Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meeting Chuck Klosterman

In his book “Downtown Owl,” author Chuck Klosterman voices an (I presume) semi-autobiographical reservation about celebrities. The character Mitch says he would never put up a poster of a famous person in his room because that famous person certainly wouldn’t have a poster of him.
So for this reason I decided that if I ever met Klosterman, I would not get a picture with him. And on Wednesday, when he came to speak at a local pub in Washington, DC, to promote his book “I Wear The Black Hat,” I did not ask for one.
I took this, but mainly just so this blog post would have a visual element to it:
 


The crowd included both long-time fans and people who were (somehow) interested in him but (oddly) unaware of him. While some people asked esoteric questions about his canon, several people asked pretentious questions about “I Wear The Black Hat” and his notions of villainy, both real and imagined, that evinced they’d read neither “Black Hat” or anything else by him.
After his reading from the book, he said he wasn’t sure if anyone would have any questions – but I had one on the launch pad and shot my hand up. With reassured surprise on his face, he gestured to me and said, “Oh. This guy does!”
I asked him that if “Downtown Owl” were made into a movie, who would he cast as the book’s leads. This was a terrific question to open on because, he said, the book had recently been optioned for a movie. Everyone cheered, until he pointed out that – because no one there had heard about it – it meant the story didn’t have a happy ending.
He said Adam Scott, from “Parks and Recreation,” had asked to produce the film, with Lizzy Caplan (goth chick from "Mean Girls") as the school teacher and Phillip Baker Hall (book cop from "Seinfeld") as the old man. (Mitch would have to be an unknown teenage actor.) Scott may have just been using the option to his book as a means to promoting his own company, Chuck said, because he let the option expire and no one else is biting at it.
Chuck also said that his surrogate in the book is the old man; I’d always thought it was Mitch. Go figure. Adam Scott can sleep when he’s dead.
One of the reasons Klosterman has such a broad fan base is because he has a (likewise) broad interest base. He can engage equally well on TV as on sports or music. Topics he touched on Wednesday included:
·       The question: “In the American story, is Washington the villain?” which Chuck demurely avoided answering (because it was a stupid question) by responding, “Do you mean the city or the person? Because I don’t know anyone who thinks George Washington is the villain of America!” (Everyone laughed and he moved on.)
 
·       The question: “Would you rather have hair for fingernails or fingernails for hair?” He said the latter, as that would make him like a human rhino, whereas the former would make him a lazy werewolf. This seemed like a witty response.
 
·       More people have bought/read “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” than his other seven books combined.
 
·       His favorite book is “Killing Yourself to Live,” but he would never write anything like that again because it’s a) unethical to expose people he’d dated as much as that book does and b) his wife would never let him.
 
·        Some critics dislike him because he made it “acceptable to write about dumb things” (like “Saved by the Bell”).
 
·       The human mind is the source of all emotion, but we’ve been so conditioned to believe that it’s actually our heart that the mind creates the illusion of “heartache” in our chest when we’re sad.
 
·       In terms of sheer ability, Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan, but in a one-on-one match Jordan would win because he’s so competitive. Lebron wants people to like him, and would see such a match as an opportunity to promote both of their brands. Jordan would see it as an opportunity to embarrass another player. “Michael Jordan is really a f---ed up person intellectually.”
 
·       The worst concert he’s seen in the last year was by a band called the Japandroids, which I have never heard of. He described them as “friendrock” – ie you’d only go if you were friends with them.
 
·        He confirmed to me that a “conservative North Dakotan” political operative he dines with in “Killing Yourself to Live” is a colleague of mine. So there – no picture but a “This guy!” and a mutual friend.
He closed with an anecdote about villainy, to tie back into his book. When people say that villains in stories are more “interesting” that’s not what they mean. What they mean is the villains are more real, whereas heroes don’t seem real. You can understand a villain’s motivation because deep down you are a selfish person. When you see Walter White sell meth, you understand the impulse to break the rules to help your family – and if you enjoy it and you’re good at it, why not keep doing it?
“There is an innate human fear that goodness is made up. When you’re 8, you want to be like Superman. But when you grow up, you really want to be like Lex Luthor.”

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Wrath of Star Trek Into Darkness

OK so a lot of you geeks have asked what I think about “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Beyond the fact that it has the dumbest movie title since “The Phantom Menace,” I went into it with an open mind, eager to enjoy it as much as I did the 2009 reboot.

Now of course, as I’ve said before, the best part of loving Star Trek is hating Star Trek. So with no new material from the franchise (beyond videos games) in four years, we’re all excited to have something to pore over, dissect, and criticize the crap out of. Because for as much as we don’t want to be the Comic Book Guy about this stuff … that’s part of the fun.



However, I have to – in all humility – recognize that this movie was not made for me. The creators know that they’re going to get money from me no matter what. The goal is not to win me over. The goal is to placate me while appealing to as large a group as possible.

In that regard, especially with some good box office performance (though not as good as 2009’s) and an 87% on RT, the creative team has won over a mass audience. And they definitely placated me.

Things I liked

Juggling the cast of characters. OK so here’s the challenge with all Star Trek movies – you have to juggle all the principles, the villains, and the movie-specific supporting characters. It’s hard to have an interesting supporting character who doesn’t distract from some of the mains – Saavik’s cool and all, but she arguable has a bigger role in TWOK than even Spock does!

JJ Abrams and his team pulled this off really well in my opinion, wonderfully dividing up time among the core crew, Adm. Pike, and everyone else. Notably:

·         Robocop: I really like the actor who plays Robo-cop, who is also not new to the franchise. (He was a good villain in a bland “space racism is bad” episode of Enterprise.) He makes a great baddy, and when he calls Kirk “son” it’s with just the right amount of dickishness and self-righteousness.

·         Carol Marcus: I think they should have had her speak with an American accent, but that’s a tiny complaint. She’s a great actress and fit the role well. I also appreciate that they didn’t jam a love story between Kirk and her into this. They’ll let that happen in the next one.

·         That guy from Dr. Who with the sick daughter: I don’t think we ever learn his name or hear him speak, but he gives a terrific performance that carries a ton of emotional weight. Who says he’s just the Tin Dog?



·         Chris Pike: Boy Bruce Greenwood is a terrific actor, isn’t he? His and Kirk’s bar scene is so much fun, and gives a sense of the time that’s passed between the first movie and this one. I wish they hadn’t killed him, but I understand why they did.

·         Old Spock: A cameo of even just Leonard Nimoy’s head is pure joy. It felt like Star Trek and Futurama all at once!

 
Creatively designed sequences/sets. It must be a challenge for filmmakers to do something that feels genuinely fresh, especially given how sophisticated the Internet has made modern audiences. This must be particularly hard for a franchise with 45 years of history. However, much of Star Trek’s action sequences have been really boring. So that creates an opportunity for Enterprising creators.

·         The space suit chase scene: Pure awesome. With the helmet displays and the shwooshing through space and the read outs on the helmets. Sure is a lot cooler than the last time we saw Kirk in a space suit...



 
·         Future London: Hey there are cities in the future besides San Francisco! Not a lot to say other than it looked plausibly futuristic and did not remind me of Coruscant from the prequel trilogy.

·         The volcano planet: This opening sequence is a winner. Feels like pure Trek, with the humor, Kirk and Bones cracking wise, the incognito mission and the talk of the Prime Directive, Spock’s cool heat suit, and the Enterprise being underwater. Also they throw just enough Indiana Jones in there.

·         The final Khan/Spock battle: Now it has to be said that the best thing these guys understand … is that Star Trek is waaaaaay more about Spock than it is Kirk. That one item gives them a ton of credibility. Making the climactic battle between Spock (and Uhura!) and the baddy worked great, although it felt maybe a little bit too much like Spider-man 2.



·         All the Klingon stuff: The question has been all along “how will they make the Klingons look?” We finally got an answer, and it was a good one. The forehead ridges, the ships, and even the bat’leths all look great.

Trek references that made me grin.

·         Section 31: It’s controversial to say, but the best Star Trek series is Deep Space Nine (at least as far as writing is concerned). One of DS9’s cleverest innovations was Section 31, the Starfleet rogue intelligence agency. Having Robocop mention them almost made me jump out of my seat.

·         Ketha Province: In another awesome DS9 reference, all the action on Kronos happens in the Ketha lowlands, home of DS9’s favorite Klingon: General Martok! (Yes, Martok is more interesting than Worf. Deal with it.)

·         Gorn octuplets: Eight is enough, to fill our lives with reptilian rage.

·         The Mudd incident: It’s implied the ship they took to Kronos was Harry Mudd’s. Brilliant – it also shows that the crew has been having adventures in the interim and fills in the gap from the first movie.  

So with all the above. I can definitely say that, as a fan, I am placated.

BUT SERIOUSLY NOW THE COMIC BOOK GUY STUFF.

One reviewer I like summed the movie up as neither a highlight nor a lowlight, but just filler. I certainly wouldn’t say the movie wasn’t great, and there was a lot of stuff I really enjoyed, but when you’re going to so heavily reference the franchise’s best movie – to the point of recreating scenes shot for shot and line for line – you run the risk of making the audience say, “Wow! This movie reminded me how much I liked another movie!” 

So.

The whole Khan stuff does not work. And it doesn’t work for a lot of reasons. Primarily though is it’s just so unnecessary. You could have told this exact story with one or two minor tweaks and not mentioned the name Khan at all.

Khan’s role in TWOK had some real significance to the story. On the one hand we have the micro story of the problems that are going on inside our protagonist. Turning 50, Kirk is sad that he’s getting old and full of regret about “my life that could have been but wasn’t.” And in the midst of this, he’s confronted with yet another regret: he should have executed Khan (or at least put him back to sleep) rather than exiling him to Ceti Alpha Five. With that bit of stupid optimism, Kirk is indirectly responsible for all the people Khan kills (including Captain Terrell, much of Carol Marcus’s team, members of his own crew, and Scotty’s nephew). Kirk’s self-pity moves really quick into tragedy.

  • A random guy that Young Kirk has never seen or heard of before does not have any significance to his character.

Then on the other hand in TWOK we have the macro story of the Federation playing God in developing a hyper-destructive “weapon of mass creation” (Genesis). This keys into Cold War era fear of nuclear annihilation but not in a heavy-handed way. They think by playing God they can do great things, but it blows up in their face. KIND OF LIKE THE EUGENICS WARS – where humanity tried to play God.  Khan and his team have a significance to the message of the story against the backdrop of real world current events in 1982.

Khan in “Into Darkness” does not. Also the whole “post 9/11 - the galaxy is a dangerous place!” stuff felt, as one person put it, “a little too 2005.” The stuff that America is dealing with now is simply that the world has moved past us – “A Post-American World” – not the whole balancing security/ethics blah blah blah.

We’re told that Starfleet wants not just Khan’s intelligence but his savagery. His line to Spock about “How can you break a bone when you can’t even break a rule?” is indeed clever, but didn’t need to come from the mouth of Khan. It could have come from a generic, new villain – or! someone else from Trek’s lore.

Underscoring how little thought went into “Khan” in “Into Darkness” is his character design. Every bit of Khan’s look is significant in TWOK: his lion’s mane of hair (grey from his life of hardship), the tattered leather he’s left with for clothes, his bare chest to remind us how awesome he is, and the broken Starfleet symbol he wears as a trophy. We get so much information about this character just by looking at him!

 
Cumberbatch’s Khan basically looks like Neo without sunglasses.
 
And given how self-righteous the Star Trek franchise has been about racial diversity and making us hear that "Uhura met MLK" story a gazillion times ... turning one of their most famous brown characters white is kind of an insult to that legacy.

Now the thing about Khan's origin story, the episode “Space Seed," is it isn’t one of the very best episodes of the show. SF Debris gave it only an 8/10 – and I don’t think I’d include it on my personal TOS top 10.



Some of the scenes are so embarrassingly sexist they’re hard to get through. But because TWOK is so good, we retroactively like it more. So if Nick Meyer and Harve Bennett could do that with “Space Seed,” why couldn’t Abrams and his team do it with another episode?

So here’s my solution:

Make the bad guy Garth of Izar.

Garth is not one of the most famous villains from Star Trek. He’s from the TOS episode “Whom Gods Destroy,” which is most notable in Trek lore because the actress who played Batgirl appears as an Orion female.



Now I don’t want to undermine the significance of that, but let’s look at Garth’s character description and see if maybe it would have fit better with this "Into Darkness" story:

Garth of Izar was a decorated, highly-regarded officer in the Federation Starfleet, who rose to rank of Fleet Captain in the course of his service through the mid-23rd century. His career dissolved in a dramatic descent into madness and attempted genocide, resulting in his commitment to the Elba II asylum for the criminally insane.

Hey you need someone savage to help you make new weapons? Maybe a decorated Starfleet captain would be a little better than some random dude from the 20th Century.

You want someone to highlight Young Kirk’s inexperience and the fact that he desperately needs a father figure? Maybe a decorated Starfleet captain whose tactics were “required reading at the Academy.”

Want to show that you have a deep vocabulary of the show—especially when you already referenced TWOK so heavily in the 2009 movie? Maybe an obscure, but interesting, villain like Garth would do the trick.

(Incidentally they referenced TWOK heavily in "Nemesis" too - so that's now three movies in a row, or 25% of the franchise, that's all trying to mimick the same one film.)
 
Moreover, by making Garth of Izar a cool, new villain, you inject a lot more significance into “Whom Gods Destroy” than the episode ever had – just like TWOK did with “Space Seed.” You create the same effect, without just being a copy-cat.

Also wouldn’t it be more clever, instead of Spock shouting “KHAAAAN!!!” to have Young Kirk shout “GAAAAAARTH!!!”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Office Top 10 List: #1 – Fun Run


Two-part sitcoms are usually failures, because “brevity is the soul of wit.” Stretching out gags often makes them less funny rather than more funny. (The closest “Seinfeld” came to a good two-parter was “The Pilot” where a huge chunk of the hour was the eponymous, metafictional show-within-the-show.)

“Fun Run” demonstrates how you do it though: by giving the two parts different (albeit related) storylines. The first half is about Michael dealing with the blowback from hitting Meredith (declaring the office “cursed”) and the second half is about the Michael Scott's Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-am Fun Run Race For The Cure. Woven through this episode is the fallout from the season 3 cliffhanger (Pam and Jim getting together, Ryan going to NYC, Jan moving in with Michael).

Every line in this episode is golden.


 
Highlight:

Ryan: Did this happen on company property?

Michael Scott: It was on company property, with company property. So, double jeopardy, we're fine.

Ryan: I don't think-- I don't think you understand how jeopardy works.

Michael Scott: Oh, I'm sorry. What is, 'we're fine'?

Office Top 10 List: #2 – Safety Training

Oh what joy! What splendor as Michael struggles to feel as cool as the warehouse people even though he doesn’t have access to the bailer. We reinforce Dwight’s bizarre Amish-ness with his shunning Andy, Kevin’s gambling problem, and the fact that Jim and Pam pull together in a crunch (when Michael is about to kill himself pretending to kill himself). The Netflix competition has got to be the best product placement ever.

Also this has my favorite line from The Office, where Daryl tells Michael: “You Braveheart, man.”



Highlight:

Dwight Schrute: Michael, what's wrong?

Michael Scott: Everything is wrong, Dwight. The stress of my modern office has made me depressed.

Dwight Schrute: Depressed? Isn't that just a fancy word for feeling, 'bummed down?'

Michael Scott: Dwight, you ignorant slut!

Office Top 10 List: #3 – WUPHF.com

The main story of season 7 is Michael finally growing up and overcoming some of his issues. This is the one where Michael overcomes his man-crush on Ryan, set against the back-drop of “The Social Network”-esque start-up “WUPHF.com” Also kudos for finally ending the Dwight/Angela affair thing.


After this episode came out, we referred to any blast-communication as a “WUPHF” at my job. (“It's not a digital rape whistle! WUPHF is about fun!”)

Highlight:

Michael: The world sends people your way... Ryan came to me through a temp agency. Andy was transferred here. No idea where Creed came from. The point is you just have to play with the cards that you're dealt. Jim, that guy is an ace. Dwight is my King up my sleeve. Phyllis is my old maid. Oscar is my queen. That's easy. Gimme a hard one. That's what Oscar said. Toby is the instruction card you throw away. Pam's a solid seven. And yeah, you know what? Ryan is probably, like, a two. But sometimes twos can be wild. So watch out. And I am obviously the joker

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Office Top 10 List: #4 – Goodbye, Michael

When it’s at its best, The Office does drama better than dramas do: this episode is the belle of the ball. With Steve Carrell’s tender send-off, we see the supporting characters have gone from hating Michael to loving him in a way that’s both hilarious and inspiring – hilspiring. The scene where Michael and Jim start to lose it will put a lump in your throat unless you’ve got a heart of stone. (Or maybe a throat of stone.)


Highlight:

Michael: Well, I guess this is it. Hey will you guys let me know if this ever airs?

Office Top 10 List: #5 – The Convict

This I believe is the episode (along with “The Merger” right before it) that marks the turning point from where the show was just an imitation of the UK version to its own creature, with the merging of the Scranton and Stamford branches. Wonderful display of Michael’s desire (albeit inability) to be politically correct. This also features what might be my very favorite Office scene ever (in fact it was my 2012 Halloween costume): Prison Mike.

Prison Mike - watch more funny videos     


Highlight:

Michael: Close your eyes. Picture a convict. What's he wearing? Nothing special. Baseball cap on backward, baggy pants. He says something ordinary like, 'yo that's shizzle'. Okay, now slowly open your eyes again. Who you picturing? A black man? Wrong. That was a white woman. Surprised? Well shame on you.

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