Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy First Impressions

So I'm sure you've seen it. Just in case....


When I got my first glimpse of Marvel's next summer flick during the credits of Thor 2, I kinda winced. I like Benicio del Torro, but everything about the scene struck me as campy. Everything from the bright colors to the costumes to del Torro's surreal take on The Collector made me nervous.

When the fifteen second teaser was released, it raised my hopes a little. Granted, my expectations were pretty dismal. Even before the Collector scene, I knew that the threat of Hollywood playing a movie featuring a talking raccoon just for laughs was high. Comic book fans know he's nothing to laugh at, but that's now how the unwashed masses think.

Most people tend to respond to that by saying they have faith in Marvel Studios. And, well, it's true that Marvel Studios bucked a decades old tradition of terrible superhero movies, and changed popular perception of our beloved genre. They made some truly great films. Two years ago. They stopped impressing me after The Avengers. I loathed Iron Man 3, and Thor 2 left me shrugging.

From left to right: Bialar Crais, Rygel XVI (f...But in that first fifteen second teaser, I thought... okay. Maybe it won't suck after all. I got a fairly solid Farscape vibe off it. The sets and costumes were cool. It promised lots of action.

Then the full trailer came out.

Now I won't get all fanboy and declare that the movie will suck. It might not. I predict it'll do well. It's coming out at the end of the summer, when competition will be waning. And it's clearly appealing to a wide base of comic fans and movie goers.

But I really don't get the gushing anticipation I've been reading. The trailer knocked my hopes right back down a few notches.

I am well and truly torn on it. Like, I loved the choice of music. I'm all for fun and lighthearted. But I hated the line they chose to end on. "What a bunch of a-holes" What? That line is terrible. It sounds forced and unnatural. Discounting the fact that they are supposed to be aliens, who would say something like that in that context? I'm going to predict it'll be the aliens misusing a phrase they hear Peter Quill say earlier in the movie, but that doesn't redeem it. A line like that, used like that (without my rationalization, which could be wrong) transforms the tone of the whole thing from funny to silly. There's a difference.

So my biggest hangup is the overall tone. The trailer has set the expectation that this will be tongue in cheek, bordering on camp. The Nova Corps looks like space faring Keystone Cops. They cast John C. Reilley to be one of them. You may remember him from such landmarks of comedy as Walk Hard, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights. Not a good sign.

(Granted, he is talented, and funny given a good script. He's been in some things I liked, but he is best known for movies that are surreal and silly).

If you want your audience to take your heroes remotely seriously, don't introduce them by mocking them. Doing so set the expectation of a silly spoof comedy with pretty scenery and a budget it won't deserve.

Second big hangup is the spotlight character, Peter Quill/Star-Lord. Now there is a possibility that he will be a loveable rogue, anti-hero. A John Crichton, a Han Solo, maybe even a Jack Burton, who despite being so out of his element and having a ton of comedic moments, manages not to come across as a total doofus.

But the trailer set up the audience for the expectation that he'll just be a clown. They open by mocking him, for which he has no rebuttal. Then he gets tazed by the bully who stole his Walkman. I'll admit the "obscene gesture alert" is hysterical... but all that does is give me a Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan vibe. I'm sure he's got a ton of hidden potential, blah blah blah. He'll save the day at the end of his hero's journey. But will I care?

I say again... Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it will be an action romp more like The Fifth Element. A light hearted movie will be a welcome switch after Captain America 2, which looks awesome, but intense. Maybe it'll be fun without riding on gags. Maybe the trailer was misleading and only showed one small aspect of the overall tone. It has that potential.

But I don't have enough faith in Marvel Studios to assume that anymore.
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Further Dissecting Sherlock Series 3

Continuing my SPOILER FILLED rant on last season of Sherlock, specifically the finale episode. If you haven't already, you may want to scroll down, or jump to the first part of the dissection.

To some, it might come off like a fanboy nitpick, but... Okay well it is. But I am a student of the craft of storytelling. And this is a case study.

As with all things in this blog, it's part fan opinion, part insight into how I approach writing.

First a sidebar, jumping back to a scene that made me kind of wince in the first episode. I can't blame this one on the BBC show creators, though, as this was something they took from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.

I wasn't thrilled with the revelation that Mycroft was just as smart as his brother. Not only just as intelligent, but possessing the exact same hyperactive talent for observation and deduction. To me, that cute little scene where they played their game of trying to outdo each others' deductions diminished Sherlock a little. Up to that point, Mycroft had always been kind of a tool. Not an idiot. He was a high ranking government agent after all. But nothing made me think that the Holmes boys were that close on an intellectual level.

So the one gift the hero of the series possessed turns out to be not unique at all. And as we'll find out later, not even all that rare.

That's the biggest reason why this season went south I think. It diminished the hero of the story, little by little at several turns. First we learn his brother can do everything he can. Then that same episode, he winds up in an inescapable situation and gets all flummoxed at his inability to deal with it.  Until blind luck saves him.

The other reason for all this ire is due to the nonsensical plotholes left behind by lazy writing, and convoluted events. Normally, I love how twists in this show don't make sense at first, and then they all tie neatly together in the end. None of that happened here. All of the expected "WTF" moments were more like "Whaaaaat?"

But first, let's talk about Magnussen.

At first, I loved this villain. So deliciously vile. Talk about loving to hate a guy. He made being odious into an art form. And the concept behind him made for perfect Sherlock material.

But then, when he's going through his Blofeldian monologue about how brilliant he is, he declares that he has a "mind palace".

Really?

Now, I'm not sure what the writers were trying to do here. Was he just using that term to be smug? Taunting the great Sherlock Holmes by showing off how his dick mind palace was bigger and badder. That might have been funny, if the scene were presented that way. At no time did Sherlock call him on gimmick infringement. Magnussen couldn't have possessed something as "mundane" as an eidetic memory. Oh no. Instead it was presented as a thing that all really smart people have.

So I ended up getting the impression that the writers thought "Well fans loved the mind palace from season 2, so let's run with that again."

Sidebar: Why did they have to turn "mind palace" into a thing anyway? Why did they have to hammer on it in the otherwise awesome near death experience scene? We get it. It was a cool. Last year. Can we move on please?

Once again, something cool and unique about our hero is taken away from him. The brilliant mind palace scene from season 2 is diminished. It's no longer something special about our hero.

Not to mention, there's yet another guy out there just as smart as Sherlock. When the number of people who could compete in his intellectual league was two, that worked. But now there's Mycroft, Magnussen, and some random kid he met smoking meth.

Let's throw Mary into that group, too, while we're at it. She outsmarted him after all. Seems Sherlock's real arch nemesis is the Letter M.

More on her in a sec, first let's talk about how they kept insisting that Holmes needed to be brought down a peg this season.

So Holmes comes up with the most convoluted plan imaginable. In order to gain access to Magnussen's lair, he offers to sell out his brother and turn over classified government secrets. Because intelligence agents carry that kind of stuff around with them on their personal laptops all the time.

But don't worry, when they show up tracking the GPS in the laptop, it'll be easy to explain. Because I'm Batman  Jack Bauer Sherlock Holmes.

???

And guess what happens. Magnussen explains to him in glorious detail why the plan was moronic, then goes on to state the terms of how this is really going to play out.

Sherlock Holmes got pwnd. 
 
Once upon a time there were a couple of cardinal rules. At least I thought there were. 
  1. Sherlock is always the smartest guy in the room. Period. If not infinitely smarter, than on par.
  2. Sherlock is always in control of every situation he puts himself in. Even when you think you've outsmarted him, you haven't.
But here, the villain did not merely outsmart Holmes, he made him look like an utter fool. Because he was. And the only way out was to resort to good old American brand gun violence.

When in doubt, find the off-switch.

As an aside, maybe it's just because I'm a bitter clinger, but did he really need to make the declaration about being a "high functioning sociopath" to justify killing this asshole? This man was very clearly evil. In the literal sense of the world. Every bit as evil as Moriarity, just a different flavor.

Which leads to... I was completely lost on Mycroft's motivations for wanting protect Magnussen. At no time was it suggested that he was blackmailing Mycroft. During the final confrontation scene, I thought the reason he kept ordering Sherlock to step away was so that they could get a clean shot and call it a night. The aftermath of that should have been more like.

"My God Sherlock you killed him!"

"He was threatening to kill Mary."

"Oh. Well carry on then. This loathsome excuse for a human being was blackmailing half the free world. Good riddance. The only people who know what really happened here is us, and the chap flying the helicopter. You won't tell anyone will you? I thought not. Looks like self defense to me. Good show, Brother Mine."

Which then forces my mind to circle back on the man's alleged brilliance only to realize... He was a frickin moron. This supposed criminal mastermind had nothing written down? Anywhere? No contingency plan to protect him. MI6 could've just taken him him out any time they wanted? He really was THAT arrogant?

But see, none of that was actually said on camera. At no time did Holmes realize that Magnussen's Achilles heel was his arrogance. Events played out as they did, with him looking like an idiot, ending in what was portrayed as an act of desperation. The minute you force your audience to rationalize crap that isn't on the screen (or on the page), your story is shit. There is a vast divide between "fridge logic" and sloppy writing.

In this case, no matter how you try to rationalize any of it, no matter how many ways you try to slice the scene, it was shit. It tried to ride on slick dialogue and shock value. Admittedly the finger-flicking thing was awesome, but it wasn't enough to salvage the train wreck of a plot.

So then came the big shocker ending.

Which I saw coming.

Seriously, I didn't think it would happen this season necessarily, but I knew that Moriarty was alive. And I don't mean in the "I really think he could be alive" kind of way. I mean there was zero doubt. It was only a matter of when.

At the end of season 2, when the rest of the world was gasping in shock and horror at Moriarty killing himself, I was more like. "Did they just really kill Moriarty? Are they not expecting to get renewed or something?" 

Notice I said "they". Not "OMG Moriarty just killed himself?"  The writers jarred me out of the story. First, it made no sense to throw away such a pivotal (not to mention so brilliantly acted) character so quickly. I could have gotten past that, though, if not for the fact that the action was ridiculously out of character. I understand that this depiction of Moriarty is batshit crazy. But nothing about him ever suggested that he was so out of it that he'd kill himself just to make sure that Sherlock "lost". He would never deny himself the chance to gloat.

So no, I never thought for one second that he was dead. Even less so when Holmes faked his death in an unexplainable manner.

So that ended a luke warm episode on a blah note. But before I can let this go, let's talk about the other major problem with the episode: the other subplot, Something About Mary.


My hangup on this point boils down to a single question that would have rendered the entire plot twist moot.

When Holmes learned that Janine -- Mary's Maid of Honor -- turned out to be the personal secretary of the world's most dangerous blackmailer... didn't that raise any red flags??

My initial reaction to Janine's face on the screen at Magnussen's office was the same as everyone's. I laughed at the revelation that Holmes was really just using her for this case. But then a second or two ticked by and my other brain cells flickered on. Another "WTF" moment turned into "Whaaaaat?"

Now I will grant that crazy coincidences happen in life. The Lord works in mysterious ways and all that. Fate, Destiny, the Force, or even just plain old wacky coincidence for dramatic purposes works in many great stories. The problem is, there is a thin but distinct line between a coincidence and a convenience.  This was the latter.

 It was yet another "off-switch". A lazy plot contrivance used for a cheap laugh.

Now, taken at face value, without knowing who Mary really was, Janine's role in Sherlock's case is deus ex machina rearing its ugly head.

When we then learn that Mary is 007, then Janine's presence in the equation becomes less coincidental. Clearly Mary is the one who befriended Janine to break into his office.

Note that I'm rationalizing that, though. None of that was actually stated in the script. If it was, I missed it. But I was actively looking for it. Like so much else in this season, its is not clearly explained, which is kind of a requirement for a mystery story.

And even if it was, it just circles back to my original question above. Why would he not question so glaring a coincidence?

It's either a lame plot convenience, or it's a baffling plot hole that would have negated the entire mystery. Either way, it's shit. And it prevented me from just going with the story because it was too glaring.

The psycho-babble about how John is attracted to a dangerous lifestyle, so that's why he was attracted to Mary. Guh. All that made me roll my eyes. There was nothing about her that suggested she was anything more than a nice, normal girl, like Doyle wrote her.

I will say, though, that I loved this twist on her character. I absolutely did not see that coming. I just thought the psycho-babble was lame and unnecessary.

Though on a parting thought, I feel compelled to point out that here's yet someone else who outsmarted the great Sherlock Holmes.  That whole laundry list of clues as to her secret life that Sherlock spelled out only made sense in retrospect. Supposedly Sherlock knew that something was off about her from the beginning (evident solely by the word Liar among the flashing text when they met), but it was never spoken of again. So are we to believe that Sherlock would allow John to marry someone he didn't trust without putting up more of a fight?  Nuh oh. He had no clue.

I hesitantly await Series 4: The Apology.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sherlock's Shark Sighting, or When Writers Get Smug

Sherlock (TV series)
Normally when watching or reading something I enjoy, I pride myself on my ability to shut off that part of my brain that analyzes story structure and characterization and screams at plot holes. I want to be entertained, dammit.

I can forgive a lot, if characters are interesting and plots are tight.

But sometimes, try as I might, I can't. I just can't.

Such was the case with this last season of BBC's Sherlock. I am a big fan. Every episode of the first two seasons was a home run. It hits all the marks. It's ridiculously witty, always keeps you guessing, and works in fascinating character moments without sacrificing on plot. A whole lot of people on both sides of the pond agree with me on that much. And I think that's why season 3 left me wanting.

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...Apparently the writers of this brilliant series have been reading their own press. They decided it was okay to get lazy, so long as they distract fans with lots of cool text flashing on the screen and keep on giving Benedict Cumberbatch slick dialogue.

And thus follows my SPOILER FILLED take on the mistakes that left me staring at the screen in slack jawed bewilderment, and leery of the upcoming series 4 in two years.

Episode 1 was actually pretty good. I didn't mind that they were being coy with the explanation of how Holmes faked his death. In truth, I thought the ending of season 2 was so contrived, it's best to leave the how to our imaginations anyway. More on that later. The bottom line was that the show was living up to its own standards.

And then the bomb had an off switch.

The BOMB. Had an OFF-SWITCH.

What?

The writers managed to put Holmes and Watson into a genuinely inescapable situation. Congratulations! So what brilliant trick do you come up with to get them out of it?

AN. OFF. SWITCH!

Had that stunt been pulled on any other show, it would have been laughed at with every ounce of mockery it deserves. People would have been chanting "Jump the shark" from the rafters. That was, without a doubt, the most insulting, lazy, sloppy, ridiculous cop out I've seen put to film in recent memory. I have never been jarred so completely out of a story before. I would expect something like that from CSI: Miami.  I thought these writers were better than that. Guess I was mistaken.

Oh noooo. This is Sherlock. We're too cool to have to explain anything. We can get away with it because someone will doubtless say something witty and make you forget all about it. Look look! He's doing something quirky. Isn't that awesome?
What suspense? Just find the off-switch

"They all have off-switches" they made Sherlock say. Uhh, no... They don't. That's the whole point of tamper proof wiring.

GAH!

That was my first inkling that the writers have been reading waaaaay too much of their own fan mail. The interwebs have clearly been gushing too much.

But I did manage to calm down after watching the episode, believe it or not. I simply pretended that Holmes was entirely capable of figuring out how to disarm the bomb -- which was infinitely easier to believe. Fortunately pretending that didn't change anything else about the events as they played out. So I moved on.

Episode 2 rocked. It was admittedly more lighthearted than any other episode to date, but it still felt like the same show. Nothing wrong with a little levity. It's a wedding for cryin out loud. Give John a break. He spent the last whole episode being a damsel in distress. Some friends on Dixonverse compared it to one of those "days off" issues of Uncanny X-Men, where the story is just about them playing football, or Logan and Piotr running into Juggernaut at a bar. A break from the action. And clearly a set up for things to take a sinister twist. I took it for what it was, and loved it.

Almost enough to forgive them for the off switch.

Almost. Did I say I moved on? Okay I lied.

And so comes the season finale.

Deep breath...

Okay. Ya know what? No. This was exhausting enough. Going into episode 3 will require an entry unto itself. Suffice to say that my problems with this season are really with the finale. But endings are important. They are what viewers are going to remember most. And while some people thought that episode 3 somehow redeemed the season for them, I saw it the exact opposite.

So, until I get around to it...

Update: If you are reading this via direct link, jump here for part 2 of the tirade.