The Awake Pilot and Inevitable Speculation

I did something I haven’t done in quite a while, now that I come to think of it: Try out a new TV show. I really don’t have much time for the shows I don’t already watch, and I’ve actually cut out a lot of those this season (Fringe, House, The Walking Dead) what with college taking time and all.

But the premise for new NBC show Awake is just so damn good that I had to give it a go: Jason Isaacs (whose name alone might sell some people) plays a detective who gets into a brutal car crash with his wife and son. Now his life is split between two realities, his wife dead in one and his son in the other. He alternates every time he goes to bed, leaving us with one very obvious question: In which world is he awake, and which is the dream he escapes to?

Now that’s what I call a set-up. Pessimistically speaking, this show hasn’t really got a prayer on NBC, and even if it’s not immediately cancelled there’s an insane amount of potential for it to run off the rails and disappoint everyone. After all I don’t think a show with a definite central question has ever provided a satisfying answer, so we’re probably headed for a bad place.

But since we’re not there yet and the pilot was pretty strong (still missing that special something that cable offers), I’m going to make an attempt to stick with it for the time being.

A show with a foundation like this brings out something in the audience that I really enjoy: A desire to beat the writers, which I found myself indulging in for the entire pilot. If I get invested then I’m sure I’ll root for them to outsmart me, but for now I’m playing the “predict future storylines” game with the intention of ruining as much dramatic tension as possible. I can’t really help but do otherwise; with a conceit like this driving the series it’s the writers’ burden to stay a few steps ahead of an audience dedicated to besting them at every turn. They’re almost guaranteed to lose.

My contributions: We’ll soon have a serial killer preying on different victims in both realities, the obvious love interest will be an issue not only in the world with his son but when his wife is around as well, his psychiatrists will try communicating with each other, the links between realities will make it seem impossible that either one isn’t real, characters will die in one world and stick around in the other, if it goes long enough there will be a third reality where they both died (or lived), there will be a pivotal episode this season exploring the circumstances of the crash, there may be a suggestion that another character is experiencing both realities as well, possible endings for the show are that he’s the one who actually died and he has to realize this to move on, the wife and son are fine but he’s in a coma, both of them died and nothing’s real, both worlds are real and there’s some magical bullshit going on, etc.

So that’s a bit to start on. And that’s one of millions of people thinking what might happen. It’s okay if people are right as long as it’s done well, so keep it focused on the characters and not layering on twists and this could be the best of what network TV has to offer for quite a while.

Final couple things: I look forward to fans of the show soon choosing which world they prefer and rooting for its existence, and the best line of the episode from my already favorite character was easily “I’ve been a cop for twenty years and I’ve only seen hunches on TV.”

 

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Cloud Atlas

I just finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a sweeping, genre-spanning work that’s unlike just about anything else out there.

It’s made up of six novellas, opening with the first half of five of them, then the entire sixth at the center, then moving back outwards and presenting all of the conclusions. The story you begin with is therefore the one you eventually end on.

It starts in the 1850s, and is very much written in the style of the day, with each story closer to the center taking place further in the future. The most enticing are probably the center two, which depict some very depressing projections for where society could be headed.

Each story on its own has merit, but the subtle links between them really sell the cohesiveness of the piece. The protagonist of each tale discovers the previous story within their own narrative, and offers commentary on prior events running the gamut from insightful to derisive. The text heavily suggests that the same soul is being reincarnated across time into many different people, and occasional commentary on the nature of the book itself manages to come off as cleverly self-aware as opposed to obnoxious (one of the stories focuses on a composer who happens to be crafting an opus, Cloud Atlas Sextet, structured like the novel’s musical equivalent).

The characters are rich, the constant change in writing style successful, and the wholly unique format constantly manages to work to the book’s advantage.

And get this: It’s becoming a movie. Yes, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are co-directing the hugely ambitious novel, helming three stories apiece. The cast is ridiculous, and though we haven’t seen a trailer yet it’s sure to be one of the most interesting movies of the year regardless of whether it succeeds. So watch out for this one.

That Certainly was an Oscars Ceremony

Another year, another Academy Awards ceremony endured among a culture whose attitude, in general, seems to be “They don’t matter at all but there’s going to be hell to pay at every little injustice.” This year I found myself caring far less than the past few considering the films up for consideration…well, we didn’t exactly have the best offering. At least among the high-brow, respectful fare the Academy deems worthy of recognition, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. The fact that not only War Horse but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (of which I’ve never heard a single positive opinion from anyone I know) were nominated for Best Picture while Drive and Dragon Tattoo were overlooked made it clearer than ever before that I really don’t have much in common with the people voting for these films.

I haven’t seen The Artist, so I can’t speak to its victory either way (in fact I had very little desire to see most of this year’s so-called best) but at least I’m not indignant. I was glad to see Rango and A Separation take home the gold in their categories, and was baffled by Hugo getting the effects award over Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but beyond that I just didn’t care.

The ceremony was unrelentingly bland, an apparent reaction to the failing of last year’s strategy to go for the youth demographic; this year they just did the same old thing, and it sure was an awards show because of it. Highlights were: Chris Rock actually making me laugh out loud, acceptance speeches from the best lead actor and actress (Meryl Streep is insanely likable; who knew?), and the director of A Separation injecting the proceedings with about as much humanity as they’re allotted to possess.

The 2012 theme was more or less “Movies sure are something, huh?” I agree, but when they make it that perfunctory it’s hard to get excited about the magic of cinema.

In conclusion- The 84th Annual Academy Awards: I sat through them.

Fixing the Phantom Menace

Since everyone eventually accepted that the Star Wars prequels are really very terrible indeed there’s been this uncontrollable urge to find a way to do the stories justice. People, after all, care a lot about the franchise, and it hurts to know that fifty percent of it is more or less an abomination.

Now I’ve never had a huge personal attachment to Star Wars, which is a little weird considering my level of exposure: I’ve seen the films, played some video games, assembled LEGOs, watched the Clone Wars cartoon (a good amount of the one that’s on now as well as Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent miniseries that came out between the second and third prequels) and even read some expanded universe novels. So I certainly know a lot of the mythology, but it’s never felt like my personal thing. Probably because when so many people get far more invested in it than I have it just doesn’t feel like I’m part of the movement. But I love our culture, so it’s inevitable that I’ve done my time in Lucas’s world.

Anyway, I first realized how truly terrible The Phantom Menace was from Red Letter Media’s brilliant takedown of every stupid little thing that it does. I used to think it was an okay film that let people down after the original trilogy created such huge expectations, but nope. It’s actually awful.

Obviously everyone has suggested improvements, many of which are immediately apparent, but never before have I seen something so compelling and well-presented as the following video, in which a guy offers a detailed revision of The Phantom Menace that is still recognizable when placed beside the finished movie, but also manages to improve on it in almost every way:

His revisions are so good, so basic, so clearly the way the film should have been made that they actually inspire a kind of fury. Honestly, the movie he’s describing sounds like the setup for a trilogy that could actually match the original. And it will never, ever happen. It’s a horribly depressing notion, and I can confidently say whenever Episode I comes up I won’t be able to avoid thinking about the (now very specifically laid out) movie fans didn’t get to see. Hopefully you’re doomed as well.

Ghost Rider Review

I promised a site a review of the biggest cinematic event of the year, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which I planned to see at midnight. Then I didn’t see it at midnight or the next day (because I really wasn’t paying 3D prices for this thing) and I guess by the time my review was done they’d lost interest. But you lucky folks still get to read it. So, unedited from the way it was meant to go up:

Like many people who dislike terrible things, I was baffled and mildly offended by the idea of another “Ghost Rider.” The first film is nearly impossible to defend- an aggressively lifeless byproduct of Hollywood’s “green light every superhero movie” policy from the mid-2000s (which has since evolved to “green light everything based on a comic book”). I never would have guessed it might actually spawn a franchise, nor would I have wanted it to.

Then I learned the details: No one involved with the original movie would be working on the sequel except Nicolas Cage; instead it would be directed by Neveldine/Taylor, the lunatics behind the “Crank” films. I found this news encouraging, considering one of the first “Ghost Rider’s” biggest problems was taking itself far too seriously, something that these two would surely remedy.

In that respect they fare reasonably well, and manage to keep tongue firmly planted in flaming, skeletal cheek. The only problem is when things get a bit too goofy, creating a film that sometimes teeters at the brink of self-parody without ever fully committing to the brainless, exploitative fun that could have been found in the inherently ludicrous set-up.

Johnny Blaze (Cage, naturally) is on the run from his literal inner demon that’s possessed him ever since his short-sighted deal with the Devil, here incarnated in the mortal body of Rourke (Ciaran Hinds), who I can very confidently say will not earn a place in the Cinematic Satan Hall of Fame.

It just so happens there’s a day of prophecy on the horizon involving a boy (Fergus Riordan) who, despite being far more likable than most kids who get caught up in the events of action movies, is the Antichrist. In the hopes of keeping him and his mother (Violante Placido) safe, devout do-gooder Moreau (the always watchable Idris Elba, doing far better with his slimly-written role than most would) tracks down and enlists Johnny Blaze’s help in the hopes that the evil-obliterating spirit of the Rider will be able to stop Rourke’s forces, led by hired gun Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth).

From this point you could write the rest of the movie yourself, the action and character beats so perfunctory that only true inventiveness in the execution could make the proceedings stand out in any way. The movie doesn’t quite rise to the occasion, in part held back by a PG-13 rating when we know very well that the directors make their home in the gory and the profane.

There’s a bit of fun to be had: Cage’s Blaze isn’t as morose as in the first installment, and occasionally his wonderful manic side shines through. Most impressively, you can actually notice the difference between this and the first film, in which Cage himself didn’t play his character’s heavily CG-ed alter ego (CG that looks far more impressive in this go around, the skeleton convincingly charred). Now the Rider has a weird little sway going on, plus a liveliness and a glee that’s distinctly Cage. Much of the tension is erased by the character’s nearly-indestructible nature, but it’s easier to forgive when he seems to be having fun with his immense power. Most enjoyable, perhaps, is a scene in a construction site that effectively utilizes the idea that any vehicle the Rider commandeers becomes as hellish as him.

Outside of that, though, is a largely paint-by-numbers comic book movie that only Cage’s most devoted fans should consider viewing. As for Ghost Rider fans, well, I only know of one: Nicolas Cage himself, who went so far as to get a tattoo of the character’s fiery skull emblazoned on his arm. For him, playing Johnny Blaze is very much a dream come true. I don’t understand either, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love him for it.

So yeah, that’s it. I’ll add that if you could combine the strengths of this film with those of Drive Angry, you’d have a pretty excellent film on your hands. That said, Drive Angry edges this one out for the title of “Best movie where Nic Cage fights the forces of hell from vehicles.”  Largely thanks to the villains, which put the ones from this film to shame.

Gee, look at the words I used here.

The Origin of Inspector Spacetime

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, that WAS slick. So very much.

Anyway, apparently Graham Chapman of the Pythons was the Sixth Inspector. And Stephen Fry was one of them. Seriously, utter madness. Check out the tvtropes page, the huge fandom tumblr, and if you’re really loving it, donate to the Kickstarter.

And all of that, once again, came from this:

Okay, I seriously need to stop thinking about this before I implode.

Glances at Big Ideas

If I may relate a few very baseline concepts about the way things work: Nonfictional media is so very fascinating because, while it still very much tells a story, it’s created in the opposite way from fiction. Okay, maybe the documentarian, historian, or whoever has an idea of the narrative they want to present, but the way it actually happens is that they gather footage and information, then cut away all of the unnecessary content until what’s left is a coherent story.

If a fiction writer is a painter, then documentarians and journalists are sculptors. One carefully decides every flourish to realize a vision; the other, with equal care, removes the bits of reality they’ve gathered that have nothing to do with what they’re trying to say.

So fiction and nonfiction are mirror images: real and unreal stories created in opposite ways. The fictional has more of a visceral appeal to me personally, but I recognize and appreciate the validity of both.

It’s also worth noting that the whole “mockumentary” phenomenon is really interesting in that it tries to appear like it’s been created with the limitations that apply to the capturing of real events, and in that effort gain a kind of impact that people generally perceive reality possesses. Yet oftentimes the way real stories are related with the greatest impact is to dramatize them with all the trappings of fiction.

Not quite sure of the full implications of any of that, but I hope you’ll agree it’s important to ponder.