SFC12: Firefly & Serenity

Welcome to this, the second of my critical film essays, and more importantly the long overdue conclusion to the Summer Film Challenge 2012!  It has been a year and a half now since that Challenge ended, time rampant with some great movies and a few clunkers.  For this second article of my new year’s series, I am throwing out the rules established last time in order to complete the SFC12, and I must admit I am sorry to see it draw to a close.

To any lover of cinema, but particularly for those attending university to learn the craft of the cinema, I want to heartily and with all my sincerity suggest you start up your own Summer Film Challenge with a friend.  For Ryan and I, this has become more than just fun between cohorts. Each Summer Film Challenge gave us opportunity to expand our cinematic vocabulary, taught us incalculable knowledge about the arts of filmmaking and storytelling, and brought us closer as friends.  Ryan was Best Man in my wedding and a large part of the relationship we have today I owe to this thing we started four years ago in the Cougar’s Den over cheap pizza and pop.  Thus, I pass on the mission to you to keep this alive – start your own clubs or partnerships over a shared cinematic passion, and see what it can do for you.

Now, I turn to what will no doubt be the most difficult review I have ever had to write, SFC or otherwise. I have prepared for this critique, more than all the others, because I knew it would be the most demanding.  In this review – my last of the SFC12 – I have to take a show that my friends adore, and declare it not the marvelous pinnacle of quality they claim it to be.  It is not my intention to do this with disrespect; the friends who love this show are those whose opinions I respect the most.  However, in this case my stance differs and I must stick to it.  So, without further ado, let the Flame War begin as I commence my argument AGAINST Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Animated Cast

1.  A Treatise against Whedon-ism

Let me begin with by far the least direct method of critiquing the show, and the most likely argument to win me a comment section full of nasty indictments.  One of the things which made me most hesitant going into the show and subsequent movie, and loathe to hastily put out this review, is the fierce loyalty of its fans to the creator, Joss Whedon.  One is considered almost remiss to speak of it as only Firefly, forgetting the all important personal moniker – “Joss Whedon’s Firefly“.

When I sat down to watch the show, the only Whedon work I had ever seen was his recent blockbuster, The Avengers, which I found fun and well-handled, more so than expected.  Many of my friends were infatuated with Whedon’s writing and direction, and put him on the same pedestal that culture places Christopher Nolan – as the phenomenally underrated cinematic Bard of our time.  And this worried me.

Before I go further, please hear me when I say this:  I too champion directors.  Without hesitation I would expound the brilliance of Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, Rian Johnson, or Jim Jarmusch.  I believe promoting artists and their work is the only way to spread good examples of a medium and enhance the overall quality therein.

However, I have a problem with the over-eagerness I find when people discuss his work.  Friends or acquaintances speaking of Firefly or any of Whedon’s cinema carry a sort of mindless wonder of it.  Conversations about the show usually take on the following form:

P1:  “OMG!  Firefly!”
P2:  “I know, Right!?”
P1:  “It is SO good!”
P2: “I KNOW, RIGHT!?!?!?”

And usually this dissolves into both parties staring off into space, reminiscing about the grandeur of the show (mind you these conversations are held by the most learned of my film friends).

I do not want to linger on this point, but I am concerned about the Carte Blanche that fans seem to give the show.  Rarely do I hear an argument for why the show is good and rarer still do I hear a developed argument behind that “why”.  For proof, see this article of journalistic bumbler Hypable, which I offer as typifying the kinds of uncited and simplistic arguments made in defense of the show.  While this is one of the worse offenders, it does demonstrate the focus on generalities people use when speaking of the popular show.

I do not think Whedon a bad director, or that his work is bad.  Until I see the rest of his work, I feel it impertinent to make such a claim, particularly when I enjoyed Avengers so much.  What I will stick to is the fact that I have been put off by the fan/addicts of the show.  Liking a show is one thing.  Starting a fundraising campaign when lead actor Nathan Fillion quipped that, were he to win the lottery, he would buy the rights to Firefly – this demonstrates an unhealthy obsession.

Simply put, I am deeply concerned by the extremism they go to spreading their love of the show, resembling Scientology – spreading a “gospel” of the Western/Space Opera and silencing any opposition – far too powerful for an aging fandom.  I feel like a Union scab going up against the picket line by saying I do not like the show, and fear for the safety of my nice glass windows from hurtled bricks, but I cannot stand by people whose judgment of quality begins and ends with “Well it’s Joss Whedon, so how could it be bad!?”

Fans

2.  I really THOUGHT I would like this show

Before turning to the review, let me pacify the reader with the acknowledgment that I had every expectation of loving the show.  My friends were enamored with it; my professors extolled it; critics seemed to like it (before I did my research); and coming off of Battlestar Galactica, I had high hopes of falling in love with another ragtag crew of space survivors, and finding one more malnourished puppy on the side of TV Avenue with whom I could share love and attention.

The blending of two seemingly antithetical genres genuinely fascinated me, and was my primary motivation to watch.  In viewing, there were some elements of the show that I thoroughly did enjoy.  And however much I am not a fan of some things, I think I would agree most closely with Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, who described the show as “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.

I will leave the criticisms for the next section; suffice it to say, I do see why people like the show and certainly enjoyed the story universe.  The difference, I believe, between myself and the fan is that I was left adequately satisfied with what is, whereas others are left wanting.

Before proceeding, let me assuage some of your concerns and clarify that I was very aware going in that the original run of the show on Fox was marred by power struggles and narrative discombobulation.  Ryan did a fantastic job filling me in on the troubled history of Firefly and made sure that I was able to watch it the way it was intended to be seen.  Thus, I came at the show with the perfect set of circumstances to enjoy it, and to judge the narrative equitably.

How could Fox not like this!?
How could Fox not like this!?

3.  Overarching Issues

Now, at long last, comes the review.  Please understand that I will do my best to remove any subjectivity from my analysis to and focus on only that which is valid.  My issues with the series fall into four distinct, pervasive categories which I will detail below, followed by a brief examination of how these carried over into the subsequent film.

A.  The series grandiosely lacked the development needed to properly tell the story.

My overarching issue with the series is that it introduced a number of interesting elements, and then failed to develop them to the narratively demanded point – something I blame primarily on the oft-touted “seven year” plan of the show.

The narrative world of the story is a blending of two polar opposite genres.  First, one has the Sci Fi universe in which the story plays out.  This genre is one built on longer narrative arcs, demanding some plan or goal which the protagonists strive to achieve (or thwart) throughout the season or series.  Look no further than Battlestar to see what I mean: the surviving humans must outrun the Cylons in a desperate race for safety and their origin.  And while some would point to Star Trek as the counter-example of Sci Fi offering episodic delights, the show was founded on, and introduced each week by, Starfleet’s mission statement – the “five year mission” – which dictated every adventure the crew of the Enterprise ever had (not to mention the ongoing Klingon drama).

Though the show did rely on its second genre – the Western – for most of its procedural and serialized plot structure, the writers seemed to entirely ignore the needs of its partner Macro when designing the story.  The characters have no logical endgame (though a Star Wars-esque “overthrow the empire” theme is carefully teased in the subtext) and more importantly face no genuine antagonist throughout the series.  Thus, the creators set up the element of the overbearing Alliance as the watchful eye of the law these criminals must carefully skirt in order to stay in business – as well as the chaotic Reavers who, until the movie, do little more than show up as a scary ship in the pilot – before allowing them to settle far back into the unseen parts of the background where they no longer matter to the narrative at all.  These elements go undeveloped and stand as useless baggage weighing the scripts down.

Most prominently though (and this is the part that will get me in trouble), the showrunners failed to develop much characterization for the supposedly magnificent cast of characters – THE element of the show that causes most to label Firefly as tragically cut-short.

As evidence, I offer up the following list of snippets about the characters and narrative pulled directly from the wikipedia article on the show, as well as a few other commentaries, the sum of which reveals the general lack of clarity and direct characterization by the show of its narrative.

“The film Serenity makes clear…”  [Used far too often]
“DVD commentary suggests…justifying the series’…”
“It is later revealed that…”
“According to the DVD commentary…”
“The DVD set’s “making-of” documentary explains…”
“…referred to in the DVD commentary…”
“As Whedon states several times…”
[about Shepard] “His hidden backstory would have been gradually revealed…”
[Cited as a source] Whedon, Firefly Companion, Vol 1, 12

According to a post series comic, Shepherd Book is operating under the name of a man he killed.

Only by clues from the DVD Commentary, and the much later announcement at DragonCon 2008, do we learn that Inara is dying of a terminal illness.

Overall, I found myself often wondering when I would learn anything meaningful about the characters, or if they would progress during the brief run of the show on television.  Only with Jayne did I find that desire satisfied.  Set up as a simple brute archetype, common to almost any genre, he is taken on a journey of softening, learning to care deeply about others which makes him a wonderful character to root for.  However, the remaining characters stood stagnant in their roles, not straying too far from the very light introduction we received them with – even the “will they/won’t they” of Mal and Inara was painfully slow and each time left both as emotionally unaffected as House, MD.

And before the uproar begins, I again acknowledge that the season was cut short and horribly mismanaged by the network distributing them.  However, my point is this:  Firefly, like any other show trying to find market on a network, failed to capitalize on the short start-up it was given and deliver a promise of longstanding narrative possibility for the audience.  One cannot judge the show on what it could have been, but rather must see how it used the opportunity it was given.  The story world was interesting if unexplored and the narrative arcs were potentially fantastic had they been developed more properly.   What I am left with is a story which left me adequately filled and wanting of no more.

B.  Firefly is a blending of two genres that do not work together by their natures.

I have already spoken at length about the requirements of the Sci Fi tropes established as the sandbox in which the narrative sits, so I will now turn to the Micro level of the story and examine the wants of the Western.

According to Frank Gruber’s 1967 work The Pulp Jungle, the Western genre can be broken up into seven basic narratives:  the Union Pacific, Ranch, Empire, Revenge, Cavalry and Indian, Outlaw, and Marshall stories.  Each of these plots centers around an immediate problem faced by a small band, and overcoming it expediently.  This kind of narrative structure lends itself well to the procedural series, and honestly would have stood fine on its own as the story of Firefly.

However, as mentioned above, Sci Fi focuses on epic, large scale confrontations with major arc plots for characters and arc plots for the franchise. Thus, the show tries to marry something demanding longstanding melodramas with one built on simple, solve-by-the-end, action pieces.  Certainly I am not saying they could not fit together but here they do so poorly.

No episode married the two together well.  For example, “Heart of Gold” demonstrates admirably the tropes and narrative structure of a Western, yet lacks completely the Sci Fi themes.  On the other hand, my favorite episode, “Out of Gas”, relies on none of the frontier story devices and focuses on an excellently paced, tense Sci Fi problem.  The other episodes seem lost in the juggling of the two genre’s demands which ultimately leads them in muddied directions and shortened arcs.

One final note on this mismanagement of genre: it did not take long before I became frustrated with the filmmakers cramming “IT IS A SPACE WESTERN!!!!!” down my throat.  From bar brawls breaking out over Space billiards, to the Space horses riding off into the Space Sunset, I quickly grew tired of the laughably blunt ways the show would try and convince me of the awesomeness of this world.  The Road Warrior tells an apocalyptic western tale without constantly calling attention to the minor things which make it so.  Perhaps a little more tact and subtlety when crafting the world-building elements would have left me with less of a browbeaten feeling.

C.  Firefly’s dramatis personae is blanched by underdevelopment and fan misconceptions.

Seek any review of the series, any critique of it, and all one will find is a fount of never-ending praise for the characters Joss Whedon crafted.  From Variety: “Firefly’s wide spectrum of characters is its greatest asset, since any of its ensemble could take center stage from week to week”.

However, the characters are not left out of the underdevelopment aforementioned.  People extol the rich fullness of each character and the forward-thinking writing for the female roles.  Yet after viewing the series in entirety, I found myself with far more questions about the characters than  answers.

For example, the rigid immobility of protagonist Mal Reynolds, both in his personal and relational development, left me searching through the secondary characters for someone to follow.  I found what I wanted in the simple setup and unexpected transformation of Jayne Cobb from pigheaded muscle to devoted and loyal crewman.  Also, I thoroughly loved the topsy-turvy casting of the typically gruff “Scotty” mechanic character with the adorable and highly competent Kaylee.

On the other hand, some characters operated throughout the series as practical non-entities – showing up only when needed, abandoned a dark corner of the Mystery Box never to be opened.  Paramount is the distressing Deus Ex Machina provided by Shepherd Book.  A man swathed in obfuscation, Book acts as the moral compass (swayed by the occasional “magnet”) for the crew.  He stands in as the sage character, offering them advice out of a lifetime of presupposed “Having been there”.   Yet, when the crew needs a good shot to hold down the ship in “War Stories”, Book suddenly reveals he is a master gunslinger.  When the crew needs access to Alliance medical care in “Safe”, Book provides the clearance necessary to get them aboard.  He knows far more than he should and, though posing as the pseudo-Christian pastor, has a morality that flexes as the needs of the narrative change [read – “Kneecaps”].

I know some are intrigued by this purposeful ambiguity, but I found it frustrating.  Book’s character never grows because he has all things already under his command, and the highly interesting story behind this jack-of-all-trades is entirely ignored – abandoned to be exposited far later in the planning of the story – to the detriment of the character’s introduction.

Further, if one could say anything about the show having the necessary Sci Fi arc, it would be about the stowing away by Dr. Simon Tam of his sister River.  This does lead to a majority of the Serenity crew’s problems, and yet it is done with disregard for that element’s development.  I would count the good Doctor as one of the few characters who has a clear definition to begin with, a driven goal to strive for, and change, which occurs once he is introduced to the characters and circumstances of the plot.  His relationship with Kaylee is one of the better narratives that developed in the short 14 episode run of the show.

Nevertheless, the plot really centers on his mentally fazed sister River, whom people champion both as a wonderful character and as a model of an excellent female character in television.  However, I contend that fans have come to confuse the image of her tacked on by the film with that projected by the original story.

In the show her role is relegated primarily to the standard tropes of a damsel needing rescue by the larger male company surrounding her.  At the beginning she is physically incapable of providing for herself, exiting a coma only to wander in torpid stupor.  As she becomes more aware of herself and the crew, she remains emotionally needy – only providing the random and sporadic Deus Ex assistance.  “War Stories” seems to be her burgeoning as a strong independent character.  However, she only provides a brief moment of intensity before retreating into the protected womb of the script which does not see her develop further until the ridiculous, rapid hyper-growth in Serenity.  She has a very interesting past which ultimately would have been fun to see revealed over time, but there was a needed unveiling at the start which would have made her someone to care about.

Further, though other women in the show are touted as heroes for feminist ideals, they exemplify an interesting potential to be so, but again are confused by fans as already having them.  Most point to Inara as anything but a “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” and perhaps she would have been, had the narrative continued to its endpoint.  However, that is exactly the role she plays for the series.

An unabashed “companion”, Inara provides sexual, as well as emotional, favors for her clientele and is very clearly tied to a brothel in the blatantly titled “Heart of Gold”.  She offers counsel to the protagonist, Mal, and acts both as his moral guide and as his love interest.  She does run her operation independently and seems to have the ability to come and go as she desires, and yet is always placed in the protective arms of Mal and the crew.  She exemplifies to a T the traits and tropes of a “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”.  As a final indictment for anyone who doubts my read of the character, look no further than TVtropes.org – an online encyclopedia of stereotypes – which lists her among the examples of the trope.

Finally, one comes to Zoe Washburn.  Admittedly, she is the best example of a strong and independent woman I have seen in a series.  On top of that, I have to point out that she does not do so from a place of singleness, which is a beautiful thing.  I love that she exists as an interesting, confident, and competent character in a relationship with the other sex.

However, I think the fact that she is placed in a love triangle does diminish the effect slightly.  Addressed directly in “Safe”, she is placed in balance between Mal and her husband, Wash.  The captain uses his history with her to frustrate his pilot (and save his life), and Wash fights strongly to assert his right to his wife’s love.  I do not think this entirely devalues the work done elsewhere, but it does add a minor blemish to an otherwise fantastic character.

The characters were fun and a great blend for an ensemble piece.  I loved the mixing up of a few roles, such as having the girly-girl be the chief mechanic.  And ultimately, I do see elements of each character that pique my interest and that would have been interested in following throughout.  However, the lax development of these elements in the show’s beginning led me to a point of being only decently satisfied.  I have seen enough of a fun cast of characters and left without a burning desire to see more – the most vital thing a blooming show needs to establish.

Before we go further, I will again recognize that many will argue that all of these issues would have been addressed had the show been allowed to continue.  However, that model simply does not apply to any televised show and thus I cannot fathom why this is considered a valid defense.  If a show fails in its early days to capture the audience’s attention and provide satisfactory promise that excellent development of plot and character are on the way, the networks would be foolish to keep it around.  Firefly is no exception to this law of Hollywood and thus its poor ratings led to its demise.  It did not provide me proof that the show would suddenly pick up in its development and engage all of the intriguing plot threads it had weakly established.  It remains only “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.

D.  The show is fraught with Technical Issues.

Finally, I took issue with a number of technical flounderings which both took me out of the story and made me question the creator’s decisions as a whole.

Namely, the fight choreography was atrocious.  My experiences on set with the designing and executing of a proper action scene, though not as numbered as possible, taught me enough to know a missed hit when I see one and I could not have been blind to the number of poorly executed brawls and battles throughout the series.  Missed connections, bad sound effects, and a general feeling of “Student Film” stunts work pervade.  Contrastingly, I found this video of the rehearsal for the big bar fight scene in the film Serenity which as designed by Ryan Watson – also known for his work on V for Vendetta and the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire.

What did not surprise me greatly was this: when I searched for the Fight Choreographer of the show Firefly, my search did not turn up anyone with that title.  Instead, I found Nick Brandon, a Stunt Coordinator who apparently organized the scenes and is most responsible for the brawls.  Simply put, it seems as though the creators failed to shell out the money to hire an expert whose sole focus was designing and crafting the fight scenes for the series, and instead left it to the 11th hour with a crew of competent, but not concentrated, stunt men.

Second, the cinematography was acceptably interesting but I consistently found myself looking at shots with soft focus.  Every few minutes I caught a slight fuzziness to a characters face or to the subject of the shot and, according to Wikipedia, this was planned to mimic documentary-style filmmaking.  I understand the purpose of trying to make the show seem more real, rough-and-tumble, but when the motif is not consistent, the viewer finds his or her self pulled from the movie to note an odd stylistic deviance.  It worked against the show to have a camera technique pop in only occasionally.

Further, a constant problem was the sound editing and mix of the show.  Namely, the sound effects were very out of place and oddly chosen.  When looking at a magnum revolver, I expect some kind of violent, explosive sound – something that captures the metal of the piece.  So when Mal’s six-shooter emits a “PEW PEW PEW” sound, I stop believing in the reality of the moment.  When a brute gets thrown through the horribly impractical holo-window in a bar fight, I expect something with more pop and break to it – at least the breaking of an electrical field – but instead I get a sort of swoop sound which makes the whole thing seem ridiculous (and not the humorous “I see what you did there” way).  Overall, my attention was constantly being diverted from the narrative of the series by bizarrely out of place snippets of audio.

Finally, it meant nothing to me when the actors and actresses suddenly started into a vernacular for which I have no precedent.  I know people love the stylized quasi-western speak of the Serenity’s crew, but “shiny” does not mean anything to me.  Calling it the “‘Verse” seems like an over-colloquialism by Hollywood people, much like when Californian’s try to write what Southerners sound like (I admit I take this rather personally, as I am from the South).  But as much as I like the narrative inclusion of a merger between the USA and China, and though I like the idea of mixing the languages, I found myself entirely lost every time they launched into Chinese in the middle of a sentence.  Unlike Battlestar Galactica, which messed with the story world’s jargon in very clear and obvious replacements and which taught me how to understand these new terms, Firefly throws it at you and expects that it will just make sense.  Simply put, the words and phrases mean nothing to me and thus do nothing to build the world of the story, but rather drew me out wondering what they were talking about.

I know some will say that the low budget of the series led to all of these problems, or that they are excusable because they are stylistic (like Dr. Who).  And I recognize that each one of these issues is a series of nitpicks which alone would not challenge the quality of the show.  However, when viewed as a collective, one can see that the number of elements collect to distract from what the show is trying to do and disables the astute viewer from overlooking them for the good in the show.

4.  Serenity — Too Little, Too Late

Before wrapping all this up, let me speak specifically about the movie and how it did little more than prove what went wrong in the show.

First and foremost, understand that I liked the movie much more than I liked the show.  It fundamentally abandoned the Western motifs the series had leaned on in favor of focusing on the Sci Fi elements.  For the first time in the series, we saw an actual antagonism arise from both the overbearing Alliance and the terrifying Reavers.  However, as amazing as the tense camouflaged journey through Reaver territory and back was, it again proved to be something well suited for the long arc story of Sci Fi, not something that was well-implemented in the series.

Further, the Alliance finally shows up but in the form of a bizarre X-files rip off.  Again, it was nice to finally see the oppression by the hegemony, but it came in a form that was off-putting and which failed to capture the larger scope of what was essentially set up as a “Han and Chewie versus the Empire” story.  I am aware that it was mainly Fox’s decision to incorporate the odd G-men characters, but a bad idea is a bad idea, regardless of what individual or large media corporation made it.  What worked well was giving us a face to despise in a character that they finally got right: Jubal Early.

As I said earlier, the characters were left undeveloped, or taken to bizarre extremes that undid what the show had built up.  Once again, Shepherd Book stays entirely in the shadows, bringing us no closer to an understanding of who he is or was.  Some accept this as the mythos of the character.  However, I cannot allow the justification of poor characterization in the show to be covered by burying it in “Well, he’s just mysterious”.  That is how we got to the nonsensical and ridiculous ending of Lost. 

On the opposite spectrum, River transforms from a meek and frail damsel to a barbaric and methodical executioner – entirely dismantling her character in favor of one to which audiences and fans around the world could drink the Kool-Aid.  As intense and impressive as the “River Prime” had become, I couldn’t help noting the lack of connection to the original River, and I am frustrated that this last image of her seems to have switched itself in the viewer’s minds and rooted itself as the true nature of her character.

As I titled the section, the film comes in with an opportunity to deal with a number of poorly developed elements from the show, but ultimately proves too little, too late.  It changed very little of my perspective on the series and only worked to add more things I wished had been handled better.  Admittedly, some of my qualms come because of network decisions, but Whedon and Co. failed to address the development problems and instead focused on shifting the story in other directions.

5.  Concluding thoughts

All of this adds up to a show and a movie which people trumpet as one of the greatest endeavors of television, ruthlessly euthanized by a short-sighted network, and yet which seems to exhibit a multitude of problems.  Of course I admit there are elements that I really like about the series, and further confess that some of my issues with the show are based on subjective dislikes.  However, as I have shown, there are a number of objective, narrative issues which would and have sunk other shows and films.

Firefly is NOT awful.  Far from it.  However, it is not as great as fans purport it to be.  Ultimately my opinion of the show remains as Matthew Gilbert says: “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.  I had fun with parts of it and enjoyed the creative effort.  However, overall I found it a hodgepodge of innovative ideas only decently executed at best.  Though I feel the wrath of the Browncoats amassing against me, I hope they can see that I gave the show its best shot and it simply did not enrapture me as it does others.  I saw through the fandom and found a cornucopia of errors and underdeveloped elements, which proved it not to be the masterpiece people seem to think it is.

Rating  5//10

That’s it!  I am done!  Please light up my comment section with your yelling and threats.  I welcome them gladly and look forward to the many angry conversations to come. 🙂  Below I am adding a section of other reviews which agree with me that Firefly is not the greatest thing in TV history, for your viewing pleasure.

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Additional Sources

http://jam.canoe.ca/Television/TV_Shows/F/Firefly/2002/07/22/734323.html —> “In space, no one can hear you yawn.”

http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Sci-fi-Firefly-is-a-bonanza-of-miscues-from-2768434.php —>  “Firefly” feels like a forced hodgepodge of two alarmingly opposite genres just for the sake of being different.”

http://www.ign.com/articles/2003/12/09/firefly-the-complete-series —>  Firefly took the whole western thing very seriously.”

http://www.metacritic.com/tv/firefly/user-reviews —> SeInAdams:  “The cast and crew should be fortunate that there are loyal fans out that will fall on to the sword for their success, because honestly, they would be dead and forgotten without them.”

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/Firefly?from=Main.Firefly

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Battlestar Galactica: The End of an Era

“Perfection. That’s what it’s about. It’s about those moments…when you can feel the perfection of creation. The beauty of physics, the wonder of mathematics, you know? The elations of action and reaction. That is the kind of perfection that I want to be connected to.”
–Samuel T. Anders, Battlestar Galactica

After a long and winding summer, a toilsome and busy Fall semester, and now most of another full term, I draw to conclusion a season of my life and come to one more moment of the kind of Perfection Sam sought.  I do not exaggerate much when I say that I feel God most when I invest my passion into the lives of fictitious characters and watch their story come to an end – when I see the evil receive their due and the good, their rest.  It is in these brief instances of letting the breath run out of my soul and watching the little butterfly flutter into the light that I can feel the beauty of story, the wonder of a narrative.  I feel the Perfection of Creation when I see some bit of it come to conclusion.
And I felt it at the conclusion of a long due challenge.

Exactly 200 days beyond the allotted timeframe, I finally came to the conclusion of the Summer Film Challenge 2011.  It has been a difficult task to soak up so many great films in such a short time and I have loved every second of it.  On Saturday, March 24, I watched the final piece of the challenge:  the series finale of the cult Sci-Fi hit, Battlestar Galactica. Over the now 10 months of watching, the show has charmed and infuriated me.  It had me screaming at the television and stunned to silence in my chair.  I really did enjoy the whole thing and now it is my pleasure to break down for you the final season of BSG and my last thoughts on the show as a whole.  Please be warned that this review will **CONTAIN SPOILERS** so if you haven’t seen the Fourth season of Battlestar Galactica, please refrain from reading.

Season 4 Analysis

Where to even begin!?  This final season of BSG took me to almost every extreme of emotional response, and it is hard to find that place to begin speaking about it.  Coming off of the absolutely SPECTACTULAR Season 3 finale, I had high expectations for this ultimate season and, overall, it did provide wonderfully.

Let me walk through Season 4 bit by bit to focus on that which I loved and that which I didn’t.  As stated already, I loved the finale of the last season and was jazzed to start into Season 4. However, it didn’t quite kick off in phenomenal fashion as I had hoped.  The two part filler film “Razor” was pretty good and it did throw a new wrench in the system (Kara being called the Harbinger of Death by the original Hybrid).  Then the first two episodes, “He that Believeth in Me” and “Six of One”, kicked off and I was at least satisfied with the directions things were heading.  Kara did her whiny-woman thing which was annoying, but the 4 Final Five members sought understanding to their new perception of life, so it all balanced out.  However this does lead me to my first major issue with the season and, ultimately, with the show.

Battlestar Galactica is a hodge-podge of elements taken from varying places and put into a very unique and beautiful order.  Early on in watching it, I labeled BSG as a Character-Driven story – meaning that the story action occurs because of personal choices by individuals or groups and by the needs and goals of those individuals (rather than by, say, the end of the world in 2012 which the characters merely react to).  Yes, I know that a lot of the first two seasons is driven by the need to get away from the pursuing Cylons.  However, if you look at it in light of the latter seasons, every action taken in those moments is directly linked to choices the characters made (e.g. – Boomer choosing to shoot Adama; Bill and Lee choosing to go back for the New Caprican’s; Choosing to seek Earth).  So, with this understanding, I have to say that a lot of my hopes were thwarted for where the character arcs could have been taken.  Instead of focusing on the lives of the ensemble cast that had been so wonderfully interwoven and built for me, the filmmakers chose sometimes to go in very plot-heavy ways that, while necessary, could have been handled with better timing and pace.

I present as evidence, with the most frustration that can be read into a blog post, the ghastly mishandling of one of my favorite character/story arcs:  the revelation and subsequent demise of Cally Tyrol.  The finale of Season 3 set up an atmosphere in which Tigh, Tyrol, Sam and Tori must do everything the can to keep their identity hidden.  The most interesting and most important script event that could happen in the ensuing timespan is someone finding out what they are and then the tension that occurs because of this secret.  Particularly, this was most potent for Chief Tyrol’s wife, Cally due to the fact that they have a kid and thus a forced, intimate relationship.  And how is this extreme potential for excellent storytelling handled?  In the course of half of an episode (“The Ties that Bind” – which has nothing to do with Tigh btw), Cally discovers that her husband is a Cylon, tries to figure out what to do with that, and is then promptly removed from the series in an effort to make Tori seem more evil! Her storyline ends before she is able to do anything with the information she was given!

I would not have so much of an issue with this if some part of this plot point had relevance.  Tori already was fairly unlikeable and this did push her far down that road, but suddenly in the middle of the season I am supposed to care about her because she is one of the great and omnipotent Final Five who created this whole mess in the first place.  They make a character I need to like highly unlikable…which kinda seems like a step backwards.  Also, I again point to the fact that the majority of the drama in the first part of the season is dependent on who knows about the Five and what do the Five do to cope with their false memories.  This plotline fades from importance to make way for an EMOTIONAL BREAKDOWN EXTRAVAGANZA, thus nullifying the entire purpose of this ever happening!  I do think that it had to happen to someone but if you are going to focus there, DO SO!!! Don’t dishonor the dead by letting their story die for no reason.

At this point I am not even going to discuss that abomination that was the Deus Ex of the kid not being Tyrol’s.  It serves no purpose other than to create the needed environment for the finale (cf – Roslin’s Stupid Cancer).  The ONLY thing I can credit it with doing is giving Chief (one of my favorite characters) a really solid arc to play off in dealing with his wife’s untimely/unnecessary death.  And while this was the most flagrant and frustrating of the random plot violations Battlestar Galactica incurred, it is the unfortunate endpoint of a number of similar plot issues throughout the show.  The writer’s simply failed to plan ahead enough so as to efficiently and catharticly conclude each storyline and set up the finale perfectly.  Please pardon the rant but this still really bothers me.

Now, I turn to the aforementioned emotional mire into which the story spiraled for the remainder of Season 4.0.  Perhaps the only way I made it through the seven or eight episodes before the midseason finale was because of the continued promises by my friend, Ryan, that the show would eventually become good again.  From “Escape Velocity” to “Sine Qua Non”, we watch as one by one each character breaks down, flips out, and generally becomes a whiny and sorry excuse for a character. Pardon my bluntness but honestly the main reason it took me so long to finish the series is because these episodes really sucked.  In the grand scheme of things, not much occurs other than Kara discovering the Cylon Basestar which finally jumpstarts the plot.  Everybody cries and flails around and exudes a level of angst that would easily give Teen Wolf a run for its money.

What annoyed me most (beyond that whole Cally debacle) was that some characters started to go in random and nonsensical directions, namely Bill and Lee Adama.  Age before beauty, good ol’ Bill had never let me down until this period in which he becomes a love-sick puppy incapable of action and stops being that wonderful embodiment that Edward James Olmos created.  Simply put, he seems to lose focus and thus character because he doesn’t seem to know what he wants (ie. – his writer doesn’t seem to know what he wants).  His usual fortitude and determination leave him as he watches his surrogate daughter drive herself into madness, his ship slowly beginning to tear itself apart (Season 4.0 mind you), and generally his heart getting won over to the dying President Roslin. He stops being awesome and I really hated to see that.

I never did much like where they took Lee.  He went from Kick-A Viper Pilot and Poster Boy for Truth, Justice, and the BSG Way, to some sad, confused puppy-like politician.  I mentioned this in my Season 3 review and unfortunately I cannot say that 4.0 did him any better.  He mourns Starbuck’s insanity, goes a bit batty himself and ultimately is forced to man up by the only true BAMF of the season: Romo Lampkin.  It wasn’t until 4.5 that I started liking him again, but more on that later.  One final thing to mention:  Baltair’s harem (let’s face it, that’s what it was) was really stupid.  I didn’t see a single guy in that group and it was both offensively misogynistic and horribly uninteresting.

To be fair, though, I do have to say that some characters at least managed to be understandible in their angst and some even excelled in it.  While whiny Kara Thrace is whiny, she was at least decently portrayed in going mad because the circumstances around her justified it (like…her being dead…and stuff).  Same thing with Colonel Tigh: after murdering his wife, leading a revolution, and discovering he is actually a Cylon, it isn’t all that hard to understand that he goes through a really traumatic and confused state.  Michael Hogan played it phenomenally and was a tormented breath of fresh air to the story.  Finally, I really enjoyed what they did with Tori in exploring what it means to be a Cylon. Examining the supposed unlimitedness of discovering you have a fresh start was a great, new, and interesting avenue which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Despite this, I would say everything before “The Hub” was a waste of time which contained only enough actual plot development to fill about 2-3 episodes. Really it was just a sorry excuse to let characters vent all of the pent up anger, frustration and sorrow they had from the entire rest of the show.  Honestly the only thing I can see that it positively effected for the show was that it got the junk out of the way in time for the real stuff to start happening in the last two episodes of Season 4.0 and the entirity of Season 4.5.  (Bitter? Much.)

What's with the Angst and the dead-end plot? Can we get back...to...BSG?

Midseason Finale –> Season 4.5

“The Hub” was the turning point for my interest in the series.  Finally, I got an episode that actually had purpose!  The whole thing was wonderfully orchestrated and had some of the strongest moments of the show thus far.  I was absolutely rigid with fascination as Gaius admitted to Roslin his role in the destruction of humanity and nearly had a heart attack when she almost killed him!  It was a beautiful, cathartic moment of justice that was wonderfully resolved into undeserved mercy.  A truly great Grace moment.  Also, the reintroduction of 3/D’Anna was good and I loved the terrifying joke she makes that Roslin is the Fifth Cylon.  It absolutely threw me and I loved that in a single episode, the stakes were raised to enormous heights as suddenly all the characters are mortal.  This is what should have been happening throughout the rest of season 4.0 – building up to this moment.

And then “Revelations” came along and left me both stunned out of my mind and slightly confused.  It was a great episode that did incredible story changes that I have never seen before, but it also is something that I highly question. Ultimately, this is where the season should have been headed the whole time:  to the revelation (get it?) of the four Final Five Cylons on the Battlestar Galactica. I was glad that the show finally returned to that place.  However it got there way too quickly because it had been neglected prior too the mid-season finale.  Thus we were robbed of that emotional intensity when Kara realizes Sam is a Cylon.  Instead of a moment beautifully subtle and isolated in anguish, we get a terribly cheesy catfight between Saul Tigh and Adama.  I had been looking forward to that moment ever since I realized that Tigh must be a Cylon and I was sorely disappointed with the way that was handled.  Overall, that reveal was a rather sorry moment for the show and it reaped the unfortunately malformed exposition it was sown in.

Now, I want to briefly look at the fascinating narrative element that Battlestar Galactica developed over the years that seems to defy all expectations.  In almost every season, there is a common goal desired by most of the characters – a Home (1:Kobol, 2:New Caprica, 3-4.0: Earth).  And in each season, the writers completely threw me by allowing that goal to be achieved in the most odd of places.  The fleet finds Kobol almost instantaneously, is overrun on New Caprica before the season is out, and most importantly, finds Earth with 10 episodes left to go.  And part of me loves that!  I can never know where I am about to be blasted by some new and magnificent plot twist.  On the other hand, the rest of the show seemed to lose focus precisely because the focus of the characters vanished.  They had all invested some much in finding Earth that when the dream was shattered we got a lot of episodes that seemed to have no endpoint to head towards.  I will speak of it more in depth shortly, but the Finale “Daybreak” could have ended anywhere – there was no place it had to end. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it isn’t great either.  I will say that hearing Edward James Olmos mutter “Earth.” in the tag nearly made me lose all bodily fluid control with joy. 🙂

Well...this sucks!

Simply put, 4.5 = Awesome!  I loved how everything finally started to fall back into place and how each and every plot line began to draw to a head, beautifully setting the show up for a magnificent conclusion.  Finally, my near-year long adventure was justified and made entirely worth hearing about it every five seconds from friends.

“Sometimes a Great Notion” gave the show the needed pump of the “life goes on” message to shove it onward for the rest of the season.  Oh, and I physically screamed at my computer screen when Dualla commited suicide.  That terrifyingly tragic event began the epoch in which I became engrossed in the franchise again.  The next two episodes did a great job of bringing the moral questions of the show to a head (Can Cylons and Humans coexist?) and got everything in place for the marvelous fireworks of the Mutiny.

“Blood on the Scales” is certainly one of my favorite episode of the entire show.  Never have I seen such a masterful orchestration of ramping emotions and tension, and rarely does such a Build result in as poignant an ending as this one did.  This goes against what I said earlier about taking Cally’s arc too fast, but I felt that any further lingering on the mutiny would have been detrimental to the story arc.  Gaeta, played by the wonderful Alessandro Juliani, runs the gambit of near tyrannical madness to enlightened and contented martyr.  The juxtaposition of the long-overdue and extremely cathartic execution of Tom Zarek with the tragically somber farewell to our dearly confused friend Gaeta nearly had me in tears and was by far one of the best moments of the entire series.

Then “No Exit” finally provides us with the needed backstory and, though it was a little hazy in it’s construction, it was very satisfying and plausible.  I can honestly doff my cap to the writers for the magnificent choice to make Ellen the final Cylon of the Five.  I doubt anyone saw that coming, so well done to them.

But BY FAR, the best episode of the show (after the Season 3 finale) has to be “Someone to Watch Over Me”.  The amazing exposition on the most interesting character (whose arc has been squashed) and her back-story gave me goosebumps and the crane shot of Kara and her father’s hands playing the theme made my cinematic existence worthwhile.  I was blown away by the sorrow that Katee Sackoff was able to sell here and I think it was exactly what we needed to see why she is the die hard go-getter that she is.  And Dreilide has to be the coolest name I have ever seen. 🙂

From there it only gets better.  My only negative comment about the penultimate episode is that you cannot verbify a noun (cf – verbify).  The set up was fantastic, the very literal line on the ground was a much needed emotional turning point for every character, and everything is well set for the final showdown.  Ultimately, Season 4.5 is what Battlestar Galactica needed from the start and it masterfully maintained my interest all the way up until the end.  Simply put:  Redemption.

Series Finale: Daybreak

I was extremely nervous going into this final episode of Battlestar Galactica that it would turn out too much like the Finale of Lost:  beautifully cathartic in the moment but woefully unintelligible as time goes on.  However, it appears that my apprehensions were unfounded as the series that I have come to love went out with the most booming whisper I have ever seen.  For this review, I will be breaking it down first by my opinions of the Finale and second, with a review of those things that went unanswered.

The greatest strength of the Finale was that they took as much time as they could to give every* story arc a proper conclusion.  As I stated before, Daybreak really could have gone anywhere because up to that point the show didn’t have much ultimate direction.  However, the episode started strong by playing on the wonderful setup provided by 4.5 and very clearly in Part 1 defined what the end goal was:  Find and Rescue Hera as the Galactica’s final mission.  From there the line was definitively drawn (on the ships deck) and characters made their choices.  Everyone got that small moment to decide exactly which side they were on and my heart went with every single one who decided to stand with Bill.  The plans were drawn up and the stage set, so as Admiral Adama so perfectly stated, “Let’s get to work.”

Part 2 was a firestorm of epic proportions – action that far exceeded anything they had ever done before, characters being pushed to their extremes, and every element coming back as beautiful payoff.  The blending of the Opera House metaphor not just as a ethereal vision but as something of actual prophesy was magnificent and the finality of that final battle was everything I could have asked for and more.  It was a joy to see the final confrontation of Cylon and Human occur in such awesome fashion.

My only qualms with the finale deal mostly with a few Deus Ex moments and some things that didn’t get a proper explanation.  For starters, Starbuck’s sudden revelation that the notes from her song are the key to the last jump Galactica ever makes is a bit much.  I did like how it was shot, but on the whole it doesn’t make much sense.  Then again, not much makes sense about Kara Thrace anyway as she gets a nigh-on Fight Club exit from the show.  I am not fully sure what was intended by the writers in having her vanish from the conversation with Lee as she has “completed her journey.”  It left me wondering if she was supposed to be some figment of Lee’s mind but after a quick review of her role in the past season, I ruled out that possibility.  To be blunt, we are left out in the cold as to exactly what it meant that she found her own body on Earth-1 and strangely similar to the Lorax, she is simply called back by the heavens…..or something.

The other minor plotline that lacked proper explanation was the random moment from the episode “Escape Velocity”.  Baltar, being denied access to his brothel…I mean lounge…thing…gets beat down to the ground by the guard.  Suddenly, the invisible Caprica 6 who has been guiding Gaius the whole time physically lifts him into the air to continue “standing up for himself”.  This never gets explained, which I know is minor but it is something that cannot be answered for by the Finale.  We see the god versions of Caprica 6 and Baltar but they don’t seem to do more than annotate and comment on the current situation.  However that doesn’t spoil my happiness with the conclusion even slightly.

And now let us talk about The Ending.  I have already mentioned my unease with the Deus Ex Machina of finding Earth-2 by instinctual jump.  Beyond that minor bump, I thought it beautifully complex of the writers to entirely flip our understanding of the Timeline at the very last second.  I had always assumed that this occurred well after the fall of Humankind on True Earth, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself being told that I was in fact descended from the likes of Sharon and Karl Agathon, Gaius and Caprica 6.  Wonderfully unexpected, I loved the amazing reversal of perspective and found it fascinating.  I am sure I will be ruminating on it for some time to come.

Every time during the last portion of the Finale that a shot preceded a break, I thought “this could be the last shot of the series.”  Seeing the new Earth over the moon, Ander’s goodbye, the ships flying towards the sun, Bill staring off with Laura’s grave beside him – all could have easily been the ultimate shot for Battlestar Galactica.  Yet, because it does end where it does, these little vignettes act as compounding cathartic moments that ultimately leave you sniveling and crying on the floor due to overdose of happyness (yes with a “y”).  The conclusion of Laura’s long struggle with cancer is enough to loosen the tear ducts of any respectable human or skinjob.  Lee and Starbuck’s final farewell, despite the confusing nature of it, was masterfully crafted.  Each couple wandering off into the world to begin again brought on such a wave of catharsis that I cannot say that I was entirely conscious throughout it. 🙂

As for the true conclusion – “All this has happened before. But the question remains: does all of this have to happen again?” – I found it to be perfectly acceptable.  Yes, it certainly was cheesy and it may have just been Netflix, but it seemed that the ADR was pretty noticeable.  However, I thought it did do a great job of navigating the tricky moment of actual conclusion to a show.  The audience, like a sleeping child, needs to be carefully slipped from the loving hands of the creators and placed back into their own environment.  Like sending the Battlestar off into the sun, so we are sent off into the world having learned many a valuable lesson, having made new friends and now being more capable of handling the lives that we are to truly life.  And for this purpose, the conclusion works masterfully – bringing us out of the world of the story and launching us on back to reality, having been changed and now found different from what we were before.

Goodbye my dear, dear friend...

Concluding Thoughts

If you can’t tell, I was absolutely floored and enamored by the finale of a phenomenal series.  It was both heartbreaking and amazing to bid farewell to people that I have come to care about and even, to a degree, love.  The only thing I can compare this feeling to would be watching your child leave the comfort and care of your home to go off into the world.  It is like letting go of a precious butterfly and watching it flutter gracefully on into the sunlight.  It is with great sadness and great excitement that I say my final adieu to my wonderful friends aboard the now gone Battlestar Galactica.

Thank you for a marvelous show about love and loss, elation in small victories and the all-encompassing need for grace.  Thank you for a reminder of my humanity and my mortality, and for showing me how infinite and unlimited my possibilities are.  Thank you for 10 solid months of rollercoaster emotions – high and low – and for taking me through the lives of people whom I can clearly see myself in.  Thank you for creating something that genuinely touched my life and that I cannot walk away from unchanged.  Thank you for being the best Fraking show out there and I better see a teaser for BSG: Blood & Chrome within the year! 🙂  It has been a long and wearying journey and I part company with you now as friends, as allies, and as comrades of the Battlestar Galactica.
So say we all.

Final Review (Season & Series):  9//10

Thanks for sticking around so long.  Over 4500 words later, I can finally say goodbye to the show, Battlestar Galactica, and beyond that, to the Summer Film Challenge 2011.  I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every film that Ryan gave me for this challenge and I am pleased to announce that coming very soon will be our announcement for the

SUMMER FILM CHALLENGE 2012:  APOCALYPSE EDITION!!!

Be on the look out for that soon. 🙂
Before I go, I’d like to share a few last minute BSG things with you for putting up with these longwinded reviews for so long.  First, if you missed my reviews of Seasons 1 & 2, and of Season 3, feel free to check those out at the links.  Also, I thought I’d share some of the humorous things I’ve come across about our beloved Battlestar:  Saul-tines, a Letter from the President, and a visual map of the Timeline for the entire Battlestar Galactica franchise (in case you are a bit lost after all of that). And of course, the sources for all my information on all 4 seasons:  IMDB, Battlestar Wiki, and Netflix.

Thank you all again so much for being apart of this moment in my life.  I can’t wait to see what is coming in this next challenge and I highly anticipate another amazing season of reviews and ramblings here on the Soontobeangel blog. Please let me know what you thought of my review, of the Show itself, and of the Final Season of Battlestar Galactica.  I love feedback and will respond to every comment I get.  Again, thanks for sticking around and see you all again soon!

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Summer Film Challenge 2011 Wrap Up

Well folks, I can proudly announce for the first time ever that I have completed* a Summer Film Challenge between Ryan Lagerstrom and myself.  I have finally seen every film I was asked to see and here you will find the last two reviews for the long overdue cinematic challenge.  Both films were rather good and I was glad to end on such good work.  However (noting the asterick) I do still have one more item on my Summer Film Challenge 2011 list, but more on that later.  For now, enjoy my final reviews: of the comedy classic Groundhog Day and of the third and final Kaufman movie I was asked to watch – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Groundhog Day

Yes, after two long years I am FINALLY getting around to seeing this staple of the comedy genre.  I had my reservations about it because, years ago, I had caught a short clip of it on HBO or something and I thought I knew where the film was going…and I can’t say I was impressed.  However, the film — for both good and ill — thwarted a lot of my expectations and proved itself to be entirely not what I expected.

At first I thought it was moving too fast.  I wanted to see Phil really struggle with the chaos and confusion of his experiencing the same day over and over. Beyond that, I wanted to see him take it to its extreme (ala Saints Row III) and explore all of the crazy things he could do in a world without consequences. However, it quickly moved on from those things in favor of the love story.  They gave those plot areas a little bit of attention but, in the end, they focused on the important parts of the story. My only remaining qualm with it is this: why is this was happening to the guy (other than as a necessary plot point)?  That is a question I know will never be answered so we move on.

Groundhog Day had a nice arc to it, taking the narcisistic jerk to the humble and others-centered place he needed to be.  It felt jerky to me – constantly thwarting where I thought it was going and heading somewhere else – but I think that was the fault of the expectations I brought into it.  What I like about it is that it goes where you expect it to go and then shows you that there is more to it than that.  Phil does make the perfect day for Rita and gets very close to getting what he wants but then the writers throw it in your face and let you be confused with him, experiencing the growth as he does. Great job on that and I look forward to the second viewing where I will be able to follow that better.

Bill Murray is, of course, phenomenal (at times).  He gives good acting when the filmmakers let him have fun with the role.  However, it’s not so hot when they pigeonholed him into key emotional moments such as the important end scene.  It just gets wooden and far too normal for this bizarre actor in a bizarre film.  Same with Andle McDowell – very wooden at times but when she was given a chance to just react, her performance was really good.  The supporting cast did fantastic. Overall it was about as much as you could ask for such a challenging acting job (try playing the same set of emotions at the beginning of each scene/day).

All in all, I would say that this film was much more inspirational than it was funny.  I wasn’t rolling on the floor laughing as much as I was feeling for the characters as they grew and developed. Groundhog Day was fun, I am glad to cross it off my list, and I do recommend it if you want a fun Com-Rom for Saturday night (assuming Redbox and Netflix are down).

RATING:  7//10

Also, I am glad to finally get the joke we put in our short film, Expiration Date:

It's the Hat...before "The Hat"

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Ah, at last.  The final film on my 2011 Summer Film Challenge was one that I had little interest in at the beginning of the challenge.  Yet, as I went through the list of movies, this one grew and grew until I decided that this had to be the one I ended on because it looked so GOOD!  And I am proud to say that it provided in full.

Going into this my partner, Ryan, had been telling me that this was by far the most accessible Kaufman film of the bunch (cf. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). And I have to agree with him:  it was the easiest one to relate to.  However, it was the one that I get the least.  Unlike his other work, this one isn’t as “Look at my ambiguous moral stance and message!” which actually makes it harder to know what it is about.  It seems inspirational but that can’t be right – this is Kaufman!  I know that isn’t the case but still, he isn’t this obvious with his films, so I am not really sure what to make of it.

Hey!  Who knew!  Jim Carrey can act!  Maybe if he wasn’t always typecast into silly kids-movie roles (and 23) he might actually have a career. He gives a really stellar performance as a broken and lost man inside his own mind and even the silly stuff in his memories is really well performed. This is by far my favorite Carrey role and I am glad to see his talents recognized.

Please....no more Dr. Seuss movies.....please?

Also, an excellent performance by Kate Winslet as Clementine.  She masterfully played the hurt girl running from everything and so desiring someone to pursue her.  Her acting was as vibrant as her hair color and I loved every second of it.  And both Carrey and Winslet were backed up by a wonderful supporting cast:  a young Mark Ruffalo, a youngER Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson.  Overall the acting was phenomenal and sold the film in spectacular fashion.

Eternal Sunshine is beautifully executed cinematically.  I love how making the human mind and memories mapable and easy to follow is something only Kaufman can really pull off.  The cinematography is exquisite and the soundtrack was heart-stringing, and the way in which the world of Joel’s memories crumbled around him was amazing.

The film was beautiful, poetic, and perfectly ironic enough to justify the huge Hipster following it has gained over the years.  Kaufman does it again with Eternal Sunshine and anyone unfamiliar with the writer’s work should pick up a copy of this as soon as possible.  Let your world be expanded and enjoy getting lost in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

RATING:  10//10

*What then is left?
Of course it the only thing that remains for my long overdue 2011 Summer Film Challenge is my last review of both a final season and of a show comprehensively.  I am speaking, of course, about my final review of that cult Sci-fi giant: Battlestar Galactica.  I only have two more episodes left and I can actually (finally) say that I am excited to finish it off.  I have every intention of finishing the finale before the end of March and plan on getting the review up before my birthday in April.  It has been a long and interesting journey (not at all unlike my experiences with Lost) and I can’t wait to share my thoughts about the show that secretly runs the APU Film Department. 🙂

Thanks for sticking around, hope you like the new layout, I will see you all soon with my review of Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica.

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“Crossroads” of the Show: Battlestar Galactica Season 3

YUP!!!  Back again already with another review!  No it isn’t Christmas!!  I’m just…way behind…
So now is my time to catch up.  I just finished the third and penultimate season of a show which is quickly becoming one of my favorites of all time.  Battlestar Galactica really stepped up it’s game for Season number 3 and I look forward to sharing some of it’s numerous high points.

JUST A WARNING:  This review will contain spoilers.  Please do not read this if you have not finished at least the first 3 seasons of BSG.

I ended my review of Season 2 by saying that the time lapse on New Caprica was ridiculous and, quote, ” A terrible ending to a moderately terrible Season.”  While I still hold that the majority of Season two is rather awful, I must concede that the way they handled it throughout Season 3 was rather good.  It got a bit clunky sometimes with the flashbacks but ultimately I liked how they explained the missing time on New Caprica as it pertained to the events post-“Exodus”.  Particularly the detailing of the resistance movement and the “Collaborators” with the Cylons were great choices that led to very interesting character arcs.

And on that note, the real strength of the Season were good character arcs. (On the other hand the character arcs did lead to several problems but more later.)  I loved how the important characters actually were given some history (Will Adama, Starbuck, Chief) and the periphery characters were brought forward and fleshed out.  By the end of the Season, I finally had what I wanted from the beginning:  A cast of complex characters that I care about and who had justification in their choices.

In particular, the episodes “Torn” and “Unfinished Business” very absolutely fantastic.  In the former, the filmmakers joined together Tigh and Starbuck – who had been enemies – and let them go to town together.  It was so fun to watch them play off each other and then get the radical twist of how Adama deals with them.  And then “Business” was exactly what you want for any show: a chance to bring out all of the character drama in a very visual and powerful manner.

However, this does lead me to the fact that they didn’t quite fix some of the problems from the previous seasons.  Particularly in “Unfinished Business” they revived the Lee/Starbuck relationship….yeah.  None of us really wanted that needless drama back and it really doesn’t help that it really doesn’t come up much after this.  The only good it does is to settle them into a tense, semi-resolved state that then dissolves into the background and lets the good stuff progress.

GAH!!!

The other unresolved issue from previous seasons is the vignette filler episode that come in the middle lull.  This season did a better job of both minimizing the number of them and by making them serve a purpose.  Like the “Hero” – yeah it was an hour of needless bit part story but it brings us a bit of the backstory on Adama and Tigh.  “A Day in the Life” doesn’t really serve much of a purpose either in the overall narrative, yet it brings out the relationship of Chief and Cally, as well as remind us of the dangers of their journey (more on that first note later).

And then “Maelstrom” happened…
Holy Mackeral!!!  I was screaming “WHAT THE FRAK!?!?!?” by the end of it.  How on earth (or kobol) do you kill off one of the show leads like that in the middle of a season!?  Trick question actually:  YOU DONT.  And with that I submit that the 10,000th nail was driven into the coffin of shows being able to kill off leads.  The CSI’s never could do it, primetime dramas don’t, and even Soap Opera characters would magically survive being murdered four seasons ago to surprisingly reappear to take their revenge.  Why should a Syfy show be any different? Because of it’s placement in the season, a half-brained monkey could see that she was coming back in someway or another.

Earlier I said that the Lee/Starbuck relationship development in “Unfinished Business” went nowhere.  Most people would say that it helped build up the tension to this point, and while I have to admit that it does have bearing on it, I don’t think it had that much.  They were already in a confused and tense state before the boxing match.  All that did was call it out into the open and show us a bit of the why.  Really in the end I feel that the reaction would have been exactly the same had they not made their relationship ambiguity so obvious.  We all know they have a love/hate relationship going on and we also know about their connected past.  Thus we all honestly expected Lee to react so strongly when his lover/foil “dies”. Common sense.

BTW - Great moment when he shaved that horrible mustache off 🙂

The Final two episodes were absolutely phenomenal!  “The Son Also Rises” did a great job of setting everything up for the Season Finale, “Crossroads”.  So much happens, which is both good and bad.

First thinks first:  Lets get the big pink elephant in the room out of the way.  4 of the Final 5 Cylons are revealed.  No joke, I honestly have been waiting for them to come out and say two of them were, but the other two surprised me.  I think it was in Season 1 that I realized Tigh had to be a Cylon.  His position in the inner circle and generally mixed-up state of mind just sold it to me that he had to be one.  It was just a matter of when they would announce it. The other one I knew was Chief.  When I saw that it was him my thoughts were, “Oh. So they decided to do that after all.”  I knew that he was a very viable choice for one of the Super-Sleepers so when he was one of them I wasn’t all that surprised.  However, Tory and Anders were complete shocks to me, so serious props to the writing team for great selections there. It will be cool to see them brought out of the periphery cast into the foreground as big important characters. I am excited to see how all four of them will play out in the final season.

And on the calling of those four, the style of this episode was incredible!!!  I loved how the filmmakers gave us enough of a ramp for the trial to be interesting and engaging as well as allowing for the other stuff happening around it to get ample time.  The musical element was absolutely fantastic!  On iTunes, reviewers beautifully describe the rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” as “a trans-civilization siren song…” and as “a beautiful blend of post-rock and Indian tonalities“.  I honestly feel that the last 7 minutes of the season finale are some of the best written and best executed minutes of kick-A television I have ever seen!
So say we all!

I do have just a few nit-picky issues with the ending though.  Overall I loved it but a few things just rub me the wrong way, chiefly that they have set so much stuff up in the finale and I know they only have one season to resolve it all.  I am just a little worried that this could turn into Lost in which very little actually gets explained or dealt with because there is so much to explore.  However if the trend of putting out good Seasons continues then I know that the final one will be great.

I don’t particularly like how the filmmakers are using Lee Adama.  He acts as a Queen on a chessboard: moving around and forcing other people to “check” themselves while constantly being unstable himself.  The writers just position him near the most volitile characters and they push each other into their respective psychological shells.  I wish they would let him work out some of his issues alone.  As out of place as it was back then, I miss the days when he didn’t want to fight because he nearly died alone in space, as opposed to the current “I won’t serve under a man who questions my integrity” Lee.  😐  Get it together dude!

One final thing (and I did hit on it earlier):  It really bothers me that Kara is back.  I thought is was pretty cut and dry that she exploded but they made it WAY too obvious that she was coming back (episode placement, lack of later mention, “sad panda” Lee).  Can we honestly not just kill people anymore?  I am glad they are so close to Earth now but honestly couldn’t they have revealed that through more creative means than taking the Horatio Cane way out – fake your death and then show up with a steamy pot of Deus Ex for you.  Oh, well.

Sorry, one more quick thing.  This whole Cult of Baltar thing seems really stupid to me.  I can’t expect that it is going to be getting much better in the near future.

Overall this was by light-years the best Season thus far.  The plot and character development flowed nearly flawlessly and the cast gave absolutely fantastic performances across the board. Twists and turns from every side, I can honestly say I am so excited for series finale.  I don’t really want it to be over but from the performance of this penultimate Season, I have high hopes for a fabulous ending to a truly magnificent show.

Overall Rating: 9//10

Just to say it, Chief is still my favorite character – particularly now because of this new character avenue he gets to travel down. However, I am coming to like Colonel Tigh more and more every episode – he has an amazingly splintered mind and I look forward to getting to know his backstory even more now.

Speaking of which, I am doubly curious to see how they handle the spinoff/revival show BSG: Blood & Chrome now, considering the fact that one of the leads is a CYLON!!!  Will they reference it?  I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out!

Welp!  Thanks for sticking around.  I hope you liked my review of Battlestar Galactica Season 3 and I would love to hear your thoughts about it [please no spoilers].  Did you think the reveal at the end was as big a surprise as I did or did you stop watching because you were still dealing with the shock of Starbuck “dying”?  Let me know in the comments below and please subscribe to stay up to date on every post I make.

My next review should be up by the end of this coming week and it will be on another of Charlie Kaufman’s masterfully disturbing works…..so be ready for that.  I know I’m not 🙂

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Appreciation and Understanding w/ Dash of Irony

Hello all!  I thought I would take a break from my reviews to share some news, and have a little ramble.

First, my IRONY MOMENT OF THE WEEK!!!  I was cleaning my room recently, being all productive and stuff, when I found my old Pokemon Ruby Game. Now a bit of history: I have been playing Pokemon games since the first set (Red & Blue). I can still remember playing them on my Original B&W Gameboy at the ballpark when I was 10.  Good times… Anyway, in the 10 years I have had since I have never, repeat NEVER, beaten one. Seriously. I bought every game up to the ruby/sapphire generation and have never beaten any set of Elite Four and Champion. I either spent all my time focusing on completing the Pokedex or lost interest before getting there.

Now having said that, I decided to play the game a bit just for old times sake.  I had made it all the way to Stephen, the Champion, before but I could never beat him.  I decided to try victory road, again just for kicks and made it all the way to the final battle of the 5 and somehow, having not played in over a year now, I BEAT HIM!!! It was so crazy!!! I finally beat a Pokemon game!!! Part of my childhood had ended, IRONY, on the day that the Last Harry Potter film came out!! Just an amazing thing that those two coincided with….the battery died.

I was watching the final cutscene where May comes back and is all surprised that you are the Champion and then Prof. Birch comes in and is all surprised that you are the Champion and then he takes my Pokedex and says, “Here’s some advice…”  CLICK.  My battery dies….right there….. GAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!

It was just hilarious that I had waited so long for that moment and when it comes I was robbed of it 🙂 I did go back and beat it about an hour later after I had gotten over how funny it was.  The ending was awesome just as i had always read in my strategy guide (JK!! Haha. Just…..just kidding…….totally not me………..yeah. I did read it cover to cover….yeah.) I loved the Hall of Fame thing and the credits (didn’t even know they did that!) and then….at the end….it says….”THE END”  😀

YEAH! 😀

So now that the embarrassing, end-of-my-childhood moment story is over, I turn to a more philosophical thought.

Something which I have been trying to nail down for many years is how one appreciates a work such as film or book. Recently I had a breakthrough thought which I’d like to share with you for your thoughts.

Our society seems to stress two conflicting opinions.  First, post-modern culture puts forth that appreciation of art can be had in any form or way and by any medium, but I will focus on the thought that no Understanding is required for Appreciation. The Second worldview, coming from Academia, says that in order to fully Appreciate something, one must have full Understanding of it.

Let me give two examples to clarify.  The former puts forth things such as John Cage’s 4’33” or Jackson Pollock’s abstract art as important because each person experiences it differently and in unique manners. The Latter would take things such as Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” and say that in order to fully appreciate it you must know that it was done as a fun exercise with his wife, and that each variation is based on one of his friends.  Obviously the two are in conflict and thus I turn to film.

My friend Ryan and I have a disagreement. Last year he gave me the French film Amelie as part of the inaugural Summer Film Challenge. When I started the movie and realized it was entirely in French without subtitles, I made the decision to watch it without them.  I had taken French in High School, but the true reason I made that call was because I wanted to see what the film was like unhampered by English text muddling the image.  I wanted to watch it as the French did, and I am not sure whether Ryan has forgiven me yet. 🙂

The reason I bring this film up is that I just ordered it on Amazon and I am not sure I will ever watch it with the subtitles, which brings us back to the original point:

What is the relationship of Understanding to Appreciation?

I propose these thoughts on this issue:

  1. I think that everything is art, and some of it is good, but only a rare bit is Great Art and that is what we must focus on. (More on this in a Ramble to come)
  2. While I can get how Knowledge in tandem or conjunction to a piece of art that helps me understand it’s origins and purpose enhances the experience of it, I wonder if we are losing a part of Appreciation by doing so.
  3. The Appreciation lost by seeking understanding I shall call Wonder or Awe. It might be aptly titled “Magic”.
  4. The Wonder I experienced when watching Amelie in French was that, though I could understand only the occasional word or phrase of the dialogue, I was able to understand the film’s plot and message remarkably well.

As my friend Ryan pointed out to me, I did miss the full meaning of the “Counting Orgasms” scene.  However I was able to appreciate that sex plays a major role in the life of Parisians in Amelie’s world and that she is keenly aware of the sexual world around her while remaining aloof of it. I was able to gleen that without being told it by verbal means. This shows me that their is a level of appreciation which is obtainable and important because you experience something unobtainable otherwise.

If you enter into something without understanding and experience it, you are able to return later with understanding and have a new experience (see – INCEPTION).  However, this path cannot be traversed the other way; if you know going in, you can’t experience that Magic (see – INCEPTION again). You can never watch Fight Club, Memento, even Jaws the same way you did the first time, so I stress the importance of not missing appreciating something as wonderful, magical and worthy of our awe.

Just to point out, I do see the irony that I am discussing “Magic” both in the context of the fanciful film Amelie and on the eve of the finale of Harry Potter franchise. 🙂

Thanks for sticking around.  Please tell me what you think about how we appreciate art, film, etc.  I’d love to hear from you!

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A Ramble Across Worlds (*minor spoilers)

I have been thinking lately about the creation of worlds for video games and for films.  I don’t mean it in a literal sense, as in how to make props or sets, etc.  I mean it more like how does one create and convey the world of the story?  My musings came from three different sources which succeed varyingly at this creation, and I think you are going to like them 🙂

Portal 2, Bioshock, and Battlestar Galactica!!!


It comes down to the Tyler Welch Patented Three Easybake Steps to Creating a Story’s World! All you have to do is BUILD the world, SETUP the world, and then let me PLAY in the world.  All there is to it!

1. BUILD THE WORLD

This is the easiest and most obvious part of the job.  Everyone who goes into the industries of game and film strives to make this.  It means making the environment of the game or show…ie half of the story.
Kind of a big deal.

So how do the sources stand up?  Well obviously they all made worlds, otherwise it would be stupid. It wouldn’t make any sense. Portal 2 creates a great world under some wheat field, and goes deeper (pardon the pun) into the history of the facility and Aperture Laboratories. But (in true Valve fashion), it still leaves several big questions as to what happens now. For example, what is the Borealis doing underground (ie – not in the arctic)?

Bioshock sets up a really deep world, full of real-to-life references, it’s own theme and mood, and it does so in a very interesting and intriguing way.  To be honest, of the three I feel that Bioshock has the best potential for a great story. I must clarify that I just played the very beginning (up to finding telekinesis), but still I can clearly see a great potential for story. More on that later…

Finally, Battlestar Galactica obviously takes a some base from our world (ie – humans) but then creates it’s own universe…literally.  It works well and is pretty interesting.  I just wish they would stop explaining it.  WE GET IT! They’re robots that want to kill us!!! Enough!

Huh. Not bitter. No.  Now that that is over with, we can move on to step 2:

2. SETUP THE WORLD

This is where it gets tricky.  Whether we are talking the first few levels of a video game, the pilot and early episodes of a tv show, or the exposition of a film, there exists a crucial point of introducing the player/audience to your world.  Check out this diagram the internet offers up:

How a story works

As the diagram shows, while the story makes sense in the mind of the creator, it has to go a long way to get to me and usually it gets a bit muddled along the way.  Thus it is important for a creator to not only make the world, but to ensure that it connects with the audience.  We have to get it, or else we won’t buy it…literally.

So then, on to the examples.  Portal 2 nails this.  It is the Inception of video game stories – three quarters of it is spent explaining either the history of the world or the mechanics and physics of it.  It’s a puzzle game. You start off working basic puzzles and progress to more and more difficult ones. I highly recommend that once you beat it, go back and do the commentary version. They tell you that they did this step – listening to what their play-testers said. Good job Valve. 😉

Now Bioshock.  As I said before, it has great POTENTIAL for story world.  However it doesn’t give you the in to the universe of Rapture.  First of all, I need to note that Bioshock plays with something the other two don’t deal with: it mixes two different worlds.  While Rapture is it’s own world that has it’s own rules and mechanics, you start out in our world as a human like you and me.  So I ask these simple questions to you, a normal human individual of our world (assuming your trans-atlantic flight just went down in the middle of the ocean, and that you just happen to find yourself close enough to swim to a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean), would you:

1. Get into an archaic submersible device that might or might not work anymore?

2. Get OUT of said submersible when you watch someone murdered upon your arriving at the end of the ride?

3. Would you, having murdered several psychotic mutant humans, willingly and without any hesitation inject yourself with some mysterious substance?

Yeah….about that….

They don’t make the introduction of the player to the world work, which makes me want to stop playing now.  Well that and the fact that it scares the bleep out of me.

Finally, Battlestar Galactica mixes the two prior sources success at creating a world, but I will dwell briefly on that. Basically, the miniseries is supposed to set up the world so that I both understand and want to further engage the series.  What I got was a rush job which leaves me wondering why I should care about the characters at all.  You don’t have to do the whole history of the Cylon War at the start, but you do need to set up the characters a little bit more before you nearly kill them.  I didn’t care who lived or died to be honest because I didn’t know who they were.  On the other hand, I now feel that concern for the characters after having seen the 2 parts of the miniseries and the first 7 episodes.  Just wish they didn’t take so long.

That said we now arrive at the third and final step to making a great world for a story:

3. LET THE AUDIENCE/GAMER PLAY IN THE WORLD

Basically this is were it gets fun. After you’ve build the world and set me up in it, you can let it just be fun! In a video game, this is the point where you stop explaining how it works and let the player work it out for themselves. For example, after the first few missions in Modern Warfare in which you basically observe, you suddenly have options. You make your own choices and begin flying solo.  That’s when a game gets fun – when the gamer gets to play free in the world.

Same principle for tv and film, just different manifestation. We get to “play” when we no longer care about the mechanics and history of the world and focus entirely on the present situations and relationships of the characters.  When I begin worrying what happens to Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, I begin to have fun and really look forward to getting back into the world.

Portal 2:  Duh.  By the time you finish the first couple of test chambers, you get to really try to explore the possibilities of the portal gun and the environment.
Bioshock:  Haven’t got to that part yet, but part of that is because the world hasn’t been explained yet. While the unsuredness works to the fear element, I just don’t want to play because I don’t know what the bleep is going on.
Battlestar Galactica:  Again, just getting there but I like the characters and anticipated a growing care for them.

So that’s it!  The three simple steps to making a good world for your story. You have to make it, make it accessible, and then let us have fun in it!  Sorry this ramble was so long but this is basically what I love. This is what I am passionate about and would love to study for the rest of my life.  So there you go….little bit of me there for you. You know. Well…actually…a little bit of Wheatley…really…um. But that’s alright. Just a bit of Science…uh…I think.

Okay, that’s it. Me again.  Thanks for sticking with it and as always, please comment below and subscribe!