Sunday, February 19, 2006

Whoa! I'm like in the Matrix...

After speaking with many people about this and then listening to the folks over at Dragonpage talk about it on the “Winging It” podcast I think I might be a little insane. You see I went to the movies a few years ago and sat through a rehash of every SciFi cliché I ever remember in a little movie called The Matrix. A man is caught in a computerized world that is not the reality he was led to believe. He then figures out that the machines took over the world and after a long battle managed to beat the humans into submission. Not only that, he is a chosen warrior who has exceptional powers not only within the machine created world called the Matrix but in the real world as well. Needless to say I was bored and not only because it stared one of my least favorite actors, Keanu Reeves. The guy who became famous playing one half of Bill and Ted is supposed to be a savior of the world? Can’t buy it. His acting in this film was on par with his usual stuff, his range falling somewhere between confused and disbelief and that is when he hits his stride.

I saw the movie and promptly filed it somewhere slightly ahead of Johnny Mnemonic. While watching, I couldn’t help but see the parallels to that earlier film. Perusing the IMDB boards I see that others agree. As well as Mnemonic, this movie borrowers heavily from one of my favorite dark genre movies in both style and story, Dark City, which while flawed was still enjoyable. Outside of that there is the heavy influence of Cyberpunk god, author, William Gibson.

Every movie and story is derivative. There is always some influence from something else. As they say, “There is nothing new under the sun.” For the most part you want your movies to feel familiar but not to the point of petty larceny. I felt like I was watching a crime and everyone was letting them get away with it because of a few neat special effects-kind of like the current administration.

I got over it but then heard there were sequels planned and I could not imagine how they were going to continue the story I loathed so much. When I saw the sequels I was floored. I actually liked them. Seriously, I did. Most people I know who like the series feel exactly the opposite. They like the first movie and think the other two are terrible. For whatever reason I enjoyed the sequels. Probably because they got into the landscape of the Matrix more and less in the “cheap trick” having Neo discover his part in the plan. I really thought the rest of the movies were more original than the first. I had seen the story of that first film a thousand different ways but the continuations took us deeper inside the workings of the machine world and the rebels who fought against them. One of the things I noticed while watching the Matrix sequels was that it’s the story I had been waiting to see on screen since watching the Terminator films. While I loved those movies (and even liked the third in the series) I always wanted to see the humans waging war against the machines.

That’s the thing I found most satisfying: the impending doom, the overwhelming odds against humanity, and the cold, calculating enemy. One particular person told me that he hated the ending. I know why. It was because Neo and Trinity died. Unfortunately that’s also why I liked the sequels. They did not hold back on the sacrifices that need to be made in such a conflict. I didn’t know how they were going to continue the story but I never thought they’d take the extra step and bring it all home. So while it still seems to me like a derivative story with a terrible actor (who, for some odd reason seems perfectly cast in this role), they did not let me down in the end.

I guess I just like those epic conflicts.


Paper Clips

Despite not being Science Fiction and Fantasy I watched a documentary that was featured on HBO on Demand under the Documentaries section and I wanted to talk about it. I guess this goes under the section of, I’m going to talk about what I want to section and even though this post was featured on my other blog, I thought that I’d repost it here because I was reminded of the movie by a friend of mine.

The film was a fascinating look at a small school in Whitwell, Tennessee that takes a look at what the children of the mostly white, protestant children were learning about diversity, mainly nothing. The principle of the school decides that the best way to teach diversity in this small isolated town is to teach them about the Holocaust. During the class, one of the children mentions that he doesn’t know what six million looks like, the number of Jews murdered. They decide that they will try to collect six million paperclips to memorialize the deaths and to bring the sheer magnitude of that number to reality.

Things go very slow at first but then when they attract the attention of some journalists who publicize their endeavor, the paperclips start coming in by the thousands. Many famous people send them paperclips including Tom Bosley who send one. Some people sent boxes of thousands other sent a few to memorialize relatives and friends who had died during the holocaust. In one very touching instance, a group of German children sent an old suitcase with paperclips attached to the inside, each one with a note written in German. There were translations on them and each little note and paperclip was an apology to Ann Frank. Most of them started, “Dear Ann.”

Though extremely moving, the most inspirational and tear invoking moment is when a group of holocaust survivors comes to the small town to tell their stories. I will not repeat them here because the pure emotion cannot be translated by me. You have to hear it from the people themselves as they tell of relatives lost. It is clear that the children of this town found inspiration in project as well as the teachers and some of the parents and relatives of the students. All became involved as more and more paperclips poured through the local Post Office that became so overwhelmed that the school administrators had to make special trips to pick up the ever-increasing deliveries. In all, they collected 30 million paperclips! More importantly they counted every one of them.

Why paper clips? I thought the same thing. At first it seemed a logical choice because 6 million of anything would prove to be too big to hold. There is another reason though and the reason is almost as touching as anything else in the story. During World War Two Norwegians wore paper clips on their collars to show their solidarity to the Jewish plight. Any overt form of protest would result in arrest so they chose this small gesture. Who knew that many years later the paper clips would again come to represent a small community’s effort to identify with the Jewish people’s horror.

I would recommend this film to anyone wanting to see a touching story that will not only explore more of the Holocaust’s effects and helps to break down prejudice against Jews but in a very real way (and this is pointed out in the film) helps to destroy the stereotype of Southerners. Another irony that was pointed out in the film by a Washington Post reporter who researched the story was that the town of Whitwell was very close to where the “Scopes Monkey Trial” took place and close to the place where the KKK was formed.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

May The Force Continue...

After multiple viewings of the Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon I have come to a very disturbing conclusion: They are better written and better acted than the movies. It seems impossible to think that a cartoon whose budget I can only imagine is in the thousands can be more successful in telling the Star Wars tale than multi million dollar movies with a collection of talent that is first rate in the business. It seems that the old adage that story is the most important aspect of any film, play, book, etc. is true. Unlike in the movies, where we only hear about how good a fighter pilot and Jedi Anakin is, in the cartoons we actually see it. In one sequence where Anakin in taunted by a newly recruited Sith apprentice, Anakin’s flying abilities and saber fighting are displayed to the fullest extent. He even uses his anger to make himself stronger and defeat his foe bringing him one step closer to the dark side. The end of the series brings us right up to the moment that Episode Three begins. I can only imagine that there are many geeks behind the scenes of those cartoons that are saying to themselves, “Let’s tell the Star Wars story that we really wanted to see in the movies.”

The rumor­-which I believe has been confirmed-is that Lucas plans to continue the Star Wars story on television with two series’. One will be a live action series that takes place between Episode Three and Episode Four. The possibility for really dark and haunting storylines with a spark of the rising hope we get in Episode Four is phenomenal. I’d guess we’ll see more of the Jedi purge and the beginnings of the Rebellion. The other series will be CG and deal with more of the Clone Wars, ala the cartoon series. If it is done as well as the Cartoon Network Clone Wars cartoons I’d be happy as a nest of Gundars!

Lucas set up a great universe and there are many talented people out there wanting to play in it. I for one, think that the new series’ will take the Star Wars universe to a level never seen before. Plus, think of all those cool new toys that we’ll see come out of them.

Some people have a problem with the merchandising of the Lucas Empire. In actuality it’s a smart move on GL’s part. The merchandising (and I can’t help but think of saying that line in a Jewish accent like Mel Brooks playing Yogurt in Spaceballs) has helped George Lucas keep his films his own. He is the biggest independent filmmaker in the world. He financed everything on his own, through his own company and with the money he made on previous films and merchandising. I know that I wish I had the creativity and business sense that he had. He’s a billionaire because of it and has entertained millions of people in the meantime.

I really do love the merchandising. Sure there may have been a greedy side to it when Lucas created the characters and thought they’d make cool toys but isn’t that what Santa Claus does? I remember Christmas mornings, coming out of my room and opening up Star Wars figures thinking that they were the greatest toys ever invented. Even now I get a twinge of nostalgia when I see those figures in their little plastic bubbles. It reminds me of being a kid.

It was inevitable but I’ve turned my children on to the Star Wars phenom and my youngest has taken to it with a Force not seen before on the Cohenside. He is absolutely infatuated with the movies, cartoons and action figures. He plays with his light sabers and runs and jumps around pretending he’s a swashbuckling Jedi Knight rescuing the princess and battling evil. I love watching him play because it reminds me of my own play when I was a child. It also reminds me why I love the series so much. The sense of epic adventure and innocent, naïve, battle between the clearing good and the clearly evil. There’s intrigue, love, adventure, war, magic, everything that makes a good story. That is the appeal of this tale to children.

I remember back in the Seventies when I first saw the movie. I came home and we talked about it for hours. The other kids seemed to loose interest after a while but it all stayed with me, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, the light sabers, the characters, the droids and especially Darth Vader. When I watched it I felt like I was watching something I should have known about for a long time. I thought that there was a more to the story than meets the eye and we were getting a small glimpse into a larger universe and a larger battle. I never let go of that movie. I believe I had to wait a whole year before getting my first action figure and then finding some of the Marvel comics continuing the adventures of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.

That movie began a lifetime love of speculative fiction. No matter how far I travel from the original universe whether it’s with the crew of Serenity or the Fellowship of the Rings, I always come back to Star Wars.

May the Force continue, for a long, long time.

Friday, February 17, 2006

It's Not Dead Yet, Jim...

As anyone who knows me knows, I am more of a Star Wars fan than Star Trek. That being said, I do enjoy the Star Trek franchise but I have some issues I take up with the way it’s been run lately. Now, to compare and contrast, George Lucas heard what the fans were saying. We Star Wars geeks said that we’d watch GL sit on the can for an hour and fifty minutes and proclaim it good Star Wars. Well, unfortunately that’s close to what he gave us. Personally, I can live with what he produced in the PT. (Well, Episode One I could do without except Darth Maul. He kicked butt.) GL missed a lot of opportunities to make them great. He made the dialogue un-listenable. He made the story contrived. But in the end, he delivered lots of Storm Troopers, lots of Jedi and one really bad-ass ending with Anakin Skywalker getting his butt burned off by Obi-Wan Kenobi, which everyone has to admit is the only thing we were waiting for anyway.

Did GL rely too much on Special Effects? Yes. Was the gritty realism of the first film missing? Yes. Has GL (the Great One!) gotten soft in his old age? Absolutely. You do not have to look any further than having Greedo shoot at all in the Cantina scene to see that he’s been whipped into submission by old age and fatherhood. He once had an edge. Now he’s as smooth as a ball bearing. (I hope someone comes along to save Indiana IV for G-d’s sake!) But in the end, this was a vision on one man and he told his story, like it or leave it. And guess what? My kids prefer the PT over the OT… 'nuff said.

But, Star Trek. My goodness, what the hell are they doing over there at Paramount? IMHO they have lost it since they produced that awful mess that they called Voyager. What a monument to committee thinking this was. See, while Star Wars is one man’s vision and one man’s story, Star Trek used to be Gene Roddenberry’s thing. When he died, the board of directors at Paramount took over the helm and it all went to pot. Sure DS9 was good but since then the movies have gone downhill on a photon torpedo. Star Trek has always been a “reset” series. Meaning one episode ends and very little affects the next. Only the red shirts died on the original and TNG had stuck pretty much to that formula with very little variation. When they did get into a little soap opera type arc like the Borg, it kicked major Ferengi butt. Then something happened. TNG did not translate onto the big screen at all. None of the characters had that larger than life presence that the original cast had. They were too small and nerdy. Even Warf. And then they made a Borg Queen! I don’t get it. The strength of the Borg was that they were all a network, each individual piece no better than the rest. Assimilation, remember? Crap, all of it. They took the fundamental aspects of the series and they tried to explode them to become bigger than they were instead of working with that they had gotten right.

Like I said, the committee mentality destroyed Star Trek.

With the current leadership at Paramount, the Star Trek franchise is doomed. They need to hire a passionate, creative guy to lead the charge, give some of the other old timers a say in the creative aspect and then let them go. The series is choking, gasping for breath. It needs some new blood and a good old-fashioned kick in the pants to bring it back to life.

It’s not too late though. It can be saved. I also hate to say it, Star Trek needs a few years off. No Movies. No TV. No Nothing. Then bring in Directors who are passionate about saving the series. I’ve heard everyone from Bryan Singer to J. Michael Straczynski have said they were interested in reviving the Trek franchise on screen. I heard that William Shatner wants to do a Star Trek Academy series featuring a young James T. Kirk. I think that’s brilliant. Show how the original characters came together to form the OS crew. That’s gold right there, with the right casting. (Think: Smallville in Star Trek land.) Move forward with the series by going backward. I see it now, the moment halfway through the first season when young brash Kirk runs into a logical, cold, Spock. Imagine the possibilities of fleshing out the characters while they were still young and spry and naïve about the great big galaxy. What happens the first time Kirk spies a Klingon? What is his reaction to Uhura? Is there an initial underlying sexual tension? I think so. I know so. Have Spock really not understand human behavior but comes to learn all the while dealing with his human half. Or is Spock a little more emotional than the Spock we come to know and we see him learn to repress that emotional side while balancing his deep relationship and brotherhood to Kirk. One of the most dramatic, emotional and greatest moments in all of Star Trek is when Spock dies saving the Enterprise. How does he learn that sacrifice? Is it all really pure logic or was he also saving his best friends. Can’t you see it? See it with me, people, a hit series again, based on Star Trek. It’s what this country needs now. Remind us of the simple naïve idealism of Gene Roddenberry’s original series. Take it all back to square one and start over with this series.

It’s not dead Jim. Not yet…



Welcome to the first issue of Cohenside’s ScfiFi and Fantasy website where I and hopefully a few guests will discuss Science Fiction and Fantasy with a little real science discussion slipped in to keep it real. First and foremost let me explain a little about where this site will come from: ME! That’s right all the opinions are my own unless they come from someone else. That means if I say a show or movie stinks to the far reaches of the Outer Rim then that’s how it goes. I welcome all opinions especially ones that are different than my own. I love feedback so post responses to everything I write even if you’re just saying that I suck like a recently collapsed red super-giant star or a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Look forward to new stuff coming from me very soon!