Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Music

There's a habit on the board (it's not really consistent or old enough to refer to it as a "tradition") for a couple years now in which people post Youtube videos of bands they're currently listening to or have recently discovered or just think that the majority of the regulars won't know and might enjoy. There's a fairly diverse set of tastes and interests there, so it's usually a decent introduction to new and generally good stuff. The few times that I've participated (where I'm working now makes Youtube a bit of a challenge), I've usually posted 4 or 5 items largely because I tend to be listening to multiple new things (just today I dropped another $40 in new mp3s over at the commerce overlords (aka Amazon)) or have enough varied things on my mind that people might be interested in that it's easier to just do an information dump. Since I was home today (hooray for pointless religious observances that have nothing to do with the religion (or lack thereof) of the majority of the population!), I was ready to spam my usual output, but in thinking about what to post, decided to bring it here instead.

I've been listening to a lot of North Mississippi All-Stars lately. I'm fond of Delta Blues and these guys are the genuine item; plus they put on a helluva show because they're very enthusiastic about their music and their fans and that's always fun to see. Two overriding themes in many of the bands/performers that I regularly listen to is: a) Fearlessness. They try different stuff on a regular basis and aren't afraid to grow, even if they know that will piss off a segment of their audience that doesn't want to change; and, b) They're audiophiles. Part of that willingness to try new stuff is because they like taking sounds and making music with them, regardless of source or connection to their own assigned genre. NMAS are definitely in that vein, even if they stick to their Delta roots. The multiple layers of percussion in Goin' Down South makes it stand out from its more conventional blues guitar work. There are several rhythms going on here and you can bob and weave with any or all of them.

Speaking of awesome shows, my friend, Nathan, traveled down to the Majestic in Detroit with me a few weeks ago to see one Les Claypool and his current project, Duo de Twang:

I've enjoyed stuff by Claypool ever since Primus because, again, he's one of those aural experimenters. His song are bass-focused, as you might expect, but he's all over the spectrum in terms of rhythm, melody, and style. The problem is that, unlike more electronically-focused performers like The Orb or The Crystal Method, his music doesn't really jump off the disc to me when it's prerecorded. There are some performers that just do better on stage than in the studio and, based on what I saw at the Majestic, he's one of them, as his show completely blew me away. He and Bryan Kehoe just sat on stage with nothing but a blue light on them the whole time and just tore it up. I kept trying to follow his hands on the bass and kept losing him because he was doing more with it than most other players that I've ever seen (the only person I can remember who struck me as similarly talented is Melvin Gibbs, who I saw a couple times with Rollins Band.) It didn't hurt that they had a hilarious opening act ("Hello. We are reformed whores... and, uh, that is the name of our band, too.") and I happened to be the crossing point for two different groups of people passing some really good stuff back and forth (since I was helping, I was duty-bound to take a hit; Duty. Bound.) I pulled up some regular tracks on Youtube the next day and it just didn't have the same energy, so I'll wait 'til he rolls into town again but I will definitely be going. EDIT: Of course someone recorded the Majestic show, the first part (of six) of which I've now included.

Speaking of electronic bands, I've been a long-time fan of the Dutch techno producer, Speedy J, who originally engaged in the more flowing style that emerged from Detroit in the 90s and became prominent with groups like the aforementioned Orb and Aphex Twin, but later switched into much heavier rhythms and more complex sonic arrangements that often leave a tonal memory in your head precisely because of their lack of melody. He's using sounds to create an image in the same way that musical scores do for film, TV, and stage. What I really like about this approach is that it hearkens back to the industrial sounds of the early 90s that bands like The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Atari Teenage Riot were using (albeit in drastically different ways) and, again, keeps with that thought of using new and interesting sounds to make music that a wider audience can still appreciate.

Soundtracks aren't confined to just performed art anymore, either, as there's a great amount of really good music turning up in games.

This is the background music for an area of the World of Warcraft called Booty Bay. As you might expect from the name and should be able to tell from the sound, it's where a lot of pirates tend to hang out. It's clearly soundtrack music designed to generate a certain image and atmosphere and does so in a rather phenomenal way, IMO. Even though the location is some distance from the regular cities where the majority of players tend to stay because certain services are easily available, I've left a couple characters here upon signing off just so that when I logged on, I could hear the background theme because it was so inspiring and exciting. Having a full orchestra to make game music certainly helps with that endeavor and, as any viewer of shows like Game of Thrones will tell you, having an innovative thinker like a Ramin Djawadi can go a long way toward making your show/game/play a compelling draw for years to come and leave your viewers/players/audience humming your theme songs as they go about their day.

On the orchestral note, I figured I'd end with a favorite composer, George Philipp Telemann. Telemann was a German baroque composer of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries and a contemporary of JS Bach and his sons, as well as Georg Friedrich Handel, among others. He was one of the most prolific composers of history and tended to stay at the cutting edge of musical development and led a lot of that change himself by his willingness to experiment with underused instruments (like the viola) and new arrangements. I have a collection of his trumpet concertos that's a favorite because of the compelling sound of the horns breaking free from the supporting music around them. This piece, the Concerto for 3 trumpets, 2 oboes, and timpani in D, is probably my favorite from that collection. Unfortunately, the arrangement in the above performance is a bit shaded toward the strings and less toward the horns, which are much clearer in the one that I have listened to most often (and which occasionally compels me to abuse Shakespeare's sonnet style, to the chagrin of everyone around me.) But the music still embodies the phrase "clarion call" and is one of the more compelling that I own. I gave a copy to my friend, Juscha, a few years back and she emailed me the next day, saying that she "woke up today to the sound of beauty."

Bonus extra!:

In the course of the last 45 minutes of writing this I've actually been listening to none of these performers but instead to Trixie Whitley. She's the daughter of semi-known blues guitarist Chris Whitley, whose one significant charting hit from the 90s was a track called "Big Sky Country":

Sadly, Chris died about a decade ago but his daughter has been carrying on with her own career after performing on several of his albums. She did some work with a group called Black Dub, which is kind of a blues/dub/rock fusion with some supporting sounds, but recently released her first full-length offering, Fourth Corner. This is one of the gems from that:

In short, she has dad's voice which kinda makes my knees go weak every time I hear it (but I'm odd like that; I've been talking a lot recently with a friend from the political past who speaks Dutch and my knees wobble just at the thought of hearing that...) Plus, it was a good excuse to bring this back to its blues beginning. Now on to some Lydia Loveless...

Monday, April 14, 2014

The eyes have it

Without doubt, this was one of the longest awaited moments in the show's 4 years, as the reign of Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name, finally comes to an end and Jack Gleeson (likely not first of his name) is now free to retire from acting and the culture of celebrity that he disdains and continue on the road to being a scholar of philosophy. Good show and all that. It also opens one of the story's real mysteries: who poisoned the king? I think the clues are there but it remains to be seen. Fittingly, then, that this episode was GRRM's contribution to this season and, again, fitting that it saw the exit of yet another major character. Martin's reputation for bringing the sword to his books (just like Joffrey) will last forever.

But we open with Ramsay and Reek on the hunt. It's going to be a delicate situation for D&D this season, as it's where a lot of threads truly branch off from one another given the momentous events in the latter half of Storm of Swords (which this season largely covers) and the need to keep actors employed. The appearance of Roose Bolton in the Dreadfort, despite it being his seat, was kind of a surprise to me. His subsequent order of Ramsay to Moat Cailin was even moreso. How does one keep Michael McElhatton employed when the Flayed Man show is on the road to the Moat? That said, that scene was also the one where the episode really opened up with the theme of glances telling thousands of words. Roose's penetrating eyes on his bastard, Reek processing the news of Robb with a razor in his hand, and Ramsay clearly struggling under the bonds of social order were all played very well and set the tone for what followed.

One side note is that the Dreadfort set was the first one where it really stuck out to me that it was Castle Black redressed... and really not so redressed. Granted, you can only have so many sets and architecture in the North does tend to blend together, out of need for function, if nothing else. But the Dreadfort is thousands of years old, as the Boltons are one of the oldest (and oddest) families in Westeros and you'd really kind of expect their home to have its own very obvious character. I really hope that wasn't an effect of the wonderful Gemma Jackson having been replaced.

Meanwhile, the lunchtime meeting of two of the last genuinely noble men in Kings' Landing and the first Tyrion/Jaime scene since Winterfell in season 1 was excellent. Following it up with the first ever Jaime and Bronn scene (with expectation for more) was even better. Not only do we get to see the only real swordplay of the episode (a couple friends have dubbed this kind of GoT action 'Sexy Murder Time' and declared that it should be a new band name; I offered the first album title: As the Clock Stabs Twelve...) but it's an even better excuse for more Jerome Flynn screen time, especially since it was right about here that Bronn is written out of the books (no, it's not really a spoiler since he doesn't die; he just wanders off with a title and a rich wife; would that we could all do that.) This was the only real carryover from the first episode's trend of setup scenes.

The brief scene of Varys and Tyrion bickering over Shae was really kind of forgettable except inasmuch as it seemed to show Conleth Hill sweating through his robe as he walked away. Kings' Landing does get pretty warm and the actors have all commented on how Dubrovnik does, as well, especially since they're all loaded down in brocade and leather and often plate armor, too. It was just an elaborate pattern, but it's not the first thing that came to mind. That was the intro to Tyrion and Shae's subsequent flashpoint. Like the Dreadfort this, too, was a departure from canon, so it seems that they're going to be coming a bit more frequently than before (again, understandably.) It was also a scene upon which I'm kind of conflicted. While it's obvious that Tyrion was forcing the issue and they both knew it was a kind of bullshit even as the words had their horrible impact, it really left me feeling like Dinklage was forcing the issue and outside of his normal deft handling of his role. In every season there's a scene or two that leaves me feeling kind of non-plussed for various reasons but this was, by far, the worst of them. The performances felt off and, if the thread remains as it does in the books, this moment kind of let the air out of the sails of a really powerful event later in the story. There's opportunity to repair it, certainly, but I have to say that, for the first time, I was kind of put off.

The return to Dragonstone was pretty pro forma, although Melisandre's brief smile during the death screams of the Florents was both chilling and in keeping with the 'glances' theme of the episode. I'm left intrigued as to what they're setting up with her interaction with Shiree and waiting to see who can be the first on the Interwebs to create a real recipe for Book Binding Soup.

Likewise, speaking of returns and interesting meals, the appearance of Bran and Co. was a welcome one. Bran's vision is rife with opportunity to drop spoilers, which I'll avoid for non-readers, but it lays the groundwork for much of the season in the far North. I thought Isaac Hempstead-Wright's performance, staring into his food and furs, was brilliant. He was every bit the caged animal, his human and warg sides fighting with each other as Meera tried to keep him grounded. His eyes told everything that was happening, just as the raven's almost does...

But the real parade of glances came, of course, at the wedding, which took up almost the entire second half of the episode. Royal weddings are always rife with symbolism and politics and, as one would expect in the game of thrones, this one was suffused with them. Even before the actual scene, there were all kinds of little hints about what had happened and what was to come. Fantasy geek that I am, I was tickled to hear that Martin had dropped in a nod to one of the legendary writers of that genre in the gift-giving scene preceding the wedding. Just as in season one, when he had Viserys listing off dragon names and mentioning Vermithrax from the 80s film, Dragonslayer, in this moment he had Joffrey asking for names for his new blade to which someone helpfully offered "Stormbringer!", the soul-devouring broadsword of Michael Moorcock's anti-hero, Elric of Melniboné.

Martin has mentioned before that he feels slightly chagrined that, of all the sets, they couldn't make the Great Sept even larger, since it's supposed to be the size of Westminster Abbey. I think they've done a good enough job in the scenes leading up to the wedding (since it's basically half built and they just shoot it from different angles), but I could feel a bit of that disappointment in that the royal wedding could only fit a crowd that was perhaps a few dozen more than appeared at Tyrion and Sansa's intentionally sparsely-attended affair. You do what you can do.

Thankfully, the reception offered all the character action you could hope for: Olenna treating Mace Tyrell like a child while sparring again with Tywin; Jaime and Loras verbally fencing over Cersei; Oberyn falling just short of an outright challenge to the Lannisters; and, of course, the struggle between Joffrey and Tyrion. All of these encounters were sprinkled with those powerful looks and silent messages that spoke volumes about what was actually happening and speaks again to the excellent performance of the cast as whole. Even brief moments like Oberyn and Loras sharing a sly nod were great (especially since no such relationship is ever referred to in the books, as the Martells and Tyrells, and especially Loras and the Red Viper, are not fond of each other) or hilarious, like Pod noticing Kayla, the whore who can do a Meereenese Knot from last season.

Perhaps no moment more exemplifies that trend than when Cersei buttonholes Brienne as she leaves the head table and accosts her about having spent so much time with Jaime. The conflicting emotions that both of them are trying to express and hide at the same time were fantastic. Had circumstances and culture been different, you could easily see the two of them grabbing swords and begin hacking each other to bits (Sexy Murder Time!) But there were many others: Tywin's look of restraint during Joffrey's antics and his look of controlled confusion when the latter keeled over; Varys obviously dismayed at the idea of what Margaery was trying to accomplish by directing the leftovers to the poor, perhaps knowing what Cersei's response would be, and on and on.

But, as so many times before, the people who completely crush it during the reception scene are brother and sister, Tyrion and Cersei. The former's sparring with Joffrey while choosing both words and actions carefully was fantastic. The latter's simmering frustration and then shock and dismay at the death of her son almost instantly transforming into rage and the urge for vengeance against Tyrion may be Lena Headey's best performance in 4 years of great ones. Fitting that it should come just as her station in life transforms irrevocably.

Quotes of the week:

"Try the boar. Cersei can't get enough of it since one killed Robert for her." and "A toast! To the proud Lannister children: the dwarf, the cripple, and the mother of madness." - Tyrion, killin' it.

"He tells me you shit gold, just like your father." and "Right here's where I fucked his wife. She's a screamer, that one. If they don't hear her, they won't hear us." - Bronn, keeping pace.

"I hate a good many things, but I suffer them all the same." - No one suffers like Stannis. One wonders what will happen if he ever succeeds.

"You ought to try enjoying something before you die. You might find it suits you." - Maybe Olenna should offer Tywin some cheese?

"Now, go drink until it feels like you did the right thing." - More wisdom from Bronn.

"Luckily, none of this will ever happen, because you'll never marry her." "And neither will you." - Nikolai Coster-Waldau is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.

"In truth, he rescued me, your Grace. More than once." "Did he?" - Those lines aren't particularly great but the looks and performances that accompanied them were amazing. I'm surprised that the frost on that second line from Lena didn't cloud the camera lens.

And the winner:
"People everywhere have their differences. In some places, the highborn frown on children of low birth. In others, the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful. How fortunate for you, former queen regent, that your daughter, Myrcella, has been sent to live in one of the latter places." - the Red Viper, two weeks in a row.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The paths are laid

As with most first episodes for a season of a continuing series, you have to skip around a bit and this one did quite a lot of that, even though it was lacking Bran and Theon and Stannis entirely (Shades of book 4?) That said, I thought the pace remained pretty consistent and it was interesting to see that DB (and Dan, since they do everything together) decided to direct the first episode of the season rather than one with more momentous events. One wonders if their overall attitude toward the series has changed, given that they've reached and surpassed the one scene that compelled them to not only make the series (the Red Wedding), but the one that they assured GRRM would mean that the series was here to stay if they could pull it off. Are they feeling more like overall managers than the ones driving it forward? Does it have a life of its own now, such that they can direct the episodes that lay the groundwork, rather than the big splashes? While openers always mean a lot of setups for future episodes, and this one was no different, it still had some real meat and a couple moments that I'd been really waiting for, as well.

It was a nice touch to see the last image we've had of Ice (executing Ned) when they did the season 3 recap since, after all, the episode opened with its reforging and the most prominent man in Westeros, one Tywin Lannister. And, of course, with the Rains of Castamere as the continuing Lannister score. The scene was a good reminder that he is essentially still reshaping the realm as he wants it and now has the Valyrian steel to prove it. Also, while I expected the opening sequence to introduce Meereen (For how many seasons...?), I was a bit surprised to see not only the Dreadfort (although that's where Reek and the Bastard will be appearing, of course) but also the continued focus on Winterfell when there is no action there and hasn't been for some time. Again, it could just be a concession to the audience's overall image of the story and the distress of the Starks, in general, but we get plenty of that. Perhaps just a reluctance to break form?

One thing I had been waiting for was a Jaime and Tywin scene, since we haven't had one of those since episode 7 of the first season and that one was classic (Tywin skinning the stag.) This one is almost as good, with Jaime demonstrating just how different he has become. However, like many of the characters, he has a certain resonance with Brienne, just as Tyrion has the best exchanges with Tywin. Jaime and Tywin just don't match that energy, unfortunately.

The other thing I'd been waiting for was the arrival of the Red Viper and that extended scene, from Tyrion's embarrassment outside the city to Oberyn Martell's display at the brothel, had plenty of energy. They pulled no punches at all, showing both Oberyn and Ellaria's diverse appetites, as well as the former's deep-seated thirst for vengeance. Pedro Pascal did a fantastic job and I'm expecting that he'll be a fan favorite, even of the people who didn't read the books.

The Daenerys scenes were also good, demonstrating the growing (literally) threat of the kids, the simmering frustration of Jorah Mormont, and introducing the new actor playing Daario Naharis (Michael Huisman.)They're clearly stressing Dany's transition into her more commanding role as queen with her dismissal of both Daario and Grey Worm for their show of machismo (yes, one can question the motivation of Grey Worm in that respect, being a eunuch) and, consequently, I'm not sure the flower scene worked so well. It was an object lesson in understanding the people she's now leading, but I thought her chemistry with the previous actor (Ed Skrein) was superior, even though Huisman is a better physical match for the character from the books (still lacking the blue hair and beard, though.) Missandei's glance at them after they dropped the sword game was excellent, though. Also, I understand that Drogon always gets the close-ups, as he's the dragon that Dany is closest to, but it wouldn't hurt to occasionally see Viserion or Rhaegal get some attention.

The dual scene with Shae insisting that Sansa eat to teasing Tyrion in bed was also really well done. Sophie Turner continues to impress as an actress with her emotional delivery, which outshines the later appearance of Ser Dontos. Tony Way really didn't deliver and I was hoping that that scene would be a bit more tender as he appoints himself her watchdog (as one really can't say "champion" and I'm glad that they avoided that implication) while handing over the necklace that is his only remnant of his former life, paralleling the transformation of the sword at the beginning of the episode. Tyrion and Shae's interaction is, of course, emblematic of the setups that comprise much of this offering.

Another interaction I was really wanting to see is that of Cersei and Jaime. Their scenes in the books are fairly dynamic and I'm expecting no less here as things continue. The first go-round was excellent and I'm wondering what some of the feedback from the audience will be. Since most people are interested in seeing relationships move forward, will there be glee at the clear breakdown in this one? Has Jaime developed enough of a fan following for them to feel dismay at the fact that he's not getting what he so obviously wants or will there be satisfaction that he's becoming separated from his still fairly despicable sister? The whole exchange and the reaction highlights what makes this story so compelling: the everpresent and constantly shifting shades of gray (a lot more than 50 and more interesting, from what I've heard.) What's even better in this episode is the clear contrast between the halting and finally halted interaction between the twins, the lovers, the people that Cersei once claimed to be one person and that of the ultimate odd couple, Brienne and Jaime, who are clearly more comfortable and closer with each other than the brother and sister. Life's little turns and all that. After all, who hasn't had to confront losing one's incestuous relationship for a woman who used to despise you? Just watching Lena Headey explore Cersei's newfound disdain for her now-incomplete lover will be a treat.

I was a bit concerned that, with the loss of Gemma Jackson, the production designer who's been with them since the beginning, who left because her life had been consumed by the show for too long, some of the little details might be left out. But my concern was misplaced, as those details, like the hilarious statue of Joffrey and his crossbow over the dead direwolf were all still present. The actor's performances were all still there, too (Pascal waving his hand over the candle flame as he approaches the two Lannister guardsmen and Jaime waving at the departing Qyburn with his new golden hand were two of the best.) And, as before, some of the added details and scenes often turn out to be the best.

Martin makes brief mention of the Thenns and their tendencies in the books, but D&D decide to explore a bit more of that while showing what Tormund and Ygritte are up to without Jon and while waiting for Mance to arrive. There are a lot of themes explored here that have little to do with the cannibalism: the polyglot army that Mance has assembled, how it will stay together, IF it will stay together, and how the shifting alliances and opposing tendencies among the savage horde of the north are just like those of the noble houses of the south. Humans are humans wherever you go (and they probably taste the same, too.)

That dynamic is evident in Jon's brief moment on trial in front of Alliser Thorne (played by the returning Owen Teale) and, of all people, Janos Slynt. Here are these contemptible fools, condemned to the Night's Watch, but still finding themselves the judges of others because of their highborn status (even if Slynt only has it by dint of being the lord of Harrenhal for a few days before he was shipped off.) But one of the overall themes of the story is the struggle by the common folk under the yoke of their so-called 'betters' and it continues to play out here, even after Sam and Jon's brief exchange about their mixed feelings for people who actually are better than them at many things. That's what helps make these characters into real people that the viewers relate to and understand and, again, delivers the show its power and its longevity.

Thankfully, they saved the best scene for last. Arya's adventures with Sandor Clegane are the point in the books when I truly began to appreciate her character. My interest had been piqued by her interaction with Syrio Forel and her experience with Jaqen H'ghar, but both of them seemed more interesting and she was there simply to bring her chapter-heading perspective. But combining her with the character whom, as I've mentioned before, is far and away my favorite of the story is what also showed me the depth and genuine fascination that Arya presents. This scene brought that out in almost every way possible. Their comedy routine while watching from the trees cracked me up from start to finish and Arya's expression of mild glee as she finished off Polliver spoke volumes both about what she already is and where she's so obviously going; again, a brilliant setup for an episode filled with them.

Quotes of the week:

"A one-handed man with no family needs all the help he can get." - Judgment has been handed down from the greatest judge in Westeros.

"No need for cynicism. I happen to be an accomplished diplomat." - Tyrion speaks truth, if only others would listen.

"You're famous for fucking half of Westeros. You've just arrived at the capital after two weeks of bad roadway. Where would you go?"
"I'd probably go to sleep. But, then, I'm gettin' old." - speaking of comedy routines, Tyrion and Bronn remain priceless. It was interesting to see how Daniel Portman, playing Podrick Payne, had grown, too.

"Everyone who works for Littlefinger is on offer."

"Which way do you like it?"
"My way." - Speaking of truths...

"Now I'm a knight."
"How did that come to pass?"
"Killed the right people, I suppose." - The law of Westeros.

"I'd rather have no brains. And two balls." - Pros and cons.

"Of course. Prayer can be helpful, I hear." - Tyrion again.

"Thenns. I fucking hate Thenns." - Tormund, OTOH, is great.

"You always know when a man is telling a lie? How did you acquire this magical power?"
"I grew up in Kings Landing." - Egg, bringin' it, especially in an episode where his boon companion, Duncan the Tall, is finally mentioned.

"Look me in the eye and tell me she'll be safe in Kings Landing." - Brienne and Jaime's rapport continues to grow.

"You're fine with murdering little boys but stealing is beneath you?"
"Man's gotta have a code." - Arya Martin and Sandor Lewis, ladies and gentlemen.

"I understand that if any more words come pouring out your cunt mouth, I'm gonna have to eat every chicken in this room." - I really appreciated some lengthy discourse by the Hound, but the best quote and moment, by far, goes to the Red Viper:

"When I pull my blade your friend starts bleeding quite a bit, I'm afraid. So many veins in the wrist... He'll live if you get him help straightaway. So... Decisions."

Monday, February 3, 2014

Coke and a smile, people

So, one of the resident conservative iconoclasts put this on the board today in response to Coke's ad during the Super Bowl:

You know what? I actually think the adverse reaction (which seems to have been pretty minimal) is more than anything else a case of people being annoyed at being told what to think.

There are a lot of social signals that one has to conform to certain ideals. Diversity is good. Gay people deserve equal treatment. Bullying is bad. The rich don't pay their fair share. Poor people deserve a leg up. Prejudice is bad. Burning carbon is bad.

I think people at some point just resent being "herded" by broad, mass media social signals into viewpoints that are selected to be good by some collective agreement by some opinion makers. I think it is actually okay for some people to think, yes, America is the product of immigration, and is an example of diverse people from diverse cultures with diverse languages forming a new society--and continually adding diversity through immigration. But a cherished paean to America should preferably be sung in America's language--which necessarily is English even if plenty of Americans speak a different language as their first language.

In this case, I think I find the reaction to the reaction (calling people neanderthals etc.) more troubling than the reaction.

(Oh, and sometimes bullying is good. Some people deserve to have their ass kicked. And carbon energy has been a great boon to people in general, and has really improved the quality of the lives of billions of people. The doctrinaire attitude on some topics is sometimes worth questioning.)
There's so much ammunition there that it almost brought me to the point of immobility... but nah. I did sit there for a moment trying to decide whether it was more disingenuous or fatuous (definitely something with an "ous") but, in the end, it's like playing Tee ball.

The central theme is the usual pseudo-Libertarian horseshit that essentially states that people who aren't tolerant of intolerance are hypocrites. Coke, instead of presenting the song "America the Beautiful" in its proper language of English (how offended must the English be that their language has been abducted by idiots?), has done all independent thinkers (read: racists, super-patriots... oh, and idiots) a disservice by encouraging the social mores that state that diversity and respect for cultures and languages that are not explicitly whitebread 'Murrican are, in fact, a good thing.

First off, it certainly is trying to "tell you what to think." It's an advertisement. It's telling you to think about buying Coke. That's how they do. But you're saying the rest of society is telling you how to think about non-whites and gays and the environments and bullies? Who's telling you? The people that object to all of that anti-social behavior? Yeah. Life is rough that way. Most decent people will tell you that it shouldn't matter what color someone is or what language they speak (aka "Diversity is good.") And they'll tell you that gay people should be treated equally since they're, you know... people; that treating people poorly ("Bullying") is wrong; that poor people could use your help; that prejudice is bad... What intelligent person doesn't think those things? Certainly is a helluva lot easier to get along with your neighbors if you don't hold preconceptions about them before you even get to know them. Fer reals. It's, like, been proved and stuff.

Secondly, what could honestly be so offensive about singing a song in another language? Would you shout down a chorus in France if they dared to sing "America the Beautiful"? Are you saying that people who can't speak English aren't allowed to sing that song about their home (because that's quite a few residents of this nation)? I mean, that's what these people are saying:

(H/T Midtown blogger for the list.) I bet you're really discouraged that you didn't hop on Twitter last night and number yourself among Mensa candidates like that. Such a lost opportunity. I especially like the last guy, since Coke has not only told him what to think but drinking too much of that crap has clearly corrupted his memory of his own national anthem.

What a number of people likely failed to remember is that Coke was bouncing off of their own 40-year legacy of having produced this commercial:

which explicitly and implicitly called for unity and goodwill among races and nations (albeit from the foremost front for the CIA in destabilizing and disrupting many of them...) Given that and the current rather divided status of these United States, what message would you have preferred to hear? "America is beautiful as long as it's sung by and filled with white, hetero, sometime bullies who don't want to be reminded that they're racist, homophobic assholes?" I mean, I'm sure there's a song out there like that but probably not from any composer this side of the Aryan Nation.

Now, of course, I'm being facetious (another "ous") because there's no way you'd (publicly) admit to thinking that because it would be stupid and make you look and sound every inch the Neanderthal that those fools did on Twitter last night. If one is so weak-willed as to object to being "told how to think" by a commercial or is objecting to the broad-based message of inclusion despite difference that said commercial is presenting then, yeah, I think you deserve every epithet being tossed your way, especially if you're willing to do so in a public forum like Twitter.

And, again, suggesting that people be tolerant of your obnoxious attitudes for fear of hypocrisy is perhaps the most asinine idea put forth in that post. Contradiction is not intelligent refutation (thank you, Michael Palin.) What you see as heavy-handed social engineering, the rest of us see as simple common sense. There's all kinds of people. Getting along with them should be the first order of the day, every day.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bad winds

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny
Pirates are alluring. There's no doubt about it. It's a recurrent theme in adventure fiction and a geek standby as notable as ninjas. Everyone likes pirates (unless you happen to be sailing the Red Sea these days.) So when Starz began advertising their new series, Black Sails, last year, a lot of people sat up and took notice.

Unlike HBO, Starz and Showtime tend to be noticed for pseudo-porn: nominally adult themes that are basically just excuses to show tits and a certain level of gratuitous gore. Spartacus is perhaps their most successful offering in that respect and no one (that I know of) watched it for the acting or the history. It was with that reluctant mindset that I sat down to give Black Sails as much of the benefit of the doubt as I possibly could. Acknowledging that most first episodes are a little rocky, it still sorely needs that benefit to get through an hour of the show and it may not be enough to convince me to watch any more.

Give it up for Z-Man

I'm a geek. I like pirates and ninjas and zombies and Martians and the whole nine yards (I'm even more fascinated by the mysterious etymology of the phrase "the whole nine yards" but that's just me.) I love Merchants and Marauders, a boardgame based on precisely the historical era presented in Black Sails (it's honestly much easier to win as a merchant, as any drug dealer will tell you; putting aside the coolness factor, would you rather try to make a living as Omar or Avon?) This is the deck I'm currently tooling around the Hearthstone beta with. Pirates. Pirates everywhere.

And I honestly appreciate the fact that the producers put in serious effort to not only draw from the most famous fictional work about pirates in the English-speaking world, Treasure Island (a book I probably read a dozen times as a kid) in Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and John Silver, but also are presenting characters based on actual people from that time in John Rackham (Calico Jack) and Anne Bonny. There is some attention to detail in plain sight. The costuming seems relatively appropriate. They clearly dropped some coin on the ship sets and the CGI-renderings of same.

Don't raise your heels when parrying

But having just finished watching the debut episode within the last hour, I can state that not a single line of the screenplay comes to memory. Not one. Nothing that anyone said ventured outside of boilerplate drama and/or blatant exposition. Even worse, the show is clearly trying to step outside the standard "heroic" dramatic structure in that Captain Flint seems to be the hero of the piece and the one that audiences should sympathize with, but when you're dealing with an entire cast of fairly self-centered people, it's more difficult to develop those attachments. Flint is kind of a cipher, just as he is in Treasure Island. He's legendary only because people say he is; just as in the show he appears to be a leader who inspires his men only because people say he is. The other potential audience attachment, John Silver (not quite "Long" yet), has an additional hurdle to overcome in that not only is he as grasping and opportunistic as anyone else, but he's also one of the more contemptible figures in Robert Louis Stevenson's work, so that anyone who is familiar with the book can pretty much instantly identify him with the concept of "schmuck."

Or if you wanna go there...

This isn't to say that there's anything unique about Black Sails' structure (regrettably.) After all, TV series casts made up of repellent or dark figures have been around since the Sopranos, at the very least. Boardwalk Empire has no trouble proceeding in that fashion. However, both of those shows also have solid writing that makes otherwise non-heroic figures into someone the audience appreciates for their intelligence and wit and unusual responses, if nothing else. Black Sails' cast presented none of that in the first episode. Indeed, the most interesting person to me was Hakeem Kae-Kazim, playing Mr. Scott (not that Mr. Scott...) because I recognized him from his notorious role as George Rutaganda in Hotel Rwanda, which will forever be burned into my brain. I recognized no one else and they did nothing to make me want to come back and see them again.

OK, admittedly, Paget's eyes are kinda fascinating
The usual caveat is attached ("it's just the first episode") but I have severe doubts (benefit gone!) that the show can become significantly less hollow soon enough for me to want to continue. I never saw Spartacus because I'm touchy about Roman history (speaking of boardgames, that one is excellent) but I tried watching Starz's Da Vinci's Demons and just couldn't get past the shallowness of the performances and the vanilla scriptwriting. By the same token, given my attachment to Westerns, I've given Hell on Wheels three seasons to try to keep me and Black Sails may be suffering under the weight of that commitment. I'm just not interested in taking the time to watch something that I'm quite confident will be completely disappointing.

I'd rather win another game of M&M

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Some of you are Michigan fans who had the temerity to endure the most recent season of a fairly-talented team looking about as inept as any produced by Michigan in the history of the program, including the disaster-laden Rodriguez years. The dreary minor-league bowl game produced a suitable performance and came within a final drive of being the fifth game under Brady Hoke in which Michigan produced less than 200 yards of offense and the sixth to fail to score a touchdown (Number of such games under Rodriguez? Zero.) Even so, it became the 11th under Hoke to produce less than 300 yards of offense. In the modern game, 300 yards is a pretty pedestrian number, even against solid defenses. But the key phrase in that sentence is the first: "In the modern game" because that's precisely what Hoke and his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, are seemingly doing their best to avoid.

Bill O'Brien recently left his job at Penn State after two years to become the new head coach of the Houston Texans (Only the NFL could produce a team name that's essentially a tautology: "We're the Texans. From Houston." It's like going to Europe and telling people that you're Americans. From, you know, 'Murica!) While few had high hopes for O'Brien, taking over the presumed crater that would be the whole of Penn St. football for the next decade, he actually did remarkably well there and one would assume that the fanbase would be more than appreciative for what he was able to accomplish with a team full of no-one-wants and walk-ons.

But O'Brien was saddled with the expectations of a segment of the PSU fanbase who had grown so long in the tooth with their former coach that they apparently have a hard time imagining anyone else doing as well as the old man. O'Brien went 8-4 and 7-5 in his two years there. Paterno went 7-6 and 8-4 in his last two years. But it's not so much about the records as it is the preservation or calcification of "the way things are done around here." (I'm not even going to get into the Sandusky scandal. This is just about football and institutional blindness, thanks.) So, when he left, O'Brien allowed some derogatory comments about "the Paterno people" to be printed:
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it,”
This was apparently in response to fans complaining about the departure of Ron Vanderlinden, Paterno's last hire, from O'Brien's staff. So, you're giving grief to the guy who has done a better job with your undermanned team than anyone else could expect, because he didn't keep an assistant that the old man hired? Is it because Vanderlinden was, by fiat, a "Penn State man" and O'Brien somehow wasn't? Where have I heard that before?

Oh. Right.

Michigan has a similar problem in that there's a fairly large segment of the fanbase, alumni and, most notoriously, former players and the athletic director, who live in the fantasy of the "Michigan Man." Spencer Hall at EDSBS has turned the "Michigan Man" concept into a favorite punchline because that's really what fantasies are often suited for. The idea is that no one can truly understand what it takes to lead Michigan football to success if he isn't a "Michigan Man", mostly because they think that Bo Schembechler, the man who revived Michigan football from its dolor of the 60s, was a "Michigan Man."

Except that he wasn't.

Bo had been an assistant at Ohio State(!) and the head coach at Miami (not that Miami) of Ohio, a rather pronounced unMichigan Man. So was Fritz Crisler, who came from Princeton. And Fielding Yost, who came from West Virginia. There were no "Michigan Men" until Bo inadvertently popularized the term before the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament. Bill Frieder had announced his departure to Arizona State and Bo appointed Steve Fisher as interim coach, saying he wanted a "Michigan man" to lead a Michigan team. It was only later that it became like a religion, mostly promoted by Lloyd Carr and his sycophants, such that "Michigan Men" became very like the "Paterno people"; both quite pod-like and equally disturbed by those who were not like them (read: everyone.)

The casual reference becomes tradition and then ironclad law. When Rich Rodriguez became the head coach at Michigan, he was immediately treated with outright disdain, with several of Carr's former players openly stating that he was not welcome until he had earned his way in and that the program was "theirs".

And so we come to the present day, where former Carr assistant, Brady Hoke, is now the coach and the cheerleading athletic director and former Bo benchwarmer, Dave Brandon™, is busy making excuses for his rather lackluster performance. That performance is largely based on a perception of what Michigan football should be and, of course, really never was. The modern game moves faster. The modern game incorporates new ideas on an almost monthly basis. The modern game learns and adapts and realizes that opponents will be doing the same on a weekly basis. Michigan football currently does none of those things but instead plunges ahead as only a stalwart "Michigan Man" can.

Just like water pipes, too much time doing the same thing in the same way leads to a slowing down of the flow of information, a buildup of detritus that inhibits the overall structure from functioning. The "Paterno people" are wedded to a distorted ideal of a coach who created their program 60 years ago and have driven out a capable coach in the process. The "Michigan Men" are wedded to a distorted ideal they've created around the coach who revived the program 45 years ago and they're helping to retain a coach who should have never been given the job in the first place and wouldn't have if he was not numbered among the carriers of pods.

The Rose Bowl kind of brought that problem to the fore again in an oblique manner, won as it was by the former Little Brother of football in the state of Michigan. I say "former" because it's highly unlikely that Michigan will be able to regain its former status under Hoke, whether nationally, in the conference, or in its own state. But the problem was brought into sharpest focus by watching the offense of MSU's opponent, Stanford. Stanford was brought to its recent run of glory by one Jim Harbaugh, former quarterback for Bo and latterly-heralded "Michigan Man." Harbaugh, who actually played for Bo (unlike most currently outspoken "Michigan Men"), installed a power running game at Stanford with a rather complicated system of checks and blocking, just like the old man. David Shaw, his successor, has reverted to the style seemingly favored by Hoke and Borges; that of "manball", often cited by ignorant football fans as a way to "impose your will on the defense" by hammering away at the line even when the defense is clearly lined up to stop just that kind of play. It's more like "imposing your willingness (to give up and die)" on the defense than anything else. Shaw tried it, MSU ate it alive (just like they did to us this season!) and Stanford lost. Michigan tried that, too, and gave up more plays for negative yardage than any other team in the nation.

Oh, but they were "Michigan Man" plays and that, for some, makes all the difference.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chaleur bleue

Blue is the Warmest Color is the film directed by Abellatif Kechiche, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. I saw it last night at the State theater in Ann Arbor and was basically completely enthralled by it. While it has some questionable moments that may be style choices, overall it was an amazing portrayal of a rather simple story that many (if not all) viewers have gone through: the process of self-discovery and sexual awakening.

The main stylistic aspect of the film is the use of constant close-ups. Most of the time, the camera focus is mere inches from the actors' faces. I think Kechiche went in that direction because of the extreme intimacy of the story, but also because most of the action that you really want to see is happening on those faces. Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) reveal vast amounts of their thought processes simply with their eyes and the quirks of their lips. Nothing could be more revelatory than watching Adèle's eyes after her unsatisfying sexual encounter with a man. No dialogue or action could fill that moment better than the emptiness and longing in her gaze and Kechiche was smart enough to use that. Being so close to the actors makes it easier for the audience to both empathize and sympathize with their situations, since we've all been there; all faced those moments of passion, confusion, frustration, loss, bliss, and contentment. This is a technique that was used with the idea that the audience would be an active participant in the events on the screen, whether they know it or not.

It's fortunate, as well, that Kechiche found the actors that he did, as this movie is completely driven by their performances. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are magnetic, although I'll give the edge to Exarchopoulos, as the film's version of the story is more Adèle's tale than Emma's. Again, the story is relatively simple and the movie runs for over three hours. But there were only two moments in that span of time that I felt like we could move on and that only lightly. Otherwise, I was pretty much enraptured with events and constantly wanting to see what would happen next even when I knew what was coming. Again, I think what helped was the seeming familiarity of much of what was taking place on the screen. Having been in the moment when I was dumped or having had to tell someone that I was no longer interested, I could watch those emotions play out on their faces with the feeling that what I was seeing was real and not just a performance. I'd been there. I knew those feelings and they were occurring as if I was watching a friend go through it and not just an actor hitting her cue.

What makes it even more extraordinary is that Exarchopoulos is only 20 years old with a pretty thin body of work. Kechiche has to get some credit for extracting that performance from his two leads, but it apparently came at some cost, as both cast and crew objected to the extremely long hours that he required on set and both actors said that they would no longer work with him. Was it worth the pain and frustration for both of them to receive the Palm d'Or at Cannes, in addition to the director, for the first time ever? That's up to them to decide, but it's certainly a demonstration of just how heavily the film relies upon their excellent work. What makes Adèle stand out is the constant passion emerging from her. While Emma is the older character and plays her cards a little closer to the vest vis-a-vis her feelings, Adèle is on constant display all the time, even when she desperately tries to contain it later in the film. In that way, she plays a late-teens girl perfectly. But even later, as she matures, her intensity doesn't lessen and the love, confusion, and agony she feels blares from the screen. I'm not a huge fan of French cinema, as I find it relatively self-indulgent in a lot of ways (i.e. the director has a fetish that he's playing out, regardless of audience expectations or the needs of the story) but one thing that tends to emerge in most French films is passion and this film has that at every step.

No moment makes that more obvious than the scene in the park, shortly after the two have met. The sexual and personal tension present is enormous, as Adèle so obviously desires this woman and wants to fulfill this inner question that's been nagging at her for some time. Meanwhile, Emma, still a little cagey, wants to respond but is restrained by her natural reluctance and the fact that she's currently involved with someone else. And, yet again, we've all been there so this moment feels not only perfectly natural but like a reliving of moments in the past. That's great storytelling.

Interestingly, the story for the film is an extremely stripped-down version of that of the graphic novel. The latter is a kind of re-telling, in that Emma begins to read the diary of her partner, Clementine, after the latter has died. The events described by the diary are far more jarring and tragic than what happens in the film and, indeed, Maroh has said that she considers the film to be "another version... of the same story." Maroh also objected to the blue elephant in the room: the sex. The film is rated NC-17 in the US, which isn't surprising given the starkly different attitudes toward sex in American and French cultures. Consequently, you have American reviewers agog about the film itself, for the most part, but also cringing in true, Puritanical fashion over the lengthy scenes of two women making love. But Maroh also objected, comparing the scenes to porn and suggesting that the gay community in France found them "ridiculous" but later suggesting that it was a personal stance and that she would be interested to see how other women reacted.

Clearly, if you're making a film about sexual awakening and modern, sexual relationships, you're going to have sex on the screen, full stop. And, granted, hetero male here so watching two gorgeous women on screen, clearly enjoying themselves, is far from the worst way I could be spending my time. OTOH, one of my two questionable moments as an audience member was during one of those scenes because it was so lengthy (10 minutes.) Again, a movie about passion needs passion in it and the latter is an emotion best savored for as long as possible. I think this film does that. I just remember drifting a bit during that scene and thinking that it could have been curtailed just a bit given how much emotion and evidence of same had already been built up. It occurred to me at a couple other moments during the film that Hechiche might be a bit more pointed in his exposure of the audience to the story's overarching sexuality when he showed Adèle asleep or otherwise lying on her bed with her ass directly toward the camera. It's an open question whether this was an attempt at titillation or a constant reminder about the type of awakening taking place. In those respects, I can see where Maroh's comparison to porn comes from: it's seemingly gratuitous because it's not providing anything that the story needs that hasn't already been given. Or is it?

However, sex is also an expression of intimacy and part of the film's underpinning is not only the awakening of the desire to fulfill that intimacy in Adèle, but also how she shifts that into an essential part of her relationship with Emma. Despite viscerally objecting to her high school classmates' suspicion of her as a lesbian and being as guarded with her feelings and body as many other teen girls, she later takes to posing repeatedly for Emma's paintings, which will be publicly displayed and likely sold to other people. That's part of Adèle engaging herself to fulfill what her partner needs on a creative level and also her blossoming into someone that treats the human form and its physical activities as part of the natural world (i.e. very unAmerican.)

Unfortunately for her, that engagement also opens the door to a source of friction in their relationship, in that Adèle's feeling of fulfillment in simply being with Emma conflicts with the latter's more creative nature. Adèle only writes for herself and only in her diary but she has clearly shared this writing with Emma, who insists that it declares potential for Adèle to do something more. Her insistence is perceived as a slight and it creates a rift in their relationship because one has found fulfillment and the other is constantly striving for more and tends to lose respect for those around her that don't. I've been there. I've exposed people to that kind of remonstration and it had the predictable results, which is yet another point upon which I was really able to identify with this film. One opens oneself only to receive the barbs. Which is better: the turbulence of truth or the placidity of the illusion? Is it an illusion to simply be happy with what you have or is it an example of two people not truly in touch with each other?

The other slightly off moment was during the scene where Adèle has prepared a party for Emma's first show. There is a classic black-and-white film flickering by on a screen in the background, which uses brilliant juxtaposition for moments when Adèle's frustration and jealousy work in concert with the surprise and dismay of the nameless actress on the screen. But this scene was rather lengthy for what it conveyed, as well, and after a few minutes of driving home the negative impressions that Adèle was getting, I felt the urge to move on to something new. But those are two isolated moments in a 180-minute film that many people may not even notice. I do because I'm the damndest critic.

Of course, in a story of of self-discovery, you're almost naturally going to have hiccups. That's part of the process. There's an interesting moment where Adèle is striving to contain her emotions while on the job as a schoolteacher for very young children that you realize that this is still a somewhat-child teaching other children and it makes you realize just how traumatic her current circumstances are, as she went from confusion and feelings of isolation to bliss and then back to confusion and isolation. That's a difficult circumstance for anyone, but even moreso for one who can't rely on friends or family to understand her emotional problems if she feels that she can't reveal their source. The film does an excellent job of portraying the fact that, despite French society's more relaxed attitudes toward sex, its relationship with homosexuality is as complicated as that of many others.

Clearly, I loved it. It's one of the best films I've seen in many, many years and completely in spite of the story being so outwardly simple. I can't recommend it enough.