cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-09-07 11:42 pm

Today I am a Man

No, not really. My bar mitzvah was 45 years ago, in a temple that no longer exists.

But now, at age 58, I think I finally feel like a grown-up.

And... it's not so bad. I'm still the same nerd I've always been, and I can still reel off obscure pop culture references like the worst of them, but I've got other things on my plate now:

D. just started third grade yesterday, and I'm shuttling him back and forth from school, taking him to the library around the corner and to the Strand bookstore in Manhattan. He's devouring chapter books now, and I can see a future filled with intellectual discussion. (If he's still talking to me at age 13....)

I own a house. The plumbing drives me nuts, and now the city has ripped up the streets in my neighborhood to replace the water pipes. Well, yeah, they're 200 years old and need replacing, but jeez. The water is off from 8 to 4 every day now, which tends to put a crimp on normal... functions. But the problems are mine, and I wouldn't go back to my old apartment for anything.

My "temporary" job at the bank is now the longest employment stretch of my entire life. I have more responsibility than ever before at my "home" branch and I fill in at branches all over Brooklyn when they need me. And they do need me.

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

I bought myself a birthday present:

DOOM PATROL Book One, 18 months of Grant Morrison and Richard Case's surreal superhero series of the 90s--the only comic book I know that name checks Maya Deren and Jan Svankmajer. The plot of the first four issues is a direct lift from Borges' "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius"-- and Morrison deserves a freaking genius grant for making that work. The last story in the book ("The Soul of the New Machine") might be the funniest comic book story about Cartesian dualism ever printed.
*************
The wife and boy are taking me out for fancy dinner Saturday night.

So yeah, I'm good.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-08-28 05:17 pm

On Whedon: the Artist and His Art

OK. I've thought about this for a little while....

Let's go back to that extremely uncomfortable question I asked in my final post on whedonesque: mainly, at what point does the actions of the artist affect your enjoyment of the art?

I cited three specific examples: Orson Scott Card, Roald Dahl and Bill Cosby. I only know Card from Ender's Game, and his notorious homophobia has pretty much killed any interest in further exploring his books. Cosby, the hypocritical wagging finger of morality in the face of the younger generation, has completely ruined his classic comedy albums for me. I don't think I could watch the Cosby Show again without feeling a little queasy. (But... but! I think I could always watch I Spy. Nobody can turn me away from Bob Culp.)

Roald Dahl? Racist and anti-Semite...

I'm a big fan.

I know, it makes no sense. But I suppose it's up to each person to decide if artists' personal actions or beliefs have "betrayed" or "invalidated" their art. In the case of Cosby, I absolutely think that's true. In the case of Dahl, I've achieved some form of separation of the two....

So what do I think about Whedon? Has the unpleasant scenario laid out by Kai Cole convinced me that Joss' well-reknowned feminism was just him talking through his ass? That Buffy has been fatally diminished by her creator's flaws?

No.

I did not reach this conclusion easily. I had to reach down and think about exactly why I loved Buffy so much, and why I found Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse to be worthy successors (more or less) to the mother series.

If you study them closely enough, all four of Whedon's TV series (I'm not counting SHIELD) have a common narrative. Let's call it Joss' monomyth:

We meet our protagonist ("J") at a point of spiritual emptiness or existential crisis. "J" has lost a sense of purpose (or a path to that purpose has been blocked or obscured).

"J" meets a spiritual guide (a mentor figure or a peer) who sets "J" back on the proper path. But the path is not an easy one. Progress toward individual fulfillment bumps against the rules and constraints of society. These forces try to press "J" to conform or stray from the path.

With the help of a group of like-minded individuals (a substitute family), "J" gradually surmounts all obstacles, both external and internal, until finally achieving a plateau of spiritual growth.

You'll note that I deliberately avoided gender specific pronouns here.
This is the story of Buffy, Angel, Mal and Echo/Caroline in a nutshell. I think it holds true for everything from "Welcome to the Hellmouth" through "Epitaph Two." (You can fill in the specifics on your own. You know them as well as I do.) And it's Joss Whedon's talent for telling this basic, universal story -- populated with vivid, complex characters -- that is the source of his strength as a writer. I don't think anything revealed in recent days has changed that.

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

But something HAS changed in recent days, symbolized by the shuttering of whedonesque.

For a good chunk of Buffy fandom, it was always assumed that Whedon and his fan base shared a common moral vision, a commitment to a set of beliefs that fueled his art. In the quest of Buffy Summers to make sense of her life as a slayer, she battled the pressures of society, like all Whedon protagonists; but specifically, these pressures often manifested themselves as representatives of the Patriarchy -- the Watcher's Council, the Mayor, Caleb. The devoted fanbase assumed (dangerous word) that Joss "got it"-- he knew all the ways women in this culture get worked over by men who make all the rules, and he was working to be part of the solution....

Well, that magical connection between fan and artist, that moral certitude, is gone now. If we believe Kai Cole's cri de coeur--and yes, I do--then maybe Joss Whedon doesn't "get it" as well as we all thought he did.

This doesn't dilute the power of Whedon's storytelling strengths. But if Whedon's moral authority is now in doubt, it does open the door to less admiring, more harshly critical assessment of his work. (For instance: What's the deal with the "weaponized waifs" running through all of his series? Was Dollhouse a critique of female objectification or just... female objectification?)

And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

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

In the end, there's only one real tragedy here--and that belongs to Joss Whedon, Kai Cole, and their kids. When all is said and done, this is their story, not ours. We can stand on the sidelines and debate the implications, but we have no voice in the matter. We can only ponder the strange relationship among artist, art and audience--a relationship that's up to each member of the audience to define for themselves.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-08-06 09:41 pm

Talkin' 'bout Regeneration 2017 (2)

When last we spoke about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor, I debunked the claim of naysayers that a female Doctor would "limit" storylines, and discussed the modern history of gender switching in popular culture and how Doctor Who would fit into that continuum.

There are two more claims from the negative side of the argument that need refutation: 1) the Doctor, as part of series canon, has been (and will always be) male; and 2) the casting of Whittaker is a cheap publicity stunt, a cowardly bow to political correctness.

I'm pretty sure that when the series went on the air in 1964, and through the Peter Davison era, nobody was thinking about the gender interchangeability of Time Lords. But when the series started losing steam during Colin Baker's run, the idea of changing the Doctor's gender was floated by no less than series co-creator Sydney Newman.

The BBC disregarded Newman's suggestion and went with Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor. The McCoy era has been described as a creative renaissance for the series; unfortunately, the return of quality storytelling didn't stop the ratings slide--and Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989.

Would a female Doctor at that point in the series have goosed the ratings enough to prevent the cancellation? Impossible to say. But the idea of the Doctor regenerating as a woman was out there--and it would be picked up at various points over the next few decades.

The idea was next put forward when the series was still off the air--in 1999, and "The Curse of Fatal Death." This minisode was a unique piece of DW history, a Comic Relief sketch starring Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder) as the Doctor and Jonathan Pryce as the Master. In "Curse," future DW showrunner Steven Moffat very affectionately skewered all of Doctor Who's tropes, ending with a climactic regeneration-palooza, with Atkinson giving way to Hugh Grant(!), Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, and finally, Joanna Lumley--who walked off arm-in-arm with Pryce to explore that third setting on her sonic screwdriver.

All right, it was all for laughs. But over the years, DW fanatics have adopted "Curse" as the unofficial starting point for the revival...

And sure enough, barely 15 seconds into his tenure as showrunner--the regeneration scene in "The End of Time"--Moffat put the concept of a female Doctor into canon, as Matt Smith's Eleven touched his long locks and cried out, "I'm a girl!"

The Moffat era expanded that brief, game-changing cry into a full-fledged redefinition of Time Lord biology. We had tales of the Corsair in Neil Gaiman's "The Doctor's Wife," the Gallifreyan general switching from male back to female in the S9 finale--and, of course, there was Missy, proof positive that you could change the gender of a major character and make it work.

So the table was more than set for Whittaker. You would have to have consciously ignored the history of series not to see it coming.

But still, there is that second point of the naysayers: are they putting a woman at the TARDIS controls just to boost the ratings?

Well...not really. The series is in a much better place now than it was in the late 1980s. Yes, the BBC ratings are down by about 50% from the 2005 highs of 10 million viewers, but BBC ratings aren't the whole game anymore. Doctor Who is now a bona fide worldwide phenomenon, broadcast in dozens of countries, and the Beeb rakes in millions from international licensing, theatrical presentations, DVDs and merchandise. The BBC doesn't give out financial figures, but I'm betting that they could stop airing Doctor Who in England and still earn a healthy profit.

In a way, Doctor Who is like The Simpsons, another long-running show whose new episodes are just the tip of a global merchandising iceberg. And just like The Simpsons, the key to remaining a global cultural touchstone isn't ratings--it's relevance.

Pop culture icons last a long time in the public consciousness, but they're not necessarily immortal. We don't thrill to new adventures of Tarzan and The Phantom anymore, and we're not chuckling at Speedy Gonzalez and Bosco cartoons. The world has moved past them--they no longer speak to who we are. The great cultural icons have enough universality and flexibility to adapt to the times without destroying their basic appeal.

I don't know if Doctor Who will be able to achieve the longevity of, say, Sherlock Holmes, but it has just taken a big step toward maintaining its relevancy in its quest for pop culture immortality.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-08-02 02:10 pm

Did You Ever Have "One of those Weekends"?

After a long weekend, I'm back at work.

Thank God I'm finally out of the house.

It all started on Saturday afternoon, when we were pulling out of the driveway for a lovely family outing to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. We noticed that there was standing water surrounding the driveway drain. "Did it rain last night?" asked my wife. "No," I replied.

Uh oh.

We'd been having problems with the downstairs shower (slow runoff), and I'd been trying to clear the clog with drain cleaners. No luck. Now, it seems the problem had spread to the general sewer line. It was time to call on (ugh) professional help.

Goodbye family outing for dad.

The plumbers came in to try to snake out our main sewer line--but they couldn't get to the clog. Apparently, the clog was at the point where our pipeline connected to the street. Accessing that point would mean accessing the trap door that we believed was buried under a foot of cement in our basement closet. Digging that out was gonna cost money. They'd come back Monday morning to tell me how much.

(Note the qualifiers "apparently" and "we believed"; we'll come back to those later.)

Until Monday, we had to be careful about water usage, or risk a messy overflow. So... no showers. Limited flushes. Washing dishes? (Well, if you must....) Oh, that didn't create tension in the house at all...

Fortunately, the wife and boy left for Philly on one of their mini-vacays on Sunday morning, giving me precious alone time to prepare for Monday. Cleaning out that basement closet (probably for the first time since 1957); shuttling all the old paint cans and spare parts from closet to closet; and moving basement furniture together into a giant mass, then covering it with a tarp. (Hey, when the family's away, I know how to have fun!)

Monday morning. The plumbers' supervisor handled the walkthrough. Breaking through cement, maybe building a new trap, cleaning the line, hey those threads on your hot water heater look like they're ready to go....

I swallowed the price tag (went down rough), and told him to send the boys in and get started. Oh no, he told me. We won't have a crew ready until tomorrow. But I have to be at work tomorrow, I replied. Nobody's going to be home. Hey, no problem, he said. Just get one of those lockboxes, and--

I called work and told them I needed Tuesday off.

Monday afternoon, I stopped off at my mother's house for a hot shower and a shave. (She called me her "refugee.") I finished watching Season 3 of Fargo. And at midnight, I watched Eraserhead for the first time ever. Yeah, I was in that kind of mood.

On Tuesday, the crew came in right on time. I heard the sound of jackhammers in the basement. Then, the hammering noticeably stopped. The crew leader called me downstairs.

He'd broken through the cement in the closet to where we thought the trap would be--but the trap wasn't there. The trap was actually IN FRONT of the closet, easily accessible by just peeling back the linoleum. Breaking the cement was completely unnecessary. (Heck, if we'd known, we could have cleaned the pipes years ago.)

After absorbing that bit of news, I went back upstairs and let them do their jobs. Everything seemed to go well enough. My water heater was repaired without needing a replacement (phew); they filled in the hole in the closet floor with fresh concrete; water flow was restored, and the basement didn't look too bad. So when the plumbers left, I cleaned up and waited for the family to come home Tuesday night.

My wife made it home after a long drive from Philly. She was hot and tired, and all she wanted was a nice, relaxing shower in the downstairs bathroom, her home away from home.

You probably know where this is going:

The water was still backing up in the shower.

I had been so obsessed about getting the sewer line clean and restoring full water usage in the house, that I FORGOT ABOUT THE ORIGINAL PROBLEM.

My wife was real thrilled about that.

So, the plumbers are coming back on Thursday and they're going to clear that shower, come hell or (sic) high water. I hope that'll be the end of it. But right now, I'm just glad to be out of the house.

ETA (9/3/17): Plumbers found a sock in the shower drain. I have no idea how it got there. Water flowing smoothly now.

If we got the sock out a few weeks ago, could we have avoided this whole megillah? We may never know.
cjlasky7: (Default)
2017-07-23 11:08 am

Talkin' 'bout Regeneration 2017 (1)

There's been a lot of buzz on social media about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, and I find the debates both appalling and entertaining. Sometimes, a seminal moment in pop culture tests a fan community, and you get a true measure of what people believe about important issues. I've heard all the arguments against a female Doctor: a) the Doctor is canonically a male; b) it'll limit the stories the series can tell; c) it's an empty gesture toward political correctness--and I don't feel that any of them hold up.

But, most of all, I'm not the least bit thrown by gender switching of a main character because I've seen it often enough before. Here's three instances of a gender switch that influenced my worldview:

[Note: I am not talking about "Freaky Friday"-style body switches; I'm talking about protagonists who retain all their previous characteristics, except for the change in gender.]

1. "The Left Hand of Darkness," Ursula K. Leguin (1969)

Groundbreaking novel from one of the greats of modern science fiction. Leguin takes us to the world of Gethen, where the humanoid population is gender neutral, except for a monthly cycle (called "kemmer"), where a person can be either male or female. Leguin brings a trained anthropologist's eye to the various societies of Gethen, showing how the absence of fixed genders would shape a civilization (and she packs in political intrigue and Buddhist philosophy to boot).

2. "The Procrustean Petard," Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath (1978)

That's fine, you say, but we're not talking about literature, we're talking about a TV show. You don't see manly men TV heroes like Hercules or Captain Kirk being turned into women, do you?

Well...

Just after the original Star Trek series ended and just before the first set of Trek movies, Bantam Books released two volumes of original short stories called The New Voyages. Volume Two featured this story, where almost the entire crew of the Enterprise is captured and gender flipped by alien technology.

Marshak and Culbreath have some odd ideas about genetics, and (post-Voyager) the complaints about sexism in Starfleet will seem out-of-date. But still--watching James T. Kirk struggle to adjust to a body that is unfamiliar but unquestionably his (her?) own is (as Spock would say) fascinating.

3. "Orlando," Virginia Woolf (1928)

But if you want a story that's most relevant to the current kerfuffle with the Doctor, you can't do any better than the granddaddy (and grandmother) of all gender bender stories: Orlando.

Orlando starts out as a proper English Lord in Elizabethan times, but during a sojourn to the Mysterious East, he wakes up from a magical sleep as a woman (and apparently ageless). For the next three hundred years, we follow Orlando as she encounters would-be suitors of ever-shifting or indeterminate genders, poets and critics locked into their blinkered worldviews, and witness her own struggles as a writer, as she tries to find the words to express herself in a world that has no words to describe anyone like her.

It's both a parody of British picaresque and the next evolution of the form, Henry Fielding by way of Joe Orton, but Woolf through and through.

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

Virginia Woolf would have loved the idea of our new Doctor, and I could just see Thirteen taking her on a trip in the TARDIS, perhaps becoming one of the inspirations for Orlando. It's just one of many, MANY ideas that came to mind when the casting was announced.

Can you imagine Thirteen:

Meeting Joan of Arc before her last battle?

On a steampunk adventure with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage?

Re-encountering the female Pope (that Twelve alluded to in "Extremis")?

Battling a new incarnation of the Rani--with Whittaker playing BOTH roles?

This is just off the top of my head, kids. I'm sure that if any two or three people on my friends list got together, we could pump out enough standalone stories centering on Thirteen for five seasons of Doctor Who. A female Doctor "limits" storytelling? What, are you KIDDING me?

But maybe Chibnall won't go this way; maybe the braintrust won't do anything so overtly feminist, so as not to scare away a chunk of the fandom. But if that's the case, I hope they approach Thirteen the way Moffat approached Missy: the same character, but with a slight change in perspective that allowed her to escape the old patterns, patterns that weren't working for her anymore.

Whatever they decide, I'm looking forward to Season 11. I'm a little nervous, because God knows, there's a lot of doubts about Chibnall as a show runner, and many possible ways to screw this up. But Whittaker? Oh, there's no doubt about her at all. The universe of Doctor Who has expanded to new horizons, and I'm ready for a bold new era of adventure.

Next: Thirteen and the DW global phenomenon.
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.
cjlasky7: (Default)
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.
cjlasky7: (Default)
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.
cjlasky7: (Default)
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....
cjlasky7: (Default)
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.)
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.