Monday, September 22, 2014

Three Years After Crisis/Flashpoint

It's been three years since Flashpoint rebooted the DC Universe into the New52 and we know what that looks like. It got me wondering where we were three years after the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. I realize I'm probably comparing apples and oranges when it comes to the market's context, but maybe it'll yield some interesting data.

So three years after Crisis, if Crisis ended in March of 1986, we'd be looking at April 1989. Of the series that started just after Crisis, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle and Hex are already gone, while Captain Atom, Wally West as the Flash, Young All-Stars, Wonder Woman and Secret Origins still survive. Of the series that kept going after Crisis, some are also gone: Green Lantern Corps, Hawkman, Outsiders, Teen Titans Spotlight, Warlord, Vigilante, and Justice League of America among them. So right away, a huge difference from today's massive number of new books and cancellations. Of 52 original New52 titles, only 21 remain, with many more series cancelled in the intervening years. One wonders if they'll do something special when they cancel their 52nd title (which should be soon, we're at 47 now).

25 years ago, the strategy was obviously different. DC didn't spam the shelves with books and insist on 52 monthlies plus sundries, no matter what, ditching what didn't work and throwing a different strand of spaghetti against the wall to see if it stuck instead. Marvel was more or less about to do something similar - we called that "the 90s" - but let's not get off-track here. No, back in the day, books would be born or die, often as a result of some big crossover event. I suppose that still happens today, with books like Talon coming out of events like Night of the Owls, or Justice League United out of Forever Evil. In the late 80s and early 90s, the formula was much more obvious, with unrelated books also coming out in the same "wave". For example, Legends gave us Justice League (AKA JLI) and Suicide Squad, while Millennium gave us New Guardians and Manhunter, but DC also threw in Power of the Atom and Starman (Will Payton). In 1989, Invasion just happened, so we get books like L.E.G.I.O.N., Justice League Europe, Huntress, Mister Miracle and New Gods, not all of them related to the event. Hawkworld and Hawk & Dove would soon premiere.
The late 80s also saw the rise of dark comics at DC. Morrison's Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Dr. Fate, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, post-Longbow Hunters Green Arrow, Question, Spectre, Chaykin's Blackhawk, and Checkmate were all at least a year in, usually more than two, and Sandman and that DP just launched. These books contained mature themes, and many would become part of DC's Vertigo imprint, which I believe is what made DC a comparatively strong creative engine in comics through the 90s. Today, we have a kind of reversed situation, where the characters sent behind the Vertigo curtain have been rapatriated and made to star in Teen+ books, still "dark" but far more superhero-y. Meanwhile, a company that used to do superheroes for teenage boys almost exclusively, Image, is the main producer of Vertigo-like books.

In April of 1989, Superman had three books. Meanwhile, Batman had only two books, though Legends of the Dark Knight would soon premiere, and was working alone after Jason Todd's death. Firestorm was a fire elemental. The Titans were wondering Who Is Wonder Girl (the fallout from which would haunt the DCU through the next two decades). The Legion of Super-Heroes was very close to making the leap to Five Years Later. The Justice League had two books and worked as a comedy.

In September of 2014, Superman has two books of his own and shares two others (a third has just been cancelled), which is sort of the same. Meanwhile, Batman has... I don't even want to count the number of books in the Batman Family, I find it kind of depressing. Jason Todd is alive and well and has a book of his own in the line, but there is a dead Robin haunting Batman. Firestorm is a member of the Justice League, but has lost his series. The Teen Titans have returned to a new #1 quite recently, with little rejigging of the concept as far as I can see. The Legion is tapped for a return in the pages of other titles, but has been on its longest hiatus ever, with both its New52 series cancelled. The Justice League is still popular, though I can't stand the book myself. It is the only book from the original New52 line-up to see its numbering drag behind the others despite DC's never-late pledge.

Oh sorry, did I go all negative? Didn't really mean to. Perhaps it's the books taken as examples. The current Aquaman book is quite fun and the New52 run has put the King of Seven Seas on the map again (he even has a second book for the first time in history). In '89, he was getting a lackluster mini-series drawn by Curt Swan that didn't do much to modernize him (especially after the slick art of P. Craig Hamilton's previous effort). Green Arrow, then as now, was/is in a period of critical acclaim. Green Lantern didn't have a book in April '89, but there are five Lantern books currently published (not long to wait in '89 for a similar spike in Lantern popularity though). And it should be said that while 1989 DC had more diverse titles in terms of tone and genre (comedy, supernatural horror, straight superheroes, spy thrillers, quirky surrealism, etc.) 2014 wins out when it comes to giving minorities their own books. Many of those books fail, mind you, but today's crop of books features 10 female-led books (one of them gay, two of them cancelled after this month), to 1989's three female-led books (and I'm having to count Hawk & Dove here). For non-white characters, things look a little dim either way. 1989 is all white (or alien), so the New52 gets a slim win with its one black star, Batwing, whose book just got cancelled. With that, the DCU is once again white-washed. Teams fare better, but then, 1989's did too.

Keep in mind, DC was only publishing about 38 monthly in-universe books at the time - that month showing 55 books overall (the others being minis, Annuals, collections, or books outside DC continuity like Doc Savage and COPS). I haven't calculated any proportions.

So what have we learned? Anything?

Babylon 5 #77: Racing Mars

"My pilots don't have accidents." "They will. I'll see to it." "You wouldn't." "I've got a 200-megawatt pulse cannon in the forward cargo bay that says otherwise."
IN THIS ONE... Franklin and Marcus make contact with rebels on Mars (1st appearance of Number One). Sheridan and Garibaldi have words. Ivanova talks to smugglers. And Delenn consummates her relationship with Sheridan.

REVIEW: What I might come to call a "service episode", by which I mean one that advances a number of plots, adds a dash of humor, but doesn't really tie its different threads into a coherent theme. As such, it is perfectly pleasant, just not groundbreaking. Comedy is definitely on the agenda, whether it's Ivanova giving Sheridan the boot out of his own office, or her pushing the smugglers around with her usual dry wit, or Franklin and Marcus getting forged passes to Mars as a married couple (another progressive bit of futurism is Garibaldi's mention of a female pope), or even Sheridan finding out a night of wild passion with Delenn is a ritual attended by several stoic Minbari. And it mostly works, letting the characters' personalities be the catalyst for the humor. When it doesn't, it's either that Marcus is written as a inconsequential chatterbox (at least Franklin's reaction is genuinely funny), or someone is badly characterized for the sake of the joke (Sheridan shouting "who-hoo" during sex is patently ridiculous, as is a disapproving Lennier bringing it up afterwards).

As for drama, we have the conflict between Sheridan and Garibaldi, which has been coming since The Illusion of Truth. Seems Garibaldi is still talking trash about his old C.O., and they even have very public fights and come to blows. When dissident elements approach Garibaldi to rope him into their plans, it makes you think, oh, it's all a ruse set up by the two men so traitors can be exposed and infiltrated (and he meets them a couple times, because JMS likes to make his points several times). But no, both men have sincere reactions to all this in private. So we're back to the old question of what's up with Garibaldi because there's very little in Sheridan's behavior that warrants this kind of anger. The answer is PsiCorps programming, I suppose, but we need a little more meat on that bone moving ahead.

On Mars, more or less the B5 equivalent of a frontier town in the Old West, our boys meet up with the resistance, by way of an annoying character called Captain Jack who, like other Captain Jacks we know, has an unnatural accent... a TERRIBLE one. Not all Americans were born to do Cockney. No worries, the Captain dies by the end of the episode, but interestingly, he has one of those parasites on him... Is it the same kind of creature we'll one day find on Londo? At least a cousin, but we don't get an eye opening, so who knows. Does speak to this kind of parasite's unremovability though. The character to watch is actually Number One, played by Marjorie Monaghan with certain manly swagger. Between that, her icy tone and husky voice, she makes an impressive resistance leader, if not exactly an expressive one. Are they really teasing a romance between this Amazon and Doc Franklin?

Kira will eventually be sent off to work with a resistance cell, but that's still in DS9's future. Hey, what is it with blond bombshells with numbers for names? In the future, Star Trek will have Seven of Nine, and Battlestar Galactica will have Six. Of course, "Number One" WAS a Star Trek character first, but not of a blond complexion (The Cage, and later, the equally swaggering Riker).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some pleasant comedy, action and drama, though it fails where the irritating Captain Jack is concerned, and a few others moments besides.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Week in Geek (15-21/09/14)


DVDs aplenty this week. When I realized my collection was missing some key directors' films entirely or almost entirely, I sought out cheap ways to plug those holes. I got a Hitchcock collection with 14 of his movies at a reasonable price, but couldn't do the same with Woody Allen, so I scoured the bargain bins for a random collection of low-priced movies, which yielded Hannah and her Sisters, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Match Point and the more recent To Rome with Love. I also got Homeland Season 3.


DVDs: That Bondathon we started two years ago is going to see some progress in the short term, what with my -athon buddy Nath having moved into the building. We were up to Timothy Dalton's brief era, and I was very curious to revisit (revisit? had I even seen it in the first place?) The Living Daylights now that Dalton is a well-known and cherished actor. His Bond is certainly the most sympathetic of them all, and certainly the first since Lazenby to be offered an actual romance (as opposed to a disposable fling). I also spy shades of Daniel Craig's Bond in him, as a jaded killer who seeks to hide from his inner turmoil through sex, drink and thrills (i.e. more like Fleming's Bond). While there are still elements of Moore's Bond hampering the script - silly cartoon comedy like the chase on the ice field and gags whenever Q is around - the story is more solid than most and progresses logically from one set piece to the other which really WASN'T something the late Moore era was any good at. And instead of sticking to boring old San Francisco and Paris, as the previous film tiredly had, the canvas really is international. That's great, no matter how strange the boisterous Afghanistan scenes might seem today. John Rhys-Davies is excellent as Gogol's edgy but sympathetic replacement, and Myriam D'Abo makes a good Bond girl, as willful as she is beautiful, and more than capable of getting in on the action. The focus on spy games doesn't exactly spell out high stakes, which makes the experience less-than-exciting at times, but I'd rather have a little more John Le Carré in my Bond than have it turn into an action-comedy. It's far from perfect, mind you. The new Miss Moneypenny is TERRIBLE - with the original, you had the sense that SHE wasn't giving in to James' advances; here she's a fawning nerd and HE'S withholding; that's a step back - and the ending is badly paced, with an overlong pre-climax and a tacked-on climax between foes who have never met, resolved rather disappointingly. The DVD's commentary track is the usual collection of cast, crew and experts edited together to give their accounts of the production.

Also still going through some time travel movies I've never seen, so watched Somewhere in Time. With this one, leave your cynicism at the door and you'll be find. It is a highly romantic movie where things are explainable only as matters of the heart. Christopher Reeve is a contemporary playwright who falls in love with a actress (Jane Seymour) from 1912. He convinces himself he can go back in time for her, and indeed uses self-hypnosis to make the psychic journey back in time. That it works so well is a testament to the script, direction and acting. Yes, the music is a little cheesy and oppressive, and the love at first sight element almost absurd, but like I always say, buy the premise, buy the bit. As a time travel story, it has some interesting timey-wimey bits for sure, with much of the relationship trapped in a time loop (the reason he falls in love with her picture is because it was taken while she lovingly looked at him in the past, and so on). Christopher Plummer as the tyrannical impresario might be a time traveler too, or at least there are hints that he might be, but it's never resolved. I think I like the ambiguity and am not frustrated by it. Whatever the often jaded modern audience may think, Somewhere in Time, both as a romance and as a time travel fantasy, certainly commits, and that's something not all films (see previous in this post) can make a claim to. The DVD includes a strong, hour-long retrospective making of documentary that touches on every aspect of the production, a director's commentary, production notes and photographs, and a short featurette on the Somewhere in Time fan club which skeeved me out (so now I know how outsiders might react to my own fandoms).

Books: The Book of Negroes, the 2007 award-winning historical novel from Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, or as readers in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand might otherwise know it, "Someone Knows my Name", is the story of the fictional Aminata Dialo, an African girl taken into slavery in the 18th century. Because she has a sharp mind, and through no small measure of willfulness and luck, she manages to live through the full 18th-century black experience, moving from Africa to the Carolinas, then to New York during the American Revolution, emigrating to Nova Scotia, then to the Sierra Leone, and finally falling in with Abolitionists in London. My interest was piqued by the promise of learning more about the black experience in my native Maritimes, but that's a relatively short chapter in the story. But I can hardly express disappointment. Hill's prose is strong, his research sound (with all deviations listed at the back), and Aminata as narrator has a memorable voice. A composite of many men and women who survived slavery and became voices for freedom (and who didn't), her fierce mind, literacy and independence make her uniquely suited to telling this story which, Gump-like (if you will, I sort of hate the comparison), allows her to interact with various historical characters and situations. Slavery in the Americas is so often seen through the lens of the Civil War to come, it was extremely interesting to see what it was like and what impacted it in the previous century. Beyond that intellectual pursuit is a character you can empathize with telling the poignant story of her incredible life.

RPGs: Starting a little project at some of my neighbors' request which we will call "Role-playing for n00bs" (see LAST Week in Geek for more), and the instigator, which we'll call Ludger because that's his name, came up to create his character (that first step, which we sometimes never get past). If you'll remember, we're playing Planescape using AD&D 2nd. What he has come up with is a bariaur (think goat-centaur) priest of Poseidon who tends to bull breeding in Sigil the City of Doors. He made his dump stat Intelligence to have an interesting (but in gameplay, relatively mild) weakness, which I've found is how all improv players approach character generation. Weaknesses are a source of comedy and conflict, which is what improvisors thrive on in the ring. These choices forced him into a True Neutral alignment, and led him to take Peasant Priest as a Kit - so he would be community-focused - and the Transcendental Order (or Ciphers) as a faction. Ciphers believe the universe is acting through them and have taught themselves to clear their minds and simply let things happen. That seems natural for a low-INT space cadet with no moral hang-ups and a simple, rural/pastoral upbringing. As one last bit of silliness (again, because improv), the character will be called Brother Tohnee. At least he isn't some kind of tiger-man. More chargen to come!

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
Other Hamlets: Dirtbag Hamlet

Babylon 5 #76: Atonement

"When others do a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They can still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be."
IN THIS ONE... The secret origin of Delenn.

REVIEW: The thing I appreciate most in JMS' writing is how he often gives the thematic key to an episode is an early, innocuous scene. In this case, the amusing (but I'm sure, useful) ability G'Kar is given with his removable, prosthetic eye of seeing himself with it. This then translates into Delenn having to look at herself in an old and a new way, through the process of the Dreaming. This is a telepathic vision shared with one or more guides (in this case, the ever-faithful Lennier) that should reveal something of great importance. Psychotherapy wrapped in ritual. Delenn is forced to go through this to find a justification for her relationship with Sheridan, or else her clan will forbid the union on the basis of racial impurity. We may not understand her bitterness and fierce resolve in The Illusion of Truth better - her badly chosen words weren't a threat to Earth, but to Minbar. Her own people would have wanted the relationship to end. What she gets is a trip down memory lane to her relationship with Dukhat, her master and former leader of the Grey Council. It's fun to see classic Delenn again, and Reiner Schone as Dukhat is such a tall man, she seems tiny, even childlike. The lessons highlight the man's wisdom, and when he tells her he cannot have an aide who doesn't look up, we're reminded of the first thing Delenn told Lennier. Nice.

As history unfolds, the question of what to do about humanity is brought up, with Acolyte Delenn timidly suggesting contact on the simple basis of curiosity. It's what charms Dukhat, who is of her opinion, and so Delenn eventually becomes a member of the Grey Council on his recommendation. But we're soon brought to that fateful moment when first contact was made with gunports open, and Dukhat's death in the first exchange of fire, and the big, dark reveal is that Delenn was the swing vote in whether or not to go to war with Earth and that, in her grief, she voted badly. She immediately regretted it, but it was too late, and has been carrying that guilt since then. But the idea that Delenn will use atonement as her justification for joining with a human is a red herring. Given time to reflect, she realizes a buried memory has come to the surface, and against the rules, she returns to the "whisper gallery" (great name) with Lennier and her clan leader to replay a certain moment. The real revelation is that Dukhat knew she was a child of Valen and so had a special destiny. It makes sense of his choice of her as aide and colleague, and of the triluminary glowing in her presence. Dukhat also knew (as we already did) that the founder of modern Minbari society was human before he was Minbari, and his human DNA is scattered across the Minbari race (the Oversoul is also connected to DNA, it seems). That the Minbari are in no way genetically pure to begin with is a revelation that would rock Minbari culture to its foundations (the same way the soul stuff hasn't been shared with the majority of the population), so they come up with an answer closer to the aforementioned red herring (marriage as compensation/treaty, like in the old days) and Delenn is on her way. The story gives us an answer (obvious), then another (actual) and another (official), which makes it far better than a simple flashback tale to fill in our knowledge of B5 history.

The focus on Delenn means we don't have very much time for subplots, but they do exist. Zack squirming as he is fitted with a Babylon 5 uniform recalls how he never got an Earthforce suit that fit either. The scene, and Ivanova coming back from a Drazi party add a little humor to the proceedings, but not a whole lot more. The set-up for the next episode, with Sheridan sending Doc Franklin and Marcus to Mars to establish an alternate pipeline to counter Earth's embargo turns to comedy as well, as the two men get a ride in a gravity-less ship and Marcus starts singing to Franklin's dismay. The full "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" is on the end credits and ends with Franklin's scream and the director shouting "Cut!", which goes just a word too far, in my opinion. As is, it's a blooper and takes the viewer out of what is normally an immersive experience. But surely, a minor complaint.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: On Deep Space Nine, the Trill - whom resemble the Minbari - also covered up a truth that would shock their culture when Dax started having visions of a life she never knew (in their case, that a much higher percentage of people could be joined with a symbiont).

- An origin story that does more than just tell a story from the past, but also changes how we view Delenn, her motivations, and her role in B5's great epic.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #546: Super-Digby the Butler

Source: Superman vol.1 #182 (1966)
Type: The real thing (since retconned)
Superman creator Jerry Siegel's last Superman story before he got fired for suing DC appeared in 1966's Superman #182, and it features no less than three new identities for the Man of Steel. So for the next three weeks, inclusively, we'll be looking at this historic story, "The New Lives of Superman". It all begins with Superman bringing a WMD confiscated by a dictator to the Pentagon, so the U.S. can ask the U.N. to outlaw it.
Superman seems naive enough to think the U.N. is that powerful, but doubly so if he thinks the Pentagon won't reverse-engineer the weapon themselves and add it to their arsenal. Simpler times. It gets simpler still. Perry White is equally convinced an article on this specific weapon in the Daily Planet will sway public opinion and force the U.N. to outlaw it, and sends Clark Kent to cover the weapon's test activation in a Pentagon lab. What?!
It can destroy armies, let's see what happens when we set it off in a closed room with reporters all around it. Thankfully, we have goggles! So okay, it's just a blinding bomb (might have said that earlier), and Clark's goggles are really, really crappy and fall off at the worst possible time. Now he has to make like he's been blinded.
Good to know the doctor checked on those poor guinea pigs first! Also, that Superman has untold control over his eye muscles so can play blind convincingly. So now what? Well, the Clark Kent identity is useless to him...
...and it looks like his friends don't care about it much either. Imagine that, a close friend and colleague is maimed for life and you just leave him to it. Lois, you take the "support" out of "supporting cast". Superman sets off to find a new and more useful secret identity. Why he needs one at all isn't particularly clear, especially since the Silver Age Man of Steel didn't really care about his life as Clark Kent. I mean, he could just have Supermaned-up a solution for Clark and saved himself a lot of trouble with a glib explanation (I bet he still will). But for now, he tries his hand at new aliases. The first of these is William Digby, a Englishman with a white mustache and graying temples (such a relief not to wear glasses anymore!). The first job the employment agency offers him is as a millionaire's butler, so he takes it because "no one can buttle better than Digby can buttle". Through an amazing application of X-ray vision, Superman quickly realizes that his new boss is keeping a big secret:
The guy's dirty and not surprisingly, he's got trust issues, so on a hunch, Superman tells him he's an ex-con whose real name is "Ghost-Fingers" Morgan (you definition of "real name" takes some liberties there, not-Clark), which gives Crighton, the millionaire who lets employment agencies choose his staff, an idea. He'll use Digby's past as a safecracker against him and frame him for his own crimes when the times comes. At this point, Superman is only keeping the job to stay close to a criminal, but one wonders why he ever thought butling was a good cover for a superhero. As a millionaire's personal manservant, he pretty much has to stick to his man all the time; when is he going to go on patrol? In fact, when an emergency arises with a train transporting yet another dangerous super-science WMD (same general, to keep casting costs down), Digby is forced to get everyone at the mansion drunk so he can slip away.
The Superman Special has everyone blind drunk by the next panel. Don't drink and drive, rick folks (oh right, you all have chauffeurs). Later, Crichton prepares to frame his butler for his own diamond heist:
Obviously, not-Clark overhears, and when the harbor police show up, it's an easy matter for him to ditch the planted evidence and reveal Crighton has the stolen diamonds in his possession. Easier still because the cops are as blind as Clark Kent is supposed to be.
AND it certainly doesn't help that Crighton's wife is a blurter. Crichton goes to jail, but the William Digby identity is "burned" and Superman takes off in search of another. Which is a story for next time!

Babylon 5 #75: The Illusion of Truth

"Can I sit?" "That's between you and your chiropractor - I don't get involved."
IN THIS ONE... An ISN report comes aboard to do a propaganda piece.

REVIEW: I might be more enthusiastic about a sequel to And Now for a Word with the added twist that ISN is now a propaganda machine, if the original ISN report hadn't been biased. There's not enough contrast here to make the exercise worthwhile, and the episode is strapped with some very messy writing and direction besides. Let's start with the latter. Unlike the original "news report" episode, The Illusion of Truth weaves in and out of "news footage", with at least some scenes occurring objectively. Except director Stephen Furst gives two of those objective scenes documentary-style camera movement (including one BEFORE the cameras show up). It's very confusing. Are we supposed to think these were filmed as well? Is someone spying on the station, as per the last scene where the POV is the TV screen's? If Furst (or JMS his overlord) is trying to be clever and questioning the objectivity of the entire series (since the writer chooses what is seen, image and sound are skewed to make the audience think and feel specific things, etc.), he should know you can't sacrifice clarity for the sake of meta-text. It just doesn't work. Oddly, those objective scenes filmed as documentary make the writing feel even more staged than normal. I kept waiting for a final twist that revealed these scenes indeed WERE staged for someone's benefit, but it never happened. Furst also has the cameras take stills, which doesn't really make sense. I do like the joke about commercials just before actually going to commercial, even if it tends to get lost on DVD.

On the writing side of things, that Sheridan and Delenn's comments would be taken out of context and used against Babylon 5 is SO obvious as to make them look like idiots. Their answers about their relationship don't make sense and are crafted to sound like their making threats. Their eventual use in the report is loudly telegraphed and hardly a surprise. Again, I waited for the twist that would explain the attitude, but never got it. The strategy to give short declarative answers that couldn't be taken out of context fails completely, and if they were actively trying to avoid this, it makes them even stupider for choosing the answers they did. Garibaldi throwing Sheridan under the bus could be PsiCorps programming, I suppose, but doesn't really ring true either, especially in the way Garibaldo responds to flattery (unrelated is a neat scene where he shows his detective skills with a prospective client now that he's in the retrieval business, but it does make me wonder why he was never this competent as head of security). I do respect the commitment to the fake news show in the second half of the episode, showing ISN's bias in a pseudo-authentic format (the call to report on dissidents and the hypertext captions work quite well, for example). Ultimately, it does seem back-loaded with things we've seen before, and the footage manipulation is rarely clever.

The question of whether the journalist made good on his promise to Sheridan to get a least a small truth out is answered at the end when he reports not only casts Sheridan in a sympathetic light (a victim of alien influence; and it isn't complete fabrication, just Earthgov's xenophobic bias that's wrong), but also gives Sheridan information on his father, information denied him until now because of the embargo. Small comfort given how slick and brazen the journalist apparently is in his smear campaign. It's very hard to forgive him. Throw in some tedious psychobabble from a biased expert and hardly anything of import happening in the objective scenes (or even much new information) and you've got a bit of a snoozer here.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - I'm not going to argue there aren't a couple of good scenes in there, but because we revisit an old trick, it doesn't feel innovative, and there are some very messy decisions made along the way.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Did Mark Twain Write This?!

Because somehow, it doesn't seem like he did.

Well, he did send a Yankee to King Arthur's Court, so he wasn't against fantasy/sf... Okay, I'm going to say it's literary canon. WHO'S WITH ME!?

Babylon 5 #74: Epiphanies

"When you reduce a family tree to a family bush, you just can't hide as much beneath it."
IN THIS ONE... After the Shadow War, people rejoice and return to the station. As Earth starts a smear campaign against Babylon 5, Bester tries one more time to get his beloved free of Shadow influence.

After the big blow-out, everyone deserves a little rest, but not too much. Unfortunately, it appears we also need a truckload of exposition in case Into the Fire picked up lots of new viewers. There's no question an episode is over-written when it ends on a telepath actually TALKING for MINUTES to another telepath who is behind a wall. "I love you and hope we'll be together. Also, let me explain the plot." Other clunky moments include Garibaldi reciting his entire life story to someone who already knows it, Lyta expositing her feelings to Zack like he's a therapist, and Sheridan jumping to exactly the right conclusions about Lyta's role in the destruction of Z'ha'dum based on very little evidence indeed and making a speech about it. Zack has gotten an injection of personality and energy, but I don't like it. Is he training the troops, or doing stand-up? It's a bit over-the-top, and as with a lot of JMS-penned comedy, not particularly funny (cue line of Elvises at customs).

I suppose part of my problem is that smaller roles are being expanded, but the actors in those roles don't appear to be up to it. Lyta becomes a vapid reciter of lines, Zack a blaring class clown, and Damian London an unfunny, caricatured Centauri courtier/toad, sees his role expanded to that of regent and all his edicts have to do with interior decorating. I probably wouldn't mind so much if there wasn't the promise of seeing more of him. At the end of the episode, the dark servant we saw in control of Londo in War Without End attaches itself to the comedy regent, so we know it'll come up again. Compare all this bla bla bla to the brief exchange between Londo and G'Kar, which is to me the most memorable scene in the whole episode. Londo tries to avoid G'Kar, but thinks better of it, and is told he doesn't exist in G'Kar's reality anymore. He was only ever an obstacle or a tool to free Narn. Now that this is done, G'Kar has no use for Londo, and he would do well to remained "unnoticed". There's no real response to that because it's all in the acting. Of course, if we're still on track for War Without End, we know the relationship must grow from here (and G'Kar's eye NOT be repaired?), so this is far from over too.

Despite all the talking, a lot happens too. The even with the greatest impact on the show is Garibaldi's resignation, but as far as "epiphanies" go, it's an artificial one. He's been programmed to leave. Presumably. The scene in his bathroom where he draws a face on the foggy mirror is an eerie reminder of whatever's been implanted in his mind, and he doesn't erase/repress whatever truth is coming through until he gets the subliminal trigger that makes him take his decision. And yet, it could be genuine. What's the point of winning a war if you can't enjoy the spoils, in this case, your freedom? Z'ha'dum's destruction isn't just the tying up of a loose end, but a look to the future. We have dark agents flying off, the same agents referenced in War Without End, and Lyta's powers exposed as a lot more powerful than they used to be. There are promises made in each revelation. The action du jour comes via Bester's tip that President Clark plans to frame Babylon 5 for the destruction of loyal Starfuries, which sends Ivanova into the fray to set things right. Seems Bester sacrificed his own men for a shot at Z'ha'dum's technology (and his lover's cure), so the frame's really on Clark, but then, with the president's propaganda machine saying B5 is a nest of terrorists, he gets what he deserves. If enough of the military joins Sheridan's cause, we might have a full-blown civil war on our hands, and of course, we need something to tide us over for the rest of the season with the Shadows gone. Looks like there's plenty of enemies to around after all.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Over-written to an inch of its life, the episode nonetheless features a few good moments and resets the board for the next engagement.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Babylon 5 #73: Into the Fire

"Only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal."
IN THIS ONE... The climactic fight between the alliance, the Vorlons and the Shadows; the latter two leave the galaxy. Londo saves Centauri Prime by destroying the Shadows there.

REVIEW: They made us wait a long time for the big battle, but it was worth it. So much eye candy! But of course, this is Babylon 5, a series that's essentially about people TALKING, and so the climax becomes a philosophical debate between the three parties. As it should. The battle is suspended as all sentients present experience Sheridan's conversation with the Vorlons and Delenn's simultaneous conversation with the Shadows, both in a JMS' favorite set, the dark room mindscape. The alliance is asked to choose between Order (frozen in ice and unchanging) and Chaos (ever-shifting conflict and evolution), but omit a third possibility which the alliance insists on. What if they don't choose? What if the pieces on the board refuse to play the game any longer? What is exposed is the reason why the Vorlons and Shadows never attacked each other directly in the past. It was never about destroying one another, but about proving they were right about the nature of the universe. They would always have needed someone at which to gloat. By refusing to participate in this costly argument, the alliance makes the point moot, and effectively stop these forces for history. "It was the end of history."

The First Ones make their exit from our galaxy - or at least, the Vorlons and Shadows do, touchingly asking Lorien to go with them - in an echo of the Elves leaving Middle Earth "into the West", leaving younger races to forge a new civilization. This is grand myth. The older races are never able to answer their own questions in the end - Who are you? and What do you want? - but in leaving they can try to create a new answer for themselves. They may have forgotten their previous answers, but their new situation forces them to ask them anew. These shepherds are no longer needed because the flock has found itself, people who can now answer those questions for themselves. Under the Vorlons and Shadows, there were expected answers; now, anything is possible. Is there less magic in this world without them? Like Delenn, I don't think so. The universe used to be a coin offering a bipolat choice; now it's a die with an untold number of sides.

The First Ones' departure puts Londo's victory on Centauri Prime in a different light, doesn't it? If they were all going to leave momentarily, he needn't have nuked the Shadows or killed Mr. Morden. The great moment when a Vorlon planet killer eclipses the sun, preparing to destroying the world because of Londo's own tainted nature, but then leaves at first seems like it's thanks to Londo's sudden and rare impulse of self-sacrifice. But in the context of the entire episode, we may better understanding it as the Vorlons abandoning their mission. And if Londo didn't have to destroy the Shadows, then Mr. Morden is surely the "man who is already dead" from his prophecy. Remember, he has three chances to save his soul and has squandered the first two: Save the eye that cannot see (too late, that was G'Kar's), and not kill the one who is already dead (Morden). Obviously, these are satisfying moments, with Morden's invisible Shadows getting shot up and a whole island going up in mushroom clouds. Londo comes off as a great patriot, even ready to die for his people, though we might think back to G'Kar and how his selflessness went a step further, refusing to elevate himself to the role of ruler. Londo cannot even see this possibility. Morden's death might have been required to stave off the Vorlons, but Londo really does it for selfish reasons, to get revenge for the death of his love (I still think he was rather blind not to see it before, but do appreciate being used as a puppet is Londo's greatest nightmare and the acting is all about that). The only scene that rings false in the whole show is Vir fulfilling his promise to Morden that he would wave gleefully at his head on a pike. It happens here, which would seem to indicate Vir's told Londo about this dream of his, but if you're going to include a hard flashback to the promise, you need to contrast it with gut-punching reality. As it is, we see Vir promise to do something, and then he does it. More interesting perhaps would have been to see him revolted at the reality of Morden's death and what his own dark thoughts have wrought.

- Action fans will get gorgeous space battles and excitement. Writing fans will get great myth and irony. Can't believe this comes so early in the season because it's got Series Finale written all over it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Babylon 5 #72: The Long Night

"I did not remove one dictator from the throne just to become a dictator myself."
IN THIS ONE... Emperor Cartagia is assassinated, Londo is promoted to Prime Minister and the Centauri leave Narn. Meanwhile, Sheridan sacrifices guest-star Bryan Cranston on a suicide mission on the even of a great battle.

REVIEW: Given the title, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at the episode's longueurs. The idea is to play on the build-up before a battle, spend time with the troops as anxiety rises. But as a viewer who has been told the Big Battle(TM) will soon happen for half a dozen episodes now, Sheridan still playing chess moves against two god-like opponents, and all of the action played as reports coming in, leaves me a little unsatisfied. There are moments that work, like Ivanova asking Sheridan to promise her she will be placed in danger when the time comes, which is full of apprehension. I can't believe he's still sending her on boring quests to find the First Ones though. Her story about her mother's suicide is long but worthy; I do wish it connected to the other stories a bit better. My takeaway is that it's about what memories we take with us to heaven, or alternately, about promises unfulfilled, but that hardly describes the rest of the episode. I'm just expecting more at this point. The various shots of First One planetary weapons digesting planets also raises tension, but there sure are a lot of them. And then there are moments that don't seem so great. The comedy of Lennier having crucial information, but being consistently interrupted must surely be an example of what Cartagia calls the subjectivity of humor. There's something a bit cheesy about all the aliens' embarrassment that Bryan Cranston's Ranger is given a suicide mission. Character comes out of nowhere, immediately ordered to die? Why should we care?

I wish I could feel more catharsis from Cartagia's death, but it's been planned for so long and in such detail that it doesn't come off as a surprise. The attempt at a twist, with him turning the tables on Londo, soon returns to predictability when Vir has to do the deed himself. Well, obviously. And I won't miss Cartagia who's pretty much been played out. Bookending the event are two scenes between Londo and Vir which each go on too long. The first features some Centauri black comedy, and the second shows the toll already being paid by Vir, with yet another moment of Londo showing his love for his aide. It's well shot and well enough acted, but feels like padding. The Narn sequences are largely saved by G'Kar who, like Londo, finds no joy in their new freedom. G'Kar is saddened by his people's immediate wish for revenge, and can't even feel gratitude towards Londo. Where this character goes now, I have no idea (or memory), but his admonishment that the Narns have learned the wrong lessons from their captivity is gripping stuff.

So where DOES the show go from here? Londo becomes Prime Minister, filling the power vacuum left by his assassination, but he can't spare a smile so long as the Shadows are still roosting on his world. More court intrigue to come even if he manages to expel them, and the future we've seen doesn't exactly give us that assurance. For the giant allied fleet, it's war with little hope of return (FINAL LOG ENTRY ALERT!), and the camera even stays behind a touch too long in an empty room. Perhaps this IS the end of history. If we're seeing so little space action, it may be to boost the budget on the next one. Please tell me the big fight is finally next! I've grown impatient! All the powers are being funneled to the same system, so it NEEDS to be a doozy.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Sheridan listening to a doomed ship's audio evokes a similar scene in Star Trek: First Contact, released just a couple months earlier.

- I get what they're trying to do, and there are important events and good moments here, but the pacing is too slow and tedious.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Who's Steelclaw?

Who's This? Turn to page 11 in your guide book (Who's Who vol.XXII). That guy.
The facts: Dedicated Star City mayor turned vigilante Steelclaw appeared in Detective Comics' Green Arrow back-up from 'Tec #560 to 565 (1986), only a few months before his Who's Who appearance, and even then, isn't necessarily always the focus of the episodes. His death at the end of that arc has proven to be permanent.
How you could have heard of him: You couldn't. Hey, you think Mayor Thomas Bolt would make a good character for Arrow? His story seems perfect for the show.
Example story: Detective Comics #560-565 (1986) by Joey Cavalieri (writer); Jerome K. Moore and Stan Woch (pencilers); and Dell Barras, Steve Montano and Rodin Rodriguez (inkers)
The whole point of Steelclaw is to answer the question "what is a hero?" and contrast his journey with Black Canary's. At this point in her toxic partnership with Green Arrow, she distances herself from Ollie to infiltrate the underworld, just like the Golden Age Canary once did. That's what Steelclaw is doing too, pulling a Green Hornet on Star City's drug trade, and taking financial chunks out of it and setting himself up to sabotage operations. GA is totally against this strategy, but he's distracted by another "superhero", Champion, who uses a supersuit basically for profit and insurance schemes. Each of the heroes "on the edge" (GA excepted) all utter the line above - "Does that make me a bad guy?" - which is also the title of the first chapter. But who is Steelclaw? The first clues come in the next issue when he does two peculiar things:
1) Defend the mayor's honor, and 2) call the mayor's son "Brucie". Black Canary hears all this, because she's been rampaging through the underworld setting herself up as a superhero gone bad who also wants protection money from the city's organized crime. When things get a little hot, Steelclaw gases everyone and Black Canary ends up in the river/ocean (depending on where Star City is). No worries, the cold drink wakes her up and she gives the thugs a bloody nose. Meanwhile, Green Arrow crashes the mayor's press conference to ask pointed questions about Champion and City Hall's stance on vigilantes. Well... does GA want HIMSELF arrested?
Not Ollie's best moment, on camera or off. This just throws the mayor into DEEP THOUGHT, and a walk to the Claw-Cave reveals HE'S the mysterious villain/vigilante!
Yes, it's his ELECTED RESPONSIBILITY to stop crime and corruption, apparently by any means necessary. 'Tec 563 doesn't then feature Steelclaw per se, but they do talk about him, and Black Canary figures out who he is from the clues above and GA's mention that the mayor had gotten a phone call about "Brucie". So the heroes converge on Costa the mobster's mansion where Brucie is being held. But when Canary and Steelclaw meet, they each think the other is a criminal. So it's lights out for Dinah, with just a scratch of the mayor's cyber-fingernail. He does bring up a good point while tying her up...
Yes, that struck me from the off as well. How believable is it for Black Canary, a JUSTICE LEAGUER, to turn to a life of crime? It's a little absurd of her to think she could pull the deception off, isn't it? Regardless, a couple thugs then show up, wanting to kill the prone, unconscious Canary who, in their eyes, is either kicking thug ass all over town, or skimming 25% off the their profits as a femme fatale criminal mastermind. Maybe both. (Looks like this was a very bad plan.) But Steelclaw doesn't want her dead, because he's really a good guy, see. He interferes...
Well, he was skimming 50% off the top. Those drug stooges had the right idea. And... that's it for Steelclaw. Canary is saved by Green Arrow, but the mayoral vigilante makes for a sober reminder of what can happen to a double agent. Brucie is rescued as well and asks who that hooded corpse is, but gets no answer before we cut away to some Onyx subplot. By the next issue, no more mention of his is made. Better not to think about it.

Seems like a pretty interesting idea for the TV series or even the rebooted GA series, no? They kept it so short, there seems to be some untapped potential left.

Who else? Other mineral heroes in Who's Who volume XX include Star Sapphire (well-known), Steel (soon dead and eventually replaced by someone cooler, but I think we know this guy well enough), Sterling Silversmith (thought about it, but not this round) and Stone Boy (the Legion of Substitute-Heroes is NOT obscure, I swear). No, next I think we're going to go the other direction... in time.

Babylon 5 #71: Falling Towards Apotheosis

"They need to believe." "Not in me."
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan takes down the Vorlon ambassador. Londo convinces the mad emperor Cartagia to go to Narn for G'Kar's trial.

REVIEW: Apotheosis is "the glorification of a subject to divine level"; the "fall" in the episode varies from thread to thread. In the case of Emperor Cartagia, it's a moral fall. His madness has led him to believe that he can rise to godhood by letting the Vorlons burn his world to a cinder. In the previous episode, I was content with Cartagia's portrayal, even though I've despised JMS' other psychotic villains, mostly because we had Caligula as a historical example, but now it strains credulity. He's gone from careless disregard for his people and delusions of grandeur, to crazed, irrational genocide. Really pushing it. Londo learns to navigate the choppy waters of his logic and convinces him to go to Narn (where surely, a god is in no danger) to try G'Kar and make a public show of his madness. It's hard to say if the mercurial Cartagia trusts Londo at all, because every time he shows him one of his special places, it comes off as a not-so-veiled threat. The theater of tortures last episode, and the "shadow cabinet" (ha) of heads in this one. When Cartagia is being a twisted sadist, I buy it. (G'Kar loses an eye for the sake of that portrayal, taking us closer to the vision we have had of the future.) But when he's justifying the destruction of Centauri Prime itself, he loses me. It's too much.

On the station, Sheridan has become a Christ figure, one that literally "fell" into a sort of godhood, one he rejects. POV shots do show us how people's perception of him has changed, and we might even note his more centered demeanor ourselves. A resurrected man assembling followers - the attack on Z'ha'dum will just have to keep until the army is big enough - but also offering a "promised land" for refugees created by the Shadow-Vorlon conflict, in the form of the planet below. It's all very Biblical whether Sheridan wants to acknowledge it or not. Garibaldi, perhaps cast as Judas (remember his PsiCorps conditioning even if he doesn't), doesn't trust Sheridan (or at least, God--I mean Lorienn), when ironically, he's the hidden danger. He's kept out of the loop for a reason, at least, and it isn't because he's become irritatingly sarcastic. It feels like Ivanova is just as sidelined, playing TV presenter while the refugee crisis escalates, a reminder that B5 doesn't have ISN anymore and has had to inform its population through internal channels, but it's also an effective narrative tool to increase tension without having to show all that sweet destruction (still, some nice Vorlon fleet CG in here).

Sheridan's new status is explored further in his plan to kick Kosh 2.0 off the station. He's going up against an angel, this one. As the main action plot of the episode, it's a long sequence, but somewhat disappointing. I do like that they have to trick 2.0 out of his quarters with a feint and a lure. Lyta is sent in with the revelation that the 1.0 is inside someone, but it's a good thing 2.0 doesn't really care to understand humanity because she's a TERRIBLE actress. Not Patricia Tallman, but Lyta herself, ugh. Could she be more obvious? Then comes the ambush, which is just people firing at 2.0 while he remains frozen, and it's interminable. Eventually, the creature is released from the encounter suit, and rather than looking like an angel, it's a Cthulhoid energy monster (so if they had a choice about how they can be perceived, why did the first Kosh not adopt some more discreet form a little over a year back?). And then the first Kosh is released from Sheridan's body, and the monsters fight, eventually exploding out of the station and blowing up the Vorlon ship. Done. These "gods" have fallen never to rise again (presumably). Except this saps Sheridan's life and it's revealed he's on life-force support thanks to Lorienn's healing hands. He was/is dead and this boost will last at most 20 years. Awkwardly, this is told to Delenn twice. The second time, she's upset it's a MERE 20 years, given how long the Minbari live. But Sheridan calls it a good run, at peace with the notion of his death (that was the whole point of his experience); all he wants is to spend that time with her and it'll be worthwhile. The marriage proposal is awkward, but Delenn really has nothing to compare it too. Now all they have to do is survive to the wedding...

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The action plot isn't as clever as it needs to be and JMS straps us with another unbelievable psychotic agenda. Nevertheless, a thematically sound exercise with some interesting revelations and plot movement.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Comics' Great Turnarounds: Countdown

You remember Countdown? Countdown to Final Crisis? Countdown to the death of the New Gods? Countdown to Mary Marvel's corruption? Countdown to getting rid of legacy heroes? Well before all that crap, there was another Countdown:
And wow, it actually looks like it was about something I'm interested in.

Babylon 5 #70: The Summoning

"Do you know that we assigned him one of our best pain technicians? - Pain technicians? They used to be called torturers. But ever since they got organized, it's 'pain technicians'."
IN THIS ONE... Ivanova and Marcus find a hidden Vorlon fleet. G'Kar is tortured. Garibaldi is retrieved. And Sheridan returns to life and the station.

REVIEW: The series is growing ever more serialized, and as a consequence, we may be getting more of these episodes where every single member of the cast is featured (a rarity to date). And not all of them are on the eponymous station. G'Kar, Londo and Vir, on Centauri Prime, are at once in the most dramatic story line, and yet the blackest comedy. As promised, G'Kar's torture and humiliation are brutal, and his having to sacrifice his honor and pride to the cause (yet waiting to the fatal last second) is heart-wrenching, but there's also something darkly comical in Emperor Cartagia's sadism, getting his own hands bloody when G'Kar refuses to scream, and feeding Narn blood to his potted plants. G'Kar as an S&M court jester is also an image that's at once amusing and disturbing. Cartagia's behavior needs to be extreme so Vir will go along with the assassination plans, but again this is played as a comic about-face. If we weren't allowed to smirk at the scenes, the whole thread would probably be intolerable to audiences not yet numbed by Game of Thrones.

Between Centauri and Babylon 5 is space, and several characters have taken to the void to find others. Zack follows a lead to Garibaldi, who appears to have been programmed by PsiCorps to do God knows what. We know they have this ability - Talia's personality implant and the "dead" cyborg assassin from Mars are two examples - so this is just the most recent case of JMS using tech introduced in earlier stories to ramp things up. Garibaldi is quick to distrust Sheridan's new ally - and I must say, I'm not sure we should trust Lorienn either - but he's the sleeper agent in their midst and doesn't know it. Meanwhile, Ivanova and Marcus are off an a White Star to find more First Ones - not sure why this is such a great idea seeing as the last batch hasn't answered any calls - but they run afoul of a gigantic Vorlon fleet instead (more on this in a second). Their relationship has certainly thawed since the last time they were thrown together, and Marcus' revelation that he is saving himself for the perfect woman (Ivanova, though she doesn't know it yet) is interesting, though not that surprising when you consider he is essentially a monk figure. An oath of celibacy would certainly be in keeping with that idea and his Minbari training.

On the station, the League of Non-Aligned worlds has more or less disbanded and won't rally behind Delenn's plans to attack Z'ha'dum, having lost hope now that Sheridan is dead. Their conjecture that it's a suicide run motivated by her grief isn't entirely off-base, to be fair. In the kind of coincidence that only happens on TV, Sheridan shows up right as it's turning into a riot and kills the mood (that mood being despair). Props to the production for waiting 35 minutes to reveal the captain had survived the previous episode's harrowing events, though it was just a matter of when, really. The troops are reenergized and the lovers reunited, sweet. But the epilogue raises more complications. That Vorlon fleet, with more than a thousand ships, some several kilometers long, has been cutting the Shadows out like an infection, and have destroyed at least one whole planet to date, its 4 million non-Shadow inhabitants just unfortunate casualties of war (Centauri Prime, take note!). The one Vorlon we could ask, not-Kosher, has been acting like a real villain, with his telepathic slave, Lyta, trapped in an abusive relationship with the entity. Looks like she's ready to jump ship too. Because now the war with the Shadows has turned into a war with both Shadows and Vorlons, as their conflict has escalated, and our poor lesser races will be treated like anthills on a battlefield if we don't put up some resistance. Whether we believe in Order or Chaos, the First Ones' absolutism is the real danger and the root of the evil they're visiting on the galaxy.

You know, I never mentioned the fact both B5 and DS9 have a LEE-TAH (Lyta and Leeta, respectively). There. Now I have. DS9's has an abusive employer too, but she dealt with it. You think the Vorlons would let Lyta unionize?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The stakes are getting even higher, but there's still a whole lot of waiting around in this episode, for Sheridan to arrive, for First Ones to manifest, for people to be found. While the down time allows for character development, and the big moments are big enough, the structure doesn't always keep the energy up, with the exception of the Londo-G'Kar material, which in naturally excellent.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Week in Geek (8-14/09/14)


At the movies: Went to see latest Woody Allen movie, Magic in the Moonlight, a witty 20s romcom about a world-famous illusionist (Colin Firth) who tries to debunk the powers of a charming medium (Emma Stone) in the South of France, but she may just upend his world view. It strikes me that Allen is making a lot of films with the same intent Tarantino does, i.e. tributes to a certain genre of literature/film. Magic is a little bit Agatha Christie, a little bit Arthur Conan Doyle (the man himself was a ghost-breaker who came to believe at some point), and a whole lot P.G. Wodehouse. Perfectly charming and entertaining, especially Firth's character who is the perfect Wodehousian (and Wildean) wit. There are greater concerns here as well, such as the contrast between Firth's atheism and the simple magic of emotion. But overall, I dare the Whovians among you to watch this film and not think Firth would make a great Doctor. It plays like a lot of New Who, with a great but clueless genius talking circles around everyone, yet learning grace from a would-be companion. At the end, they hopefully climb into his TARDIS, destination Everywhere. Ok, that's not the intent, but by now, I'm sure you understand how my brain is wired.

DVDs: I don't care what anyone says, D.O.A. - Dead or Alive, the movie about the stupid beach volley-ball video game with "realistic bounciness" is, or should be, a cult classic. Yes, there's a volley-ball sequence in it, and it's actually pretty smartly done, even if, like so many butt shots, it's gratuitous, but it mostly treats the material as a fighting game. There's cheesecake AND beefcake, and it's all pretty well-intentioned and clean. Not only is it bloodless, but it's about girls kicking all sorts of ass. Like every good B-movie, it has "one of those actors" in the villain role, this time, Eric Roberts. But best of all, it's got Cory Yuen directing and it's wall-to-wall action. It works as a slick, fun kung fun movie in the crazy Hong Kong style. Most people who give this a pass just based on the source material. I get that. What I'm saying is that it's so much better than this. Ridiculous fun that isn't ashamed of what it is even remotely. The DVD includes a 10-minute making of that's got some fun bits too.

In I [heart] Huckabees, David O. Russell creates something almost pretentiously art house, except that it's clearly a comedy that mocks pretentious art house films. And yet, it's about existential exploration nonetheless, about the questions we ask ourselves, and how we connect the big and the small picture. Between the organ music and Jason Schwartzman's participation, it feels a lot like a Wes Anderson film, truthfully. The story? Schwartzman is an environmental activist who hires existential detectives (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to explain a coincidence in his life. They're more interested in helping him figure out who and why he is. In the process, they pair him up with another client (Mark Wahlberg) and turn people in his life into clients (Jude Law and Naomi Watts), but all might be lost when a darker detective (Isabelle Huppert) steals him away. It's the kind of movie you're not really sure of while you're watching it, but then it gets to you, especially in the final moments' deconstructions, epiphanies and catharses, ensuring your next viewing will be more profitable. It's not all talk, there's a lot of texture and background detail, crazy video dream montages, and no, not everything will make sense or tie into the big picture. Or maybe it will, over time. The 2-disc special edition has tons of extras, including two commentary tracks (Russell, and then Russell with a few of the actors; both have value though there is repetition here and there); a production documentary that prioritizes behind the scenes footage; more than an hour of deleted scenes, outtakes and bloopers (though the line is blurry as to which is which); a half-hour infomercial made by the two detectives, with lots of outtakes from it and a small making of besides; the music video for composer Jon Brion's "Knock Yourself Out" directed by Russell, with optional commentary track (and I hope you like that song, because it plays over a LOT of extras - I didn't tire of it though); Open Spaces PSAs and Huckabees commercials (though some are cut into the infomercial as well); a slideshow gallery; and a booklet with in-universe journal entries, articles and adverts.

The Another Kind of Distance time travel podcast took its name from 1948's Portrait of Jennie, a film they examined, and that I, that night, dreamed about quite intensely (though not having seen it, I of course made up my own version). I vowed to see it. It's a bizarre little film, with a story I find rather incredible for the era. An artist (Joseph Cotten) is unnoticeably drawn to the past where he meets a strange young girl called Jennie (Jennifer Jones) who gets older with each meeting. He falls in love with her and investigating her life, attempts to change her fate. No explanation is given for the time travel as such, it's psychic in nature. The characters are drawn together by some unfathomable connection, a metaphor for love. While some of the era's trappings come off as cheesy today (overuse of voice-over, very heavy-handed music), it surprises with stylish flourishes, most of them motivated. Canvas-like treatment as we enter landscapes, interesting angles, an intense tidal wave sequence, and some surprises I won't spoil besides. A fantastical and even metaphysical romance that will intrigue, at the very least.

Babylon 5's third season, entitled Point of No Return, was the show's strongest yet, but then you know this if you've been following along with the daily reviews over the last few weeks. So let's talk DVD package and extras. Well the package is about the same as the other boxed sets, since they did come out as a set. So the same problems with zoomed-in effects (the pure CG appears sharper than before, but same problems when live action has fades, compositing, etc.), and the more ugly morphs in the menu. We're used to all that. The extras also follow a familiar pattern, with commentary tracks on three key episodes (two with JMS, one with the cast), a talking heads introduction to the season that should be watched AFTER you've seen the whole thing to avoid spoilers, ridiculously spoilery trailers for each episode (people at the time would shut their televisions off when they were broadcast, I'm sure), and some more focused featurettes on subjects like alien make-ups, the look of sets and props, and the process Narns must go through every morning. Data files you click for 30-second informative videos are drying up - there are far fewer - but there's a neat one where you have to input Garibaldi's password to get access (it's easy, don't worry).

RPGs: Don't know if it'll amount to anything yet, but our Stairwell Party (housewarming for three apartments in the back stairs only so as not to mess up anyone's apartment) became the stage for yet another conversation about giving a group of n00bs a classic role-playing experience. So mostly people who haven't played, with an experienced player in the mix and myself as GM, at least to begin with. They're open to anything and have backgrounds in theater and/or improv, but the ringleader does want a "classic" experience - in other words, character creation, leveling and looting opportunities. For me, that's going to be AD&D 2nd's Planescape. It's the only configuration of D&D I want to go back to, ever, but I believe the setting has everything needed to make this work: An extra layer of ridiculous philosophy that puts the focus on role-playing which theatricals crave, a nexus for every possible idea regardless of geography which allows me to say "yes" to any n00b's character concept, and a city setting that helps justify the absence of certain characters when schedules fall apart (and I know these players, it WILL happen). I do plan on streamlining some of the rules, incorporate new school ideas in there, and perhaps push the timeline so the characters can level up faster instead of at the usual crawl. But this is the frontrunner, pending a conversation with the whole group. Tabled for now are my plans for a Bond's Bastards campaign using the Leverage RPG.

Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - French Rock Opera