TRON: Legacy (2010)

Tron-Legacy-Triptych-Poster[1]

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

What the…?

Let me get the good stuff out of the way. Style, sets, CG, Daft Punk soundscape, all top-notch. The world of the Grid looked amazing, and the effects crew should be commended. For this reason alone, I have to score this film at least average, because it’s just a unique visual and sonic environment, and certainly worth visiting for a little while.

The bad…? Where to start? I didn’t dislike TRON: Legacy, but I didn’t particularly like it either. At any rate, it certainly didn’t go out of its way to make itself comprehensible. Hugely important plot points are simply left vague. The isomophic programs, for example, are largely visited in voice-over flashback. Kevin Flynn tells us that they were going to change everything–that they would be a quantum leap forward–but the film never indulges the audience by explaining precisely how. Frankly, programs that create themselves sound like a pretty dangerous thing, and I’m almost inclined to side with the film’s villain, Clu. What if isomorphic programs were a virus that would eventually corrupt the entire Grid? But the film is too shallow to address these sorts of questions.

It’s also worth mentioning Tron, himself, who actually is in TRON: Legacy…as a minor character named Rinzler. First of all, a small thing on this that, perhaps, is not that small: the film never even bothers to show Tron’s face. And I only mention that because the de-aged Jeff Bridges (Clu) gets a ton of screentime. Meanwhile, Bruce Boxleitner is actually much better preserved than Bridges. Would it have killed the filmmakers to just once allow the helmet to come off, especially after Flynn reveals that Rinzler is Tron?

Second of all, the character is hardly important to the film at all, yet the film’s climax hinges on a totally unearned redemption for the “repurposed” Tron, in blatant and shameful sequel baiting. None of this has any emotional resonance, and it’s just a wasted opportunity. In a way, that’s the story of TRON: Legacy: it’s a film chock-full of wasted opportunities.

I’m not even going to get into Clu’s master plan, to use the portal to leave the Grid and conquer the real world, because that’s beyond dumb. Or the fact that we’re told Flynn can’t stop Clu without re-integrating with him, which would destroy them both, though like so much in TRON: Legacy, that’s just a very important plot point that we have to take on faith. The film doesn’t much care to explain itself at any given time. It merely sets up arbitrary rules so that it can invoke them later when the time is right. It’s a very cheap form of screenwriting, using bogus devices like this to advance the plot.

Anyway, you get the point. Dumb movie. Great to look at.

Recommended Reading

  • “Tron: Legacy” on my friend Donald’s website, Blessed Are the Geeks. He liked it more than I did, I think.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

The problems with Star Trek Into Darkness are fairly evident in the pre-title sequence–an extended set-piece in which the crew of the Enterprise attempt to detonate a “cold fusion” bomb in order to freeze a volcano that is about to destroy a primitive world (“cold fusion”–I’m not making that up).

Kirk and McCoy are being chased by the natives–we don’t really know why. The Enterprise is on the bottom of an ocean–we don’t really know why (we’re led to believe they’re hiding there, so that the natives won’t look up to the sky and see the Enterprise in orbit…yet somehow they managed to land the damn thing just outside a major city without anybody noticing). Improbabilities continue to pile up, and I pretty quickly got the message J.J. Abrams seemed to be attempting to communicate: this movie will be entertaining but dumb.

That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but this is Star Trek, and I guess I expect better. This was the dumbest entry in the movie franchise since Star Trek V, and that was a film that had the crew journey to the center of the galaxy to meet God–and no, I’m not making that up either.

The thing of it is that Abrams and crew made a lot of decisions in Star Trek Into Darkness that were for dramatic purposes and dramatic purposes only, but many of them just didn’t play very well to anybody who bothers to give them even a moment’s thought. The larger problems have been discussed elsewhere (like the fact that Star Fleet’s war room, apparently, has a full wall of windows), but here’s a smaller thing that I found unintentionally funny. Slight spoilers here.

There is a fight sequence between Spock and Khan toward the end of the film in which Khan is getting the upper hand. At this point, the Enterprise crew have the opportunity to beam down anybody to assist Spock, so who do they send? The ship’s communications officer, of course! They’ve got a boatfull of trained security personnel, but they send Uhura with a phaser and a mini-skirt. Of course it had to be Uhura, because there was a subplot involving a lover’s spat between Uhura and Spock, and saving Spock’s life was deemed essential to closing out that thread–showing that she has forgiven him. But man…it’s just dumb.

“But, Justin,” you may be saying. “Nobody wants to see Spock rescued by some random redshirt.” To which I say, “Exactly! Which is why a better idea would have been to not write that scene at all. Let Spock defeat Khan on his own.”

Oh, and they could beam somebody onto a moving vehicle , but they couldn’t just beam Khan and Spock off?! Hell–they can, apparently, teleport people from Earth to the Klingon homeworld (I’m not making that up either)!

These sound like nitpicks in the context of a brief review, but over the course of an entire film, they began to grate on me. Though to be sure, it was more than the accumulation of these logical problems and plot holes that offended my analytical brain: the characters were problematic for me, as well. Particularly Captain Kirk and Khan.

The former, because he just isn’t written as a very competent starship captain, and it seems wholly inconceivable to me that this character would have ever been given his own command. Compare to Shatner as Kirk in the original series, who was effortlessly charming, but also authoritative, wickedly smart, and wide open to the expert advice of his crew–that character is a natural leader, whereas Chris Pine really just feels to me like a kid playing dress up as Captain Kirk. I don’t blame Pine for that, necessarily. I blame the poor writing that mischaracterizes Captain Kirk, emphasizing Kirk as testosterone-soaked action hero rather than a savvy commander.

On a related matter, Star Trek Into Darkness trades too heavily on decades of camaraderie between Kirk and Spock. In this film, they barely even seem to like each other, yet the emotional climax of the film relies upon us believing they love each other. It didn’t work for me.

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_Kirk_Spock_Cumberbatch-610x406[1]With regards to Khan–and yes, I’m going to just assume that everybody knows he’s the villain of this film–I just didn’t care for Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. He had the evil part down, but none of the charm required for the character. It was a very one-dimensional interpretation. Perhaps that’s down to the writing, but Cumberbatch didn’t bring anything noteworthy to the role, and the character, himself, is just uninteresting, with a set of strangely muddy motivations.

In the original Star Trek, Khan is a man of vision–ableit a twisted, evil vision–as well as great passion and intellect. He is fascinating as a leader of men, which is why he counterbalances Kirk so well. For Into Darkness, the filmmakers have reduced him to something somehow petty. A solo operator who doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond destroying Starfleet. Maybe that’s John Harrison (the pseudonym used by the character in order to attempt to deceive the audience–another contrived story device), but it’s not Khan.

So why should you see Star Trek Into Darkness? Well, primarily, it looks amazing. And on the whole, it is entertaining but for a lull somewhere in the middle. Action sequences are well-conceived and well-realized. The musical score by Michael Giacchino is fantastic. And I suppose there are other reasons.

But as a Trek fan reviewing for other Trek fans, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly recommend it–or even, necessarily, recommend it at all.

Recommended Reading

Tron: Uprising – Season One (2012)

tron-and-beck

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m erring on the side of a higher rating for Tron: Uprising based upon style and likability, more so than, necessarily, the quality of the series narrative. I don’t know that I would consider Tron: Uprising a great television series, but it is consistently entertaining, and I found myself more or less marathoning through the season whenever I could find a block of time to watch the episodes.

To be certain, I’m not specifically using the word “entertaining” in the way that, say, a bunch of stuff blowing up in a summer blockbuster is entertaining. Though Tron: Uprising is, to be sure, never short on kung fu, chases, and stuff blowing up, I think there is real substance to this series based upon character, themes, and lore. It does have trouble, however, rising above its episodic constraints.

If I had any issue with Tron: Uprising, it is that–especially in the first half of the season–the writers didn’t script in enough forward momentum for the overarching plotline. Even if an episode was interesting on its own, it almost felt as though a mandate existed that the reset button needed hitting by the end. In a way, it’s strangely reminiscent of The Prisoner, in the sense that the main character is on a kind of a treadmill.

But that’s problematic for the series, because Tron: Uprising actually works best when it alters the status quo or otherwise surprises you by taking a dramatic turn one wouldn’t necessarily expect in a show marketed to kids. But for this first season, it felt as though the creative team weren’t willing to push those boundaries too hard.

Fair enough. But I have higher expectations for Season Two. Or at least, I would have, had the show been renewed. The information about this series that exists online is a bit confusing and conflicting, though I think it’s relatively safe to say that the show has been cancelled, though it may in fact be “unofficial”. Who knows, though? Maybe it will gain a second lease on life through Netflix.

Tron-Uprising-No-Bounds-Able-tries-to-disarm-the-bombIn any event, it really is a shame, I think, that we’re not likely to get more of this series, because faults notwithstanding, Tron: Uprising just doesn’t look like anything else on television. The art style is intentionally cribbed from Æon Flux (which is, for me, a good thing, though I understand why others would have a problem with that), but it also does something very interesting, borrowing from the original Tron film, in that the base palette is actually black and white, with colors (largely black and red) seemingly painted in. It’s a neat effect, pulled off well, and whatever you may think of the highly stylized character design, it’s difficult to argue that Tron: Uprising isn’t gorgeous.

And hell–it’s the world of Tron in a TV series. Though the series doesn’t delve extensively into what that entails, it’s still just plain cool.

Check it out on Netflix. You’ve got nothing to lose. And if you don’t have Netflix, you can watch the first episode, “Beck’s Beginning” on YouTube.

Solomon Kane (2009)

solomon_kane_poster3[1]

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Why do I keep watching movies like this? I’m always disappointed. If the IMDb rates something a 6, I should really just assume it’s going to be a waste of my time. But there’s always this voice in the back of my head that keeps saying, “Maybe the masses just didn’t get it!”

I’ll tell you why I watched this one, specifically: because Robert E. Howard invented some really neat pulp fiction characters (not, merely, Conan the Cimmerian)–I really appreciate his unique mix of sword and sorcery; and because it stars James Purefoy, who was so brilliant as Mark Antony in HBO’s Rome.

Well, he’s not as good here, but it isn’t his fault, really. Even had it been more competently devised, Solomon Kane probably isn’t a character that would give an actor a great depth of motivation and emotion to plumb. I appreciate what Purefoy attempted to imbue to the role, but had the narrative been truer to the source material, it would have sufficed for Kane to merely be the BAMF he’s meant to be, without all the needless pathos.

I suppose I see what the writers were attempting to do in giving Kane a very wide character arc, but someday, I’d enjoy watching a movie that just dispensed with that sort of nonsense and embraced this brand of pulp character as they are, without regard for modern Hollywood sensibilities. Can’t Solomon Kane just go around killing bad people because of some strange, dark compulsion that even he doesn’t understand? Did he really need an entire moral journey that culminated in reclaiming his soul from Satan? Keep it simple, I say.

It wasn’t a totally incompetent film. It hangs together well enough as a narrative, and the effects and acting are largely fine. But ultimately, I didn’t find enough compelling characters to care about, the most visible baddie, himself, is a complete cypher, and Solomon Kane was too conflicted a character to carry the film.

Reviewapalooza

Some microreviews of a bunch of stuff I’ve streamed lately on Netflix.

redhoodCOVER[1]Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I haven’t read the comics upon which this film was based, but I put off watching Under the Red Hood, because as I recalled, the Red Hood plot line hadn’t gone over very well with some fans. I can’t speak to why, however, because I felt this turned out pretty well for all characters concerned. There’s a very problematic plot point with regards to the ulterior motive behind the Red Hood’s actions, but it’s forgiveable.  The narrative delivered a twist when, perhaps, it didn’t need one, but at least it helped get the story to its logical conclusion.

Any writing issues are more than made up for by very well-executed action sequences (the way Nightwing moves in this film is brilliantly animated) and great voice acting turns by Bruce Greenwood as Batman and Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood.

220px-Planet_Hulk_DVD[1]Planet Hulk (2010)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This probably deserves a slightly better rating on its own merits, but I felt that the translation from comics to film probably excised a lot of explanatory details that could have brought this story up to the next level. To be sure, I haven’t read the Planet Hulk comics, and I don’t necessarily feel compelled to do so after having seen the film, but I am willing to believe it’s probably a very decent storyline when told in its entirety. All of the elements for a great story are there, but I simply felt slightly irritated by a bunch of small things.

For example, I really didn’t feel that the opening sequence with Tony Stark narrating his reasons for sending the Hulk into space was an adequate explanation, especially given the characterization of the Hulk that followed, which actually made him seem rather rational and at times compassionate. And on that score, this isn’t the classic Jekyll/Hyde portrayal of the Hulk, but the film never bothered to address that.

DC-Showcase--Superman-Shazam--The-Return-of-Black-Adam[1]DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam (2010)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

This actually contained four different short features, all roughly the same length. The lead-in feature is the Superman/Shazam short, and I was looking forward to this, because Jerry O’Connell was reprising the role of Captain Marvel that he so perfectly voiced in Justice League Unlimited. This was a lot to like about this, but sadly, Jerry O’Connell didn’t get much to work with. It’s an origin story, so Captain Marvel is only in about half of it, and during that time, the story asks him to go a little dark for the climax, and that works against the earnestness and incorruptibility that the actor sold so well in JLU.

My favorite short in the set was easily the Green Arrow one, which had some really nice action set-pieces, and was simply a ton of fun. The Jonah Hex short was also fantastic. Of the four, the only one for which I didn’t really care was the Spectre short, if only because it seemed out of place. The other protagonists–even Jonah Hex–are all heroic, but the Spectre is just really sadistic, and would have worked better in, say, a horror anthology.

220px-DoctorStrangeDVD[1]Doctor Strange (2007)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Just too melodramatic to be much fun. In my opinion, it didn’t manage to capture the weirdness of the world of Doctor Strange. It leaned too heavily on standard horror movie beats and imagery. For me, it’s just not Doctor Strange unless you have something that looks like this. I just wanted something more exotic, and maybe something that tried a little bit less to be a stand-alone film and origin story.

11153114_800[1]Hulk Vs. (2009)

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

This contained two mini-features: Hulk vs. Thor and Hulk vs. Wolverine. Of the two, the latter was probably more interesting, though it probably tried a little too hard to mesh together every major Wolverine plot line form the past 30 years. Both features wisely (I think) understood that the Hulk was the least interesting character in the cast, so they made the narratives more about the other characters. I felt Hulk vs. Thor was a little awkward in the way it physically separated Banner from the Hulk–it isn’t the way that I think of the character. For me, Banner is the Hulk, not just a trapped soul inside some rage monster with a soul of its own.

1344701352_iron[1]The Invincible Iron Man (2007)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

I didn’t really care for it, to be honest. It changed up the Iron Man origin too much in order to shoehorn in a plot about the resurrection of the Mandarin. In addition, the CG-rendered Iron Man armors were a jarring distraction. Additionally, the denouement hinges upon a romance between Tony Stark and another character that just seemed false–but worse, it doesn’t allow Stark to really do anything directly to defeat the Mandarin, such as he is in this film. Amidst other problems.

600full-hellboy-animated--blood-and-iron-posterHellboy Animated: Blood and Iron (2007)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

If you can get past the Saturday Morning Cartoon style of the animation, this is pretty neat. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and John Hurt lend their voices, but I don’t know if this is in the continuity of the films or the comic books or just some sort of hybrid. Perlman is great as Hellboy, as usual, and the narrative is interestingly ordered, with flashbacks in reverse chronological order interspersed between segments of the main action.

I wish the animation had been up to the task of attempting to reproduce the distinctive atmosphere of a Hellboy comic book. A property as stylistic as this deserved better.

155356.39026146[1]Justice League: Doom (2012)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

The underlying plot is flawed, I think. Is Batman really the only person on Earth (and beyond) capable of inventing a plan to take each member of the Justice League out individually? But I suppose if you can accept the fact that Vandal Savage would go out of his way to steal Batman’s failsafe plans and put together a legion of doom in order to implement them, this is rather enjoyable.

There’s something rather odd about watching this, however, when one has seen the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, as this film uses the same voice actors. As a result, it felt kind of weird that this story should have been told in the continuity of the mainstream DC universe. Also, the climax was kind of ridiculous, even for a comic book film.

District 13 (2004)

Banlieue13[1]

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

This movie was written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morrel. If those two names mean anything to you, then you already know whether or not you want to see this film. In fact, if those names mean anything to you, then you’ve probably already seen District 13.

But I hadn’t. I had heard about it–probably about the time that Casino Royale came out, and everybody was suddenly talking about parkour. I didn’t bother to find out anything about District 13, though, even to the point of watching it on streaming Netflix last night, so I had this notion in my head that it was merely going to be some sort of plotless parkour exhibition. On the contrary, this was a rather good movie.

Obviously dumb, but still, rather good.

It takes place in the distant future of 2010, at which point the Paris ghettos have gotten so bad that they’ve decided to wall in the worst districts and just abandon the inhabitants to the wolves. But when a powerful clean bomb is accidentally stolen by the drug lord running the district, the government is compelled to send somebody in to find it.

The way I’ve written that plot makes it sound stupider than it actually is, though at the point that one stops to actually think about the bomb plot, it does begin to break down pretty quickly. But it’s not actually very important–in fact, that plot only begins in the second act, after the audience has already been introduced to the two protagonists through individual sequences of bad-assery that, had the first act been a movie on its own, it would have still been pretty cool.

I liked this film, unreservedly. It wasn’t a masterpiece, obviously. It was intended to not be boring, and it never was. It’s in the vein of The Transporter and Taken, so understand, it will never slow down long enough for you to wonder why you’re still watching it. If you’re into parkour, then take that for a pleasant bonus.

Superman vs. the Elite (2012)

SMvELITE_KEYART_DCU_FNLYRS2[1]

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

This should really be called Superman vs. The Authority. Because that’s what it is (The Authority have been reimagined as a smaller group called The Elite, but the parallels are, of course, glaring). So if you ever wondered how that would go down, this is how. Spoilers: he beats them.

Me, personally, I never wondered how that would play out, because these characters exist in vastly different comic book realities. And the fact that I kinda really loved the first couple of volumes of The Authority made me actively feel as though I didn’t want to see this confrontation. Let me just enjoy Superman and The Authority individually, please, and for different reasons.

And there’s an additional irony, of course, in the notion that The Authority, itself, is meant to be a sort of deconstructed version of The Justice League. But I won’t go there.

There were, to be sure, bits that I liked in this narrative. It isn’t an unworthy plot idea to want to explore how Superman’s version of truth, justice, and the American way fit into a post-9-11 worldview (I don’t believe that 9-11 actually happened in the DC universe, so this is just a meta commentary embodied in the comic book world by villains being more difficult to define and solutions existing in more of a grey area). At the same time, the structure of the story is a bit heavy-handed.

If nothing else, it’s just a bit difficult to reconcile the fact that members of the Elite go from worshipping Superman to wanting to kill him within a matter of days, and then, apparently, half the world basically going along with it just because Superman’s not cool anymore. I think the creators just tried to cram too many ideas into too short and lightweight a story.

Oh, also, –BEGIN SPOILERS– Superman lobotomizes a guy with his heat vision at the end. No joke. –END SPOILERS–

With all of that said, it was entertaining. But I wouldn’t recommend it over All Star Superman, which contained a lot more of what I consider to be the quintessence of the character.

By the way, animated version of The Authority, please!

All-Star Superman (2011)

all-star-superman-movie-image

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I understand why the viewer response to this animated film seems to be rather polarized: it’s partially for the same reason that Grant Morrison, himself, seems to be somewhat polarizing as a comic book creator. It’s stuffed full of quirky details that even while interesting can sometimes be distracting, as though Morrison knows he’s a clever guy, and he kind of wants to rub it in your face. The overall narrative carries the viewer from one high concept to the next without ever dwelling too long upon anything, such that one never has the opportunity to question whether there’s anything there apart from a few neat story ideas.

Now take a 12-part Grant Morrison mini-series in which the individual installments were meant to more or less stand alone, and merge them into a 70 minute film that almost irrefutably feels disjointed and meandering, and see what happens.

And yet, I really enjoyed this film. Perhaps it’s because I recently saw Man of Steel in the theater, and there just wasn’t a lot to love about the Superman character in that film. But for whatever reason, I found this to be a charming and very fondly crafted portrayal of Superman and the sundry characters and notions that inhabit his universe. Yes, the plot feels more like a series of vignettes than an actual structured, conventional three-act narrative. The pacing is often oddly lackadaisical. But damn it–it just gets Superman right for me. And that counts for something.

Also, I would be remiss to not mention the original score by Christopher Drake. Surprisingly great for a film like this.

This film is, by the way, available to stream instantly through Netflix. Hence the reason I finally watched it, as I’m doing the 30-day trial.

Books Read Lately

A few random comments about some books I’ve read lately.

Revan by Drew Karpyshyn

I was just skimming a few of the user reviews for this book over on Amazon.com–boy, did Drew Karpyshyn have an unenviable task in writing this book.

First of all, I should say that I read this book because of my interest in the storyline of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), which is the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game from BioWare. Revan, however, was the protagonist of BioWare’s 2003 single-player game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR).

So why do I feel a little sorry for Drew Karpyshyn? I guess because of the insanely fanatical devotion a lot of people seem to have to the KotOR characters, both from the original game and the sequel. This book, however, wasn’t meant to be the further adventures of Revan and the crew of the Ebon Hawk. It was meant to bridge the storylines of KotOR and SWTOR, as there’s something like a 300 year gap between them. As a result, Karpyshyn had to be pretty selective about which characters he was going to use, and as a result of that, a lot of people, apparently, felt as if they’d gotten the bait and switch.

I suppose I can understand that, but I’m not sure it’s a fair criticism of the book itself. To be sure, it does feel a bit as though Revan is almost the weak link in this story, as he’s far less interesting than the new characters introduced, like Lord Scourge and the Sith Emperor. But again, this is where Karpyshyn was in a bit of a tough spot, since Revan was the player character in KotOR, and owing to this, literally had no personality except for what the player decided it should be.

And on top of all of that, the book necessarily had to end with a sort of anti-climax, because the true culminations of these various plotlines were meant to play out in SWTOR. So I wasn’t surprised to discover that a lot of readers were unsatisfied.

Me, personally? I thought it was all right. I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who wasn’t planning to play SWTOR.

The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton

Wow, I’m a nerd. But you already knew that.

Despite, however, the fact that I’m a nerd for Star Wars, I really haven’t read much of the so-called Expanded Universe books. My enthusiasm hasn’t been helped by the fact that anytime I go browsing on Wookieepedia, I’m astounded by how much really stupid stuff is in the EU canon. But, because of some stuff I’m doing over in the previously-mentioned SWTOR, I was sort of curious about the Hapes Consortium introduced in this book, and the local library had a copy, so I picked it up.

I’m not going to lie. For the first couple of chapters, I kind of hated it. There seemed to be an assumption that I should have been reading the other books leading up to this one, and it all felt a bit like tuning in to a television show with an overarching storyline a few seasons late. Getting past that hump, however, I did find the story to be fairly rewarding.

The success of this book lies in the characterizations more than anything else, I think. In particular, the relationship between Han Solo and Leia is really given the complexity it deserves, and Wolverton is adept at writing their voices and even mannerisms. The plot, itself, is a little weird. It has Han kidnapping Leia in order to take her to visit a planet that he won in a card game, only to discover that the planet is being interdicted by the remnants of the Galactic Empire because it is inhabited by Force-sensitive witches.

Yeah, don’t even try to make sense of any of that. It works within the context of the character arcs, and there are a number of clever ideas and contributions to the Star Wars universe found herein. But my problem with, say, the Nightsisters of Dathomir or the Hapes Consortium is my problem with a lot of stuff in the Star Wars EU–many of the concepts seem only half-developed. I always want to know way more than what I’m given.

Still, pretty good book. I enjoyed reading it.

Quantum of Solace by Ian Fleming

Despite the title, this is not the novelization of the most-recently-released James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. This is merely a collection of James Bond short stories written by Ian Fleming, which includes a short story called Quantum of Solace (which has nothing at all to do with the plot of the movie). To be sure, Penguin actually just smooshed together a couple of previously released short story collections and cashed in on the title, so a few of these stories I had read already.

I went through a phase maybe ten years back of reading almost every Fleming-penned James Bond book, and I largely enjoyed them at the time, but in a way, I actually think some of these short stories are some of the most interesting works in the Bond library, if only because we get to see Bond in a number of different contexts.

For example, Quantum of Solace really has no espionage in it at all except for a couple of paragraphs near the start to explain why Bond is in Nassau. The majority of the narrative is concerned with a story Bond listens to at a dinner party, about a career bureaucrat who marries an unfaithful airline hostess. Somehow Fleming managed to make this work.

As another example, The Hildebrand Rarity again has Bond basically just on vacation somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and tagging along with a repugnant American millionaire who wants to capture a rare fish for the Smithsonian so he can claim his million dollar boat as a tax write-off.

James Bond is an interesting character the way Fleming writes him. Reading this, I was reminded of how Alan Moore chose to portray Bond in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, as a mean, misogynistic buffoon. Here’s a quote I just found from Moore, talking to Wired magazine:

Sometimes we have characters who are greatly revered that we feel are perhaps too revered, and we would like to give a more accurate picture of them. As an example, there would be the character in The Black Dossier who bears a considerable resemblance to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Well, it’s Ian Fleming’s James Bond, actually. But what we were trying to do is show the origins of this character, to show what a totally unpleasant character at its inception James Bond was—a nasty misogynist, some very suspect sexual inclinations, not at all the suave character the movies rounded him out into. We wanted the original James Bond, warts and all.

I’m mentioning it to say that I think he’s simplifying. For example, one of the traits you’ll spot here in a couple of stories is Bond’s utter resentment of his double-0 number–he hates assassinations, almost no matter the reason for them. And in From a View to a Kill, his decision to attempt not to kill another man almost gets him killed.

Does Bond have misanthropic tendencies? Probably. But he’s also the sort who makes fast friends with interesting people and honestly, he’s not as a rule terrible to women (though I suppose it is clear he doesn’t see them as equals to men, and he is quick to call them “bitches”). And he’s certainly not a buffoon, because he has an agile mind that allows him to make connections that others don’t, as shown in stories like The Property of a Lady, in which he roots out the head Russian spy in England by nothing more violent than observing an auction.

I don’t know…I just think that pigeonholing him into the role of the cruel misogynist is too trite. It’s not a full and proper reading of the character. But maybe that’s just me. Then again, Moore’s portrayal is pretty strange on the whole, and only really works as out-and-out parody, in my opinion. I think he was being a bit disingenuous when he said he was trying to portray the character as he was originally conceived.

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m never quite certain how to rate comedies, because what makes us laugh is so thoroughly subjective. I’m absolutely mystified, for example, by a user review that I just read on the IMDb that claimed there wasn’t a laugh to be found in The Dictator.

Reading something like that, an unflattering image of that reviewer immediately came to mind: I imagined him sitting in a darkened room in small apartment where he lives alone, the light from his computer monitor emphasizing the sneer curling his lip–a sneer that evinces a bile-filled hatred for all things whimsical and mirthful. His figurative stick is planted so far up his ass that he has totally forgotten it’s up there. If he had a lawn, he would surely be telling the neighborhood kids to get off of it.

Whatever your opinion is about The Dictator, if you didn’t laugh once, I’ve got to figure there’s something seriously wrong with you–you’ve had your sense of humor amputated or something. I don’t know. The following review is not for you.

Whatever else this movie is, I think there’s one thing at least to recommend about it–it’s damn funny. At least, in my subjective opinion.

On the surface, this is pretty obviously meant to be a satire of…well…almost everything, from oppressive dictatorial regimes, to oil companies, to ignorant stereotypes embraced by insular American white guys, to vegan feminists. The Dictator takes a sort of chaotic, shotgun approach to its targets, not sparing any sacred cows, but not exactly presenting anything meant to provoke deep thought, either. The satire exists purely in the interest of furthering the cause of the laughs in this film, and for no other reason. The moment the viewer takes this film seriously for even half a second is the point at which that viewer has clearly missed the point entirely.

This is not Borat, which attempted to reflect American society back at us through the eyes of its casually racist naif of a protagonist, and employed an hilarious (if often cringe-inducing) blend of scripted sequences and comedic improvisation with unwitting participants in order to do so. Yes, it’s true that Sasha Baron Cohen has fallen back on the trusty fish-out-of-water proposition that served him so well in Borat, and perhaps less well in Bruno (which I liked, to be sure), but what you have to understand going in is that this is a roundly different film from those others.

The primary, obvious difference is that it’s totally scripted, and to that end, is held together by some sort of conventional narrative, albeit a mockery of threadbare romcoms. But the other difference that seems apparent to me is that I honestly don’t believe Cohen has even the faintest trace of a message that he’s trying to convey here. All he and his collaborators have done is to see the funny in a world that is often overly serious.

The trappings suggest that he’s interested in lampooning the Arab Spring (and maybe to some extent, the Western lust for spreading its cultural values across the globe in the form of democracy–no matter how ludicrous an embodiment of democracy) but it’s really all just a springboard for this wonderful character that Cohen has invented, a sort of live-action cartoon caricature.

This is totally frivolous filmmaking (which isn’t to say it isn’t very smart at points–because it certainly is), and I wouldn’t say it’s essential viewing for anybody. But it is hella funny. I found myself gasping for air more than a few times. That was enough for me.

Edit: Nearly as funny as this movie are the comments by people who hated it. My god, there are some truly miserable people in this world. And the hilarious thing about it is that most of them are outraged about how mean-spirited the film allegedly is, blind to the irony that the comments they have for Sasha Baron Cohen (and typically by extension, anybody who liked the film) are totally douchey.

On a related note, I’ve got some advice for people who get accused of having no sense of humor. Don’t respond to that accusation with a blistering tirade, because you just proved the person’s point.