Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Les Misérables" Review - Hangin' With Mr. Hooper

Continuing my trend of discussing music (in a manner of speaking), I'd like to review the film "Les Misérables", which I saw last night.

This was a film that I was very much looking forward to seeing since the initial teaser trailer. "Les Mis" has always been my favorite non-Sondheim musical and one of my favorite stories in general. As my review of "Cloud Atlas" probably made clear, I'm a sucker for huge, sprawling stories involving a huge cast of characters, particularly when the characters are neither decidedly evil nor good.

I would honestly prefer the book over the musical simply because the musical does a couple of things I dislike. First of all, it overemphasizes the religious motifs a LOT. Yes, Jean Valjean became a more religious man after being saved by Myriel, but what I liked about the book was that Valjean initially refused to heed Digne's command. He went back into the world with no intention of changing. He then steals a 40-sous coin from a little boy, who then runs away. However, to his shock, he finds that he is immediately remorseful of this action. He is unable to find the boy and is consumed by guilt. He then discovers that his theft had been reported to the authorities, forcing him to flee Digne. In the musical, he just has a existential crisis, finds Jesus, and tears up his papers because apparently God wants him to break the law.

For similar reasons, I prefer the version of Javert in the book to the one in the musical. Don't get me wrong, Javert is still my favorite character in the musical, but he is somewhat cheapened by the song "Stars", which casts a religious light on Javert's actions and beliefs. It's not that I'm against religion, but part of what makes Javert interesting to me is that he does his duty because he believes the law is an infallible good, not for some divine reward after death. To Javert in the book, the law might as well be his god, and that makes his actions all the more poignant and terrifying. That being said, I get that the musical is trying to draw parallels between Valjean and Javert and making them both religious accomplishes that and also saves time.

Even so, "Les Mis" is a spectacular musical and I had been wanting to see it filmed for quite some time.

However, filmed musicals have a bit of a nasty track record as of late. "Sweeney Todd" was passable at best, "The Producers" was god-awful, "RENT" was worthless with the exception of Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson (and also for the soundtrack, which I'm ashamed to admit I prefer to the Original Broadway Cast version, mostly because I can't stand Rubin-Vega's voice), "Mamma Mia!" sucked before it was filmed, "The Phantom of the Opera" requires heaping helpings of irony to enjoy (though I admit I do enjoy it)... if it weren't for "Hairspray" and "Chicago", the past decade would have been a complete wash for filmed adaptations of Broadway shows.

I've also felt that the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood has gotten a lot less healthy recently. If you look at Broadway's current list of musicals, about 30% of them are adaptations of movies. While that may not sound too bad, 100% of the current Broadway musicals are based on something. And really, if you think about it, when's the last time we had a mainstream Broadway musical that told a completely original story with completely original music? "Avenue Q" springs to mind, but it definitely takes heavy amounts of inspiration for the works of Jim Henson. "Urinetown" fits the bill, but that's from a decade ago. I get that Broadway isn't as popular as it once was and the easiest way to get an audience is to adapt something they're already familiar with, but maybe if the budgets of the shows weren't inflated to a ridiculous degree (which "Les Mis" and other Cameron Mackintosh musicals are admittedly largely responsible for), they could afford to take more chances. OK, tangent over.

My point is, in the past decade a lot of otherwise good musicals were turned into awful movies, and otherwise good movies were turned into awful musicals.

Had I heard about "Les Mis" before I saw the teaser trailer, I likely would have been incredibly skeptical, but thankfully I didn't hear about it until I saw an interview with Anne Hathaway where she discussed it and they showed bits from the teaser. So my first impression for this film was Anne Hathaway's stunning performance.

Perhaps my expectations were a little too high to start with, but the more I saw, the more I liked. As much as I disliked Tom Hooper's "A King's Speech" -- which turned the life of a fascinating historical figure into an oversimplified feel-good story about how a king conquering his speech impediment also somehow fixed the classism of 20th century Britain and defeated Hitler -- I gave him a lot of rope here.

As a fan, my standards for a "Les Mis" movie were maybe a little too specific. "I Dreamed a Dream" needed to be painful. "Master of the House" needed to be funny. "A Little Fall of Rain" needed to make me cry. Gavroche needed to sing at least a tiny bit of "Little People". "Javert's Suicide" needed to send chills down my spine. And to the movie's credit, most of these standards were met.

Anne Hathaway's version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is easily the best I've ever seen, and we're talking about one of the most overdone showtunes in recent memory (thanks, Susan Boyle). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are inspired as the Thenardiers. Back in "Sweeney Todd", I was convinced that Helena Bonham Carter didn't have the chops to play a part as bombastic as Mrs. Lovett, but "Les Mis" pretty much convinced me that she's either improved a lot in the past 5 years, or Tim Burton just sucks at directing musicals. As for Sacha Baron Cohen, he was pretty much the only actor in "Sweeney Todd" that was worth a damn and he's just as good here (he's also the only character who actually attempts to replicate a French accent). While Samantha Barks' Éponine is very good and Eddie Redmayne's Marius is a revelation (more on that later), "A Little Fall of Rain" didn't really get much out of me... though it was still good. Gavroche not only sang a few lines of "Little People" (though the full song is understandably cut), but he kicked a ton of ass. "Javert's Suicide" on the other hand was... awful.

OK, let's talk about Russell Crowe. I'm not entirely sure how he got the part of Javert. He doesn't really look the part, he's not a very good singer, and he's not exactly the Oscar Bait he once was. I mean, it was very impressive back in 1999-2001 where he got nominated three years in a row, but it's 2012 now. He hasn't even been in a critically acclaimed film since 2007. The movie already has enough Oscar Bait in Tom Hooper, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Whatever the reason, Russell Crowe ended up with the role of Javert and he's easily the weakest part of the movie.

That's not to say Russell Crowe absolutely sucks in the role. I've certainly seen worse performances of Javert in my lifetime and if nothing else, Russell Crowe's interpretation is definitely in-character and consistent. His singing isn't even that bad. The problem is mostly that everyone else in the film is just so well-suited to their roles that Russell Crowe sticks out like a sore thumb. Javert is meant to be intimidating and impressive, but Crowe almost never manages it. Thankfully, he actually does a decent job during "The Confrontation". When Jean Valjean starts to try and smooth-talk his way out of getting arrested, Crowe responds by unsheathing his sword in the least efficient way possible. Also, his delivery of the "I come from the gutter too!" line is probably the best he gets.

His singing, while rarely ever awful is almost always flat and lifeless. Yes, Javert is meant to be rigid and cold, but he still has a deep passion for his duty. The best Javert performers roar like lions, but Crowe whines like a dog. Since we don't believe his passion, his suicide is kind of inconsequential and almost funny. I shouldn't enjoy seeing my favorite character die.

That being said, Russel Crowe is not the only part of this movie that struggles. The other big issue is with the way it is filmed.

When we got to "I Dreamed a Dream", I was blown away with how utterly perfect Hathaway's performance was, and what's even more impressive is that she sang it live and all in one take. It made the performance really moving and involving.

The problem is that this is how Tom Hooper films almost every damn scene.

Now, I love that Hooper decided to go with live singing. If nothing else, this film will hopefully set the standard for all movie musicals going forward. Live singing is a vast improvement over lip-syncing and it's a wonder it took this long to seriously attempt it in a big-budget movie musical.

I also like that a good deal of the performances are done in one take, allowing them to feel more consistent.

But almost every scene can be summed up like this: Extreme close-up on the person who is singing, follow them around while they pace, but never cut to a wide shot, and then finally cut to a sweeping crane shot as they hold their last note at the end.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. "Master of the House" is wonderfully shot and actually makes use of the gorgeous set design. Aside from that, every time someone is singing, we just get one handheld shot of their head for the duration. And while this works well for moving, introspective songs like "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", it just feels lazy the rest of the time.

I think I get what Hooper was going for. He was trying to make the film stand on the performances of the actors alone rather than on overproduced set pieces and stuff. That's all well and good, but if he wanted to do a version of "Les Mis" that stood on the strength of the actors alone, he probably should have just directed a version for the stage rather than for film. Film is a visual medium and with rare exception, there's not a lot to see here. It seems like there's a lot of really good set design, but we almost never get to see much of it. It's almost like Hooper was trying to film it like a documentary 95% of the time.

Douglas Ingram, the guy who storyboarded "Les Mis", also storyboarded "Captain America: The First Avenger" as well as a few other movies with a good sense of visual style. I imagine he drew a lot of really excellent, detailed storyboards for this film. Then Hooper set them on fire and made Ingram watch as he laughed maniacally.

Whenever the camera decides to detach from the actors, we get some really cool shots. There's this one shot that we see both in "Stars" and "Javert's Suicide" where Javert walks along the edge of a high place. It's a really cool visual cue. There's also a hilariously awesome shot in "Stars" where Javert is standing next to a ridiculous stone statue of an eagle or something. It actually made me laugh, but I was honestly just glad to see something other than Russell Crowe's sweaty pores. Thank God this movie wasn't in IMAX.

Russell Crowe and camerawork aside, there's a lot of excellent stuff here. As I mentioned, most of the cast is absolutely amazing, but I want to make particular note of newcomer Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Gavroche is a tricky character. Most productions I've seen usually cast some random kid and don't even get him to sing much, which is why "Little People" is often cut from the show. However, 12-year-old Daniel Huttlestone is fucking amazing in the role. There's this extra bit that Gavroche sings in "Look Down" that I think comes from the original French version but isn't included in any English version I've ever seen, but I absolutely loved it. Something about a cockney-sounding street urchin pontificating about French history made me actually give a crap about their pitiful rebellion. I'm calling it right now. Daniel Huttlestone will be huge when he grows up.

Amanda Seyfried is excellent as Cosette (I'm not usually a fan of too much vibrato, but she somehow nails it) even though Cosette is really kind of a boring character. During "A Heart Full of Love", a fucking butterfly shows up out of nowhere when she starts singing. I wouldn't be surprised if that wasn't planned and butterflies just naturally appear whenever Amanda Seyfried starts singing.

The biggest shocker for me personally was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. I typically loathe Marius, mostly because he's a privileged, naive rich kid convinced that his bland love story is the greatest ever told and gets Éponine killed. But for whatever reason, I found myself actually giving a shit about him. Maybe it was because Gavroche made me give a shit about the rebellion. Maybe it was because Enjolras and the other revolutionaries are all played wonderfully. Or maybe it was just because Eddie Redmayne was just that good.

It's really hard to talk about anything other than the cast in this movie because, as I mentioned, that's pretty much all this movie has. It may sound nit-picky, but because Tom Hooper apparently can't give a shit about the world outside of these characters' heads, I found myself having a hard time giving a shit about the characters. Even the characters I normally liked like Éponine generally left me feeling "meh". Hooper refused to contextualize most of the movie. I'm generally fond of directors that try and focus on the actors, but because each character is generally shot in a vacuum, we have a lot of really well-refined ingredients (and Russell Crowe) that are never really put together in a convincing way. Marius and Éponine work really well on their own, but during "A Little Fall of Rain", it feels like this was the first time they met even though they shared a number of scenes together, mostly because they were almost never in the same frame at the same time before that moment.

It's not just about getting sick of seeing the actors' faces for 3 hours. It's about Hooper's unwillingness to actually tell a story beyond what it written on the page.

Hooper deserves credit for making some bold choices. Some of the new bits work really well and the decision to do live singing really paid off in spades, but those sorts of choices could have been made by an executive producer. A director needs to try and put together a cohesive narrative and with a sprawling epic like "Les Mis", that's quite a huge undertaking. I wouldn't have minded if Hooper tried and missed the mark a little bit. I usually don't mind when directors fall a little bit short of their huge ambition. But it felt like Hooper didn't try at all. If you gave a robot a steadycam, the movie would have looked just about the same.

All in all, I'd say the movie is worth seeing if you're a fan of the musical or if you've always been curious to see what the show is like. I'd say this is a faithful adaptation of the show, if nothing else. I don't, however, think it stands particularly well on its own as a film. If you don't give a shit about this story going into it, the movie won't do much to convince you otherwise.

Still, I don't think we'll ever see a better film adaptation of the musical in our lifetimes. We may see a better film adaptation of the story itself, but I think that the only way you'll get to see a better version of the musical is if you go see it at the West End.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Album Review: Coheed and Cambria - "The Afterman: Ascension"

Of all the things I'm passionate about, the one thing I've probably talked about the least on this blog is music. I do love music a great deal, but perhaps the reason I don't talk about it as much is because I'm not really all that good at it. I mean, pretty much all of my teenage years were spent learning about music, but I wouldn't say I ever really had a particular gift or talent for it. I worked at it, sure, but not nearly as much as I should have if I wanted to be serious about it. So once I got into college, I stopped performing and now music is something I enjoy privately. Perhaps that will change at a later point in my life, but for now, I've got enough to keep myself busy.

Music as Abstraction

One of the reasons taking music seriously has always been difficult for me is because I'm always apprehensive about showing an unfiltered version of myself to people I'm not 100% comfortable with. I can perform on a stage fine so long as I've practiced and prepared. I can practice in an isolated room with other people that I know without problems because they are usually playing with me and we are all learning the piece together. But performing music at home by myself where other people can hear me make mistakes and replay the same problem area over and over is really difficult for me. It was hard enough when I was at home with my family, but as soon as I started living in dorms and apartments, the idea of practicing music where complete strangers could hear me just petrified me.

Of all art, music is one of the most transparent in regards to its creation. In order to develop a finished product, you must first develop a series of imperfect versions. If you make a mistake, you have to play the entire piece from the beginning to know whether or not you've got it down. At least with writing, you're able to keep it to yourself until it has gotten to a point where you are ready to share it. With music, anyone within earshot will hear your growing pains. If writing shows you at your most refined, music shows you at your most vulnerable.

For that reason, serious musicians tend to be very open people. They tend to be confident, passionate, daring, and honest. This comes with the territory of being able to develop and practice music while other people listen. However, interestingly enough, the opposite tends to be true as well. Sometimes, musicians are very reserved and can only express themselves through music. This was actually one thing I liked about the earlier episodes of "Glee". The characters were marginalized and socially awkward so they depended on music that resonated with them to express themselves. They sang the things they couldn't say. This was of course before their song choices were determined less by character necessity and more by the Billboard charts of that week, but I digress.

The point is, sometimes we need a certain level of abstraction to express ourselves or talk about our thoughts and feelings, and music is no exception. I also think this is why sci-fi/fantasy tends to be popular with young, awkward people. It's hard for us to explore our feelings, so we need a level of unreality to separate ourselves enough to be comfortable with it. A down-to-earth drama about a boy finding himself and taking up his estranged father's legacy? Sounds like it could be an Oscar nominee, but it's a little too "real" for me. Turn that boy into a space-faring psychic with a laser sword and turn his father into a cyborg? Suddenly you have "Star Wars". A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Enough Of That, Talk About Coheed!

This brings me to Coheed and Cambria, one of my personal favorite bands. I know a lot of people who don't like them, and it's for good reason. Front-man Claudio Sanchez has a very strange voice. I'd be inclined to call his singing "bad", but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. He has an impressive amount of control over his voice, he generally has a good sense of tone, and he has a great deal more passion than almost any other living singer I can think of. His voice may be tight and squeaky, his pronunciations may be bizarre, and he may put far too much strain on his vocal cords, but dammit, his voice is his. He absolutely owns his bizarre vocal quality and is completely unashamed of it.

Other than the voice, it's also reasonable to criticize CoCa for having nonsensical lyrics. Sentences will change tenses at the drop of a hat, certain words will be used again and again in song after song, and some of the imagery is Insane Clown Posse levels of what-the-fuck. Beyond that, CoCa's albums all center around a mythology called "The Amory Wars" and even if you do fully understand what is happening in each album, you still won't completely get how each song connects to it. I've read all of the Amory Wars comic books and I still can't for the life of me figure out what the hell is going on in some of those songs.

So why do I love them so much? Well, first of all, go ahead and fault the vocals all you want, but no one can deny that the instrumentals of pretty much all of their albums are fucking amazing. Even people who absolutely hate CoCa still can't deny how awesome the opening instrumentals on "Welcome Home" are. Second of all, I don't generally like listening to individual songs. I'm more of an album person. And when it comes to CoCa, you pretty much HAVE to listen to their stuff in album form. Each album has a different story (or a part of a story) and many of the songs bleed into one another. Sure, certain songs can stand well enough on their own, but most of their songs only work within the context of the album as a whole. I love the crap out of "Wake Up", but only if it comes directly before "The Suffering".

The last reason I love Coheed and Cambria is because... well, remember what I said earlier about levels of abstraction? CoCa has about three levels of abstraction going on. First of all, Claudio Sanchez is a pretty reserved guy. He's changed a bit in recent years, being a little more open about his inspiration and separating himself from being just a musician, but he still isn't big on talking during a concert and when he tries it usually ends in embarrassment. Plus he's kind of a huge nerd (in case the sci-fi and comic books weren't a dead giveaway) so it makes sense that he talks about his feelings through music in the context of a space opera. Pretty much all of the CoCa albums are inspired from his real life, then he takes the basic elements of those personal stories or feelings and changes them around so that they fit into the Amory Wars narrative. Then that narrative is, by itself, abstracted through the comic books and other media that explain the narrative in a simpler, chronological context. You can't really listen to the albums and get a clear understanding of what the hell is going on in the story and, inversely, reading the comic books doesn't give you a complete understanding of the songs either.

To use a song from the recent album as an example, "Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute" is about the departure of band member Michael Todd, who got addicted to drugs and convicted for armed robbery (yeah, that was pretty fucked up). If you take away any names and specific mythology from the song, it's fairly easy to see the connections. In the context of "The Amory Wars", however, it's about a character named Domino who becomes a famous prize fighter but gets swept away in drugs and mob bosses and ends up getting his brother killed before killing himself, becoming absorbed into a mystical energy force called the Keywork (more on that in a second). And the only reason I know all this is because the deluxe version of this album came with a little book that explains the mythology (probably because Claudio knew that it would a long time until this stuff got covered by the comics) and because Claudio did a thing on where he talked about the real-life inspiration for each of the songs.

A Brief History of Heaven's Fence

Just to help you understand things a bit better, I'm going to give a quick run-down of the story behind "The Amory Wars" and the band itself. Essentially, all these stories take place in a planetary system called Heaven's Fence. It's a system of 78 planets that do not orbit around a star. In fact, they do not move at all. They are instead all held together by the aforementioned Keywork, a cosmic force made up of the souls of the dead. The Keywork binds them together, keeps them stable, makes life possible, keeps the stars from obliterating them, etc. The bulk of the stories thus far have followed Claudio Kilgannon (gee I wonder who he's supposed to represent), the child of the titular Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon. Coheed and Cambria were cyborgs developed to be used as weapons for... look, it's a long story, but suffice it to say that they escaped their lives, had their memories erased, and started a family. Then shit caught up with them and they were forced to kill all their children except Claudio and then died in a massive fight that fucked with the Keywork, allowing 9 planets and one of the suns to go free, turning into a solar system. This was all orchestrated by a dude called Wilhelm Ryan who is basically Alien Space Hitler. It turns out that Claudio is destined to defeat Ryan and then destroy the Keywork, in turn destroying all life in Heaven's Fence.

The first four albums all focus around Claudio's journey, which at this point is finished, though I honestly have no clue how it all pans out. Claudio Sanchez has been pretty tight-lipped about the specifics regarding the fourth album and we likely won't know how it all turned out until he gets around to writing the comics for it, but if I was to hazard a guess, I'd say that he either ends up fulfilling his destiny and destroying the Keywork for the sake of the souls trapped within it, leaving only the 9 planets which end up becoming our solar system (making this story essentially an origin for the world as we know it) or he ends up sacrificing himself and using his limitless power to fuel the Keywork on his own, allowing the other souls to go free and saving Heaven's Fence.

The fifth album acts as a prequel, detailing the lives of Coheed and Cambria before they lost their memories and started a family, as well as Wilhelm Ryan's rise to power.

The newest album, "The Afterman: Ascension" is the first part of a double album and it is also a prequel, but more on that later.

It's a very weird universe, at once very dark but also completely bonkers and pulpy.

Boy, That Sounds Really Fucking Stupid

Now it's easy to call this pretentious, and you might not be wrong. If Claudio wanted to write a song about Michael Todd, why dress it up into some thinly-veiled meta-narrative? Or if he just wanted to write songs about a sci-fi mythology, why not be more explicit and make that narrative the focus of the album? Make it more like a rock opera in the same vein as "The Protomen" or something.

It might seem like everything is really half-baked, and I can't really blame you for thinking that. After all, an author shouldn't have to sit down and explain to you what he meant when he wrote something in order for you to enjoy it.

But that's just it. Yes, understanding all the little details of each album is difficult and requires a great deal of material outside of the context of the album itself, but you don't need to understand those things to enjoy the album. The album is still great even if you haven't the slightest clue what is going on. If you can get used to Claudio's unique vocals, there is some undeniably excellent music here on the surface.

All of the extra levels of abstraction don't detract from the work. They actually give it a greater sense of depth. When I listen to a good song (or even a great song), once I learn all the lyrics and pick up on all of the imagery and fully understand the emotion behind it, I'll likely put it down for a long time and probably only listen to it occasionally. But with CoCa, there's always a sense of mystery or discovery surrounding each and every song. Understanding what each element represents for Claudio Sanchez and what it also represents in his fictional universe is an unsolvable puzzle that will leave me forever mesmerized. Even though the comics fill in a lot of the blanks, there are a lot of things left unsaid that will always allow the albums to retain their sense of wonder.

On top of that, the levels of abstraction allow Claudio to be very open and honest in a way that few musicians are. My personal favorite album from CoCa is "Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness" because it's Claudio's most emotionally vulnerable work. In it, he writes himself into the story as The Writing Writer, who is essentially the God of Heaven's Fence, who has to decide whether or not to kill the character Ambellina, partially to make his story work but also to help him get over his recently failed relationship. The Writing Writer ends up writing himself into the story as an omnipotent being that kills Ambellina and forces Claudio Kilgannon to accept his destiny. In real life, Claudio Sanchez had hit a rough patch with his then-girlfriend (they eventually worked things out and now they're married). So basically, in order to deal with his own relationship issues, he wrote himself into his story as a character who writes himself into a story to take vengeance upon an analog for his lost love in order to deal with the pain and to help a character who ALSO acts as his analog to accept his destiny. You can't get much more convoluted than that, and yet it somehow works specifically because Claudio allows enough space for reflection and self-assessment. Rather than just write his girlfriend into the story and kill her, he chose to write a writer who would do it for him. This extra layer of abstraction allows us to see his full intention while also acting as a barrier to keep him comfortable and emotionally honest. It creates a separation between the art and the artist without cheapening the raw emotional power of those feelings.

When a singer writes a song about a bad relationship, it's hard for them not to sound petty. Some musicians can work it out if they're clever. Gotye managed it in "Somebody That I Used To Know" by including the perspective of the woman. Jonathan Coulton managed it in "Not About You" by using heavy amounts of irony, emphasizing how petty it is. But in general, it's hard to write a song about a bad relationship without it coming off as pathetic or mean-spirited. The songs in "Good Apollo" are not really all that nuanced on their own. They are every bit as petty, pathetic, and sometimes downright misogynistic as any other stupid emo break-up songs. But because of the context of the album, I don't come away from it feeling like Claudio actually hated his then-ex-girlfriend. I simply see it as a side of the pain he was going through at the time that he expresses through song. It's a snapshot of who he was in that moment rather than just some vague emotion surrounding it.

OK, We Get It, Review the Album Already

Which brings us to "The Afterman: Ascension". Probably one of the shortest album names CoCa has ever had. It is also the first part of a double album, the second half of which comes out in February.

The in-canon story behind this album is actually relatively easy to sum up, at least when compared to some of their other work. This is the story of Sirius (pronounced "SI-rus" because Claudio sometimes pronounces words weirdly for reasons I can't quite comprehend) Amory, the man who learns about the nature of the Keywork. His wife asks him not to go investigating it, but he does it anyway. In the first album he falls into the Keywork. In the second album, he falls out of it. While in the Keywork, he discovers that it's inhabited by all of the dead souls from Heaven's Fence, a number of which temporarily possess him and force him to experience their lives.

That is pretty much the whole story. An astronaut falls into a big glowy thing, weird shit happens, and then he falls out of it. Most of the songs are about individual characters (the "entities") that possess Amory during the middle bits and have little to no relevance beyond that one song.

Similarly, each song has a very specific correlation to an event in Claudio Sanchez's life. Rather than making the whole album about a certain aspect of his life story, this album comes off as more as a series of short anecdotes that often share a similar theme of love and loss. As such, this is one of those albums where Claudio is very open about specifically what each song means in all contexts.

From a musical side, this is the first album without Michael Todd on bass (because drugs and prison) and it's also the return of former drummer Josh Eppard since his departure after "Good Apollo". As a result, this album feels very light on the bass, but it also feels more rhythmically familiar than the previous two albums did. I loved Chris Pennie ("Guns of Summer" is a fucking powerhouse because of him), but he was perhaps a little too aggressive to really match the tone from CoCa's earlier years. The return of Josh Eppard feels right and I hope he sticks around. I also hope that either Michael Todd gets his act together or CoCa finds a new bassist that they're comfortable enough with to let him/her experiment a bit more.

Like most CoCa albums, each layer of "The Afterman: Ascension" works well enough on its own. The music by itself is definitely a step forward in terms of style and I very much look forward to heard the second half come February. The story is simple and interesting, which is rare for CoCa, but it doesn't sacrifice the level of emotional honesty that we're used to getting from Claudio. I actually think it would work well as an entry point for anyone interested in learning about the band. It's certainly more accessible than most of their other work. The songs work well enough on their own and the occasional robot voice talking about the entities is just enough to give the casual listener the impression that something deeper is going on beneath the surface, begging to be discovered. And that's really the strength of this whole "concept album" approach that Claudio takes with his writing. If you just want to listen to the music, you'll be fine, but if you want to go deeper, there's pretty much no end to how complex it will get.

If I were to find fault with this album, my first complaint is simply that it's too short, but that's understandable since it's part of a double album. My only other complaint is just that I don't get the impression that Claudio tried very hard with most of the lyrics. Some songs are better than others, but I'm starting to get tired of him using "hurt" as a noun rather than a verb. Dude needs to crack open a thesaurus more often is all I'm saying.

As for the individual songs, it's hard for me to pick standouts since I generally judge CoCa albums as a whole, but obviously they are very proud of "Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute" since it's the second song on the album, despite being the first part in a four-part sequence that doesn't come until later (not that CoCa has ever been known for chronological consistency), and since it deals with touchy subject matter. It also has a decent music video.

As a fan, it's obviously tough to deal with the loss of another long-time member of the band, particularly now that Eppard is back, and a part of me hopes that in a few years, the whole family will be back together again, but at the same time, what Mic did was far worse than what Josh did and I wouldn't blame Claudio if he refuses to work with him again, particularly since this seems to have cut a lot deeper than the situation with Josh did.

It's also a testament to the style of the band that they can deal with such fresh wounds in a way that doesn't burden the music with uncomfortable drama and still manages to feel genuine. So if I was to pick a favorite song, it would probably be Domino.

If I was to pick a least favorite song in the album, it would probably be a toss-up between "Goodnight, Fair Lady", which is a really catchy and enjoyable song about...a date-rapist (-_-) and "Key Entity Extraction II: Holly Wood the Cracked", a rather lackluster song about a psychotic and obsessive fan. I'd probably go with "Holly Wood" just because it's kind of the low-point of the album for me musically (it's very atonal for the most-part and a little overproduced), but "Goodnight, Fair Lady" is one of those times where learning more about the underlying story of the song actually lessened my enjoyment of it. I mean, Claudio's had songs about creepers before, but "Goodnight, Fair Lady" makes me feel guilty for enjoying it. Ah well.

So would I recommend the album? Well, yeah. If you don't care about the sci-fi bullshit, that's fine because if you don't get too caught up in the lyrics, there's still some really solid prog rock music here. If you want to get into the mythos, this is probably a decent entry point. If you're just fishing for singles, I'm not sure if you're looking in the right place, but there's a couple standalone gems here too.

Is it for everyone? No. But the great thing about music is that it's very easy to know whether or not you like a song. Just listen to it. Like it? Don't like it? It's up to you. But I definitely recommend you give it a try.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Wii U is a Success... Now What?

Earlier this year, I talked a lot about how the success or failure of the Wii U would essentially give us a road map for how the next generation of gaming consoles is going to pan out.

Well, the Wii U is pretty much without question a complete success. However, it's also worth noting that the Wii U's graphical power is about what everyone assumed it would be. While it can certainly stay level with the current generation of games, any games made with next-gen graphics would probably have to be scaled back a bit.

In my previous article, I said that the benchmark for the next generation would likely be Unreal Engine 4. Unreal is one of the more popular commercial tools used for AAA franchises (Arkham Asylum, Gears of War, Borderlands, Mortal Kombat, BioShock, XCOM, just to name a few), and one of the major reasons the Wii failed to garner 3rd party support was because of its inability to run Unreal Engine 3 without some serious sacrifices.

The good news is, the Wii U can play Unreal Engine 3 games with absolutely no problems whatsoever. The bad news is, while the Wii U will be able to play Unreal Engine 4 games, it comes with a lot of caveats. Don't be too misled by the title of the post I just linked which reads, "Unreal Engine 4 confirmed to run on Wii U." The fact is, while Unreal Engine 4 can run on the Wii U, it's only because the engine itself is designed to be scalable. In other words, a game made on Unreal Engine 4 will be portable to the Wii U, but it will probably have to be dumbed down quite a bit.

In fairness, this is still an improvement over the position of the Wii. At least the prospect of Unreal Engine 4 working on a lower powered device isn't almost laughable to Epic Games. But this basically means that if a game is designed with Unreal Engine 4 for a device with more power than the Wii U, the Wii U port would likely require a lot of resources to scale down and the end result would likely be graphically inferior.

So now that we know where the new system stands, let's take a closer look at where we're headed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Star Trek: Who the Hell is Benedict Cumberbatch Playing?

So "Star Trek Into Darkness". Teaser trailer. Go.

It's an OK teaser. Nothing particularly exciting. Then again, I wasn't really excited about the last "Star Trek" movie until it came out, so I don't really think it's a major strike against it. I guess J.J. Abrams trailers aren't really exciting for me.

But the thing everybody is talking about (and has been talking about since production started) is who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing.

The most common theory is that it's Khan. People who think it isn't Khan typically put their chips down on Gary Mitchell. Why? Well because Simon Pegg said that it wasn't Khan and then later said that it was Gary Mitchell. NOTE: It occurs to me that this second link is actually Karl Urban, not Simon Pegg. Oops. My bad. Please ignore the following stupidity.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe Simon Pegg's first statement, but not necessarily his second. As the resident nerd-celebrity in the cast, Simon understands how nerds function. He knows what rumors like this do to fandoms and that failing to address them makes them fester like a gangrenous wound. For example, when Marvel Studios neglected to reveal the identity of the alien race in "Avengers", fans obsessed over it needlessly and then it turned out to not matter in the slightest. Personally, I think that the rest of the production team was keen to just let the nerds think that it was Khan because it wasn't really important and if they weren't fixated on that, they might catch the scent of something actually important to the story. Still, Simon Pegg pays a lot more attention to nerds than probably most of the rest of the people involved with the film, so he probably just got really sick of everyone obsessing over it and saying how including Khan would ruin the movie and accusing them of white-washing and yadda-yadda-yadda, so he finally just snapped and said that it wasn't Khan so that they could shut the hell up about it and maybe get excited for it instead.

Also, I think that including Khan would be a huge mistake, especially if you plan to take the "vengeance" angle. Khan's vengeance in the original timeline only made sense because Kirk did something to him as a captain and then left him stranded for years. Kirk in this new timeline hasn't been captain long enough to make that kind of an impact. Aside from that, essentially remaking "Wrath of Khan" is pretty much a guaranteed way to piss off your fanbase, and while you may not need the fans to make "Star Trek Into Darkness" a success, you do need them to keep the momentum going for the next film.

While I think Simon Pegg's statement about Khan is probably true, I don't necessarily believe his statement about Gary Mitchell. I mean, as of right now I'm inclined to believe that's who it is, but not because Simon Pegg said it. As I said, because Pegg is a nerd (and also a comedian) he understands what trolling is, and an obscure character reference from the original series is exactly the sort of red herring he knows fans will jump on. He may just be fucking with us.

Even so, based on this trailer, I'm inclined to stick with Gary Mitchell over Khan. Here's why.

The New Argument Supporting Khan

After this trailer, the new big supporting argument for the Khan Theory is actually not from this trailer, but from the Japanese version of the trailer. Specifically, it includes a bit about family and this brief image:

Yes, this image is obviously a reference to "Wrath of Khan". Let me be blunt, though. This image does not suggest the involvement of Khan. What it suggests is the death of Spock, which actually I already suspected based on this statement from Zachary Quinto. Yes, he claims to have been taken out of context and was simply saying that he didn't want to commit to playing Spock again until after this movie comes out... but it could just as easily be a diversionary tactic. I personally wouldn't be surprised if Spock will die in this movie.

But that's neither here nor there. Just because Spock died in the movie related to Khan doesn't mean that dying in this movie equates to the presence of Khan.

Also, I really don't get how the references to family connects to Khan. Sure, you could say Khan considers his followers to be his family, but that's never really been a core part of his character. I really think that people are suffering from confirmation bias on this one.

In my mind, the only way Khan could have been involved in this movie was if his motivation was more "Space Seed", less "Wrath of Khan". If it is Khan and he gets defrosted as in the episode "Space Seed", he would have no real reason for "vengeance". He's a megalomaniac, not a cold-blooded killer. There was a reason he was exiled rather than executed. What drove him to vengeance was what happened to him between "Space Seed" and "Wrath of Khan", and none of that could have possibly happened yet.

So if it IS Khan, not only will his inclusion piss off fans, the undoubtedly nonsensical reasoning for his appearance and behavior would be a complete and utter betrayal.

My Argument for Gary Mitchell

So I realize that the argument I'm about to give doesn't really support Gary Mitchell specifically. Really, this argument could apply to any character who was a cadet during the previous "Star Trek" movie. In fact, this could just be a completely new character. But since Simon Pegg said Gary Mitchell and since Gary Mitchell fits well enough into my argument, I'm going to stick with Gary Mitchell.

If you aren't a Trekkie, you've probably asked, "Who the fuck is Gary Mitchell?" about a dozen times by now.

Short version? Gary Mitchell was a friend of Kirk's during his academy days. At one point his psychic powers get amplified by the galactic barrier, those powers turn him into a raving douche, and Kirk is forced to kill him. For the long version, just watch the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

One thing a friend of mine pointed out to me after we watched "Star Trek" (the movie) was that dozens (possibly hundreds) of inexperienced cadets were thrown at Nero's ship during the attack on Vulcan, and most of them probably died. Only the Enterprise was spared thanks to Nero's obsession with Spock. Let's suppose that some of those cadets managed to reach an escape pod, but the escape pods from one of the ships go off-course and reach the galactic barrier. Then let's say one of those cadets' latent psychic abilities are awakened and he manages to steer his escape pod back into the galaxy while all of his friends and fellow cadets are ripped to shreds by the barrier.

You'd then have someone pissed off at the Federation for sending him and his friends to their deaths for no good reason (since Vulcan was destroyed anyway) and with the psychic powers to back it up.

On top of that, given the changes to Kirk in the new timeline, it's probable that Gary Mitchell's relationship to him is different. In the original series, Gary Mitchell was a subordinate to Kirk, being a cadet while Kirk was a much more experienced Lieutenant. Since Kirk was a cadet in the last movie, it stands to reason that Gary Mitchell wasn't even in Starfleet yet. However, Kirk joined Starfleet for different reasons in the new movie, and possibly at a later point in his life. It's possible that he and Gary Mitchell joined Starfleet at the same time and were friends, but also equals.

Imagine you are going to school and you're a better student than your friend. Your friend spends all of his time getting laid and cheating at tests. He's a good guy, but you know that you'll probably end up surpassing him. Then a freak accident happens and your lazy friend ends up stowing away on a ship he shouldn't have been on in the first place and through stupid luck ends up becoming a captain while you practically end up dead.

If you were Gary Mitchell, wouldn't you be more than a little jealous of Kirk? A guy who broke all the rules and leap-frogged into power at an unprecedented rate simply because of an accident that also left you emotionally scarred?

This is all just speculation, of course, but if that's the angle they're taking, I think it fits. Gary Mitchell could be a force to be reckoned with, could have considered his fellow cadets to be his family who were needlessly slaughtered by the Federation, and could harbor deep-seated jealousy towards Kirk.

It's Still Wrath of Khan

Regardless of who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing, there is still one sour note, and it's a big one. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is looking to be yet another attempt to reuse the "Wrath of Khan" formula.

Don't get me wrong, "Wrath of Khan" is a great film, but "Star Trek" used to be about bigger concepts until every single movie became about obsession and vengeance. "Generations" dealt with Malcolm McDowell's character's obsession with the Nexus. "First Contact" dealt with Captain Picard's (completely out-of-character) obsession with getting back at the Borg (it also did a riff on "The Voyage Home" with the time travel angle). "Insurrection" was... actually fairly unique, though it still had problems of its own. "Nemesis" was practically a beat-for-beat remake of "Wrath of Khan" even throwing in the death of a beloved character to save the rest of the crew and implying his eventual rebirth. Then of course "Star Trek" involved Nero's single-minded quest for vengeance.

Look, vengeance is all well and good as a plot device, but the best thing about "Star Trek" is that it can cover just about any aspect of science fiction. This was something that TOS and TNG understood very well, though it eventually got dumbed down in subsequent generations. The assumption is that audiences are more interested in character drama than exploration of concepts. But can't we have both? "The Matrix" explores plenty of philosophical and technological questions while still being specifically about a single character's journey of self-actualization. Even "Wrath of Khan" had the subplot about the Genesis Project that in the right hands could end galactic hunger, but in the wrong hands could be a devastating weapon of conquest.

Probably the most common (and valid) back-handed compliment given to the most recent "Star Trek" film was that "It was the best 'Star Wars' movie in years." The implication that it was less science fiction and more space opera. And they're pretty much correct. Outside of the subtle exploration of destiny (although it mostly comes off as contrivance) there's not much attention paid to any concept bigger than human emotion. That doesn't make it a bad movie, it just raises the question of why we're using the "Star Trek" franchise if all we're going to do is have gun fights in space?

I think that "Star Trek Into Darkness" can be a good movie, but I also think anyone hoping for a return to high-concept stuff from older days of "Trek" should temper their expectations a bit. I don't think we can expect much beyond another character-driven story about vengeance, obsession, family, friendship, and sacrifice. That can all be good, but it's starting to feel more than a little played-out to me.

Still, I'm interested to see it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Justice League Movie - How to Not F#&% It Up

There have been rumors swirling about regarding the planned "Justice League" film for quite some time now, but I've refrained from writing about most of them because A) I've been spending most of November writing for NaNoWriMo (in case you're wondering, yes, I won) and B) At this stage, rumors change on a weekly basis.

However, the director of the upcoming "Man of Steel" film, Zack Snyder, has gone on the record saying that while he doesn't know anything about the planned "Justice League" film, he's not really sure how they could make one that just blatantly ignores the existence of his film. And my guess is that the only reason it hasn't been 100% confirmed yet is because there's always the possibility that "Man of Steel" will go over just as badly as "Green Lantern" did. They are probably planning on staying "in-universe", but they don't want to tie themselves to a reboot that has yet to see the light of day.

Additionally, the consistently reliable El Mayimbe of has confirmed that the villain for "Justice League" will be Darkseid. Over the years, I've learned that if El Mayimbe says it, it's probably true.

Beyond those two things, we basically know nothing with any certainty beyond the fact that there will probably be a "Justice League" movie in 2015 and it will likely include (at least) Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

I don't like to speculate without some nugget of truth to ground me, but right now is an interesting time to speculate. We know just enough to spark the imagination, but not enough to come up with any reliable guesses. Plus we'll get our first full trailer for "Man of Steel" when "The Hobbit" comes out in a couple weeks, which will likely make WB's intentions far more clear, particularly if the reaction is positive enough to give them reason to take a few more risks with the film continuity gamble. So, I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring for as long as my ideas are still plausible enough to be interesting.

The New 52 Connection

So far, WB and DC have been very, very cautious regarding their plans for a movie universe similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They likely have been planning something similar since late last decade, but their steps have been very hesitant. If "Green Lantern" had been as successful as they were hoping, they likely would have used it as a launch point for a new universe, but since they were never officially committed to the idea, they weren't forced to keep it around. Similarly, they didn't actually announce their intentions for a film continuity until "Avengers" was a proven success. They are playing it very, very safe, but I think they've been planning this in some capacity for probably a number of years.

At the same time, DC has been trying to re-establish its brand like never before. They changed their logo. They started a new programming block on Cartoon Network called DC Nation, which introduced two new cartoon series and will apparently be including more when it comes back next year. They started a new TV series on the CW, "Arrow", which is actually not too bad now that he's not doing voice-over monologues every five seconds. Most notably, however, they did a universe reboot.

While I don't plan on going fully down THAT rabbit hole again, the reason I bring up the New 52 relaunch is because there are interesting connections between it and the direction the film seems to be taking.

Specifically, in the relaunched universe, Superman's origin was modernized and he was deemed the first "superhero". Or at least the first one in the public eye. His new identity (at least when he started out) was closer to who he was in the Golden Age, where he was kind of an asshole and was a "champion of the downtrodden". While we don't know that much about Zack Snyder's film, I won't be surprised if in his film, Superman is the first superhero the world has ever seen.

Additionally, the first time the Justice League came together in the New 52, they fought Darkseid. Just like they will in the movie.

One more connection that is largely superficial, but worth noting, is that Superman's movie design is the same as his design in the New 52. Specifically, no more red undies. Supposedly, Zack Snyder tried to keep the red undies, but he was overruled.

Now, I know I'm just connecting three dots, but let me throw out a crazy theory.

Warner Bros. and DC did this relaunch and rebranding as a way to build momentum and set the stage for their upcoming films.

Like I said, I don't think WB and DC just all of a sudden decided to make a "Justice League" film after "Avengers" was a success. I mean, they knew that TDKR would be the last Nolan Batman film and Harry Potter was about to end as well. They needed a new cash cow, and given the resurgence of the popularity of comic book movies, it was the best option they had. But the comic book universe was kind of a mess and they hadn't had a good TV show since "Smallville" started sucking. So they started looking to slowly turn their properties into a mega-franchise.

I wouldn't be surprised if the New 52 relaunch was done (at least partially) to clean off the slate so the public consciousness could get excited about the prospect of a new media franchise.

All Hail Geoff Johns

It's no secret that Geoff Johns is currently widely considered to be the man at DC right now. He single-handedly saved Green Lantern AND Aquaman, he penned the most well-received comic events since the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, and he's seriously prolific. It's no surprise that they've got him working on a large number of projects, including even getting him to write a little bit for "Arrow". They used his emotional spectrum idea for the "Green Lantern" film (and then promptly shat all over it) as well as the new CG animated series. While I doubt they'll go so far as to get Geoff Johns to actually write the screenplay for a "Justice League" movie, I wouldn't be surprised if they used the first arc in his new "Justice League" series as the template for it.

Like I said, I don't have a lot to go on to support this theory, but the Darkseid connection intrigues me the most. Even if they aren't specifically TELLING prospective screenwriters to use the arc as a basis for their treatments, if their requirements are that it has to be about the team forming and fighting Darkseid, then it's rather convenient that there just so happens to be a very recent story arc in the comics where the exact same thing happens.

And you know what? I think that would be great. Seriously. While I'm not 100% in love with every aspect of the New 52 (and in fact I've fallen behind quite a bit in recent months), I think that the new "Justice League" title was one of the better things to come out of it. And more than that? Johns' "Justice League" solves a lot of the problems that probably worry most of the producers regarding the universe.

Aquaman is Lame

If that Bleeding Cool article from a few months back is even remotely genuine, it would not be surprising to learn that WB and DC executives are hesitant about including Aquaman in the fold. He's often perceived as a joke character, mostly thanks to his appearance on the "Super Friends" cartoon from about 50 years ago. DC had been trying to make him more interesting over the decades. They gave him a hook for a hand, he grew out his hair, he became more scowly... It was a weird time. 

Aquaman has always been kind of interesting because he's probably the only Leaguer average people would recognize outside of the "trinity" (maybe Flash too). But the reason people recognize him is because he's a joke to them. He's the silly one who talks to fish and wears bright orange.

So when Geoff Johns got to reboot the character in both "Aquaman" and "Justice League", he decided that the best way to deal with Aquaman's image problem was to face it head-on. Within the universe itself, Aquaman is treated as a joke, often in the exact same ways he is treated in real life, and it makes him incredibly compelling, specifically because audiences (particularly American audiences) love the underdog. Aquaman is underestimated constantly, so it gives us great joy to see him kicking ass and leaving his critics dumbfounded. Even more hilarious is when he shows up in the "Justice League" comic as a bit of an egomaniac.

If anyone else said or did these things, they'd come off as trying too hard to be cool. But when the "lame" Aquaman does it? It's awesome. It's the equivalent of the quiet nerdy kid at school pile-driving a school bully twice as big as him. We like seeing the underdog not only overcoming the odds, but completely destroying them. It's one reason people like Batman so much. He has no powers, but he can kick anyone's ass with "enough time to plan".

If they included Aquaman and took the same approach as in the comics, I guarantee you he would be everyone's favorite character. If they put the shark scene (above) in the trailer, there would be Aquaman t-shirts on sale at Hot Topic the NEXT DAY. I guarantee it. Teen hipsters would wear them to school, other kids would be like, "Man, Aquaman's LAME!" and the hipster kid would just smile smugly, knowing that once everyone saw the movie, he would be the guy who liked Aquaman before he was cool.

But yeah, Geoff Johns solved the Aquaman problem, and I think that if there's ANYTHING the screenwriter should steal from the New 52 comic relaunch, it's this.

The Green Lantern Snafu

We all know that "Green Lantern" sucked. I know it, you know it, Warner Bros. knows it. It wouldn't be surprising if they just kept him out of the upcoming movie altogether, at least until they've established a successful groundwork.

But, you know what? I think if they went with the Geoff Johns storyline, bringing in Green Lantern wouldn't be a bad idea. He could even still be Hal Jordan.

Let me explain. In the Geoff Johns storyline, Hal Jordan has been Green Lantern for a little while. He's still green (hahaha), and he hasn't really developed much of a presence on Earth in the same way that Superman did, but his origin story has already happened and he's already somewhat well-known.

He's also an insufferable prick. Seriously, if you read Geoff Johns storyline, pretty much all Hal does is act like an overconfident jackass and then promptly get his ass handed to him.

So yeah, we all hated "Green Lantern", but if they had the Ryan Reynolds Hal Jordan acting like a jackass and then getting shown up by Batman, Superman, and even Aquaman, then it would be a sort of meta-punishment for his awful characterization in his film. I personally would be OK with that (so long as they ditch most of the continuity from that movie).

Still, I think that's probably too ballsy for WB to attempt, so in all likelihood, we either won't have Green Lantern, or they'll give us John Stewart instead of Hal Jordan. Because he's black, no one would confuse him with the "bad" Green Lantern, and fans of the DCAU TV shows would recognize him (honestly, I think John Stewart is probably at least marginally more recognizable as the character than Hal Jordan at this point). I'd probably be OK with this.

Character Overload

If there's anything they'll likely try to change from the "Justice League" story, it will be in the number of characters used. While I personally think the lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Cyborg (or Martian Manhunter if you wanted to go DCAU) would be fine, it's hard to juggle that many characters AND introduce them at the same time. For this reason, it won't be too surprising if they stick to JUST the trinity for the first film.

However, I think that would be a rather large mistake. While those characters are certainly well-known and need no introduction, that's also sort of their biggest weakness. It's hard to get audiences excited about seeing characters they think they already know everything about. That's partially why I think it would be wise to throw Aquaman into the mix. If they took the Johns approach, people would probably see the movie just to see this badass new version of Aquaman.

Still, including JUST Aquaman feels weird, so you'd probably need to include Flash as well since he's also pretty recognizable and makes for good comic relief. Honestly, those five could probably carry the movie, but if they wanted to make the team more diverse (a problem that garnered "Avengers" some fair criticism), they would likely also want to include either John Stewart or Cyborg. At that point, you've pretty much got a full roster.

I know it's somewhat problematic, but frankly, no one really NEEDS to know the origin story of anyone but Cyborg, and guess what? His origin story is a part of Geoff Johns' storyline. Almost like they planned it.

I personally would prefer they go with half-a-dozen rather than just the three iconic characters. I'm not saying you CAN'T make a good movie out of just the trinity, but it limits the range. You basically have three VERY SERIOUS characters fighting a VERY SERIOUS (albeit fairly ridiculous) supervillain and I have a hard time thinking of ways to make that interesting.

You could probably survive cutting out Green Lantern and Cyborg (though Cyborg would probably get fans of the old Teen Titans show vaguely interested), but you should probably keep ONE of them so that you can establish a connection to Darkseid and, yeah, so you can have a PoC in the cast. And for the love of God, don't cut out Aquaman and Flash.

Stop Playing It Safe

I get that WB and DC are scared to take big risks. And in the case of "Green Lantern", their hesitance spared us all a very awful starting point for a connected universe. But they can't keep tip-toeing around commitments anymore. Once the trailer for "Man of Steel" hits, they will hit the point of no return. They can't wait for something to be a proven success before building on it. Movies take too long to prepare and if you don't have these things planned from the beginning, it can feel tacked-on and half-assed (like "Green Lantern").

I mean, let's say that "Man of Steel" fails. WB and DC won't be able to scrap their plans for a "Justice League" film that late in the game, but they might try to drastically sever any ties it might have to "Man of Steel", recast Superman, and possibly retool the entire franchise. That's really the only reason I can think for why they haven't officially announced a connection between the films. Because they want to reserve the right to change their minds in the event of a disaster. This is exactly the sort of thing that ruins their projects. They lack conviction. They have no confidence in any of their creative decisions unless they have numbers to back them up. This is why Marvel and Disney have been running circles around them for the past few years. I mean, they announced the cast of "Avengers" before most of the cast had a chance to even play their characters. They showed audiences that they were serious about this and were willing to take chances.

I think that WB and DC can make this project work, but the fact that they're planning a 2015 movie without a definite screenplay, an attached director, a cast, or even the guarantee that the movie will have any connection to any other movies shows their abject fear of fucking this up.

Guys? Trust me. The fastest way to fuck this up right now is to pussy-foot around every decision and only support it once it makes you money. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln: The Most Exciting Movie About People Talking You'll Ever See

There's an old saying in film... and it actually extends to most entertainment in a certain respect: "Show, don't tell."

The meaning of this saying is that if you have a character is a story tell us that something is the way it is, that is far less effective and entertaining than actually showing it. As an example, what's more interesting? Morpheus telling Neo that the Matrix is a false reality and that humans are actually trapped in pods of goo where they are used as batteries for machines, or having Neo wake up in one of those pods? Yes, I know Morpheus exposits about it later anyway, but he does so with visual references and it carries weight because of what Neo has already experienced. The point still stands. No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.

Guidelines such as this often exist to help young artists give their work structure. Proper technique and form makes performing something difficult considerably easier. For example, if you've never played the trumpet before, on your first attempt, you might play with your cheeks puffed out. However, an instructor might tell you that that is improper form. They would be correct. It is easier to play if you don't puff your cheeks out. Yet some might recall iconic images of famous trumpet players with their cheeks puffed out like you wouldn't believe. Well, this is for two reasons: 1) They were probably self-taught and thus always played that way without an instructor to tell them otherwise. 2) When you are that good, you don't need to follow all the guidelines to play well.

In other words, rules exist to guide the newbies and to be broken by the masters.

Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly a master. So when I say that "Lincoln" almost constantly defies the saying "Show, don't tell," I don't mean that in a negative sense. I mean that the majority of the film has old people talking to one another about a lot of things that we never see, but it still manages to completely engross you in it. Despite this film only taking place during roughly one year of Lincoln's life, and despite the fact that the film is less about Lincoln and more about his greatest accomplishment (the 13th amendment), this film still manages to give us a very complete picture of the man and the people close to him.

In almost every scene involving Lincoln, at some point he will start sharing an amusing anecdote, either (allegedly) from his own life, or just an amusing story he once heard. We never see the scenes he describes, even if they are real events that involved him personally. A lesser filmmaker would have caked this screenplay with red ink, probably writing "Show, don't tell" a thousand times during every monologue. They would have expanded the story to encompass his entire life, or cut to flashbacks while we hear Lincoln describe the scene in voice-over, or they would have cut the voice-over entirely, since that is also often considered "lazy". That would be the "proper" way to do this sort of film, and one can't blame them. If this film had been directed by anyone else, I doubt that it would have worked. If they had anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, I don't know if it would have worked. But because it makes it work, it is far far better this way than what it would have been if done "properly".

Because Spielberg is such a captivating filmmaker from a visual standpoint (that man could make drying paint visually interesting) and because Daniel Day-Lewis is such a captivating orator as Lincoln, these scenes where we literally just hear Lincoln tell a story for a few minutes are some of the best scenes in the movie. Not only do they tell us more about Lincoln's life and his particular sense of humor, we as an audience experience first-hand his ability to enthrall with the power of words. If we were just shown these anecdotes or shown these other parts of Lincoln's life, we wouldn't have understood just how powerful Lincoln's words were.

Also, even though these anecdotes are generally very straightforward, Spielberg often finds a way to inform them visually. For example, one of Lincoln's best anecdotes involves a story about an interestingly placed portrait of George Washington, and as he describes it, we often cut to the portrait that hangs in the very room they are in. It not only feeds the imagination, it makes us wonder in the back of our minds, "Is Lincoln just making this shit up off the top of his head? If it were a picture of a dog, would he have told an anecdote about a dog instead?" Spielberg makes us feel like one of the people that Lincoln is talking to, and when everyone in the room shuts up and is suddenly speechless after Lincoln finishes spinning his yarn, we too are ready and waiting for Lincoln to drop the hammer.

Another thing that makes Spielberg Spielberg is the fact that he does not use someone else's iconography. He creates his own damned iconography. No, he will not show us Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. No, he will not show us the assassination. Spielberg is not trying to show us his version of things we've already seen or imagined. He has no interest in showing us things we've already seen (except that one time when he remade "War of the Worlds" or when he made the sequel to "Jurassic Park"). He's not going to stand on the shoulders of giants. He is a fucking giant, and goddammit, he will fucking remind you in case you forgot.

Probably the best thing about this film is that it treats Lincoln like a character, not as an historical icon. As I said, most other films about Lincoln would probably show us most of his life, from birth to earth. The highlight reel. However, it seems that only films about historical people show us their entire lives. All other films just show us a tiny sliver of their lives and they give the audience a deeper understanding of who these people are through their words and actions. This film keeps its story very focused on probably the most important year of Lincoln's life (which also happened to be his last one) and uses his very rich history to give his character depth rather than influence the actual plot or focus of the film.

And that's not to say that all of Lincoln's interactions in the film directly influence the central conflict regarding the passage of the 13th amendment. Not at all. In fact, most of the scenes involving Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (AKA Jinxy McDeath) have little-to-no bearing on the actual plot of the film. Once again, if we were playing by the rules, these scenes would probably have been cut or contrived to somehow influence the story more directly. But really all it does is give Lincoln more personal drama to deal with. Yes, it also indirectly gives us another reason to hope that the amendment gets passed, but I don't think we as an audience really needed a reason other than "racism sucks". Good ol' Jinxy reminds Lincoln that his stalling regarding the war could cost him the life of another son and the sanity of his wife, but those aspects aren't really necessary to communicate the urgency of the war or the amendment to us as an audience. Still, this movie is called "Lincoln", not "The 13th Amendment". This movie is about Lincoln and by showing his emotional baggage, we get a complete understanding of who he is and what is going through his mind as he tells Ulysses S. Grant to stall for time. The 13th amendment is the structural core of the film's plot, but plot should not be in service to itself, but in service to the characters. In this case, the passage of the 13th amendment is the central conflict of the story because it was arguably Lincoln's greatest challenge. We see him at his best and his worst and even if this movie won't help you pass your history test on the life of Lincoln, you'll still feel like you understand this Lincoln better than the Lincoln you'd see in a more traditional biopic.

From what I've read, Tony Kushner had a lot of trouble writing this screenplay, and I can understand why. He probably struggled to put his finger on exactly what aspects of Lincoln to delve into, and I'm also willing to bet that he was not all that happy with how his work turned out. It doesn't help that Kushner has mostly just written plays during his writing career and thus was probably more interested in writing dialogue than action. This happens a lot with playwrights who dabble in film and television. Even incredibly talented writers will fall into the trap of telling rather than showing simply because on stage, you don't have the freedom of cutting from scene to scene. I honestly think that if a different director read the script and told Kushner to, "Show, don't tell," Kushner would have apologized, agreed, and rewritten accordingly. But Spielberg made it work, and its unorthodox approach gives it an edge. A master's mark. The fact that Spielberg took a screenplay that most other filmmakers probably would have rewritten and elevated it into something amazing is a testament to his immense talent, which we are constantly reminded of and impressed by throughout the film. The most well-known filmmaker makes a film about the most well-known President of the United States  and somehow manages to make it feel wholly original, and a lot of that is thanks to the screenplay, or more specifically, Spielberg's decision to use it.

Beyond just the technical aspects of the film, it pretty much goes without saying that the acting is amazing. Daniel Day-Lewis, as I mentioned, captures the essence of Lincoln without depending on familiar phrases, mannerisms, or iconography. We almost never see him wearing the hat, we rarely see him give speeches, and the ones he gives are probably not the ones most Americans are familiar with. His voice is softer and higher-pitched than most people are used to (though obviously it is more historically accurate).

Oftentimes, actors and actresses who portray historical figures are often seen as Oscar-baiting, and perhaps with good reason. In a way, it's easier to portray a character based on a real individual since there's a great wealth of information for the actor to draw from to influence their performance. However, as easy as it may seem, it is actually very difficult to portray a character when you already have an image of that character in your mind. It is hard to lose yourself in a different personality when your mind instinctively believes this person to be a separate entity rather than a part of yourself. I used to act when I was a teenager and a lot of my more serious acting friends would often refuse to watch other performances of the plays or musicals we did simply because they didn't want to subconsciously influence their performance. However, when you are playing Abraham Lincoln, it's pretty much impossible to forget that he was a real person with very familiar mannerisms and traits and that you are not him. The difficulty, therefore, of portraying an historical figure is to make the audience believe that you are them without resorting to simple caricature.

So yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is definitely going to win an Oscar for this performance, and when he does, the cynics will use him as an example of the Academy favoring actors who play historical roles rather than actors who play original characters. While I don't wish to defend the Academy or deny this cynical assertion, I do wish to defend Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. He will win the Oscar not because he played Lincoln, but because he was Lincoln. The Lincoln he gave us was as far from caricature as you can get. He played Lincoln like a person who had never even heard of Lincoln before. He played Lincoln with such a fierce dedication and understanding and faithfulness to who he truly was that if anyone tells me that he doesn't deserve his accolades, I will smack them across the face.

I know I've already gone on for quite a while about this film, but there's one last thing that I love about this film. Specifically, I love how it depicts the political process. Despite the fact that Kushner's screenplay was mostly finished around the same time Obama took office, it's fairly clear that the current state of the American legislature shaped what eventually became the finished product. And it's not just from throwaway lines like, "When has the Republican Party ever unanimously agreed on anything?" or "I founded the Republican Party to be a conservative anti-slavery party," but by showing us a political process that felt simultaneously familiar and completely alien.

It is a strange cognitive dissonance. We see a House of Representatives filled with loud and boisterous movers and shakers, we see the Democrats as the party of racism and traditionalism and the Republicans as the party of progress, and we think, "Man, so much has changed." Then we see the Democrats obstinately denying the passage of the 13th amendment out of pure spite and political zeal and think, "Man, things haven't changed a bit."

In this time of year after a very long and heated election, it is easy for Americans to get discouraged with the democratic process. "Lincoln" does a lot to restore faith in the process, but not through naive optimism or stirring speeches that change the hearts of cruel men. No, we have our faith restored through cold calculation and corruption in the service of good. This film says, "Yes, even 'Honest Abe' was not above political schemes, bribes, and deceptions in the service of his political agenda," but it never forgets to remind us that, "His agenda was to end slavery."

Toward the end, when Lincoln is talking to the Confederate leaders who are upset about the 13th amendment (spoiler alert: Lincoln ends slavery), he tells them that blocking the ratification of the amendment is off the table and he subtly insinuates that if they wanted to affect U.S. legislation, maybe they shouldn't have seceded in the first place. The point being that, yes, sometimes the country can go in awful directions or sometimes just directions that we disagree with, but you can't win if you don't play. Yes, the political process is ugly, corrupt, slow, and stupid, but it's what we've got, and the good guys can bend the rules just as well as the bad guys can.

During the passage of Obamacare, I think a lot of Obama's supporters were disappointed with the results. I know I was. It felt like it was burdened with endless compromise, pages and pages of pork, never-ending debate, and even then, the Democrats had to pull an obscure rule to force it through without bipartisan support. I think a lot of us felt like they should have scrapped it and started over from scratch. Keep it simple, avoid the lobbyists, and vote for it when it's perfect. But what I eventually came to terms with over the past couple years was that Obamacare, despite all of its flaws, is better than nothing. Over the past several decades, almost every single elected President has promised health care reform as a part of their platform, regardless of the party they belonged to, and with minor exceptions regarding new programs for specific groups or problems within the system, they have all failed. If Obamacare was taken back to the drawing board, another proposal never would have been reviewed by Congress during this administration. Obama would have had one more failed promise, and it very well might have cost him the election. If Romney had won, he would have repealed Obamacare, and despite his insistence to propose a newer, better version of it, I guarantee you that if he did, it would have failed just like every other attempt to pass sweeping health care reform. The only way this kind of legislation was ever going to work was with compromise, political trickery, impenetrable legalese, and gallons and gallons of corruption. It may not be perfect, but as the saying goes, done is better than perfect.

In a way, this movie mirrors that process. Lincoln's administration does a lot of shady things over the course of the movie. They know that the main reason most white people support the amendment is because they believe it will help end the war, but without that motivating factor, ending slavery might not have happened for another generation. Lincoln wants the war to end, but he doesn't want it to end (or appear to be ending) before the passage of the amendment. The conservative Republicans will only support the amendment if they believe that the war shows no clear end in sight and that Lincoln is actively pursuing every opportunity to negotiate peace. The radical Republicans don't just want to end slavery, they want equal rights for all races, and it is difficult for them to pretend that they don't want this amendment to act as the first step in that direction. Lincoln has a moral obligation to the thousands who risk their lives on the field of battle, but he also has a moral obligation to the millions of slaves and freedmen that continue to face oppression. Beyond the ethical implications of stalling peace for the sake of political timing, we also see the administration flat-out bribing lame duck Democrats with jobs in order to win their votes.

Lincoln has to get down and dirty to help clinch the passage of the amendment, and the end result is perhaps not precisely what the radical Republicans (and the audience) would prefer. But as a character says towards the end of the film, "It's more than enough. For now."

It would have been nice for racism to have ended with one amendment over the course of two months, but it was simply unrealistic. What they managed to do was only a step, but the first step is often the hardest. Similarly, Obamacare is just a step. It might not work, but now that it is an absolute certainty that it will take full effect in 2014, politicians can no longer simply try and stop it. This ship is moving and it has passed the point of no return. It is going to happen, and when it does, we can finally stop talking about what Obamacare might do and finally see for ourselves what it will do. Then we can decide on what the next step to take is.

The often-forgotten promise of the Democratic experiment is the "experiment" part. We generally feel hesitant about legal experimentation because of what might happen, but we ignore the fact that laws can be changed or unmade just as easily as they can be made. We decide for ourselves what we want and reserve the right to change our minds at any moment in the future. Roughly 100 years ago, we outlawed alcohol. Then a few years later, we changed our minds. We tried something and it didn't work, so we stopped. Still, I'm glad that alcohol was outlawed for a brief period of time, because if they hadn't tried it, there would probably still be idiots proposing prohibition legislation to this day. If we didn't have historical evidence of our failed experiment in prohibition, those folks would never have shut up. Sometimes, the only way to convince someone of something is to roll the dice and see how things play out.

This was what Lincoln understood. Either they could have stood around and debated for years and years until the majority was convinced that slavery was evil, or they could have forced it down their opponents throats and shown them that America without slavery was a better America.

In other words: Show, don't tell.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall: Why James Bond Needs Aliens

I saw "Skyfall" and I don't really see any reason to do a proper review of it. I liked it, didn't love it, but pretty much anything I could say has been said elsewhere and probably better.

But I do have one major concern, and that's with the future of the Bond franchise.

You see, while I don't intend to spoil anything about "Skyfall" in this post, I will say that the film's major theme is in regards to whether or not James Bond still has a place in the modern world, and honestly, I'm not sure the film has a satisfying answer.

Classic Bond

If you've ever seen the older Bond films, you'd know that the majority of the films are... kind of silly. Despite the fact that Bond is constantly in life-or-death situations, he never acts it. He's unflappable, charismatic, and entirely cavalier.

This is, of course, a product of the times.

For the most part, people really didn't know anything about secret agents and spies other than what they learned from Bond stories. Though Ian Fleming himself had a great deal of firsthand experience in the military and the secret service, he obviously embellished a great deal for dramatic effect and definitely romanticized the experience a great deal.

However, as time went on, the patience for such things grew thin. The world was changing, our perception of the military was changing, action films were becoming more grounded and realistic, and the older style of the Bond films was starting to show its age.

I personally think the turning point was "Austin Powers", a series that more or less crystallized the Bond formula in loving parody. At that point, as a society, we finally understood how silly the Bond films were.

Then, in the early twenty-first century, the Bond franchise had a quadruple-whammy. In the same year, we got the last "Austin Powers" film, the first "Bourne" film, and the last Pierce Brosnan Bond film, "Die Another Day". And, of course, in 2001, setting the stage for all this, was 9/11. Suddenly terrorists, spies, and the secret service weren't so romantic and silly.

"Austin Powers" had not only driven a stake through the heart of the classic Bond formula, it had driven a stake through the heart of its OWN formula of parodying the Bond formula. Meanwhile, the sleeper hit, "The Bourne Identity", single-handedly changed the face of spy films in a way no one saw coming, resonating with a post-9/11 perception of war. Finally, in the middle of it all, "Die Another Day" showed an aging Brosnan perpetuating an aging concept with an unbelievably outdated formula that just no longer worked.


It was not surprising that when James Bond returned to the big screen in 2006, they decided to do away with the classic formula. Instead, they embraced the grim and gritty tone found in most modern spy films (most commonly compared to the "Bourne" movies).

I really liked "Casino Royale", mostly because it felt like an evolution of the character. A new beginning. He could go anywhere from there.

Then we got "A Quantum of Solace" and the pendulum swung way too far in the Bourne direction. There was essentially nothing recognizable left, and that was the biggest problem.

While pretty much everyone is in agreement that the Bond formula just does not work in a modern setting, by simply adopting the Bourne formula, there's nothing about "Quantum of Solace" that helps it stand out from the competition.

Then with "Skyfall", it felt like they found the balance. They kept the Bourne-style character-focused story, but they brought in a great villain, some of the more familiar elements of the franchise, and an attitude of "out with the old, in with the new". On top of that, the direction and style of the film stands on its own in a way that few Bond films have dared.

However, there's a problem.

Nowhere To Go But Down

"Skyfall" may have been aptly named because I don't think the series has ever been quite this ambitious, and yet, it has seemingly set the series up for an enormous fall. Maybe it's just me, but from my perspective, (again, not spoiling anything) this probably could have served as the LAST Bond film. Of all time. I'm serious. Yes, I know they full-well intend to keep going from here, but I can't imagine why (other than money and tradition of course).

The biggest reason (without mentioning spoilers) is that this film tries to reconcile the Bond of the old age with the Bond of the new age, and it definitely manages it convincingly within the context of the story.

There's one very cute scene that pretty adequately illustrates what I'm talking about.

Up until now, the Daniel Craig Bond films haven't had a new Q, mostly out of respect for the late Desmond Llewelyn, but also because the role of Q didn't really fit in with the new aesthetic. This new Bond was much more believable and ridiculous gadgets with disturbingly specific purposes didn't really fit.

However, in "Skyfall", we finally get a new Q, and he is played very well by Ben Wishaw.

In his first scene where he gives Bond his equipment, the equipment consists of a gun that with only work for Bond thanks to a palm print scanner and a remote tracking device. After presented with this, Bond says something to the effect of, "A gun and a radio. Not exactly Christmas, is it?" To which Q responds, "What did you expect, an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore."

Q's response is meant to be funny, but it also speaks to the film's larger theme of how the world has changed in regards to espionage, but more specifically (and subtextually) how the world has changed in regards to spy films.

This scene between Bond and Q perfectly encapsulates the tone of "Skyfall". We have a long-missing element of the Bond franchise coming back, but he's been transformed to fit into the new aesthetic. Then, as a nod to their roots, they make a joke about how simple these tools are when compared to some of the things used in earlier films. The exploding pen isn't even that old. It was in "GoldenEye". But the idea is that it would be ridiculous and that old stuff just doesn't fit into the way the world is perceived these days.

And no, I'm not saying that this perception is wrong. The fact is, we have these new Bond movies because "Die Another Day" was basically a testament to how the Bond formula just doesn't work in a modern setting. So they changed it to something that does work.

But the big problem is... now what?

So we've established that this new James Bond won't have crazy gadgets, ridiculous plot-focused stories, or lighthearted fun. OK, fine. But those aspects are basically what allowed the classic films to have such longevity. Viewers didn't go to each Bond film to see a progression in character, they went to see the new gadgets, the new cars, the new villains, the new setup, the new girls, etc. What this new series has done is effectively marginalized all of those elements. They might still be there, but they are either used specifically as nods or references or subverted entirely in service to a greater theme or story.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with doing that. As I mentioned, that formula stopped working, so incorporating it without actually adhering to it is clever if you want to make an updated Bond film. However, in doing so, you are making a film that is entirely about Bond the character, not about Bond the self-insert audience-fulfillment adventure machine, and at this point, we've basically exhausted all of his angles as character.

Sure, at this point they've basically got all of the pieces in place to return to the familiar Bond formula, but the Bond formula simply would not work with the tone set for these new films. Anything that would fit this more realistic world would have to be something believable, and sadly, that can't make Bond stand out from the crowd of other Bourne knock-offs. And we can't just swing back to the old ways because "Skyfall" has been lovingly embraced by fans and mainstream moviegoers alike. If you hit the reset button again in order to return to the classic formula, it will be seen a disappointment.

So these are the options.

1) Continue the same way and end up with a movie that will inevitably be seen as inferior to "Skyfall" and make people question whether or not the series should proceed any further since the new Bond has too many limitations to stay fresh and interesting.

2) Revert back to the old ways to maintain the old formula but piss off all of the people who loved "Skyfall" and were completely on board with the new status quo.

3) Bring something unexpected into the mix. I'm not saying it's aliens, but...

It's Aliens

OK, maybe not aliens per se, but bear with me here. The fact is, now that "Skyfall" has basically firmly planted the Daniel Craig Bond aesthetic and made it commercially and critically successful, they can't change it. All of these serious people have to keep being serious and they have to keep using believable-ish tools for their missions. It has been established that the new Bond takes place in (essentially) the world we live in with no real variances, and any deviation from that would feel inconsistent.

But not if you throw in something completely unexpected and unprecedented that challenges the suspension of disbelief of the characters themselves.

The fact is, whenever we get a movie about government agents and aliens, it usually ends up being something that is quickly established in the movie and explained away. This would be your "Independence Day", your "Men In Black", or even your "District 9".

But if you had a traditional James Bond opening, but just before the credits, a fucking flying saucer lands and the VERY SERIOUS Daniel Craig and his VERY SERIOUS MI6 colleagues all stand completely flabbergasted, then you have something different.

Yes, it's ridiculous, but that's the point. We get to keep the Daniel Craig Bond-verse by having it act as the straight man to something else that is just plain ludicrous. The characters in this world are just as perplexed by this alien presence as we are and any wacky territory they enter into may feel out-of-place, but understandable. It will basically force Bond to lighten up a little. His trauma will seem much smaller when he's staring down the barrel of a plasma rifle.

To help make my point, let's examine the "Iron Man" franchise.

OK, obviously the Iron Man suit is science fiction, but the first two "Iron Man" films were very much steeped in a world that felt real. Still, they had basically reached about as far as they could without jumping straight into weird/wacky/campy territory. Thankfully, then we had "Avengers", and suddenly Tony Stark's world became much stranger. Now "Iron Man 3" can delve into pretty much whatever crazy shit it wants and we can explain it away by remembering that Tony Stark fought aliens in New York just a few months earlier.

So it doesn't HAVE to be aliens. It could be magic. Or time travel. Or parallel worlds. One friend of mine thought that the Cthulhu mythos could be a good fit.

We just need something completely out there so that Bond no longer feels limited by the tone of his world.

Otherwise, he's doomed to just muddle around the same familiar territory that had already been explored by many other action films rather than staking out his own new territory like the franchise used to do.

Also it would be the perfect opportunity to reveal that he is, in fact, a Time Lord, but I digress.

"Skyfall" is good, but as good as it is, they can't make every new movie a throwback to the old ways while justifying the new ways. That bit has now officially been played out. If you look at the story content alone, "Skyfall" was basically a really well-executed mash-up of "Mission Impossible", "Live Free or Die Hard", "The Dark Knight", and "Home Alone". Nothing about it feels particularly unique in style or substance, and that's a serious problem if they want this franchise to survive long into the future. Not every movie can be about Bond getting over his physical and psychological issues while lamp-shading how silly Bond films used to be, and if that's the only way these movies know how to bring Bond into a modern setting, then this bubble is set to burst.