“Fuck you, exorcist!” – 4 comics that deserve better movies

For those who haven’t been reading comics for years, things used not to be so awesome whenever superheroes made the jump to the big screen. Sometimes, we got shit like this. People have been spoiled by blockbusters such as “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight” but more importantly, those films have shown Hollywood that with the right mix of comics references, crowd pleasing actors, humor and heart, lots of properties could easily become crowd pleasers.

That being said, I adore failure and have made a habit of seeing every comic movie released in the past decade. There’s some good, some really bad and some huge misses in there but here, I’ve got a quick list of characters and books that could have made the transition much better and how they could have done it. Here are my picks, in no particular order.

1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

What’s wrong with it: The whole movie took all the subtlety and originality from Alan Moore’s series and turned it into a whiz-bang action movie. It doesn’t even look like a comic, its just bad. Putting Sean Connery’s piss-pore Quartermain impression front and center instead of having Mina Harker lead the team was also a poor decision.

How do you fix it: Its not a action movie, its a mystery. Focus on Volume One, with Harker assembling the team to stop Moriarty’s plans for London. Occasionally have Hyde hulk out and fuck stuff up and have some hints about the Invisible Man’s corruption. I know we’re not going to be have the iconic rape scene from Volume Two (or that book’s considerably more interesting story) but it’d be a nice nod for the fans.

2. Superman

What’s wrong with it: I would have never guessed that Superman would be the hero that so many writers would have trouble with. When he’s not getting fucked by the studios, being destroyed by an overly heavy heavy handed Christian allegory  or getting saddled in one of the strangest buddy movies/rape sequences in cinematic history, The Man of Steel has never had a really solid movie (no, I don’t think the Richard Donner cut of “Superman 2” is that good. Its actually kind of silly).

How do you fix it: Modify the “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” arc. Louis Lane recounts the story of the last time she saw Superman to a new reporter. Through the actions of Bizarro, a series of supervillains all descend on the Man of Steel, seperated from his network of contacts and left to battle alone, Superman has to beat through dimensions to face one of his most powerful and most underestimated enemies. As the story ends, the reporter learns that Superman is an auto-repair man who is now living covertly in Metropolis. This gives room for additional films that may draw Clark Kent back into action and pays service to one of the most well loved and well remembered Superman arcs.

3. Hellblazer

What’s wrong with it: Admittedly, I sort of really like the movie “Constantine,” based on Vertigo’s iconic “Hellblazer” books. It has tons of problems but the visual effects and style are great. That being said, London’s greatest exorcist deserved so much better. John Constantine, the maybe immortal sorcerer, deserved a better actor than Keanu Reeves, didn’t need the ridiculous Shia LaBeouf sidekick and a should have had a better plot than an apocalyptic arrival of Satan. The charm of “Hellblazer” was the way that Constantine, a man without a gun and way too much charm, smooth talked his way through the best heaven and hell had to offer. Instead, we got Reeves shoving a crucifix engraved shotgun into a guy’s mouth, shouting “I’m John Constantine, asshole.”

How do you fix it: It’d be so easy to make the unbelievably fucked up, super awesome Resurrection Crusade story. Constantine observes a rise in a militiant Christian cult in England, only to find out that they intend to impregnate a girl by an angel so that she can lead the fight against hell. Meanwhile, Constantine’s long time enemy Nergal is running his own demonic cult to fight the Christians. After trying to stop both groups, John ends up in the hospital and has to take a blood transfusion from his demonic worst enemy, which gives him one chance to ruin the plans of both Heaven and Hell. I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of one of Jamie Delano’s best stories but its a morally complex, exceedingly dark story that could reach a great conclusion even before the Swamp Thing side of the story starts.

4. Jonah Hex

What’s wrong with it: Pretty much everything.

How do you fix it: Hex is a killer and bounty hunter before anything else. Play it like “Batman the Animated Series” did. Combine the rough as sand dialogue of an aging Clint Eastwood, a touch of Indiana Jones style pulp and all bad guys doing bad things to badder guys. Make it as grizzly as “Sin City” but with all of the grit of a man who’s seen too much but can’t stop looking.

Stoning the Blair Witch: How “Chernobyl Diaries” mercy kills the found footage genre

For me, there are a couple of golden rules for watching and writing about movies. The first: disregard the premise. Before even stepping into a theater, its important to not really consider what you’re going into. Before the release of Ang Lee’s masterpiece, “Brokeback Mountain,” all anyone knew was that it was the picture about the gay cowboys starring two guys who were mostly known for appearing in cult teen films. It wasn’t a high pedigree. Seeing that movie in theaters was one of the most important moments in my development as a fan and film buff. It was all about seeing something that defied expectations, something that was the pure, crystalized result of one man’s hopes and expectations. I don’t think its a perfect movie but its a wildly ambitious and successful picture.

The second rule and the only rule that can make the first rule moot, is to suspend your disbelief. Recently, one of the ways in which film criticism has been watered down for the masses has been in turning the act solely into the practice of picking apart inaccuracies in films. Its nauseating and worse, its everywhere. The problem with thinking about movies like this is that it takes people out of the movie, making them think in a meta-textual fashion about film and critiquing them on forces that exist outside of the original work.

Now, granted suspending disbelief only goes so far. If a movie goes so far in forcing the viewer to go along with it that things no longer make sense within the context of the film, it is fair to critique it. Traditionally, people have said that changing one universal rule for a movie is as much as people can go with. For example, in “Star Wars,” there’s the force, an all powerful magical energy that can alter physics. Seems fair. Compare that to “Stardust” (the movie, not the considerably better book), which combines, elements of Renaissance style meets steampunk, meets high fantasy at a fairly rapid pace and expects that viewers should hang onto every second of it.

It also includes Robert De Niro at his Tim Curry-est.

I’ve sen a lot of shitty movies by ignoring the ridiculousness of a movie’s premise or the way in which the premise is perceived. I’ve sat through a lot of horror and fantasy movies because I’m able to suspend my disbelief. Its rare that I am unable to do both of those and its even rarer that being unable to do these things makes me unable to view a movie for even the fleeting feelings it is attempting to impart. “Chernobyl Diaries” was one of these movies.

Directed by first timer Bradley Parker and produced by found-footage horror big shot Oren Peli, of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “Chernobyl Diaries” sort of reeks of a cash grab, the way so goddamn many TV shows use Stephen Spielberg as a way to give a shred of legitimacy to their bullshit. “Chernobyl Diaries” does this every step of the way, whether its embracing the found footage angle before abandoning it 5 minutes in, using generic everyman protagonists in an attempt to create viewer surrogates, trying to use silence or flickers of movement to raise tension and the use of fuzzy and heavily distorted images to convey differing points of view, this is a knockoff if there’s ever been one.

The thing is, it never works. At all. The hold that the “Paranormal Activity” films have been able to have on the culture is the ability to make your own house seem scary. The story of a pair of girls that are haunted by an awesomely powerful demonic presence is there to do little more than to make your computer, your kitchen, your chairs and your fans into nightmare fuel.

This is impossible to do in an environment that a viewer doesn’t already know. All of the Oren Peli films released so far have focused on the home, whether its the demonic presence in suburbia in the “Paranormal Activity” films or the intrusion of the astral plane in “Insidious,” he horrifies us by what we know and can’t control. I’m not saying that all of his movies are successful (I think that the second “Paranormal Activity” is pretty schlocky but I digress) but the premise alone is able to speak to everyone that lives anywhere.

“Chernobyl Diaries” fails to do this from minute one. We’re off to Europe! We’re in Paris! We’re in London! We’re in Kiev! By the time we even get to the fallout zone, we haven’t had anytime to figure out what “normal” is. Instead, Parker and Peli go the “Hostel” route, attempting to make Europe into a frightening and strange place with all of the lawlessness we’re not used to as Westerners. They do this with a group of horny teenagers and a russian guy who doesn’t speak great English.

Are you shitting your pants yet?

[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, IT SHOULDN’T REALLY MATTER BECAUSE THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING WRETCHED AND I’M TRYING TO SAVE YOU SOME MONEY]

Where we go from there is little but depression porn. The group of wide-eyed douchey American tourists, led by Jesse McCartney in massive What-The-Fuck-casting, and a pair of horribly developed Icelanders take all gawk at nuked out buildings, stray trash and all the animals you can shake a stick at.

I was fighting back suspension of disbelief already at this point. In an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” the chef goes to the city of Pripayat, where the first two acts of the movie take place, and is told repeatedly not to touch anything or walk on the grass, as the area is still highly irradiated. Yet, the tourists walk all over the place, pick stuff up and are told that by only staying a few hours in the town, they’re not going to suffer radiation poisoning.

I got over it. I dealt with the fact that lasers, missiles and escape pods wouldn’t make noise in space the vacuum of space in “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” or “Battlestar Galactica.” I can deal with scientific inaccuracies. I swallowed back bile and knowledge and dealt with it. As the group bunkered down in the car, I dealt with the fact that someone cut the wires because sure, why the fuck not. Its advancing the story, I’m not terribly distracted by it and hey its a cliche because it kind of works.

I was having to make these logical steps every couple of minutes. Of course Yuri dropped his walkie-talkie but not his gun, of course the clip fell in a different room than the gun, of course the people who were looking for a way out of the city would give the gun to the invalid country singer and his clingy girlfriend, of course the survivors would find the gun in the remains of a thoroughly destroyed and flipped van. You can only do this for so long but I’ve honed my skills. As I’ve said before, I kind of like “Star Wars: Episode I.”

I know I’ve been going on for over a thousand words now but its really time now to explain how the movie looks. In an attempt to tie his film in with the successful “Paranormal Activity” franchise, Parker deliberately apes the filming style, integrating shake and following cam into the film. Its very strange and for the first 20 minutes or so, I assumed there was another character that we hadn’t met following the characters around. There wasn’t.

I tried a second theory, that Parker was attempting to use hand cam in the same way it was used in the “Bourne” trilogy, maximizing the intensity, brutality and closeness of the melee combat. That even doesn’t make sense. In the scene where Yuri and Chris go out to see what the scream was, the camera lingers inside the car and all we see are the muzzle flashes of the gun going off. Again, when everyone’s trapped in the van after the engine wires are cut, the camera walks around the van from the outside, as if we’re supposed to be viewing a POV shot of someone watching the vehicle. What makes this worse is that its done in hand cam and the view bobbles as the cameraman walks. Its distracting and it takes us away from the theory that we’re using this visual style to increase tension or intensity.

So, the hand cam is just there to be an attempt to capitalize on the success of another film franchise. Great, really great. As I’ve said, it doesn’t make the film any more watchable and things get worse in the final act when the monsters finally show up. As the remaining survivors scramble through the concrete jungle, avoiding the mutant zombies, the camera shakes, the atmospheric sounds virtually disappear and nothing makes the situation suspenseful, particularly Parker’s steadfast decision to never make us care about the monsters. When we don’t care about the monsters, we’re not interested in the fact that he refuses to show them clearly.

Think about the way in which “The Blair Witch Project” handled this. We don’t ever see the horrors that the team faces but all we want to do is view it clearly. The fact that we watch as the characters lose control of the situation more and more binds us to the plot of the film. The final sequence, as the house is stormed all the way to the horrifying finale is done so that we’re obsessed with how the characters will survive or what the answers we’re looking to are. “Chernobyl Diaries” didn’t give us a reason to care about the monster, mostly because they don’t appear until we’re supposed to be scared of them and we never know anything about what they’re capable of, and it gives us even less of a reason to care about the characters.

The final act devolves into a fairly typical zombie film. The group flees rooms from the growing hoard, barricading doors along the way, trying to rescue their friends. Its dull as hell until a single scene that finally ruined my ability to follow along with the plot. I could make it through the shitty filmmaking choices, the dull characters and the inane plot, but one 30 second sequence lost me forever.

After making it deep into the city, the group stares at Amanda’s camera, trying to see an oddity in one of the pictures when the camera shows a little girl standing away from them. Well that’s odd, I think. Is that girl a reference to the baby doll found earlier and featured prominently in the trailer? Regardless, the group approaches her, leaving Natalie behind. As they close in on the girl, Natalie screams and is gone. When the group turns, the little girl disappears.

Alright, fair enough, a pretty typical distraction scare but take a second to actually think about it. From what we’ve seen of the mutant zombies, they mostly shamble and bite things and don’t seem to think independently. We’ve seen nothing but adult mutant zombies up to this point too, so she feels particularly out of place. So, the other option is that the girl is a ghost, maybe the apparition that Amanda saw in the window. That seems to throw the whole thing off, giving us too much to consider if we want to remain in the realm of the purely real and forcing us to suspend at least some of our precious disbelief. Maybe then, just maybe, the girl could be a hallucination brought on by the groups’ increasing levels of radiation poisoning. That’d be a pretty neat twist, so let’s check in on the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Uh, here we go. So, not a single of the many symptoms of radiation poisoning includes hallucinations. With all options explored within and without the film, there’s no chance that this scene has any chance of happening logically.

I was done by this point and there was still far too much to go (12 minutes or so. Like I said, it was really bad). The final two eventually make it out to find themselves near the reactor, where they enter the much better maintained hallways and finally begin suffering the effects of radiation poisoning. Eventually, they make their way out, where Paul is shot by the military and, for no real reason, Amanda is taken to a facility where she’s fed to the mutant zombies by the government. It makes no fucking sense but I was far too exhausted at that point to even think about it.

[SPOILERS END HERE. ENJOY THIS FINAL PARAGRAPH]

Whether its destroying the sense of belief that is intrinsic to the found footage genre, failing to make us believe in any of the threats or care about the characters or giving us far too many factual inaccuracies and problems at a basic level that its hard to want to dig into the premise, “Chernobyl Diaries” is all of the problems of the found footage and horror genre rolled into one. Its a resounding failure and one with the capacity to make Peli a much less bankable name than he once was. Making things even worse, Peli’s next two films (not counting “Paranormal Activity 4”) all use the same fish-out-of-water premise that ruined “Chernobyl Diaries” from the beginning. With the man who has been recognized as the face of the genre showing all of the potential to ruin it, there can’t be much hope of more of this style in the future.

Episode 37- “Metamorphosis” and revenge of the energy glob sex monsters

While watching “Metamorphosis” a 4:11 a.m. I immediately was reminded of Martin Starr’s Roman from Showtime’s beloved “Party Down.” The blogger, screenwriter and hard sci-fi fanatic was known for his hatred of all things dragons, lightsabers, FTL drives and Hollywood remakes, and he would have despised this episode.

By the end of “Metamorphosis,” I realized there was room for another classification of sci-fi, something I’m calling “squishy sci-fi.” Characterized by a focus on man on alien sex, emotion based problem solving and “The Matrix” style love-conquers-all resolutions, this genre is essentially the all magic cousin of a genre that features time dilation and warp drives.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this take on the genre, it just has a different feel, a different style and it just doesn’t fit well when its mixed with its considerably more serious cousin. That’s the cardinal sin of “Metamorphosis,” written by Star Trek veteran Gene L. Coon, it tries to balance the tricky world of emotional resolutions with the needs for a very hard story hook.

As Kirk, Spock and Bones help to transport a Federation dignitary to the Enterprise to treat her for a sickness while she works out a peace agreement between two planets approaching war. As they approach the rendezvous point with the ship they’re gripped by an astral force that drags them to an asteroid. There we meet up with the man who proves to be Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive and apparently the most naive man to ever revolutionize space travel.

The episode starts to collapse pretty much immediately after he reveals himself to be the science legend. We then find out that Cochrane is around 150 years, can telepathically speak to a spectral glob of astro goo and pretty much doesn’t understand what human relationships are. As Kirk observes him interact with the Companion he immediately senses that the Companion loves Cochrane although the scientist has never possibly considered this to be a thing.

After a lot of scenery chewing (seriously, the counselor out hams Shatner in the first 10 minutes when she starts randomly screaming and crying), the sort of crux of of this episode that’s also pretty much the crux of another identical episode we just watched. Kirk and company find out that the Companion is keeping them on the planet in an attempt to keep Cochrane company because, y’know, he’s a child. Kirk has to bust out his trademark “we’re not happy unless we’re free” speech and hope for the best with the horny astral glob and then things just keep getting weirder and weirder.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the Companion is fully intent on keeping her love on the asteroid to live eternally as her reluctant lover. Kirk’s argument makes less and less sense in the context of a fair and accepting galaxy. In the modern social environment his rant feels a little racist and more than a fair bit homophobic but even without a modern perspective, its a bizarre moment in the Captain’s rhetoric.

Then things keep going off the rails.

Taking Kirk’s speech in the most literal way possible, the Companion decides to merge with the dying Councilor Hedford so that she can be in love with Cochrane. Now that the energy cloud that was obsessed with him is in a semi-foxy body, he’s fine staying on the asteroid if she and him can die on the asteroid together. The decision is solely one trying to retroactively prove Kirk’s speech true for story reasons and the resolution of the impending war between planets is swept under the rug in a single sentence from Kirk that somehow manages to put all women down.

“Metamorphosis” is weak, no doubt about it and its not even that I’m against this sort of style. I think “The Matrix Revolutions” is underrated. I kind of like the finale of Battlestar Galactica. I’ve got nothing against squishy sci-fi. I am, however, against nonsensical and repetitive speeches, poorly written established characters and a general lack of polish in an episode that feels like a retread before it even picks up.

Random Thoughts

Seriously, the women playing the Councilor is terrible.

Seriously, Kirk is super sexist in this one.

Next Up: “Journey to Babel” which I doubt will have any Biblical references, at all.

When Batman can be everywhere, read the book that’s finally going somewhere

It’d be the understatement of the last five years to say that Grant Morrison’s 6 year run on Batman has been controversial. By some, (me and many, many others) its been one of the worst runs in recent memories. For others, Morrison revolutionized the character and the place Batman plays in the DC universe. Regardless, his recent work has become more accessible than ever, with The Battle for the Cowl, The Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman RIP all available on the cheap or in trades.

All of this was a concentrated effort on DC’s part to rerelease the run for the return of Morrison’s most celebrated series, Batman Incorporated. Regardless of individual feelings on Morrison (he’s pretentious, contrarian and overly focused on trying to be the next Alan Moore), Batman Inc. is an accomplishment, an artistic, smart and imaginative take on Batman’s place in a world outside of Gotham City.

The series focuses on Bruce Wayne’s return to the timeline after being banished by Darkseid in Final Crisis. After witnessing a future of crime and death, he realized that more needed to be done to stop the rise of worldwide crime. Revealing Bruce Wayne to be the financial backer of Batman, although not Batman himself, and began recruiting heroes around the world to join his company, a collective dedicated to protecting the world from the cataclysm to come. It was an ambitious idea, integrating the imaginative silver age style that Morrison was obsessed with as well as the worldly perspective that often seems to elude American writers.

The series began its second, as Morrison calls it, season on Wednesday but before we get into it, its worth reanalyzing the first run. Batman’s attempt to establish a worldwide network of agents is constantly being stopped by a nefarious terrorist organization known as Leviathan, led by the senile ex-Nazi Otto Netz and eventually, Talia al Ghul.

Tons of flashbacks, twisting plans, an ouroboros and a threat against all of the Bat-family, the brand new Batman Incorporated #1 opens with frames reminiscent of the classic animated series episode “Over the Edge.” Bruce Wayne stands at a grave and declares to Alfred that Batman Inc is dead. We then jump a month into the past where Batman and Damian hunt down an assassin named, sigh, Goatman who is attempting to cash in on the bounty Talia placed on her son’s head at the end of the first series.

There’s certainly problems here. Morrison clumsily works in references to the ongoing Batman and Robin series and tries to tie it into Damian’s attack on Netz at the end of Leviathan Strikes. Morrison’s never been able to play well with other authors and his attempt to make goofy stylings and art mesh up with the bloody, violent and cannibalistic stylings of his villains doesn’t exactly match up. It doesn’t work particularly well but if you’ve made it through the original run, you know what you’re in for. Along with that, it takes about half the issue before any other members of the network show up and when they do, they just talk dubiously about what they’ll be able to do now that Leviathan thinks they’re dead. Because of all of this, most of the time, it feels like you’re reading just a strangely pencilled issue of Batman and Robin. For me, that’s not a bad thing but Morrison doesn’t have the same grasp on Damian that some of the other writers, namely Peter Tomasi has had in the last year.

The big talking point has naturally been the ending of the issue. Yes, it was there solely for shock value, probably put there a little bit to distract from how successful Scott Snyder’s Night of the Owls has been and was definitely there for Morrison to show that he is indeed back in the game. I think he’ll be able to show his hand a little more and give the series some of the subtelty that the original Batman Inc showed occasionally. As of now, Batman Incorporated may be for die hard Batman fans and Morrison’s acolytes only. Its a book that’s hard to love but its one that may be worth reading, almost solely to see how Morrison hopes to conclude his time in Gotham City.

Not all just schoolgirls, cardgames and tentacle rape: an essential anime primer

A friend of mine recently livetweeted her first viewing of the landmark animated film “Akira,” the seminal 1988 anime that changed the way that the medium was viewed and remains one of the high points of the genre. I talked to her after she finished the film and mentioned that she had heard the film was the main anime that people needed to see to understand the genre. At the time, I agreed but now, I’ve reconsidered. Anime is a diverse, difficult genre that’s unbelievably unwelcoming to new viewers and offers so much content that it can be hard to differentiate the good from the bad. By no means am I an expert on the genre but here’s my primer of the essential anime for any fan.

Akira

Its the first and by that means, its essential. The animation is impressive, the adaptation from a 1000 page manga to a fairly complete film is well done and the whole thing reeks of polish. It may stand up to more modern films of the genre but it is an impressive, essential moment in the development of the genre.

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro

A personal favorite of mine, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a Chuck Jones meets Japanese style gangster romp through Europe. A lot of classic anime archetypes are introduced here, whether its the consummate lady killer/thief, the BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) princess, the noir inspired story or the neverending adventure resolution, this is a pure classic. It all makes sense when seeing that its one of Hayao Miyazaki’s first international movies and he would go on to be one of the biggest names in anime internationally with several other huge releases. Plus, the whole movie is available both on YouTube and Netflix Instant Stream. There’s no excuse not to check it out.

Grave of the Fireflies

Truly a heartbreaking film, this meditation of World War II, the atomic bomb, innocence and childhood is an unbelievably draining film but it is also one of the best pieces of Japanese entertainment. By no means is this untread ground in anime (the landmark “Barefoot Gen” covered it exhaustingly), but “Grave of the Fireflies” handles the moment beautifully and makes this worldwide tragedy into an innately personal tale of trials, sacrifice and death. Even Roger Ebert sees the relative international appeal and importance of “Grave of the Fireflies.” This is dark, difficult and tear jerking. Try to get through it with dry eyes.

Cowboy Bebop

Not only is it one of the most important televised anime but its one of the most important animated series ever, regardless of style. “Cowboy Bebop” integrated music, cyberpunk, space opera, noir, western and kabuki theater into a stunning and moving series. Every episode is another stylistic experiment in the melding of music, mystery and action and the series finale is a gorgeous climax to a wonderful series. The movie, which falls somewhat in the middle of the series, is also an essential piece of anime for anyone with a love of the genre.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

Along with “Dragon Ball,” the Gundam series was one of the first anime shows to really break in the U.S. “08th MS Team” took Gundam’s traditional focus on love, sacrifice and the human cost of war and focused it on a tiny team of soldiers fighting a jungle battle against the Principality of Zeon. What makes the series so memorable is the lack of heroes. None of the pilots are aces and the show manages to take a look at the way the everyday soldier has to deal with a war that’s so far beyond them. That being said, the series manages to show off some spectacular action sequences, one of the best love stories of the Gundam franchise  and a well developed and controversial finale that set up one of the later, much less successful series.

Afro Samurai

Taking anime and filtering it through blacksploitation and Bruce Lee’s greatest kung-fu films was avant garde as fuck when it debuted as a manga. The transition to anime was wonderful although it feels very traditional. The thing to remember is how ambitious the series is. “Afro Samurai” perfectly represents Japan’s obsession with the west and our mutual love of the culture and Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman serving as the voices in the anime is a tribute to the genre’s appeal. Seriously though, the movie, “Afro Samurai: Resurrection,” is totally not worth your time.

“Jan” – Somehow more predictable than the Brady

I’m fascinated when someone tries to make YouTube work for anything other than racist jokes aimed at children, really obnoxious stoners who vomit up nonsense while playing video-games, or amazing rap cats. All of those videos, except for “Rap Cat,” killed my brain.

There have been some attempts at using YouTube as a vehicle for a serial. A couple of years ago, the uploaded sitcom, “We Need Girlfriends,” debuted to, at the time, stellar views and got picked up by CBS for a deal that slowly disappeared from memory and only the show’s Seth Kirschner has found a career on TV. The show was interesting if nothing special. It featured lots of cutaways, something that the very similar “How I Met Your Mother” has trafficked in for years and was able to use course language and some obscure references. Mostly, it was a thoughtful, heartfelt ode to sitcoms and is to this day, one of my favorite web series.

There have been a few other attempts to make serial television independently, set far away from companies. CollegeHumor and Machinima both attempted the feat, neither succesfully, and last year’s appearance of the Mortal Kombat series was a noticeably high profile attempt to go for serialization online. Now, WIGS, a production house that has been making high budget shorts on YouTube, one of which starring formerly TV famous Jennifer Garner, has received a huge push advertising push from the video sharing web site for their new series, “Jan.”

Sorry, I just vomited my cosmo right onto my Audrey Hepburn poster.

So what’s “Jan,” you say? Well, according to their unfathomably lame and self aggrandizing press release, the show tells the story of the eponymous character whom lands “a dream first job but a series of blunders makes it feel more like a nightmare.” Sound beige enough for you? Well, you’re goddamn fucking right it is!

In an attempt to spice things up, Jan works for a bitchy photographer played by Virginia Madsen of the unbelievably good “Candyman,” and is working on a series of photos of women taken immediately after they’ve had sex because that sounds…vaguely pretentious. Regardless, we’re supposed to be getting a “Devil Wears Prada” vibe and it never quite lands because things are so sitcom-y. Oh no, Jan stepped on her glasses! Oh no, helpful sexy British man! Oh no, Jan took the pictures instead of her boss! Whatever shall she do!?!

What makes “Jan” so hard to get into is how much potential it has. Jon Avnett of “Fried Green Tomatoes” and Rodrigo Garcia, who directed the fantastic “Carnivale” pilot and last year’s underwhelming but ambitious “Albert Nobbs” are behind the camera but they direct with all the ambition of someone on their first film. Shots are dark, sets are empty, dialogue is bereft of character or tension and I struggle to connect with any of the characters. This isn’t the work of a competent studio trying to produce high end products. This is someone showing off their first movie to some poor saps at a film festival.

I hate shitting on people who are genuinely trying to break barriers and come up with something new for lots of people and WIGS is genuinely trying to connect with an audience. The comment sections for “Jan” are overflowing with the company’s responses to comments, both positive and negative and it is wonderful to see someone engaging with the community like that. I just wish they were talking about something, y’know, better.

Episode 36: “I, Mudd” and Kirk shows off what he learned in Theater 101

I hate Harry Mudd. He isn’t a character that I love to hate, its not a character that I’m supposed to hate and it isn’t that I don’t get him. The fact is that Mudd is such an obnoxious relic and his previous appearance is one of the worst episodes of TOS and definitely the worst episode of the first season.

I didn’t want to watch “I, Mudd,” the scheming turd’s return to the show before his single appearance in the animated series. I knew I was in for another episode of moustasche twirling villainy, really off-putting sexual politics and what I have to assume was intended to be humor. On pretty much all parts, I was right but here, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed. Well, until the final half hour.

After an Android takes over the Enterprise in a sequence that is pretty much the writers just shrugging, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and Chekov are dragged down to a Class K planet filled with androids. There, Mudd has escaped from his imprisonment, designed a bunch of foxy female androids for dubious purposes and rules in what appears to be a total lack of authority. To make things real awkward and to foreshadow the episode’s conclusion really clearly, he’s even built an android that looks like his abandoned wife for his amusement.

Mudd’s lured Kirk down to the planet in an attempt to steal the ship and finally escape the planet but the androids have other plans. They begin to abandon Mudd on the planet and warp up on the Enterprise, planning to study humanity. Mudd, Kirk and company slowly come up with a plan to get off the planet by, you guessed it, talking the androids into realizing that their actions are illogical.

Up to here, I kind of liked “I, Mudd.” This is a really traditional episode of TOS, with lots of bright colors, really goofy set designs, girls in revealing outfits and hammy overacting. I love this sort of stuff and its what makes Kirk’s time at the helm so memorable and iconic. Sure, Mudd’s unidentifiable accent fades in and out and changes randomly at times but its all something you can ignore.

That all changes as the crew figures out how to breakout. They decide to go with the sort of disreputable idea that humans cannot be happy without being free and decide that the only way to beat out the androids is to show the power of imagination and the way that it can trump logic. It doesn’t make a ton of sense when you think about it and the frolicking and play acting they do in an attempt to overload the Norman model is so confusing, surreal and strange that its hard to figure out how it could possibly do anything.

The final act pretty much feels like watching the worst college improv troupe you can imagine. There’s hand slapping as objects are invisible objects are handed off, a terribly timed baseball routine and entirely too much ridiculous Shakespearean-meets-“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” style deaths to be anything more than the lowest of camp. Its embarrassing and downright painful to watch and what hurts the most is seeing it work in beating back the androids.

Much better is the way that Spock deals with the situation. A simple turn of phrase is all it takes to confuse a pair of androids and incapacitate them, allowing his compatriots to take down the leader. Its artful and smart and exactly what we want to see from Spock.

Much like Mudd’s first appearance, the episode tries to end with a really strong joke and once again, I don’t really know what they were going for. In “I, Mudd,” the rogue is left on the planet to be berated by his android-wives until he can escape. I understand why this is supposed to be funny and ridiculously sexist but I don’t really understand why the writers thought we would think it to be funny. Are we supposed to view Mudd as a cad and pervert who deserves to be berated? Are we supposed to think he’s cheated on his wife by fucking a couple hundred robots? Are we supposed to think its funny just because he was outsmarted by Kirk? Despite all of my complaints, Mudd has never been developed enough as a character, much less a villain, that I feel like he deserves any sort of punishment for his actions.

“I, Mudd” is a lot of what I like about the original run of Star Trek and a lot of what I can’t stand. Its rife with awkward sexual politics, poorly thought out villains and not particularly satisfying resolutions but it has all the color, design and charm that I love. By no means is it a classic, but its a fair entry in a series that always is fun to watch.

Random Thoughts

They actually used  twins for most of the duplicated robots in this episode. That’s neat.

Sulu’s here for all of 30 seconds. I guess the writers wanted more Yakov Smirnov style jokes about Russians.

Shatner does the comedy in this episode particularly well. The scene where everyone says that things aren’t looking good is a lot of fun.

Next Up: “Metamorphosis” teaches us everything we ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask about the guy who created the warp drive.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 – “They’re nothing compared to what’s waiting.”

When I wrote about the first season of “The Next Generation,” I even knew at the time that I was burying those episodes not celebrating them. The first season of TNG is wildly recognized as one of the worst seasons of any 0f Star Trek’s various series and rightfully so. The first season is trivial, not memorable and has so few decent episodes that its almost a shame.

There’s no doubt that not only were the fans the only one’s to notice how terrible the first season was. By all observations, things changed between seasons. There’s more of a focus on intergalactic politics over the introduction of new races, way less sort of disgusting sexual content that robs the characters of their dignity and a lot less “its magic because its magic” solutions to storytelling problems. Also, there’s no Tasha Yar and now Whoopi Goldberg is playing an intergalactic bartender. Things sound perfect. That being said, there’s a huge problem that holds the second season back from being more celebrated or memorable despite a handful of great episodes.

That problem’s name is Katherine Pulaski and she’s so much worse than Yar for so many reasons. We do have to work our way up to Pulaski though. After the first season, Gates McFadden felt the same need to jump ship that Dennise Crosby felt and she left the role of Beverly Crusher, leaving the Enterprise in need of a chief medical officer. Trying to bring something new to the table, the producers looked to the past and decided to write a character that was closer to the humanistic, conservative Bones McCoy than to the more accessible and modern Crusher.

Now, I would never argue against Bones. I adore the character and love  the dynamic he brought to Kirk’s ship but he simply doesn’t work on a more contemporary ship. McCoy was a relic and Crusher worked much better for a bridge that wasn’t predominantly filled with humans. Crusher understood the needs of an alien crew and that was just something that made Crusher feel so wrong on TNG.

Pulaski was definitely designed with a character arc in mind. We’re meant to watch her grow and evolve from where she enters the season as a skeptic of Picard’s multi-ethnic crew in “The Child,” to where she actively distrusts Data and thinks he’s irresponsible in “Elementary, Dear Data,” to her acceptance of Data as someone who may have the same chance at life as a person or being in “Measure of a Man” and finally to her seeing her place and the place of the rest of the crew in “The Emmissary.”

For me, that’s not enough. Diana Muldaur’s performance is uninspired at best and often catty, over the top or snoozy at worst. It doesn’t help that we’re supposed to grow to like a racist, technophobic killjoy who is further slowing down a crew that is already extremely focused on asking lots of questions first and shooting last. That being said, while the name of Tasha Yar brings bile to any Trek fan’s throat, opinions of Pulaski are more mixed. Some people generally like the evolution of her character and the season she’s stuck in is so much more palatable that it makes her failings something that can be a little harder to point to. While Yar was a particularly noticeable failing of the first season, it is hard to blame Pulaski for doing much other than sucking.

I mean, we could complain about this.

And why would you ever want to just blame Pulaski for the problems when there are so many other things to point to? This season has some downright terrible episodes, maybe episodes that are among the worst that the series ever did. Season 2 is bookended by these awful episodes, starting with the rapist-alien-Tinkerbell of “The Child” and ending with the unfathomably lazy clip show, “Shades of Grey.”

Most of the problem with the second season of the show is one entirely dealing with just exceedingly lazy writing. More so than the first season, now we’re stuck with the rough disparity between episodes that are really good and episodes that are on the entire other side of the scale. For every “A Matter of Honor,” there’s a “The Royale,” for every “Where Silence Has Lease” a “Pen Pals” and for every “Q Who” there’s an “Up the Long Ladder.”

Speaking of, “Q Who” is by far the most essential episode of the season. For almost all purposes, it may be the only episode of this season that’s worth actually watching. After the hints of a galaxy wide conspiracy filled up the end of the first season, we finally meet the mysterious force when Q beams appears on the ship and shows Picard a world that men were never meant to go.

“Q Who” is the kind of episode that people like me love to think about.  Its an episode that moves the series forward admirably in so many effective ways but, more importantly, it undercuts many of the show’s themes and ideas to show the weakness of Picard and his crew when they come face to face with the unknown. After taking advantage of Picard’s arrogance, Q whisks the Enterprise to the Delta Quadrant, leaving them exposed to the Borg, the tyrannical all consuming cyborg race that now has a taste for humanity. Picard may have been able to escape for now but Guinan is sure to remind him that the Borg remember and they are coming. Its one of the best threats of the series and it is a blade that hangs over the show until their reappearance in Season 3

Season 2 of “The Next Generation” opens everything up further, giving the characters a consistent new enemy to bump up against, new allies to work with and more hints that the world outside of Federation space is increasingly becoming more and more controlled. More importantly, Season 2 is where TNG manages to work out most of its kinks, jettisoning what never worked about the series and filling it back in with the parts that would help the show through its highest seasons.

As of last time, here are the handful of awards we’re giving out for the season, rather than the standard “Random Observations.” Enjoy.

Most Improved Character: William Riker

The rise of the beard essentially seals Riker’s place at the top. That being said, here he feels like more of a partner to Picard rather than just “Number One.” That being said, he still gets mired in some problems.

Most Troublesome Character: Deanna Troi

We can’t give Pulaski this award with her leaving at the end of the season but Troi still causes all sorts of trouble. Whether its another episode with her mother, generally being a sex object or being strangely attached to a mutant child solely for story reasons, she’s still a huge problem the writers don’t know how to solve.

Best Non-Borg Moment – Playing a Dangerous Game, “A Matter of Honor”

As the Enterprise prepares to engage with a Klingon ship, Riker bluffs hard and hopes Picard’s on board to save both the ship he’s on, as well as the one that he loves. I know that I love Klingon shit but this is one of the best moments for the race of the series.

Worst Reminder of Tasha Yarr – So, this one time…, “The Measure of a Man”

Yep, you have to relive that horrible moment from the horribly named “The Naked Now” when Data and Yar had sex. So, that’s something.

Worst Episode – “Up The Long Ladder”/”Unnatural Selection”/”Shades of Grey”

Three episodes so bad I couldn’t pick the worst one. The first is essentially one long joke about how terrible Irish people are, the second features nothing but terrible aging makeup and one of the most sluggish plots to ever make it to air and the last is a clip show. Pick your fucking poison. Also, all of these episodes beat out a episode with Lwaxana Troi.

Best Episode Not Considering “Q Who” – “Where Silence Has Lease”

All problems aside, The Original Series is my favorite Star Trek. “Where Silence Has Lease” takes all of the charm of the first series and updates it. Things are more dangerous, the god like being is more callous and the stakes are unbelievably high. Its a charmingly dark episode with a fun villain and an even better resolution.

This is the bad guy. Its delightful.

Next Up: We make our way back into TOS with the return of Harry Mudd in the android filled “I, Mudd.”

Overcoming steampunk stereotypes: How I learned to stop caring and love China Miéville’s “Dial H”

In case the fact that I have recently rebranded my Star Trek Blog into a place for all things terribly obsessive, I’ve lived a relatively pop culture soaked life. Whether I was spending all of my limited time on the internet compiling lists of comics, anime, music and movies that I needed to get a hold of or spending entire pay checks on books of modern criticism and social theory and Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks.

That being said, just being able to look stuff up wasn’t the optimal solution for a budding obsessive. I had my weekly connection to the newest DC publications and a subscription to Rolling Stone that was only just beginning to piss me off but that was only second to what I was really waiting for every month.

That was Dragon magazine, the now defunct publication from Paizo publishing that offered “100% Official Dungeons and Dragons Content” on the cheap for those that were otherwise stuck buying $40 sourcebooks and then putting tons of time into learning the arcane, often fairly complicated rule sets. Dragon magazine offered all of that in a quicker, more contemporary and varied format that gave everything at least some of what they wanted and could use. For people like me that were looking for cool new stuff to constantly add to their game, it was a godsend.

And that’s why for many years, China Miéville ruined a solid month of my life when in Dragon #352, he consumed a month of my life with content that I would never be able to use.

Now, I know that I was being a dick. I shouldn’t be angry when a magazine decides to dedicate an issue to a influential, innovative and successful fantasy author who was combining steampunk and swords and sorcery in interesting ways. It was something that many players could integrate into their campaigns and enjoy. Me, I was running a rigidly traditional Forgotten Realms campaign (yeah, I was a big R.A. Salvatore fan) that was focused almost entirely on Tolkien-esque fantasy mixed with just a dash of Robert E. Howard’s dungeon-crawling and a healthy dose of undead creatures with links to otherworldly Lovecraftian gods. Naturally, I thought I was far too good to integrate robotic creatures, evil flying imps or semi-sentient half robotic swords that defied physics.

For years, I blamed China Miéville for giving me a shitty issue of a magazine and I only felt more cheated when Dragon ended up going out of publication later that year. I would try to read one of his most celebrated books “The Scar” a year later, and I was still too angry about Dragon’s cancelation to get through it and read one of the smartest fantasy books of the last decade.

Four and a half years after my beloved magazine’s cancellation, I still hadn’t gotten through an entire Miéville book when suddenly he reinserted himself back into my life. As DC began to relaunch the second wave of The New 52, letting one of my least favorite writers complete one of the best series of the last decade, kicking Rob Liefeld off of some shitty books and giving him one of my favorites and pretty much just try to ape Marvel’s “Runaways,” I came to find out that Miéville was being given a shot at my most beloved comic universe. His “Dial H” wasn’t too connected to the established DC cannon that I had invested so much of my time in but it still felt like an intrusion.

That being said, I picked up the recently released first issue of “Dial H,” partially because I’ll read the first issue of just about anything (yes, I even broke my own rules to read this monstrosity. And this one) but also, I desperately wanted to get over my problems with Miéville. I wanted to get over my preconceptions and deal with something that was a little outside my wheelhouse. I don’t know that I’m comfortable with where I ended up but I’m intrigued to see more.

I liked the first issue of “Dial H.” I really did. I had heard good things about the 2003 revamp of the series. That being said, the art always felt really wrong to me, awfully cartoony instead of being dark, stylized and atmospheric, which seemed especially wrong when the whole series focussed on the problems that the average city dwellers come to when they become heroes.

Miéville manages the balance much better, mostly with the help of Mateus Santoluoco, who has done art for “American Vampire,” is able to make the world fresh, wonderfully confusing, atmospheric and very memorable.

The premise of “Dial H” (guy walks into a phone-booth, dials H-E-R-O, morphs into a different superhero every time) isn’t a new one but the twists Miéville ads to the formula make it something that needs to be picked up, at least for the next couple of months. Nelson, the morbidly obese unemployed 20-something, still recovering from his cigarette smoking caused heart attack steps into the booth while his drug dealing friend is attacked by thugs, he changes to Boy Chimney, smothering everyone in the alley in endless clouds of noxious smoke. As he becomes more and more fascinated by the powers of the booth and what he’s capable of, he’s drawn back to the booth and experiences the power all over again.

As has always been the case with the variations of “Dial H,” what’s interesting isn’t the heroes or the crime fighting, its the man who steps into the booth. Nelson manages to to be entirely different from the young pretty boys who have formerly gained power in the booth. He’s more flawed in a thoroughly modern and physical sense, showing an entirely new side to the hero, one who is killing himself every second he’s not saving everyone else.

“Dial H” is ambitious, maybe not as ambitious as Jeff Lemire’s recent work but it is certainly one of the most visually distinctive books that DC is releasing and they seem to be putting some of their best talent on it and in a lineup that’s packed with little but disposable popcorn books and overly-gory schlock titles with the rare moments of thoughtful creation, “Dial H” certainly offers something very different, although it may only be something that longtime fans of the medium will appreciate.

From catchphrases to kingdoms: A review of “The Dictator” with an eye on cinema history

Sasha Baron Cohen has, in a way, become one of the most recognizable names in comedy, right next to Judd Apatow, Paul Feig and Todd Phillips. Going from “Da Ali G Show” to the generation defining “Borat” and the less successful and memorable “Bruno,” Cohen defined the confrontational, single camera, in your face stylings that would go onto help to define the single camera sitcom, found footage films and reality television inspired media of all sorts.

“The Dictator” is his first shot at really creating a fully constructed, scripted and self coherent film without depending on the reactions of unwitting pseudo-extras. In my eyes, it was a necessary evil. What people remember the most about “Borat” was watching people rapidly make a fool out of themselves when faced with a camera and a foreigner. We weren’t laughing at the camera, we were laughing at our own unfettered national id.

Cohen didn’t quite have the same ability to do that in a scripted film. He can’t depend on characters who were little more tha a reflection of established stereotypes and norms. He would have to create a world for them to occupy and other characters to react off of them.

“The Dictator” tries desperately to do this, often to little success. While Cohen’s creation, the depraved Gaddafi stand in, Admiral General Aladeen is an ingenious character, someone the audience always wants to hear more from as he tastelessly goes through the motions of slaughtering his underlings, hiring and firing body doubles and callously insulting every race he comes across. He’s a buffoonish idiot savant, another character in the Groucho Marxian tradition who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, only to be trounced again and again by his own baffling ignorance.

“The Dictators” borrows much from the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and even more from Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” both following foolish men who cling to the disastrous power that they couldn’t possibly be qualified to wield. That being said, “The Dictator” is nowhere near as ambitious or funny as the aforementioned films. Unlike the Marx Brothers, Cohen is interested in creating something of a searing criticism of democracy and foreign economic interests and unlike Kubrick, he’s not quite smart enough to balance the comedy and satire. “The Dictator” throws a lot at the screen at once, hoping that the low brow hits just as hard and as often as the only slightly more informed political jokes.

By no means is Cohen aiming for a satire of “In The Loop” or the more recent “Veep” style seriousness. His wheelhouse has always been in near cartoonish antics mixed with damn-near-vaudeville-minstrelsy levels of ironic self distancing racism. All of Cohen’s movies have fallen into a genre I hope to further define called Smart-Movies-For-Dumb-People, the main members of which are “Fight Club,” “Freddy Got Fingered” and every Christopher Nolan movie that isn’t “Following” or “Batman Begins”. These are the kind of movies that people like because they feel smart for understanding them. The films are usually just challenging enough that nearly everyone walks away from them understanding exactly what they need to and are visually compelling enough to attract a mass audience. I’m not saying these movies are bad, I’m just saying that their aims are never for art or directorial finesse. They’re just strictly commercial products and many of them succeed as such.

And that’s the real problem with “The Dictator.” When it isn’t including scenes of Cohen shitting on women, smashing his penis against windows, milking women like they’re cows or arrogantly and hilariously insulting everyone he comes across, he’s making ham fisted political jokes about how America may as well be a dictatorship and that democracy is uniquely flawed. It’s a formulaic crowd pleaser that never strays to far from what audiences expect, even if it meets those often chuckle worthy expectations.