Monday, August 20, 2012

Falling Skies

Tonight (when I write this) is the second season finale, but I haven't watched it so there's no worry about spoilers. I am caught up, though, as of last week, and it has taken a total of 19 episodes over two summers to become interesting. This is a fairly harsh criticism of the show, but as much as I love Science Fiction I can't say this is a genre-worthy effort. The new TV version of V really should have gone this route, but didn't and that was a much better attempt at a "humans resist an alien occupation" story. I write this in the vain hope that someone attached to the show might actually read this and fix some, if not all, of my issues. Not being one who just says something is terrible and walks away, I will justify my displeasure with Falling Skies in the following paragraphs.

But first, maybe I should say something good. There are a few solid actors with good performances, and that helps me stomach most of the "over-Drama". The location shooting and sets are incredibly well done. I believe they really are in a ruined urban environment. The alien mech design, and alien tech in general, is pretty interesting. And the opening credit of the Falling Skies logo over the Earth looks great, but it doesn't contextual fit with the story.

Now for the bad stuff. DreamWorks is attached which helps with the budget, because this show needs it. I expect a lot out of Spielberg's name and the special effects often look cheap. I know they're doing their best with limited resources but I just can't buy into the invasion if the aliens look like poor CG. It has improved since last year, but not by much. They try to hide this by doing a lot of stuff at night, but that just muddles the action, too. I want to watch the resistance, not hear shouting in the dark. The action scenes should be understandable.

There seems to be a mystery in the background of the story, but I don't feel any closer to finding out why the aliens are on Earth, which seems pretty important to me. There are only ten episodes produced a year. There isn't time to drag out a mystery like you're making the next version of Lost. Once every couple episode someone will ask a good question (i.e. Why do aliens kidnap children? Why do the mechs have two legs when the aliens have six? Why are they tearing apart the city to build other structures?). Then, something random happens like a medical emergency or a child goes missing or any excuse not to further the plot. The stories just go in circles about surviving the day. The writers seem to have forgotten everyone is part of a military unit tasked with scouting the enemy and attacking vulnerable points. Make the occupation painful.

How many humans died? It seems to me that human civilization is over. Just like Independence Day there are massive casualties and city-wide destruction. If there are even enough humans to band together and kick the aliens off Earth, can anyone rebuild the society? Nobody seems to realize that if the resistance fails that's it for humanity. If the leadership can't get the very best of the people under them then everyone is doomed. And yet, characters argue the morality of teaching their kids to use guns. This isn't the same society as the viewing audience. Even Rick taught his kid, Carl, how to shoot zombies in The Walking Dead. There is a good chance here to compare the new morality of survivalism with what we viewers are used to. That's what Sci-Fi does, it helps us see ourselves in a different light.

The key moments I want to see in the show all happen off screen. The opening invasion is depicted by a voice-over from a child in a therapy session. There are crayon pictures of destruction. Unacceptable! The viewers deserve to see the invasion, so as adults we can put it into perspective for the characters. As it stands the war seems like a nine-to-five job. This season, the 2nd Mass' nurse under Dr. Anne Glass, Lourdes (who is given terrible dialog and rarely has anything important to do in a scene), gets a boyfriend, Jamil. He is not introduced in the show but in the comic book that takes place in the three months between the seasons. Why should I have to read the comic to learn the character? They couldn't have given him five minutes in an episode? SPOILER WARNING: he's killed horribly in front of Lourdes during episode 7. She falls apart in every episode after that because they were so close. But we never saw that happen because it occurred during the two weeks between episode 6 and 7. Season 2 often refers to The Battle of Fitchburg, and very specifically, SPOILER again, in episode 3 a boy, Jimmy, is killed and a compass of his is stolen by Pope (more on him). Unless you read the comic (or the smart-phone app) you won't know the significance of either. That is unacceptable story telling.

Who the hell is Pope? I hate his character. He's introduced as a leader of outlaws, killing aliens or humans who get near his territory. But he learned a lot of survival and has good intel on how to kill aliens. He knows humanity is doomed so he's carving out his place to watch the world burn. If he drinks, murders, rapes and pillages then so be it. Then they made him join the cast and he becomes an idiot. It took an 8-year-old's suggestion for him to use alien bullets to kill other aliens. Really? I though of that in the first episode, and he's supposed to be an expert at creative killing techniques? Once he's tamed and everyone likes him the first season ends, but season two starts three months later. He's volatile and commands a group called the Berserkers who act like they're in the Road Warrior. No explanation what happened or how he got his own unit, which itself is weird because nobody likes any of them. Something happened the writers didn't let us in on.

I understand there should be young people in the show, it is made up of refugees (and aliens don't actually kill children), but these kids can't act. From the kid point of view it must look awesome to see all these adults running around with guns, but no one stops to teach the kids context or what happened to the world, so they just keep getting in the way. Matt, Tom's youngest, constantly wants to join the fight. He's eight, I think. Everyone says he's "too young" without telling him (or us) what "too young" means in this new world. This constitutes the bulk of the family drama, parents hiding the horrors of the occupation and near genocide of the human race from their kids. They even put the kids in school to keep the illusion that everything is normal.

Maybe Falling Skies isn't meant for me. It comes off as a family show (with teenager and kid issues), but it seems really out of place. The main character, Tom Mason, has too many kids, Hal, Ben and Matt. He can't keep track of them. In fact the series starts with one of his kids missing and Tom is willing to jeopardize the whole unit to save him. In the process Hal's girlfriend gets captured, which leads him to do more suicidal missions. This really goes to the crux of my issues; the story. 

Was each episode written by a committee? Almost all the scripts have equal parts teen romance, father-son moment, other family drama, medical drama, character drama and combat. Neither of these plot threads are strong enough on their own, but to shove them together in one story just frustrates me. Switching between six different plot points with six different tones ruins the tempo. There are too many characters that I don't care about getting too much screen time.

Falling Skies is a character drama pretending to be Science Fiction. Most of the time the camera is on a character at the height if his/her emotion at the expense of the story. No matter what's happening somewhere else, if a character is crying, the camera moves to them. Most of the drama is forced like the issue of Tom and Ben's capture. There are lots of people in every episode complaining they shouldn't be let back in the 2nd Mass. Same argument, with drama, every episode. Get over it. Episode 8 of this year has everyone arrive at Charleston to join the Continental Army. They drove all the way from New York to get there through alien occupied and devastated countryside only to find the bridge to the city was out. They stopped and cried a whole bunch. They gave up! You can't even see the city to know no one is there. Then, at the lowest dramatic point the Continental Army shows up and gives everyone hope for the future.

So my quick and easy fix is to drop the character drama and teen romance drivel. There is a mission to liberate Earth that the show forgot about. If this is a family show then why emphasize all the death and destruction. Show how the kids are having to learn to grow up out of it. All the characters seem to think everything will go back to normal as soon as the aliens leave. They need to change their attitude and be realistic. There have been two or three first contact moments where the viewers almost learned something important. The alien invasion just happened, there wasn't a breakdown in diplomacy, so any chance to actually talk to an alien should be jumped at. Think of Independence Day, again. And most of all, start answering questions before introducing new ones. I want this show to work as it appears to have a season 3. Maybe they could borrow some writers from Jericho.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Weekend of The Bourne Legacy

I spent a large amount of time at the local cinema this weekend watching some current releases and catching up on a couple older titles. All this while enjoying too much Popcorn and Coke Zero. Nothing I saw had a lot of people in it, so I think the Batman Effect is still working. By that I mean people must be seeing The Dark Knight Rises 'cause they ain't seein' what I saw. In the usual way, I over analyzed the movies and came up with the following thoughts and there might be Spoilers:

The Bourne Legacy
Jeremy Renner, playing Aaron Cross (aka Kenneth Kitsom, aka Outcome #5, aka James Monroe), is about the only real reason to see this movie. If you liked him in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and/or The Avengers then you know why he's fun to watch. This isn't to say the other actors aren't good, they just don't have anything to do. I like all the actors present (Ed Norton, Stacy Keech, Donna Murphy to name a few) but they're on-screen time is spent ordering people to catch Aaron Cross. The director (also the writer) does a good job using music and camera edits to make these sections seem more important than they really are. Rachel Weisz, as Dr. Shearing, fares a little better, but she ends up with the damsel-in-distress role. At least she actually meets Aaron Cross, with most of her time spent dodging bullets.

Clocking in at 2 hours 15 minutes this is about 45 minutes too long. All the action scenes involve Aaron Cross running from his handlers trying to "burn" him, but there aren't enough of them. Part of the problem is time needs to be spent explaining how The Bourne Trilogy sets current events in motion, leading to the killing off all Outcome agents. The plot itself is the most basic secret agent story: a top-level spy organization decides to disavow/kill all its best operative(s) and the agent in question goes on the run/fights back. I've seen this in The Bourne Identity. I've seen this in most of the Mission Impossible movies. This is the first episode of Burn Notice and part of the idea behind Nikita. I'm pretty sure there's a 007 movie with this premise. Maybe I'm missing the point but I think it's lazy writing. In all of this complaining the movie is very watchable, but when you start boiling everything down to its essence, it's a simple story. I bet if we had a third Charlie's Angels movie it would have had the same plot, too.

There is one idea I do like: the agency gives its Outcome operatives two different pills to enhance physical and mental acuity. But they have to take them at regular intervals or regress rapidly to a sub-human level; somewhat of a cross between Jurassic Park's Lysine contingency and Limitless' NZT-48 drug. By the end of the movie we learn a retro-virus was given to the agents that permanently alters them at the chromosomal level, but left the drug as a control device. Aaron Cross is only partially altered so he needs to get Dr. Shearing to help him fully convert his body, and thus shake any connection he needs to have with the agency.

The Campaign
A movie that is only funny with more people around. On your own you'll need some beer. The plot on the surface is about two ridiculous people going for a congressional seat in North Carolina. Its pretty painful to watch the back-and-forth antics between "the hero" Marty Huggins and "the bad guy" Cam Brady. In the background of this election feud are the Motch brothers, super-rich industrialists who are conniving with Chinese interests to bring Chinese child labor to North Carolina. They back whichever of the two main characters is ahead in the polls, lampooning current political entities that are being bought by businesses.

Unfortunately this is a sad comedy. It's not funny, and over-done at times. There is a message in the movie about the manipulation of our political figures by people with money (and connecting it to the larger issue of American labor going to China). The humor is often off-putting to the point no one is going to get the message. The only joke I really appreciated had to do with Marty's father, Raymond. He works with the Motch brothers, has a bunch of money and a large mansion. In the mansion is a house maid, Mrs. Yao, another Chinese connection. The joke here is Raymond prefers Mrs. Yao to act like a 19th century African-American maid, in what I'm guessing is an attempt to compare current American industrial connections to China with the American slave labor era of the 1800s. If this wasn't intended, then I'm giving the movie way too much credit. Whatever was intended by the joke, it will likely be lost in the idiocy of the rest of the script.

Ice Age: Continental Drift
An ordinary non-Pixar CG movie for kids. I really enjoy the first two movies, but I found the third one to have "jumped the shark" as it were (even with Simon Pegg). The animation keeps getting better with every release. Since it takes them at least three years to make a movie, you can see how much better computer graphic power is getting. Fur is amazing. The voice work is still good, but I really liked Ray Romano and Wanda Sykes. The issues in the movie aren't as strong as the first two movies, but better than Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Sid even pokes fun at it when mentioning he doesn't understand underground dinosaurs. Overall Ice Age 4 is a run-of-the-mill CG movie.

I do want to complain about a couple things. The first will be Scrat; the Looney-Tunes-esque punching bag for the writers. His story isn't bad, but for some reason it was decided to show parts of it in theaters (and iTunes) as a lead-up to release day. I thought it was a prologue, setting up a plot point, but it is reshown scene-for-scene in the movie. This accounts for 90% of his scenes. Scrat's subplots throughout always halt the narrative, and since you've likely seen them already, it becomes a speed bump to the pacing. Bad call.

Second; when do these movies take place? Since it's called Ice Age I feel confident it refers to the most recent Ice Age from 10,000+ years ago and not a random one in the past ten million years. I know this is a kids movie series, but maybe we can try to teach some accurate science while a Mastadon, a Sabertooth Tiger and a Giant Ground Sloth become BFF's. The present day continents have been the way they are for roughly the past two million years, but this movie seems to imply Scrat fell to the core of the Earth, spun it, and made plate tectonics happen. Once again, I know, it's a metaphor in a kids movie, but maybe some consistency? Which Ice Age is it? That's all I want to know. To re-enforce my original theory for a 10,000 B.C. date; The Meltdown has Sid joking with Manny about being extinct. Well, that, and the whole global warming vibe of the story.

Step Up Revolution
It almost goes without saying that this movie is terrible. You can tell from the previews. I also thought the same thing about Jack and Jill. The difference between the two is that Step Up Revolution is showing off the talent of dancers. Choreography is what's on display, the narrative only doing the minimum to connect the Flash Mob events. My only knowledge of this series is Step Up 3D, which had more of a style to it than I wanted to admit, but another dumb plot, more-or-less taken from many Kung-Fu movies. In fact, both these movies are written like a martial arts movie; but replace the word "martial" with "dance" and film something. I am going to give the creators some credit since they're taking two years between movies. Twilight and Saw movies are just drivel pumped-out every year. There's no way you can create a quality product in so little a time. They're just cashing in. I would prefer three years, but I can't have everything.

My only real issue in the movie is the dancing. The director, stunt people, dance choreographers and others are putting a lot of work into these routines. They look decent enough on screen, but the editing is an MTV video disaster. At least put the lens some distance from the action and let the dancers do more than one move before zooming in and cutting to another angle. It's not like the director's job is to hide the incompetence of the cast. The lead actress, Kathryn McCormick, was one of the top contenders on So You Think You Can Dance (much like tWitch), so I know she can handle it. There are better scenes of competitions on Youtube. That's what the director should be going for. It seems an odd nitpick, but lets compare this to a Jet Li movie. He has awesome hand-to-hand skills, but when he's put in a role where he's given a stuntman and has to use wire-work, it defeats the purpose of his natural talent. That's what I'm trying to see, talent. I'm jaded enough after 35 years of movie watching to know when someone is trying to trick me (looking at you Chronicle). Let the action breathe and it will succeed. Also, it's called Step Up, not Dubstep Up. Everything sounded like dubstep, except for Kathryn's solo stuff which I found boring.

My suggestion for a fifth movie: set it during a tournament. One day only. Like a cross between The Karate Kid and Dodgeball. Drop the romance angle. Let the tension be between the contestants. Use the actors from all four movies as a sense of continuity. Mix up the music styles. Blues Brothers had music from all over the genre letting the audience experience different types of Soul, R&B, Blues, etc. I'm sure there are ten forms of electronica, breakbeat, drum and bass, or techno. Feel free to take these suggestions, it would only make the franchise better.