Sunday, January 28, 2007

Eragon - What Went Wrong?

Because of poor reviews, we waited until Eragon hit second run before seeing it. In retrospect, this was a wise choice. The movie has all of the elements of a good fantasy tail, but it just feels off. In going into the problems, I'm going to give several spoilers. This shouldn't affect enjoyment of the movie since most of the surprises are telegraphed way ahead of time, anyway.

The plot is very similar to Star Wars - Eragon, a 17-year-old being raised on his uncle's farm finds a dragon. In short order his uncle is killed and he is hustled off by Brom, who knows all about being a dragon rider and teaches Eragon. Along the way they rescue a princess, Bron dies, Eragon picks up a sidekick, and they join the rebellion.

Despite the similarities, I don't think that it is a direct Star Wars rip-off. This general plot is too common to science-fiction and fantasy novels aimed at teen-age boys. George Lucas claims to have derived his plot from classic myth structure.

Anyway, the general plot isn't the problem. It is the execution.

At the beginning of the movie, the princess has just stolen a "stone" which she sends to a safe place by magic. The script dances around exactly what the "stone" is until it hatches but the audience knows that it must be a dragon egg.

The baby dragon is cute and we see a bit of its childhood. This seems to last two or three days. Eragon helps her to take her first flight. While in the air, she transforms into a nearly-grown, telepathic dragon with more wisdom than you would expect from something only-days old.

This is my first complaint. I would have liked to see the dragon growing up. This in-flight transformation seems like a cheat. It was probably done to account for the fact that the princess was being held prisoner and tortured. The plot dictated the speed that the dragon grew. The same is true of the rest of her growth. When Brom first looks her over he talked about "when she is fully grown." As it turns out, this only takes a week or two. The same is true for Eragon's abilities as a magician (being a dragon rider gives you magic abilities).

Then there is the princess. We never learn much about her. Why did she send the egg to Eragon? She has a telepathic connection to him from the beginning. Why?

I mentioned plot twists being obvious. Brom is the worst example. He has books on dragons. He knows all about them. He has a bit of magic of his own. The movie stops just short of hitting us over the head with a bat labeled, "Brom is a dragon-rider." Still it takes most of the movie before this comes out.

Star Wars gave us Darth Vader - one of film's most memorable villains. In Eragon, we have King Galbatorix, the last dragon-rider but he spends the movie lurking on his throne. Instead he sends Durza who is more unusual than threatening, even when he emulated Vader and kills the head "urgle"  (SP?) and promotes a different one. Near the end of the movie Durva's appearance suddenly changes. Is there a cut scene explaining this? Just one more problem.

The acting is OK. The special effects are great. Too bad the plot is such a mess.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lost is coming - who cares?

It will not be long before Lost returns to ABC for an unbroken string of new episodes. Why don't I feel more excitement? I can think of two reasons.

1) The season so far. Of the six episodes shown so far, most featured Jack, Kate, and Sawyer to the exclusion of the rest of the cast. For a show with a huge ensemble cast, this is a bad thing. They could have off-set it by telling us more about the Others. They didn't. We now know some names and faces, we know that they have some sort of contact with the outside world but they seem to be stuck on the island. We learned this in the first episode. Reportedly, ABC executives are also upset about the way the first six episodes were handled.

2) The format. This is a much bigger problem. The format of the show is to have split plots - one on the island and one told through flashbacks. This was a great gimic during the first season. we had no idea who these people were and many were surprises. The scary guy with the suitcase full of knives who killed wild boars turned out to have been a paraplegic who only dreamed of adventure. The laid-back, fat guy was a cursed millionaire who had spent time in a mental institution. The Korean couple had their own issues.

By now we have had flashbacks for all of the principal characters. In most cases we have had multiple flashbacks. They are no longer telling us who the characters are. They might fill in some gaps but they don't serve any other purpose. We already knew that Jack was obsessive and had a bad relationship with his father. His flashback just told us that again. We knew that Sawyer was a con man, we didn't need to see him do another con.

The flashbacks are growing stale. Unless they start giving us some interesting flashbacks on the Others I don't see them getting much better. Granted they did slip a couple of new castaways into the cast and they will get their own flashbacks eventually but will this be enough to keep the show interesting?

The producers need to move away from the flashbacks. More is happening in the "present" (now more than two years ago). They need to spend more energy telling us about the island and less repeating stories about the characters' past.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Superheroes without the Tights

Slate has an article tying in the show Heroes with some newer comic books that feature characters without costumes. I think that they are overlooking a lot.

Back when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby re-invented the superhero, they tried to have heroes without costumes. Their first effort, the Fantastic Four, wore coveralls in their first couple of issues. It was only in issue three, after unprecedented fan response (in those days, any fan response was unprecedented) that they introduced uniforms for the team.

Stan and Jack kept the idea of team uniforms instead of individual costumes when they introduced the X-Men, also. Even then, they slipped in quite a bit of time when the heroes were out of costume. In one issue in particular, the X-Men were racing to find a new mutant before Magneto could recruit him and went searching for him in their civilian clothes. While the rest of the team eventually got into costume, Cyclops was still wearing a business suit at the end of the fight.

The real purpose of the costume on a comic book hero is to make him instantly recognizable. Some characters are recognizable enough on their own that they don't need costumes. The Hulk and the Thing are examples. The original Ghost Rider wore the same outfit most of the time. It just looked different when his head caught on fire.

Some normal-looking characters are recognizable enough that they didn't bother with costumes. Professor X and the Charles Cauder from the Doom Patrol were both in wheelchairs so they didn't need costumes.

Then there are special cases. When he first appeared, the Phantom Stranger wore a black suit with an overcoat and hat. Outside of his eyes always being in shadow from the hat, he was wearing contemporary clothing. Later they modernized him, replacing the dress shirt and tie with a turtleneck and pendant and the coat with a cape. Still, it was the 1960s and he still would not have attracted a second glance in many places.

Deadman had sort of a reverse costume. He was the host of a circus aerialist who appeared in the costume he died in (he was sure that the audience only came to see him die and wanted to rub it in their faces). Normally he was invisible and intangible. He could only affect the world by possessing people so, when he used his powers, he looked like a regular person.

In honor of their 20th anniversary, Marvel invented a new universe that was closer to reality than other comics. It was basically our world except for a "white event" which gave some people special abilities - very similar to the way that people suddenly started exhibiting powers in Heroes. While some characters had distinctive clothes, most did not. They wore regular clothing.

Finally, if we go back decades, we find the Spirit. His creator, Wil Eisner, didn't like costumes either so the Spirit's only concession was to wear a domino mask with his suit. But then, the Spirit wasn't a super hero. He was a (sort-of) costumed detective.

Monday, January 08, 2007

DRM and Music Players

First some ancient history.

When the Apple II was introduced in the 1970s, it was a totally open system. Everything about it was documented. This is one of the things that made it popular (along with Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program). While this openness helped sell a lot of Apples, it also meant that there was a big market for hardware that Apple did not make and did not profit from.

Steve Jobs saw this as a problem, When the Macintosh was released, t was the opposite. It was a totally closed system. Just attaching a non-Apple printer to it violated the warranty. Also, in order to make money from developers, Apple required them to buy a $10,000 LISA computer to compile on. (Later they also allowed developers to get by with two Macs.)

The results were predictable. The open IBM PC became the standard but IBM lost control of it. Apple's market share dropped into the single digits.

All of this might happen again in digital music. There are several formats in common usage The most common, MP3, is proprietary but easily licensed and carries no Digital Rights Management (DRM). Windows has its own format which, currently, can compress files better than MP3 and supports DRM. Microsoft licenses their format but there have been problems with the DRM.

Apple and ITunes use their own format and DRM. This cannot be licensed. If you want to buy music from ITunes, you have to play it through your PC or buy an IPod. (There are ways to get around the DRM but they are beyond many people and can result in loss of fidelity.)

One reason that Apple and Microsoft support DRM is because the music labels insist on it. They are sure that open tradig of MP3s hurt their business. This is known as the Napster Effect. Outsiders point out that there are other factors that hurt music sales besides Napster and other follow-up MP3-trading sites. These include major competition for the entertainment dollar such as the introduction of DVDs and several new game consoles. In addition, the decline in sales happened right after the music labels stopped selling the CD singles and raised the average price of CDs to $20. They also cut back on the number of CDs produced annually and, according to most critics, the quality of the music itself went down. The music labels are in a state of denial about any of this.

So, the music labels want to keep any music they sell locked down at tight as possible, What they would really like is to be able to charge you on a per-play basis. What they settled for is selling timed rights. You can listen to their entire library as long as you pay a monthly fee. Once you stop paying, you cannot listen any longer.

Apple talked them into going with ITunes which doesn't tie down the music as much as they would like but still limits it more than a CD does. In exchange, Apple is handing over nearly all of the profits from ITunes. Apple makes their money by selling IPods which you need if you are going to use ITunes.

Personally, I don't like any of this so I avoid it as much as possible. My Sansa does support Microsoft DRM but I'm not using their format. I want as much freedom as legally possible when listening to my music. I want to be able to listen to it on any device I own at any time without having to transfer licenses. I suspect that most people feel the same way.

My personal feeling is that the music labels should sell MP3s for a low enough price that people do not feel the need to pirate them. Apple's price is around $1 which is comparable to CD prices. This is too high. If I buy a CD, I actually have a piece of plastic in my hand. The manufacture and distribution of this is a significant part of the cost. If I am buying a digital version, there is very little manufacturing cost so I should see a corresponding reduction in the digital price. I think that it should be no higher than $0.75. I can see very popular songs being more but older and more obscure music should be a lot less. Basic economics says that they will make a lot more money this way but it is such as change from their normal way of thinking that they have always rejected the idea.

The music companies might finally be coming around to this thinking. According to Wired, they are thinking of giving up on DRM and going with a very low price,