I may have gone into "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" ready to shred it apart, but this weekend I went in to see "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" toting a mental blender set on 'high'. To put it another way, a friend of mine called during dinner prior to the movie and I told her I was about to indulge in 'train-wreck syndrome' by going to see it. As hideously maladapted as the live-action adapted Transformers have been--the few exceptions being covered in my review of "Revenge of the Fallen"--I was convinced that a live-action rendition of Hasbro's companion 1980's toy and cartoon line would be equally grotesque.
Boy, was I surprised.
For starters, "G.I. Joe" has something that the (lovingly nicknamed) Bay-Formers movies miss like a rainstorm in Death Valley: plot AND suspense. I actually did not know what was going to happen next as the movie went along. Sure, the premise still asks for a good bit of suspended disbelief; if America's military-industrial complex can't equip its soldiers with newer body armor, how in the world could they afford a secret training base in the Sahara, complete with multiple levels and underwater courses? But then again, it wouldn't be the first time that taxpayers have unknowingly footed the bill for something outlandishly high-tech (think the Stealth Bomber). Other bits of technological wizardry in "G.I. Joe" represent either a fantastic elaboration of ideas already in development, such as the nanomites; or else were a flight of pure imagination that was at least visually appealing, such as the underwater M.A.R.S. base or the unnecessary-but-fun-to-watch sequence to weaponize a nanomite warhead. When I heard that the same director for the "Mummy" franchise was doing "G.I. Joe", I was more than a little skeptical. But to his credit, "Rise of Cobra" managed to present plenty of action that was still enjoyable to watch, furthered the story and didn't devolve into clutter being thrown at the screen, a' la Bay-Formers.
I have to give "Rise of Cobra" another unexpected high mark in its translation of classic concepts and characters. Frankly, I could only wish that Bay-Formers had done so well, but unfortunately that crew still can't figure out how to treat robots as real characters instead of just walking, talking special effects. The "G.I. Joe" filmmakers, by contrast, knew they were dealing with human characters that had to be made believable. While this new incarnation does take some liberties, especially with the Baroness, it manages to weave those liberties in well enough that discussing them is more akin to comparing the pros and cons of different intepretations of Batman, as opposed to a point-by-point list of where the filmmakers screwed up (as in the aforementioned property). Rival ninjas Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes were handled with true grace, Duke and Scarlett had more depth than I was expecting, Zartan was made both fairly believable and fun--how many people realized they were seeing him at the President's desk at film's end?--and Destro's backstory was used to great effect as the major plot thrust. Canon elements such as the sexual tension between Destro and the Baroness, phrases like "Knowing is half the battle" and even "Yo, Joe!" were incorporated deftly into the story. I came away from this movie with the distinct sense that its writers genuinely cared about the original property--again, unlike the vultures clustered around Transformers. "Rise of Cobra" even managed to use an element from that god-awful 1986 G.I. Joe movie by making Cobra Commander a scientist. I kept guessing who the partially-masked evil scientist working with Destro/James McLellan was. Is that Cobra Commander? No, it must be Dr. Mindbender! I, like probably much of the Gen-Xers in the audience, was kept off-balance about his identity until the very end of the movie. When he finally donned a full face mask and announced himself as Cobra Commander, I wanted to cheer but was too busy catching my breath. And while I can reluctantly admit that the Darth Vader-esque voice seems to work for the dear Commander, I still miss the acidic rasp he originally had through Chris Latta, and rue the apparent fact that nobody has the cajones to try to pull it off today. As my viewing partner and partner-in-crime Daryn said, to hear the Commander say, "Sssssitizens of the world!" would be 'like Christmas for me'.
The only characterization quibble I have, as alluded to previously, was with the Baroness. In the original cartoon and comic she was a spoiled European heiress with a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent thick enough to serve on Chinet, so I can appreciate the filmmakers wanting to move away from something that cliche'd and give her more depth. Tying her backstory in with Duke's also added a new twist that will surely be used in the sequels that are destined to come. My one complaint is this: our society seems incapable of letting a woman be evil simply because she's a bitch. Here, we discover that the Baroness was a treacherous sex kitten because her brother, who allowed her to believe that he was dead, manipulated her with his nanomites and then used her as a pawn. While it certainly makes her brother a suitably evil bastard, it says little for female empowerment. It implies that women could never have enough impetus or free will to choose, actively and voluntarily, a life of treachery. The real world has entirely too many women in it who do just that, even if they don't dress in cleavage-baring black vinyl and tote pulse guns. I would appreciate the catharsis of watching a femme fatale pursue evil--that is not tied to her sexuality--for its own sake, then cheering her inevitable downfall. Especially because the "G.I. Joe" franchise offers strong and heroic women like Scarlett, and hopefully in coming films Lady Jay (my personal favorite of the two), having a truly evil Baroness to counterpoint them would not be sexist in the slightest.
But the greatest virtue that "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" has comes long after the credits finish rolling. The next afternoon following our viewing, Daryn and I saw a friend of ours, just out of high school, who had also gone to see the movie. She had several questions for us to the effect of, "what did this mean?" and "what was that all about?" She was vaguely familiar with G.I. Joe, but had never seen any of the original cartoon nor read any of the comics. "The Rise of Cobra" ended up sparking a half-hour conversation between a teenager, myself and Daryn, and another thirty-something friend who seldom had enough common interest to join in our other discussions. This movie bridged a gap between generations and spheres of interest, and again it did so with a smoothness that the live-action Transformers films have yet to accomplish. I don't have to grimace and tell my younger friends, "Well, it's nothing like the original." With "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", we all have something to enjoy, compare, and share. And that is the greatest aim that any film adaptation can accomplish.
An Expensive Learning Curve: Reviewing
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"
by Sharon "Tut"
I went in to see "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ready to shred it apart. I hated the first live-action "Transformers" adaptation and early reviews for this new one didn't show much promise. So I sat down in the theatre with my analytic wits at the ready; and, I must say, I was a bit surprised. "Revenge" shows some marked improvements over the first installment. However, the gaps between these improvements betray several systemic flaws that continue to hold back this film franchise's potential.
Several reviewers have already accused this movie of having no plot. Let me clarify: this movie has some plot, just no suspense. We figured out, through several different characters' explanations, everything that remained to unfold with at least a half-hour left to go in the film. There were no surprise twists close to the end, no additional revelations to have the audience wondering, "Now what?" This fault lies obviously with the writers, who seemed to make no effort to keep any story elements hidden and deliberately string the audience along. Consider a film's amount of plot as falling within a spectrum: popcorn fluff like the first "Transformers" and "Independence Day" are at the lowest end, while an example of the absolute highest end would be the "Bourne" trilogy (which has you guessing until the end of the third film). "Revenge of the Fallen" would be in the lower middle of this spectrum; which, again, is still an improvement over the last one.
Plot in "Revenge" is stalled by another factor, specifically its pacing. It took forever for the story to build momentum--almost as bad as in director Michael Bay's god-awful earlier film, "Independence Day", which spent almost an hour just on exposition. I bet that as much as a full half-hour of "Revenge of the Fallen" could have been shaved off had the battle sequences not been so bloated with stock, slow-motion-running-punching-or-transfor
Which brings me to the issue of special effects. We have to stop judging movies based on the quality of their special effects, because those effects are no longer "special". The last truly groundbreaking visual effects came in the 1999 "Matrix" film, and ironically were made with more traditional camera techniques than computer imagery. So to revel in "ooh, wow, check out these nifty CGI transformation sequences"--or conversely, to carp on robots moving with gymnastic agility as not looking "real"--is no longer a valid argument. Ten years ago, when the technology was still being perfected, it would have been a more relevant complaint. But for better or worse, the blending of live and CGI elements we have in "Transformers" and "Revenge" is now commonplace rather than exceptional; this would be a good time for filmmakers to rediscover those traditional virtues of editing, creatively staging, and storytelling with imagery as well as words. The technology has been mastered, now filmmakers need to master its utilization.
That being said, I think this film also proved why the looking-down-the-nose prejudice of CGI versus traditional animation is utterly baseless. Remember those repetitive, drawn-out transformation sequences from animated classics like "Voltron", the original "Transformers", and many others? Remember how 'cheesy' we called them as we got older? Well, they live on in "Revenge of the Fallen". In fact, all of the vagaries present in the original Transformers' conversion sequences have been reincarnated in "Revenge". Some sequences were quick--one or two seemed almost nonexistent--while others were prolonged just to show off the 'ooh neat' factor, and there were inconsistencies between the various transformations. I've studied examples from the original cel-animated characters in order to map out their transforming sequences step by step for my own art; I saw some of the same deliberate shortcuts and shortfalls in "Revenge" as I did in the original 1986 movie. Which ultimately proves that, no matter what medium or technology is used, the human artist's capability is still what makes or breaks the final animation. And again, it illustrates why effect sequences should be treated as a component, not the focal point, of a film.
From this point on, if you want to avoid spoilers, I advise averting thine eyes!
Certain elements of "Revenge" did show tremendous potential. The feline Decepticon Ravage, for example, was spot-on. I wholeheartedly nominate him as the best translation of a G1 character to live action in either film, and frankly, he needed more screen time. More opportunities for him to slink behind enemy lines, hack into the humans' computer systems, or generally wreak covert havoc would have be fun and creepy and great. Also fun and creepy was when Megatron pinned down Sam Witwicky in order to have one of his minions scan Sam's brain. This sequence directly pitted human frailty against cold, unforgiving machine, something I would like to see more of in these movies. My only complaint with that scene--other than it being too short--was that the little minion robot was too comical. This problem, again, is systemic within "Revenge" and its predecessor. The exchange might have been even creepier, and thus more compelling, had Megatron himself been able to perform the scan. The conflict between him and Sam would have been even more immediately personal at that point.
Megatron's interplay with Starscream was also rather well done. I accept, however heavy-heartedly, that we will never have Chris Latta's version of Starscream back. But his old colleague Charles Adler is forging a new Starscream that could certainly hold his own in these new movies, provided he's given enough screen time to do so. Starscream actually had the third element on my list of "fun, creepy and great, but we need more": his ominous circling over the climactic battle at the Great Pyramids and knocking out communications from the air (which is something of an homage to G1 Starscream's ability to disrupt electrical circuits with his null rays). A jet circling overhead might seem like a minor element, but if carried further than it had been here, it could have played up the vulnerability of the ground-based human and Autobot forces as Starscream attacked them from the air, cold and aloof and untouchable.
Unfortunately, small diamonds such as the ones I've just described have to be picked out from the coal and muck of several gross caricatures. Aside from the aforementioned comic buffoon minions, if I ever hear another critic of G1 complain about how anthropomorphic the original characters looked, all I have to do now is point out the idiotic Autobot twin with the gold tooth, Jetfire's beard and cane, and the coup de grace, Devastator's "Decepticles". Thank you, Michael Bay, for justifying scores of X-rated Transformers fanfiction writers who luridly describe anthropomorphosized sex acts between robots in so-called "sticky fics". And no, I am NOT making any of this up.
I found two glaring mistakes made with two established characters, but otherwise the classic cast was well-done. Soundwave, appearing for the first time in "Revenge", stayed wonderfully faithful to his original persona, especially with his G1 voice actor Frank Welker reprising the role. I clapped and wanted to cheer when I heard him, though I still openly regret that Mr. Welker wasn't given his due with Megatron as well. That was not one of the two specific characterization errors I found, however. The first occurred very early in the film, when Optimus Prime levelled his blaster at a defeated Decepticon and asked, "Any last words?" before a short exchange and shooting said Decepticon in the head. Prime should never have done that, because it contradicts his canon-established value for all life, including Decepticons'. Recall that in the 1986 movie his demise came when he refused to shoot Megatron unarmed, and then when Megatron took another Autobot as a shield. What Optimus should have said in "Revenge" was something to the effect of, "It doesn't have to be this way," allowing the Decepticon to remain unrepentantly defiant, maybe even trying to fight back. Optimus' killing shot should have been accompanied by, "Then you leave me no choice." He never gloried in the dirty job he had to do.
The second problem was with Megatron essentially playing second fiddle to The Fallen. Megatron bows to no one. He is absolute. On one hand this situation could have presented some wonderful story potential, such as a badly-needed surprise twist at the end; Megatron could have turned on The Fallen once their doomsday machine was activated, killing him and claiming the potential glory for himself. This would also foreshadow any potential treachery with Starscream, since Megatron would have overthrown his master and Starscream would repeat the cycle. But for Megatron to sincerely choose discipleship to any being is quite out of character, and furthermore it steals his thunder. Good villains don't deserve that.
This movie did manage to pique my 'inner geek' with a few things, though. The calligraphic symbols Sam kept seeing and scribbling everywhere look like a cross between Siddham script (a type of Sanskrit used in Buddhist mandalas), Arabic and maybe a little Tibetan. Using this Cybertronian script for subtitles was another fun addition; has anyone bothered to develop a "Cybertronian alphabet" with this? If so, the armchair calligrapher in me wants to break out my brush and ink and get my fan geek on.
The Egyptian references were certainly not lost upon me, either. I could tell several shots were done in the famous Hypostyle Hall at the temple of Amun at Karnak--the mock-up set imitated it fairly well, although technically there are no ruins that look like that immediately near the Great Pyramids. It was a rather appropriate irony, though, that a device meant to destroy the sun emerged from an ancient monument that was built (by the Egyptians, not aliens!) to evoke the mythical Primeval Mound from which the sun god Ra first emerged. I also noticed that The Fallen's head design included blue stripes reminiscent of the pharaohs' traditional nemes headdress; think the mask of King Tut, or check www.kingtut.org for another visual comparison. So for all those who've commented bemusedly at my Egyptian headdress with the Autobot and Decepticon symbols on it, I say, "HAH! I called it first!"
On the whole, "Revenge of the Fallen" represents essentially a multi-million-dollar learning curve. The production team seems to be learning how to work with the Robots in Disguise, but all of their progress is being weighed down by bad habits and egocentric notions. If they can just get over their own "ooh, wow, special effects robots!" and ridiculously unwholesome sight gags, instead concentrating on just telling their story, they can cover some real ground with this franchise. Maybe if they take some of the revenue from "Revenge" and use it to make a few practice pieces, "Transformers 3" will be a genuinely good film.
I'm going to skip the obvious cliches of "gee, hard to believe... let's look back over..." yadda yadda about 2008. Today's the last date of '08. That's it. It's about to be outta here like, well, last year.
What's got me feeling upbeat after an otherwise lousy month is that I've made some hella-progress on my website. The Egyptian site is up to date and up to snuff, after much work and re-work. Now if I can just get it back on an ad-free space! (That's for '09...) If you're so inclined, the URL is http://tuts-tomb.50megs.com/
But the BIG victory for me is getting to update my main Transformers site, VOICES OF CYBERTRON. Some of you guys will be familiar with its original printed form; whether you own any issues of VOC or not, though, you'll definitely want to see what I've done with the web version. I've added some more images, including color versions of pictures that originally went with one of the essays, and links to a couple of images on DA. I've added another article from the 1980's titled "War Toys on the March"--this thing was hysterical when we first ran it in 2000, but it's even funnier now. And I've got more stuff planned for the coming year, so be sure to bookmark Voices of Cybertron! You can find it at: http://voicesofcybertron.awardspace.com/
I've also got dealer space for two conventions paid for, got one left to finish reserving and a local pagan festival that I should be able to do this year since it shouldn't conflict with Mechacon. Here's hoping that, after all the confusion and chaos of this year, 2009 will be the year to forge ahead!
Just wanted to post a few random updates. If you haven't already read my last entry, "Feeling Charitable This Season?..." then I recommend it, as it ties in somewhat to this one.
Of course, this being the holiday season and times being tough for most folks, there are plenty of calls for giving. If you're considering donating money to a particular organization, check them out first on www.guidestar.org. You'll probably need to set up a free account, but it only takes a couple of minutes and once you're set, you can look up any charity you can think of and find out their tax ID numbers, plus what they say their money goes toward. If you're suspicious about a group, it's a great way to find disparities.
There is one charity I was able to send a little cash-ey to, which I will plug here. It's the Sioux Heating Assistance Fund sponsored by the Link Center Foundation (www.linkcenterfoundation.org). They help Lakota Indians on the reservations in South Dakota pay their heating bills in the winter months. The Lakota reservations are some of the poorest in the nation, with unemployment at 85% and yearly incomes less than $4K. That averages to $333 to live on per month; I remember how hard it was to live on $630 a month! According to the Link Center's website, some Indians have had to burn their own furniture just to keep warm during recent blizzards. My own Cherokee ancestors never lived on a reservation, but I consider it a good way to honor them by helping fellow Native Americans who do live on "the rez". If you've got ten or twenty dollars to put toward a good cause, you can check out either the Link Center's website or Network For Good (www.networkforgood.org) and send 'em some Paypal.
Meanwhile, I'm currently working on overhauling parts of my website. If I'm going to indulge in self-gratifying effluvia, I want it to all be ad-free, dimmit...! I'll post links once I have everything up to snuff.
For those of you who are fellow Transformers fans, I like to emulate Ravage's profile--people may not hear from me, but rest assured it's cause I'm up to no good. Funny thing, it seems to apply to my cat named Ravage, too! So, it's back to work being up to no good!
I've lived in government-subsidized housing for the past ten years. It's certainly not a 'badge of honor' in many people's eyes, but it is definitely a unique vantage point from which to observe how society behaves toward the less fortunate. I've seen what comes in those Christmas gift bags from the Salvation Army (travel toothbrushes and pictures of Jesus, oh boy,) and I know that yes, government-issued cheese really is that good. But, having received donations of canned goods from friends, family members and others, I've learned that sometimes you actually need to look a gift horse in the mouth. Otherwise, you might end up really sick.
Consider the case of my close friend (who shall remain anonymous) and her two grocery bags full of food. She and her mother cleaned out their pantries to give some food to their local food bank, but since my fiance' and I were on a tight budget, she offered to bring them to us instead. The gift was certainly appreciated, and we made several meals out of her donation. However, somewhere along the way I noticed an expiration date on a canned good or a pack of mix. Keep in mind that I was reading this label in early 2007--the expiration date read 2003. I checked a few more canned goods; several also had expiration dates of 2003 and 2004, respectively. If you consider that most canned soups, vegetables and gravies have a shelf life of one or two years, this meant the items in question had to have been bought in 2001 or 2002!
This kind of situation has two possible motivations, but one common and very innocuous beginning. Something gets bought from the canned food aisle and put in a cupboard. Maybe it was purchased on a whim; maybe the buyer's tastes changed after that particular item was bought; or maybe they just stocked up on something and one extra can got pushed to the back of the cupboard. But for whatever reason, there it sits on a shelf for a couple of years, never used. The process repeats a few times in the interim. Then the annual season of giving sounds its call, and prompts a kitchen cleaning. These old cans of food are suddenly discovered, and rather than feel wasteful for throwing away something they surely won't eat, people pass them on to a food bank. We all know the old saying, "beggars can't be choosers", right?
That's my kinder reconstruction of events. I know that many people are indeed genuinely concerned about those who have less, such as my friend and her mother, who probably don't even realize how old the foods are that they donate. Most people don't read labels as thoroughly as I do, either. But that leaves the other motivation, and the other group of people. These individuals go through life wearing figurative blinders, and don't even bother to think about the ilk that live in a lower tax bracket or, worse, depend on programs supported by what taxes their betters can't get out of. The only time these blessed upper-middle-class patriots think about the poor is when they vote to curtail social programs, then feel guilty afterwards and drop coins into a red bucket outside the mall. For those people, donating expired canned goods is a better salve on the conscience than just throwing old food away.
Whatever the intention or lack thereof, the end result is that less fortunate people can end up with food that isn't really safe for them to eat. And, having a better education and way with a keyboard than many others in my position, I consider it my duty to speak out on all of our behalf. This is one social problem that is easily solved. It involves only the most minimal of sacrifices: a few moments of time, and maybe a few dollars at the store. If you plan to donate canned goods this holiday season, then by all means, do go through your pantry and look at all of your wares. But check for expiration dates on all of your goods: if something has a date that's expired, throw it away. If it has no date, it's probably still good, but be thorough; some dates get stamped on the bottom, on the sides, or sometimes crimped onto the end of a packet. If you end up with nothing to spare at the end of your cleaning, just get an extra can or two of something you normally buy and donate that instead. The meaning at that point is much more personal, more truly generous. Instead of just saying, "here, have this," it says, "I like this, I hope you do, too." At that point, you are indeed being a friend to the poor.
So remember this holiday season: Before you donate, check the XP date.
Anybody remember that movie "Wall Street" from the 80's, with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen? The one where Michael Douglas's character makes that whole speech about how "Greed is good?" In the end, his protege' Charlie Sheen acted on conscience and turned him in for fraud, even though it meant possible jail time for Sheen's character too.
That was Hollywood. In the real world, both of 'em would be scrambling on Capital Hill to get support for this bailout plan right now.
I'll admit it: I'm watching this whole Wall Street meltdown with an intense feeling of shadenfreude. The timing of this whole thing couldn't have been more classic. Here we are, right before an election, and our financial system is in such a pickle that the government has to get involved to "unclog the markets"--yet Washington itself is paralyzed because of upcoming elections! Isn't this beautiful? For once, the government actually fears who it should--us, the voters! I say, let Wall Street burn.
I've read what some analysts are saying: people don't understand the ramifications of this crisis, and that if credit markets freeze up then jobs will be lost and loans for cars, houses and college will be impossible to get. Well, I have news for these folks--it's hard for a lot of ordinary people to get these things now. February must be too long ago for most people to remember, but I recall an article on the front page of USA Today back then that described how more and more Americans had to use credit cards to pay for daily expenses. Until I started working this spring, Daryn and I were in the same boat. Guess what, folks, when you have to use a credit card for a necessity, you're living outside of your means. Period. And that's exactly what a lot of Americans are doing now--not just bum recent-college-grads and 'liberal ilk' like myself and Daryn, but even supposedly 'respectable' red-state SUV-driving Americans. That veneer of smug affluence that so many of my 'betters', socioeconomically speaking, had wrapped themselves up in is about to be shattered and I say BRING IT.
Reagan, Shrub, and everyone who ever supported their insane economic ideas has it wrong. This is not a 'trickle-down' economy, it is a trickle-UP economy. It starts at the bottom and works its way up. People on blessed "Main Street" started biting off more than they could chew, putting themselves in greater and greater debt so they could make a show of living the American Dream. All those subprime mortgages bear witness to this American Obsession with materialism. Now the money's gone on precious Main Street, and that's why there's no hot air left to inflate Wall Street. It's a culture of greed, right out of Michael Douglas' character's speech, so is it any wonder that Bush and the Feds, the real fat cats, are only interested in saving themselves? I bet the Commander in Thief was hoping all this would come crashing down after he got out of office and could retire to his Retardo Ranch in Texas--wouldn't be his first miscalculation...
And while I'm slamming all of the people and ideologies that frankly are in desperate need of it, let me add one other thought: in light of this meltdown on the stock market, do we REALLY want to privatize Social Security like Bush wanted to do in 2000 and 2004? Do we REALLY WANT to put the money we'll depend on when we become old or disabled--that so many elderly and disabled depend on already--at stake when it could be mismanaged so badly? If people are stupid enough to forget about what's going on right now, mark my words, I will be sure to voice a resounding reminder! Those who forget, as the saying goes, are surely doomed to repeat.
Let the blue chips fall where they may. Solutions to this crisis have to start where the problem did--from the bottom up.