Sunday, June 27, 2010

Working Through the Stack, Part 2

I love the 1981 Peter Hyams film Outland. It’s one of those quiet, serious science fiction films from the ‘80s that seems nearly perfect when you’re watching it, but is sort of hard to encapsulate properly when describing it. So, in lieu of a proper write-up, I’m going to present you with an equation I cooked up on to better explain the film:


Now armed with this information, I feel that those of you unlucky enough to have not seen this film should be tempted to seek it out. Because if the pure, unbridled power of Movie Mathematics can’t convince you, nothing can.


(NOTE: Working Through the Stack is a multi-part project in which I have dedicate myself to exploring the lost and forgotten corners of my DVD collection. More information may be found here.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jurassic Park: Memories 17 Years In The Making

I've been going through some kind of crazy 1/3-life crisis lately. It's lasted about a year now, and there's really no end in sight. I turn 25 tomorrow. Halfway to 50, when my body will really start to shut down, if my parents are any indication. As this crisis goes through, I tend to look back a lot, mostly in shock. Fifteen years since Toy Story?! Thirteen years since I saw the original Star Wars trilogy re-released in theaters?! Seventeen years since I saw my first PG-13 movie in theaters?!

Yes folks, Jurassic Park is seventeen years old now. Can you believe it? I was 8 when I saw the movie, having just had my birthday. I remember looking so much to seeing this movie that I knew next to nothing about. I was just really into dinosaurs at the time. My dad had read the book earlier that year. He was reading it while the family went down to South Carolina to see my grandma, and I would ask him every few minutes what was happening in the book, to his annoyance. I got some TOPPS Jurassic Park trading cards that summer, and a cassette tape full of songs just about dinosaurs. At first my parents said I couldn't see the movie. I was only 8, and at that time, my parents wouldn't even let me watch Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings. I was pretty sheltered. Yet after my dad saw the movie, he decided that I could see it for my birthday. I can remember that theater experience to this day.

I had never seen such a reaction to a movie. People jumped, some screamed, and a lot of kids (including me) were hiding their eyes in their parents arm a lot of the time. The part that always scared me most was oddly supposed to be comic relief. The Dilophosaurus still kinda freaks me out a little to this day... and the real dinosaur didn't even have what freaks me out about it... Those neck frills and the oil-like poison. Still, those dinosaurs looked damned real, and the movie is still an adrenaline rush.

Now, I've heard a lot of comments in the last few years about Jurassic Park being a lesser film. What is it with this decade and people loving to trash everything that is deemed "nostalgic"? Sure, the movie didn't age well in some respects. "Oh wow! It's an interactive CD-ROM!" The dress style in the movies is also dated to the early 90s. I don't care. It was made in the early 90s and is set there. Case closed. (Although no amount of critical thinking can make me approve of the goofy sound when Nedry slips and falls down the flash-flooded embankment.)

Looking back, I don't think I ever saw the trailer for the movie. I have a feeling that if I did, I would have been kind of disappointed. If you haven't seen it, look here.

It basically is the movie in 3 minutes! And it looks horrible! If you noticed, they only show the animatronic dino shots, and not the CGI ones. That's a good choice, but the trailer gets the feel of the movie all wrong. I guess the movie must have gone all on hype, because I can't see the trailer getting people drawn in. Now the poster on the other hand... come on... it's just classic.

Let me speak of the special effects for a minute. I'm not amazed by CGI a lot these days, but Jurassic Park was one of the first films to use it extensively, and to this 8 year old, those dinosaurs were real. (So real that I kept looking down over the side of my bunk bed that night thinking the dilophosaurus was down there.) Even just viewing it again a few days ago those dinos look real in most shots. The only times where I can very easily tell the CGI are some shots of the kitchen Velociraptors, and the Gallimimus flock. The T-Rex always looks real, and especially in what is one of my favorite scenes. Ellie and Muldoon have found Malcolm and are now searching for Grant and the kids. All of a sudden the Rex bursts from the woods and chases the Jeep they are in. I don't think the T-Rex was as frightening in the other two films. The attack on the Jeep is nerve-wracking to me still. It may have been a robot, but the plexi-glass top of the jeep all of a sudden coming down on those kids... it's pretty chilling. (And let's not forget the humorous but gruesome death of Genaro either. Yet another classic.)

Now, when I was about 14, I finally read the book, and was very surprised at how different it was to the movie. Whole sequences with the dinosaurs were taken out, such as the aviary, the river boat sequence, hiding behind the waterfall from the T-rex... (all of which would appear in some form or another in the 2 lesser sequels) Heck, even the characters were different, especially John Hammond! In the book, John Hammond is more of an exploiter. He can get cranky too. He's not Walt Disney with a dash of Santa Claus like he is in the movie. The movie's main low point, according to critics, was the lack of character development, and all I have to say to that is it was a hell of a lot better than the book's. Now listen up folks, for I have a theory. Read a good book and then see the movie, and you will always be at least slightly disappointed. See a good movie, then read the book, and most likely you will still enjoy the movie, and you'll have enjoyed the book as well. This is Trent's theory of post-literary adaptation. Take of it what you will.

In my point of view, the movie holds up fantastically well. It's still suspenseful, the effects are amazing to this day, the music is some of John Williams' best, and it's miles better than either of the sequels. I seriously recommend that if you have not seen the movie in a while, to sit down, "turn the light off!", and put on the surround sound ("Don't get cheap on me"), and "Hold on to your butts!"

Working Through the Stack

I’ve just posted the first entry in my multi-part furlong through the forgotten corners of my DVD collection over at my main blog:All Strange Places. This time out, I work my way through the entirety of the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall Signature Collection box-set, and it was kind of a complete blast to write. So please, if that’s the kind of thing that you’re into, feel free to check it out.

Bogie and Bacall  Cover -Sean

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shadows of the Empire-- A WEEK LONG REVIEW!

When I was in fifth grade, there wasn’t anything in this world better than Star Wars. I read novels, played the video games, watched the movies endlessly, had lightsaber fights with my friends, action figures, quite literally I was into everything Star Wars. Then, in a dingy little gas station less than a mile from my house, my best friend found a comic book. I didn’t care about comic books, but this was special.

It was a Star Wars comic. And it was the first issue of Shadows of the Empire.

A week later I convinced my grandmother to take me up there to get it. I pad in change, taking the precious little paper book home with me, and read it at least six times that week. This was the first, and still one of my favorite comics. I’m not sure if it’s just nostalgia coming into play, but I still consider Shadows of the Empire something special. It is follow up to my favorite of the Star Wars films, Empire Strikes Back, taking place almost immediately after the film cuts to credits. It’s part of the reason I love cover art and poster art.

So, I’m going to review it.

But not just the comic! Shadows of the Empire was a multi-media event when it was started in 1996. The concept behind it was to create everything for a movie, except for the movie. And that’s what they accomplished, with a novel, comic book series, soundtrack, video game, and a line of action figures. There is even a couple of source books dedicated to this one moment in time for the Star Wars D20 Modern RPG. But, I’m just going to review the concrete stuff. I’ll be starting off with a review of the novel by Steve Perry. On Tuesday, I’ll review the video game. Wednesday will be a standard review day for weekly books. Thursday, I’ll review the soundtrack, and finally on Friday, a review of the comic book series that brought me back to comics in 2008.

All of the reviews are at Inside the Panels. Click the links for the individual reviews below.  

The Novel

The Game

The Soundtrack

The Comic

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Weekly Graphic Novel Review: Fallen Angel Vol. 1--To Serve in Heaven

Fallen Angel Vol. 1--To Serve in Heaven
Writer--Peter David
Artist--J.K. Woodward


So, let's get the obvious out of the way: this book is beautiful. The above image isn't even one of the best examples, and it sold me on Woodward's visuals. The world of Bette Noir is brought to life with surreal hand painted panels, in a deep color palette that sets the tone before you've read the first bit of text. Even as the scene shifts between the present day, and the back story of Liandra, the titular fallen, you will continue to be amazed by what has been done on the page. Some of the books finest moments are foundation shots of the streets of Bette Noir. I know this is going to sound like a pun, and for that I apologize, but it screams of film noir. But of course, this all means very little if the story isn't engaging.

Well, you are lucky. Peter David has taken great care in his writing, and rebooted his DC comic of the same title for IDW, allowing new readers to not be completely lost in the dark, and serve the previous story's fans. While I can't comment on the continuity between these two series, I'm just going to say that I wasn't lost when I read it, so most readers will probably not have any trouble jumping right in. If nothing else, there is a decent chance they are going to hunt down the DC books (which are soon to be reprinted in omnibus form by IDW).

The story is about Liandra, or Lee. By day, she is a college physical education teacher, and by night, defends the city of Bette Noire from the evil of the Heirarchy as their will is done by the Magistrate, Doctor Juris. Quickly, this becomes more complicated, as Juris attempts to pass on his position to his son, Jubal. This sets an origin story for Lee, how she fell from being a guardian angel, refusing the concept of free will. The origin story is told through several flashbacks, and David really builds the flashbacks into play naturally, slowly revealing the complexities of Liandra's current character.

Lee is easily one of the most interesting 'superhero' type characters I've read. Her powers are vast, but understated in favor or telling a story. We see her shoot lasers from her eyes a couple of times, but it never takes the center screen in favor of building on her relationships with the different people in the city. The Magistrate, Juris, is a selfish man, seeking his true first born sun, who would take his charge away from him forever. Then there is Xia, who comes across quickly as an agitated person by character. Xia, Juris, and Jubal have an interesting chemistry to their arrangement. Juris doesn't want. However, to a point, I didn't find myself wanting them there either. But, David still had their spot in the story, and I agree with it to a point. If he was just trying to get us to be annoyed by Juris and his thoughts and actions, then he suceeded with flying colors. Still, Lee is the main character, and who we spend the most time with as readers. She had a deep and interesting back story.

As a person of religious faith, I feel I should comment on David's statements about faith, religion, and God Himself. No, I'm not offended. Lee is a rebellious person in the eyes of The Boss, but it's not written in such a way as to say "Go burn down a church, Johnny" like some other works of fiction that are critical of organized religion. Instead, it's an alternative view of the nature of our existence, and it's intriguing. It's a bit frightening even, as it almost seems like a valid viewpoint. In short, I appreciate David's handling of the content. It's got the markings of a target for controversy, but it's not a blatant cross inverting, pentagram drawing, number of the beast screaming work of fiction that so many other writers allow their religious criticisms to be.

The book I read for my review is a paperback print of the first story arc. As I mentioned before, it's a lovely cover, depiticting Liandra in a haunting view of Bette Noir. It does little to speak for what's inside, and doesn't really show the city itself for what it is. The inclusion of the different cover arts was nice, as many trades don't tend to do this like they should. Also, there is a step by step walkthrough of J.K. Woodward's process for drawing and painting the book. Not necessary to the story, but a worthwhile addition nonetheless.

Whether you should start with the DC books or not is completely up to you. I read this trade with little trouble, so it won't hinder your experience. I feel like this book is solid enough to warrant a recommendation. The story is interesting, and at times stellar. The art is definitely the books high point. Check it out.


Coming up next week, I've got the surprise review coming out, as well as reviews of Air, Joe the Barbarian, Amory Wars, and the next issue in Dark Horse's Predators mini-series.

This review is also posted on my page, Inside the Panels. You can check out reviews of comics I've read in the past two weeks, as well as a review of Warren Ellis' sci-fi graphic novel, Orbiter.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Review: Michael Crichton's State of Fear

Anyone remember the good old days when everyone thought global warming was real? Wait, they still do? Well, after this past year's scandal in regards to supposed fact fudging on the part of global warming studies, the number of people who believed in the phenomena went down quite a bit. (Let's face it, they were looking for any excuse.) One person who never really believed in the global warming hoopla was Michael Crichton, the writer of such pseudo-scientific books as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and Sphere.

The book is about the evil, dreaded environmentalist, and how they are only there to take your money and commit acts of terrorism in the name of trees. (Or icebergs or volcanoes, or whatever is around them at the time.) No, I am not kidding. We should hear Crichton out though. In this critic's opinion, he got it right for the most part. Modern day environmentalist groups fall into two categories... terrorists like ELF or bureaucratic machines whose main goal is to make money. How do they do this? Well by making us afraid. Turn on the news and it's a rare day when you don't hear about some environmental disaster. Crichton's view is that society is kept in check by the politicians, media, and corporations working together to keep us afraid. I personally don't see how this could be accurately disputed.

My problem with the book is how Crichton makes the whole environmentalist movement look liked Snidely Whiplash. They create disasters, they kill people, and even use complex Bond villainesque ways of doing these things. It's pretty preposterous even for Michael Crichton. Seriously, I thought at times that I was reading a novelization of a Roland Emmerich film! The characters were bland as hell, there was a lot of traveling, lots of imminent disasters, and I'm pretty sure Randy Quaid is being abducted by aliens in there somewhere.

All in all, I guess the book was okay if you don't mind being preached too. I already pretty much agreed with Crichton here, but if I didn't, I can tell you I'd probably have disliked the book. It does get rather "out there" towards the end, but then again, so do over half of Crichton's other books. I can at least say I enjoyed it better than his previous book, Prey.

Friday, June 11, 2010

In the Theater: The A-Team


TheATeamI have a serious soft spot for Men-On- a-Mission movies. In a lot of ways  they represent the sense of fun that I look for in an average summer theater-going experience. With that in mind, I was really pleased to discover that we had three such films coming at us this season, starting with The Losers (one of two films I’ve seen this year that I liked well enough to see twice), working through The A-Team, and closing with Stallone’s The Expendables later in the year. So, in the end, I may not be the best person to voice a wholly impartial opinion on The A-Team, but I’ll try to anyway.

The A-Team isn’t a smart movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, because it really isn’t a stupid movie either. It’s a summer movie and it knows that. It is also just smart enough to know that it isn’t smart. So instead of setting its sights on being an edgy or brooding reboot—that tries to impress by being a hard-edged version of a thing that the audience is already familiar with—it dedicates itself  to just being fun.

And it is fun. The A-Team is big, and it is loud, and it is one serious mother of a mover, and it is fun and over the top without ever becoming too cartoonish (I’m looking at you, Transformers) or offensive or stupid (I’m looking at you, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). The film very rarely takes a break during its runtime of an hour and fifty-seven minutes, moving rapidly from action sequence to exposition to montage to comedy set-piece with a sort of tirelessness that it commendable for being furious but never tiresome. The action sequences also work well for the most part, keeping with the pace and not relying overly on the use of digital effects. Some of these sequences do get a bit too frantic for their own good, unfortunately; pulling in too close and putting too much emphasis on shaky-cam style shooting and editing. The action also lacks the quietly extravagant style that Joe Carnahan brought into earlier efforts like Smokin’ Aces and Narc.

The film also does a nice job of modernizing the franchise and establishing itself, taking the audience from the team’s original coming together in Mexico to their last mission in Iraq quickly and efficiently without getting bogged down in the political situations prevalent in either country and maintaining a sharp focus on getting us involved/familiar with the characters as rapidly as possible. The story also stays enjoyable and pretty straight forward for the duration, but it does lose some traction towards the end of the second act when it tries to break out a couple of twists and double-crosses. It also never really establishes the stakes. Don’t get me wrong, the audience is told what is going on, and what could happen becomes quite obvious…but the film concentrates so wholly on the characters that it does tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s more at stake than the continued freedom of Hannibal & Company.

And speaking of the team: The casting here solid and occasionally inspired. Liam Neeson works very well as Hannibal, mugging and chewing scenery with the same enthusiasm as predecessor George Peppard. Sharlto Copley is excellent as well, dropping the drama from his turn in District 9 and dialing the neuroticism up to show some serious comedic range. Bradley Cooper continues to do a good job being Bradley Cooper, which is fine in the context of Face. Jessica Biel turns out a surprisingly solid performance that actually holds a decently hard edge. Patrick Wilson’s wannabe CIA Super-Spook/Villain is surprisingly manic and unpredictable. And Quinton Jackson does a good job of trying to put his own spin on B.A. Baracus, even if the script does seem to want him to just pretend to be Mister T the entire time.

So in the end, it isn’t a great film, but it is a good one. It works hard to provide a sense of momentum, giving up some good action and a few genuine laughs along the way, and it hardly even tries to set up a franchise at the end. So, if you like action films or buddy flicks, if you have a sense of nostalgia for the old show or if you just want to spend a good afternoon in the theater, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than The A-Team.