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Skyline Torched

“Skyline” is a new science fiction… er… a new thriller… no wait… it’s a new horror… um… action… Bah. I don’t know what the hell it is, and I don’t think it really knows either.

Frankly it’s all just a big old mess.

It starts out with an intriguing first act – a young couple out of their natural habitat, the boy being offered a break by the old pal who’s made it big in LA. The characters feel like they’re going somewhere, which just makes it all the more frustrating when they don’t.

Then the aliens arrive. At first the only thing the audience sees is a brilliant blue light. People start to vanish, and the light has a hypnotic attraction to anyone unfortunate enough to look at it directly. This is followed by an alien-free interlude in which the characters do absolutely nothing other than wring their hands and debate personality flaws. Charming, but nothing said pushes the story forward or leads to any insights about these people.

Fortunately the aliens return just in time to prevent me from clawing my eyes out. This time it’s ships. Big, seemingly biomechanical mother ships which, aside from that striking blue LCD shine, are pretty much straight out of “Independence Day” and the rest of that sub-genre of giant alien ships hovering over Los Angeles movies.

The invasion and harvesting of the human race now proceeds apace. We’ve changed gears and we’re doing the second act of “War of the Worlds” (pick your preferred version – I think the Spielberg one is better, with the exception of the screaming children – gah). Meanwhile our heroes plan their escape because the aliens apparently have some sort of phobia about hovering over water — um “Signs”? — Maybe. So these folks head for the garage, grab their cars, get as far as the garage entrance and suddenly we’re watching “Cloverfield”.

The African-America dude is the first one to get taken out. I think that might be an anti-anti-cliché at this point. Will Smith has single-handedly programmed audiences to not expect that to happen. He is promptly replaced by suitably ethnic actor in the form of David Zayas (Det. Batista of “Dexter” fame, who I will now refer to as Batista even though that’s not the name of his “Skyline” character, but since that character made about as much of an impression as a limp noodle slapped against a hunk of surgical steel we’ll just roll with it), who delivers the only memorable and enjoyable performance in the movie. Some irrelevant bystanders die horribly as we discover that…

The aliens are here to eat our brains.

Our glowing blue brains (with one exception, but we’ll get to that later).

Does this count as an idea that’s so archaic that no other filmmakers would have the balls to use it? Or is it just that the directors are so woefully uneducated about the alien-brain thing that they thought they were being original? All I can say is that by this point I was literally shaking my head in disbelief.

To make matters worse, the survivors retreat back to the same freaking condo that they’d recently vacated, hiding out like rodents. At no point does anyone do anything even remotely sensible. While this may be consistent with human nature, it just serves to point out that none of these characters are growing or adapting to the situation. I was practically screaming at them to fill up available containers with water, raid other suites in the building for food and/or weapons, try to fortify the damn place. Anything other than what they end up doing, which is having arguments that exist simply to point out that the ostensible leading man may have been physically infected by the light he was previously exposed to, and his assertion that he actually feels more powerful… Huh?

When did this turn into “The Fly”?

Well, not for long, since it’s right then that the air force finally shows up. Now we’re watching “Independence Day” again.

We intercut between a big-assed air to air battle and — the characters watching the battle on their big-screen TV. Although it’s true that the film has established that the aliens will spot you if the blinds aren’t drawn, you’d expect they have more important things on their minds at the moment as they bitch-slap the majority of the Terran defense force. So in the middle of this big battle the characters argue about watching current events on TV. This is not the time for a social comment by the filmmakers about the growing tendency for people to choose virtual experiences over real ones. I want to watch the damn dogfight!

Which is over when the air force manages to nuke the mother ship, and I groan horribly as the dialogue that follows is an almost word-for-word riff on the “we’ve won – we know how to take ’em out now” lines from “Independence Day”.

Because I know what must inevitably come next…

There’s another one of those ‘big twists’ (TM, copyright, whatever). The alien ship is actually fine – the nuke was nothing more than a flesh wound and it quickly reconstitutes itself. And I suddenly realize the other vibe I’ve been getting while I watch. It’s an echo of those other impossible-to-stop incomprehensible aliens from some TV show named “Star Trek”. The freaking aliens are big-budget Borg.

Of course, the nuke causes the drapes to fall down in the condo, and then the army arrives by chopper. This finally prompts our nominal hero to say “we can’t stay here”, while Det. Batista is all for laying low. In a penthouse. With no windows. I’m sure there are probably a couple of units in that building with windows that were facing away from the blast, but whatever.

Hero and girlfriend head for the roof and yell at soldiers, who almost shoot them but then call in a rescue chopper. Meanwhile the most irritating female whinger gets hypnotized by the aliens and lets them into the awesomely secure penthouse condo, which leaves Batista no choice but to flood the place with the still running natural gas from the stove so that the filmmakers can deprive him of a dignified end by having him nearly flub his own demise. He does ultimately manage to get off the obligatory exit quip and detonates the place, but not before we’re all sort of feeling sorry for the actor – that role just sucked, dude.

Our remaining heroes are not in good shape at this point, because we’re back in “Cloverfield”, with a gigantic alien doing its impersonation of “King Kong”, destroying the rescue helicopter and terminating the military presence with its massive ‘claws of doom’.

It’s only now that the hero really gets to do something, because we finally get the obligatory beat as he goes mano-a-mano with one of the smallest of the alien critters, and is so broken by the end of the fight that he just fucking gives up… And so does the girl… And they’re swept up into the alien ship in what should be a final embrace that signals the end of mankind. That would be a bit of a downer, but if these particular aliens did happen to invade I suspect this is exactly what would happen. As a species? Toast.

But those Strauss boys couldn’t leave well enough alone, because you can’t have everyone just die…

So suddenly we’re inside the ship, which is sort of dimly lit and rather a bit much like the goo-filled real-world of “The Matrix”. Inches away from his beloved, our nominal hero is de-brained, the unusually red-tinted glowing cortex making its way to a hungry brute of a critter that I’m not certain we’ve seen before. The girl, our only remaining survivor, is not immediately killed because she’s pregnant and this guarantees her some sort of special treatment.

The special treatment gives our hero’s awesome-red-glowing-brain (can I TM that???) time to take complete control of the alien who’s eaten him, and he leaps to the defense of his galpal, possibly saving her life. She has just managed to figure out that her boytoy is now this big ‘ol monster as… the credits roll.

Methinks the boys responsible for this disaster have big plans for the sequel.

Gawd I hope that doesn’t happen.

What’s stunning to me is that this is one of those train wreck stories that slipped by everyone who should have seen the basic problem. See, the characters never really do anything at all. They spend the entire movie reacting to events around them, and as a consequence they don’t grow, and we don’t give a damn what happens to them.

“Skyline” could have been a good movie if it hadn’t gotten caught letting circumstances dictate action, and if it hadn’t tried to be ten different movies instead of just one. It could have been a terrifying film in the same way that “Thirty Days of Night” or “Night of the Living Dead” were – about people trapped in a building and surrounded by things trying to kill them. It could have been a kick-ass action movie about a bunch of folks fighting their way out of the city. It could have been a horrifying examination of unwanted alien infestation. It could have been a lot of things, and indeed that’s what it tried to be… A lot of things.

Instead, it’s none of the above. It’s just a wretched brew of borrowed ideas and standby tropes that, while not the worst film I’ve seen this year, is far from the best. And that just makes me sad, because I really was looking forward to “Skyline”, hoping it would be a fresh take on the alien-invasion sub-genre. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch “Cloverfield” again. At least they tried…

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Scott Pilgrim vs Me

Well I finally managed to get around to seeing “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, and the question that was on my mind when I started watching was “why did this movie do badly?” It had huge geek buzz, made an enormous splash at ComiCon, and was being touted as the “cannot fail” movie of the summer. And yet it tanked.

But the reason it fails is immediately obvious…

Michael Cera.

That’s it. The casting of the lead. I’ll grant you that the film is, in its editing, fairly unusual. The narrative can be a bit confusing initially, and it takes some time to become acclimated to the idea that we’re operating in a sort of alternate video-game universe (though I’m so far out of the movie’s demographic that I’m probably not competent to render an opinion). Now, in a few years, I don’t think folks will have a problem with this style, but at the moment it’s nascent, and the audience hasn’t really transferred the conventions of game narratives to passive entertainment. My guess is that people will eventually look back at this movie and consider it ground-breaking. The style is just running a few steps ahead of the zeitgeist.

But I’m also certain that folks will look back at this film and recognize that casting Cera in the lead was a horrible error, on par with the voice-overs that the studio demanded be appended to “Blade Runner” back in the day. While there can be little doubt that the film got green-lit partly because of Cera’s involvement, that’s just a clear indicator that the studio was imposing its perception of what a “lead geek” should be.

The basic mistake is that the “normal” folks running productions have a vision of what a geek is. Heck, maybe even Winter has a vision of the archetypical geek. What they didn’t get is that geeks *do not perceive themselves as geeks*. Geeks do not feel awkward, even though they are awkward. What they feel is that they’re normal, that they’re no different from the popular crowd, except that for some mysterious reason they’re not part of that crowd, and it makes them sad and/or pissed-off.

Geeks feel just as embarrassed by Scott Pilgrim’s ineptitude as normal folks do. They just don’t find any humor in it. The Borat-loving crowd may get a certain amount of amusement out of watching a geek fail, but they’re not going to emphasize with that character. Geeks watching a dude like Pilgrim just squirm – it’s too close to home.

And so Scott Pilgrim, while managing to be a cool movie, does not provide a cool central character.

Now let me get all writer-ish about this for a moment, because this is a really complicated problem to solve. These guys needed to create a character who was both a geek and an awesome dude. They needed to convince us to respect the guy even while he was bumbling about, make us feel sympathetic to his inability to connect to the *girl of his dreams*. And here’s the painful thing – they really managed to pull it off from a writing perspective…

And then some asshole decided that they needed to cast Michael Cera in the lead because he’s been typed as a geek. And that he needed to play to form as an uber geek.

Big. Freaking. Mistake.

What they needed to do was cast someone who was absolutely not a geek. If I had access to a time machine I’d have cast freakin’ Christian Slater – from the “Heathers” era – in the lead. They needed a lead who absolutely oozed coolness but “didn’t realize it”. Hell, I have a vague suspicion that Brandon (“It’s not my fault they cast me as Superman”) Routh was Winter’s original choice for the lead but got nixed and relegated to a lesser role. That would have worked amazingly well.

But instead, we get an actor who is so viscerally ineffective as a human being that we can’t accept his transformation.

Here’s the big secret… Geeks do not see themselves as un-cool. They see themselves as misunderstood. In their minds’ eye they’re Jedi freakin’ Knights who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They’re absolutely not thinking of themselves as lame assed losers. And this is where Hollywood goes totally wrong in doing geek-centric movies, ultimately managing to alienate both the mainstream audience and the ComiCon crowd.

You can call this the “Peter Parker Phenomenon” if you like because Toby McGuire managed to pull off this transformation in “Spiderman”. A guy who starts off as a lame-assed-twit and, by the end of the movie, manages to transform himself into an awesome SOB. Cera, sadly, does not have the range or ability to affect the same transformation (nor does Winter have the capacity to fake it in post). Result? Lame dude is still lame after the climax (and we even get a scene where his sorta-ex-girlfriend has to prompt him to do what he should by now be doing for himself – I *do* blame the writers for that bit of business by the way, but then again they may have had no choice in writing it).

Bottom line – Scott Pilgrim could have been a blockbuster. All it needed was a strong lead actor who could pull off “unintentionally un-cool” for the first half and then drop that affectation for the second half. Instead they cast someone who remains one-hundred-percent-un-cool throughout, and so the film dove into the ground at a thousand miles an hour.

I should mention that I have exactly the same issue with “Kick Ass”, but that movie managed to overcome the limitation simply by abandoning the geeky lead entirely in the second half, changing gears so that the twelve-year-old “Hit Girl” suddenly becomes the protagonist. Structurally a total gum-up, but it rescued the movie. “Scott Pilgrim” was not so fortunate.

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The End of the World as We Know It

It’s a funny thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve read an increasing number of blogs and posts that posit the future of cinema being increasingly creatively challenged. It’s as if only now folks are coming to realize that the movie industry has been encountering a great divide – at one end the tiny, independently produced character driven stories, at the other the air-fuel-bomb inspired Hollywood tent-pole action showcases.

Meanwhile, the handful of really talented writing and creative types have been quietly migrating to that bastard cousin of ‘important’ media – television.

The thing is, I think that the watershed moment really occurred several years ago – specifically when “The Wire” became the single most respected bit of dramatic character-driven writing to ever find an audience. Yeah – “The Wire” is the creation that television needed to finally put a metaphorical stake into the heart of Hollywood.

What happened?

Well, let’s face it, “The Wire” was emphatically NOT the first TV show to present well written drama, complex metaphor underlying stories, or anything else that it did so well. It was simply the first show to package all that shit into a single box and get noticed by a larger audience (and the first one where writers managed to convey a very complex bit of business while the characters never uttered a single word that wasn’t a variant on the f-bomb). The award for first-to-the-post with ridiculously clever plotting that dragged viewers back week-after-week goes to “Twin Peaks”. Flawed as it was, with the writers making it up as they went, it made for compelling television. The award for “morality tale well told” goes back to the sixties and “Star Trek”, which was the first TV series to truly grapple with socially relevant issues in a palatable format — while some might argue “The Twilight Zone” should hold that mantle… as much as I’d like to agree that Rod Serling was a tremendous inspiration, it was “Star Trek” that really grabbed hold of the audiences’ cerebral cortexes and squeezed mercilessly.

However, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that we really witnessed intelligent writing forced off the feature-length cruise liners and left to swim for TV’s shore. Let’s face it – Hollywood has abandoned character for spectacle. If there’s a choice to be made between an intimate moment of dialogue or a big-freaking-explosion, we know which way that axe is going to fall. Boom, baby, boom.

Meanwhile, television, lacking the insane budgets of theatrical features, has quietly become the haven of folks interested in telling actual stories. Sure, TV writers are not adverse to blowing up the occasional building, but they have the security of knowing that the audience is ultimately more hooked to their series because of the characters and the slowly developing arcs that now stretch out over dozens (and potentially hundreds) of hours of media. An exploding building is an indulgence – a bit of fun. The bit of dialogue where one of the main characters reveals that they feel responsible for the heretofore-unrevealed death of their sibling – that’s the real hook.

You see, in the old days, TV was dominated by a singular principle… You did your 22 or 44 minutes of programming, and at the end of any episode the characters needed to be in exactly the same place as where they started. The golden rule of the TV series was that “nothing must change”. At the end of every episode of “Gilligan’s Island” the island-dwellers remained just as stranded as they were at the start. Every episode of “Star Trek” concluded with the crew still on their infinitely unending ‘five year mission’.

But sometime during the nineties television changed. Perhaps one of the instigators was “The X-Files”, where the show became more about the overall progression of the character’s individual quests – folks tuned-in not just to watch the ‘monster of the week’, but to find out if Mulder would uncover some tiny hint about the grand mystery he was pursuing. Heck – maybe it’s even more essential than that, since the crowd watching “Moonlighting” during the 80’s were really just waiting to see if the sexual tension between the leads would ever be resolved (and look what happened when it finally was…) We could even make a case for “Ren & Stimpy”, which utterly eschewed environmental consistency and simply dumped the characters into whatever random environment facilitated the story – a choice which was entirely foreign and frightening to the broadcaster at the time (and resulted in the creative evisceration of the program and its premature demise).

At some point during that era, television went from being an episodic media where the initial state of the characters was locked and unchanging, into a media where the continuing development of the characters became the primary hook that held the audience rapt. How astoundingly different that is from the most successful series of the sixties and seventies – Imagine if “All in the Family” had begun with Archie Bunker as a hothead bigoted asshole and then transformed him OVER THE COURSE OF YEARS into a sympathetic, reasonable advocate for racial tolerance? If you’d even suggested that intent in the seventies you’d have been laughed out of a network pitch session. Nowadays? That’s actually a pretty compelling premise (though you’d have to start with Archie being a Clansman who slowly turns on his ‘associates’ and risks life and limb – so drama more than comedy).

I suppose what got me thinking about this was ultimately the discovery that Frank Drabont, the guy responsible for writing one of the finest dramatic screenplays ever crafted (go re-watch “The Shawshank Redemption” immediately if you didn’t flash to it at the mention of Drabont) is now producing a TV series about a post-apocalyptic-zombie-takeover which is focused primarily on how the ‘characters deal with the day-to-day difficulties of survival’. Man, can you say drama-heaven? Yeah, I knew you could. The best way to build tension between central characters is to put external pressure on them, and the end-of-the-freaking-world is about as intense as it gets. Give them a goal, force them to work (unwillingly and with opposing intentions) together, and you’ve got a great stage on which to play. I just wish I’d thought of it first. Then again, I still have “Warped”, and an insane AI that is determined to kill everyone at a moment’s notice, so perhaps I’m not doing so badly (yes, I’ll post it in the screenplay section Real Soon Now).

What I’m really getting at here is that theatrical motion pictures are destined to become spectacle rather than compelling entertainment. For human beings, real bottom-line entertainment is about learning – we spend our lives hungry to further our understanding of the people around us, to improve the ‘models’ we hold in our brains that inform our decisions. We are compelled to understand marginal personalities because we don’t encounter them daily and do not have readily available responses to them. We are fascinated by the Dexters and Stackhouses because we don’t have expertise in coping with those interactions otherwise. And so we watch.

“Quality” entertainment is really just a prophylactic that conceals learning and processing – we all seek a better understanding of the world around us (which, to a great degree, explains why “The Social Network” has been so successful – everyone is pretty much baffled by the Facebook phenomena). Good entertainment is really nothing more than cleverly disguised social education. The other sort of entertainment – spectacle – is what Hollywood has become expert in providing. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and fails to provide the illumination we crave.

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Notes on Nollywood

OK, so I’m being prolific today. That’s likely because I’m working on the fourth or fifth script outline that I’ve come up with in the past two months, and none of them are coming together. So I’m scribbling by way of avoiding the “I can’t come up with a working plot” monster.

However, I just watched an awesome documentary – “Nollywood Babylon” – about feature film production in Nigeria. Turns out that those industrious recyclers and pirates are also the third largest producers of “feature length movies” in the world after India and the United States. In 2008 some 2,500 movies were made. Now, to be fair, this is a bit deceptive because there is virtually no other visual entertainment produced in Nigeria, and these movies are mostly shot on video gear that’s been obsolete here for a decade – we’re talking 8mm consumer-grade standard-def analog tape. The production quality is terrible, and the copious visual effects are laughable (the still-image of someone’s happily-seated pet dog exploding out of a “witch” is beyond comedic).

What really caught me off guard, however, was the sincerity of the people involved. They’re really trying to tell their own stories – stuff that can’t be imported because it simply doesn’t exist outside their culture. They’re doing it on a per-project budget that rarely exceeds $15,000. And, at least in the case of the movie that the documentary crew primarily observed, they’re having a damn good time being passionate about their subject matter.

They’re not making art. Hell, the lowliest Roger Corman picture was shot better than any of these movies. But they’re telling stories that resonate with the audience and sell. Astoundingly, in Lagos (a city with fourteen million residents) there are only three cinemas, and those only show imported product. The only television is 100% state controlled and focused on disseminating propaganda. So the trade in indigenously produced product is limited to CD-video sold in open markets and screened either at home or in retail shops.

Consequently it made me contemplate Canadian cinema and wonder “why the hell doesn’t anyone even try”? I suppose the answer is evident – we don’t have a strong cultural identity (other than the Quebecois), and we’re forever doomed to compare anything we do to the stuff that comes out of Hollywood. Canadians automatically limit the scope of their creative vision to fit within what they perceive is the limit of the financial environment (you’ll never get a show off the ground unless it can be made with a Telefilm budget). While that is technically an accurate statement, it’s pretty damn tragic.

Canadians are good at making entertainment. People forget that James Francis Cameron (yes, that really is his middle name) was born in Kapuskasing and raised in Chippawa, Ontario. By the time his family relocated to LA (he was 17) he’d reportedly already imagined “The Abyss” and who knows what else. William Shatner… Canadian. Jim Carry… Canadian. A significant portion of “American” filmmakers, actors and technicians… Canadian. And every one of them had to move to the US before they could make a decent living. As did I. But I couldn’t stand it.

All right – this is turning into a rant, rather than what I’d intended, which was a positive comment about an interesting show…

Which was financed by the NFB.

Gotta love that little irony.

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Children of the Corn

So along with all the other “MasterChef” variants out there, the Australian licensors have unleashed “Junior MasterChef AU”, in which the contestants are all 8-12 years old.

OK, I’m not a parent, and don’t have any day-to-day contact with kids, so my initial reaction was “hmm – maybe a couple of steps above grilled cheese and smores”, which was about where I was at when I was that age (I wasn’t allowed to go near a stove until I was about twelve, and was not allowed to touch a power tool until I was fourteen, so I think my personal experience is probably somewhat skewed). I didn’t really start cooking creatively until I was living on my own dagnabbit…

So, it came as an absolute shock to watch a bunch of *children* produce dishes that are, in every way, equal if not superior to the dishes that have been produced by the adult MasterChef contestants I’ve seen. Steamed snapper with sweetened soy sauce and julienne veg by a ten-year-old… Perfectly prepared Thai fishcakes with sides by a NINE-YEAR-OLD.

Sure these kids aren’t going to be working “the line” in a professional kitchen any time soon, but they’re knocking out dishes that you’d happily pay for in a restaurant. While I was watching this I felt, in the words of Anthony Bourdain, like abandoning pretty much everything and just signing up for one of those “Drive the Big Rigs” courses. Yeah… Hauling produce cross-country is about all I’m good for if this is any indication.

But seriously – I’m just astounded, and I mean COMPLETELY astounded, watching these youngsters. They don’t *sound* the way I’ve imagined kids should sound – they’re just like adults in every respect except for size and corrective-dental-work. Maybe it’s because they’ve spent too much time watching cooking shows. Perhaps they’re parroting back the kinds of reactions they’ve seen from the adult contestants they obviously admire (when a ten-year-old says they’re “floored” because a well-known food critic has entered the room, it gives me pause – I didn’t even know that food critics existed at that age).

Then I wonder if perhaps it’s just fundamentally true that we can’t relate to younger generations from a personal perspective because their world is so wholly different from our own. You so often hear clichés like “they grow up so fast…” Perhaps the more accurate statement is “They know so much more than we did at that age.”

There are two things these kids lack – a desire to make their cooking needlessly complex, and the cynicism that abounds in adults. I don’t see that as a negative. It makes me feel old watching individuals who haven’t been broken by the world around them yet, and it also makes me feel a bit melancholy that I never had the opportunity to have children of my own.

Then again… with my luck I’d have ended up with a brilliant entrepreneurial twelve-year-old busily cooking Meth in the basement.

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Masterchef [Insert Country of Choice]

I watch cooking shows. Let’s be really clear here – I watch *a lot* of cooking shows. This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me – I’ve been obsessed with cooking for a very long time, and I take it pretty damn seriously — how many people do you know who buy twenty-pound bags of onions just to practice knife skills – the French Onion soup that results is just an inadvertent consequence of that activity (though it’s damn tasty).

For many years I’ve been a fan of the BBC show “Masterchef”. The format is fairly straightforward – amateur cooks from around Britain compete for a handful of “on air” places and then progress through a series of challenges. The winner is dubbed “Masterchef” and these individuals generally go on to professional culinary careers. It’s a typically British program – very sedate and laid back. The contestants are chosen prior to the main production, and their participation is based entirely on the quality of the food they produce. Most of them lack any sort of “typical” television charisma, so the charm of the show comes from watching really regular folks cook astoundingly good food with virtually no experience. Honestly, the program screams Home-Brew-BBC throughout, and I can’t imagine it being interesting to anyone outside the UK other than someone as food-crazy as I am.

But that turned out to not be entirely true. MasterChef developed a dedicated following in… Australia. Aware of this, an Australian production company acquired the rights to the “MasterChef” IP and went about re-inventing the property in a rather dramatic fashion. Instead of a compressed broadcast schedule that consisted entirely of highlights from the contest, the AU production locked the contestants in a “Top Chef”-like house, limiting their outside contact for the duration of competition. Then they staged their challenges on a daily basis over a three month period. And they recorded absolutely everything. The result? A single season of “Masterchef AU” is seventy-plus (yes, that seven plus a zero) episodes. The show is broadcast daily over a period of fourteen-to-sixteen weeks. It’s an insane amount of content.

A year after the first series of Masterchef AU aired, a New Zealand broadcaster caved in and created a local version. Lacking the resources of the AU production, Masterchef NZ duplicated the format of its’ AU parent, but condensed the program to a once-a-week experience. While this reduced audience involvement with the various participants, it didn’t eliminate it, and the NZ program proved to be a huge success with the local audience.

The NZ program, compacted to a “manageable” format, consequently ended up on the North American radar. The format had become condensed to a manageable, dramatic program. Casting was a no-brainer given the success of the AU program. The judges consist of a distant, silent chef who reserves judgment, an enthusiastic and experienced chef who supports the contestants, and a hyper-critical food master. Inevitably Gordon Ramsay was asked to participate (heck, he was likely involved from minute one).

Consequently, we now have “MasterChef US”. I don’t think it’s a horrible thing. Hell, any show that celebrates the skill of utterly unknown cooks is a good thing – it reminds us that anyone can cook a great meal – though it’s important to keep in mind that being able to cook does not make anyone great… Just that a great cook can emerge from anywhere (yes, I’m quoting “Ratatouille” here, but it’s appropriate).

What fascinates me is that a US audience is now watching a program which is based on an NZ format, which was derived from an AU show, which had its genesis in a BBC program. Damn! What does this mean for “original content”? You can work your ass off developing an amazing idea, but that hour of primetime broadcasting is probably not going to get allocated to your masterpiece. It’s going to go to a show that a handful of assholes like me made a sufficiently loud stink about. And there’s no guarantee the show will be any good. Hell, history suggests that it’ll probably stink. And “MasterChef US” is certainly not a masterpiece. It’s not terrible, but if you’ve got access to the Australian program then it’s little more than a poor imitation.

Damn.

I wish the US producers had the opportunity to create a show modeled more closely on the AU version of the program, rather than getting themselves stuck into the standard North American weekly format. A daily show would be innovative within the US marketplace, and would likely find a huge audience.

I guess it’ll happen when it happens. And that will likely be sooner rather than later. After all, they’re going to have to replace those failing soap operas eventually.

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The End of a Lasting Relationship

I had a passionate five year love affair with Battlestar Galactica. From my trepidations first date with the mini-series, though the inevitable ups and downs in our relationship, until that final moment when the whole thing just quietly fizzled out. It ended on my birthday.

The conclusion of a long-running show with complex interweaving plotlines must be terrifying to the people responsible for shepherding it to the inevitable conclusion. Most shows never see the end coming. A quick bullet to the brain ends them while nobody is looking. Occasionally, producers will see the writing on the wall – random rescheduling and preempted airings, low ratings, and the like – and will make an effort to wrap up as many loose ends as possible so that the fans won’t be left hanging. When the “Terminator” series got the axe at the end of its second season, the show-runners made a heroic effort to end the series gracefully. Ever optimistic, they still left the door cracked open just enough to allow them to continue if the opportunity ever arose – and if “Terminator: Salvation” had been a blockbuster hit, it might well have gotten a green light, but the film tanked and the TV series was officially deceased after the film’s opening weekend.

So, when producers have the foreknowledge that the next season of their show will be the last, you’d think they’d scheme and plot at the height of their ability. Battlestar had plenty of things going on, much of it operating on a human level, some of it verging into mystical territory. There were plenty of questions that needed answers, and some questions that were best left as mysteries.

Sci Fi (now going by the horrific re-brand Sy Fy so that they can justify airing even more non-genre reality programming) threw a spanner into the works early on by choosing to drag out the final season for an additional year by taking a ten month break between the first and second half, but that shouldn’t have had a huge impact on the production. All twenty episodes were filmed on a normal schedule, and Sci Fi just shelved the back half until they felt ready to say goodbye to their flagship cash-cow show.

The first half of the season was filled with strong episodes and lead to the discovery of a devastated Earth in the cliffhanger finale. Since I (and I suspect many others) had guessed that this would be the ultimate outcome of the *end* of the series, it seemed like a huge twist and a portent of even darker days to come.

And things got pretty dark. Dualla dead by her own hand, Zarek and Gaeta hauled in front of a firing squad. There was some pretty amazing stuff going on.

But at the same time I felt a growing sense of trepidation. As each episode aired and the conclusion drew closer, the show seemed unable to confront any of the big issues directly. We veered wildly as the story became focused on Hera, and spent a lot of time bouncing between ever more human Cylons and expository nonsense pouring out of the final five. Oh, and the valiant Galactica, which has survived direct nuclear strikes, hurtling through atmosphere, and countless Cylon assaults, has suddenly worn out.

I still had hope, right up to episode nineteen…

With two shows to go, the second-to-last episode spent its precious forty-four minutes in flashbacks that told us absolutely nothing about the situation at hand. It was a reminiscence, and indulgence that allowed the writers to present us viewers with some back stories of the central characters. Under any other circumstances I would applaud an episode like this – season three’s “Unfinished Business” (the boxing episode) was a highlight of the series for me.

But with the fate of the human race hanging in the balance, and precious little screen time left to tell that story, it wasn’t the right time for character building. In all fairness, I didn’t know at the time that the episode had been made as “filler” when the network had shifted gears and told the producers that they’d be allowed to air a two hour conclusion. What had been episode 19 suddenly became the first half of episode 20, and the vacant slot in the schedule had to be filled with something that could be shot quickly and cheaply.

With a combination of both expectation and fear I started watching the final show. I knew there were just too many things left unfinished to be dealt with properly in a mere ninety minutes. And, of course, I was right.

It all goes downhill pretty damn quickly. Skip past the flashbacks to the attack on the Cylon base – which is floating at the edge of a black hole (gee, the huge Cylon civilization seems pretty paltry). Glactica, fragile though she might be, rams nose first into the impregnable fortress. A moment later, Anders and the rest of the Five put the entire base to sleep. Wow! What an incredible solution! Ron Moore is a genius for coming up with that one — except he did it back in 1990 when the “Star Trek” episode “The Best of Both Worlds” aired. The only difference? The Cylon base doesn’t explode, suggesting that Ron has learned to restrain his god-like powers.

Within moments, Hera is rescued and Athena shoots Boomer (or maybe it was Boomer shooting Athena… they all look alike to me), and everyone runs back to Galactica. Then Hera wanders off in the middle of a firefight and is saved from marauding Cylons by Balter. It is revealed in this moment of crisis that the mysterious opera house door we’ve been seeing for the past few years is actually… [ponderous drum roll]… the entrance to the Galactica’s control room. Wow. That’s underwhelming.

Cavil has somehow managed to bypass all the defenses, reaching the CIC before most of the others, and catches hold of Hera before anyone can stop him. Human-hating Cavil quickly agrees to a cease fire and the Five agree to give him resurrection – except that in order to burn a DVD for him the Five have to link minds, which reveals Tori’s responsibility for the Chief’s wife’s death, and he’s so enraged that he immediately kills Tori and the DVD burner craps out.

While nobody could stop the chief, the folks in CIC are easily able to dispatch the remaining Cylons in the room, though Cavil inexplicably eats a bullet rather than put up a fight. That done, the hand of god intervenes and causes some nuclear missiles to spontaneously fire from a nearly destroyed Raptor, and the entire Cylon base (which is, may I remind you, sitting at the edge of a black freaking hole) starts to pop like a balloon in an oven.

Adama orders a jump, and Starbuck taps in the notes from the mysterious music that everyone’s been fixating on for the past year or two. And suddenly the Galactica is safe and sound above a nice little retirement community.

When everyone else arrives, Adama declares that all the ships will be destroyed and that the entirety of their civilization will go native – no soap, no medicine, a life of grueling manual labor, early death – and everyone agrees (perhaps some of them find hairy native pre-humans attractive).

Adama takes the last Raptor for himself (at least he’ll have somewhere to go when it starts raining) while most everyone else wanders away half-heartedly. Except for Starbuck, who vanishes into whatever higher plane of existence she was resurrected from.

Flash forward ten-thousand years as two gods in the guise of Six and Baltar roam around present day Earth making snarky comments.

Curtains down. Lights up. That’s all she wrote, folks.

So what, in the end, did I think of the show? It had a few touching moments, lots of explosions, and did an enormous disservice to a series that has told some of the most compelling stories I’ve watched on TV. If there was a singular error on the part of the producers it was in trying to pack all the big answers into a single show, rather than more effectively spreading them through the entire stretch of those last ten episodes.

A lesser evil is that they tried to be clever, to not present the fans with any of the more obvious potential answers. Let’s face it, there was an enormous amount of conjecture floating around the internet about the directions the story could have taken, and a few were pretty dang smart. The writers had obviously considered making Starbuck’s father the missing member of the Final Five, and had laid a few breadcrumbs pointing in that direction, but instead choose to bring back Ellen (which makes everything he went through after poisoning her seem sort of trivial) because that would be something “completely unexpected”. Sure it was unexpected, but it was unexpected because it made no sense (and led to the frankly ghastly scenes of Cavil ranting on about defective manufacturing).

In all, the show deserved a better end, perhaps a much gentler one at that. I’d have been happy to forgo the big space battle in exchange for a verbal fight – imagine what the show might have been like if the Humans and Cylons had actually tried to negotiate a true peace with words instead of cannons? Impassioned argument was always the hallmark of the show’s strongest scenes – need I remind anyone of Lee’s amazing monologue in the season three finale – and there was a tragic lack of it at the end of the series.

No, I can’t say I was happy with Galactica’s swan song – it was like an awkward last dinner with someone you’re breaking up with. At least I can look back at the series and mutter softly to myself “We’ll always have Paris…” and think about the good times.

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Why “Starship Troopers 3” Made My Head Explode

I wrote this as a private rant after seeing the movie, and one of the recipients was a long-time friend who was, at the time, managing editor of  “Rue Morgue Magazine”. She published it as a capsule review, though I’ve never actually seen the issue.

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In 1997 Paul Veerhoven turned Robert Heinlein’s science fiction masterpiece Starship Troopers into a blockbuster action picture. Along with amazing CGI bug battles, the film also managed to convey an anti-Fascist message cleverly and humorously. The film was only vaguely successful, and it was seven years before an ultra-cheap sequel got made and instantly forgotten. How cheap? The bugs looked like people.

And now there’s Starship Troopers 3: Marauder.

Casper (“What happened to my career?”) Van Dien reprises his role as John Rico from the 1997 original after wisely skipping the previous installment. Joining him is a cast of cannon fodder including Amanda (“I took my clothes off in a Ken Russel film”) Donhoe, who plays a scheming admiral, and Jolene (“Star Trek typecast me as a frigid bitch and now I inject collagen in my lips to get jobs”) Blaylock as the hard-assed starship captain.

Unlike Starship Troopers 2, this is not a no-budget movie. Some hard cash got spent on this sucker. Sure there are plenty of tragically bad visuals, most of which feature poorly animated bugs and giant killer robots. But some of the footage is slick enough that you’re momentarily fooled into thinking this is an actual Hollywood feature. Exploding heads? Awesome!

Like the first film, Marauders also appears to have some amusing social commentary to offer along with its cheese, primarily a lightly painted subtext that seems to be taking the piss out of conservative Christianity.

Then it all goes horribly wrong.

Without warning, right at the climax, the movie careens into an obscene display of rampant American Fundamentalism, transforming all the “amusing commentary” into serious statement. Lead characters fall to their knees praying for salvation and are miraculously rescued. Cue halo of shining stars around requisite Virgin Mary surrogate. Blaylock gets religion, and gets it bad. The forces of the Federation declare “God is on our side”! Cue montage of crucifix shaped barrels blasting bugs on the fiery battlefield. Dante would weep with joy.

Some might suggest that this is in the vein of Veerhoven’s original, which did such a great job of making Fascism look loony. But that’s not how it comes across, and if it was their intent then the filmmakers have failed miserably. Van Dien is apparently a “true believer”, and one wonders how much of his soul Ed Neumier sold just to get his director’s credit. Then again, maybe it’s his shtick too.

Frankly, flagrant fundamentalist propaganda makes me ill, but this direct-to-the-DVD-discount-bin picture also ends up embracing/endorsing the fascism that Verhoven tried so hard to diminish. The apparent moral of this story is that unthinking obedience is “what God wants.”

Now that’s scary.

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The Worst Thing About the Best

Inevitably, at the end of every year, we’re inundated with Top Ten lists. The ones I get most irritated by are the “Top Ten Films of the Year”, usually followed by a list of “Top Ten Films of All Time” which has been updated to include one or more of the titles from the current year. I hate these lists.

I’ve been a film fan from the age of ten, when I saw Star Wars and was truly awed for the first time ever. After that I devoured films, and structured my weekend expenses down to the penny so that I could afford to take a train into the local city center, watch two movies on a Saturday, and get back home – the exact amount that my allowance would allow me.

I considered myself fortunate that thanks to my height and appearance I was able to pass for an eighteen-year-old at the age of fourteen, and thus had little difficulty getting into R-rated films (quite a feat in Ontario, Canada, where an R-rating meant that you had to be adult to enter the theater – unlike our American neighbors who could get into the theater if accompanied by an adult).

The first time I flaunted the absurd film-viewing law was when I went to see “Outland”. Two hours later I raced to one of the first multiplexes to see “Altered States”. Many years have passed, and my perceptions of the universe have changed radically. “Outland” is still fun, though dated, but “Altered States” remains a favorite film.

I stumbled into a repertory theater at fifteen (these were the days before VCRs became commonplace) and it was a revelation. I spent the next two years heading over to watch movies on more nights than I can count, everything from classic drama to modern soft-core porn, all for ninety-nine cents a pop. On some occasions I was moved in a way that I’d never experienced at any other point in my life.

I also met the guy who, twenty-two years later, I still call my best friend – an usher at the time, who’s gone on to live as varied and unique life as my own. Movies were and remain an integral part of my life; they helped define who I am. But while I work in the film industry, my career is not directly connected to the films that my work influences, and I actually prefer it that way.

A lot of people have aspirations to be members of the production community. They envision a creative and fun workplace – after all, the end product is entertainment, so certainly the process must be exciting.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality of production, with few exceptions, is that it’s a hard and stressful job. Working on a film set usually means long days, weird hours, and a combination of intense boredom with intermittent periods of frenzied activity (often accompanied by people demanding that you get your job done and get out of the way faster than you possibly can). Although the pay is good while you’re working, you can go months between jobs.

Even if you manage to climb up the food chain and reach a moderately senior position, it’s no better. The stress increases, and any additional creative input you though you might have turns out to be subject to everything from budgetary constraints to the whim of a producer’s girlfriend.

The lesson is simple. Don’t work in the business because you love movies. Work in the business because you love making movies. There’s a big difference. I’m fortunate that I’ve found a niche where I can contribute to the process without having to create any of the products themselves.

Now let’s talk about movies.

My favorite film of all time is “Singing in the Rain”. If you’ve never seen it, and a surprisingly large number of folks these days haven’t (though virtually everyone has been exposed to the famous clip of Gene Kelly performing the title song, which was further immortalized in “A Clockwork Orange”), it’s the story of the budding romance between a film star and a chorus girl, set in the early nineteen-twenties, at the precise moment that talking pictures emerged. The movie is funny, romantic, and all-out wonderful, and the musical numbers are all classics.

My second most favorite film of all time is “Galaxy of Terror”, a low budget picture that emerged from Roger Corman’s production company in 1981. The story centers around a team of space explorers sent to rescue the crew of a doomed mission on an alien planet. As they search for survivors, the rescuers begin dying mysteriously, victims of their innermost fears. It’s not particularly gory, nor will it ever be considered a masterpiece. But it’s a movie that was made by talented people who wanted to do the best they could with what they had to work with. Factoid: The second unit director was a young Canuck named James Cameron, who went on to eventually make a movie about a big boat hitting an iceberg.

That these two pictures are so utterly different, virtually from opposite sides of the planet in terms of their audience and appeal, probably says a lot about me. I watch many different movies because each appeals to an aspect of my personality, though none have ever managed to caress every part of my psyche.

Aside from “Singing in the Rain” and “Galaxy of Terror”, I don’t have a top-ten list of my favorite flicks. Unlike the AFI, I’m not interested in judging a movie based on its technical merit or social relevance. My criteria are entirely personal, and my favorite films are a consequence of how I feel on any day that question is asked.

In the broadest sense, if you asked when I was feeling particularly happy, I’d probably rattle off films like “The Evil Dead II”, “Ghost in the Shell”, “The Seven Samurai”, “The Third Man”, “Dead Alive”, and “Clerks”.

However, if you asked me when I was feeling particularly frustrated, my a list might include “Boogie Nights”, “Citizen Kane”, “Run Lola Run”, “Night of the Living Dead”, and “The Producers”.

So you see, my choices are context-sensitive, and not always consistent with the apparent tone of the picture. I think that’s probably the case for most people.

Which brings me back to those top ten lists, because by implication these are lists which are telling you what to think, telling you that your personal list is wrong. Even if you consciously disagree, a seed of doubt may be planted. Maybe, you think, it’d be weird to tell people that you liked “Showgirls” more than “Singing in the Rain”…

Movies are art – they speak to everyone in different ways. For any film you think of as trash, there’s someone out there who has it right up there at number one on their list. So, I’m just going to continue ignoring those top-ten lists. Mine remains ‘subject to change without notice’.

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