Friday, March 29, 2013

Kirk vs. Gorn, Round Two

The new Star Trek video game looks like fun, but I have no platform to play it on, and I'm not sure it could be as fun as this commercial is.

Health Report Update

It took two sessions with the center to do my intake interview, and my case worker has given me a pre-diagnosis. At some point, I'm supposed to meet with a psychiatrist to determine them, just to make sure and to really plan out a treatment. I may not have Bipolar Disorder after all, which makes me feel better, and she's got me very hopeful that this is something I can really manage. I don't want to go into too much detail until I've met with the psychiatrist and am fully in treatment, just because I'm trying to not have a predetermined idea for them to meet or not meet or to unconsciously steer myself towards. All I knew for sure was the online assessments I took for Bipolar Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and because I do have mood swings veering between mania and depression but not long episodes of them, it looks more like a non-specific Mood Disorder rather than Bipolar. Generalized Anxiety Disorder seems definite, though. A couple of other things, too.

My case worker thinks that my problems are more manageable than I do right now, so I hope things get better from here. This is one of the few things going on in my life right now that I have no nervousness about, because this is really important to me to address, and I will work as hard as I possible can to get through this.

So the first step is over. I feel like maybe I know what's wrong with me, but I want that second opinion.

We'll see. The more I understand what's wrong, the more I can address it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aurora Borealis 2013-03-17

Four hours of Aurora Borealis time lapsed into just a few beautiful minutes.

TV Report: Clone Wars and Ahsoka Tano

After a gripping, emotional season finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it was announced that Cartoon Network would no longer be airing the show. This wasn't really a surprise--the finale was the 100th episode; Cartoon Network had only ever contracted for 100 episodes; and with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, a lot of people speculated that the show would end up on Disney XD instead.

And then the bottom sort of fell out of all that.

First Lucasfilm Animation announced that it would be wrapping up all of the loose story threads in a sixth season, but they never specified just where and how people would be able to see it. Then Lucasfilm suddenly laid off a bunch of people, dissolved the team that has spent the last half-decade making the show, and put the key personnel to work on other projects (presumably pre-production on Episode VII, but no one's really said, I think). Only two finished story arcs will be released, and neither of them address the final fates of Asajj Ventress, Cad Bane, or that giant cliffhanger they left us with for Darth Maul.

And the fate of Ahsoka Tano remains up in the air.

Now, I am disappointed not to be getting more Clone Wars, because I loved the show. A lot. I looked forward to watching it every Saturday morning.

But I'm not disappointed that we won't find out what happened to Ahsoka Tano.

I love Ahsoka. Over the course of five years, Ahsoka became one of my favorite characters in all of Star Wars. I don't know if this show is officially canon or not, but I don't really care; the journey of Ahsoka Tano and what she meant to Anakin Skywalker and how she developed and reached the point she reached on that final episode was a journey worth taking, and one of the best Star Wars stories I've ever experienced. I love how it ended on the note it did: Ahsoka leaving the Jedi Council and Anakin losing the one person he could almost openly treat like family.

A lot of people still don't seem to get or want to get that a big part of the story of the Prequels is the failure of the Jedi Council, a group that has not only betrayed its ideals (the peacekeepers become generals at the head of vast armies), but it has also grown so arrogant and complacent that it doesn't even notice that Chancellor Palpatine is the Dark Lord of the Sith. That's something that always gets me: people who complain about how they find that unbelievable, that the Jedi can't figure it out. Well, that's the point: he's a better and more powerful Jedi than they are. They're so corrupted that they've become weak. They make terrible decision after terrible decision, especially with Anakin, which is why everything in Episode III happens the way it does. That's a large part of the point George Lucas is making.

The Jedi Council not trusting Ahsoka and not standing by her and her basically deciding the Council isn't the place she should be is a massive step, especially in Anakin's path to the Dark Side. Anakin, removed from his mother at such a young age, is basically an orphan, and like a lot of orphans, he's looking for family. He loves Padme, but he can't be open with his feelings because of his position. Obi-Wan has no interest in being a family figure, as much as he will later claim otherwise, because I think Obi-Wan was too young to take on a student and, in Episode II, you can see him being short and cold with Anakin. In Ahsoka, Anakin had someone he could be openly caring about, and someone who looked up to him in return. He was looking for a father figure; when he didn't find one, he became one. And now she's grown up and left him and told him that she cares about him, but she doesn't think his ways can be her ways anymore. That's a lot of fantastic character development on both sides.

But, from a fan point of view, I think what's great about this development is that it adds more shades to what Anakin does in Episode III, and it also removes Ahsoka from danger. Did she ever come back? Did she die when the clones executed Order 66? Or was she still out there somewhere, safe from harm? You can basically write your own ending now and imagine it however you want, and it seems to be driving everyone nuts. (And by "everyone" I mean "the very few people who actually watched the show and talked about it online, only a small fraction of whom liked it.")

One of the things that used to be cool about fandom--at least how I experienced it growing up--is that continuity freaks were rare and it used to be about telling good stories. Sure, things that happened in Star Wars novels weren't "official canon," but that didn't mean you couldn't enjoy them. You could pick from what happened in the Marvel Comics or in the Droids cartoon and make them part of your own personal canon, the way you saw the series, the things that made Star Wars what it was for you. Everyone didn't have to like it or not like it the same way. So maybe Plif the Hoojib isn't an essential part of the Star Wars universe for you, but he damn well is for me, even though I know he matters not one whit to what happens in the films.

It's the same with Ahsoka Tano. I like believing that she wasn't part of the Jedi slaughter. That she had a happy ending somehow, became a teacher somewhere, or a farmer, or anything but a bounty hunter, which seems to be the only alternate career in Star Wars sometimes. Somewhere way out on a rim world. She lived in peace. And since nothing contradicts me, I can totally believe that if I want to.

No canon explanation given? Don't need one, thanks.

I'll miss Clone Wars, but I'll always be glad for what I got and for the essential addition of Ahsoka Tano to my Star Wars universe.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)
I have to tell you, I tend to really hate techno-thriller Christmas. Why is this becoming a subgenre? On the other hand, there's some genuine emotion and humor that undercuts the sentiment in here, and frankly I think there's nothing that Aardman can't make charming. Not destined to become one of my staples, but it's got a nice voice cast and some lovely animated sequences. ***

THE SPECIALIST (1994)
Oh, good god. Sleazy actors and slick direction try to make a lurid action drama with no story, no characters, and no coherence. This is like watching the third part of a trilogy. Beyond bad. Really, just... no. Zero stars.

MADE IN USA (1966)
Interesting political noir by Godard; not one of his best works, but an interesting mish-mash of style and dialogue, all held together by some great cinematography and Anna Karina in a smooth performance. Not a masterpiece, but oddly compelling. ***1/2

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Swifty

Monday, March 25, 2013

80s Revisited: Rocky Sequels

HBO Zone showed the first five Rocky movies yesterday morning, and I basically decreed that that's what my wife and I would spend the day watching. We've been watching miniseries on Encore every Sunday, but nothing we wanted to see was on this week so it was Rocky all day instead.

I love the Rocky movies, even though three of them are just not really very good. It's my love of the first movie that carries me through them, really. I'd never choose to watch Rocky V on its own, for example, but if it was an all-day project, like this, line 'em up.

Rocky is one of my favorite movies. Not because it's a triumphant feel-good fairy tale (although, let's face it, it is), but because it's about a guy who doesn't try hard enough. It's something that seemed even more pronounced to me watching it yesterday than it has in the last 20 years. Rocky is a guy who just isn't trying very hard; he's sort of resigned himself to not getting anywhere and just does the bare minimum to skate by. I think that's something very easy to relate to. Is he scared of succeeding? Or is he scared of trying and finding out that his best isn't good enough to succeed? It's a pulp masterpiece about two broken souls who are basically good people (Rocky and Adrian) but who have held themselves back and who finally take their chances in the world. I love it.

Rocky II I like very much, though it's not as good as the first. It bookends it nicely, but it isn't as singular as the first time. It deepens the characters and their dilemmas, and even manages some meta-commentary on the success of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone himself. It still has the genuine sincerity of the original, even if it isn't quite as entertaining.

But then... then...

Rocky III (1982)
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

What I really like about Rocky III is Stallone's sense of the continuity of his characters, his themes, and even his music and structure. It's what makes these movies so easy to sit and watch in a day. But it also puts the earlier movies in sharper relief. My wife, who doesn't like even the original very much, said that this movie made her appreciate the first two more than she had, because this one made her see how they could have gone pretty wrong.

I think the real misstep with this one is that it still has the heart, but lacks the sincerity. That's probably natural. By this time, Sylvester Stallone was an internationally popular megastar. He didn't really have to struggle to get his projects greenlit anymore, and now that he's removed from the reality of struggle, so are his movies.

To his credit, he actually addresses that in the movie itself. Rocky Balboa is a megastar, too. He lives in a mansion and all of his and his family's needs are taken care of. He doesn't have to struggle anymore; he's on top. Hell, the movie even sort of addresses Stallone's plastic surgery; of course a fighter would have to get his face fixed, and Stallone looking different basically explains in itself why he doesn't have to deal with the drama of the second movie anymore. Remember how part of the plot hinged on how he couldn't see very well out of his right eye anymore because they had to cut him in his first fight with Apollo Creed? It doesn't come across like a dropped plot point; his face literally has a different structure now.

And it makes for a good plot twist that when a rival comes after him (Mr. T as Clubber Lang), he discovers that his trusted manager and father figure Mickey was handpicking guys that Rocky could beat to defend his title against in the intervening years. I think Mickey's death is a little overheated, though. It's like Stallone couldn't live with just having Rocky prove to himself that he could beat Clubber Lang, but needed that extra bit of motivation which feels kind of soapy. And for the third time, they basically go to that well of Rocky doesn't take his training seriously, then does some unconventional and/or old-timey training and then he wins. It's not as compelling a third time, no matter how awesome Carl Weathers is (and he's... he's pretty awesome).

Even the way the film is directed has changed. Stallone's direction is so much slicker now, like a music video advertising the most gay-friendly gym in America. So many close-ups of sweaty, rippling biceps and pumping thighs. Rocky and Apollo racing across the beach in half-shirts and short-shorts and then hugging in the surf in slow motion is basically the volleyball game in Top Gun. This is not a complaint, by the way, I'm just pointing that out. It's one of the many very 80s things about this movie. (You ever notice, by the way, how the 80s was so politically conservative, but so much of the entertainment seemed like just an outlet for straight boys to get to be a little gay without it being too weird or just, I don't know, outright fucking each other? Stallone movies--particularly Rambo: First Blood Part II, the most homoerotic movie ever--and the WWF and hair metal alone, man... Just saying.) There's so much glitz to it (though the movie doesn't overdose on it like Staying Alive, Stallone's next directorial effort). It's incredibly 80s. It even has Hulk Hogan and introduces "Eye of the Tiger," one of those delightfully moronic power pop hits that I just love.

The real pleasure of the film, though, is Mr. T's unhinged, bizarre, riveting performance as Clubber Lang, which is as quotable as it is intense. T plays Clubber like a bull that's gotten loose and only wants to kill people. Clubber's basically a homicidal maniac; like he only boxes so he can have an excuse to hurt people. Every one of his lines, no matter how awesome or stupid, is just another piece of wheat for Mr. T to spin into gold. I love Mr. T. I will always love Mr. T. And he's really what makes this movie, taking it from tired retread to stupid-fun flick with a fantastic villain.

So, basically, yeah, Rocky III is pretty bad, but it's at least bad in a fun way because of Mr. T and the sheer silliness of Stallone's attempts to still be earnest. There was no real need for this movie--the story from the first two films is told, and there's nothing else that needs to be said--but hey, it exists.

Rocky IV (1985)
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

So many franchises and TV shows in the mid-eighties just couldn't stop themselves from going this route of trying to win the Cold War by proxy. In fact, this same year Stallone won us the Vietnam War (finally) in Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Cold War in Rocky IV, showing how our homegrown idealism and determination would ultimately overcome Soviet precision and science. Because Americans had more heart or something, and the Soviets were automatons.

A message of understanding might have been enough, but in the climax of the film, we have to have Rocky winning over the entire Soviet audience, then villain Ivan Drago rejecting his sovietism in favor of individual achievement (so of course he loses), and then Rocky making a barely coherent speech about understanding or something, and then a Gorbachev lookalike leading the politburo in a slow clap. Rocky has clearly demonstrated American superiority and won.

Otherwise, this film is pretty much distilled into the series' purest formula and nothing else. That's all there is to it. It's kind of amazing, like a masterclass in how to make a bare structure without adding anything of real substance to it. It's even more slick than its predecessor, too, at one point breaking for a music video so Rocky can do that most 80s of things: drive really fast to clear his head, having emotional flashbacks while his jaw sets in determination and power pop with generic lyrics about doing your best and winning and whatnot plays on the soundtrack. It proves that you can still senselessly pad the leanest of movies--so lean it doesn't even make it to a full 90 minutes.

But seriously, the whole thing is basically this: Rocky is a successful megastar, he enjoys time with his family, Paulie has a walk-on appearance, villain is introduced, villain kills trusted friend, Rocky agrees to fight, he has a hard time training, Adrian finally tells him it's okay to fight (her walk-on; she's basically a prop by this point), Rocky gets serious about training, training montage, final fight, villain defeated, Rocky and Adrian love each other, end at the moment of victory with a freeze frame. Also there's a James Brown music video and, because it's 1985, a robot. And that's pretty much it. It's like Rocky III, but with all of the fat trimmed off of it, if by fat you mean plot complications, character arcs, development and story--elements which, admittedly, Rocky III barely had. There's no character to relate to because Rocky's basically a superhero now instead of a person.

I'd say it wasn't really a good movie, but honestly, it's kind of barely a movie. But it made a shit-ton of money, so what do I know?

Three other observations, before I go on to the next flick: first, Brigitte Nielsen was tremendously hot in 1985; second, this is the first one that doesn't have a score by Bill Conti and which doesn't use "Gonna Fly Now," and I kind of miss those elements a lot, because they carried through and even though I like Vince DiCola's synth-heavy score, it's like literally the last vestige of sincerity these movies had is gone; and third, I never really noticed before that these are basically samurai movies now. You killed my master, and now I must have revenge. I think that's part of what made these two movies popular, honestly. The motivations were clear and direct.

Rocky V (1990)
Directed by John G. Avildsen; written by Sylvester Stallone; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff

Well, they tried. It was too late, but they tried.

In this installment, Rocky tries to recover from the damage Ivan Drago dealt him while he was winning the Cold War, loses all of his money, trains another fighter who is an ingrate, and strengthens his ties with his family. For the most part, it kind of breaks the formula rut of the earlier films, but in doing so it comes across as weirdly desperate to be liked. In this one, we say goodbye to the trappings of success and megastardom and go back to the streets of Philadelphia. Stallone even wears the cocked hat, fingerless leather gloves, and leather jacket he wore in the original movie, which comes across as a rather painful attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience, as though it's easier to identify with a Rocky who is so poverty-stricken that he can't even wear nice clothes anymore.

After Stallone's slick direction of the series, original director John G. Avildsen was brought back, as was composer Bill Conti, though neither of these things really help the film. In fact, Avildsen's direction is surprisingly cheesy and the fight scenes--especially the final fight--are hysterically overwrought. In the film's attempt to go back and rediscover the roots that made the original Rocky such a great, passionate film, everyone's trying way too hard and it just comes across as painful. It's not insincere so much as it's trying to find a genuine sincerity that it can't come close to. It's a failure, but I guess at least it's a genuine one. And it tries hard to be a definitive final cap to the series, but it's unsatisfying.

There are good elements to it. I actually like all the stuff about Rocky and his son, played here by Stallone's real life son Sage, giving the movie a tinge of sadness due to Sage's recent death. He's not much of an actor, but it gives the movie much more urgency than the main plot about Rocky training another fighter and that fighter turning on him to sign with a Don King-alike manager. And there's a flashback scene in which Burgess Meredith reprises the role of Mickey that I thought was genuinely touching. And I actually like Richard Gant's silly, over the top performance as the Don King character (George Washington Duke), which is purposely hammy and crazed, even if the unreal energy of it basically damns the movie to cartoonishness. And hey, Talia Shire actually gets to act and be a character this time around.

But it really does try too hard to be crowd-pleasing, and gives into its most tasteless instincts in doing so. Doctors tell Rocky he can't fight anymore because he has brain damage, but then the movie ends in a long, tedious street brawl. Rocky punches out the Don King-alike in a moment meant to be satisfying but which comes across as smug because the character has been more of a cartoon annoyance than a real villain. And then the whole thing ends with this Alan Menken-written song performed by Elton John about the measure of a man, and the movie is just so sure we're saying goodbye to a beloved character, and instead of feeling fulfilled and satisfied, you just kind of wish the movie would shut up and stop being so cloying.

Frankly, I think the timing for this movie was just all wrong. It was too long after Rocky IV and its tremendous success for anyone to really give a shit anymore. Rocky IV is so marked by the trappings of the 1980s that it set itself too squarely in one time and place. It wasn't timeless, like the first movie. It was 1985 and only worked as 1985. After the superhero-wins-the-Cold-War formula of it, Rocky boxing an alien to save the planet from invasion or fighting the first robot boxer to save the future would have been more believable than Rocky V. There was nowhere to go; especially not back to the beginning. Rocky V is so obvious that I'm surprised Stallone had the restraint to not call it Rocky V: Back to tha Streets.

Catching up with Rocky five long years after Rocky IV and setting the film immediately after it just feels off. You can't sympathize with the megastar Rocky who lost all his money the way you could with the guy in the first two films: the loser who didn't want to be a loser all of his life. We want to see Rocky win, not lose. In this movie, he loses and keeps on losing, and they just can't make winning a street brawl and fixing his relationship with his son seem like a big enough victory after the places this series has gone. They're trying to turn Rocky back into a real character, but it's either too late or too early to do it. Who cared anymore? We know we're not watching a character, we're watching international movie star Sylvester Stallone in his latest vehicle, and it's cynical for this movie to pretend otherwise.

I'm glad Stallone just stopped and then didn't revisit this series for another 16 years. Rocky Balboa was a much better movie, a more sincere one that didn't exactly recapture the heart of the original, but did look back on it and grow out of it in a much more organic and satisfying way. Rocky Balboa does what Rocky V can't do because Rocky V isn't a story, it's a product.

I really wish HBO Zone had also showed that movie; it would have been a much better note to end the day on.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Song of the Week: "Hey Joe"

Of the many, many, many versions of this song, this one is my all time favorite. Fabulous horns, and Duane Allman on guitar.