Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Little Prince

Well, I'm probably not the very last person on Earth, but it certainly took me long enough to get around to seeing the new Star Trek. On the plus side, I guess this means I don't have to worry too much about spoilers. So let's dig in!

I admit I found it a little surprising that the creators went to all the trouble of setting up an alternate Trek universe and yet, with one obvious exception, by the end of the movie nothing has really changed. All the familiar cast members are there on the bridge of the Enterprise, and despite his detour into juvenile delinquency, James T. Kirk has been duly installed in the captain's chair. Even if the crew has been assembled somewhat ahead of the original schedule, making them younger and hotter than their classic incarnations, both the movie itself and a certain returning cast member are determined to undo the disruption caused by the villain's blunderings and restore the original status quo.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The goal of the plot, in other words, is to restore Kirk to his proper place as sovereign of the Enterprise, with Spock as his loyal number two. At first, I felt like this was being accomplished with a pretty wanton disregard for established Starfleet protocol (to say nothing of real-world military procedure). I know we're not supposed to think too hard about movie plots these days, but it must be a little dizzying to go from Academy washout, to marooned mutineer, to twentysomething captain of the Federation flagship without taking a break to change your underwear. Yes, it's meant to be fantasy, but I think it didn't really make any sense to me until I figured out what type of fantasy.

So here's my theory: The new Star Trek is actually Cinderella in space.

Say what? Well, consider the basic premise of your standard Disney princess movie: The noble heroine is robbed of her rightful station by the intervention of a scheming witch or jealous stepmother. Recognizing her good heart, magical allies intervene to help her reclaim her birthright. The story ends with a joyous coronation in which the princess is restored to her throne and paired off with her destined soulmate.

I don't want to push my analogy too far here. Sure, Nero's spiky black space octopus is somewhat reminiscent of certain Disney witches. But even though Nero's time travel adventure derails Kirk's predestined Starfleet career and turns him into the Terminator 2-era John Connor, he isn't deliberately trying to ruin our hero's life - he's trying to ruin Spock's life. As for interpreting the Kirk/Spock relationship as a fairytale romance, I'll leave that as an exercise for slash fans.

Maleficent x Ursula = OH NOES!

But you can't have Cinderella without a fairy godmother, can you? And Kirk, as in Sleeping Beauty, actually gets a triple helping. Every time he seems to be in danger of letting his birthright - his destined role as captain of the Enterprise - slip through his fingers, a twinkle-eyed elder pops up to nudge his personal timeline back on track. First it's Captain Pike, pulling strings to get our impoverished Ashenputtel into Starfleet Academy. Then it's Bones McCoy, working some classically half-assed magic transformations to smuggle Kirk aboard the Enterprise. And finally our Special Guest Star, who maps out Kirk's fate in no uncertain terms - right down to his foreordained BFF-ship with the bitchy young Spock - and then arranges a timely bit of interstellar teleportation to get him to the Captain's Ball on time. Beats the heck out of a pumpkin carriage, I'd say!

Hey, is there cilantro in this vaccine?

And so the irritation fades. Sure, catapulting the class clown into the captain's chair is a bit of a slap in the eye to anyone who might have been tempted to take Starfleet seriously. But on the other hand, J.J. Abrams and friends have managed the near impossible: Getting millions of grizzled sci-fi fans to swoon over what amounts to The Little Mermaid with phasers. A nifty magic trick, that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fill 'er Up!

Because nothing says "Coming Soon! New Post Here!" like a photograph of a vending machine selling "hot nuts." (I'm also pretty fond of the patriotic backdrop. Because nothing says AMERICA like a vending machine selling "hot nuts." Wouldn't you agree?)

The only sad thing about this picture is that I can't remember for the life of me where I took it. Oh, Hot Nuts, wherefore art thou?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Unicycle of the Future!

Screw cars! Japanese automaker, robotmaker, and now high-tech unicycle maker Honda's new Personal Mobility Device looks like AWESOMECAKES. I love the folding-bicycle friendliness, the way you steer it by leaning, the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque pearl white color scheme... I love everything about it. Seriously, you must check out the video demo and CG model that shows how this gadget works. (There are also YouTube videos of dudes in suits trying it out in what must've been quite the fun demonstration meeting.)

Have you ever noticed that the Segway is the vehicle of choice for evil corporate villains in movies? (Check Iron Man if you don't believe me.) Now, can't you just picture a great chase scene in a warehouse with the bad guy on a Segway and the down-with-the-people hero on one of these? Comedy gold.

I wonder what the top speed is?

Paranormal Activity

Waiting in line at midnight in the Castro is a cold experience. At least it was this Thursday, even around the corner from the Castro Theatre (it was a long line), with Orphan Andy's diner serving as a partial windbreak. The preview screening I was there to see turned out to be more of a 1:00 am thing, once all the RSVP lists had been checked and attendees' hands stamped, but inside was a brightly lit full house, an open concession, and the Mighty Wurlitzer, all extremely welcome sights.

Less welcome was the narrative of barefoot, penniless Hollywood pitched in an onstage preshow plea for buzz-creating Tweets and Facebook posts. I can't complain too much, I guess, because the screening itself was free - the modern, less dire equivalent of having to listen to a Bible sermon before you can collect your bowl at the soup kitchen - but for the love of god, I was cold and hungry, it was 1:00 am, and hello, word of mouth is not a new invention. Even if blogging leaves a printed record as opposed to chatter over the water cooler, it's still not (in most cases) a job. If your film deserves buzz, it will get it. Shut up and roll the movie.

The kicker, of course, is that Paranormal Activity really does deserve a lot of word of mouth. It's genuinely scary - jump-in-your-seat, afraid-to-be-home-alone-in-the-dark-after-you-see-it scary - although the preshow trivia quiz presented by a rep possibly presented a bit too much of a behind-the-scenes peek into the pitch meeting (Exorcist? Blair Witch? How about The Exorcist crossed with Blair Witch?). The movie centers a 30-ish white couple living in a two-storey house with leather sofas, a wall-size flatscreen TV, and a pool... uh, remind me again, Hollywood marketing machine, why your poor-me, low-budget, grassroots-please whine feels so insincere?

True, Paranormal Activity IS a small movie by current Hollywood standards, or any standards. There are virtually no special effects, unless you count time-lapse photography, and all the action occurs on a single set. It has a raw, shot-on-video appearance because duh, it's told from the point of view of the main characters filming themselves on video. Expense-wise, we're talking a bare step above one guy and a webcam.

So again, why the cry for help to the audience? Please-buzz-about-this-movie-if-you-want-more-horror-films-like-this? Well, it tells us a lot about Hollywood culture, I guess - is the common wisdom among those who bankroll films really so far off the mark that you have to show them evidence that audiences want, y'know, good films? Without spending millions upon millions on computer graphics? (The trailer emphasizes the audience experience in a way that makes this look like an event film, something you have to see in the theater, which is an argument typically only made for IMAX and big CG-effects movies.) The cynic in me suspects this is all an exercise in audience-blaming - i.e., if we don't provide enough free ink in praise of films we enjoy, then it's our own damn fault if good films don't get made. Charming.

Well, at the risk of playing right into the hands of all this: Paranormal Activity is a good film. It will scare you, and its scares are wisely based more on your imagination - what you don't see rather than what you do - and spooky sounds. It's worth seeing in a theater for the sound reason alone (I saw Blair Witch on video instead of in the theater because the venue in our area was always sold out, and I think much of what made that movie work was its sound design, which does not have anywhere near the impact on home video). Aside from that, and the shared audience experience of the screams and moans and seat-jumps, you just simply will want company when you see it. It's the sort of movie you really would not want to watch alone. Or, for that matter, watch with a full audience in a theater and then go home to be alone in an empty apartment, like I did.

Either way, you'll probably sleep with the lights on. And then blog about it.

I feel like such a tool, but it really was good. See it, horror fans.

Addendum: A rewatch at a lightly populated matinee showing in a local multiplex venue provided a totally different audience reaction. Namely laughter, and catcalls of "That was stupid!" after the shock ending, which reminded an unimpressed Mark of the opening credits of Criss Angel: Mindfreak. The moral of this story? The venue matters, and what's scary and exciting in the middle of the night with an audience happily ready to be scared can look like plodding, badly shot video footage by the light of day. YMMV.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Parasols Optional (But Recommended)

All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation
With a new explanation
People in motion
People in motion

-"San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)"

The above-quoted 1967 flower child anthem might seem odd musical choice to be blasting on loudspeakers for the sunny August 15th ribbon-cutting ceremony for the glitzy glass-fronted New People complex in San Francisco's Japantown... and, well, yeah, it was. Especially considering the festivities to follow at the J-Pop Summit - Girlpunk bands, Loli-Goth fashion designers, and edgy Japanese artists. That's really about as far from the let-it-all-hang-out tie-dye aesthetic as you can imagine.

Could the song have been a deliberate reference to Viz Media CEO Seiji Horibuchi's hippie past? Probably. But it could also be a mission statement for New People iself, an if-you-build-it-they-will-come destination for those interested in a newer brand of Japanese culture and merchandise than the usual samurai swords, woodblock prints, and tea sets. And judging by turnout on opening day, these "New People" are already here. Lots of them.

A three-storey shopping center devoted to modern Japanese design, New People is the first of its kind in the United States. It has an art gallery, boutiques featuring Harujuku-style fashions, and a theater in the basement level that shows contemporary Japanese films. There are art books and jewelry, designer trinkets like dry-ice puffing smokestacks for the home (I really wanted one of these), baroque picture frames, and glitter-bedecked Lucha-style wrestling masks. Really fun stuff. But as a shopping experience, New People is - as yet - a bit too... new. When I finally got a look inside the building, a week or so later (entrance on opening day being a ticketed event, and thus impossible for anyone who didn't seriously plan ahead) there was a library-like hush to the place. Browsers wandered in a daze, apparently too intimidated by the pristine atmosphere to even ask questions, let alone, y'know, shop.

Will New People succeed? I'd like to think it will - the J-Pop Summit Festival was a rousing success (Red Bacteria Vacuum is now on my iPod playlist - Japanese punk rocks!), and I'm really eyeing those tabi-style shoes, but online reviews of the place have been mixed. Those who "get it," presumably the healthy sampling of American Lolitas who waited in line for hours to get a chance to attend a secret tea party with the Baby, the Stars Shine Bright designers, seem to love the place; others, probably like the bemused older crowd I saw on a quiet weekday morning, find it a letdown, not edgy or crazy enough to justify a special trip. Amusingly, though, most of the online criticisms I found sounded exactly like experiences I've had in Japan. A strangely slow elevator ride to an art gallery that turns out to be closed, for no apparent rational reason? Check! Confusing game of "find the theater box office"? (Tip: it's the cafe.) Check and check!

So yeah, if an "authentic" cultural experience is what you're really looking for - hey, this is it. And without buying a ticket to Tokyo.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Welcome to the Future!

In which we roll out the red carpet, throw open the doors, and hang up the "Grand Opening" sign...

The most obvious question is, Why another blog? But that's easy. No matter how overcrowded the proverbial blogosphere may be, or how much the term "blogosphere" sounds like a cage match event from American Gladiators, or how many people are already out there offering their thoughts on every subject under the sun, none of them are us and they're not voicing our thoughts. This deficiency in the mediaverse has now, at long last, been corrected.

And then, Who are we? Your current keyboardist is Mark, a sometime writer and artist and giant robot consultant. Sharing the spotlight will be Julie, writer and editor extraordinaire. We love comics of every flavor and nationality, science fiction and fantasy and spooky horror, social satire and steamy romance and fuzzy animals.

And finally, What's with the site name? "Thrill Power" is an homage to the venerable British sci-fi anthology comic 2000 AD, whose every issue is jam-packed with weird ideas, punk attitude, and hyphenated "thrill-power" by the bucketload. After thirty years, its futuristic title has become somewhat anachronistic. But perhaps, for those of who grew up in the waning decades of the twentieth century, the year 2000 is as much a state of mind - an unattainable vision of The World That's Coming, always around the corner but just out of reach - as a number on a calendar. Or maybe it's just too late to change the title, who knows?

In any case, it was 2000 AD that more or less formed Mark's world view when he was an impressionable British schoolboy, and it set a standard of weirdness and creativity and sly wit by which all else is to be judged. It's just one of the many many things we plan to talk about on this blog, but as we go on to explore strange new corners of the storytelling universe, we'll return periodically to the pages of this awesome anthology to sing the praises of Pat Mills and ponder the etymology of catchphrases like "zarjaz" and "scrotnig." What's more, the name we picked for this site serves as something of a mission statement, expressing our intention to talk about things we find Thrilling and Powerful and just plain cool.

And finally, the domain name was available. In this day and age, isn't that the greatest miracle of all?