn could affect the comic months, if not years in advance of ride construction. Just a thought, but one that's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

But beyond that, there's just a general uneasy feeling that I have when I think of these two entertainment powers joining forces. It's the same feeling of wrongness slithering just through the fringes of conciousness that I had way back at the end of the 80's or beginning of the 90's when Disney bought out the Muppets. Sure it probably gave the Henson factory the backing it needed for the Muppet movies (like their versions of A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island) that they put out in the 90's, but when I saw the news footage back then, I just had this feeling that the Muppets were losing something special about their identity by coming under the Disney umbrella. Even now, years later, if you go to the Disney California theme park across the lane from Disneyland, they've got a replica of the Muppet Theater with a funny little show, but it somehow seems faded and half real. Admittedly, part of the problem there is that this show is half-empty most of the time is because its real draw is for the adults who remember watching the Muppets as kids. They bring their own kids there, and the little ones generally enjoy themselves, but the Muppets aren't that big a part of pop culture for kids anymore, so it's not what the kids want to see. That's not Disney's fault per se. But is probably is why the Muppet Theater there feels like it's been half-forgotten and tucked in a corner of the park more out of obligation than any real desire to push it as a destination product - Disney's too focused on promoting its core properties, rather than the add-ons from a bygone era. While Marvel is certainly current, I worry that it may become somewhat marginalized because it isn't a core Disney property. And beyond that, I just can't shake that same feeling that maybe, like the Muppets, some of the magic has gone out of Marvel because of the Disney deal - that it's become the sidekick where it used to be the superhero.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Hogtown or Fantown?

Over the weekend, the "centre of the universe" was host to the annual Toronto Fan Expo. CBC's got a nice photo gallery over on its site. Would have been nice to go, but one con this summer was enough. Good on Hogtown (or should we be calling it Fantown?) for putting on a con that draws a respectable crowd and gets hefty media attention - in fact, a couple of the TV stations out here on the Wet Coast even ran short highlights of the con at the end of their newscasts (complete with obligatory smug sniggering from the anchors at the antics of the geeks). Too bad this summer's WorldCon in Montreal didn't get that kind of national attention.

Cylon Has A Plan - for Cats in Richmond

The potential for really awful, unforgiveable puns with this one was almost too great to resist, but I'll be a good boy and just pass this story along as-is:

One of the local newspapers here in Little China, The Richmond Review, recently ran a story about how Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer has taken the local cat sanctuary under her wing. Helfer (now based out of Los Angeles) was located on the Lower Mainland during the years when BSG was filming and also has a sister who lives in Greater Vancouver. She's visited the Richmond Animal Protection Society a few times and has helped fund the operation with proceeds from a photo shoot as well as the sale of merchandise from her website.

The article goes on to mention that Helfer currently has nine cats. Six has nine cats? I know it's her business how many pets she has, but doesn't nine boost a person up into strange old cat-lady territory, or at least very near to it?