Monday, April 30, 2007

Veronica Mars - Season 1 (2004-2005)

Veronica Mars - Season 1 (2004-2005)

I was a bit skeptical about watching this show, primarily because it had been likened to Buffy the Vampire Slayer by many a pundit. I've never liked Buffy (although I think I may have to give it another shot, since I've only seen a few of the early episodes), so the comparison didn't bode well. I decided to give it a shot nonetheless, and I have to admit it's pretty darned good.

'Veronica Mars' is a mystery/teen-drama series about a teenage girl, the titular Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), who attends high school and works as an amateur detective for her father's detective company in her spare time. The show revolves around her school and domestic life and the cases she works on, with the three areas often overlapping. While many episodes feature standalone cases, there's a season spanning mystery surrounding the murder of Veronica's best friend Lilly Kane that is the focus of many episodes and that is touched upon in pretty much every episode. The mystery involves virtually all the main characters in the show, including Veronica's father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), her ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), former friend turned nemesis Logan (Jason Dohring), and biker gang leader and ally 'Weevil' (Francis Capra). A main character unrelated to the case but vital to the story is Veronica's best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III, the sequel to the acclaimed Percy Daggs II. I jest, I'd love to have a number in my name as well). There are also some additional recurring supporting characters who round things out.

The show maintains a fine juggling act between disparate elements - drama, humour, mystery - and I attribute this to the excellent writing, which integrates and balances these elements together well. The whole thing has an offbeat tone, with sharp dialogue and biting humour, attributes that are exemplified by Veronica Mars's narration. The balance of plot and character is also excellent and the plotting is very strong, with the mysteries being fairly complex and Veronica's investigations being surprisingly logical for a TV series. I can't think of any episodes where I rolled my eyes with incredulity; even the techie aspects are above par.

There are surprises aplenty as the season progresses, and the layered approach to the Lily Kane mysteries is well handled - the balance between standalone and arc episodes is good enough that I never felt the show was losing focus or killing time. There are frequent flashbacks that fill in background details of the plot and characters (which are shot with a somewhat surreal look). A surprisingly welcome aspect of the show is the fact that the story arc is actually resolved within the season, a rarity in the era of multi season never ending stories that may not be going anywhere (*ahem* Lost *ahem*). My only major complaints are the final resolution to the mystery, which felt strangely contrived and unrelated to everything that had happened up to that point (though you could call this a twist), and the incongruity between the Veronica of the flashbacks and the 'current' Veronica, which just feels too extreme.

The characters in the show are complex, interesting, and human, especially Veronica Mars, who is infinitely resourceful but never in a clichéd way. The primary cast is very strong, with Kirsten Bell in particular being exceptional in the lead role - completely convincing as both a bright kid and a tenacious, savvy, and often manipulative detective. Just as good is Jason Dohring as Logan, a character who starts off as despicable but who transforms completely into someone sympathetic by the end of the season. Enrico Colantoni is excellent as the plucky and resourceful Keith Mars, and Percy Daggs III is great as the loyal best friend. The rest of the cast aren't quite as good, but the only one who's really weak is Teddy Dunn, whose portrayal of Duncan Kane is bland and forgettable.

An excellent show overall, one that quite amazingly finds its stride right from the start of the first season. It's smart, funny, and full of character, and I have to wonder whether the second season can continue in the same vein. Needless to say, I look forward to finding out.

OLPC sells out?

Has the OLPC project sold out? It seems that the XO-1 $100 laptop (now priced at $175 with the expectation that the price will eventually drop) will soon be able to run MS Windows as well.
However, Negroponte disclosed that XO's developers have been working with Microsoft Corp. so a version of Windows can run on the machines as well.

The project has long been hailed as a triumph for open source principles, but this latest development has been met with some criticism (on Slashdot, at least). Some have pointed to the recently beefed up specs and subsequent higher price tag as a sign that the project has bent to the will of Microsoft and changed specs to support the resource hungry Windows and associated software.

Couple that with the fact that Microsoft have announced a $3 package of Windows and productivity applications for "governments that subsidize student computers", and we might see a scenario where the OLPC becomes primarily a Windows based machine instead of the Linux based one many had been expecting. After all, governments probably won't mind paying $3 on top of the $175 dollars to acquire the de facto standard operating system. Which would mean that a whole new generation will be weaned on Windows, on which they will be dependant when they grow up, which will further Microsoft's stranglehold on the OS market. Heck, if these countries become more developed, implement stronger IP laws, and foster societies that have more disposable income, Microsoft may actually make money off of them directly in addition to maintaining their ubiquity!

It's still too early to say what will happen, but the announcement has left a bitter taste in my mouth. While I can understand why some might think it's a good idea to allow these laptops to run what everyone else is running so that the skills of the laptop's users will be transferable, I think the sentiment overlooks the long term consequences. The OLPC project could have been a pioneer in effecting a movement away from proprietary software to open source and (more importantly) open standards; at the least, it would have been a worthy attempt. Now it seems that it'll be yet another tool to help Microsoft become even more ubiquitous, which will continue to hinder genuine competition and innovation in the industry.

At the end of the day, most of the good things about the XO-1 still remain true, and I still think it's a great idea and hope it succeeds. Making technology available to more people in this manner is a noble endeavour. It'll just be a crying shame if one possible significant benefit of the project never sees fruition.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Back when this film came out, it looked like it might stand a chance of being the first good video game adaptation. It had the budget to deliver the requisite spectacle, it had a decent cast, and the early trailers made it out to be an entertaining if derivative adventure film. While it may have catapulted star Angelina Jolie into mega stardom and remains the most successful video game adaptation yet made, the film itself is underwhelming.

'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' tells the story of Lara Croft (Jolie), a wealthy English aristocrat who happens to go adventuring in exotic locales, raiding tombs and securing ancient artifacts. She's assisted by her butler Hillary (Chris Barrie) and techie Bryce (Noah Taylor). Lara discovers a strange device in a secret room within her mansion that was placed there by her father, the late Lord Croft (Jon Voight). She receives a letter left behind by her father instructing her to use the device to obtain and then destroy the two halves of a magic triangle, an artifact that gives its wielder the power to control space and time (or something). The powerful, super-secret Illuminati are looking for this triangle, which must be in a certain place at a certain time when all the planets are aligned for its power to be unleashed. One half of the triangle is hidden in Cambodia, and the other in Siberia. Lara attempts to track down the pieces of the triangle, but is forced to contend with (and occasionally work with) the Illuminati's crew, led by a man named Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) and assisted by a tomb raider for hire and former acquaintance of Lara's, Alex West (Daniel Craig). Plenty of adventuring and action ensues.

The plot is quite weak, and is in many ways ridiculous, as part of the threat of the artifact is actually only unleashed as a result of Lara's actions in the first place (if she had never discovered the clock, there would never have been any threat). The writing is also forgettable, with scant little (and poor) characterization and cheesy moments galore. It just tries too hard to be cool. Seriously, Indy was cool because he was a tough bastard who was also human, and not some vacuous superman who just pouted and posed. The villains are also fairly sketchy and unmemorable. Simon West's film looks cheap and ugly for a major Hollywood film, the humour is mostly flat, the 'character' moments carry little emotional weight, and the action scenes are full of effects but rarely elicit any sense of danger or excitement. They're passably enjoyable, with the one truly original and interesting scene being the 'bungee ballet' sequence, which sadly segues into some sloppy and barely coherent action.

Which leaves the cast, who are also a mixed bag. Glen and Craig are both stodgy as the villain Powell and hired hand Alex West. It was amusing to see Craig in this complete with dodgy American accent, years before he landed the role of 007. Taylor and Barrie are quite fun as the techie and the butler respectively, with Barrie in particular being hilarious in his few moments (Red Dwarf fans know how funny he can be). Strangely, even Powell's assistant, Mr. Pimms (Julian Rhind-Tutt) was somewhat amusing. This was one of those rare occasions where I actually welcomed the inclusion of the perfunctory comic relief sidekicks! And finally, of course, there's Jolie, who's the best part of the film. I can't imagine any other actress pulling this off - besides being easy on the eyes, Jolie is enigmatic and also seems dangerous and a little insane, which works in making Lara at least marginally interesting. It's a shame the filmmakers decided to spend too much time focusing on making Jolie anatomically match her pixelated counterpart instead of trying to create a genuine character. Oh, and Jon Voight phones in a lousy performance in the minor role of Lord Croft.

So all in all, a mediocre film - it isn't terrible, but it's far from being good. It's possible to sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy it at some level, but why bother when there are so many better things to do? There's better cheesy action adventure films out there as well; watching this is just a waste of time.

Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four (2005)

Over hated. For some reason, people (and by people I mean film fans and comic book buffs) loathe this movie like Wile E. Coyote loathes the Road Runner. This adaptation of the Fantastic Four comic book series was met with derision before and following its release. I'm bemused, because while I'm not a fan of the film, I think it's decent enough, and it seems to be true to what little I know of the Fantastic Four. It certainly seems more accurate an adaptation than X-Men, which was much better received.

'Fantastic Four' tells the story of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), and shady corporate millionaire Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), five people who have some history between them. It all begins peacefully enough, when all five of them go to Von Doom's space station to carry out an experiment devised by Reed. Things go pear shaped and all of them are exposed to some form of radiation. Back on Earth, the four heroes discover that the radiation has altered them - Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny's whole body can ignite into flames, and Ben becomes permanently transformed into a rocky Hulk like figure. When they use their powers to save lives during a disaster, they are embraced as heroes by the public and dubbed the 'Fantastic Four'. Unbeknownst to everyone, Von Doom also gains powers, which he uses for evil. The Fantastic Four, who have personal issues with each other, work to try and find a 'cure' for their problem. When Doom attempts to wipe them out, they are forced to put aside their difference and unite against him.

Hmm, that's a pretty accurate summary of the plot, which isn't great but isn't exactly terrible either. The film works as a comedy drama with action, and most of the time the focus is on the personalities, problems, and interactions of the Fantastic Four as opposed to the plot. It's a light hearted superhero film, at odds with the typically action heavy, serious, and 'dark' comic book adaptations - this fact seems to have annoyed people more than anything else. To me, it's a valid approach - I always thought comical character interaction was what the Fantastic Four was about. The writing isn't great, but it works for the most part, and it's often quite funny - some of the faux techno-babble is hilarious, though I found it hard to tell if it was always intentional. The characterization isn't deep, but it's effective and befits the film's tone. The cast are a mixed bag - Alba and Gruffudd are bland but adequate in their roles, and McMahon is one dimensionally villainous. Evans and Chiklis are the highlight though - their exaggerated and larger than life approaches are the most entertaining aspects of the film.

The film is a mixed bag in more ways than one - there's nothing memorable about it visually, with occasionally dodgy effects and bland production design. Director Tim Story's effort is nondescript, and it's the performances and writing that wind up carrying the film. The action sequences are not particularly great, but the way the Four use their powers in battle (and throughout the film) is ultimately satisfactory.

While my assessment of the different aspects of the film seems less than enthusiastic, the overall mix of mostly mediocre elements with a few great elements results in a film that is fairly enjoyable overall. It ain't great, but it's not as bad as some people make it out to be.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

I quite like Robin Williams, but his career is a real mixed bag that, especially of late, veers towards the not so great films that probably help him pay the bills. His comedic career has also all too often embraced the safe brand of generic family friendly comedy that rakes in the cash. 'Good Morning, Vietnam' is one of those films that's cited as demonstrating Robin Williams at his comic best. I agree.

Based very loosely on reality, 'Good Morning, Vietnam' tells the story of Airman Adrian Cronauer (Williams), a DJ who is assigned to a military radio station in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The fast talking comedian Cronauer is irreverent and abrasive, and his style immediately pisses off his superiors despite garnering massive popularity amongst his target audience, the troops. Cronauer is supported by his broadcast colleagues, including Pfc Edward Garlick (future Idi Amin Forest Whitaker). He spends his free time getting to know his surroundings and pursues the affections of a local woman, and in doing so ends up befriending her brother Tuan and teaching an English class for some of the locals. As time passes, Cronauer gets into trouble with his superiors as he rails against censorship and begins to understand that the war isn't as clear cut as the military would like people to believe.

The film is very funny, both the scripted parts and Robin William's adlibbed, manic broadcasts. The humour is also juxtaposed with serious drama, as Cronauer goes through an eye opening experience as he gains an insight into the situation in Vietnam. He becomes aware of the culture of Vietnam, and the nature of the conflict that engulfs it, and discovers that the locals aren't as happy with the U.S. Military presence as had initially believed. There's an air of realism to much of the backdrop of the film; it was especially interesting to see the 'romance' subplot handled believably and without adherence to movie clichés. The story concludes in an appropriately ambivalent and satisfactory manner.

Williams is absolutely fantastic as the out of control Cronauer, and gets both the comedic and the serious, dramatic aspects of the character just right. The supporting cast is also strong, especially Whitaker as his loyal sidekick and Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan. Bruno Kirby and J. T. Walsh make for memorable villains as Cronauer's immediate superiors. Director Barry Levinson marries the different tones of the film together well, including moments where characters within the same scene exhibit contrasting tones (it's much like MASH in that respect, which I wrote about here). The final stellar ingredient in the mix is the fantastic selection of music that is used throughout the film, which is meant to be representative of the music Cronauer plays during his show.

'Good Morning, Vietnam' lives up to expectations - it's funny as a comedy, and engaging and affecting as a drama. For me, it's the most memorable Robin William's performance I've seen, and certainly the funniest. Well worth watching.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Zathura (2005)

Zathura (2005)

Although I am a fan of The Goonies (not certain if it's nostalgia or whether the film is actually any good), I'm not a particularly big fan of kiddie adventure flicks in general. Jumanji was passably entertaining, and Zathura is a spiritual successor to that film. Directed by the man at the helm of the upcoming 'looking quite good so far' Iron Man, Jon Favreau, I found Zathura to be an excellent and underrated film.

Zathura centres around two young kids, Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Joss Hutcherson), who are always quarreling, as siblings tend to do. When their dad (Tim Robbins) leaves them at home under the 'care' of their slumbering older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), Danny comes across an old board game called Zathura. He starts to play the game, and the two brothers find their entire house transported into space, with events described by the game actually taking place. These events include the likes of a malfunctioning killer robot, a meteor storm, and a raid by vicious aliens called Zorgons. Danny and Walter learn that they need to finish the game in order to get back home, but to do so will require them to survive everything the game throws at them as well as survive their personal squabbling. Along the way they gain the help of an 'Astronaut' (Dax Shepard) who winds up in the house during one turn of the game.

The story itself is straightforward, but it's in the execution that Zathura shines. It's well written, with characters who feel genuine and character interactions that ring true, particularly when it comes to the squabbling. The way the kids' problems are entwined into the story comes across as natural instead of forced. The story is also well structured, with just enough set-up between set pieces and with a genuine sense of growing peril as the stakes keep getting raised. The events that occur are also quite imaginative and entertaining while being true to the premise of 'board game' logic. A lot of the credit should go to Favreau - the overall aesthetic and tone are perfect for this kind of story. The adventure is tense and dangerous but still fun, and a lot of the action feels very 'grounded in reality' thanks to his restrained approach and use of miniatures instead of CGI. The effects are fantastic in their relative simplicity - in the age of fast cutting and dynamic camera moves, it's nice to just be able to look at something for a change. And finally, the performances are very good, particularly from the two young leads who are completely un-self conscious and natural, and don't give off that annoying child prodigy vibe. Dax Shepard is also charismatic as the astronaut with a secret.

Zathura is an excellent film by any standard, and succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to be - an entertaining, exciting, and charming adventure story. The film confirms that Favreau is a very talented filmmaker who can handle effects heavy films with ease without sacrificing story and character, which bodes well for Iron Man.

TMNT (2007)

TMNT (2007)

The fads of the eighties are back with a vengeance this year with Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles both returning to the big screen, and rumour has it GI Joe and He-Man may also return to the spotlight. The Turtles struck first with TMNT, and I was there to witness the carnage. And watch the movie. I mentioned in an earlier post about how the old turtles cartoon stank like damp garbage. Fortunately, this latest incarnation is way better.

TMNT is a CGI animated kids film that adult fans of the original can enjoy (I'm not convinced newbies will give a damn). It picks up the Turtle saga in a time when the evil Shredder has been vanquished. Leonardo has been sent off somewhere into the jungles of South America to improve his leadership skills, and the turtle team has fallen apart in his absence, with Raphael taking on the mantle of a vigilante while Donatello and Michelangelo work demeaning day jobs. The team are soon re-united with Leonardo and forced to take on a pack of mythical beasts who are being brought together by an immortal villain and his stone warriors to perform a ritual of sorts that can only happen when the stars are aligned in a certain way etc... Add to that derivative storyline a more compelling one about the animosity between Leonardo and Raphael and how the Turtles struggle to function as a unit, the involvement of the evil Foot Clan, April O'Neil, Casey Jones, and Splinter and the end result is a movie that meets Turtle expectations. Cowabunga, dude!

While the script is uninspired, the story fairly derivative, and the humour hit and miss, TMNT still works as a light piece of entertainment. The voice acting is pretty good, with some star power courtesy of Patrick Stewart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Laurence Fishburne, and Zhang Ziyi. The best selling points of the film (besides the appeal of the brand, I suppose) are the animation and the action sequences. The animation is at times quite stunning, and overall is consistently good throughout and full of detail and character. The action sequences are also very good - energetic and larger than life (well, they'd have to be when they feature giant mutant turtles), they make full use of the liberties offered by the medium. The best of these is the battle between Raphael and Leonardo, who come to blows when they fail to resolve their differences amicably.

It's a fun film that's mostly forgettable, but registers enough to make me willing to see the inevitable sequel. I only hope they actually give some screentime for Michelangelo and Donatello (the geek!) in the sequel; the two of them barely make a contribution in this one.

ZX Spectrum Celebrates 25 Years

The BBC has an article celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum, the hugely successful and influential home computer created by Sinclair Research. The ZX Spectrum was a hit in the UK and ushered in an age of home computing and home computer programming.

I had one of these... well, the whole family did. It was pretty cool, with programs loaded off of and saved to audio tapes (there were bleeping sounds during loading, sort of like dial up modems, and colour patterns on the screen). I used it for gaming, not anything productive, although I did 'write' some basic games by copying game code out of books. Dammit, I was a kid! Not that I'd do much different today either. The Spectrum was a small and quite stylish piece of kit. The rubber keyboard was a bit difficult to use though, and as I recall keys would get stuck. Ah, the good old days (that's the second time in two days I've used that expression!). Anyway, it's a significant and cool piece of computing history, and it deserves to be celebrated.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Scrubs - Season 2

Scrubs - Season 2

Scrubs is funny. Really funny. It's not as smart as, say, Arrested Development (but then again what is?), but I enjoy it almost as much. I loved the first season, and finished watching the second several weeks ago. I'm going to be lazy and quote the Wikipedia article's summary to describe the show; in any case I couldn't possibly explain it any better.

The show focuses on the professional and personal lives of several characters working at Sacred Heart Hospital, a fictional teaching hospital. It uses first-person narration, verbose characters, segues between subplots, fast pace, and surreal escapism (presented as the thoughts and reveries of the main characters), counterpointed by poignant scenes where the characters address how doctors deal with real issues relating to the practice of medicine.

... The show is structured around multiple storylines thematically linked via voiceovers by protagonist and narrator Dr. John "J.D." Dorian played by Zach Braff. During many of the episodes, J.D. summarizes the story's moral or theme, in a sequence of shots that show how it has affected each of the characters.

Phew, saved me a lot of typing. Yeah yeah, it's a cheat, but I finished this ages ago and fell way behind with my blog posts for various reasons. It pains me to skip posting something - I need to post this for completeness' sake. So, following in the footsteps of many a bad manager, I choose to do a half assed job and meet my unreasonable target instead of doing it right or not at all. Sue me. Better yet, don't, I can't afford to be sued right now.

Alright, so in short, it's relentlessly funny and has a lovable and varied bunch of characters. The jokes, which are ostensibly random but are actually very character and situation specific while incorporating random elements, come thick and fast and work more often than not. I especially love the 'surreal escapism' bits, which can be extremely wacky. The show does fall back on repeated character quirks a little too often, but those quirks are actually funny enough for it to not become grating (although I wonder if I'll be singing the same tune after season 5). The stories themselves are quite varied, with a typical episode comprising multiple story threads that are thematically linked.

Scrubs is guilty of being a little overly sentimental at times, to be honest, but hey, I have a heart (most of the time) so I'm going to forgive them that minor transgression. OK fine, I'll admit it, sometimes the show can be affecting. *sniff* And somehow, the incongruity of seeing humour in a place where a lot of suffering takes place isn't as jarring as you'd expect (probably because the suffering part is toned down).

The writing is sharp, and a typical episode moves along at a fast pace and crams in a lot of incidident into 22 minutes, and it has a very energetic vibe in general. There's frequent use of music that's thematically appropriate for a given episode or scene. The performances are excellent across the board, with my favourites being the mean, snarky, and cynical trio of Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), and the Janitor (Neil Flynn). Seriously, these guys are hilarious and inject just the right balance of humorous negativity to the show to balance out the mawkish stuff.

It's fun stuff, idiosyncratic and funny and featuring a bit of dramatic depth; it's mildly formulaic, but only to the extent that it is familiar enough for you to know exactly what you're getting with any given episode. Season 2 manages to be at least as good as Season 1. Here's hoping Season 3 maintains the healthy average.

Things from the past...

I've babbled before about the nostalgia effect that makes people look at everything in the past as being great. TV shows in particular are one of those things everyone has fond memories of, more so than films. They were part of the weekly routine (not so much these days amongst people I know, thanks to DVD and P2P people watch various things at their own pace) and everyone was familiar with what was airing; friends would follow a TV show at the same pace as you, and the latest episode would often be a topic ripe for discussion. Ah, the good old days... [a single manly tear rolls down my cheek, à la Bruce Willis in Armageddon].

When revisiting these shows from the hazy past, however, it becomes all too apparent that memory is a cruel deceiver. The fond smile you start off with is rapidly erased from your face, and your eyes glaze over as you realize that a show you invested so much emotion, thought, and time into is less a classic for the ages and more a travesty best kept locked away for all time. OK perhaps I exaggerate (a little), but I'm willing to bet that for most people many youthful TV memories will meet the same fate as many youthful dreams - they'll be dashed against the rocks and shattered into a billion pieces under the cold harsh light of reality.

Alright, enough of this negativity. I was just trying to be funny, honest. In actual fact, I've found that my memories are surprisingly accurate when it comes to TV shows from the past. In recent years I've revisited quite a few old shows, and here's how they hold up.

The ones I remembered as being really good:

The Tripods - I've just started re-watching this sci-fi adaptation, and it's great! The tale of three rebellious teenagers who embark on a perilous quest in a dystopian future where a blissfully happy mankind is enslaved by alien invaders still resonates. Alright the acting is a bit iffy and the early eighties BBC production values are obviously dated, but it holds up well and the story and writing really shine through. One of the rare eighties shows that had genuine story progression.

Robin of Sherwood - The best incarnation of Robin Hood ever, and it holds up incredibly well. Great stories and characters (well acted), a gritty take on the legend mixed with mythic and magical elements, fantastic production values that still hold up (authentic locations really add so much to this show), and the wonderful Clannad soundtrack all add up to what is still one of my favourite TV shows ever.

The Legend of Prince Valiant - OK, I've only watched one episode of this tale that revolves around Arthurian legend and which I loved when it first came out in the early 90s, but that one episode was enough to tell me that my recollections were correct. It's way better than most animated shows of its time, with a slightly more mature tone (while still being entertaining) and more complex characters and themes. It also had a storyline that actually had some progression instead of being eternally stuck in an infinite loop!

Blake's 7 - This show has so much going against it from a modern audience's point of view, but I contend that it's still a pretty terrific sci-fi series. A band of criminals, each with their own agendas, are thrown together on board a powerful alien ship. Led by the charismatic Blake, they attempt to overthrow the oppressive totalitarian Federation. It's so low budget it looks like something the neighbourhood geeks may have cobbled together in between D&D sessions (I'd have been one of them); that didn't prevent the writers from turning out quality material though, and the acting was also strong for the most part (though quite theatrical). It also featured one of the most memorable final episodes I've ever seen.

X-Men the Animated Series - Another animated series that has great animation and storylines. It incorporates several famous comic book stories (most famously the Phoenix Saga), and it has a surprisingly mature take on the core themes of the X-Men - intolerance, prejudice, and opposing ideologies. Good stuff, with terrific action sequences and voice work.

Moonlighting - One of the best and most innovative shows of the eighties, Moonlighting is less a narrative and more a show focused on two characters who spend most of their time engaged in verbal sparring. I actually enjoyed this much more watching it now than I did all those years ago. Probably something to do with me actually getting a lot of the innuendo this time around. Brilliantly acted and written and featuring wacky storylines, it makes me wish Bruce Willis did more comedy.

Kung Fu - Ah, who can forget the tale of Kwai Chang Caine as he wandered through the old west, failing miserably at avoiding violence while reminiscing about the good old days back at his monastery where people called him Grasshopper and he was routinely bested in combat by a blind man. Jokes aside, Kung Fu is actually quite good, with a thoughtful and introspective approach and a serene, pacifist hero making it a very unique series. The less said about the awful spin-off sequel series, the better.

The ones I suspected were a bit rubbish:

Knight Rider - The action adventure series about Michael Knight, crimefighter extraordinaire and his super cool talking car is still fun in small doses, but it is frighteningly stupid and formulaic. Watch it for the wacky stunts and David 'The Hoff' Hasselhoff's mullet.

Battlestar Galactica (the original) - The new BSG is all kinds of brilliant. I can only assume that those few people who still maintain that the original is some kind of holy classic are on crack. This tale of a rag-tag fleet on the run from murderous machines is, quite frankly, rubbish. The theme music is still awesome though.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - The Dolph Lundgren film is probably cheesy fun, but this early eighties cartoon about the most powerful man in the universe is painful to watch - and to think it was once my favouritest cartoons ever! Perhaps I'm being harsh, since most cartoons of this era are crap, but next to stuff from around the same time, like The Transformers, He-Man looks piss poor, with its shoddy animation and ham-fisted storytelling.

Space 1999 - Ignoring the fact that space travel in 1999 didn't come even remotely close to what's depicted here, the series is still a bit crummy. Actually, it's quite boring and drab. I'm not sure why I ever enjoyed this, to be honest. I guess I was hungry for sci-fi and watched any old rubbish. Then again, it has been a few years since I revisited it, perhaps I ought to reconfirm that it is as bad as I remember. Those Eagle space ships are still ultra cool though. And those take off sounds, I can still remember simulating an Eagle taking off using various household objects while making that 'Phweeeeeeeee' sound. Heh.

G.I. Joe - I knew this one was a bit rubbish when I was watching it, actually. I haven't even revisited it. No further comment. Other than - how come, despite all the incredibly mayhem on display, no one ever got killed?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Loved it back in the day. Looking at it now, I am thankful that I grew up. Even as a kid I started to notice the shoddy animation and lousy stories, but when I watch it now, I feel like jumping in my De Lorian and going back in time so I can punch myself in the face for watching it. Curse my childhood self!

There's other stuff that I've watched but haven't caught up on. The Transformers, for one. The movie bored me, and I remember the movie being way better than the series, so maybe I ought not to bother. I'll just settle for the upcoming live action film. Street Hawk is another one, I wonder how that holds up? And Thunder-Sub, I loved Thunder-Sub... I wouldn't mind seeing that again.

Bah, there's probably plenty of fodder for another post. I suspect I've forgotten a lot of the bad ones already!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Meeting old friends...

It's funny how people who were thick as thieves (or even just casual friends, for that matter) at school lose touch and go their separate ways. Or maybe not that funny, since people change and generally grow up after they get out of school. The thing is, classmates still seem to have this strange bond years later, even if they are no longer friends. I guess it's kind of like you survived a war together growing up, there's an undeniable connection there, something in common that never goes away.

It's hard to say if it's genuine friendship or an echo of something from the past. I generally don't look forward to meeting up with old school friends, but usually wind up enjoying myself when I do. Funny that. Still, it works only because we meet rarely, and conversations are invariably about old times and what other former classmates are up to and catching up with each other's lives (This also, unfortunately, means discussions of how much our jobs suck and whether we have significant others). Anyway, my point is, I doubt I'd enjoy myself if we hung out every weekend, because we'd run out of things to say fairly quickly. But once every few months - yeah, sure, why not, it's nice to catch up, even if we're not close friends. There's also something liberating about talking to people who aren't in your immediate social circles, which results in conversations that are more candid than they otherwise might be amongst more familiar crowds.

That's one side of the coin - the other is meeting people you didn't like or know well at school. I've been bumping into people from both groups over the past few years. I've come to realize that apart from a select group of my fellow Freaks and Geeks, I don't care much for these people. I care so little in fact that I've often sighted people, ignored them and hurried past. I hate those awkward meetings with their hollow exchanges of pleasantries and uncomfortable silences.

People you grow up with are rarely your buddies as an adult. I'm fairly certain I'm not in a minority here, because it's true of almost everyone I know. Sure, there are the odd cases where people remain buddies for ever and ever, but you don't see those too often. At least not among people in my social circles.

And thus ends another random blog post.

Babylon 5 - Season 4

Babylon 5 - Season 4

I wrote about Season 3 a while back (has it been that long? the last few months have flown by... we're one third of the way into 2007 already!), and I was thoroughly impressed by the show, which just seemed to keep getting better and better and ended with a fantastic climax with Sheridan facing the Shadows on Zahadum and Mr. Garibaldi being whisked away, entombed within a shadow vessel. Although it's been several weeks since I finished Season 4, I felt like posting my belated thoughts on it anyway.

I haven't checked on this to be sure, but I think JMS once again scripted the entire season himself. There are no standalone episodes in this season, they're all part of the two major story arcs that play out. The first arc is the resolution of the Shadow conflict, which is wrapped up very quickly; a little too quickly, in fact. I'm not sure if this is because the show was, for a brief while, destined to end after the fourth season before being picked up by TNT for a fifth, but the Shadow conflict certainly felt rushed. Sheridan's messianic return, Garibaldi's 'rescue', the sudden violent turn by the Vorlons, and the final battle between the Army of Light and the Shadows / Vorlons are all fantastic story elements, but just lack the depth that was present throughout season 3. It could have been absolutely brilliant, but ends up being just great. In any case, it's a satisfying conclusion to everything that the show was building up to - the maturing of all the 'younger' races, who finally put aside their differences to unite behind a common cause.

The one storyline within this part of the season that wasn't lacking in depth was the drama on Centauri Prime, featuring the unlikely (but foreshadowed) alliance between G'Kar and Londo as they dealt with Emperor Cartagia's narcissistic insanity. The real juicy character stuff, as always, centres on Londo and G'Kar, and what happens to them here is a perfect culmination of their respective stories. Katsulas and Jurasik are, as always, absolutely fantastic. Vir also features prominently and is the perfect foil for Londo (although he experiences some shocking weight loss towards the end of the season. Dude, Atkins diet?).

The second story arc that comprises the rest of the season is handled brilliantly and involves the conflict between President Clark's Earth government and Sheridan's Babylon 5 Alliance, a conflict that began in earnest early last season. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised that the resolution to this conflict would be such a huge part of the B5 storyline. Somehow, I expected the big finale to be the end of the Shadow Wars. This turn was unexpected and refreshingly original. There are several sub stories at play, the most interesting of which is the tragic fall of Michael Garibaldi, who subtly and believably breaks away from B5, feeling disillusioned with Sheridan and his 'cult of personality'. Garibaldi's storyline finally gives actor Jerry Doyle some terrific moments, and he doesn't drop the ball - I was hating him and feeling sorry for him at the same time. Also impressive is Bruce Boxleitner as Sheridan, a character who goes through a hell of a lot in Season 4 - from being 'reborn' to being betrayed and tortured to shouldering the responsibility of leading a rebellion against his own government, Boxleitner brings a sense of dignity to the role, but one that's laced with weariness. I have to admit, I was wrong when I snickered at the 'boy scout' goofiness he exhibited in Season 2. If anything, it puts all of that in a new context, because Sheridan is truly a changed man by the end of Season 4.

Sheridan's storyline revolves around keeping the fragile Alliance together to fight Clarke's forces, while also attempting to bring people over to his side. Among the other sub-stories is Ivonova's - she becomes the 'Voice of the Resistance', broadcasting the truth and attempting to undo the damage done by Earth Gov's propaganda machine. Her relationship with Marcus also plays a major role towards the end, and Claudia Christian, like Jerry Doyle, gets to flex her acting muscles a bit more this season. The Minbari have troubles of their own as Civil War breaks out between the two major castes - the Warrior and the Religious - forcing Delenn to take drastic measures to bring the conflict to an end. There are some interesting revelations made here about story elements touched on way back in Season 1. Mira Furlan doesn't get that much to do, but she does get to show the 'badass' side of Delenn's personality, which was a nice change.

Another character who gets a substantial amount of screen time this season is the telepath Lyta Alexander, who aids the Alliance while dealing with her own problems as an unregulated, super-powered telepath. Patricia Tallman's portrayal of Lyta is a mixed bag however - sometimes quite good, and sometimes quite awful. There's a fairly significant storyline featuring the Mars resistance that features Dr. Franklin (Richard Biggs) and Marcus Cole (Jason Carter), as well as another regarding the Psi Corps and a conspiracy against it that features Garibaldi and Bester (Walter Koenig) as key players, as well as a businessman named Edgars (Effrem Zimbalist Jr.).

It all ends incredibly satisfactorily, with pretty much all the loose ends tied up and all the major character arcs and storylines resolved. Long-form epic stories like this always run the risk of disappointing by not living up to expectations in the last act after all the buildup, but JMS delivers in style with Season 4. There's just so much that happens after the Shadow War; juggline all of those elements simultaneously without dropping any was no mean feat. By this point in the story everything's already set up - we know the characters and we know what the situation is and what's at stake. It's literally the last act of a long story, and as such it flows with a relentless pace and with plenty of incident. Which is in stark contrast to Season 1, which was all set up and no payoff!

Put together, the four seasons of Babylon 5 constitute the best televised narrative I've ever seen. It may suffer from some flaws - occasional dodgy acting and excessively expository dialogue - but the gestalt of all of its storytelling elements is a show of undeniable brilliance. I don't know what Season 5 is about - though I suspect it'll have something to do with the telepaths and the Interstellar Alliance. Whatever it may be, I look forward to it with great anticipation.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Farewell Lara

Not Lara Croft... But Brian Lara. Cricket isn't a sport most of the world gives a rat's ass about, but where I come from, it's huge. West Indian player Brian Lara, one of the all time great batsmen in the game and one of my favourite players, is calling it a day at the age of 37. The BBC has a write up.

While statistics and records alone are testimony to how good he was - he held the record for highest individual test score, lost it, and reclaimed it again 10 years later, an unthinkable feat - they don't reflect how entertaining he was, how flamboyant and elegant. He was a fantastic player to watch. The stats also don't reflect how well he seemed to play under pressure, which is surely the ultimate test of greatness. It's a shame that he played the game in an era when the 'Windies' were a relatively poor side. His record as captain is also dire. I suspect, though, that these failings will be mere footnotes in the final analysis of his career.

There was always a sense of excitement when the man walked out to bat because there was always a chance he's do something special - the greats of any sport have that effect. You could sense that he was the prized wicket of the opposition, so vital was he to the team. I can still distinctly remember a one-day game against Australia where the Windies seemed down and out and the game seemed all but over. Lara was batting, but he was in terrible form and he only had tail end batsmen to accompany him. I switched off the TV in disgust, but fortunately came back a short while later to bear witness to the final part of an improbable comeback. Lara, seemingly through sheer strength of will, had pulled his team back from the brink. They went on to win the game. It was quite remarkable.

It's sad to see the great man go, and the Windies in particular will struggle to fill the void he leaves behind. Still, all good things must come to an end, and Lara was definitely a remnant of the old guard. I look forward to the rise of the next Brian Charles Lara, someone who'll dominate this current generation of players with the same brand of magic.

Friday, April 20, 2007

It's called fast food because

...they make it really fast! And cruddy. I praise Ford for the assembly line and all of its ramifications!

This I found to be a little amusing. It depicts food products alongside the versions of the product marketing departments see with the aid of their 'Market-O-Vision Distortion Field'. Found via Boing Boing. Stuff NEVER looks as good as it does on the packaging, but man, the Big Mac and the Whopper sure look like they've been sweltering for a while. Makes you think twice about buying into the pictures and eating this cra... Mmm... Big Mac. Mmm... hungry. They look so succulent.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Don't make Ed Norton angry...

You won't like him when he's angry. That's because he HULKS OUT! In news that still seems completely inconceivable, excellent actor and Fight Club co-founder Edward Norton has been cast as Bruce Banner, the cursed scientist who suffers from anger management and skin pigmentation issues when he loses his temper. And I thought my apoplectic fits of rage were bad!

Yep, the sequel to 2003's critical and commercial failure, entitled The Incredible Hulk, is actually happening and is due out next year. It seemed to all the world that it was destined to be a direct-to-video calibre sequel / re-imagining, but this casting news suggests the movie might actually be good, seeing as how Mr. Norton rarely associates himself with crappy movies.

I like the first film, even though it's seriously flawed. Ang Lee's angsty tale of father-son relations was too dour and slow for the most part, but the Hulk SMASH stuff was great. The director of the sequel, Louis Leterrier, has made some fun and thrilling action flicks, and word has it the sequel is going to have more Hulk smashing and less brooding and less unkempt Nick Nolte. And hopefully, less Hulk Poodles. Eric Bana was great in the first film and I wouldn't have minded seeing him return, but Ed Norton seems like an inspired choice for a replacement. To echo the sentiments of many a film geek, I've gone from complete indifference to actively anticipating this film.