Monthly Archives: June 2012

Abed, I Know What We’re Gonna Do Today!

My favorite show this past season aired on Thursdays at 8pm on NBC. This was, of course, Community. It also happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time (up there with Firefly, Lost, and Chuck). It’s smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

I’m not sure when my favorite cartoon airs. I know it’s on Disney Channel, but I just watch it on Netflix. Phineas and Ferb, my favorite cartoon, is smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

They’re very different shows: one’s about a group of community college students and the escapades they get up to, the other’s about a pair of step-brothers and their attempts to make the most of the 104 days of summer vacation. The two, however, do share a comedic style that’s right up my alley. Both are meta, post-modern, fourth-wall taunting, and trope playing shows that have far more in common than not.

The foundation for a series such as these is a setting in which just about anything can transpire. For Phineas and Ferb it’s the brothers’ ability to create literally anything in their backyard; for Community it’s the unpredictably goofy campus of Greendale Community College. Both worlds are slightly (okay, very in the case of Phineas and Ferb) fantastical but grounded in some semblance of reality. Both shows have done westerns, science fiction, alternate realities, and musicals. Since they’ve established that reality is malleable in their worlds they’re free to play around with it as much as they want. Of course, their little winks and nods to the audience helps us play along.

Beyond their bouts of fantasy, both shows are very self-aware of not only the tropes they play with, but their own tendency to play with these tropes. Phineas and Ferb knows it has a wealth of catchphrases and so aired an episode set in prehistoric times with the entire episode’s dialogue simple grunts. Yet, due to the nature of the show, anyone who’s seen a few episodes knows exactly what each character means and where the plot is going. Community not only gleefully pointed out that the episode ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ was a bottle episode but expressed disdain at the very idea of bottle episodes. Within their bottle episode. The result is one of the most cleverly written episodes of the series.

They know what they’re doing, and they know that you too know what they’re doing. So they take you in stride, welcome you to the fold, and have fun.

But all the shenanigans in the world mean nothing if you can’t connect. To that, both shows have a core cast who you quickly grow to love. The Study Group from Community may be involved in hijinks aplenty, but the characters and their interactions are treated with gravitas and respect. Sure, their world may not be real, but the people at the core are. Phineas and Ferb has the titular brothers and Isabella, Buford, Baljeet, and Candace stick together for all the adventures. No matter how absurd their worlds may get, the characters and their relationships are very real. It’s both shows wonderful artificial families that give us a frame and reference for the adventures.

Phineas and Ferb and Community are very different tv shows. One’s aimed primarily (well, more halfway intended) at kids and the other at adults/teens. Yet both shows share a very similar sort of humor and sense of family. It’s no guarantee that liking one show means you’ll like the other, but it’s certainly a very strong possibility. Again: it’s that post-modern sense of humor and slick writing with the artificial family at its core that unites the shows.

This is quality television.

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Why Science Fiction

Science Fiction is a setting (not a genre) that frequently gets written off and ignored because it’s deemed inept to deal with more serious topics. But science fiction has leave to deal with heavy subjects in a way ‘regular’ fiction only wishes it could. Science fiction – good science fiction – has and will always be about people.

The world will change, but people will always stay the same. People will always want to control, people will always want more, people will always want love, people will always yearn for adventure, and people will always want to find home. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 17th, 21st, or 26th century: people don’t change. The best science fiction examines humanity – consciously or not – in ways that other fiction can not.

Ender’s Game can easily be looked at as just another story about mankind repelling alien invaders. We’ve got the buggers/formics poised to destroy humanity and the only hope lies in the kid named Ender Wiggen. But it goes beyond that: it looks at the idea of empathy (and the lack of it) as a tool and a weapon. It is Ender’s immense capacity for empathy that makes him an excellent leader and brilliant tactician, but it’s his ability to withhold it that makes him a brutal opponent. His empathy endears Bean, Alai, Petra and others to him, his brutality puts a very permanent end to his victimization. It’s this ability of his that allows him to understand his utterly alien enemy and defeat them, but ultimately come to love them. Because he understood them he could love them with all his innocence.

Ordinary fiction would spend too much time trying to explain how and justifying why child soldiers were being trained the way the International Fleet trains Ender and friends. The concept of an enemy so completely unknown, so plain inhuman would feel terribly contrived in conventional fiction. In Ender’s Game we go with it because it’s the setting. We get the innocence of a child and truly alien enemy. Why? Science fiction.

Everyone dreams. Everyone wants to escape. Inception gives us a world where we can escape into our dreams. Yes, there are practical uses for this (typically of the espionage and thieving variety), but what would we really do with this technology? Would we would run from the world and its problems into our dreams, into dreams where everything is how and as we want? Christopher Nolan examines the concept of being able to escape in this fashion and the questions of reality that ensue. If our dreams are better than life would we not chose to stay in that world? What would reality mean then? What would we do?

In Inception we see people running from reality and trying to create their own. It’s what we do in our daydreams and it’s what we do when we go to the movies. But in the world of this movie it’s something they can do on a whim. Some people hide in them, some people will use them, and some simply remain unaware. It’s on the humanity within the story that science fiction thrives. We see people act and can’t help but to wonder whether we, like Cobb’s wife, would just want to live in our imaginary world.

Finally; Serenity. The idea presented in Joss Whedon’s film is the question of control. Of course, we’ve heard stories about totalitarian governments clamping down on freedom and forcing them to behave. But it’s in this setting that the Alliance has not only the will but the ability to truly control their population. If free will and the capacity to make choice is taken out of the human equation what then remains?

Science fiction allows us to explore the idea in a world where it’s possible. Because we’ve agreed to believe that the technology exists we can see the implications. Serenity asks what would people would do if they found a world without choice. Five hundred years in the future we will still aim to misbehave: especially if misbehaving is the right thing to do. Set against a backdrop of spaceships and planets is the story of an artificial family just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of home.

So why science fiction? The setting lets us create worlds where the impossible is just a part of life. This impossible factor lets us ask what people would then do. District 9 asked the question of aliens and segregation, Alien created a unique horror film, Jurassic Park demonstrated the fallacies of playing god. Sure, the setting can be seen as just a vehicle for a parable, but it’s a world where imagination runs wild.

Good science fiction is about the people in the world. It’s a simple concept: the world will change but people will stay the same.

Plus, science fiction is just so friggin’ fun.

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The Prequels Aren’t So Bad

One of the most controversial series of films released within the past twenty years is the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. In all seriousness, the Star Wars prequels do get a lot of flak for not living up to the precedence of the Holy Trilogy. But I’m here to say they’re not the travesty of film that a lot of us make them out to be.

 
By no means am I saying they’re flawless. I grew up with Star Wars and can’t recall a time in my life where I didn’t know the story of the classic three. I saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday and loved it for all the reasons an eight year old would love The Phantom Menace (that is: Qui Gon Jinn). I thought Attack of the Clones was, well, whatever, and Revenge of the Sith was fantastic. Then I didn’t watch any of the prequels for almost six years.
 
So I watched them again a few months ago and, well, they’re not that bad.
 
Oh, they’re definitely not amazing. They lack the sweeping narrative and engaging characters of the originals. Where the originals were character driven adventures, the new ones are more poorly-written political dramas. We lose that sense of grand adventure in favor of stories weighed down with unnecessary intrigue. While the Classic Trilogy had Luke, Han, and Leia getting out of all sorts of scraps, in the new ones we watch the heroes navigate pointless discussions in the Senate and other assorted politicking.
 
But there are things the prequels did do right – they’re very pretty. We’re afforded a deeper peek into the world: more ships, more planets, more buildings, more people. There’s this tangible life to the world. The podrace in The Phantom Menace would never have been possible when the original movies came out. The new movies took the technology afforded to them and built a world. A world without particularly engaging characters, but a world nonetheless.
 
Building on that, the action and fight choreography stands unrivaled by few other movies. From Qui Gon’s encounter with Darth Maul on Tatooine in The Phantom Menace to the final duel on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith, every fight is a joy to behold. This is sword fighting like we always wanted just never knew we did. Fast paced and intense we watch them fight for, um, because they have to? But that’s beside the point; the fights are great and even though we’re not sure why we’re invested in them we’re still drawn to them. They’re flashy, but somehow they still strike an emotional chord with us.
 
And that’s because of the music. John Williams’ score for the prequels stands as one of the best of his particularly illustrious career. Duel of the Fates gives the climatic duel in Menace the appropriate grandeur and gravitas. Likewise, Across the Stars actually makes you almost care about the horribly written romance between Anakin and Padme. An echoed refrain of the theme that plays back during Revenge instantly tugs at your heartstrings. More so than in the original movies, the score in the prequels pull you into the movies and makes you feel what the writing and acting does not. It’s easy to look back on them and realize how they aren’t that good, but while you’re watching them the music and the visuals are simply captivating.
 
But they never quite measure up to the original movies.
 
The prequels failed because of, yes, poor writing and lousy characterization, but also because they just didn’t feel like Star Wars. The Holy Trilogy was an adventure. The new ones, less so. Rather than following characters we’re following the plot as it develops. We’re not watching Luke become a Jedi, we’re watching a trade dispute lead to war. It’d be okay in another movie, but it feels too impersonal and distant to be Star Wars. That is the movies’ falling.
 
When I think of Star Wars I think of the Empire and the Rebellion, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, and Luke and Vader. Despite being the ‘intended’ age when the prequels came out, The Empire Strikes Back and the rest of the Holy Trilogy are my favorites. But, like I’m trying to say, the prequels aren’t that bad.
 
Writer’s Note: I know there are literally hundreds of other arguments about the prequels’ failings. I’m not gonna get into them because we’ve heard them before. I’m making an attempt at a defense (which kinda gets bogged down because, well, yeah).

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Unawarded Merit

I love The Avengers. I’ve seen it five times (no regrets) and it’s probably my favorite movie in the last few years. If you follow this blog you’ve heard over and over again why I love it (great script, excellent direction, etc). The Avengers is a movie that shows how good not only a superhero movie can be, but a summer blockbuster. Yet for all that it won’t get an Oscar or any serious recognition.
 
Okay, so it may get an Oscar for Sound Editing or Visual Effects or one of those technical ones that these sorts of movies (y’know, Star Wars or The Dark Knight) tend to win. But to get Best Picture (Or Best Adapted Screenplay – which it most definitely deserves), well, it’s not happening.
 
For some reason, groups like the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences find that popcorn fare isn’t good enough to be bestowed with a title like Best Picture, they need their movies to be ‘better’. No, not better quality like how Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings is far better than Ralph Bakshi’s; better in the sense that Loki thinks that he’s better than humans (I swear I’ll get The Avengers out of my system eventually).
 
In other words, it’s got to be ‘art’.
 
But how do we define ‘art’? Why was The Return Of The King awarded Best Picture but The Dark Knight Rises passed over? Both were excellent adaptions of previous work, proving that their sources could be turned into legitimate movies of excellent quality. Where is the line of art drawn?
 
Could be scope. The Return of the King is about good triumphing over evil on the grandest level possible. But The Hurt Locker is comparatively tiny and still won Best Picture. Historical significance would make sense then (The Return of the King was adapted from the third best selling novel of all time). The Hurt Locker is about a controversial war and The King’s Speech about a king, um, giving a speech during a war. The Artist is a silent film and The Titanic about the titular ship.
 
The other route would be to go for something relevant or something that tugs at heart strings. Over recent years, the trend for award-winning movies has become borderline formulaic that videos have popped up on YouTube lampooning them. It’s not hard to know what sort of movies will win. Art has given way to predictability, quality to relevance.
 
So maybe it’s time to look beyond the Oscars and Golden Globes. Amazing stories can be found in movies ignored (500 Days of Summer) and mediums completely written off by the majority of mainstream media (The videogame Uncharted 3). Quality can be found in blockbuster summer movies (The Avengers).  Art doesn’t have to be pretentious.
 
Ultimately, an award is just an honorific paired with a shiny trophy and a measure of press. Years down the line the movies that stay in our consciousnesses aren’t always the award winners. Movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club have become iconic over the years though neither were anywhere near award winning. The Hurt Locker is already fading into obscurity whereas Avatar is still remembered.
 
Cult classics: that’s the name of these movies. They may not win the most glamorous awards but they remain favorites years and years down the line. I know they’re not always snubbed: sometimes The Return Of The King does take home Best Picture and ten other Oscars. But maybe cult classic-hood is the true measure of a film’s success. Crowdsourcing is the big thing these days, anyway.
 
It’s easy to say we’ll just disregard award ceremonies and strive to live life without them. I write all this but I can guarantee that come award season I’ll wait with bated breath to find out to the winners. But, even though a movie like Life of Pi will probably take home Best Picture, I’ll still know The Avengers was better.

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What Makes A Good Sequel

Sometimes, it feels like everything’s a sequel. Last year we got no less than twenty-eight sequels. In one year. Heck, all but one of 2011‘s top ten blockbusters (that one is Smurfs, but we won’t talk about that) were sequels. Well, this veritable deluge of sequels wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that so many sequels flat out suck.

The mentality behind so many sequels seems to be something like “hey, that worked so well the first time! Let’s do it again! Except more!” What people loved about Curse of the Black Pearl was Jack’s hijinks and Will and Elizabeth’s romance. So let’s put more of that in it and ratchet everything else up. More Matrix means more crazy action and philosophy. More Transporter means making all the action just… ridiculous. Yet it doesn’t work. It should though, right? That’s what a sequel is: what made the first one great, just taken up to eleven.

Well, not quite

A sequel cannot be the same movie as its predecessor. We’ve already seen that movie. The original Alien was an intensely suspenseful sci-fi horror movie. The horror thing wouldn’t work twice: after watching Alien we knew what the titular creature looks like. If James Cameron had tried to simply do the first one again in a different setting, it’d be the same as before except with less of a mystery as to the nature of the monster. Instead, he took the universe created by the original and told a completely different story. Aliens was more about action with some moments of sheer terror and suspense. We were still watching our protagonists try and survive against extraterrestrial monsters, but this time they were fighting back with the considerable firepower they had. It was the same but different. And it was good.

Predators wisely took a similar route in being a twenty-three year later sequel. They didn’t waste time maintaining the intense suspense that made the first so good because what the Predator looks like is practically common knowledge. So the new film was more of an action orientated suspense flick, filled with shout outs and nods to the original.

Another great examples is The Dark Knight which toned down the mystery and adventure of Batman Begins in favor of showing what would happen to Batman after being the Bat for several months. It’s a gritty crime thriller now, since that’s what Batman’s world has become.

On that note, a sequel should be the next logical step. The heroes beat the villain, now what? Dark Knight explored the ripples of having a vigilante watching the streets. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 followed Woody and friends’ next adventure and, ultimately, ‘their kid’ getting too old for them. It was a progression of the story that it started with and it made sense. The adventures were escalated, but not without good reason: the stories’ progression necessitated it, not the other way round.

The Lord Of The Rings was written as one story in three (well, technically six) parts and adapted to film in the same format. As such, The Two Towers and The Return of the King are two of the best sequels made. The story was meant to be in three parts and, when done as well as this, it worked. We’re not talking sequel hooks or little plugs, we’re talking proper planned trilogies.

Sometimes the progression requires a shift in focus. The Empire Strikes Back kept the feeling of high adventure from the original Star Wars but focused it more on character drama and development. It was still a Star Wars movie in universe, shape, and feel, but rather than trying to make a bigger and better adventure than destroying the Death Star we were treated to a movie about what our heroes did after. Ultimately, Return of the Jedi blended both: the plot climax of defeating the Empire and Luke’s personal climax of facing Darth Vader. Jedi took the threads of both prior movies and wove them together into a satisfying conclusion.

During an interview Joss Whedon was asked how he’d try to top the original in a sequel to The Avengers (did you really think I wouldn’t mention either?). His reply: “By not trying to. By being smaller. More personal, more painful… By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time.” That’s what a sequel should be. It doesn’t matter if it’s bigger or smaller: it has to be the next step. The progression, a continuation. A proper sequel.

Alternately, we could try and come up with something completely original. But hah.

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