cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-07-17 09:29 am

Martin Landau (1928 - 2017)

Martin Landau died last night at the ripe old age of 89.

He had a brilliant career. A supporting role in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" at the start, TV stardom (Mission: Impossible, Space: 1999) in the middle, Oscar glory (as Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood") in his golden years.

For fans of science fiction and fantasy, his roles in the original Outer Limits (especially "The Man Who Was Never Born") still linger, even 50 years later.

Landau may have been the most indelible non-Woody Allen protagonist in a Woody Allen movie ("Crimes and Misdemeanors").

But I guess why I'm commenting on Landau here is that I once had a rare chance to meet the man and compliment him on his work. He was warm, gracious and appreciative. It was a genuine thrill.
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2017-07-16 11:58 am

The 13th Doctor is... (Huge spoiler ahead!)

Jodie Whittaker! (aka, Beth Latimer of Broadchurch)

Well, bless my soul, the DW brain trust finally broke the mold.

This move makes perfect sense in a number of ways:

1. Incoming show runner Chris Chibnall has a Doctor he's worked with for three full series. He knows her range and dramatic capabilities. Ditto she with him.

2. Instant BBC ratings grabber for Series 11 in 2018.

3. Perfect capper for the Moffat era. Moffat has made a point of breaking down gender barriers/stereotypes, especially in S10, and the Doctor turning female is the final step in that process.

Some naysayers have complained that a female Doctor wouldn't command authority in time periods where women have no power. For a good writer, that's not a problem--that's an opportunity.
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2017-07-14 03:46 pm

"They Mean to Win Wimbledon!" (13th Doctor Announcement)

The actor (or actress) playing the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor will be announced on the BBC after the Wimbledon final on Sunday. (There is no truth to the rumor that Doctor #13 will immediately go to work fighting sentient, table-sized blancmanges from the planet Skyron who have threatened to hijack the tournament...)
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-07-12 11:00 am

My Morning Cereal

Ganked from anne1962 and cactuswatcher:

I have a very specific cereal ritual:

1/2 serving Kellogg's Crispix
1/2 serving Kellogg's Mueslix

Mix well. 2% milk only. (Whole milk is too fatty, 1% is too watery.) Will occasionally add banana, strawberry or blueberry, but this is not essential.

And yes, I have a "special" bowl.
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2017-07-11 12:34 pm

The Gods Themselves

This is a long-winded response to a number of shadowkat67's recent posts that sort of revolve around the same topic. But I guess it starts off with Doctor Who, and a central question that has never received a formal answer: why does he travel all over the multiverse? What is he running from, anyway?

If you listen to the Doctor talk about his home world of Gallifrey, you wonder why anyone would ever leave. "The most civilized civilization in the universe," he called it, with traditions dating back over a billion years.

But the Doctor's relationship with Gallifrey and his fellow Time Lords has always been ambiguous, if not downright contentious. In fact, the very first action taken by the Time Lords in the series was to "execute" the Second Doctor for interfering with lesser races and exile the Third Doctor on Earth. From that alone, you can see why the Doctor is rarely homesick--but the discontent goes deeper. When the Fourth Doctor was summoned home in "The Deadly Assassin" (are there non-deadly assassins?), we finally saw Time Lord society up close: majestic, awe-inspiring--and deeply corrupt, stagnant, and a death trap for a free spirit like the Doctor (even when everybody on the planet wasn't trying to kill him).

It seems that the Doctor and his brethren have a fundamental difference in philosophy: the Time Lords are detached, remote, coolly observing the universe from their Panopticon, beyond caring about the minor squabbles of lesser species; meanwhile, the Doctor defends and protects life anywhere in the universe, believing that in an uncaring universe, acts of kindness are absolutely essential.

But it's not quite that simple. The Doctor may see himself as a rebel, but he still calls himself a Time Lord, and he draws power from his world's traditions and technology. He still has a touch of the arrogance and the superiority complex of his society, and many times during the series, the consequences of that arrogance have been catastrophic.

He may be a freethinking citizen of the universe, but there's still a whiff of Imperial Rome about the Doctor, a touch of the Great British Empire that he can't shake off. He's still the godlike being who descends from the Spheres to save the little people, a chosen role that (he knows) is both a mission statement and an ethical trap.

****************

There is always something reassuring about a mythical quest. The idea of being anointed by a higher power (whatever power you believe in) to set things right, with no doubts in your mind about the morality of your mission. But in the Modern Age, it's getting harder and harder to believe in the purity of the mythical quest; there are too many doubts about the source of the inspiration, too many questions about the consequences of the knight-errand's actions.

That's the problem a lot of people had with ANGEL. On the one hand, ANGEL was supposed to be a dark and gritty noir detective series set in a supernaturally-haunted L.A., where there was a thin line between the living and the dead, human and demon, good and evil. But on the other hand, Angel himself was supposedly the chosen paladin of the nebulous Powers That Be, a heaven-sent champion who had a big, fat reward coming if he did good.

The two aspects of the series actively contradicted each other for the first few seasons (to the point where "champion" became a curse word in certain fan circles); and even after David Greenwalt left, I don't think Joss Whedon and his crew completely got out from under the conceptual damage the PTB did to the series.

***************************

It would be easy to say that the Doctor has a Messiah Complex, but that's too simplistic. He never sticks around for the hero worship and the applause, and he's acutely aware of what happens when he lets power go to his head, however righteous the cause.

But not sticking around has a downside too. He never really becomes part of the lives of the people he saves and befriends, and that leads to the dangers of emotional detachment. It seems to be an endlessly repeating cycle, and it won't be broken until the Doctor either runs out of regenerations or finally decides to come home....
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2017-06-30 09:19 pm

My 5 Favorite TV Episodes of 2017 (so far)

We're halfway through the year, so it's time to assess what made an impression on my TV watching brain so far. (Note: These are individual episodes that hit home for me, emotionally; my top 5 TV series might be slightly different.

Spoilers ahead!

In alphabetical order:

Better Call Saul, "Chicanery"

Or, Michael McKean's Emmy reel. At the start of the courtroom scene that dominates the episode, Chuck McGill mocks his brother's pre-trial maneuvers, smugly telling Jimmy there will be no Perry Mason moment when he cracks like an eggshell on the stand. Well, as usual, Chuck underestimates his brother and overestimates himself. We've lived with these characters for years now, and we know that when he's working a con, Jimmy has an uncanny knack for exploiting his mark's psychological weaknesses. The episode beautifully lays out the mechanics of Jimmy's courtroom strategy, ending with the cell phone battery--and Jimmy gets his Perry Mason moment. The pain and resentment erupt like a geyser, and McKean plays it like Chuck desperately wants to stop talking, but his hatred has been buried for too long and just has to come out.

The greatness of the episode, though, is that the BCS creative braintrust won't allow us to enjoy Jimmy's victory. Nobody wins: Jimmy loses his brother here; Chuck is exposed as mentally ill in public, his professional reputation irrevocably damaged; and Kim will carry the guilt from her role in this long past the end of the series.


blackish, "Being Bow-Racial"

Usually, black-ish is firmly in the POV of Anthony Anderson's Dre Johnson, who constantly worries that, as his family moves into affluent (read: white) society, they'll lose their connection to what Dre considers their black identity. But if any one member of the family truly lives on the fissure between the black and white worlds, it's Dre's wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross).

"Being Bow-Racial" is the rare episode that switches viewpoints, putting Bow and her conflicts front and center and relegating Dre to the background. When her eldest son brings home a white girlfriend, it triggers painful memories of growing up as the child of a white father and black mother--an outlier in white society, but not quite fitting in with black society either. The flashbacks to high school and college-age Bow are both funny and slightly horrific, as we watch young Bow flail about, trying on various clich├ęd black identities, drowning in the malign neglect of her white classmates.

It's only when she talks to her father, Paul (Beau Bridges), that she finds her center again, grounded in love and dedication to the life and family she's created with Dre. The episode is a tour de force for Miss Ross, who conveys Bow's emotional turmoil and still somehow gets the laughs.


Bob's Burgers, "Bob Actually"

A small masterpiece of comic writing. Five separate plotlines (at least) in 21 minutes, and they all land, some in spectacular fashion. BB fans have been waiting for the Louise/Rudy kiss for at least three seasons, and the entire episode shows how the Belcher kids have subtly matured over the length of the series. Gene's bittersweet encounter with the Italian cafeteria lady/chocolatier, Tina's boldness with Jimmy Jr. (although I still think she deserves better), and Louise's glorious kiss (and follow-up slap) would have been impossible in Season 1. And Bob actually got Linda a decent Valentine's Day present! Amazing! (Yeah, he looked ridiculous, but the dance routine wasn't half bad.) A top 5 episode for the series--and considering Loren Bouchard and Co. are working on Season 8, it's a testament to the consistency of the writing, the brilliance of the cast, and the still-untapped potential of the characters.


Downward Dog, "Getting What You Always Wanted/Lost"

The philosophical centerpiece of Downward Dog is the ad campaign that Nan (Alison Tolman) proposes in the pilot: what if we loved ourselves the way our dogs love us? What if we accepted ourselves as beautiful, exactly as we are? The rest of the series says: easier said than done. Downward Dog explores how our dual protagonists --Nan and her dog, Martin--deal with the compromises, the expectations and the self-delusions that keep them from accepting themselves.

In the final two episodes, Nan and Martin seemingly achieve major breakthroughs: Nan's campaign succeeds wildly, and Martin finally summons the courage to confront Pepper, his feline arch-nemesis. But neither triumph sits well; both Nan and Martin wonder if defining themselves as corporate go-getter or lone wolf is something they really want. So when both Nan and Martin are lost--Nan metaphorically and Martin literally--they reach out to their connections. They fall back on their messy, inadequate relationships -- with Nan's dad, with Jason (series secret weapon Lucas Neff), with each other -- "because in 100 years, all anyone will remember is the love." A sticky sentiment to end the series, but Downward Dog earns every bit of it. Here's hoping for a Season Two... somewhere.


Feud, "You Mean All this Time We Could Have Been Friends?"

A lot of people might have picked the Oscar episode for this slot (and that epic backstage tracking shot is damn impressive), but I always felt uncomfortable with how much fun the show (and the viewers) had with the sniping between Davis and Crawford. (Jack Warner wasn't the only one indulging in 'hagsploitation'.) Better to strip away the glamour, kill the spotlight and see our stars when there are no more plum roles to fight over.

Bette Davis may have outlived her rival, but the finale belongs to Jessica Lange's Crawford, trying (and failing) to bring professional dignity to the bargain basement schlock of Trog, then shuttering herself in her Manhattan apartment to assess the mental and physical damage from becoming "Joan Crawford"--and in her last days of madness, maybe coming to terms with her legacy and people like Hedda and Jack, who helped make her famous and destroyed her in equal measure.

In the end, we have their films and the legend--but was it worth the price? Ryan Murphy can't answer that question, and to his credit, he doesn't even try.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-06-29 04:30 pm

Sense8 Lives!

For fans of the series:

Netflix just announced that Sense8 will return in 2018 for a two-hour blockbuster finale that will hopefully resolve various dangling plot threads.

(No word from HBO on that Deadwood movie.)
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-06-20 08:53 am

"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl"

(Spoilers for "Better Call Saul" s3 finale ahead.)

This is the story of either an odd coincidence, or something weirder and deeper. You decide.

It all started yesterday morning at the bank, when I was taking my favorite customer down to the vault. (A short digression: I work in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and most of the bank's customers do not share my interests. This gentleman is different. He's an illustrator, a bit of a bohemian, and we have many interesting conversations about literature and comic book artists.)

So I took him down to his safety deposit box and he started to talk about Ray Bradbury. (I love Ray Bradbury. I blazed through most of the Bradbury catalog when I was a kid.) I asked him if he'd read any of Bradbury's stories that were outside of RB's usual SciFi/fantasy pigeonhole.

I mentioned two: "The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse" (a surprisingly nasty social satire) and "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," which I guess you could call a crime story, but it's really about madness and obsession.

[The premise couldn't be simpler: a murderer stops to clean up his crime scene, but slips into (deeper?) madness, obsessively cleaning every inch of his victim's apartment. It's much darker than Bradbury's usual fare, but his command of language and pacing remains unbeatable.]

Last night, I watched the season finale of Better Call Saul. The dramatic center of the episode was when Charles McGill, the protagonist's brother, spiraled down into insanity, ripping apart his beautiful home to find the last trace of electricity that was slithering under his skin from behind the walls. (Michael McKean took you completely into Chuck's head. I know it's silly to call this a career-defining role for McKean, because he's literally been in everything over the last 40 years. But Chuck McGill is right up there with Spinal Tap for me. Just give him the Emmy already.)

In the post-episode discussion on AMC, McKean joined Saul co-creator Peter Gould in breaking down the episode. Gould said that Chuck's demolition derby was inspired by the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," when Gene Hackman destroys his house looking for a bug that may or may not have been planted. But McKean said he used a literary source for inspiration:

"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl."

I hadn't thought about that story in years. I was completely unspoiled about the episode. Odd coincidence? Or is it, like my wife said, that sometimes ideas are just hanging in the air, waiting for someone to pull them down.

In "The Girl Who Died," the Doctor said that deja vu is you remembering something that hasn't happened yet. Do we have flashes that break us out of linear time? Do we all have the capacity to see beyond the illusion we've created for ourselves?
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-06-14 03:43 pm
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Attention, X-Men Fanatics....

Sony, burned by the lackluster response to X-Men: Apocalypse, has decided to go back to the epic plotline that turbocharged X-Men fanaticism back in the 70s: Dark Phoenix.

All of the First Class squad has apparently re-signed (including Jennifer Lawrence!), and rumor has it that Jessica Chastain will play her highness, Majestrix Lilandra of the Shi'Ar Empire.

When in doubt, go back to the classics.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-06-12 12:42 pm
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Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution

Recommended: "Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution" (BBC Two; U.S. public broadcast channels)

It's the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band": tributes are flooding the newspapers, and a super-deluxe 6-CD set is topping the charts in the UK. Everybody describes Sgt. Pepper as "groundbreaking," but an essential question usually remains unasked: why is it groundbreaking?

In a one-hour special, British composer and music historian Howard Goodall digs into the Sgt. Pepper recording sessions of 1966-67 and shows how the Beatles (along with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) used their extensive time in the studio to literally create new sounds, and to invent recording techniques that are now commonplace in the music industry.

Goodall looks at the inspirations for the songs (John and Paul's childhood, newspaper articles and 19th century circus posters), their use of modulation and counterpoint, and how they borrowed from Stockhausen and John Cage to create the orchestral finale to "A Day in the Life."

I could have used more archival film clips, audio and stills from Abbey Road (can never get enough of those). Otherwise, this special is an advanced class in music theory that anyone who loves the Beatles will find completely fascinating.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-06-04 07:08 pm
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Doctor Who (10.8): Alien Invasion as Abstract Art

I've been saying all year that Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have been one of best Doctor/companion duos in recent memory. Their chemistry is absolutely crackling, and this episode had some truly gut-wrenching and heartwarming scenes between Bill and the Doctor.

When the Doctor told Bill he was joining the Monks to save humanity, you could see and feel Bill's anguish. And when the Doctor told Bill that people like her are why he tolerates humanity, Bill's smile made you feel good all over.

Mackie and Capaldi are killing it...

Too bad the plot made no sense.

For a near-omnipotent extraterrestrial race, the Monks went down way too easy. Yeah, I got a fairly good answer to the "consent" question from last week, but a million other questions popped up in its place. To wit:

When the Monk scanned Bill on the boat, why didn't it recognize the linchpin of its invasion? And, as one critic pointed out, why are they allowing a precious asset like Bill to wander around in the first place?

Why couldn't the Monks stop the Doctor's aquatic battering ram after they stopped missiles and jet aircraft last week? Why wasn't the broadcast station better protected? (There should have been a thousand troops loyal to the Monks ready to blow anybody approaching the building to the gates of Hell.) And while I'm glad Bill's brain didn't get fried, I don't think the Power of Lurve ending worked nearly as well as it did in "Closing Time."

(I do think the regeneration was "too much." And a waste of life energy.)

There was no explanation as to why the Monks were interested in the Earth in the first place, and they did a piss-poor job defending their territory when the lie faded. The whole Monk invasion seemed strangely airless -- in a sense, almost abstract. Instead of an alien invasion, I felt I was watching an installation at the Museum of Modern Art entitled "Alien Invasion."

[cjlasky steps back to study the installation, strokes his chin and mutters "Interesting," then wanders off to find the Picassos.]

But if nothing else, we got some great Missy out of the episode. (Guess that was her in the vault after all. Huh.) Michelle Gomez keeps working new shades of ambiguity into what was once a two-dimensional supervillain. She's the best version of the Master since Derek Jacobi's oh-so-brief appearance in S3. (I'll leave it to expert Whovians to argue if she's the best since Delgado....)
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2017-06-03 10:28 pm
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Wonder Woman (the motion picture)

I'm not going to be longwinded here. Just got back from seeing Wonder Woman with shadowkat67.

Go see the movie.

Wonder Woman, Diana of Themyscira, is supposed to be inspirational, a hero who tells us that we can be better than we are, that the pain and misery of the world can be overcome with courage and compassion.

There are a number of times in this movie when Gal Gadot leaps into action and she is the Diana we were meant to have, the one we need. There were tears in my eyes.

Does everything work in this movie? No. Shadowkat is right -- there's problems with pacing, and one CGI slugfest these days looks pretty much like any other.

But the great moments here are truly great. And for all you Buffyphiles out there, the movie copies one of the most iconic moments of the series. (You'll know it when you see it.)

Bring on the Justice League. And Wonder Woman 2.
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2017-05-31 02:06 pm
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Animation Roundup #3: The Unexpected Return of Rick and Morty

It figures that Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon would roll out the long-awaited third season premiere of Rick and Morty on April Fool's Day -- completely unannounced. (At 11:30 p.m., I tuned into what I thought was Samurai Jack, and I saw Rick talking with an insect creature that sounded like Nathan Fillion. "Waaaaait," I said to myself, "I don't remember this from--auuuugh! New ep! DVR! DVR!")

After all, the universe of Rick and Morty is like a sick cosmic joke, where civilizations exist to power car batteries, a love potion can destroy humanity in one night, and a galactic empire can crumble in minutes. There is no inherent value in life, and anyone who even sees a fraction of the unimaginable terrors lurking in the dark is mentally overwhelmed by the enveloping chaos.

So if that's what the world is like, how do you respond? Rick Sanchez, the smartest human in the universe, grabs the chaos by the throat and bends it to his will. Rick is usually ten steps ahead of everybody else and absolutely ruthless in accomplishing his goals. To a human observer, Rick might be considered a sociopath: he's dangerously narcissistic, and he casually disregards the high body counts he racks up during his adventures. But from Rick's POV, he's just doing what he needs to do to survive under extreme circumstances. ("If the universe is insane, the only rational response is.... ")

Morty takes the human-scale view. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes life does have value and meaning, that people need each other and should be kind to each other whenever they can. Rick mocks the kid, calls him naive and an idiot, but on some level, Rick believes this too. Why else would Rick return to his family, twenty years after leaving for the stars? Why else would he go to the insane lengths he went to in this episode, just to put his house in order?

"The Rickshank Rickdemption" (3.1) is Rick pretty much upending the entire galaxy to rearrange his domestic life to his satisfaction. It is beautiful and terrifying to behold. Rick starts the episode in galactic prison, his brain under deep probe, linked to a smarmy and overconfident Inquisitor (Fillion, absolutely perfect) who's rooting around Rick's head for scientific secrets. In no time flat, Rick hijacks the probe, trades bodies with the Inquisitor, then goes on a bloody rampage, switching bodies until he gains access to the galactic currency--which he calmly devalues to "zero." (Cue mass panic.)

With the Galactic Federation crippled (and the Council of Ricks destroyed), Rick is free to live with his family on Earth without constantly checking over his shoulder. And poor Jerry--who was doing nicely under Federation rule--loses his job and gets screwed again. He's had it with Rick messing with his life, so he gives his wife an ultimatum: your father or me. Beth, of course, chooses Rick. Bye, Jerry; game, set, and match, Rick.

(Yeah, Jerry's a loser and always will be, but I was proud of him here. He took a stand and lost, but he's going out on his feet, not on his knees. And if Rick's totally insane final monologue to Morty is any indication, the family might eventually come around to his point of view. You haven't seen the last of Jerry Smith!)

So Rick is now in complete control of the family, free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. (Is anybody else frightened?) Can Morty or Summer or anyone stop him before he kills the entire Smith clan (again)?

Season 3 proper starts in July.

Next: Bob's Burgers and the animated family sitcom.
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2017-05-31 10:45 am
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Animation Roundup #2: The Trial of Steven Universe

After a brilliant, groundbreaking Seasons 1&2, and a solid S3, Steven Universe slowed down considerably in Season 4, to the point where even devoted fans were wondering if the series had run out of gas. (Too much Steven moping about the sins of the mother, and not enough action.)

But, judging from the four-part "mini-movie" that just kicked off Season 5, all the table setting we had to endure in S4 is paying off big time. "Steven Universe: Wanted" is nothing short of a tour de force, four very different episodes showcasing the wide variety of writing and artistic styles this series has mastered--all in the service of finally bringing Steven to the gem homeworld to stand trial for Rose's crimes.

(Spoilers ahead.)

5.1 ("Stuck Together") is basically a two-hander between Zach Gallison's Steven and Matthew Moy's Lars (who never made it off the spaceship at the end of S4). It's a standard "I'm afraid"/"Hey, I'm afraid too, but you need to work through it" conversation, but it's given a spin by the bizarre sight of Steven and Lars having their little talk while lodged in the body of the giant Topaz. Then that spin is given a spin when the previously mute Topaz starts misting up at the guys' emotional honesty.

It's all very funny, as well as warm, intimate and touching -- until Aquamarine barges in and tells Topaz that fun time is over. They've arrived at Homeworld and it's time to deliver Steven for "The Trial" (5.2).

The design for Steven's trial scenes on Homeworld is radically different from anything the show has done before. There is an enormous amount of borderless white space in the frame, making Steven look even more isolated, and the gigantic figures of Yellow and Blue Diamond even more imposing. The voice work in this ep is phenomenal: Amy Sedaris' Zircon, giving Steven a better defense than he could have imagined, her instinct for seeking the truth shining through, almost despite herself; Lisa Hannigan, showing the cold rage behind Blue Diamond's melancholy; and Patti Lupone, frightening and imperious as ever as Yellow Diamond.

Of course, there's so much to unpack here, plotwise: did Rose actually kill Pink Diamond? Did Yellow Diamond pull off an assassination/power grab and successfully deflect suspicion? We've been waiting for an Earth/Homeworld battle for the entire series; but what if the endgame is a Homeworld civil war?

5.3 ("Off-Colors") is Steven and Lars escaping to (as one reviewer aptly put it) The Island of Misfit Toys. Loved the layout of the cavernous gem kindergarten, and the character designs for each of the off-color gems are eye-catching and distinctive. My favorites: the conjoined Rutile twins; Fluorite, the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland reimagined as a kindly grandmother; and Padparadscha, a clairvoyant Sapphire who "predicts" events that happened a few seconds ago. (It's one of those jokes that's funny the first time, gets irritating, then comes back around to funny again....)

It all wraps up with a literally mindblowing plot twist in 5.4 ("Lars' Head"): Lars dying, and Steven resurrecting him as a human analog to Lion. What a perfect metaphor for Lars' growth in the first three episodes-- the old Lars is dead, he's put his fears behind him, and his mind has literally expanded to new dimensions.

We leave off with so many questions and plot threads dangling: Steven can use Lars as a conduit to Earth, but Lars himself is stranded on Homeworld. Will Steven and his friends attempt a full-on rescue mission? (I bet Sadie would want in on that.) Will Lars and the off-colors lead a new rebellion? Who killed Pink Diamond and why? (Is White Diamond ever going to get involved here?) Will Greg's first three albums ever be released on iTunes?

A strong start to Season 5. Good job, Rebecca Sugar. I'm back in.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-05-26 02:00 pm
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Animation Roundup #1: Archer and Samurai Jack

Archer: Dreamland--series creator Adam Reed's full-fledged dive into post-WWII noir--ended on Wednesday with an episode so half-assed and gruesome that you almost wonder why Reed bothered continuing the series in the first place.

Let me back up a step and say that I've been a fan of Archer from the beginning (as a crackerjack spy spoof), through the detour into Miami Vice territory (s5) and the P.I. phase (S7). I've always been willing to overlook Reed's weaknesses as a long-term plotter because his ensemble and the gags are just so good. But the last two seasons just seemed to go limp at the end, and I'm starting to think Reed might need some medication for that short attention span.

I get that expecting tight continuity from Archer has always been a fool's game. Nailing down the exact time period in the first four seasons is like a Simpsons fan trying to locate Springfield on the map. Reed has always treated his wonderful cast of loonies not as specific characters, but as a repertory company. They're personalities you can plunk down any time, anywhere (like, let's say, 1947 Los Angeles) and they'd be... themselves:

Archer would always be the world's toughest momma's boy, Mallory would be the master manipulator, Lana would be the impotent voice of reason, Pam would be the tenderhearted bull in a china shop, Cyril would be the cuckolded loser, and Cheryl would be freakin' nuts. They're like Bugs Bunny and his friends, who were written like contract players for the studio, equally at home palling around with Robin Hood, battling Martians, or performing grand opera. Nobody cared about continuity if the laughs kept coming.

But Archer isn't a ten-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon. Reed keeps booting up these intricate, season-long plotlines, filled with hilarious running gags and prime character interaction, then just seems to lose interest along the way.

If the plot is just a hook to hang the gags, then really, don't bother with it at all. Concentrate on giving every member of your ensemble funny stuff and the fans will love it. (Aisha Tyler had one good bit in the whole season. What a waste.)

Soooo....what's next? Archer as Buck Rodgers? Superhero Archer? Reed can go anywhere from here. But part of me hopes that, before the series ends in 2019, we'll check back on the gang as they were in s1-7, and give them a proper goodbye.

**********

Samurai Jack's (very) long-awaited final season was a glorious visual treat, but it suffered from the opposite problem from the one above: a rigid, overdetermined plot line.

"Gotta get back... back to the past" was the intro for every episode, and in the grand finale, Jack got back to the past and slice 'n' diced the living crap out of Aku. The end. Granted, SJ's legions of fans would have rioted if Jack didn't return home and get the win, but it all seemed anticlimactic.

Overall, I had some problems with the general tone of Season 5. Genndy Tartakovsky had plenty of leeway under the Adult Swim banner to explore more adult subjects, and boy howdy, we got plenty of grimdark: Jack shedding innocent blood, Jack in despair, Jack on the verge of suicide. It was... Okay, I guess, but I didn't see the need for it. When SJ was a kid's show back in 2001-2004, we didn't need the garment-rending anguish to know Jack was suffering. We saw his pain in innumerable small ways, hidden under his mask of warrior stoicism. It allowed the more comedic material to blend in smoothly; in Season 5, characters like Scaramouche -- a robot dandy with a line of patter like Sammy Davis Jr. -- jarred against the more serious tone.

But I'm probably in the minority here. The SJ fanatics online loved the more adult material (although, strangely, quite a few weren't into the love story), so maybe I'm too stuck in nostalgia to adjust.

One thing all of us agree on, though, is that Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the best directors working today. Not just "animation directors"--"directors," period. Just to scratch the surface: the way he manipulates time during action sequences by using slow motion, split screen, and multiple angles; the way he establishes mood by long tracking shots with minimal sound; his use of black and white to bring dramatic contrast to a small splash of color; and--best of all--his willingness to let the camera be still.

My favorite sequence of Season 5 was the intercut between Ashi, decimating an army of zombie warriors, and Jack, deep in meditation, meticulously working his way through the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The contrast between the two was almost hilarious, and I loved that both were equally important to the narrative.

Despite my misgivings about the last episode, the final scene was beautiful: Jack, sitting under a gently swaying tree, saddened by the loss of his beloved Ashi, welcomes a ladybug -- Ashi's spirit animal -- onto his finger. His great love and all of his friends from the future are now only memories -- but with Aku gone, time and nature have been set right. It is enough.

************

Next: Steven Universe ventures deep into enemy territory, and the unexpected return of Rick and Morty.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-05-24 11:32 am

Her Time Is Now

We are one week away from the very first major motion picture starring Wonder Woman. It "only" took 75 years to get her up there...

Why?

Wonder Woman, despite her status as the world's most famous superheroine, has always been a complicated bundle of contradictions to unpack. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 as an antidote to the testosterone-fueled antics of Superman and Batman, who (some critics said) were a little too close to the fascistic ubermenschen we were fighting at the time.

Marston, in a sense, had been building up to Wonder Woman his entire life. He was a remarkable character on his own: as a researcher, he spearheaded the theory that you could tell if a person was lying by monitoring changes in physiological responses--yes, the basic principle of the lie detector.

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1900s, Marston immersed himself in the myriad aspects of American feminism: the political writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger, the all-female sci-fi utopias of authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("HerLand"), and the growing power of the suffragette movement, which would culminate in 1920 with women earning the right to vote.

Marston firmly believed that women, in many ways, were the superior sex, and it was only male repression that kept them in chains. Chains and bondage, in fact, were a major theme in Marston's writing--and his personal life.

It is not widely known that Marston was a polygamist, living with both a wife and a mistress (two children with each) in a blended household that was (apparently) a happy environment for all. (Olive Byrne, Marston's mistress, was the niece of Margaret Sanger herself.) And if you've ever idly wondered if Wonder Woman's golden lasso of truth was some kind of kinky bondage toy, let me put your mind at rest--it absolutely was a kinky bondage toy.

I could go on and on here, but if you want to know more, just read Jill Lepore's "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" -- a fascinating study of Marston and his creation, and a sort of odd-angle history of American feminism.

*********

Marston took a mandate from publisher M.C. Gaines and filled the character of Wonder Woman with every personal theory about the superiority of women (and his personal psychosexual kinks) that he could squeeze into a kid's comic book. But when Marston died in 1947, his idiosyncratic feminist vision died with him. The character drifted, her message of empowerment lost in the sexism of the comics industry.

(In the 1970s, DC tried to "update" Diana by stripping her of her powers, putting her in a white pant suit, and having her learn kung fu from a wizened Chinese martial arts master. Did not go over well. Writer Denny O'Neil--a former teacher of mine!--pretty much admitted, "Yeah, I don't know what I was thinking there.")

The Wonder Woman TV series of the late 1970s boosted WW's profile considerably--but it also embodied the contradictions inherent in the character. On the one hand, the stupid plots and the general campiness of the series worked against taking her seriously as a superhero...

But on the other hand, Lynda Carter just plain embodied the part. No matter how dumb the writing, no matter if the costume looked kind of ridiculous, Carter projected dignity, compassion, and strength. (And if you tuned into this week's Supergirl, Lynda Carter is still a beautiful woman projecting dignity, compassion, and strength as the President of the United States.)

This has been the problem all along: Wonder Woman was created to be a feminist icon, but she was created by a man who reflected decades of feminist theory through his own peculiar lens. And when her creator died, she was handed over to men who had no clue about the ideals that were part of her creation in the first place. Before now, Wonder Woman hasn't had the opportunity to truly fulfill her seemingly limitless potential as an inspiration to both men and women.

But maybe that's changing. WW's 75th anniversary last year produced some excellent, thought-provoking comics (printed and on the web); she's on TV as part of the Justice League Action cartoon; and on June 2, Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins look like they're ready to kick ass and take names.

**************

I want the movie to be great. I almost need it to be great. The big protest march aside, this has been an awful year for women around the world. Women's rights are under assault, and they're in danger of being rolled back to a frightening degree. I see fear in certain men--fear of women's dreams, women's desires, women's power, fear manifesting in repression, hatred... violence.

I know a movie isn't going to change anything in the real world; but symbolically, Diana needs to leave Paradise and come to Man's World to show us all what a powerful woman can do.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-05-05 01:35 pm
Entry tags:

Of Solversons, Spaceships and Slaughter: Fargo Season 2

What is Fargo?

Is it a crime drama? A character study? A philosophical musing on the absurdity of existence? Or just the audience laughing at a bunch of funny-sounding white people wandering around in the snow?

Maybe all of these things. But after carefully considering categorizations, I'm absolutely sure what Fargo isn't: noir.

Noir operates in the shadows, a realm of corruption and amorality apart from the light of ordinary society. A noir protagonist (not usually a "hero") might have a personal moral code, but he's often fatally compromised by this environment and has to struggle even to survive. "Winning" is probably not on the table; "virtue triumphant" is something for fairy tales.

But that's not Fargo. Yes, there's all kinds of evil and brutality and killing going on, dontcha know, but Fargo has real heroes, men and women who are honor-bound to stop the madness, protect the innocent and safeguard the community: Marge Gunderson in the movie; Molly Solverson in S1; Lou Solverson and Hank Larsson in S2. (Haven't started S3 yet. Gimme a week, I'll catch up.)

Now, whether these heroes are effective at stopping the madness is another story.

Even though the world of Fargo does have clear moral and ethical boundaries, our heroes are often caught in a maelstrom of tragic events triggered by human greed, sadism or weakness, misunderstandings, and just plain freak random occurrences that swirl together into a shitstorm of death and destruction. Try as they might to stop the carnage of the war between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob--and they tried their damnedest--Lou and Hank, for the most part, could only watch as the bodies of mobsters and innocents alike piled up around the Midwest.

(Lou and Hank thought they left the chaos behind in the jungles of the Pacific and Southeast Asia--but eventually, it followed them home to stain the pristine beauty of their community. The iconic image of blood on virgin snow is disturbing and powerful, another way the setting works to the series' benefit.)

One of the most engrossing parts of Fargo S2 was watching Hank and Lou struggle against the chaos, knowing they were helpless, but pushing forward out of a sense of duty and common decency--pushing that rock up the hill no matter how futile it might seem. (After awhile, you forgot about "stopping the bad guys"--you just wanted them to get out alive and get home to Betsy.)

The myth of Sisyphus and Albert Camus were name checked often in S2, and Camus' existentialism is at the heart of the philosophical dilemmas in Fargo. If there is no God (or if his designs are unknowable), no higher order, if everything you know can be snatched away in an instant, then what is the point of life?

You can look at the Solverson/Larsson clan together and smile and say, "Well, there it is right there." But "family" and "love" and a "sense of purpose" don't always work either:

The Gerhardts were about as tight-knit a family as you can get, but they were a toxic stew of pride, greed and sadism, and they were rotting from the inside. (Simone said it best before she died: "This family belongs in the ground.")

Ed Blomquist did everything for Peggy, even after his personal dreams went up in smoke--but in the end, he knew that his marriage was just another dream that never really came true.

Mike Milligan was probably the one man in the series who enjoyed his work and did it with style--and he was rewarded with a cubicle designed to kill his spirit.

There are no easy answers. We are insignificant beings in a vast universe (watch the skies!), struggling to understand our lives with our limited words and ideas. Peggy, drowning herself and everyone around her in psychobabble, trying to describe needs and desires that she cannot adequately define or express; Hank, Minnesota's answer to Ludwig Wittgenstein(!), assembling a representational language that bypasses the verbal centers entirely; and Betsy, staring at the pill on her table...

Is it the real pill? Or just a representation of the pill? We never really know, do we?

****************

This was an outstanding season of television. Great acting all around, especially from Kirsten Dunst, who somehow made Peggy both exasperating and sympathetic at the same time.

(Favorite moment of the season: Peggy rambling on to Hank about self actualization, and Ted Danson starts to lean over, his mouth opening wider and wider in amazement, until Hank finally blurts out: "You're a little touched, aren't ya?")

I could have watched an entire miniseries centered around Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart).

That said, not everything worked. I don't think we needed that much Ronald Reagan (even though I'm always glad to see Bruce Campbell). Yes, Reagan won the White House a year later, but his connection to the season's themes was tangential at best. I couldn't quite buy that the Blomquists made it to the last episode intact, especially after Dodd escaped, and I thought the Peggy/Dodd comedy routine diluted Dodd's psycho-ness.

I found Hanzee (as a character) to be... problematic.

But those were minor complaints. With this and Legion, Noah Hawley is on a major winning streak.

On to season 3!
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-04-27 11:47 pm

Concert Meme

How well do you know me?

Here are nine concerts I've attended and one I wish I did. Which one is the fake?

1. Sarah Vaughan at the Blue Note
2. Allan Ginsburg (singing William Blake's "Songs of Innocence") at Brooklyn College
3. The Who at Shea Stadium
4. George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic at Central Park
5. Frank Zappa at Pier 84
6. Aretha Franklin at the Beacon Theater
7. The Neville Brothers at Tiptina's
8. Al Green at B.B. King's
9. David Bowie at MSG
10. Sonny Rollins at Damrosch Park
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-04-27 12:25 am

My Mother's World / Classic Cinema: Fritz Lang's "M' (1931)

I.

My mother will be 89 years old in July. My father passed away about ten years ago and her best friend died a few years after that. My sister and I visit and call (not often enough), she goes out to see her grandchildren, and she talks to her family in Germany...

But, for the most part, she's alone.

Recently, I've noticed that my conversations with my mother revolve around her childhood in Bavaria, with a great deal more detail than I've heard in previous stories. (I know what you're thinking; but mentally, she's still sharp as glass. She isn't blanking on the present and
sinking into reveries about the past.)

It's as if the time alone has given her the chance to reflect on the people and events that shaped her life. It's always enthralling to hear stories about my grandfather, his family and their influence in the region--but it's also sad; because, as my mother says, that world is gone now. After Hitler, after the war, they had to build it back up from scratch. What would it have been like to grow up in that world--between the wars and before the Reich?

II.

Fritz Lang's "M" is (at least) a partial window into that world. Most people know "M" as Peter Lorre's breakthrough performance as the child killer (and for ruining "In the Hall of the Mountain King" for the rest of the century). But the movie is so much greater than that.

"M" is the first movie detailing a police hunt for a seral killer, a procedural thriller decades before CSI, Seven, and the like. It's 1931 in Berlin and there's handwriting analysis, behavioral analysis, conflicting witness reports, and how a massive manhunt affects police shifts, department morale and public perception of the department.

Lang lovingly shows the take from a police raid, scanning across rows and rows of meticulously catalogued cash and weapons; he does the same with the bounty gathered by the city's highly organized beggars--huge stretches of food, money and bricabrac.

Through all these details and many more, he paints a picture of post-Weimar Germany: he shows us the hausfraus, the businessmen, the bootleggers, the whores, the school children and the politicians. We see how the police and the criminal underground work in parallel, with similar organizational structures, and--in the hunt for Lorre's Beckert--even similar goals.

It is a masterpiece of world building, maybe even better than the future he built for "Metropolis."

III.

Even though that world is gone now, I see a lot of Lang's Berlin in our modern city. Lang presents the city's underbelly matter-of-factly, without judgment, even implying that a city needs its dark side as an outlet for human passions that the "light" side can't provide.

But, on the other hand, Lang maintains that the rule of law must hold off the passions of the mob. In the Brechtian mock trial that closes the movie, Lang unequivocally states that even Beckert has rights under the law if he's too sick to stop himself.

Basic human rights, the everyday reminder of everyone's common humanity, are necessary to keep society in balance. Unfortunately, Lang's Germany lost that balance the very next year-- and the world has been constantly forgetting and relearning that painful lesson ever since.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-04-26 10:02 am
Entry tags:

Doctor Who 10.1 & 10.2: Back to Basics

What's gotten into Steven Moffat?

After five seasons of brain-twisting plotlines filled with temporal loops and paradoxes, DW Season 10 has kicked off in a style that could almost be described as... minimalist.

New companion (hi, Bill!) and she's not a big, cosmic mystery for the Doctor to suss out, she doesn't have a crush on the old bugger (yay!) and Time hasn't edited her family from existence. She's just the Doctor's student, asking all sorts of neat questions about the weirdness of the Doctor's universe, questions any veteran Whovian would love to ask.

Pearl Mackie gives Bill a warm, friendly presence and an appealing curiousity that just makes you smile when she's on screen. She's not a drama queen like Rose, brittle like Amy, LOUD like Donna, moony like Martha, or intense like Clara. She's her own thing, mostly free of baggage. It's refreshing.

The Doctor, too, has stripped down to a simpler lifestyle. Considering Four's declaration at the start of Tom Baker's run that "I am a citizen of the universe!", it's remarkable that he's stayed on Earth and in one spot for so long. What could possibly be in that vault to warrant such a radical curbing of his wanderlust? Who means so much to him that he would keep his promise to stay put for 50 years? (River? Clara? Susan? Mommy? Your guess is as good as mine...)

I like this mystery much better than Moffat's other attempts at a season-long mystery... because it's simple. "What's in the vault?" Boom. Almost none of his previous attempts, all too clever by half (e.g., The Hybrid, The Impossible Girl) have worked out to my satisfaction, but this seems virtually foolproof. (I know: famous last words.)

You'll note that I haven't mentioned the plots of the first two episodes, mainly because there wasn't much plot to speak of. The wafer-thin premises of 10.1 & 10.2 were mainly there to get Bill and the Doctor together and have them exchange highly entertaining banter. (Probable moment of inspiration: Moffat was on his way to the studio one morning and stepped in a puddle. "Eureka! I have my season premier!")

But if the banter stays this witty, and the chemistry between Mackie and Capaldi stays this good, I'm okay with it for now. Moffat can short-circuit our brains later on in the season...