Saturday, June 13, 2009

Series 7

Hey everyone, good to be back!
Thing have been crazy lately, but I've found a bit of time to write, so I'll get right to it...

Series 7 is a film that was inspired by Cops of all things (the TV show that is, not actual cops). Not the stories or people in it, but the idea of reality TV. Cops was one of the first true reality TV shows (back in a bygone era, before eating the unspeakable and pointless challenges became the norm), taking footage from actual arrests to make up its narrative. But it was still a TV show. It still had a story to tell, and it was always willing to put that story above such simple concepts as "what actually happened". Editing is a powerful tool, and those that edited the footage had final say on what Cops was about.

The idea of manipulating reality to create stories is a huge part of what this movie is about. It is, essentially, the metaplot of the film. A more straightforward (but no less demented) story takes center stage, acting as the central framework that all this complex social commentary builds itself on. I'll get the core story out of the way:

In that wonderful time known as the "near future" (read: today, but some stuff is different), "The Contenders" is the most popular show on TV (not to be confused with "The Contender", an actual reality show from several years later, and completely unconnected to this film). In it, several people are randomly selected via a nationwide SSN-based lottery system, and they are placed in an"arena" where they compete (a small town in Connecticut in this case). They are given ID cards and a single gun. The last competitor alive wins entry into the next Series (winning 3 Series gets you freedom from ever having to compete in the show again). In this film, it is Series 7 of this show (thus the name), and the winner of the last two Series is a young pregnant woman named Dawn, hoping to win this final competition in order to secure freedom for herself in order to raise her child.

The film exists as a marathon of episodes from Series 7 of The Contenders (3, to be exact), and gives a view of the competitors and the lengths they are willing to go through in order to win the game. I hesitate to describe any more of the movie, since it is filled with so many wonderful subtleties, strange moments, and twists that you'll never see coming (some involving that lovely metaplot I mentioned earlier). It is truly a classic, and worth many viewings.

And now for the obligatory rant. And be warned, this ones a biggie:

Reality TV

As it originally existed, reality TV was not a fundamentally bad thing. Cops was interesting, The Real World had some genuinely human moments that couldn't be captured any other way, and Road Rules even pulled something compelling out of the Reality Competition concept later beaten to quarks by Survivor. But here's where we reach the problem: Survivor. The first season of Survivor was not so bad. It was a good idea, passably executed, and resulted in some good TV. Then they did it again. And again. And again. I could write those last two words 30 more times and it still wouldn't feel like enough. By continuously returning to the same concept, Survivor killed itself. It was constantly trying to recapture things that viewers could experience simply by rewatching the first season. Sadly, this problem continued as other producers began learning all the wrong lessons from this concept. The Apprentice. The Batchelor. Hell's Kitchen. More than I care to count. All these shows were solid core concepts that vainly searched for unatainable relevance after their first seasons were over. This did not keep them from continuing to produce more of the same, however. And people keep watching constantly hoping that they will be able to somehow reclaim that lost magic that once existed when the idea was fresh and new, and not riddled with a thousand poorly-patched logic holes that ultimately reveal them for what they truly are: petty infighting masquerading as reasonable television.

I could go on much longer on this topic (I've yet to even mention American Idol, representing an entirely different format of reality show and an entirely different rant out of me), but I think that is unnecessary at this point (but trust me, I WILL get around to American Idol sonner or later).

Ultimately, I feel that Series 7 says everything about reality TV that reality TV iself can never say. It was conceived and released around the time that the first season of Survivor was released, but was still able to, at that early time, explore the dark side of reality television and the horrifying possibilities inherent when ethics are removed.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek

Okay, so before I begin: I am well aware that this is not an obscure subject.  But I just got back from a 7:31pm screening of the new Star Trek movie and I feel the need to talk about it.
Now, Star Trek was supposed to come out last year, around Christmastime.  They pushed it back in order to advertise it for a wider audience and work on the effects.  I actually had the opportunity to talk to Chris Pine (the guy playing James Kirk), and talked about the movie for a bit.  He was telling me that it was a hybrid of old-school sensibility and fresh ideas, and a whole lot of fun.  I desperately wanted to believe him, and was looking forward to the movie for over a year (basically since I heard it was coming out).  Now, as Nero says in the trailers, "The wait is over!"
Before talking about the movie proper: I am a huge Trek fan.  I started with Next Generation at a very young age, and have been hooked on the series (across its many incarnations) ever since.  I've seen every Trek movie since 6 (Undiscovered Country) in theaters, and count my experiences watching Trek with my father among the best times I've had with him.
When Paramount announced they were rebooting Trek, I knew they had a significant job ahead of them.  A legacy stretching back over 40 years, legions of dedicated fans, and a rich and complex history that has many self-appointed guardians ready to pounce on any perceived slight on their precious lore.  This new movie, in order to be successful on all fronts (with the hardcore fans all the way through to mainstream audiences), had to do 2 major things: It had to be a Trek movie, recognizeable to longtime fans as part of the legacy, and it had to be a relatable film that would be exciting and make fans of people that had never seen Trek before (or even hated Trek).  This seems to be an impossible goal, however.  To move toward one goal automatically seems to necessitate moving away from the other.  To make matters worse, trying to appease everyone by making a movie that rode that line down the middle would end up appeasing no one and failing utterly.  In light of all this, I sat in the theater tonigh with great anticipation as I waited for the film to begin.
To say it as quickly and simply as possible, "It is everything it needs to be, and more."  Now my personal point of view is as a longtime fan, so I know it worked on that level.  But I went with my wife, who is less a fan than I and more able to judge it from a mainstream persective.  I will cover both sides individually:
Fanboy perspective: Without spoiling the movie, I must say that anything you were wanting to hear or see as a longtime fan is in there.  "Damn it Jim..."?  It's there.  "I'm giving it all she's got..."?  Yep.  "These are the voyages..."?  It gave me chills.  Not to mention one of my favorite moments (I'll give two words and say no more of it): Kobayashi Maru.  This is classic Trek through and through, giving everything Trek should give while still raising the stakes and taking away any feeling of "Narrative Immortality" (something that most prequels fall victim to: you know that nothing can happen to these characters, because we know of future events they will be part of).  This is a love letter to the entire Trek legacy, and if you are in any way a fan, you owe it to yourself and the legacy of Trek to see this movie.
Mainstream perspective: If this were a completely original movie, with no legacy behind it, it would still be an incredible sci-fi action film.  The legacy is treated as a backdrop, part of the plot of the film, but a deep understanding is not required to follow allong.  There is the obligatory setup for a sequel, and no part of the film feels like it is pandering to the hardcore audience at the expence of the mainstream, or vice versa.  If you've never been a Trek fan, or even don't like Trek, see this movie.  It will change your mind.
This movie is so full of wonder, action, fan-service, and the pure, central appeal that has made Trek such a huge piece of the pop culture landscape, it is hard to believe anyone could leave this movie without loving it.
Ultimately, this film leaves me with two thoughts: The legacy is in good hands, and I can't wait to see where it is taken next.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

This little piece of obscurity will not be obscure for very much longer, thanks to the inevitablity of the Hollywood machine.  In mid-August the film verson of this book, a film that has been sitting on the shelf for far too long, will finally hit the big screen and allow all those wonderful people that fear the written word to experience this great piece of storytelling.  But let me tell you why you shouldn't wait for the movie and SHOULD pick up the book as soon as possible.
The core concept of the book is a "time-displaced love story", about a guy that has the strangest disease in history: he will spontaneously transport to a random time.  The only restriction is that he can only transport within his own lifetime (with a single possible exception that may or may not break the rules; decide for yourself).  This is an interesting enough premise on its own, but it becomes ever more intriguing when you introduce the concept of romance into it.  What happens when the Man Out of Time finds a wife?  How does their relationship begin?  How does it develop?  Can he have children?  Almost every question you could conceive about this idea, "The Life and Love of the Man Out of Time", are brought up and answered in this book.  And along the way, you find a rather beautiful love story entrenched in all of it.  Part sci-fi, but mostly contemporary romance with a very deep twist, this book will definetly make you reconsider the possibilities of time travel in fiction.

And now a tangential rant: Time Travel.  It is a huge part of science fiction, but it almost always leads to headaches in viewers if it's dealt with in anything more than a passing way.  An example: imagine Back to the Future.  Nothing could be simpler than this: boy gets into time machine, time machine goes back in time, time machine come back to present.  Everything was very neatly and cleanly laid out.  Sure, some people find all that paradox stuff in the middle to be a bit confusing, but it all makes sense in the end.  Now think of something like Deja Vu (not a bad movie, incidentally).  Its remote-viewing time-travel concepts were pretty out there, especially for a popular action/thriller.  Suddenly, it's too confusing and damages peoples' enjoyment of the film.  Then you get to the movies that can be conservatively described as absolutely insane with the time travel craziness.  In the interest of having more material to write about in the future, I will hold my tongue (or my fingers, as the case would be here) and allow you to find some of the crazier examples for yourself (for now).
Personally, I have always loved the idea of time travel, and spend almost irresponsible amouits of time as a child thining about it, theorizing on it, writing papers about it (I was a strange child).  I got to a point where I could tie my mind in such complex knots when thinking about time travel that there is no time travel story I have yet come across that I was not able to decipher in a reasonable amount of time.  I will, of course, speak of some examples in the future (no pun intended), but I am proud of myself for being able to do that.
There is much to talk about in reguards to time travel, but since this was originally supposed to be a post about a book that is findamentally a love story rather than a time travel story, I will wrap up my meandering very quickly here (I can hear the sighs of relief already).  I will admit, however, that this is a subject that I would not mind returning to again, perhaps be speaking of other stories/films/theories/whatever about time travel.  Please let me know if that is something you would want to hear about.  If you are loathing this subject (and if you are, I have to sincerely wonder why you have read this far...), feel free to let me know and I will curtail the time travel related posts in the future.
Either way, it is now far too late and I must away to bed.  Good evenings to you all, and enjoy your tomorrows.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Laying some ground rules...

For those that want to know my brain before venturing forth...
I am a self-described "geek of many stripes", a rabid fan of movies, comics, video games, books, and pop culture in general.  I am that rarest of sci-fi nerds: a hardcore fan of both Star Trek and Star Wars.  I am a Browncoat Whedonite and stil lament the passing of Arrested Development, and look forward with bated breath to the movie (it's coming in 2010, and no one will convince me otherwise).  I love Monty Python, quote Robot Chicken, and can argue the merits of both the British AND American versions of The Office.  I will watch any extended Lord of the Rings film at any time, and Pirates of the Carribean 3 actually made SOME sense to me.
My tastes are varied and deep, and my writing is meandering and fast.  I promise 2 things if you read my writing: I will always strive to surprise with my opinions or my subjects (occasionally both), and I will do my best to never be boring.
I hope you choose to join me.

Welcome to the Underbelly

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first post of Gems from the Underbelly, my rambing blog on all things pop culture.
My plan is to post on on obscure (and non-obscure) pop culture topics: everything from TV to movies to comics are fair game, and I might be so bold as to post on random things that pop into my head.
If you like what I'm doing (once I start doing it), let me know.  And if, someday, you have a suggestion of something I could review or write about, never fear to suggest it to me.
Thank you for reading, and welcome to my strange brain and its firm location in the depths of the Underbelly of pop culture.